How It Could Happen, Part Three: To The Brink

This week's post is the third of five parts of a fictional narrative tracing out a scenario of American imperial defeat and collapse.  As the war in Kenya reaches a climax, the action shifts to the United States—and to a president who has his back to the wall and very few options left.

Back in the United States, few people had any clear sense of how bad the situation had become. The major news media, as they had done for decades, accepted whatever came from the White House and the Pentagon at face value.  Internet news sites contradicted the official story in every detail, but the internet’s low signal to noise ratio made an accurate picture hard to assemble.  Still, cracks were spreading in the wall of denial.  The photo of the USS George Washington wrecked and abandoned on a Kenyan sandbar was an internet sensation; two members of the House of Representatives had called for hearings on the war, though their request was stonewalled by the House leadership; through the sullen air of late summer, a sense was beginning to spread that something had gone very wrong.

In the White House, President Weed did not need to guess.  Reports from the US forces in Kenya came in daily via the diplomatic line; when Nairobi fell, after a bitter three-day battle near Konza, a new line was jerry-rigged from Kisumu in the far west of the country. Most of the news was bad. The Chinese had brought in more planes, as well as air-defense systems that were making B-52 raids from Diego Garcia risky—two of the bombers had been shot down by surface-to-air missiles already.  Meanwhile, there was no way to get supplies in to the American forces and their Kenyan allies; another fleet could not be sent as long as Chinese cruise missiles might be waiting for them, and the loss of air superiority made airlifts equally problematic.

“We tried to get Predator drones in to hit their air defense radar, but they were spotted and taken out,” the DCI—Director of Central Intelligence, the head of the CIA—was saying.  “Chinese technology is, well, as good as ours these days.” What he was not saying, Weed knew, was that Chinese technology was better than its US equivalents these days, and half a dozen other countries had the same advantage.  The reason wasn’t a mystery, either; most of the officials in the room, starting with Weed himself, had taken donations now and then in exchange for promoting or approving programs that were far more profitable to their manufacturers than they were useful to the US military.

“The Chinese this, the Chinese that,” said the president’s national security adviser. “We’ve talked about them every single day since this started. We need to do something about them.” The vice president, sitting next to her, nodded, and President Weed tilted his head toward her, listening.

All at once, the Secretary of Defense decided that he’d had enough.  He slammed his folder of briefings down on the table, pushed his chair back, and stood up.  “You’re crazy.  I mean that in all seriousness.  Since day one you’ve acted as though nothing could go wrong, and when it does, all you can think of is doubling down.”  He turned to the president.  “Jim, you’ll have my written resignation tomorrow.”

“Bill,” said Weed, “for God’s sake, not now!”

“Personal reasons,” said the Secretary.  “Health concerns.  I’ll give you all the plausible deniability you want, but I’m through.” The door slammed behind him a moment afterward. 

*  *  *
Marines on perimeter guard spotted the messengers first, walking up the main road from Kitale under a white flag.  Word came by radio a few minutes later to GHQ in the town of Endebess further west, under the slopes of soaring Mount Elgon. The reply came back at once:  get a technical and bring them in.  The Marines had a few of the pickups left, though fuel was scarce, like ammo, food, everything else; they managed to scrounge enough gasoline for the trip, and sent the messengers on their way.

The technical skidded to a stop in front of a commandeered primary school not long thereafter.  Lieutenant General Jay Seversky, the American commander, greeted the messengers glumly. 

After introductions, the Tanzanian colonel who led the group said, “I think you know why I am here, General. You and your men have fought very well, but—” He shrugged.  “There is only so much a man can do.  The Coalition command has ordered a final assault on your positions.  I will not say when, but soon.  Maybe you will survive that.  Maybe you will survive the next one, too.  But—” Another shrug.  “The matter is settled; it is merely a question of how many more lives are lost.”

Seversky nodded, once.  “I assume you’ve got terms to suggest.”

“Of course.” The colonel pulled an envelope from inside his jacket and handed it to him. Seversky opened it, glanced over the sheet of paper, and nodded again. “I’ll need time to consult with my staff.”

“Of course,” the colonel said again.  “Twenty-four hours?  I think we can allow that much.”

When the men had gone, Seversky took the sheet of paper back inside.  The remaining officers of his staff and the commanders of the four divisions were waiting. He handed the paper to the nearest, waited until it had circled the table.

“Anything from Washington?”  This from Tom Blumenthal, the commander of the 101st Airborne.

Seversky snorted.  “They’re, quote, evaluating options for a relief force.  Unquote.”

“Meaning the bastards can’t do a thing,” said Blumenthal.  Nobody argued with him.

For a long moment nobody in the room said anything.  They were looking at Blumenthal, and after another moment, Seversky figured out why.  The 101st Airborne.  The Battle of the Bulge.  “Nuts.”

Blumenthal cleared his throat.  “If I thought it would gain anything,” he said, “I’d say fight to the last man. But—” His gaze dropped.  “This isn’t Bastogne and Patton’s not on the way.  I think we have to face the fact that we’ve had our clock cleaned.”

