72 Minutes Until the End of the World?

Credit: toxicsquall on DeviantArt

Nuclear war would be bad. Everyone knows this. Most people would probably rather not think through the specifics. But Annie Jacobsen, an author of seven books on sensitive national security topics, wants you to know exactly how bad it would be. Her new book Nuclear War: A Scenario, sketches out a global nuclear war with by-the-minute precision for all of the 72 minutes between the first missile launch and the end of the world. It’s already a bestseller.

It goes without saying that the scenario is fictional, but it is a journalistic work in that the scenario is constructed from dozens of interviews and documentation, some of it newly declassified, as a factual grounding to describe what could happen.

That’s this, in Jacobsen’s telling: A North Korean leader launches an intercontinental ballistic missile at the Pentagon, and then a submarine-launched ballistic missile at a nuclear reactor in California, for reasons beyond the scope of the book except to illustrate what one “mad king” with nuclear weapons could do. A harried president has a mere six minutes to decide on a response, while also being evacuated from the White House and pressured by the military to launch America’s own ICBMs at all 82 North Korean targets relevant to the nation’s nuclear and military forces and leadership. These missiles must fly over Russia, whose leaders spot them, assume their country is under attack (the respective presidents can’t get one another on the phone), and send a salvo back in the other direction, and so on until 72 minutes later three nuclear-armed states have managed to kill billions of people, with the remainder left starving on a poisoned Earth where the sun no longer shines and food no longer grows.