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'The Bomb' Presents A 'Secret History' Of Nuclear War Planning In America

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. In 2017, when President Trump threatened to rain fire and fury on North Korea if it leveled any more threats at the United States, our guest, Fred Kaplan, decided it was time for a new book. Kaplan's 1983 book, "The Wizards Of Armageddon," was about nuclear war strategy during the Cold War. He says the recent confrontation between North Korea and the United States got Americans thinking about the prospect of nuclear war in a way they hadn't since the end of the Cold War nearly 30 years before. So he decided it was time to look again at how American leaders have managed these terrifying weapons and the threat they pose to the world today.

Kaplan read thousands of declassified documents and interviewed former military leaders and government officials. The result is his new book about how American presidents and their advisers and generals have thought about, planned for and sometimes narrowly avoided nuclear war over the past 70 years. Fred Kaplan is a national security columnist for Slate and the author of five previous books. His latest is "The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, And The Secret History Of Nuclear War."

Fred Kaplan, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

FRED KAPLAN: Oh, thank you.

DAVIES: I'm going to begin with a clip from a movie. This is one of my favorite films of all time, "Dr. Strangelove." It's a satirical film by Stanley Kubrick made way back in 1964, and it's a movie about nuclear war. What happens is that an American Air Force commander has gone rogue, sent his bombers to attack the Soviet Union, figuring that when the president and the other military leaders figure out this has happened and they can't recall the bombers, they'll have no choice but to commit to a full-out attack.

And in this little scene we're going to hear, the president is with his military commanders in a bunker. And one of his generals, played by George C. Scott, is saying, we can do this. Let's commit to a full-scale attack, and we will win. And then we'll hear the president, played by Peter Sellers, respond.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB")

GEORGE C SCOTT: (As General Buck Turgidson) We would destroy 90% of their nuclear capabilities. We would, therefore, prevail and suffer only modest and acceptable civilian casualties from their remaining force, which would be badly damaged and uncoordinated.

PETER SELLERS: (As President Merkin Muffley) General, it is the avowed policy of our country never to strike first with nuclear weapons.

DAVIES: So when I heard that back then - President Merkin Muffley saying it's the policy of our country never to strike first with nuclear weapons - I assumed that was certainly true. We're peace-loving people. It wasn't, was it?

KAPLAN: No. One of the few things about "Dr. Strangelove" was - which is not accurate is that line. It has, in fact, always been the policy that the United States reserves the right to go first. And, in fact, for the first few decades of the nuclear arms race, it was assumed the main - the plan 1A of the nuclear war plan was for us to go first. Now, it wouldn't be an unprovoked nuclear attack. It would be in response to, say, a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. And at a time when we had very little in the way of conventional defenses to stave off the attack, the assumption was that we would use nuclear weapons.

President Obama raised the possibility - he started a debate within the National Security Council to abolish that policy, to go to a no-first-use policy because, you know, really, seriously, would we ever really do this? But there was an argument within the National Security Council. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made this argument. He said, well, look, Mr. President; we could face a large-scale biological attack from, say, the Soviet Union or China or North Korea or Iran or whatever. We don't have biological weapons anymore. Wouldn't you want to reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in response? That would be a first use. And Obama had to admit there was some logic to that. And so even though he made it clear - and toward the end of the administration even publicly - that he did not think we would ever or should ever use them, he did not change the doctrinal policy of reserving the right to go first.

DAVIES: So for all those decades in the Cold War, the idea was that having this possibility that we would launch a massive nuclear attack in response to a provocation was considered a necessary deterrent to the Soviets.

KAPLAN: Right. But what happened was the Strategic Air Command, which is now called Strategic Command, which controlled the planning and use of nuclear weapons - they went off on this autonomous streak. Nobody really could control them. It was very highly classified. Even people in the Joint Chiefs of Staff back in Washington - 'cause Strategic Command is out in Omaha - didn't really have a complete grasp of what they were doing. And the war plan just got baroque - I mean, really insane. It got to the point where - well, in the 1980s, there was a commander of Strategic Air Command named General Jack Chain, who said in a hearing, I need 10,000 weapons because I have 10,000 targets.

