The EMPire Strikes Back

Electromagnetic pulse is the conservative fetish that just won't die.

By , director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Jim Woolsey, a former director of central intelligence and noted Oklahoma City conspiracy theorist, and Peter Pry had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday warning that North Korea might attack United States with a nuclear weapon. But instead of vaporizing Washington, Woolsey and Pry warn that North Korea would use just one bomb to create a massive electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that would fry our iPhones and end "modern civilization."

Jim Woolsey, a former director of central intelligence and noted Oklahoma City conspiracy theorist, and Peter Pry had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday warning that North Korea might attack United States with a nuclear weapon. But instead of vaporizing Washington, Woolsey and Pry warn that North Korea would use just one bomb to create a massive electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that would fry our iPhones and end "modern civilization."

It will be like The Hunger Games meets Red Dawn!

If you aren’t familiar with the crowd of cranks and threat inflators banging the EMP drum, this scenario might seem a little far-fetched. It does seem like the sort of overcomplicated plot dreamed up by a Bond villain, one that only works in the movies. Bad movies.

Well, bad movies and terrible books — like Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen’s potboiler One Second After, about life in the United States after an EMP attack. Yes, that’s right. Newt Gingrich wrote dime-store pulp fiction about the aftermath of an EMP attack. I am just going to give you a minute here to compose yourself.

All better? Okay, as I said, Newt Gingrich wrote a book about EMP. EMP advocates get a little cranky when you make fun of it. An indignant Peter Pry once responded to mockery of the book by comparing One Second After to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Really.

That’s because the EMP crowd is about raising "awareness." The Heritage Foundation even promotes "EMP Awareness Day." And Congress empanelled a Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack in 2001 (and reauthorized it in 2006) and even has an "EMP Caucus." No, I don’t know if they wear little tinfoil hats at their caucus meetings. Why would you ask something like that?

The possibility of an electromagnetic pulse wiping out Western civilization — or at least our local varietal — is a hardy perennial of a particular worldview espoused by types like the John Birch Society. EMP "awareness" basically occupies the space vacated by activism in the 1950s for civil defense. For a flavor of the old civil defense paranoia, I recommend a slim volume from 1968 entitled "Who Speaks for Civil Defense?" — particularly a chapter by the late Steuart Pittman that perfectly captures the paranoia of the movement.

Sharon Weinberger, author of the excellent Imaginary Weapons, has already written a readable account of the craziness of this view in these very electronic pages ("The Boogeyman Bomb"), which elicited a letter from Pry that took itself very, very seriously. The humorlessness of the EMP movement is not surprising. This is about scaring people. Any mirth is entirely unintentional.

For such a dry, serious subject, the amount of actual data on the threat from electromagnetic pulse attack is pretty thin. Electromagnetic pulse is, of course, a real phenomenon produced by a nuclear explosion. The EMP Commission likes to point to its "years" of research based on "decades" of data on the effects of nuclear weapons. But at the end of the day, even if we understand the physics of electromagnetism, there is no credible way to model the mass effect of a pulse on a complex system like our power grid or our communications infrastructure.

The United States and the Soviet Union did engage in high-altitude nuclear testing before realizing this might not be the greatest idea, eventually banning tests in the atmosphere and outer space. The most famous event was called Starfish Prime — a 1.4 megaton nuclear explosion conducted by the United States in the Pacific in July 1962. By contrast, North Korea’s 2013 nuclear test — its largest and most successful — was on the order of 10 kilotons, or more than a hundred-times smaller.

EMP threat-mongers sometimes dramatically exaggerate the effects of Starfish Prime. For example, Lowell Wood, later a member of the EMP Commission, described the impact of Starfish Prime to Congress in plainly apocalyptic terms. Starfish Prime, he said, "very unexpectedly turned off the lights over a few million square miles in the mid-Pacific. This EMP also shut down radio stations, turned off cars, burned out telephone systems, and wreaked other mischief throughout the Hawaiian Islands, nearly 1,000 miles distant from ground zero."

All of which was terrible — or would have been, had it happened. It did not.

Starfish Prime was bad, but it was not nearly so dramatic as Wood claimed. In fact, lots of people turned out to watch the explosion from hotels and beaches in Hawaii, including reporters sent to cover it.

Take a gander at the coverage in Life Magazine, which has some really beautiful images of the event. My favorite account comes from Dick Stolley. He’s famous, by the way. He would later buy the Zapruder film. Stolley reported on Starfish Prime from the beach at Waikiki:

There were coeds in muumuus, college boys in swimsuits, tourists in newly purchased resort wear, sleepy kids…. [The blast was] white and hot, like the flash of a breaking electrical circuit. It turned almost instantly to a bright bilious green, a color so unexpected that watchers gasped.

