The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks against the United States

August 7, 2018

When the Washington Post asked East Asia Program Director Jeffrey Lewis to speculate on how might the United States and North Korea stumble into a nuclear war, he had “trouble expressing to people how something crazy like that could happen,” Dr. Lewis recounted to the New York Times. An editor at Houghton Mifflin had the same idea, and encouraged Dr. Lewis to expand the “crazy” story into a book-length project.

The result is the 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks against the United States, a “speculative” novel that draws on Dr. Lewis’s vast expertise: from the details of the North Korean nuclear arsenal and the intricate launch procedures of an intercontinental ballistic missile, to the psychological dimensions of crisis decision making and the unimaginable horrors of experiencing a nuclear attack.

From the book jacket:

“The skies over the Korean Peninsula on March 21, 2020, were clear and blue.” So begins this sobering report on the findings of the Commission on the Nuclear Attacks against the United States, established by law by Congress and President Donald J. Trump to investigate the horrific events of the next three days. An independent, bipartisan panel led by nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis, the commission was charged with finding and reporting the relevant facts, investigating how the nuclear war began, and determining whether our government was adequately prepared for combating a nuclear adversary and safeguarding U.S. citizens. Did President Trump and his advisers understand North Korean views about nuclear weapons? Did they appreciate the dangers of provoking the country’s ruler with social media posts and military exercises? Did the tragic milestones of that fateful month—North Korea’s accidental shoot-down of Air Busan flight 411, the retaliatory strike by South Korea, and the tweet that triggered vastly more carnage—inevitably lead to war? Or did America’s leaders have the opportunity to avert the greatest calamity in the history of our nation?

Answering these questions will not bring back the lives lost in March 2020. It will not rebuild New York, Washington, or the other cities reduced to rubble. But at the very least, it might prevent a tragedy of this magnitude from occurring again. It is this hope, more than any other, that inspired The 2020 Commission Report.

“In its efforts to tug at the sleeve of a blithe nation, Lewis’s book follows in the post-apocalyptic footsteps of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach or the 1983 film The Day After. In its black comedy, which surfaces in the deadpan prose of the report, it is a Dr. Strangelove for our time.” —the Guardian

“A bold warning of how easily the nightmare could occur: via a series of mistakes, assumptions and a CAPS LOCK tweet sent from a sunny golf course. Nuclear war is never unthinkable.” – Times of London

“The imaginary sequence of errors—in software, communication, tactics, intelligence and politics—that leads to the spasm of mass murder is chillingly plausible. […] Fans of “Arms Control Wonk”, Mr Lewis’s podcast, will expect notes of absurdist and scornful humour; they will not be disappointed. More surprising is that, in a sense, the book is optimistic about American democracy.” – the Economist

“[2020 Commission] is pretty much the opposite of a glass of warm milk; you might think twice about keeping this novel on your bedside table, if you’re prone to night sweats. … [the] millions of deaths are described sparingly, but powerfully.” – the Globe and Mail

“Downright chilling [and] frighteningly convincing.” – The Weekly Standard 

More press coverage:


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