The safety of nuclear weapons is not a topic that typically pops up in everyday conversation. At least in my house, that is true. The existence of nuclear weapons has long been a background fact of life. We all know these weapons are there and we hope and pray the weapons are being safeguarded so there will never be any inadvertent accidents or mistakes (or use).
In his book, Command and Control, Eric Schlosser takes a hard look at how the United States has done both with keeping nuclear weapons safe as well as preventing accidental nuclear war. I wish I could say the results are reassuring. They are not.
Although we have not had any accidental nuclear explosions which has to qualify as a form of success, Schlosser shows that there have been many close calls.
In reading Command and Control, I have been genuinely surprised at how little we know about the history of nuclear weapon safety over the last sixty or so years. Considering the importance of these weapons to ultimate life and death on the planet, much more discussion is merited. Secrecy and national security concerns should not have vitiated awareness to the degree it has.
Schlosser did tremendous research and the thoroughness of his story is impressive. I certainly did not know about many of the incidents he recounts. It is hard not to think we have been very lucky in escaping a nuclear accident in the U.S. Here are a few of the vignettes captured by Schlosser:
In 1961, a B-52 bomber loaded with two 4 megaton hydrogen bombs had a refueling accident while refueling with a tanker over Greensboro, North Carolina. Fuel started leaking from the plane’s right wing. The pilot could not get fuel to drain from the tank inside the left wing. The B-52 went into an uncontrolled spin.
The two H-bombs both fell from the plane after centrifugal forces pulled a lanyard in the cockpit. The lanyard had been attached to the bomb release mechanism. When the lanyard was pulled one bomb responded as though released by a crew over a target. The crew had bailed out. Almost all the safety systems failed but the bomb did not detonate. If either bomb had detonated, North Carolina would have been a memory. Both bombs were far more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was determined that a single ready/safe switch which was in a safe position when the bomb dropped saved the day.
In 1958, a B-47 bomber carrying a nuclear weapon crashed shortly after taking off from an air force base near Abilene Texas. The fireball from the crash caused detonation of the bomb’s high explosives. The detonation created a crater 35 feet in diameter and 6 feet deep. Fortunately the detonation did not produce a nuclear explosion.
Also in 1958, there was an accident in Mars Bluff, South Carolina when a crew member on a B-47 inadvertently grabbed a manual bomb release for support. This resulted in a nuclear weapon dropping out of the plane. The bomb landed in a garden. A high explosive detonation destroyed a nearby house and created a crater 50-70 feet in diameter and 25-30 feet deep. Fortunately the explosion only caused minor injuries to people who lived in the house that was destroyed. Again, there was no nuclear explosion.
I am only giving a couple examples. Schlosser recounts numerous situations where bombers carrying nuclear weapons crashed and burned. Then there were the situations where nuclear weapons have been lost or were missing. Schlosser recounts a 1966 incident over Palomares Spain when a B-52 bomber carrying 4 nukes collided in mid-air with a KC-135 tanker. Three of the bombs were accounted for. The fourth bomb fell in the ocean. The accident set off a huge search that lasted 80 days before the nuclear weapon was located. For anyone who remembers the James Bond movie Thunderball, there is a bit of a similarity to Ian Fleming’s plot. (Thunderball actually was written before this crash.)
Schlosser also describes a series of close calls with accidental nuclear wars. On November 9, 1979, the computers at the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) outside Cheyenne Mountain said the U.S. was under attack. The military command computers at the Pentagon received the same message. Screens showed missiles being launched from submarines and also from sites inside the USSR. It appeared the attack was massive. It was projected missiles would begin to hit American targets within five minutes.
The military quickly arranged a threat assessment conference. Tensions between the superpowers were not high at the time but the pattern of the attack conformed to Pentagon assumptions about the Soviet war plan. NORAD contacted radar and ground stations which had sensors that could detect launches. The sensors showed nothing. Still bombers and fighter interceptors scrambled and took off to look for signs of an attack.
