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"It's... dumb luck that we haven't had an accidental nuclear detonation"
September 19, 2013 10:55 AM   Subscribe

Command and Control is a new book by Eric Schlosser about nuclear weapons mishaps, with a focus on the Damascus Accident. You can read an excerpt at Mother Jones, an op-ed adapted from the text at Politico, or a different op-ed at The Guardian. The book has been positively reviewed by The New York Times and Publishers Weekly. Schlosser has been interviewed by Steve Roberts on The Diane Rehm Show, Amy Goodman, Michael Mechanic at Mother Jones, and Ryan Devereaux at Rolling Stone.
posted by Going To Maine (66 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm about a quarter into it, and this is a *great* book.
posted by mrbill at 11:01 AM on September 19, 2013


oh man oh man oh man gimme. i will read THE CRAP out of this!
posted by capnsue at 11:02 AM on September 19, 2013


I heard the Diane Rehm interview. Quite chilling.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:03 AM on September 19, 2013


I also love love love the cover. Cold War-related stuff is a hobby of mine.
posted by mrbill at 11:03 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Auto-bought.
posted by Artw at 11:08 AM on September 19, 2013


My WW3/nuclear holocaust dreams had almost faded away.
Thanks a lot ... sheesh!
posted by dougzilla at 11:10 AM on September 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Amazon link ($15 or $17).
posted by Nelson at 11:11 AM on September 19, 2013


That sounds fantastic. I really loved Reefer Madness, which is actually about three 'black' markets in the US: pot, porn, and strawberries. Totally amazing book, and probably better than the better-known Fast Food Nation.
posted by kaibutsu at 11:14 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fun bedtime reading: Wikipedia's Lists of nuclear disasters and radioactive incidents.
posted by zamboni at 11:24 AM on September 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Schlosser changed the way I ate and thought about fast food with Fast Food Nation, and made me an enemy of exploitive agricultural labor practices and federal marijuana prosecution with Reefer Madness. So this book is now on my Kindle, and I can't wait to find out how my world view is about to shift, again.
posted by bearwife at 11:25 AM on September 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


From the Democracy Now interview:

. . . one of the most significant near misses occurred just three days after John F. Kennedy was inaugurated. A B-52 bomber broke apart in the sky over North Carolina, and as it was breaking apart, the centrifugal forces affecting the plane pulled a lanyard in the cockpit, which released one of the hydrogen bombs that it was carrying. And the weapon behaved as though it had been released over the Soviet Union, over an enemy target deliberately. It went through all of its arming stages, except one. There was one switch that prevented it from detonating in North Carolina. And that switch, later, was found to be defective and would never be put into a plane today. . . . The official list of nuclear weapons accidents that the Pentagon puts out lists 32 [similar incidents]. But the real number is many, many higher than that.

Goldsboro, NC, where the incident happened, looks to have had ~15-20K residents in 1961. It's ~50 miles from Greenville and Raleigh. Tens of thousands of people would have been killed.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:34 AM on September 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Perhaps obvious to folks, but the straight-from-Penguin ebook price is $5 higher than getting it from Amazon or Apple directly.
posted by phearlez at 11:38 AM on September 19, 2013


Gee, I thought all I needed to live with a Don Delillo level of dread in my life were the global warming writings from James Hansen. I didn't really need this addition.

As an aside, in this interesting article in the Atlantic about Kennedy taking on the military, were some bone-chilling fascistic views about nuclear war from some of his generals during the Cold War

JFK vs the military

"General Power, too, was openly opposed to limiting the use of America’s ultimate weapons. “Why are you so concerned with saving their lives?” he asked the lead author of a Rand study that counseled against attacking Soviet cities at the outset of a war. “The whole idea is to kill the bastards … At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win.”
posted by C.A.S. at 11:46 AM on September 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Haven't read the book but heard him on Bob Edwards' radio show the day before yesterday and couldn't get out of the car for half an hour because I couldn't stop listening. This is frightening information and explains why even old hawks like Kissinger believe we need to get rid of these things.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:49 AM on September 19, 2013


I once went on a tour of a decommissioned former nuclear command base. The tour guide, a historian, had several chilling "we were *this* close" stories, just from that one base, and just from among the people he had been able to interview.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:51 AM on September 19, 2013


C.A.S.: "General Power, too, was openly opposed to limiting the use of America’s ultimate weapons."

That's a made up name.
posted by brundlefly at 12:01 PM on September 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


“Why are you so concerned with saving their lives?”

I think there was a post on MetaFilter recently (although with my memory, "recently" could mean anytime in the last five years!) that discussed how fallout shelters were really intended to protect Americans from fallout from a first strike against Russia - they were never intended to shelter Americans from an attack on American soil.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:01 PM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


That's a made up name.

I can easily imagine Curtis LeMay saying something like that, though.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:02 PM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


In the Mother Jones interview, Schlosser actually discusses LeMay:

Yeah. LeMay at one point was considered a great American hero, protecting us from the Soviets. He later became widely reviled in the United States, the symbol of a warmongering general who was caricatured in Dr. Strangelove as the mad general played by George C. Scott. LeMay's politics are different from mine, and many of his theories of nuclear warfare are ones that I don't endorse, but I think he was one of our truly great generals. He was an engineer by training, and if you're going to have nuclear weapons, you want them managed by someone who has absolutely no tolerance for error, who's a great believer in checklists and proper organization. He was all of those things. LeMay was absolutely ruthless with his men about ensuring that there was no sloppiness.
posted by Going To Maine at 12:08 PM on September 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


I drive past the scene of the Damascus incident every week day. The silo's filled in but the entrance gate is still there. The in-road isn't paved (I presume they tore that up when the closed the silo) but it's still in dirt.

