Stanley Kubrick’s magnificent Cold War satire Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb hit the cinemas exactly 50 years ago today — if you haven’t seen it, you can watch it online for free — and quite frankly it’s a wonder we’re even here to celebrate that fact.
Sure, the superpowers’ political and military leaders managed to keep cool heads when international tensions were insanely high. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD, that is) actually worked. But we also never saw a nuke go off by accident, taking a city and a few million inhabitants with it. Nor did we see, as the movie portrays, a rogue officer launch an attack without presidential authority.
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That neither of those things happened is more down to blind luck and the bravery of individuals who baby-sat the city-roasters in their silos and bomb bays, rather than design. As Eric Schlosser has documented in his eminently readable book Command and Control, the safety and security of America’s nuclear arsenal left a lot to be desired. The now widely-known fact that for 20 years, for all the US Minuteman missiles, the launch code was “00000000” is only the tip of the iceberg.
As Schlosser wrote in The New Yorker under the reassuring headline “Almost everything in ‘Dr Strangelove’ was true”, there were plenty of ways to launch a nuke without presidential authority. After all, someone needed to order the counter-strike if the president had been taken out:
“Eisenhower agreed to let American officers use their nuclear weapons, in an emergency, if there were no time or no means to contact the President. Air Force pilots were allowed to fire their nuclear anti-aircraft rockets to shoot down Soviet bombers heading toward the United States. And about half a dozen high-level American commanders were allowed to use far more powerful nuclear weapons, without contacting the White House first, when their forces were under attack and ‘the urgency of time and circumstances clearly does not permit a specific decision by the President, or other person empowered to act in his stead.’ Eisenhower worried that providing that sort of authorization in advance could make it possible for someone to do ‘something foolish down the chain of command’ and start an all-out nuclear war. But the alternative — allowing an attack on the United States to go unanswered or NATO forces to be overrun — seemed a lot worse. Aware that his decision might create public unease about who really controlled America’s nuclear arsenal, Eisenhower insisted that his delegation of Presidential authority be kept secret.”
By 1960, the US had around 20,000 nuclear warheads. Some 3000 of them were in Europe, and few of them had locks. When 15 US congressmen toured NATO bases in December that year, they discovered that nukes were routinely guarded, transported, and handled by foreign military personnel. As Schlosser puts it:
“Harold Agnew, a Los Alamos physicist who accompanied the group, was especially concerned to see German pilots sitting in German planes … and carrying American atomic bombs. Agnew, in his own words, ‘nearly wet his pants’ when he realized that a lone American sentry with a rifle was all that prevented someone from taking off in one of those planes and bombing the Soviet Union.”
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the head of the US Strategic Air Command, which ran the nukes, was one General Thomas Sarsfield Power. He had previously instigated Operation Chrome Dome, an “airborne alert” system under which a proportion of the US Air Force’s nuclear-armed bombers were always in their air so they’d survive a Soviet first strike and be able to retaliate — just as portrayed in Dr Strangelove. He advocated being able to hit the Soviet Union hard.
Here’s what General Horace M. Wade, former vice chief of staff of the USAF, thought of Power:
“I used to worry about General Power. I used to worry that General Power was not stable. I used to worry about the fact that he had control over so many weapons and weapon systems and could, under certain conditions, launch the force. Back in the days before we had real positive control, SAC had the power to do a lot of things, and it was in his hands, and he knew it.”
By the time Dr Strangelove was released in 1964, there were more than 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world, the vast majority of them American.
There isn’t space here to discuss the safety of the weapons, and the incidents where they came close to detonating by accident. But as Schlosser writes, nuclear weapons have an “always/never” dilemma. You want them to always work when they should, but never work when they shouldn’t. Or as he says:
“During the nineteen-fifties and sixties, the ‘always’ in American war planning was given far greater precedence than the ‘never’.”
With all the talk these days of terrorist attacks and imminent cybergeddon, when a cooking pot full of nails is, under US law, a weapon of mass destruction — and when such things are the justification for the surveillance of each and every one of us — it’s easy to forget how piddlingly small these risks really are by comparison.
It’s also easy to forget that while the global stockpile of nuclear weapons has been reduced from its 1986 peak of around 70,000 warheads, as this chart from the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation shows, it still stands at around 12,000 …
Sleep well, and preserve your precious bodily fluids.