It turned out the cause of the alarm was an error where a technician put a wrong tape into one of NORAD’s computers. The tape was part of a war simulation training exercise that simulated a Soviet attack on the U.S..
Another time, in January 1995, then President Boris Yeltsin mistakenly believed Russia was under attack by the U.S. He turned on his nuclear football, retrieved launch codes and prepared to retaliate. After a few scary moments, the Russians realized they were not under attack. Norway had launched a weather satellite to study the aurora borealis. They had previously advised the Russians about the rocket but the Russians still believed it was a real attack. There have been quite a few incidents of this nature where one side believed the other side was launching its missiles.
A good part of the book describes a 1980 accident and explosion with a Titan II missile that occurred in Damascus Arkansas in 1980. The Titan II had a 9 megaton warhead. The story is a great illustration of how a trivial accident can wreak havoc with complex technology. Schlosser shows how dangerous systems have difficulty when standardized responses are impossible and creative action is required. The technology is so tightly coupled and interactive that margins for error are narrow.
I think there is a good and bad news aspect to Schlosser’s narrative. The good news is that we survived a bellicose and scary period that made Dr. Strangelove not too far from the truth. People were debating winnable nuclear wars. Remember the phrase “launch on warning”. It does seem that most of the really bad accidents happened over 30 years ago. The end of the Cold War and the improvement of safety procedures did lessen danger.
I did want to say a couple things about Dr. Strangelove. I recently saw the movie again and Schlosser deals with the central issue of the movie: the safety of command and control systems. In the movie a crazy out of control right wing general authorizes a nuclear attack by his fighter wing on the USSR. In spite of the best efforts of the President (played by Peter Sellers) to recall the planes, one bomber cannot be recalled. It gets through Russian military defenses. Unknown to the Americans, the Russians installed a doomsday machine where technology takes over once there is an attack. The movie was dead on and so prescient.
The bad news is the large number of nuclear weapons that remain as well as the proliferation of the weapons to many countries. Schlosser states that the U.S. has 4,650 nuclear weapons. Russia has about 1740 deployed strategic weapons and perhaps 2000 tactical weapons. He says France has 300 nuclear weapons; the U.K. has about 160; China is thought to have 240. Then there is Israel, Pakistan, and India.
Instead of the big war between superpowers, there is much more potential for regional wars or civil wars like in Syria or the Ukraine. We live in a vastly different era than the Cold War. Nuclear weapons are useless for these type conflicts. Despite their uselessness, the weapons have not gone away. The most common nuclear nightmare now that typically shows up in action/adventure novels is the threat of Al Qaeda or other jihadis getting their hands on a nuke and then trying to detonate it in a large American city. That scenario does reflect the twisted reality of how nukes can come back to bite us.
Rational self-interest should move all sides toward elimination of these weapons. Even if elimination is not possible, there is no good reason nuclear arsenals should not be greatly reduced. Majorly reducing numbers of nukes would greatly reduce risk to life on the planet.
Schlosser’s book makes me think of a famous quote from Albert Einstein: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
This piece ran in the Concord Monitor today, May 10, 2014 under the title ” Running on Obamacare Failure is a False Premise”. Jon
It is impossible to ignore the New Hampshire Obamacare sign-up numbers announced last week. The number of New Hampshire people who signed up for health insurance blew away all expectations. The numbers were double what had been expected. As the Monitor reported on May 2, over 40,000 enrolled.
As I recall, there were months of premature accusations of Obamacare failure. If you watched cable news, it was a regular right wing sound bite. Just associate the term “Obamacare” with failure. If you say it enough times that will make it so. The numbers now show that association is a big lie. The numbers have killed.
