Foreign PolicyForeign Policy

The dangers of ‘catastrophic consequences’

By Michael Auslin

21 Oct 2022 · 12 min read

Editor's Note

The Biden administration is “re-creating the lost art of nuclear deterrence on the fly.” The FP dives deep into U.S. strategy for preventing nuclear war. The stakes could hardly be higher.

Not since this week in 1962, when President John F. Kennedy announced that any ballistic missile launched from Cuba would be considered a direct attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, has Washington so publicly warned an adversary that it risked a potential nuclear exchange. Russia will face “catastrophic consequences” should it use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan threatened in late September. While Sullivan did not specifically warn of nuclear retaliation, the mention of catastrophe left open how the United States would react. More recently, U.S. President Joe Biden twice predicted “Armageddon” if Russian President Vladimir Putin detonates even a low-yield tactical nuclear bomb, leading to confusion about whether Washington really is willing to strike back at Russia and risk all-out war.

Sixty years after the Cuban missile crisis, Russia and the United States are edging toward the greatest nuclear showdown since those 13 days in October 1962. For the first time since the days of nationwide “duck and cover” drills, the U.S. government and the state of New York have released public service announcements and guidance on what to do in case of a nuclear strike on the United States, updated from the 1960s to include social distancing and wearing masks. The Department of Health and Human Services announced the purchase of nearly $300 million worth of an anti-radiation drug. Over the past few weeks, the U.S. media and public have been more focused on nuclear war than at any time since U.S. television aired The Day After, a controversial movie about the nuclear apocalypse, in 1983.

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