Global Affairs and Game Shows: A Conversation with Instructor Tom Nichols

Faculty Insight

Thomas M. Nichols

University Professor of National Security Affairs, Naval War College and Adjunct Professor, Air Force School of Strategic Force Studies

Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College who also teaches at the Harvard Extension School. His credentials include a lengthy list of teaching awards, grants, and fellowships and—perhaps a surprisingly—a winning run on Jeopardy! 

Tom Nichols has led an intriguing life. A child of the Cold War, he spent his early career in the political sphere of Washington, DC, before moving into academia to teach international relations. 

In the following Q&A with Lauren McLaughlin and and the accompanying video interview with Jenny Attiyeh, he discusses growing up near an air force base, its influence on his career choice, and the global issue of nuclear proliferation.

Q: You’ve held many academic appointments and fellowships over the years. How would you distill your intellectual pursuits into a paragraph? What got you interested in this subject?

A: Since I started life as a chemistry major, that’s a good question. The short answer is that I grew up next to an air force bomber base during the Cold War.

I started studying Russian in high school because even though I thought I was headed for a career in science, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that the world was a deeply unstable, dangerous place. (The comforting quiet of science, really, was a refuge from that.)

So I decided that I would just take the plunge—study Russian and international relations. I got involved as much as I could in teaching and research about the thing that fascinates and worries most people who study global affairs: war and peace. 

After the Soviet collapse, I turned my attention from Russia to the world and American foreign policy more generally—although these days, with US-Russian relations at such a dangerous crossroads, I wonder if that was a decision I made too soon.

A postcard showing the barracks at Westover Field, in Chicopee, Mass., where Nichols grew up.

Q: You grew up in Chicopee, Mass. Tell me more about what it was like growing up during the Cold War, particularly living near an air force base.

A: Chicopee is a small postindustrial city about 90 miles west of Cambridge. It was an unremarkable place, a typical New England mill town of its time.

The one thing that made it different was that we had a sizable air force base with bombers and transports coming and going. We used to see huge aircraft, including nuclear bombers, flying overhead. Sometimes they were so loud they’d rattle the dishes in our dining room cabinet.

As I got older, I realized that my hometown was slated for almost instant destruction during World War III. None of us really took seriously the idea that anything we did could matter if there was a war.

Even my parents used to joke that if they heard the sirens go off, they’d go out in the yard and wait for the end, since there wasn’t going to be anyone left where we lived. We heard those sirens regularly, by the way. And I was one of millions of American kids who used to have to hide under the desk every so often.

I did know someone who had a bomb shelter, and it scared the hell out of me. It was a family that lived, literally, just a hundred yards or so from the base. There was no way they were going to make it.

After the 1972 election, Richard Nixon deactivated the base, but those memories never left me. Years later I was doing some research in Washington, and I needed to consult the Soviet Military Encyclopedia. While I was looking for an entry, I found my hometown, with a full description of the base and its runways. I pinned it up over my desk for years as a reminder of what was at stake.

Q: The Westover Base used to store live nuclear weapons, correct? The readiness of a nuclear weapon launch isn’t something I usually think about. Apparently it would take only minutes to launch such destruction.

A: Yes. The nuclear powers—not just the United States—could all launch some kind of nuclear strike in a matter of minutes.

The United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France, all of which have long-range missiles, have the power to kill tens, even hundreds, of millions of people anywhere in the world in less time than the duration of an average class meeting at Harvard.

India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea don’t have quite that reach. But they could still vaporize a lot of people and cities in a very short time.

Fortunately, we’re no longer sitting on tens of thousands of weapons on a high alert status. (America’s nuclear inventory is now less than one-fifth the size it was in 1967.) The bad news is that we still have many hundreds of weapons, particularly our land-based missile force, ready to launch with as little as 15 minutes of warning.

Today, the chance of such an attack either being launched undetected, or succeeding in destroying the US deterrent, is pretty much zero. But we still prepare for it. As I say in my book, I think a lot of our policies about nuclear weapons are more the result of inertia than strategy these days.

Nichols discusses reforming nuclear strategy and a global reduction in stockpiles with Jenny Attiyeh of ThoughtCast.

Q: Let’s turn the conversation to a lighter note. I have to ask about being a five-time Jeopardy! champion. You made it to the 2005 Ultimate Tournament of Champions! Do people comment on this all the time? How long did you practice working the buzzer?

A: Being on Jeopardy! was one of the most unique experiences of my life. It’s exhilarating and fun, and it’s also terrifying, especially if you’re a professor, because every question is a chance either to win a lot of money or look like a complete dummy in front of millions of people.

There are three things that are essential to winning on the show. First, you have to have a good memory. It may be hard to believe this, but most people really do know most of the answers on the show. Many of the show’s clues are things we all learned in high school or even younger, but that we’ve merely forgotten.

Second, you have to be able to decode the clever clues, because the show often buries the answer right in the clue itself.

But yes, the buzzer—that really is the key to winning on Jeopardy! One of my friends who was on the show (and lost) gave me a great piece of advice. He told me to watch the show standing up for the full 30 minutes. It really works, because it's a different mindset than just sitting on your couch and yelling out answers. So I prepped for the show mostly by watching while standing up and holding a big magic marker in my hand, like a buzzer.

And yes, people do still tell me they remember me. That show is like America’s communal SAT test. And it does make you a kind of minor celebrity.

It’s strange how Americans relate to television. I had more than a few people, including some students, say after the show that they had no idea I was so smart, even though I was a professor and an author and had all these other signs that I might be a bright guy. I guess it's not real unless it's on TV!

Q: Ha! So true. TV defines just about everything. Another thing I have to ask: On your website you mention you have a cat named Carla. Not Mittens, or Boots, or Fluffy—Carla. What's the story behind that name?

A: One of my favorite shows—and there is a Boston connection—is Cheers. My cat is small and dark-haired, and her full name is Carla Tortelli Nichols.  

Q: What about you would surprise others?

A: I think most people are surprised to find, once they meet me, that I don’t take myself nearly as seriously as the things I write about would suggest.

When you spend the day working on war and genocide and nuclear weapons, you have to take things a little more lightly the rest of the time. The students always find it astonishing, for example, when they realize I play computer games (and that my favorites are often theirs as well, like Fallout New Vegas or XCOM).

I'm kind of a computer geek, which doesn’t comport with the patched-elbow stereotype of a middle-aged professor. I love the fictional Frank Underwood, the anti-hero in the series House of Cards, who plays video games to relax.

I’m willing to bet that a lot of people like me are sort of nerdy that way. We just don’t usually admit it.

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