How to explain the success of Obamacare in New Hampshire? Credit must go to Karen Hicks, the project manager for Covering New Hampshire and a dedicated team of consumer assisters in our state who helped to connect people to and enroll them in New Hampshire’s Obamacare marketplace. They did an outstanding job. They had to overcome a rocky start with the early miserable performance of the healthcare.gov website. They were able to recover with a strong finish in March and April.
The numbers do reflect the degree of need in the community. Health care has been so expensive and insurance has been so expensive that Obamacare could not have been more timely. So many signed up because they needed it and there was no other practical, affordable alternatives.
I do think the success of Obamacare in New Hampshire calls into question the whole political strategy of making opposition to health care reform your platform centerpiece. To maintain and sustain that, you have to ignore or obfuscate what actually has happened.
The best example of the right wing dilemma was when a campaigning Scott Brown spoke at the home of NH state representative Herb Richardson. Rep. Richardson is a Republican from Lancaster. In his March campaign stop, Brown called Obamacare “a monstrosity”. What he did not know was that Rep. Richardson and his wife had hugely benefited from Obamacare.
Rep. Richardson had been injured at his job. He had been out of work and was receiving worker’s compensation benefits. He had lost his home as a result of his financial dilemma. Before Obamacare, he had been paying over $1100 a month under federal COBRA law. That was over half his income. Under Obamacare, with the benefit of a health care subsidy, Rep Richardson and his wife were able to lower their health insurance costs to $136 a month, an 88% reduction in cost. That is a reduction of almost $1000 a month, a savings of over $10,000 a year. Rep. Richardson’s wife was quoted telling Brown “thank god for Obamacare”. Brown apparently said little in response.
This little story highlights a central problem for Obamacare opponents. They have counted on the program flopping. Instead, the program is resurgent and it is attracting more and more people who have been in desperate need of affordable insurance. I think this is the same political problem experienced by earlier generations of right wingers who had opposed Social Security and Medicare. Over time, these programs became more popular with the American people.
You have to ask Obamacare opponents: what is so great about being without health insurance? is that part of your liberty, the freedom to be uninsured? Opponents have repeatedly argued Obamacare is an infringement on liberty.
I am at a loss to understand the logic of seeing receipt of Obamacare as reflecting a loss of personal freedom. The “right” to be uninsured is right up there with the right to starve. To call stuff like that a “right” is perverse. Being uninsured typically translates into an inability to access health care at all. Good luck with the emergency room.
The opponents of Obamacare have offered no credible alternative. Do opponents now want to take away affordable health insurance from the 40,000 New Hampshire residents who have signed up? They need to be asked that question. It looks like they are offering nothing but a bunch of rhetoric.
For those who are looking for health care alternatives that go farther than Obamacare, I would suggest looking at Vermont’s example. In 2011, Vermont enacted Act 48, the country’s first universal health care law. The Healthcare is a Human Right Campaign led by the Vermont Workers Center has been moving that effort forward. As the Campaign stated,
“This is the time to commit to a financing plan based on the principle of equity, which requires progressive tax-based financing so that everyone contributes according to their ability. It is time to commit to a truly universal system that puts people’s health needs first, leaves no one out, and is sufficiently funded to meet all our health care needs. The people of Vermont cannot wait any longer for a strong health care system that protects everyone’s health.”
At the federal level, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has promoted a parallel plan. Sen. Sanders has argued that health care is a right, not a privilege. He has articulated a goal of having universal affordable coverage.
It needs to be asked: do the right wing opponents of Obamacare think the opposite end of the spectrum is desirable? Do they want to realize their dream by having no people on insurance? Is that what liberty means? Or maybe just coverage for rich people who have no financial problem?
I see no inconsistency in supporting both Obamacare and the goal of universal coverage. Obamacare has moved us closer to the goal of full coverage. There is more than one way to skin a cat. Hats off to the Covering New Hampshire organizers and enrollment assisters! It will be interesting to see if Obamacare opponents slink off or maintain. With the new Obamacare numbers in our state, either way is a lose-lose for them.