So, I mean, what would start happening is the targeteers out in Omaha would just keep generating targets that they might have to hit in the event of a nuclear war, and then SAC - Strategic Air Command - would raise that as a requirement for how many nuclear weapons we needed. It was a self-generating circular logic that had increasingly little relationship to any sense of what war aims might be or what U.S. policy was or should be.

DAVIES: Let's go over a little bit of the history. John F. Kennedy takes office after winning the 1960 election and goes out to Omaha to meet with, you know, the military leaders. You write that he came away as shocked and appalled as he'd ever felt in his life. Why?

KAPLAN: Well, the war plan at the time - the nuclear war plan - and, again, it was a nuclear war plan because we didn't have much in the way of conventional defenses - was this. If the Soviet Union or communist China or whatever even made a slight ground invasion of some allied - vital allied territory - and let's say they hadn't used any nuclear weapons at all yet - U.S. policy was to unleash our entire nuclear arsenal against every target in the Soviet Union, the satellite nations of Eastern Europe and China, even if China wasn't directly involved in the war. This was something like 7,000 nuclear weapons. At some point, somebody asked, well, how many people would get killed in this attack? And the estimate was 285 million people would be killed in this attack.

And there was no plan B. This was the only plan. And so you can imagine the reaction from people who hadn't really been familiar with this line of thinking before.

DAVIES: Right. So Kennedy and his advisers began to mull this over. One of the interesting things about Kennedy is that when he ran against Richard Nixon in 1960, one of the points he made in the campaign was, we are behind the Soviets in our production of nuclear missiles. There's a missile gap. He gets into office, and they finally get some good satellite photos of the Soviets' actual capability. What did he discover?

KAPLAN: Right. So throughout the late '50s, Air Force intelligence, in particular, was saying the Russians are way ahead of us. By the early '60s, they're going to have 500 ICBMs. Therefore, we need to have a crash program in intercontinental ballistic missiles, too.

He gets into office. And as you say, the Discoverer satellite had just started taking pictures from outer space. And they made the discovery that the Soviet Union had four ICBMs - not 400 or 500, but four. So there was a missile gap, but we were way ahead. And yet, the Air Force kept pushing for more and more missiles because, well, you know, maybe they'll build more in the years to come.

DAVIES: Right. This was an opportunity for Kennedy to rethink this.

KAPLAN: Yes, it was. And, in fact, he had some White House staff members who were saying, look - well, the secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, came in with a program to build 1,200 ICBMs. And Kennedy's national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, said, look; this estimate, this need for 1,200, this was calculated on the basis of the missile gap projections. Now we know they don't have so many. Let's cut this back to 600. And the reason is that if we build 1,200 and the Russians are sitting there with four, they might think that we're developing the ability to launch a first strike, and they're going to respond by a missile buildup of their own, and we're going to be stuck in an arms race.

And McNamara's response was, well, look; the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted 2,000; I've cut it to 1,200, and that's all that I can cut it without just fomenting rebellion among the military ranks. This is the best I can do. And Kennedy, who at the time believed very much in giving his cabinet secretaries leeway, let McNamara win the argument.

DAVIES: So in 1962, Kennedy faces a real crisis. The Soviets are building nuclear missiles in Cuba, you know, just off the coast of Florida. I'm - when I was a kid, I remember this. I remember seeing maps in my newspaper which showed the range of the missiles, which included my house in Corpus Christi, Texas. There was a lot of tension here.

KAPLAN: Yeah. I remember this, too, by the way.

DAVIES: Yeah. So Kennedy and advisers had to figure out what to do and whether the wrong move would trigger a nuclear war. It was resolved. But how close did we come to going to war?

KAPLAN: Well, we came very close. And, you know, for many years, there was a myth about how it was resolved. And even now, the real story is not that well-known, even though we have tapes of all 13 days of Kennedy and his advisers sitting around pondering this. On the third day of the crisis, which was a 13-day crisis, Kennedy is kind of mulling. He's saying, I - Khrushchev seems to have got himself in a trap. Maybe we need to give him a face-saving gesture. Maybe we should trade the missiles that we have in Turkey for his missiles in Cuba. Nobody pays any attention to this.