Word of the American force’s surrender reached the White House half an hour before the story broke in the international media.  It was a Tuesday morning in September, with the first hint of autumn in the air.  Weed stared out the windows of the Oval Office, wishing he could take that September fishing trip he’d planned months ago.  No chance of that, not now.  Grimly, he turned to his press secretary and told him to have the news media ready for an important press conference at 6 that evening.

Before then, he would have even worse news to face.

*  *  *
At 2 in the morning local time, Chinese special forces personnel left a submarine in the middle of the Indian Ocean and climbed aboard radar-evading inflatable boats. An hour later, they crawled up a poorly guarded beach near the southern tip of Diego Garcia and found hiding places in the thick jungle just inland. Silenced weapons and explosive charges were passed from hand to hand as the four strike teams prepared for their missions. The first explosions hit without warning; by the time the garrison realized what was happening, the heavily guarded island’s radar stations and air defenses were already disabled.  Ten minutes later a dark winged shape—the first of a dozen stealth-equipped troop transports packed with Peoples Liberation Army soldiers—came hurtling out of the night to touch down on the captured main runway. By dawn, the entire island was in Chinese hands.

As details trickled into the White House situation room, what kept circling through Weed’s mind was sheer disbelief.  Diego Garcia was the beating heart of the entire US Indian Ocean presence, a key logistics and intelligence center and a base from which B-52s could pound trouble spots from Africa to Southeast Asia.  Losing Tanzania was a problem; losing Kenya was a crisis; losing Diego Garcia...  He shook his head, tried to think.

“Sir?”  An aide had come in.  “The press conference.”

“Yes. Yes, of course.”  He drew in a deep breath and went to the door.

It was by all accounts one of the best speeches of Jameson Weed’s political career.  Extempore—he had drawn up a draft before the news came about Diego Garcia, but it was sitting on a desk in the Oval Office as he walked up to the podium—he sketched out the situation, explained what had happened in Kenya, denounced China’s behavior in thundering terms, and broke the news of the fall of Diego Garcia.  “Let the Peoples Republic of China make no mistake,” he said.  “The United States will not let this unprovoked aggression stand. We will respond with all the forces at our disposal. Nothing is off the table.”  He leaned forward, haggard and minatory.  “Nothing.”

Half an hour later, the American embassy in Beijing filled in the details for the Chinese government’s benefit:  unless China withdrew its forces from East Africa and Diego Garcia, the United States would respond with tactical nuclear strikes. The Chinese response was swift and public.  Speaking to a crowd of reporters, the Chinese premier informed the world tartly that China would never bow to threats, and that any attack on Chinese territory or military forces would receive a corresponding response. As he spoke, Chinese diplomats were making it clear to their American opposite numbers that “corresponding response” in this case meant Chinese ICBMs heading for American cities.

Later that evening, the president of Russia appeared on television screens around the world.  With Slavic bluntness, he brushed aside the evasions the other leaders had used in public.  “The Russian Federation has been informed,” he told the world, “that the United States has threatened China with nuclear attack.  Such threats are impermissible in today’s world.  It is therefore my duty to state that treaties between the Russian Federation and the Peoples Republic of China require us, if China is attacked with nuclear weapons, to respond with our own nuclear arsenal.”

*  *  *
No one who lived through the three days that followed would ever forget them.  Seven billion people who had come to think of mushroom clouds as a bad memory of the Cold War suddenly had to face the imminent prospect of nuclear war.  Defiant words from Washington, proud rebuttals from Beijing, and frantic diplomacy by the United Nations punctuated the panic that gripped the globe.  The words of the Emperor of Japan, broadcast live to a worldwide audience—“Japan alone among nations has suffered attack by nuclear weapons, and it is Our deepest wish that no other nation should share that same bitter fate.  We ask—no, We plead—that the leaders of the contending powers step back from so terrible an abyss”—spoke for billions.  Meanwhile, in missile silos, bomber bases, and submarines, young men and women waited for orders that, for all practical purposes, would mean the end of the world.

In the United States, civil defense plans dating back to the Eisenhower administration were dusted off and activated. One of them mandated that the National Defense Highway System—better known as the nation’s freeways—be closed to civilian traffic.  There were good practical reasons for that step, but nobody had thought about what would happen when millions of Americans tried to flee urban targets and found the freeways barricaded. On the first day of the crisis, most people were too stunned to do anything but follow the instructions that filled the media—stay put, seek cover, you are safer at home than out in the countryside—but the following night brought second thoughts. 