Hard for me to believe but it has been five years since my dad passed away. My dad, Donald Baird, died on May 4, 2009.
Memories of my dad remain vivid. He was a large presence and a big personality. He could be overwhelming. He did not countenance opposition easily and I gave him plenty of things to be upset about. Still we worked through much of the contention and reached a good place.
I do have memories from early childhood of hearing my parents arguing in their bedroom behind closed doors. My mom cried sometimes. My sister Lisa and I would nosily listen to their fights, straining to hear what we could. We moved to a listening post as close to their bedroom door as we thought we could safely stay.
It was hard to win arguments with my dad. He had an unfortunate tendency to equate loyalty with acquiescence. I think that was particularly hard for my mom.
I remain struck by the force of his personality, his drive and his optimism. He never stopped working. He lived to be 88 and he never retired. This was partly based on economic necessity but it was impossible to think of my dad living a retired life at home.
He probably would have driven my mom crazy. He was not the type to putter around his apartment, fixing things. Work gave him a profound sense of purpose. I think it was a source of passion and pride.
My dad built a very successful international textile trading business. He and my mom travelled all over the world many times, especially to Japan, Hong Kong, and Italy. I think he was something of a good will ambassador for America. He and my mom went off beaten tracks and they travelled to places Americans did not tend to go in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Dad went to Pakistan, Syria, India and especially the Far East. My parents made some very good international friends that way.
There is much I could say about my dad’s business career. He had his highs and lows. He made a lot of money but he also ended up going bankrupt twice. In the latter part of his career he was caught in a downward spiral and anxiety about money was a big part of his life. He got into the unenviable position of relying on credit cards, a disastrous course. He was typically using one credit card to pay off another credit card.
Dad tended to trust employees who were not trustworthy and he repeatedly was ripped off. For a guy with some degree of street smarts, he was seriously taken advantage of. He made mistakes in his judgment of people, erring on the side of undeserved trust.
I really wanted to write about his optimism. It was unrelenting and it carried him far. He had an amazing ability to persist even in dire and humiliating circumstances. Back in February, I read an article in the New Yorker about Diana Nyad, the 60 year plus swimmer who tried five times to swim from Cuba to the United States. She failed over and over but she never gave up. She finally succeeded. It is a great story.
The New Yorker story quoted Nyad saying, “A champion is someone who never gives up.” That is the way I look at my dad.
In the last 30 years of his life, I often wondered about the realism in his business efforts. He was barely keeping his head above water but he never quit. He had remarkable persistence and resilience. He was always optimistic, seeing the glass half full. He was also unfailingly generous, especially to family but not just family.
In retrospect, it is easy to look back and say he never realistically had a chance to turn things in his business around. The only thing is I believed maybe, just maybe, he could turn it around. My belief was based on his history and his will. He made me a believer because he didn’t quit.
Now it seems a little crazy to think Dad could have gotten his business back to a good place in his 80’s. It is just that he had massive experience, business connections, good will and he kept on. I guess my own belief in him is an indication of how far persistence can take you. I do believe it was William Blake who said, “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”
When my dad died we got emails from business people around the world who knew Dad. Here is one I saved from a Pakistani friend:
To the Family of Donald Baird:
Greatly shocked to know Donald L. Baird passed away. I have lost a great friend. He was a role model and helped me to establish in business since 1955. I pray to almighty Lord his soul may rest in peace in paradise. I will try to attend memorial event in his honor on Sunday June 7th 2009 if my doctors allow me to travel as I am on medication for the last few years. Deena Baird take care you have good children to look after you.
Warm Personal Regards;
My dad’s memory remains a great source of strength and personal pride. Life routinely dishes out unfairness and tragedy. I was blessed to have a dad with the qualities of Don Baird. I will forever be grateful to him for setting such a positive and loving example. He modeled a good way to live and love life.
Tonight Debra made me a vodka martini, shaken not stirred. Drinking that is a good way to honor my dad.