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Lessons from the Hawaii Nuclear Missile Scare

Date & Time

Apr. 15, 2019
2:00pm – 3:30pm ET


5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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Against the backdrop of escalating tension with North Korea and unraveling U.S.-Russia nuclear treaties, the January 2018 Hawaii false missile alert came as a shocking reminder of the reality of a nuclear threat. Cynthia Lazaroff and Bruce Allyn experienced the alert firsthand, which drove home the importance of their research and interviews with leading Russian and American nuclear experts. They shared their findings and some possible steps to reduce today’s nuclear danger.

Read Lazaroff’s account of the incident here:


Selected Quotes



Cynthia Lazaroff

“Unlike during the cold war where there was always a safe space, an insulated space for talks on nuclear risk reduction and arms control, those have largely gone away. So that is another factor why we are at greater risk today, because at least back then, no matter what was going on, we were talking to each other about nuclear risk reduction, and we had better contacts than we do today, and that exacerbates the tensions and that increases the likelihood of a blundering into a war due to miscalculation, or accident, or lack of communication.” 

“That sense that this can’t happen, that it is reserved, that the domain of this is in the policy sector, that it doesn’t belong to us, is something that is quite different from what is was during the 1980’s when we came of age during the cold war. We had a sense that this issue belonged to all of us, and it transcended party, gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, everything. Even countries, we came together across borders on this issue. So I think it’s this false sense of security that is making us most vulnerable today.”

Bruce Allyn

“We are now in a world where there are not just two nuclear powers. We have many Dr. Strangeloves, we have nine nuclear powers, we have a multi-polar nuclear world slowly spinning out of control, and the U.S. and Russia have over 90% of the nuclear weapons. So obviously, if we can’t get our act together, the probability of doing something globally to reduce the danger is minimal if not nonexistent.”  

“In a world where hostilities are lowered by deepening relations---Cynthia and I and many others work on the human connection as well as the arms reduction and limitations- then that vulnerability isn’t as scary. You know, we’re vulnerable to the United Kingdom. We don’t worry about that British trident sub out there and the fact that potentially we could get hit by a British nuclear weapon, because the hostility level has lowered.” 

Robert S. Litwak

“Trump meeting with Kim, which was a huge PR win for him back home, also kind of in a way made North Korea kind of a more ordinary state. Kim Jong Un meeting with Trump, he was sort of able to shed the rogue kind of rubric and perception of North Korea. Trump characteristically, kind of overshot, saying they fell in love and this type of excessive rhetoric, but the optic of North Korea as a rogue state I think has been changed through the summitry.” 

"If you view that the state is undeterrable and apocalyptic, that feeds into a preventive war scenario. Likewise, with North Korea, the notion that it’s a crazy state. General McMaster, national security advisor, he said that North Korea is undeterrable. Now, if North Korea is undeterrable then the option for preventive war to prevent them from acquiring capabilities to strike us really gets pushed along. I think that’s why I argue that the summits changed the psychology of the crisis that way.”  

Hosted By

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more

Nuclear Proliferation International History Project

The Nuclear Proliferation International History Project is a global network of individuals and institutions engaged in the study of international nuclear history through archival documents, oral history interviews, and other empirical sources. At the Wilson Center, it is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program.  Read more

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