How the US and North Korea Could Sleepwalk Into a Nuclear War

The 2018 Hawaii false missile alert reaffirms the need for nuclear risk reduction.

by Doreen Horschig, originally published in The National Interest. Listen to the whole episode on Press the Button

January 13th, 2018 started out like any other Saturday in Hawaii before it took a dramatic turn. At 8:07 AM, the Hawaii emergency management agency broadcast an official message to more than one million people: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

It was a false alarm, as it turned out—caused by human error. But residents wouldn’t know that for another thirty-eight minutes. Given the geopolitical tensions between North Korea and the United States at the time, the threat seemed plausible.

“For me and hundreds of thousands of others of us who went through this and took it seriously, it was a deeply personal, near death experience. We now know that while I was calling my daughter to say I love you and goodbye, hundreds of thousands of other people were doing the same thing.”

These are the words of Cynthia Lazaroff, a documentary filmmaker, who was on the Island of Kauai on the day of the false alarm. Cynthia discussed her first-hand, harrowing experience on Ploughshares Fund’s Press the Button podcast and explained how it motivated her to help others learn from it.

Just a year before the incident, Cynthia had interviewed numerous experts in the United States and Russia on nuclear dangers, including former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former US secretary of defense, William Perry. She was very much aware of the staggering nuclear risk.

What lessons does one draw from such a dreadful experience? The alarm gave her a deeper appreciation for life but also elucidated the risks of nuclear war:

“This danger is not going to go away, the risk of some kind of accidental nuclear war due to a false alarm, or due to a blunder or a miscalculation or a mistake in the heated moment of conflict. That is not going to go away until we eliminate nuclear weapons.”

The takeaway from the Hawaii alert is the need to address the risk of an accidental nuclear war due to a false alarm. History has seen several such incidents. For example, in 1979 and 1980 the radars of the North American Aerospace Defense Command falsely showed images of a major Soviet attack. In 1983, the Soviets received false warnings from their systems that several intercontinental ballistic missiles were launched from the United States. Fortunately, these incidents did not result in a nuclear crisis. The Hawaiian false missile alert joins the list of such mishaps.

According to Cynthia, the false alert should be a wake-up call. People that day assumed it to be a real threat, showing that the nuclear shadow is ever-present. In a published account, Cynthia called for an awakening and provided a playbook that includes concrete steps to immediately reduce the risk of a nuclear catastrophe, such as taking nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert, reopening military-to-military communication channels, and adopting a no-first-use policy.

Cynthia is also involved in an international project that fosters a new generation of women leaders to transform the nuclear legacy:

“We’re working to catalyze a global movement of women and girls to eliminate nuclear weapons. We recognize the disproportionate impact of nuclear weapons on women and girls due to ionizing radiation. And that, since the dawn of the nuclear age, women have been largely shut out of national security planning and nuclear policymaking.”

Since the dawn of the atomic age, women have been denied a seat at the nuclear policymaking table. The field has long been dominated by white men and yet diversity and inclusion efforts have had limited success in the nuclear policy community. Usual efforts include diversity training and grievance systems within organizations but these preventative tools do little to address the root causes. Instead, as Mareena Robinson Snowden—a Senior Engineer in the National Security Analysis Department at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory—suggests, the nuclear field needs proactive initiatives, such as rigorous data collection through interviews and surveys to understand how women experience an organization’s culture.

Cynthia starts her inclusion efforts at the grassroot level through her online global mentoring program that now has engaged over 300 women from forty-two countries, including eight of the nine nuclear armed states. She explains “that when women are involved, peace agreements become more possible and …enduring.” With all its downsides, the global pandemic created the capacity for her to connect young women and take first steps to advance gender equality in the nuclear field.

The 2018 Hawaii false alarm certainly alerted Cynthia Lazaroff to the risk of nuclear war and the need to reform the nuclear field. But it should have been a wake-up call for the whole community to transform the nuclear legacy. There needs to be radical shift to increase arms control, include women in the nuclear field, and democratize the nuclear space in order to reduce the dangers that became all too real in Hawaii.

The entire interview with Cynthia Lazaroff is available here on Press the Button. To learn more about the Ploughshares Fund Women’s Initiative see here.

Listen to our most recent episode with Cynthia Lazaroff, award-winning documentary filmmaker and founder of NuclearWakeUpCall.Earth:

Doreen Horschig is the Roger L. Hale Fellow at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. Her work focuses on nuclear policy, specifically public opinion and counter-proliferation, as well as norms of nuclear and chemical weapons. Doreen is currently completing her dissertation titled “An Illusional Nuclear Taboo: Mechanisms of Domestic Attitudinal Patterns for Extreme Methods of War.” She holds a M.A. in International Relations from New York University and a B.A. in International Studies from Manhattan College. You can follow her on Twitter @doreen__h.

Lessons from the 2018 Hawaii false missile alert.

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Photo at top: An electronic sign reads "There is no threat" in Oahu, Hawaii, US, after a false emergency alert that said a ballistic missile was headed for Hawaii. Instagram / @sighpoutshrug (used with permission)