In his forthcoming book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, turns his formidable investigative talent on the Cold War and America’s development and deployment of nuclear weapons. His detailed history of our decades-long flirtation with apocalypse—a relentless reminder that nukes are the most dangerous weapons ever invented—is exemplified in a true nail-biter narrative of the terrifying accident with a 9-megaton Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile at Damascus, Ark., in 1980.
‘There is no machine that operates perfectly all the time. And you just don’t want a nuclear weapon going wrong’
Why did you title your book Command and Control?
In terms of nuclear weapons it means to ensure, first, they’re not used without proper authorization and, second, they’re used as the command authorities want them used. This book is about mankind’s ability to control the most powerful weapons ever invented.
Why did you decide to write about the control of nuclear weapons?
When researching Fast Food Nation, I visited the North American Aerospace Defense Command, Air Force Space Command and the United States Space Command. As I spent more time with people from these branches of the Air Force, I became less interested in writing about warfare in space and more interested in writing about nuclear weapons––a topic I felt was not getting enough attention.
How did the concept of “atomic blitz” become part of America’s Cold War strategy?
It came from our military weakness right after World War II. We had too quickly dismantled our forces and did not have the conventional forces to defend Western Europe against a growing Soviet threat. There seemed no other way to deter the Soviets than to threaten to destroy their major cities. That was the origin of the atomic blitz.
How did Curtis LeMay influence the command and control of our nuclear weapons?
He was the pivotal figure in creating the military structure in the United States to deliver nuclear weapons during the Cold War. I think he’s been much maligned. He was no saint, but he was an extraordinary commander and the right man to have in charge, because he believed the control of nuclear weapons must be centralized under one authority so individual officers could not decide on their own initiative to fire one off.
What was the “Single Integrated Operational Plan”?
SIOP was a compromise between two philosophies of warfare: The Navy believed in hitting population targets as a means of deterrence, with Polaris submarines, whereas LeMay and the Strategic Air Command focused on military targets. Combining those two philosophies into the SIOP produced a war plan that did both, on an absolutely massive scale.
How was it all supposed to be controlled?
Because there was no assurance that, once the bombs started falling, the communications would remain intact, everything was planned in advance. And once the SIOP began, there was no way to change or stop it. It evolved into a massive, all-out attack on the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc and China.
How close did the United States and the Soviet Union come to a nuclear exchange?
The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest we came. But I also write about the Berlin Crisis that preceded it, in which the Kennedy administration considered a first strike on the Soviet Union to protect Berlin. Those are the most dramatic incidents. But after 1957 the threat level increased enormously. As more nuclear weapons were put on alert, the potential for accidents and unauthorized use was present throughout the Cold War.
How common were military nuclear accidents (aka “broken arrows”) during the Cold War?
There were hundreds of incidents and accidents with nuclear weapons. I think the Department of Defense lists some 30 broken arrows. Yet dozens of cases that might have been more dangerous don’t even receive a mention. I doubt we’ll ever have an actual number.
An example of a broken arrow episode?
When a B-52 broke apart in midair over Goldsboro, N.C., in January 1961, one of the weapons went through all of the steps to detonate except one. The arm-safe switch in the cockpit had not been turned on. If it had been, [the bomb] would have detonated and blanketed much of the Eastern seaboard with fallout.
It appears we’ve been lucky.
Absolutely. Just about everyone I spoke to was amazed that a major city has not been destroyed by a nuclear weapon since Nagasaki. And there’s no assurance our luck will last, particularly as countries with lower levels of industrial and technological expertise than ourselves have nuclear weapons.
Have the designs of nuclear weapons contributed to this hair-trigger situation?
There was always an inherent tension between the reliability of a nuclear weapon and its safety. The military wanted weapons that would do what they were supposed to do in battle and were concerned that safety mechanisms might make them less reliable. A lot of civilian designers wanted to ensure the weapons were as safe as possible during peacetime.
What happened in Damascus, Ark., in 1980?
The accidental dropping of a tool kicked off a series of events that could have led to the detonation of the most powerful missile warhead ever on American soil. You would think that sort of thing would happen because of an exchange between the United States and Soviet Union—not because somebody dropped a wrench socket in a Titan II silo.
To me that accident was a good way of looking at the complexity of these systems, the fallibility of the people operating them and the heroism of many people who served in the military during the Cold War. People risked their lives to save this missile and to prevent the detonation of its warhead.
How did that episode escalate?
LeMay’s centralized command structure is ideal for nuclear weapons in day-to-day operations. But when you have a problem, it makes the problem worse. At Damascus the SAC mentality that everything must be managed from the top in Omaha proved completely inadequate. The people in Arkansas understood the missile system better and might have had better success at preventing a catastrophe. But that top-down mentality prevented them from taking the necessary steps. It underscores the difficulty of managing this technology safely. These are the most dangerous machines ever invented, and yet, when you look at other machines that we’ve made, there is no machine that operates perfectly all the time. And you just don’t want a nuclear weapon going wrong.
Was the Titan II a particularly hazardous weapon?
The thing that made the Titan II more dangerous than its solid-fuel counterpart the Minuteman is that the Titan II was always loaded with dangerous and corrosive liquid propellants. When they’re always loaded, leaks occur—as happened at Damascus.
Did the Damascus accident prompt the retirement of the Titan II?
Yes. Many in the defense establishment had long wanted to retire the Titan II. But it remained in our arsenal because the megatonnage of the Titan warheads was so great that in an arms race it was hard to unilaterally remove it without getting anything in return from the Soviets.
Do you really feel that “during the Cold War, things were never fully under control”?
In the early years of the Cold War the weapons were under control. It took so long to assemble and deliver them that the nuclear war plans extended for weeks. But by the late 1950s, once bombs could be used at a moment’s notice, and ICBMs within a half-hour could destroy the adversary’s capital city, that’s when things were never fully under control. It’s amazing that the Soviet Union vanished from the face of the earth without a nuclear war having been fought. But we just can’t assume that that sort of rational behavior is going to prevail in India, Pakistan or North Korea, or if Iran obtains nuclear weapons.
Are things better now?
Yes. The odds of an all-out nuclear war are greatly diminished from what they were at the height of the Cold War. But I think the risk of a city being destroyed by a single nuclear weapon may be greater now than it’s ever been, as this technology spreads.