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Not just 'luck'

(AFP/Getty Images)


Not just 'luck'

Author reveals how close we came to nuclear war

The title of Craig Nelson’s The Age of Radiance (Scribner, 2014)—radiance, not radiation—gives away the message of his readily readable history of the atomic era: “The world has moved past the Cold War’s duck-and-cover apocalyptic terrors.” He believes our future is “understanding more to fear less. Can we ever learn to believe that atomic bombs are just another kind of weapon?”

Easier said than done. Yes, the firebombing of Dresden, or of Tokyo and many Japanese cities, killed more persons than the nuclear bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But thousands of nuclear bombs could wipe out us all, which conventional weapons cannot. Besides, it took a month to mobilize the weapons of 1914, and it takes only minutes to mobilize those that could kill hundreds of millions in 2014 and beyond. 

Nelson’s specific detail belies his optimistic conclusion that nuclear weapons will not be used. The Cold War several times could have become nuclear, and future cold wars could also become hot enough to burn all. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, 162 Soviet “nuclear warheads for both tactical and strategic nuclear weapons had already reached Cuba,” as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara later recalled: “If the president had gone ahead with the air strike and invasion of Cuba, the invasion forces almost surely would have been met by nuclear fire, requiring a nuclear response.”

Nelson also quotes McNamara’s description of a tussle between a U.S. destroyer and a Soviet submarine, which dove to escape: “The submarine commander was likely out of communication with Moscow, and under those circumstances he had the authority to launch [his nuclear torpedo] if he believed it necessary. He could have started a world nuclear war. We were that close.” The reason war did not start, according to McNamara: “luck.”

Luck? How about God’s mercy? Sadly, even when historic detail indicates God’s kindness, we rarely honor Him as God or give thanks to Him—and so, as Paul wrote to the Romans, we become futile in our thinking. Nelson offers both good storytelling and evocative description, but he apparently worships created persons and things rather than the Creator. 

Short stops

Thomas Kidd’s George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2014) is a scholarly yet readable 300-page biography that shows the accuracy of its subtitle. I mention the length because the third volume of Wilhelm II, John C.G. Röhl’s biography of the Kaiser whose faulty decision-making contributed to Europe’s fall a century ago, clocks in at 1,562 pages. Röhl’s analysis is acute, particularly when he details Wilhelm’s racist view of Slavs, but I confess that I did not read every page: From what I read, Whitefield beats Wilhelm.

Daniel James Brown’s Seabiscuit-type historical narrative, The Boys in the Boat (Penguin, 2014), tells of the U.S. eight-oar crew at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Two well-written novels also teach a lot about history: Andrew Taylor’s The Scent of Death (HarperCollins, 2013) is a mystery set in 1778 New York City, and James Carroll’s Warburg in Rome (Houghton Mifflin, 2014) features an American desperately trying to save Jewish lives in the closing days of World War II.

Rulers: Gospel and Government, edited by Charles Garriott (Riott, 2014), offers the experiences of pastors ministering to earthly minded officials. Matt Bai’s All the Truth Is Out (Knopf, 2014) displays a conventional political reporter’s inability to understand why anyone should care about a presidential frontrunner’s adultery.

J.V. Fesko’s Songs of a Suffering King (Reformation Heritage, 2014) takes readers through Psalms 1-8. Michael Haykin and C. Jeffrey Robinson’s To the Ends of the Earth (Crossway, 2014) provides Reformed reasons for sending missionaries, and Go Tell It, by Jim Killam and Lincoln Brunner (Moody, 2014), has good advice for preparing reports on missions that church members will want to read. —M.O.


  • stephenc
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 01:23 pm

    I read a lot of sci-fi, from which I can assure y'all that the notion that we were irresponsibly close to nuclear war throughout the Cold War is nothing new. Sci-fi explores serious ideas sometimes like every other kind of fiction, and the notion that the militaries and governments of the Cold War were comparable to idiot children playing with toys that were too dangerous for them was explored again and again and again. It was pointed out, and belabored, and recast, and focused on, that certain men held in their hands the power to destroy the world, and weren't they terrible men for taking that power to themselves.Only there's this: they didn't. The world is still here. And the Soviet Empire isn't. The military establishment that everyone compared to idiot children for decades won the Cold War without firing one nuclear shot. So could we give them a little respect? Sure, that much power is dangerous, and we should attend to how it is acquired and delegated. But could we stop talking as if the fact that those men COULD have made the most costly mistakes in human history was somehow the same kind of thing as if they HAD made those mistakes? Is it not worth something that they, in fact DIDN'T make those mistakes? Can we respect humanity just a little here?So, yes, we escaped nuclear war by the grace of God. But I would like to point out that the grace of God didn't mostly take the form of divine intervention to keep idiot children from burning themselves. It mostly took the form of God giving enough wisdom to men everyone else called idiot children to enable them to wisely choose not to burn themselves.

  • Mommy W
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 01:23 pm

    I just got The Boys in the Boat. One of our friends is George Pocock's nephew. I have a feeling this would make an inspiring movie.

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 01:23 pm

    Indeed!  We were very close at times.  I think we might be even closer now.  In the past we failed to recognize the gracious hand of God, now we are aggressively antagonistic toward Him.  If we continue, as a nation, to tell God to leave us alone at what point will He finally take us up on our request?