On the Saturday, on the last day of the crisis, Khrushchev issues a telegram proposing a deal. We'll get rid of our missiles in Cuba; you get rid of your missiles in Turkey. And Kennedy says, well, this seems like a fair trade. And everybody around the table is against this - not just the generals, but all the civilians. Bobby Kennedy, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, all these reasonable people - they're all against it. This will wreck NATO. This will undercut the Turks. This will wreck our credibility.

Kennedy lets them talk. And he says, well, you know, it seems to me - now, this was on a Saturday. The war plan - we were going to start attacking the Cuban missile sites on the following Monday. Kennedy says, well, you know, it seems to me that once we start doing this, we start doing 500 sorties a day against the missile sites and then invade the island, which was planned for the following Friday, then the Russians would grab Berlin. And if it's known that this proposal was on the table and we didn't take it, it's not going to be a good war.

Well, the argument goes on. Kennedy secretly sends Bobby to make the deal with the Soviet ambassador. He tells six people about this. Now, unfortunately, one of the six people was not Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who when he became president, after Kennedy was murdered, thought that the myth that Kennedy himself put out - that, you know, we went eyeball to eyeball with the Russians and they blinked - was how it worked. And it heavily influenced his views about what to do in the Vietnam War. And many years later, McGeorge Bundy wrote in his memoir that it was a tragedy that we kept up this myth for so many years because it led to misperceptions and horrendous policies elsewhere, by which he meant Vietnam.

But, you know, there's one other thing about this that we've only learned more recently. It turned out - and this was not known at the time - that the Russians had already installed nuclear warheads on some of those missiles. It also turned out that the Russians had secretly deployed 40,000 troops to the island of Cuba to stave off a potential American invasion.

So if Kennedy had succumbed to all of his advisers and said, yeah, you're right; we can't take this deal, and gone ahead with the airstrikes, gone ahead with the invasion, the Russians might very well have launched one of those missiles on warning, and the small invasion force going into Cuba would've found themselves being repelled by 40,000 Soviet troops. In other words, we would've been in a war with the Soviet Union. So, you know, one lesson of this is that who you elect as president really does matter sometimes. It doesn't - the fact that you have a lot of smart advisers doesn't necessarily seal the deal.

DAVIES: Fred Kaplan's book is "The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, And The Secret History Of Nuclear War." We'll take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with journalist Fred Kaplan. He has a new book about nuclear war planning. It's called "The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, And The Secret History Of Nuclear War".

So presidents over the decades had to deal with this nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union. There were negotiations and reductions at times and crises. Ronald Reagan was known as a Cold War hawk. Of course, he wanted to deploy the Strategic Defense Initiative. This system, that was designed to shoot missiles out of the air, was seen as very aggressive because it was destabilizing. But you write that he was actually a secret nuclear abolitionist and kind of found a kinship with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Tell us about that. What came of it?

KAPLAN: Yeah. Well, Reagan turns out to be a much more complicated figure than - you know, I covered him as a journalist. He's much more complicated than a lot of people think. He was a secret nuclear abolitionist. Many of his aides have said so since. And, in fact, he might have been the only person alive who actually believed that the Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as Star Wars, really would work, that it would really serve as kind of an astrodome that would, you know, shoot down every missile and, therefore, make nuclear weapons obsolete.

But, yeah, he was also very distrustful of the Russians and very anti-communist. And so his first - he wanted to meet with a Soviet leader, but, as he put it several times, they all kept dying on him. And then he met Gorbachev, and he met him in Geneva. This is in 1985. And their first round of talks - it's very tense. Reagan is complaining about their intervention in Third World revolutions, and Gorbachev is complaining that Star Wars is a secret first-strike plan.

And then they go for a walk along the lake, and they duck into a cabin where a fire is blazing. And then this part - at one point, Reagan leans over to Gorbachev. It's just the two of them and their translators. And he says, you know, if the United States was invaded by aliens from outer space, would Russia come to our defense? And Gorbachev said, absolutely. And Reagan says, I feel the same way about you. And they walked out, and they walked back in the conference hall. And the Secretary of State George Shultz wrote later that the change in atmosphere was palpable. They were laughing and talking with each other as if they were old friends. And it was at that point that they decided, OK, we really have to start making some deals to get rid of these nuclear weapons.

