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Biden’s scary invocation of nuclear ‘Armageddon’

A military aide carries the “nuclear football” for President Biden on the South Lawn of the White House on Sept. 2. (Al Drago for The Washington Post)
7 min

Generally, the right venue to warn that we face the biggest threat of Armageddon in 60 years wouldn’t seem to be a political fundraiser. But for whatever reason, that’s where President Biden on Thursday night decided to offer some of the scariest comments uttered by a U.S. president in decades.

Speaking at a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee event, Biden said that for the “first time since the Cuban missile crisis, we have a direct threat of the use of the nuclear weapon if in fact things continue down the path they are going.”

Biden has certainly shown himself capable of speaking unintentionally — or “getting over his skis,” to borrow a phrase — but he said a version of this warning not once, not twice, but three times.

“We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis,” he said at another point.

“We’ve got a guy I know fairly well,” he added of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “He’s not joking when he talks about potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons because his military is, you might say, significantly underperforming.”

It’s valid to ask where these comments are coming from. Certainly, the nuclear saber-rattling from Putin is on a level not seen in many years, if ever, with Russia threatening to use tactical nuclear weapons. Putin also is in a position he’s never been in, with the war in Ukraine going poorly and threatening to embarrass him and his country. Biden is serving notice that we shouldn’t treat this as a bluff.

“There is no example since 1962 that comes even close to the concrete threats that Putin has been making,” said Paul D’Anieri, an expert at the University of California at Riverside on the relationship between Russia and Ukraine. “Similarly, the U.S. has never voiced anything like the current level of concern that a nuclear weapon might be used.”

But why roll out this kind of talk at a political fundraiser? At the very least, that would risk playing into the idea that this is somehow about politics — exactly how, it’s not really clear — rather than a serious warning to the American people.

If we take Biden at face value, though — that the prospect is something he truly fears — it’s worth putting in historical perspective.

The Cuban missile crisis was indeed the most serious threat of open nuclear war during the Cold War. But there were many other scares — often because of mistakes or misinterpreted signals.

In 1967, the U.S. military prepared nuclear-equipped aircraft for launch after wrongly surmising that the Soviet Union had jammed U.S. surveillance radars, according to a 2016 paper published by journal Space Weather. The problem was later found to have been the result of a major solar storm.

In 1973, at the tail end of the Yom Kippur War, Egypt and Syria’s offensive drew Israel into a possible nuclear response — although precisely what kind is disputed. While some have said Israel readied nuclear missiles to attack, historian Avner Cohen has written that Israel’s defense minister instead floated detonating a nuclear warhead over the desert as a show of force.

In 1979 and 1980, there were multiple false alarms about potential Soviet ballistic missiles heading toward the United States.

In 1983, the Soviet Union readied nuclear-equipped planes in East Germany during a NATO exercise. U.S. intelligence released last year said the Soviets had launched “preparations for the immediate use of nuclear weapons.” In one instance, a Soviet squadron was asked to forgo use of an electronic jamming pod on its aircraft because of “an unexpected weight and balance problem,” according to U.S. military intelligence, which feared this meant the Soviets were loading a new type of weapon.

(This was also the year President Ronald Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative — commonly and often derisively known as “Star Wars” — a hugely expensive initiative to try to prevent the Soviets from striking the United States with nuclear weapons.)

And in 1995, even after the end of the Cold War, Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s nuclear briefcase was brought to him over fears of an inbound ballistic missile from Norway that Russia believed might be a strike from the Americans. The Washington Post’s David Hoffman noted that it was the first time a Russian or Soviet leader had taken that step.

As George Bass wrote for Retropolis in January, these post-1962 threats proved to be less serious than initially thought, or not serious at all. But the concern about them reinforced the very real fears of nuclear war, particularly with the Soviets.

The war in Ukraine differs from all of them in that this time a heavily nuclear-armed country has been backed into something of a corner (through an invasion of its own choice). And the threats to use nuclear weapons are very much out in the open. D’Anieri noted that in none of the post-1962 examples “was there serious talk by serious people that nuclear weapons might be used. In that sense, today’s situation really is unprecedented.”

For his part, Cohen told me that “Biden is right to suggest that this is a most fateful and dangerous moment in the nuclear age.”

But Cohen added: “I believe that Biden is historically inaccurate in comparing the present global danger with the global danger during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then, there was a real danger of escalation to a global thermonuclear war that could bring humanity within minutes to Armageddon dimension. ... That danger was by far greater than the dangers of the present moment."

Biden’s motivations for speaking as he did Thursday night are difficult to parse. On one hand, perhaps he has received some information that makes him particularly concerned right now. Lodging such a concern at a political fundraiser — rather than at an official White House event — could be an attempt to keep Russia guessing about just how intentional his comments were.

It’s worth noting, though, that the Defense Department told Politico on Friday that “we have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture nor do we have indications that Russia is preparing to imminently use nuclear weapons”; a Defense Department spokesperson said the president’s comments simply expressed that the United States was taking Putin’s threats seriously.

And it’s also worth noting that Biden has shown a real capacity for just saying things — things that White House officials then have to revise. (Certainly, many politicians have found themselves speaking a little too freely at political fundraisers, where they’re surrounded by people who support them and pay money to see them.)

But Biden isn’t just a first-term president. He also has real experience in these matters. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in the mid-1970s, and one of his biggest priorities early in his tenure was arms control. He communicated directly with high-ranking Soviet officials, including leading a delegation in 1979 for talks about the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, or SALT.

And as recently as late 2020, after his election as president, Biden reflected on the very real threats of that era. He cited the “long twilight struggle against Soviet tyranny that could have ended not in the fall of the Berlin Wall, but in nuclear Armageddon.”

The A-word is back in Biden’s public rhetoric — for the first time, at least in this foreign affairs context, since that Thanksgiving 2020 speech. And a major question in the coming hours and days will be why it reappeared, and how deliberate it was.