Nuclear War: A Scenario

June 2024


When the World Ends in 72 Minutes

Nuclear War: A Scenario
By Annie Jacobsen
Dutton, 2024

Reviewed by Tom Z. Collina

Annie Jacobsen’s Nuclear War: A Scenario is a page-turning thriller about how, step by tragic step, the world as we know it might end with nuclear weapons. It is a welcome and timely reminder that “12,000 years of civilization” could be “reduced to rubble in mere minutes and hours,” as the author puts it. In her realistic narrative, it is all over in 72 minutes.

The book runs the reader through an engagingly written, painstakingly detailed scenario in which North Korea launches a “bolt from the blue” nuclear attack against Washington, D.C. and Diablo Canyon Power Plant in central California. The United States responds with a much larger retaliation, involving 82 warheads, against North Korea. Because the U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) overfly Russia on their way to Pyongyang, Moscow thinks it is under attack from the United States and retaliates with 1,000 warheads. Before North Korea is destroyed, it detonates an electromagnetic pulse weapon over the United States. Finally, the United States retaliates with everything it has against Russia. Game over.

The bulk of the book is a riveting minute-by-minute account of how each step of this dizzying process plays out, starting with the launch of one warhead from North Korea. The launch is detected, analyzed, and assessed. At 3 minutes and 15 seconds after launch, the U.S. president is informed. At 9 minutes, an attempt is made to intercept the missile. It fails. At 23 minutes, after the first detonation in California, the U.S. president orders a strike against Pyongyang. At 33 minutes, the Pentagon is destroyed. At 41 minutes, Russia detects a massive nuclear attack heading its way. The dozens of expert interviews and deep research that Jacobsen conducted make the scenario feel realistic and terrifying. Along the way, the author reminds readers about some of the more troubling aspects of current nuclear policy, such as the facts that the United States or North Korea could start a world-ending nuclear war on the orders of just one person, a concept known as sole authority; that Russian and U.S. nuclear weapons are on high alert, ready to be launched at a moment’s notice, even before a reported attack has been confirmed to be real, a concept known as launch on warning; that U.S. ICBMs are highly vulnerable to attack and that their use against a nation such as North Korea would look like an attack against Russia; or that existing U.S. missile defenses stand little chance of stopping even a limited attack from North Korea.

In laying out this scenario, Jacobsen also challenges many of the questionable assertions employed by the nuclear establishment to defend the status quo. One of those assertions is that deterrence works. Well, it does until it does not. It is true that nuclear deterrence has worked so far and rational leaders seem to understand that initiating a nuclear attack against another state with nuclear weapons would be suicidal. Unfortunately, that does not mean it will keep working forever, and there are multiple ways it can fail catastrophically. As in Jacobsen’s narrative, a leader in a nuclear state such as North Korea can become irrational (a “mad king”) and launch a first strike for any reason at all. This may be a highly unlikely scenario, and some may say it is a thin reed on which to hang a whole book. Yet, that may be Jacobsen’s point: deterrence is vulnerable to factors that are out of our control.

Another questionable assertion is that a “limited” nuclear war would stay limited. Some would like everyone to believe that it is possible to have a “small” nuclear war, using just a few nuclear weapons, and that this could somehow restore deterrence before things really get ugly. Jacobsen shows just how dangerous such thinking can be. The gruesome logic of the system is biased toward quick and massive retaliation (“use them or lose them”), so limited use rapidly escalates into full-scale war even if no one intended that to happen. In the book, the United States never intends to start a nuclear war with Russia, but that is exactly what happens.

The author also makes it brutally clear that nuclear war has no winners and, as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev predicted, “the survivors will envy the dead.” Her description of what would happen to Washington after getting hit with a 1-megaton bomb is particularly chilling. “Wind rips the skin off people’s faces and tears away limbs. Survivors die of shock, heart attack, blood loss. Errant power lines whip through the air, electrocuting people and setting new fires alight everywhere,” she writes. “Never in the history of mankind have so many human beings been killed so fast.” Capitol Hill is obliterated. The animals in the National Zoo have no chance. Globally, over time as smoke blocks out the sun, billions die. Humans have gone the way of the dinosaurs.

Jacobsen writes that, “[f]or as long as nuclear war exists as a possibility, it threatens mankind with Apocalypse. The survival of the human species hangs in the balance.” She concludes that rather than the United States, Russia, China, or North Korea, “[i]t was the nuclear weapons that were the enemy of us all. All along.”

What Now

Jacobsen revealed in Mother Jones that she “wrote this book to demonstrate—in appalling, minute-by-minute detail—just how horrifying a nuclear war would be. Join the conversation. While we can all still have one.”1 Yet, the book offers no solutions. The author has said that she did not want to step out of her “lane as a journalist and as a storyteller” and into the lane of an expert on policy fixes.