So, you know, Reagan - I'm told that he was a big fan of this movie "The Day The Earth Stood Still" - 1951 - about a guy who comes from outer space and tells the earth, you have to stop playing with nuclear weapons. Otherwise, you're going to get yourselves blown up, and we'll have to come occupy you so you don't. And it had a big effect on him. And, listen; that's how he saw things. He gave an address to the U.N. once, saying, if we were invaded by aliens from outer space, the tensions and rivalries between us here on Earth would look trivial by comparison. You know, on the one hand, this is kind of nutty. On the other hand, hey, you know what? He's got a point. Maybe you have to look at things from 20 billion miles up to get this kind of perspective.

DAVIES: So did this goodwill lead to significant reductions in arms and easing of tension?

KAPLAN: Yes, it started to. You might recall that Gorbachev and Reagan were both frustrated that their negotiators were not making much progress. So they met in Reykjavik, Iceland. And that was when Reagan and Gorbachev kind of spontaneously came to the conclusion that, yes, let's get rid of all of our missiles - all of our missiles. But then it hit a speed bump. Gorbachev demanded that in - that one condition for this is that the United States would never test the Strategic Defense Initiative weapons in space; it would remain a laboratory project. And Reagan refused to do that, so - and it fell apart.

So Soviets' paranoia about this system, which wasn't going to work, and Reagan's fantasy about this system prevented what very well could've been the end of the Cold War, the end of the arms race. And by the way, a lot of people around Reagan - his advisers, civilian and military - heaved a sigh of relief that that wasn't going to happen.

DAVIES: You know, it's so interesting because Donald Trump talks about his ability to negotiate and how when you get in a room with somebody that you can size up and strike up a relationship, great things can happen. And this is often mocked. You know, the guy - you know, he doesn't pay attention to staff reports. He doesn't have the data he needs. It sounds like the Reagan-Gorbachev relationship says, you know, maybe there is something to this.

KAPLAN: Well, except that there has to be a convergence of interests. The Reagan-Gorbachev thing ultimately fell apart because there was a disagreement among interests.

There's also another interesting and surprising difference. You know, the talks between Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik - they held talks for 10 hours - 10 hours - over a period of a few days. Now, let's say you give some time for the translators to do their thing - say, six, seven hours. And they're talking about nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy. And, you know, I mean, Reagan has some screwy ideas, but he understands the implications of his ideas. He had been thoroughly briefed on this. There is no question. And, you know, I just find it inconceivable that Donald Trump could have a discussion about nuclear weapons for longer than 10 minutes.

Trump does have this notion that - oh, well, look; I'll just look this guy in the eye. I'll size him up. I'll figure out what to do. But, you know, it hasn't worked so far. His meetings with Kim Jong Un - I mean, it's Trump who got taken on a ride with that. You know, Kim writes him some beautiful letters and signs a very vague statement saying that he will work toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and Trump thinks he's got a contract. And yet, North Korea keeps enriching more and more uranium and building more and more weapons.

DAVIES: Fred Kaplan's book is "The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, And The Secret History Of Nuclear War." After a break, he'll talk about Donald Trump's approach to nuclear weapons, including him asking his generals why he didn't have more nukes, and some extraordinary advice he offered to U.S. arms negotiators long before he ran for president. Also, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the first album from Artemis, an all-star band of jazz women. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off today. Let's get back to my conversation with journalist Fred Kaplan, who's written a new book about nuclear war planning, prompted in part by tension between the U.S. and North Korea which he says has made Americans think about nuclear war in a way they hadn't since the end of the Cold War. His book, called "The Bomb," draws on declassified documents that show that for decades, the United States' only plan for its nuclear arsenal was to launch an all-out attack on the Soviet Union and China if either country invaded an allied nation.

In the book, you write about how there was this plan that the United States military had for, you know, a massive attack on the Soviet Union under various circumstances. And there's a remarkable story about a guy named Franklin Miller, a civil servant who - I guess this was during the George Herbert Walker Bush administration.

