Film & TV

Jan 29, 2014

It’s strange, but we never really had to learn to love the bomb

Fifty years on from Dr Strangelove, it's amazing we never had to learn to love nuclear weapons like he did. Crikey conducts a timely audit of global military stockpiles.

Stilgherrian — Technology writer and broadcaster


Technology writer and broadcaster

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. 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 ...

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9 thoughts on “It’s strange, but we never really had to learn to love the bomb

  1. MJPC

    Fascinating article, thank you. In all the talk about war crimes and dictators and the need to make the world safe for democracy I could never understand the hypocrisy of the East and West willing to destroy all life on earth (or a greater proportion of it) in the name of peace.
    Then there was Oppenheimer who was happy for the A Bomb to be used on the Nazi’s, but uncomfortable to be used on the Japanese after he and his crew had let the genie out.
    As stated, it was probably more luck than good planning the world has not been destroyed, particularly during the Cuban Missile crises where aircraft bomber crews were dispersed to regional US airports on cockpit alerts to launch immediately the order came; it was that serious.

  2. Liamj

    While no known uses of nuclear bombs in war since Nagasaki, the ~2000 open air nuclear tests conducted since WW2 have almost certainly played a role in the still-increasing incidence of cancers globally. Then theres the incompetent handling of nuclear waste, eg. widespread dumping into rivers & sea, pumping into wells, shallow burial. Slower & less obvious death toll, not necessarily lower.

  3. DiddyWrote

    Hi Liamj,
    yes all those above ground nuclear tests did increase background radiation across the globe quite substantially.
    Virtually all steel created after WW2 has been contaminated by radionuclides, particularly Cobalt 60.
    It actually got so bad that it made manufacturing certain devices that need low radiation materials very difficult. Geiger counters, Full body counters and certain instruments needed in experimental physics were all compromised.
    Fortunately a large source of low background radiation steel was realised to exist. The scuttled WW1 German Fleet at Scapa Flow. As all the ships were manufactured prior to Hiroshima the steel inside the massively thick hulls has not been contaminated.

  4. Vlad the Impala

    Atmospheric nuclear testing also rendered carbon dating useless after about 1956. That minuteman launch code is a bit scary- that’s the kind of combination an idiot would have on his luggage

  5. AR

    Even as a new teen it puzzled me that the arrogance of the ruling class, deciding for us “better dead than Red” or “necessary to destroy civilisation in order to save it” wasn’t laughed off the flcikering B&W screen.
    I was especially amused at the assumption of the many instructive article (w/e papers were full of such verbiage in the early 60s, like cake recipes..)solemnly instructing survivors (if any) to adhere to a strict hierarchy of command, down to the local mayor or police sergeant,… or priest or teacher (FFS!).

  6. Electric Lardyland

    Good post, Diddy. In response to Liam, I was just about to look up what was made from the German fleet at Scapa Flow, when I noticed that you got there before me.
    And Vlad, are you any relation to a dope smoking Russian that I used to know, Vlad the Inhaler?

  7. Liamj

    Ok wow, didn’t know that about post-nukes metals, ta.

  8. zut alors

    Have the various heads of government god-botherers (on all continents) pondered what strife they’ll be in with the almighty should they obliterate their particular god’s creation?

    Thanks to Diddy for the information on pre/post Hiroshima steel.

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