When I was seven years old or so, I became terrified of nuclear war. We participated in “duck and cover” drills in school, which involved turning your desk on its side and cowering behind it. We saw films in the auditorium about how to survive a nuclear war and worried about the possibility of a cobalt bomb being developed, a device that we had heard could blow the world in half. When driving around with my mom, if I ever saw a cumulus nimbus cloud, I’d always ask if that was an H-Bomb.
When I got to Bard College in 1961, students had become active around the need to oppose NY State Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s proposed legislation that would have made it mandatory for every house to have a fallout shelter. My friends started something called the Welcome the Bomb Committee, a satirical effort to put across the idea that if you are hospitable to nuclear weapons, they wouldn’t harm you.
With the end of the cold war, worries about nuclear war subsided except to bubble up from time to time in the Chicken Little journalism from that part of the left that is aligned with the Kremlin. Typical was F. William Engdahl, a former member of Lyndon Larouche’s fascist cult, who warned about NATO resorting to nuclear war over the Georgia-Russia war in 2008. You can take his article and substitute the word Ukraine for Georgia and it would be identical to those appearing now on Global Research and The Nation.
What I learned from “Command and Control”, the explosive (in more sense than one) documentary opening tomorrow at the Film Forum in NY was that the biggest danger in some ways was always us blowing ourselves up rather than some commie sneak attack. As Walt Kelly’s Pogo put it, we have met the enemy and he is us.
The film is directed by Robert Kenner and based on a 2014 book by Eric Schlosser titled “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety”. No, this is not Damascus, Syria (although people like Engdahl would likely jump to that conclusion) but Damascus, Arkansas, the site of a Titan II Missile Complex that had a disastrous fire caused by a minor accident on September 18, 1980.
A single Titan II missile in the Damascus underground silo had a 9 megaton H-Bomb warhead that packed an explosive power three times as great as every bomb dropped during WWII, including those over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Its firestorm could cover 1000 square miles and a radiation plume much greater in distance.
For comparison’s sake, a B-52 broke apart accidentally over Goldsboro, North Carolina on January 24, 1961, dropping two 4-megaton H-Bombs in the process. When searchers recovered one of the bombs, they were shocked to discover that three of the four safety devices had failed. This was according to a declassified document obtained by Schlosser and revealed in his book. So even if that was half the payload of the Damascus bomb, the death toll would have been over 100,000 while millions would have suffered debilitating chronic diseases from radiation exposure.
Director Robert Kenner was able to get the approval of a Titan II museum in Green Valley, Arizona to use their facilities to recreate the seemingly trivial accident that could have killed hundreds of thousands of people in a couple of days. Using archival footage of the Damascus explosion mixed with recreations at the museum, you really feel as if you are there on the day of the fateful incident.
It seems that a man doing routine maintenance dropped a socket wrench to the bottom of the silo where it bounced off the platform punctured a hole in a fuel tank, which began spouting fuel vapors. Since it was extremely volatile, anything could detonate it. And that is exactly what happened, costing the lives of men who heroically went down to cap the fuel. The explosion scattered bits of the missile in all directions, including the warhead that landed about a hundred feet from the silo in a nearby field. As is made abundantly clear in the film, scientists and engineers had never fully thought through the electronic safety devices inside the missile, especially the consequence of the circuit being melted down and rendered ineffective as nearly happened in Goldsboro.
Schlosser, who is a first rate journalist and author of “Fast Food Nation” that sits on my bookshelf at home, describes how the Pentagon reacted to the near catastrophe at the time:
It was covered by the nightly news, made headlines in our major newspapers. But the Pentagon was adamant that there was absolutely no way the warhead on the Titan II missile could have detonated. The press didn’t challenge that assertion. The story was soon forgotten. And we now know that the Pentagon’s reassuring words were a lie.
Sometimes it is easy to forget how totally insane the men and women are who rule the USA on behalf of the corporate elite that backed a foreign policy during the Cold War based on “better dead than Red”. They had 35,000 nuclear weapons in silos, on airplanes and in submarines that could have killed everybody on earth many times over—all necessary to preserve the private ownership of the means of production. With their control of the TV networks and the print media, it is easy to understand why the press didn’t challenge the Pentagon’s word.
In 1954 President Eisenhower, the sort of serenely wise and moderate Republican who Hillary Clinton seems to be modeling herself after, seriously considered dropping three atom bombs on the Viet Minh’s positions surrounding the French at Dien Bien Phu.