KAPLAN: It started during Reagan.

DAVIES: OK.

KAPLAN: It was Reagan and then Bush.

DAVIES: OK. He managed to take a really close look at all the strategic documents governing, you know, military strategy for the U.S. What did he find?

KAPLAN: Well, since Kennedy's times, the secretary of defense would put out these statements calling for more limited options in the nuclear war plan so you don't have to just blow up the entire Soviet Union. Yet, Frank Miller was a guy working in the Pentagon on - looking at nuclear war plans. And he would sit on - in these briefings from Strategic Air Command, and he wasn't seeing these limited options. And what he found was just appalling.

What he found was a level of overkill beyond anything imagined. For example, there were 500 nuclear weapons, each of a megaton in explosive strength, aimed at Moscow - 500. There was a bomber base in the Arctic Circle that could only be used for a few months out of the year. It was to be hit with 17 nuclear weapons. There was an anti-ballistic missile site in Moscow that we discovered after the Cold War was over couldn't have shot down anything - 69 nuclear warheads were targeted against this one site. There were things like that all over the entire country.

Even if you agreed with the policy of what kinds of things we should hit in a nuclear war, we had way more than what was necessary. And at the time, the United States had 12,000 strategic nuclear weapons - in other words, nuclear weapons that could hit the Soviet Union. And due to the efforts by Frank Miller and his staff, this was whittled down to 5,888. And again, that was not calling into question anything about the policy, whether you needed to hit all these targets - just, like, if you hit them, how many do you really need to hit them? And then when the Soviet Union fell apart, you no longer had to hit any of the targets in Eastern Europe, so that brought it down to 3,000.

And so it was around the same time George H.W. Bush was negotiating arms treaties which brought down the totals to about 3,000. But the fact that Miller had done this advance work and had convinced, really, pretty much everybody that the requirements were inflated and you really only needed about 3,000 - and by the way, even that was inflated, but it was as much as he could do politically - made it much easier for the military to buy on to the nuclear arms control treaties that were signed from that point on. So it was a turning point, but deeply buried. This is nothing that's part of any official history of the nuclear arms race.

DAVIES: So let's talk about Donald Trump and his nuclear policy. And you have some interesting information that predates his presidency. In 1988, 28 years before he ran for president, Trump actually offered himself as a chief negotiator for talks with the Russians. Is this - this is true. Was he serious?

KAPLAN: Yeah. I mean, this comes - yes. Yes, absolutely. In fact, he wanted to be the - Bush's arms negotiator. You know, he'd just written this book called "The Art Of The Deal." He thought he could get a good deal. And there was a story, which has been confirmed by Richard Burt to me, that he - when Richard Burt, a veteran diplomat, was finally appointed as the START negotiator by Bush, Trump ran across - ran into him at a cocktail party in New York. And he said, hey, you're the guy who's going to be negotiating with the Russians, right? And he goes, yes, that's right. And he goes, listen; I have a great idea for you - how to deal with them. And, you know, Burt is kind of looking skeptical but sort of leans in and - OK, what's that? And he goes, OK, here's what you do. The first meeting with the Russians, you show up late, and then you walk over to their side of the table and you pound your fist on the table and you say - and here I'll censor myself - F you. That was Trump's idea of how to get off to a rollicking start in a nuclear arms control agreement.

Well, Burt ignored his advice, ended up signing a pretty significant arms reduction treaty anyway. And between the time that he met Burt and this treaty happened, another one of Trump's enterprises had gone bankrupt.

DAVIES: So all these years later, he wins the 2016 election, comes to the White House. And there's a now-famous briefing at the Pentagon - was written about by Bob Woodward and more recently by two Washington Post reporters - where a number of administration officials set up kind of a tutorial for President Trump about, you know, military deployment and strategic alliances, and it didn't go particularly well. Trump kind of pushed back and said some harsh things to his military leaders. But you write that there was a chart presented to the president on the number of nuclear weapons over time, which kind of piqued his interest. What did he say?

KAPLAN: Yeah. There was a graph which showed that, you know, the peak - at its peak, the United States had about 30,000 nuclear weapons, and Russia had about the same. And we've come down quite a lot. You know, we're now at about 3,000 each. And this chart was meant to show, you know, the importance of arms control and that kind of thing.

