The bottom line is that there simply isn't enough evidence to support the wild claim that a single nuclear weapon, or even a few, detonated at high altitudes would pose an "existential threat" to "modern civilization," as Woolsey and Pry claim. It would be a nuisance, but preferable to having the bomb detonate in a major city.
And then there is this disquieting inconsistency: Many members of the EMP Commission have been leading voices over the years for arming missile defenses with nuclear warheads -- the use of which would inflict the very same EMP effects on U.S. cities that they warn will end Western civilization.
Take Johnny Foster. Foster was the key architect of the Sentinel/Safeguard antiballistic missile system developed by the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Safeguard/Sentinel would have destroyed incoming Soviet warheads in the atmosphere with the W66 warhead, which had a yield of a few kilotons -- about the same size as North Korea's nuclear weapons. Intercepts in space would have used the much more powerful W71 -- clocking in at several megatons, it was larger than even Starfish Prime. Foster pushed to deploy the system around U.S. cities. After the locals objected, Safeguard ended up in North Dakota. (President Ford deactivated the system after only four months of operation. All told, the United States spent $5 billion, about $20 billion in today's dollars, over six years on Safeguard.) How dozens of nearly simultaneous nuclear explosions above U.S. cities would seem like a good idea when one measly North Korean nuclear weapon will purportedly end civilization as we know it is a very good question.
Lowell Wood, too, wanted to blow up lots of nuclear weapons in space. His pet rock was the Reagan-era Star Wars ("Strategic Defense Initiative") proposal to use nuclear explosions in space to "pump" X-ray lasers that would intercept Soviet ballistic missiles -- grandiosely named Project Excalibur. This idea was so manifestly crazy that even senior U.S. officials simply could not accept it. One of my favorite anecdotes from Janne Nolan's excellent Guardians of the Arsenal involves then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger repeatedly asking, "It's not a bomb, is it?" leading his exasperated staff to say, "It go boom, Cap."
Lest you think these ideas collapsed with the Soviet Union, EMP Commission members William Graham, Johnny Foster, and Robert Hermann were all members of the Defense Science Board when it made an ill-fated effort to revive nuclear-armed missile defenses in the Bush administration. The George W. Bush administration. This led Senators Ted Stevens and Dianne Feinstein to sponsor an amendment that prohibits any expenditure on such a cockamamie scheme. Stevens called the idea "stupid," which would be the first and last time that the late senator from Alaska and I agreed completely.
One might very well get the impression from all this that certain people are perhaps not quite as worried about electromagnetic pulse as they let on, at least not when it threatens sacred causes like national missile defense efforts.
Which brings us back to our discussion of civil defense. For a long time, missile defense has occupied this role in our national discourse. At its root is really an idea about America, not a scientific concern with nuclear weapons effects. There is a persistent notion among some Americans that the United States is in some way exceptional or has a special historical mission. For these individuals, foreign lands are a source of threat or contamination. One of the more interesting stories is how the conservative movement has shifted from isolationism to its current, more bellicose form (a story told nicely by Peter Scoblic in U.S. vs. Them). It's actually not that hard to fathom -- at the base of both is an overdeveloped sense of the threat to the United States. That means building fallout shelters, missile defenses, and even a thousand-mile fence to keep out undocumented workers.