When All Have the Bomb

Let there be a nuclear explosion in downtown New York, and the city starts to wither away.  Without a functioning Manhattan, jobs will evaporate, and the survivors will drift away.  A similar terrorist bombing in Los Angeles would be more a temporary inconvenience than a fatal wound.   Why?  Well, what locals call LA is big.  Overlay a map of LA on a map of Connecticut, and the two turn out to be about the same size.  It is important to realize that LA’s economic activity is mostly in its suburbs.  It is a redundantly connected constellation of much smaller cities.  A fission bomb explosion will disrupt little of what actually goes on in LA. 

Now that Obama has seemingly given Iran permission to produce nuclear weapons, virtually everyone will someday have them.  With such weapons in the hands of renegades, America will have to change.  And the change will not just be political and cultural.  The physical geography of our nation will also change in a fundamental way.

Dispersal: The most important key to survival in the forthcoming nuclear age is to not present attractive targets in the first place.  This means dispersal.

I once asked an older engineering colleague, a German immigrant, what it was like in Germany during the war.  Where he was, it was peaceful, he replied.  Allied aircraft frequently passed overhead, but they left his valley, his village, and his camouflaged factory alone.  He spent the war manufacturing machine guns for the Wehrmacht.

Urban planning for an age of nuclear terrorism will therefore likely emphasize constellations of moderately spaced towns and small cities – each with its own economic specialties and its own self sufficient infrastructure.  Being too small to be worth a bomb, such towns will be relatively safe.  LA has accidentally shown the way.  Most of the cities around central Los Angeles, and along the two north-south axes of the state, have populations of 200,000 or less.

Even with dispersal, there may be vulnerabilities.  Survival in the forthcoming nuclear age also requires protection of the nation’s logistical infrastructure.  Logistics is the lifeline of any civilization.  Historically, cities grew up along rivers.  Water is still the most essential supply of a city.  Transportation, whether by road or by water, is next.  Without transportation, a city cannot be supplied with food.  In the modern world, energy and communications have also become vital.  And let us not forget sanitation.

To survive, even a dispersed society must avoid, at all costs, single-point failure nodes.  These nodes are key vulnerabilities.  Such nodes are attractive targets, because to destroy one means to create a cascade of collapse.

The basic way to avoid single-point failure is to build redundancy into the system at every level.  This is an expensive proposition, but it can pay enormous dividends.  The internet began in the 1970s as a Defense Department-sponsored communications system that could survive full scale nuclear war.  The internet has multiple redundancies, with no single-point failure nodes in its basic architecture.  The economic benefits have been so great that our society could no longer thrive without it.

Politics: We cannot perfectly prepare for a conflict whose shape is still unknown.  Given the natural inertia of a society, it is more likely that change will occur in response to events, rather than in anticipation of them.

It is the nature of a populist society that attention is almost always sharply focused on the present.  It takes a gifted leader, like a Roosevelt or a Churchill, to successfully prepare people for a looming catastrophe.  On the other hand, once the catastrophe happens, a free-market society, well-practiced in rapid adaptation, will generally move swiftly to solve the crisis.

It is also the nature of a populist society that both politics and political fashion often engender bad decisions.  An example illustrates this.

Along Interstate 5, through the San Joaquin Valley, fertile farm lands, formerly the garden of the nation, have reverted to tumbleweed deserts and dead orchards.  This is the result of noisy environmental extremism and political cowardice.  Under environmentalist pressure, California refused to implement water impoundment measures that anticipated the subsequent doubling of the population.  Much of the remaining water is simply lost to the sea – just to save a fish.  The result is that California is experiencing a severe water crisis.  Water in California is now a single-point failure.

Municipal politics also plays a large role in the excess concentration of population.  The more people in a city, the more taxes will be collected, and the richer will be the city’s government.

Given the shortsightedness of populist politics, and the natural inertia of past major investments, we cannot expect that there will be significant change in the urban geography of America unless, and until, there is a nuclear detonation on our soil.  Then change will happen rapidly.  Fortunately, we have a great advantage in this regard.  The United States is blessed with a constitutional system that is already ideally designed for a decentralized society.  This is because America originally was a decentralized nation of hamlets, towns, and small cities.  The Constitution had to conform to that reality.  Readoption of original constitutional principles will greatly assist the transformation of America into a nuclear-resistant dispersed nation.

The Permanent Siege: In the past, when peoples were threatened with invasion, there were only three solutions: flee or fortify or fight in the field.  America cannot flee, so we are left with the other two options.  Dispersal is a modern version of fortification.  Secure borders and a self-contained economy are additional fortifications.

A reconfigured America will still have need of strong military forces.  These will provide active defense against traditional military attack.  A strong military will also provide the means for extraterritorial actions against terrorists and terrorist nations.  Foreign policy will not change much.  The homeland remaining safe, fortified America will be even more capable of sustaining its position of leadership in the world.

If basic foreign policy does not change, what will change is the nature of our commercial interactions with the rest of the world.  The United States spans a continent and is therefore blessed with the riches of one.  In a nuclear future, the current emphasis on overseas production will likely reverse.  Factory automation is the solution to increasing overseas labor costs.  Automated factories are actually cheaper here than abroad, so factories are coming home, and with them jobs.  Changes in taxes and regulations will help this trend.

Developing energy independence, already underway, will diminish much of the economic strength that sponsors religious fanaticism in the Middle East.  Nevertheless, petroleum will remain a major product far into the future.

Conclusion: Until today, the world has lived with nuclear metastability enforced by the psychology of mutually assured destruction.  With nuclear proliferation, the cultural inhibitions that have, thus far, protected the world will be breached.  Posterity will not look kindly on those who have acquiesced in this breech.

And there is this: although Americans are fundamentally pacifist and inward-looking, the shock of a deliberate nuclear explosion on American soil will certainly awaken the Sleeping Giant.