But Trump had a different reaction. He looked at the chart, and he said, how come we don't have as many nuclear weapons now as we had back then? And it was explained to him that, you know, you don't really need them anymore and the weapons we have now are way more effective in accomplishing our objectives than the ones back then. And he kind of calmed down a little bit.

But then I was told that about two weeks later, in a meeting in the White House with his national security adviser H.R. McMaster and a couple of other people, he brought up this chart again. He goes, how come I can't have as many nuclear weapons as other presidents had? And again, it was explained to him, you know, we had a lot more than we need; the Russians would think we're about to launch a first strike, and they would catch us up. Anyway, two or three additional times, he kept bringing this up, which we've heard in a lot of stories about Trump. He can be talked out of something, but then he forgets why he was talked out of it, and he keeps bringing it up again.

DAVIES: Did he want and get more nuclear weapons?

KAPLAN: No, he didn't. And in fact, there was another meeting in the Pentagon after this was revealed where Jim Mattis, who was secretary of defense at the time, told his aide - he goes, I assure you there will not be a nuclear arms race as long as I'm here. And even though there is now - there are now cases being made for new types of nuclear weapons, nobody is making the case that we need more.

DAVIES: Fred Kaplan's book is "The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, And The Secret History Of Nuclear War." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE SIMZ SONG, "OFFENCE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with veteran journalist Fred Kaplan. He has a new book about nuclear war planning. It's called "The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, And The Secret History Of Nuclear War."

So North Korea caught President Trump's attention in 2017 with missile tests and the detonation of some nuclear devices. How did Trump respond?

KAPLAN: Well, I mean, this is where a lot of people became fearful of Donald Trump and of North Korea. He came out of his golf club in New Jersey six months into his term and said that he would rain fire and fury like the Earth has never seen on North Korea not if the North Koreans attacked us - which, you know, would be standard policy - but if they continued to make threatening comments about us and continued to launch missile tests and to test nuclear weapons.

Now, the interesting thing about this, as I discovered from conducting several interviews, is that he wasn't just talking out of his hat on this. There were very serious war plans in the making at his direction, war plans that would involve us attacking North Korea, again, not in retaliation to an invasion of South Korea or an attack on the United States, but to a missile test that looked more provocative than it should be.

In that year, there were 15 missile tests that North Korea launched, and in each one of them, there was a conference call among all the proper four-star generals and commanders - the same kind of conference call that would take place if there was a warning of an imminent Russian or Chinese missile attack. And on two of those occasions, General Mattis, secretary of defense, launched two conventionally armed short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan to follow along the North Korean missiles as kind of a signal. But he had been given the authority - if he thought that the missile about to be launched was armed or provocative in some other way, he had the advance authority to launch these missiles of ours, which were based in South Korea, at the test site, knowing that it would destroy the test site and maybe kill some of the North Korean leaders. You know, Kim Jong Un often attended these launches.

So this was a real thing. And these tests and these missile launches happened before Trump gave his fire and fury speech. So he wasn't just talking out of his hat. There were - there was serious planning of escalating a conflict, even knowing that it might lead ultimately to nuclear war.

DAVIES: So when he was saying fire and fury, he knew that there was active planning and operational details being developed for an attack on North Korea.

KAPLAN: Yes, absolutely.

DAVIES: What - you know, when you make a war plan like this, it's very specific, and one of the things you do is anticipate the adversary's reaction. What was the plan for attacking North Korea?

KAPLAN: Well, it was - you know, it was an escalated plan. First, you would do a little bit of this, and then you would escalate it, then you would escalate it. There were some people in the White House who believed or hoped that - they called it the bloody nose theory - in other words, just one solid punch and Kim Jong Un would be so shocked that the United States had actually taken this step that he would back off.

But people in the military - and, you know, it's interesting. In the modern military, most generals really don't want to get involved in wars 'cause they know where it leads. Most military people and people who knew about Korea were very leery of this. They thought that if we started something, it would escalate, and then the distance between keeping it conventional and going into nuclear would be very hard to resist. And all this was spelled out in the plan. And, in fact, one of the people briefing Trump on this said, you know, Mr. President, do not take the first step unless you are prepared to go all the way.

