Photo of six fighter jets flying in the sky in a 'v' formation.
Warplanes are both carbon intensive and extremely expensive, costing an estimated $76.8 billion over their lifespan. Credit: UX Gun / Unsplash Credit: UX Gun / Unsplash

As a columnist, I always like writing about a hot topic, something we’re all talking about.

So I’m tempted to write about Olivia Chow’s victory, the Ontario Place spa, the death of billionaires searching for the Titanic — almost anything but nuclear war, about which there’s hardly any buzz these days.

Indeed, so far has nuclear war slipped from popular consciousness that when the Pew Research Center recently asked Americans their biggest fears, the top choices included inflation, crime and climate change. Nuclear war didn’t even make the Top 10.

That’s remarkable considering that nuclear war outranks all other calamities in its capacity to quickly destroy the world, including everything and everyone we love.

Yes, even worse than inflation.

And the possibility of a world-ending nuclear conflict may be closer now than ever. That was the view of Daniel Ellsberg, a nuclear war planner in the 1960s turned anti-nuclear activist, who died in June at 92.

One of the true heroes of our time, Ellsberg is known for leaking the Pentagon Papers — top-secret documents revealing Washington’s lies about its actions in Vietnam. He spent recent decades exposing the hubris and recklessness of U.S. nuclear war-planning that he’d witnessed from the inside.

In his 2017 book “The Doomsday Machine,” Ellsberg maintained that nuclear war would most likely happen by accident or mistake, prompting a panicked superpower to release nuclear weapons in the incredibly short time it has — about six minutes — before facing obliteration.

He stressed that the chances of such a catastrophic mishap increase dramatically in periods of heightened tension between nuclear superpowers Russia and the United States.

Times like now.

So the fading of nuclear fears today is a testament to the skills of Western leaders who have downplayed the imminent danger, trying to focus our attention instead on the need to defeat Russia in Ukraine and ensure Russian dictator Vladimir Putin pays a heavy price for his brutal invasion.

By keeping the focus on Putin’s horrendous war crimes, Western leaders and commentators have also distracted us from seeing how Washington’s own behaviour has increased the chances of nuclear conflict.

In a brilliant essay in Harper’s last month, U.S. foreign policy experts Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne argue that, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Washington has sought to achieve nuclear dominance, replacing the Cold War nuclear balance of power. This and the expansion of the U.S.-led military alliance NATO ever closer to Russia’s borders have left Russians — not just Putin — feeling paranoid.

Or as a group of retired U.S. military officers ask in a full-page ad in the New York Times: how would Americans feel if Russian military forces were stationed throughout Canada and Mexico?

In fact, we saw how strongly America reacted when Russia put missiles in Cuba in 1962.

And, while Americans may believe those missiles were withdrawn due to John F. Kennedy’s stand-firm resolve, what really convinced the Russians to remove their missiles was Kennedy’s promise (made secretly to them and only publicly revealed decades later) that, in exchange, Washington would remove U.S. missiles from Turkiye.

Schwarz and Layne say compromise worked and insist that avoiding nuclear war today may require compromise over Ukraine — such as guaranteeing Ukraine’s neutrality, similar to Austria’s neutrality during the Cold War.

Instead, Western leaders seem determined to humiliate Putin — exactly what JFK warned against when he said: “Above all … nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.”

But back to Chow, the spa and the submarine. Washington’s war planners — and their supporters, including the Canadian government — want us to focus on anything but what could happen if, say, a hyper-nervous superpower mistakenly concluded it was under attack and unleashed its nuclear arsenal, blowing up the world.

But relax. As we know, that only happens in movies. In the real world, mistakes never happen.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...