It starts with a sudden attack. North Korea, out of paranoia and fear, launches a nuclear strike on the United States, hitting its targets. The United States retaliates with a salvo of its own nuclear missiles. However, in order to hit North Korea, the missiles must pass over Russia. Attempts to communicate with the Russian president fail and Russia’s nuclear warning system makes him think it’s an attack on his country. So he launches his nuclear bombs, this time at the United States.

It’s a global nuclear war. And it happens in minutes. 

That’s the setup at the heart of “Nuclear War: A Scenario,” a new book by investigative journalist Annie Jacobsen. The book, released at the end of March, outlines how one attack from an isolated state can set off a chain reaction of nuclear policy, with poor communication and split-second decisions triggering widespread nuclear war. It’s a fictional scenario, but one built on the very real mechanics and policies the United States has around its nuclear arsenal.

This past week it was reported that Legendary Pictures had optioned the book to adapt into a film. Trade publications say that Denis Villeneuve, the director behind the two recent “Dune” films as well as thrillers such as “Sicario” and “Prisoners,” plans to adapt the nonfiction book after he finishes the third “Dune” film, “Dune Messiah.”

For Jacobsen, a journalist who has written extensively about the Pentagon, DARPA, paramilitary operations, and other elements of war and national defense, the decision to focus on how a nuclear war could play out came out of surprise at how little the public seemed to be aware of the real mechanisms in place around the nuclear arsenal. She told Task & Purpose that during the Trump administration, when the former president was using his “fire and fury” rhetoric when warning North Korea against nuclear tests, she started to wonder what would happen if nuclear deterrence failed. There was also serious talk inside the Trump administration about the dangers of sole presidential authority concerning nuclear weapons: a president has sole authority to decide whether or not to launch. The general public was also suspicious if that was a real policy, Jacobsen said.

It is.

But despite all of that, it still felt like people weren’t talking about the risk of nuclear war. 

“Then when the Ukraine war happened and there was a moment of fundamental shift in perception,” Jacobsen said. “Then things became even more dangerous.”

“Nuclear War: A Scenario” itself takes a very direct, narrative approach to the issue. As dread-inducing as it is, during the play-by-play of each minute leading to mass destruction, Jacobsen introduces and quickly explains much of the technology and security infrastructure behind the nuclear arsenal, never getting bogged down by acronyms or inside baseball terminology.

Entertainment photo

Indeed, Jacobsen writes, the United States government has been preparing for and outlining expected scenarios for a General Nuclear War since the 1960s. Warning systems, launch mechanics, and a massive infrastructure for housing, maintaining, and potentially firing nuclear weapons built up, with their own secrecy and specific terms. For “Nuclear War: A Scenario,” Jacobsen talked with dozens of experts, from nuclear weapons designers to former military commanders, who helped peel back the curtain and secrecy. That included fresh interviews with former heads of U.S. Strategic Command, nuclear submarine forces, top scientists for the military, and other people directly engaged with nuclear policy. In cases where there are gaps from direct interviews, Jacobsen drew on declassified documents or written memoirs from those who were there. 

“One of the reasons people who are now in their 80s and 90s talked to me is that they feel we are at a time where [the danger of Global Nuclear War] is as great as the Cold War,” she said. “There are new players, new nuclear-armed nations that are far more unpredictable than those who have had nuclear weapons in the past.”

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To come up with the book’s fictional scenario, Jacobsen looked at how the United States trains and games for potential nuclear attacks. The idea for using North Korea as the instigator came from interviews with Dr. Richard Garwin, the nuclear physicist who designed the Ivy-Mike thermonuclear bomb and became an advisor to several administrations on nuclear weapons. Garwin told her that his biggest worry was “one nihilistic madman with a nuclear arsenal.” From there, she started looking at how an attack from North Korea might unfold, including the real issue of American missiles on target for the country having to pass over Russia.

“The nuclear war scenario proposed in this book could happen tomorrow. Or later today,” Jacobsen notes early in the book.

There have been several near misses throughout the Cold War, where a global nuclear war was averted. Those include Stanislav Petrov’s actions in 1983, when the Soviet air defense officer went against protocol and judged an early warning alert of a nuclear attack as a false alarm, preventing a Soviet strike in perceived retaliation.

Jacobsen told Task & Purpose that nuclear war, however, is a sequence — a fast-moving one where it would be hard to stop things spiraling out of control. When asked if there was a chance where the escalating series of events could be stopped, by officials or a Petrov-like figure, Jacobsen pointed to the events of the Proud Prophet exercise. The 1983 exercise, one of the few nuclear war games to be declassified (although most details are still heavily redacted), tested various nuclear scenarios, including the possibility of conducting “limited” nuclear strikes against the Soviets. One participant, Paul Bracken, has written about it since the declassification, shedding light on how those scenarios all ended in disaster.

“What Bracken said in his book was that everyone came away from Proud Prophet depressed,” Jacobsen said. “No matter how nuclear war begins, if NATO’s involved or not, if tactical nuclear weapons are used or not, if China is involved or not, it still ends in nuclear armageddon. That was my north star.”

Despite that, she is not nihilistic about nuclear doom. Greater awareness of the actual danger, such as in movies and television, can help leaders and the public take the threat of nuclear war more seriously. Jacobsen pointed to the 1983 miniseries “The Day After,” which depicts — in detail — the aftermath of nuclear strikes on the United States. Millions watched, including Ronald Reagan, who went from a hawk on defense to working with the Soviet Union toward de-escalation and disarmament. Jacobsen said that the “Reagan reversal” helped the world’s arsenal go from more than 70,000 nuclear weapons in stock to approximately 12,500 across nine nations. “That is progress. You have to be able to communicate.”

She said the style of her book, telling the scenario in a direct, dramatic narrative way, was meant to help get the public engaged and be a part of the conversation. That, and art that can illustrate the severity of the issue, like “The Day After,” are important in preventing the worst-case scenario. As her research showed, it doesn’t take long for the world to spiral into nuclear destruction.

“What I was most puzzled by [while working on the book] was how much money has been spent and continues to be spent to make sure we never have a nuclear war by spending enormous amounts on nuclear weapons,” Jacobsen said. “It seems the Reagan reversal is a far wiser way to go.”

“Nuclear War: A Scenario” is available now

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