DAVIES: And how would the plan take into account the likelihood that North Korea would respond to an attack by attacking South Korea, particularly Seoul, which is this area of I don't know how many million people relatively close to the North Korean...

KAPLAN: Ten million.

DAVIES: Ten million people.

KAPLAN: Ten million within 30 miles - so within the range of their artillery rockets, some of which were armed with chemical weapons. Also, American military personnel, also American civilians and, of course, Japan. And, you know, at one point, Trump talked about evacuating Americans, but he was told, look; you - if you do that, that's going to be a clear sign to North Korea that we're preparing to attack, and he'll - he might launch a preemptive attack. So it was very well-understood, it was implied within the plan that if we do this, things could get out of control.

DAVIES: You know, when I read your book, it is so striking as you go through the various presidential administrations how enormously complicated and terrifying nuclear war planning is - you know, trying to figure out, well, let's - you know, let's deploy this nuclear weapon, but then we have to think about how our adversary might interpret or misinterpret that deployment and then plan for their reaction two or three steps down the road. It's pretty daunting - all this stuff. And you end your book with, you know, a terrific passage that kind of captures the dilemma that these weapons have posed to our leaders. Would you share this with us, just read this for us?

KAPLAN: Sure.

(Reading) With the spread of the bomb came a logic, a stab at a strategy, on how to deter its use in warfare. The logic involved convincing adversaries that you really would use the bomb in response to aggression. Part of that involved convincing yourself that you would use it, which required building certain types of missiles and devising certain plans that would enable you to use them. And before you knew it, a strategy to deter nuclear war became synonymous with a strategy to fight nuclear war. And when crises arose, the logic encouraged, almost required, escalating the cycle of threats and counterthreats just up to the point where deterrence and war converged in order to maintain credibility.

The compelling and frightening thing about the logic was that once you bought into its premises, you fell into the rabbit hole. There seemed no exit. The presidents who fell deep into this hole, who faced the abyss where the logical led, avoided its endpoint, avoided war by scrambling out of the hole, snapping out of the logic like snapping out of a bad dream.

DAVIES: You know, we have lived with these horrible weapons for 75 years. You, more than most people, have looked at the crises that brought us to the brink of war and also how little comfort we can take in the operational plans and controls on these things. And somehow we've muddled through, right? I mean, we've...

KAPLAN: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...Managed not to trigger a nuclear holocaust. And I wonder - I mean, when you think about this at a quiet moment, sitting on the beach or drifting off to sleep, can humanity manage this? Are we going to be OK?

KAPLAN: Well, you know, like a lot of extremely low-probability events, it only takes one to plunge us into catastrophe. I think there are a few reasons why it hasn't happened so far. Part of it is, hey; deterrence works. You know, we go into these baroque arguments about how many weapons of what types we need. You know, North Korea has 12 nuclear weapons, maybe 20. That seems to be enough to deter us from invading them. It doesn't take much, so deterrence works in a way.

But, No. 2, we've had the fortune of having presidents who, when they do get involved in a crisis that involves contemplation of their use, get very serious and immerses themselves in the issues and the dilemmas and the scenarios and decides, no, this really isn't worth it; we have to pull this thing to a stop before it gets out of control. That's so far, anyway. The fact - you know, for many years, we tried to forget that these things existed. One thing that Donald Trump did do was to rouse us from this sleep, to make us aware that they do exist. They've been here all along. And the way to avoid war is not to remain innocent and just to forget about them but to scope out the full depths of the logic that governs them and to figure out some way to scramble out of the rabbit hole.

DAVIES: Well, Fred Kaplan, thanks so much for your research and for spending some time with us.

KAPLAN: Oh, thank you.

DAVIES: Fred Kaplan is a national security columnist for Slate. His new book is "The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, And The Secret History Of Nuclear War." We first broadcast this interview in January, but it was preempted for much of our audience by the impeachment hearings. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews the first album from Artemis, an all-star all-women band of jazz musicians. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "POWERHOUSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.