The title is a reference to nuclear war and to the plot by the novel's antagonists to reconstruct a lost nuclear weapon. The title comes from a Winston Churchill quote serving as the first of the novel's two epigraphs :
Why, you may take the most gallant sailor, the most intrepid airman or the most audacious soldier, put them at a table together—what do you get? The sum of their fears.— Winston Churchill
During the Yom Kippur War , the Israeli Defense Force prepares to conduct a tactical nuclear strike to stave off defeat. The necessity for the strike is averted, but an Israeli copy of a Mark 12 nuclear bomb is accidentally left on an A-4 Skyhawk attack aircraft, which is subsequently shot down over Syria . The nuclear weapon is lost , buried in the field of a Druze farmer. Eighteen years later, an Israeli police captain (coincidentally the brother of the downed pilot) shoots and kills a Palestinian activist during a peaceful public demonstration. The United States finds itself unable to diplomatically defend Israel , yet knows it cannot withdraw its support without risk of destabilizing the Middle East.
Following the advice of Jack Ryan , the U.S. enacts a plan to accelerate the peace process by converting Jerusalem into a Vatican -like independent state to be administered by a tribunal of Jewish, Muslim , and Christian religious leaders, and secured by an independent contingent of the Swiss Guards . As a nod to Israel, the U.S. Army supplies the IDF with more sophisticated equipment and agrees to construct a training base in the Negev Desert run by the U.S. Army 's tank warfare specialists. To everyone's surprise, Ryan's plan seems to work. With their religious contentions appeased, the factions in the Middle East find it much easier to negotiate their disputes.
However, National Security Advisor Elizabeth Elliott holds a grudge against Ryan and attempts to discredit him, exploiting her romance with the widowed President Robert Fowler to do so. With her encouragement, Fowler disavows Ryan's role in the peace settlement. Unsatisfied, Elliott then engineers a smear campaign accusing Ryan of engaging in an extramarital affair, and has fathered a child with a young widow. Jack's friends, John Clark and Domingo Chavez , convince Ryan's wife Cathy that the allegations are false (Jack's alleged mistress is Carol Zimmer, widow of Buck Zimmer, who was killed during Ryan and Clark's mission to rescue Chavez and army friends from Colombia in Clancy's preceding novel, Clear and Present Danger ). Ryan decides to retire from the CIA, but not before he puts together a covert operation to uncover corrupt dealings between Japanese and Mexican government officials.
Meanwhile, a small group of PFLP terrorists, enraged at the looming failure of their crusade against Israel, come across the lost Israeli bomb and use it to construct their own weapon, using the bomb's plutonium as fissile material. The terrorists enlist the help of disaffected East German physicist Manfred Fromm, who agrees to the plot to exact revenge for his former communist country's reunification as a capitalist democratic state. With Fromm's expertise, the terrorists enhance the weapon and turn it into a thermonuclear device .
The terrorists agree to detonate the weapon during the Super Bowl in Denver , planned to coincide with a false flag attack on U.S. forces in Berlin by East Germans disguised as Soviet soldiers, aiming to begin a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The East Germans hope that the war will eliminate both superpowers and punish the Soviets for betraying World Socialism , while the Palestinians hope the attack will destroy the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and end U.S. aid to Israel.
Thinking his work is done, the Palestinians kill Fromm. However, Fromm had not yet told them that some of the material he planned to use needed to be purified first. The Palestinians finish the bomb assembly and when it is used, the impure material causes the weapon to fizzle . However, almost everyone at the Super Bowl is killed, including the Secretary of Defense , the Secretary of State , and the commander of NORAD . With the attacks in Berlin, the United States briefly assumes DEFCON -1 status as Fowler and Elliott prepare for a nuclear war. The crisis is averted by Ryan, who learns of the domestic origin for the bomb's plutonium, gains access to the hot line , and convinces the Soviet President to stand down his country's military.
When the terrorists are captured and interrogated by Clark in Mexico City, they implicate the Iranian ayatollah in the attack. President Fowler orders the Ayatollah's residence in the holy city of Qom to be destroyed by a nuclear strike. After Ryan averts the attack by enforcing the two-man rule , Ryan lies and claims that Qom was destroyed. The terrorists then reveal that Iran was not involved, and that their deceit was meant to discredit the United States and destroy the peace process, allowing the campaign against Israel to continue. Elliot is hospitalized after suffering a nervous breakdown , while Fowler leaves office and is succeeded by his Vice President, Roger Durling (it is implied that Fowler was removed from office through the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the Constitution , but a later novel clarifies that Fowler resigned in disgrace, while Elliott was forcibly removed).
The terrorists are executed by beheading in Riyadh by the commander of the Saudi Arabian special forces using an ancient sword owned by the royal family of Saudi Arabia. Later, the sword is presented to Ryan as a gift. In the sequels, the gift (combined with his origins as a Marine) inspires Ryan's Secret Service codename of "Swordsman".
Clancy has said that he based the character of the U.S. president Fowler on Michael Dukakis, saying that he felt that left-wing politicians were more likely to use nuclear weapons than right-wing ones. However, a 1993 critique in The Tom Clancy Companion postulates that by creating an incompetent president manipulated by a scheming woman, Clancy may have predicted the administration of President Bill Clinton .
A database file with certain limited details about John Clark is included as background information within the first Rainbow Six game , and moreover, the same database entry is also found in many of the sequel games. That entry mentions in passing that “the Denver, Colorado atomic detonation [occurred] in 1989.” That information might not be canonical, since the book is presumably set after both the fall of the Berlin Wall (November 9, 1989) and possibly the First Persian Gulf War (January-February 1991). If it is canonical, though, this means that the book is not set in the same year it was published. A second inference is that 1989 was likely the year in which President Fowler’s administration ended.
The Vatican-like solution for Jerusalem, implemented in the book, is ultimately derived from the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine , which indeed provided for making Jerusalem such a " Corpus separatum " ( Latin for " separated body "). The course which the 1948 Palestine war took prevented implementation of this plan. In later years, various peace plans and diplomatic initiatives sought to revive the idea, but in reality it has never come close to implementation. The plan is known for being popular outside the Middle East, but unpopular among the actual residents of Jerusalem, who would prefer that their "side" should rule entirely rather than a neutral administration.