Tough assignment, huh? Life doesn’t mention what Stolley did next, but given his fond recollection of the drinks cart after putting an issue of Life to bed, I like to think he slipped back to the Royal Hawaiian for a Mai Tai and to interview any coeds in muumuus who happened to be around.

Now, as I say, Starfish Prime did do some damage, even if Waikiki’s luau schedule was uninterrupted. The electromagnetic pulse and other effects probably killed off two or three satellites in orbit, which was bad enough. The explosion may also have damaged some telephone equipment, but there were no telephone outages. (Military communications and test instrumentation all worked fine.) Some street lights on Ferdinand Street in Manoa and Kawainui Street in Kailua also went out. Of course, street lights and telephone systems experience everyday failures, too. You’d be surprised at how hard it is to demonstrate that street light failures are the result of an electromagnetic pulse rather than, say, faulty fuses. (Apparently, the answer turns on fascinating questions like "How many clear plastic washers were in transformer cutouts that failed?") Contemporary reports mention continuous radio coverage of the event with no outages.

So let’s be clear: Starfish Prime did not &q
uot;turn off the lights over a few million square miles in the mid-Pacific." It did not shut down any radio stations or cars or burn out the telephone system. The biggest problem that Dick Stolley and other reporters had filing their stories the next day was probably a hangover.

Even if we understand how an electromagnetic pulse works and have data about the vulnerability of equipment, a modern system like a power grid or communications network presents just too complex a set of resiliencies and vulnerabilities.

The solution of the EMP Commission was simply to collect more data, essentially creating laundry lists of things that might go wrong. For example, the EMP Commission exposed 37 cars and 18 trucks to EMP effects in a laboratory environment. While EMP advocates claim the results of an EMP attack would be "planes falling from the sky, cars stalling on the roadways, electrical networks failing, food rotting," the actual results were much more modest. Of the 55 vehicles exposed to EMP, six at the highest levels of exposure needed to be restarted. A few more showed "nuisance" damage to electronics, such as blinking dashboard displays.

This kind of experiment is better than nothing, of course, but it doesn’t model the effect of an EMP event on urban transportation networks. Would the result be massive pile-ups on expressways? Carmaggedon? Friday afternoon on the Beltway? The experiment raises as many questions as it answers, including, "How did they get enough money to purchase 55 vehicles?" I can’t help but wonder if they just rented them one by one. "How was your car, Mr. Graham?" "Oh, yeah, uh, the dash display is blinking." "We’re sorry to hear that, we hope it wasn’t an inconvenience." "What? Oh, well, never mind. All’s well that end’s well, that’s what I say."

The bottom line is that there simply isn’t enough evidence to support the wild claim that a single nuclear weapon, or even a few, detonated at high altitudes would pose an "existential threat" to "modern civilization," as Woolsey and Pry claim. It would be a nuisance, but preferable to having the bomb detonate in a major city.

And then there is this disquieting inconsistency: Many members of the EMP Commission have been leading voices over the years for arming missile defenses with nuclear warheads — the use of which would inflict the very same EMP effects on U.S. cities that they warn will end Western civilization.

Take Johnny Foster. Foster was the key architect of the Sentinel/Safeguard antiballistic missile system developed by the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Safeguard/Sentinel would have destroyed incoming Soviet warheads in the atmosphere with the W66 warhead, which had a yield of a few kilotons — about the same size as North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Intercepts in space would have used the much more powerful W71 — clocking in at several megatons, it was larger than even Starfish Prime. Foster pushed to deploy the system around U.S. cities. After the locals objected, Safeguard ended up in North Dakota. (President Ford deactivated the system after only four months of operation. All told, the United States spent $5 billion, about $20 billion in today’s dollars, over six years on Safeguard.) How dozens of nearly simultaneous nuclear explosions above U.S. cities would seem like a good idea when one measly North Korean nuclear weapon will purportedly end civilization as we know it is a very good question.

Lowell Wood, too, wanted to blow up lots of nuclear weapons in space. His pet rock was the Reagan-era Star Wars ("Strategic Defense Initiative") proposal to use nuclear explosions in space to "pump" X-ray lasers that would intercept Soviet ballistic missiles — grandiosely named Project Excalibur. This idea was so manifestly crazy that even senior U.S. officials simply could not accept it. One of my favorite anecdotes from Janne Nolan’s excellent Guardians of the Arsenal involves then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger repeatedly asking, "It’s not a bomb, is it?" leading his exasperated staff to say, "It go boom, Cap."

