Jim Woolsey, a former director of central intelligence and noted Oklahoma City conspiracy theorist, and Peter Pry had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday warning that North Korea might attack United States with a nuclear weapon. But instead of vaporizing Washington, Woolsey and Pry warn that North Korea would use just one bomb to create a massive electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that would fry our iPhones and end "modern civilization."
It will be like The Hunger Games meets Red Dawn!
If you aren't familiar with the crowd of cranks and threat inflators banging the EMP drum, this scenario might seem a little far-fetched. It does seem like the sort of overcomplicated plot dreamed up by a Bond villain, one that only works in the movies. Bad movies.
Well, bad movies and terrible books -- like Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen's potboiler One Second After, about life in the United States after an EMP attack. Yes, that's right. Newt Gingrich wrote dime-store pulp fiction about the aftermath of an EMP attack. I am just going to give you a minute here to compose yourself.
All better? Okay, as I said, Newt Gingrich wrote a book about EMP. EMP advocates get a little cranky when you make fun of it. An indignant Peter Pry once responded to mockery of the book by comparing One Second After to Uncle Tom's Cabin. Really.
That's because the EMP crowd is about raising "awareness." The Heritage Foundation even promotes "EMP Awareness Day." And Congress empanelled a Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack in 2001 (and reauthorized it in 2006) and even has an "EMP Caucus." No, I don't know if they wear little tinfoil hats at their caucus meetings. Why would you ask something like that?
The possibility of an electromagnetic pulse wiping out Western civilization -- or at least our local varietal -- is a hardy perennial of a particular worldview espoused by types like the John Birch Society. EMP "awareness" basically occupies the space vacated by activism in the 1950s for civil defense. For a flavor of the old civil defense paranoia, I recommend a slim volume from 1968 entitled "Who Speaks for Civil Defense?" -- particularly a chapter by the late Steuart Pittman that perfectly captures the paranoia of the movement.
Sharon Weinberger, author of the excellent Imaginary Weapons, has already written a readable account of the craziness of this view in these very electronic pages ("The Boogeyman Bomb"), which elicited a letter from Pry that took itself very, very seriously. The humorlessness of the EMP movement is not surprising. This is about scaring people. Any mirth is entirely unintentional.
For such a dry, serious subject, the amount of actual data on the threat from electromagnetic pulse attack is pretty thin. Electromagnetic pulse is, of course, a real phenomenon produced by a nuclear explosion. The EMP Commission likes to point to its "years" of research based on "decades" of data on the effects of nuclear weapons. But at the end of the day, even if we understand the physics of electromagnetism, there is no credible way to model the mass effect of a pulse on a complex system like our power grid or our communications infrastructure.
The United States and the Soviet Union did engage in high-altitude nuclear testing before realizing this might not be the greatest idea, eventually banning tests in the atmosphere and outer space. The most famous event was called Starfish Prime -- a 1.4 megaton nuclear explosion conducted by the United States in the Pacific in July 1962. By contrast, North Korea's 2013 nuclear test -- its largest and most successful -- was on the order of 10 kilotons, or more than a hundred-times smaller.