Even so, a key part of this much needed conversation is to ask what now. How can the world prevent a nuclear war that Jacobsen accurately describes as possible and catastrophic? For those who read this compelling book and are rightly motivated to get involved, what policies would prevent the very scenario she lays out?

In general, people on both sides of this debate think that nuclear war would have no winners and should be prevented. Those who support maintaining current nuclear arsenal levels, or even increasing them, justify their position on the need to have a strong nuclear force to deter an attack by others. Humanity must face the reality that even if the United States offered to eliminate its arsenal if others did so too, the others might not follow. Russia, in particular, appears to have little interest in reducing its arsenal and recently has made thinly veiled nuclear threats against Ukraine.

This creates a challenging environment for the most straightforward approach to ending the threat of nuclear war: eliminating nuclear weapons. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is the best vehicle for this approach. It has been in force since January 2021 and has been signed by more than 90 nations. Unfortunately, none of the nuclear-armed states currently support this treaty or seems likely to do so anytime soon.

Short of global elimination of nuclear weapons, the next best approach is gradual reductions. Alas, Russia has told the Biden administration that it is not interested in discussing ways to replace the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which expires in early 2026. If New START disappears without being replaced, there would be no legal limits on Russian and U.S. nuclear forces for the first time in 50 years. China, for its part, is increasing its nuclear forces and also is not interested in talking about reductions, although Beijing recently said it is willing to discuss an agreement to prevent the first use of nuclear weapons. As long as the Biden administration remains committed to arms control, there is reason to keep pursuing diplomacy with China and Russia, but the near-term prospects for significant arms reductions are bleak.

If arsenal reductions are not promising now, there are changes in U.S. policy that could make nuclear war less likely. One policy ripe for change is sole authority. In the book, North Korea starts a nuclear war all by itself. Presumably, the leader of that nation has the absolute authority to make this decision. Washington likely cannot change Pyongyang’s launch policy or convince it to give up its nuclear arsenal, although it should try. The United States has a sole-authority policy as well, and North Korea has no monopoly on making bad decisions. Washington could at least reduce the risk of a U.S.-initiated nuclear war by requiring that any decision to launch a first strike must be a joint decision with Congress or a subset of its members. The initiation of nuclear war should require the shared authority of the executive and legislative branches. This seems like a prudent approach, particularly in light of the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

Another potential change involves launch on warning. This policy supports the president launching U.S. nuclear weapons after a possible attack has been detected by early-warning sensors but before the reported attack is proven to be real, such as by landing on U.S. soil. In the book, the U.S. president launches nuclear weapons only after the attack on California is confirmed, so this is not an example of launch on warning. Yet, the way the fictional president is rushed into a decision, with another attack reportedly heading toward Washington, is similar. Imagine an alternative scenario where the president is first removed from Washington to a remote location where he can take time to reach a decision when more information arrives. There is no need for the president to launch quickly, within minutes. In the book, a quick launch leads to a tragic error: sending a large force of U.S. ICBMs on a flight path over Russia.

A main reason why U.S. presidents are pushed by advisers to act quickly in a scenario such as this is that the country’s ICBMs are in fixed locations and thus are vulnerable to attack. If not used quickly, they may be destroyed by the incoming attack. This leads to rushed decisions. By contrast, U.S. nuclear-armed submarines at sea are not vulnerable to surprise attack and create no pressure for quick launch. Moreover, submarine-based weapons do not have to be launched from fixed sites; unlike ICBMs, they could attack North Korea without flying over Russia. The United States would have fared far better in Jacobsen’s scenario with no ICBMs at all, and such weapons should be retired. Short of retiring its ICBMs, Washington could prohibit their use in any mission that overflies a nuclear-armed state that is not the intended target.

Some critics say that Jacobsen’s scenario is not realistic, that U.S. planners would not launch ICBMs over Russia and would instead use submarines to avoid this possibility. Yet, that may be Jacobsen’s precise point. Humans make bad decisions all the time, especially in a crisis.

As a journalist, Jacobsen’s strength is her powerful storytelling, and readers can excuse her lack of solutions, some debatable aspects of the scenario, and even a few errant facts. Nuclear War is an excellent book for anyone who wants to understand just how quickly nuclear conflict can start and how badly it can end. With its gripping narrative and timely arrival, it has the potential to start a new debate on how best to avert nuclear war. This book is a welcome addition to global efforts to reduce the risk of the ultimate disaster.



1. Annie Jacobsen, “America’s Nuclear War Plan in the 1960’s Was Utter Madness. It Still Is,” Mother Jones, March 27, 2024,

Tom Z. Collina, former senior policy adviser at Ploughshares Fund, is a nuclear expert and co-author of The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power From Truman to Trump.