A week ago I woke up from one of my frequent end of the world nightmares that usually involve themes like space invaders with death rays, blizzards in August, the Hudson River catching fire, etc. This time it was about an H-Bomb being dropped on NYC. The dream did not include a fireball, just the opposite. I was in my apartment and the lights went out, like in a blackout but there was total darkness. In the dream that meant an H-Bomb had hit. In an odd way the blackout was more terrifying than a fireball—don’t ask me to explain.
As someone who was technically born in advance of the baby boomers, nuclear war has been on my mind in one way or another since I was six years old. We used to have “duck and cover” drills in grade school. The teacher would clap his or her hands and then say, “Okay children, get under your desks and cover your eyes.” I distinctly remember seeing this around that time:
So freaked out was I by this that I used to ask my mom when we out driving in the family car if a harmless cloud like this cumulus nimbus was an H-Bomb going off.
I was reminded of the nightmare when an article appeared in the NY Times about the censoring of a book on the bomb written by someone who worked on it:
For all its horrific power, the atom bomb — leveler of Hiroshima and instant killer of some 80,000 people — is but a pale cousin compared to another product of American ingenuity: the hydrogen bomb.
The weapon easily packs the punch of a thousand Hiroshimas, an unthinkable range of destruction that lay behind the Cold War’s fear of mutual annihilation. It was developed in great secrecy, and Washington for decades has done everything in its power to keep the details of its design out of the public domain.
Now, a physicist who helped devise the weapon more than half a century ago has defied a federal order to cut from his new book material that the government says teems with thermonuclear secrets.
The author, Kenneth W. Ford, 88, spent his career in academia and has not worked on weapons since 1953. His memoir, “Building the H Bomb: A Personal History,” is his 10th book. The others are physics texts, elucidations of popular science and a reminiscence on flying small planes.
He said he included the disputed material because it had already been disclosed elsewhere and helped him paint a fuller picture of an important chapter of American history. But after he volunteered the manuscript for a security review, federal officials told him to remove about 10 percent of the text, or roughly 5,000 words.
“They wanted to eviscerate the book,” Dr. Ford said in an interview at his home here. “My first thought was, ‘This is so ridiculous I won’t even respond.’ ”
While the story of the censorship was what prompted this article, my main interest was in the sentence: “The weapon easily packs the punch of a thousand Hiroshimas.” What kind of scientist would work on such a project? The talk all week long has been about co-pilot Andreas Lubitz who was responsible for the death of 150 people including him. How does someone with a BA from Harvard and a PhD from Princeton use his skills to develop such a horrible weapon? Or maybe the answer is in the fact that he went to such places. Maybe a degree from some state college would have brought him closer to reality.
During Reagan’s presidency I joined Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility because it was organizing against Star Wars, a strategic weapons defense program that was based on artificial intelligence. As someone who had been involved with any number of software development projects that crashed and burned, the idea of using software as a shield against nuclear attack seemed insane. Even scarier was the idea that Star Wars might work since it would give the USA an incentive for a first strike. If 95 percent of Soviet missiles could be shot out of the sky, maybe the loss of a 150 million people or so would be worth it. As Reagan put it:
Thur Dec 3 1981: NSC meeting–I approved starting a Civil Defense buildup. Right now in a nuclear war we’d lose 150 million people. The Soviets could hold their losses down to less than were killed in WWII.
It was not reassuring that Reagan had put one T.K. Jones in charge of Civil Defense, who had shocked people in 1982 by stating: “It’s the dirt that does it … if there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.” For a disturbing look back at this period, I recommend Alexander Zaitchik’s Salon article “Inescapable, apocalyptic dread: The terrifying nuclear autumn of 1983” where he writes:
T.K. Jones’s breathtakingly idiotic ideas about nuclear war did not stop with civil defense. He also believed America would recover from a nuclear war within a few years. The idea that the U.S. could “bounce back” from a nuclear exchange was actually quite widespread in Reagan’s Washington. Reagan’s FEMA distributed leaflets to municipal governments stating, “With reasonable protective measures, the United States could survive nuclear attack and go on to recovery within a relatively few years.” His appointee to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency described nuclear war as “a destructive thing, but still in large part a physics problem, possible for any society to survive.” In the spring of 1982, Reagan personally proposed a $4 billion civil defense plan for evacuating major cities and housing refugees in above-ground rural “shelters.” Local officials across the country from Ed Koch down scoffed at claims the plan would save 80 percent of the U.S. population. It was as if nobody in government knew that modern thermonuclear weapons made the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs look like firecrackers by comparison.
Right now there are 4,000 nuclear weapons ready to fire, the bulk of which are in the USA and Russia. Perhaps the one thing that ironically blocks their usage, despite all the overheated rhetoric about Syria or Ukraine et al sparking WWIII, is the stake that the ruling class has in preventing all-out war. Just put yourself in the shoes of the Koch brothers who probably spend a million dollars a week on personal consumption or a Russian oligarch with a 20,000-foot apartment in London or New York, why would you want to lose all that?
On the other hand, the tragic downing of Germanwings Flight 9525 is a reminder that a deranged individual can take actions that defy the tightest controls.