The next morning, people in large cities all over America tried to get out. Surface streets quickly filled up, turning into bumper-to-bumper jams that in one case stretched for forty miles. Inevitably, those who found that route closed turned again to the freeways, where police, National Guard units and Homeland Security troops in black riot armor manned the barricades.  The flashpoint arrived toward sunset in Trenton, New Jersey, where a terrified mob, convinced that the missiles were already on the way, tried to rush the barricades on the John Fitch Parkway.  Someone in the crowd had a handgun; shots rang out; an inexperienced Homeland Security officer panicked, and ordered his troops to open fire.  By the time the shooting stopped, thirty-seven civilians were dead and more than a hundred wounded.

The government scrambled to keep word of the Trenton Massacre, as it came to be called, from getting out.  News media had already been put under wartime censorship, and social media online were pressured into deleting references to the shootings as they appeared, but email and telephones were harder to stop. Worse, the lack of accurate information fed terrifying rumors.  As Americans huddled in makeshift bomb shelters across the country, it was all too easy to believe that a government willing to plunge the world into nuclear war might be capable of anything.  In the process, for a very large number of Americans, the United States stopped being “us” and turned into “them.”

That would have immense results in the near future, but there were also more immediate consequences.  In Austin that night, after a flurry of calls from worried constituents, the governor of Texas pulled rank on the phone company, got a line through to a business friend of his in Trenton, and obtained a good account of what had happened.  The governor could all too easily imagine what would happen if such an incident happened in proud, gun-loving Texas, and his next call was to Homeland Security.

The official cut him off halfway through a sentence with a brisk we-have-our-orders brushoff, and the conversation went downhill from there.  Finally the governor slammed down the phone with a roar of polymorphous profanity that left his assistants awed.  He flung himself up from the desk and paced around the room—a danger sign everyone in the state government knew and feared—and then returned to the phone, calling the old Army buddy of his who was the commander of the Texas National Guard, and the close political ally of his who was the head of the Texas Rangers. Both had been put under Homeland Security authority by executive order for the duration of the crisis, but a clash between Washington orders and Texas loyalties could have only one result.

Then the governor called Homeland Security back.  “You listen to me, sumbitch,” he said, stabbing the air with a finger the size of a sausage.  “You’re out of a job in this state.  The Texas National Guard and the Texas Rangers will be handling public safety in this state, under my command.”

“You can’t do that,” the official spluttered.

“Try me.”  Another jab with the finger.  “Get your thugs out of my state in twenty-four hours.  You hear me?  Twenty-four hours.” He slammed down the phone, hard.  Minutes later, on a new phone, he was calling drinking buddies of his who happened also to be the governors of half a dozen Southern states.

Across the nation, as the third day of the nuclear crisis began and the news of the Trenton Massacre spread, the same pattern played out on many different scales, and the federal government began to lose control of its security forces.  Police officers in some places refused to man the barricades or pulled them open and waved people through. National Guardsmen in some cities stayed in their barracks or simply joined the crowds, taking their guns with them.  Texas was openly defying the national government—the Homeland Security director there, after frantic calls to Washington, fled to Denver—and four other states were on the brink of joining in.

It may have been this hard reality, added to the other pressures he faced, that convinced Jameson Weed to take the only way out of the crisis.  That night, just before midnight, he met with the secretary general of the United Nations and agreed to a ceasefire.

End of the World of the Week #44

While we’re on the subject of ice, could we please talk honestly about the great global cooling scare of the late 1970s?  Yes, it happened; books such as Nigel Calder’s The Weather Machine, which publicized the threat of an imminent ice age, can still be found in used book stores and those libraries—increasingly rare these days—that hang onto books old enough to contradict today’s conventional wisdom; those of my readers who have the chance to visit the Smithsonian Natural History Museum may yet have the chance to see a display announcing that a new ice age is on the way, with an embarrassed note taped next to it stating that this no longer reflects current science.

What happened was this: a number of climate scientists noted that global temperatures had declined somewhat between the 1940s and the 1970s, that it had been about 11,000 years since the end of the last ice age, and that the intervals between ice ages average around 11,000 years. They hypothesized, on this basis, that the world might be about to begin the descent into the next round of glaciation.  That hypothesis—quite a reasonable one, given the data available at the time—got picked up by the media and assorted science writers, and turned into something much more definite than a hypothesis. Before long, Time and Newsweek were announcing that catastrophic global cooling could begin within a decade, and science fiction novelists started setting stories on future Earths mantled in snow—Poul Anderson’s The Winter of the World was a favorite of mine, and indeed still is.

All that was needed to turn this into a good solid apocalyptic scare was a theoretical mechanism to allow an ice age to begin in less than a thousand years or so, and Nigel Calder provided it with his “snowblitz” theory—a proposal that heavy snowfall across the northern temperate zone could produce a feedback loop by reflecting too much solar heat back into space, cooling the planet drastically. Before long, large areas of Canada and Russia would be under permanent snow, with plunging temperatures worldwide adding to the fun. The math didn’t really work that well, but it made for great prophecy.

For a few years in the early 1980s, some people waited breathlessly for each year’s report on the planet’s annual temperature, expecting steep declines. Instead, the modest declines that had been ongoing since the 1940s turned around, and the planet began warming up instead.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not