After Eisenhower returned to private life, we ended up with Jack Kennedy who every Democrat idolizes, including John Kerry who said, “We thank that whole generation for making America strong, for winning WWII, winning the Cold War, and for the great gift of service which brought America 50 years of peace and prosperity. My parents inspired me to serve, and when I was a high school junior, Kennedy called my generation to service.”
Right. This was the same JFK whose nuclear brinksmanship might have led to a global catastrophe in October 1962. After the blockade began, the USA began dropping depth charges with minimal explosive power on Russian submarines near Cuba with the intention of only forcing them to the surface. One of the submarines identified as B-59 came close to firing a nuclear torpedo but the submarine commander Vasili Arkhipov decided that it was better to go to the surface rather than risking nuclear annihilation. On October 13, 2002, the Boston Globe reported:
One of the Soviet captains gave the order to prepare to fire. But a cooler-headed officer persuaded him to wait for instructions from Moscow before unleashing a nuclear attack.
”We thought – that’s it – the end,” Vadim Orlov, a Soviet intelligence officer, was quoted as saying in recently declassified documents from the Cuban missile crisis.
I am not sure whether “cooler-headed” is all there is to this. As a country that saw millions of its citizens die in WWII, Russians had a deeper commitment to peace than the Americans who had not had a war on native soil in a century.
A week ago, the NY Times reported that Obama is unlikely to promise that the USA would never be the first to use nuclear weapons. The excuse given is that such a measure would “rattle” allies such as Japan and South Korea. As expected, JFK fanboy John Kerry sided with Obama and the other madmen determined to preserve American military superiority even if its economy is headed toward 3rd world standards. He also told Obama that a no-first-use pledge would weaken nuclear deterrence while Russia is running practice bombing runs over Europe and China is expanding its reach in the South China Sea. Isn’t there some other way to manage global conflict besides brandishing H-Bombs? Apparently not. In any case, China is on record committed to a no-first strike policy while Russia has stated that it would only use nuclear weapons if attacked first. I understand that these BRICS stalwarts are run by thugs but compared to the White House, they are Helen Caldicott on the question of nuclear war.
The Times article indicated that The Federation of American Scientists released an analysis showing that Obama had dismantled fewer nuclear warheads than any other post-Cold War president. Get that, you people who are okay with Hillary Clinton promising to continue the legacy of the Obama administration? I am much more afraid of her than Donald Trump if for no other reason that she is certain to be the next president while he is destined to continue building luxury condos and stiffing small businesses.
Meanwhile, Obama is all set to push forward with a one trillion dollar nuclear weapons “modernization” program that Clinton will surely continue. This includes an update to the B-61 “bunker buster” weapon that the Pentagon brass is drooling over. This is a wee, “aw cute” little A-Bomb that can be calibrated to deliver between 0.3 to 340 kilotons, just like the volume control on your remote. For comparison’s sake, the maximum output is 20 times that of the A-Bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Phil Hoover, an engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, with a B61-12 nuclear weapon
The Guardian blew the whistle on this weapon on April 21, 2013:
Barack Obama has been accused of reneging on his disarmament pledges after it emerged the administration was planning to spend billions on upgrading nuclear bombs stored in Europe to make the weapons more reliable and accurate.
Under the plan, nearly 200 B61 gravity bombs stockpiled in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey would be given new tail fins that would turn them into guided weapons that could be delivered by stealth F35 fighter-bombers.
“This will be a significant upgrade of the US nuclear capability in Europe,” said Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert at the Federation of Nuclear Scientists. “It flies directly in the face of the pledges Obama made in 2010 that he would not deploy new weapons.”
All of this only steels me in my determination to support the Green Party in the 2016 elections, group that is on record advocating a humane and peaceful world:
Our government should establish a policy to abolish nuclear weapons. It should set the conditions and schedule for fulfilling that goal by taking the following steps:
- Declare a no-first-strike policy.
- Declare a no-pre-emptive strike policy.
- Declare that the U.S. will never threaten or use a nuclear weapon, regardless of size, on a non-nuclear nation.
- Sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Our pledge to end testing will open the way for non-nuclear states to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has been held up by our refusal to sign the CTBT. Honor the conditions set in the NPT for nuclear nations.
- Reverse our withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and honor its stipulations.
- End the research, testing and stockpiling of all nuclear weapons of any size.
- Dismantle all nuclear warheads from their missiles.