Lest you think these ideas collapsed with the Soviet Union, EMP Commission members William Graham, Johnny Foster, and Robert Hermann were all members of the Defense Science Board when it made an ill-fated effort to revive nuclear-armed missile defenses in the Bush administration. The George W. Bush administration. This led Senators Ted Stevens and Dianne Feinstein to sponsor an amendment that prohibits any expenditure on such a cockamamie scheme. Stevens called the idea "stupid," which would be the first and last time that the late senator from Alaska and I agreed completely.

One might very well get the impression from all this that certain people are perhaps not quite as worried about electromagnetic pulse as they let on, at least not when it threatens sacred causes like national missile defense efforts.

Which brings us back to our discussion of civil defense. For a long time, missile defense has occupied this role in our national discourse. At its root is really an idea about America, not a scientific concern with nuclear weapons effects. There is a persistent notion among some Americans that the United States is in some way exceptional or has a special historical mission. For these individuals, foreign lands are a source of threat or contamination. One of the more interesting stories is how the conservative movement has shifted from isolationism to its current, more bellicose form (a story told nicely by Peter Scoblic in U.S. vs. Them). It’s actually not that hard to fathom — at the base of both is an overdeveloped sense of the threat to the United States. That means building fallout shelters, missile defenses, and even a thousand-mile fence to keep out undocumented workers.

The other view, of course, is that the United States is part of the world. Our foreign policy is about dealing with the world as it is, not remaking it in our own image. Our image isn’t even static — it isn’t exceptional or a gift from God. It’s the sum product of the people who live here. It will continue to change, as tacos become comfort food, right along with pizza. These differences break down more or less along partisan lines, as one might notice from the whiff of nativism in the criticisms of President Obama — that he’s a socialist, that he wants to turn the United States into Europe, that he’s a Muslim, that he’s from Kenya.

Nuclear weapons have been at the center of this debate. For those who hold that the United States has a special historical mission, nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles stripped away the protections of two wide oceans, transforming an isolationist party into a fiercely anticommunist — and now "ant
i-Islamofascist," whatever that means — party committed to preventive military actions. Hence the call in Woolsey and Pry’s op-ed for a preventive strike against North Korea. One of the criticisms of the Bush administration’s preemptive doctrine was its "unilateralism." Well, unilateralism is just isolationism on steroids.

For those of us who see the United States as part of the world, nuclear weapons mean an end to the illusion of isolation and invulnerability. We are a member of the family of nations. And like many families, we don’t like all our relatives. But we don’t get to skip Thanksgiving. Nuclear weapons, like climate change, pose a shared danger to all nations and compel us to set aside our petty national differences.

For much of the Cold War, the folks Charles and Mary Beard would have called "imperial isolationists" tried to argue that fallout shelters, better nuclear weapons, and missile defenses might provide a technological escape from our entanglement with the outside world. They lost that argument. The simplest illustration is that their calumny about U.S. nuclear weapons policy — that it amounted to "mutual assured destruction" — entered the lexicon as a matter-of-fact statement of the reality of the situation. Duck-and-cover drills and Bert the Turtle seemed ridiculous because they were ridiculous. Most Americans accept that we can never be completely secure in a truly global world. Trying to avoid that uncomfortable reality is just fodder for movies like Dr. Strangelove.

Enter the EMP threat. Having dug themselves into a hole on nuclear weapons issues, EMP advocates think they have another shot at winning the foreign policy argument. If the mortal threat posed by nuclear weapons doesn’t favor policies that emphasize our apartness from the wider world, what if a nuclear weapon were detonated way out there in the blue?

It is a clever solution, politically, but one that I suspect is ultimately doomed, just as the effort to promote civil defense only served to highlight the fool’s errand of trying to restore a sense of invulnerability. I mentioned Steuart Pittman early on in the column. Pittman helped coin the phrase "assured vulnerability" to criticize the Kennedy and Johnson administrations’ recognition that nuclear war was not winnable. Pittman had led civil defense efforts during the Kennedy administration, before resigning out of frustration to focus on his law practice and pen the occasional article promoting civil defense. He died in February. In his obituary, his wife answered a question I had long wondered about: Did he himself have a bomb shelter?

"We started it, anyway," Mrs. Pittman told the New York Times, "But after half a day’s digging, we gave it up."

It’s good advice really. When you are in a hole, stop digging.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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