It was utterly out of site for awhile, the farmer nearby allowed brush to grow up around it, but some recent utility work cleared the brush and made it visible, including the "no trespassing" sign. Word is the farmer doesn't want tourists around. The story is he got a pretty nice settlement when the incident took place.
posted by Elvis at 12:11 PM on September 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


“Why are you so concerned with saving their lives?”

So, Dr. Strangelove, based on a true story?
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:14 PM on September 19, 2013


In 1989 I have toured the Titan Missile Museum . It was a surreal experience.
Here is the blurb from the website.
Twenty miles south of Tucson, Arizona a sobering relic of the past allows visitors to travel through time to stand on the front line of the Cold War, a time when mankind stood on the very brink of destruction.
posted by dougzilla at 12:17 PM on September 19, 2013


This may be enough to convince me that nuclear weapons are a bad thing. Much of the political science scholarship points to the fact that nuclear weapons are a force for peace and stability in the world. It will be interesting to see how this contributes to that debate.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:17 PM on September 19, 2013


LeMay's politics are different from mine, and many of his theories of nuclear warfare are ones that I don't endorse, but I think he was one of our truly great generals.

Curtis LeMay engineered the burning to death of over 100,000 Japanese civilians.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:18 PM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Besides that, LeMay was one of the "hawks" who advocated a bombing campaign to destroy Russian missiles on Cuba (and would have started WWIII).
posted by KokuRyu at 12:21 PM on September 19, 2013


"Goldsboro, NC, where the incident happened, looks to have had ~15-20K residents in 1961. It's ~50 miles from Greenville and Raleigh. Tens of thousands of people would have been killed."

So the only reason North Carolina didn't get H-bombed was a defective switch. One little broken component saved all those lives?
posted by Kevin Street at 12:21 PM on September 19, 2013 [2 favorites]



LeMay's politics are different from mine, and many of his theories of nuclear warfare are ones that I don't endorse, but I think he was one of our truly great generals.

Curtis LeMay engineered the burning to death of over 100,000 Japanese civilians.


This is true and horrible, but cutting the quote there ignores why Schlosser considers LeMay to be great.
posted by Going To Maine at 12:24 PM on September 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


If North Carolina had gotten H-bombed, do you think JFK would have told the country it was an accident? Or would he have blamed it on the Russians?
posted by Elementary Penguin at 12:26 PM on September 19, 2013


The insane thing is, at around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, apart from the medium-range missiles that were in the process of being set up in Cuba, Russia had almost no capability to send missiles to American targets - American missiles outnumbered Russian missiles at something like 100 to 1, and this huge mismatch would last until the end of the '60s.

On one hand, people like LeMay are admirable for safely managing the inventory, but on the other hand, why did the US need such overwhelming superiority, given that the stakes were a habitable planet versus and uninhabitable planet?
posted by KokuRyu at 12:28 PM on September 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Blaming it on the Russians would have meant starting World War Three, killing countless millions more. (Including Kennedy himself, most likely.) I don't think any politician would go that far to avoid blame.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:28 PM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops.

Uh, depending on the breaks.
posted by basicchannel at 12:29 PM on September 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


Russia had almost no capability to send missiles to American targets

Don't you mean American soil?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:29 PM on September 19, 2013


>Don't you mean American soil?

Yes.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:32 PM on September 19, 2013


I suppose Canada and Europe were held hostage by bombers, but never mind them, we have fallout shelters!
posted by KokuRyu at 12:33 PM on September 19, 2013


On one hand, people like LeMay are admirable for safely managing the inventory, but on the other hand, why did the US need such overwhelming superiority, given that the stakes were a habitable planet versus and uninhabitable planet?

KokuRyu, because in the stalemated Europe post-war, the Soviets had an enormous conventional warfare advantage, much more armour, infantry, etc, and the thinking was that if they wanted to flood through the Fulda Gap and conquer Europe, there wasn't much that NATO could to to stop them without nukes.

Not saying it was ideal, but that was the thinking
posted by C.A.S. at 12:43 PM on September 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


The SL-1 disaster is particualrly interesting reading.

The reactor design had a single, large control rod that throttled the reaction while in normal operation. (It was a small reactor, designed for use in very remote locations.) You'd pull it further out to increase power and slide it further in to decrease. But due to some aspects of the design, it was possible for the reactor to go prompt critical if the rod was pulled out too far.

During maintenance, the rod was jerked out too far (apparently by hand) and the reactor exploded.

The actual explosion was due to steam expansion and a water-hammer effect, but what I find interesting is that although that particular failure mechanism wasn't understood before the fact, there seems to have been agreement among the technicians that the place would blow up if the rod was pulled too far out. In fact, there was some belief that the place would go up like a bomb if it was withdrawn too far. (In actuality that doesn't work: you can't turn a power reactor into an A-bomb because it blows itself apart too quickly. But it was still a dangerous-as-hell design.)

There's an interesting quote from one of the operators:
The mechanical and material evidence, combined with the nuclear and chemical evidence, forced them to believe that the central control rod had been withdrawn very rapidly. […] The scientists questioned the [former operators of SL-1]: “Did you know that the reactor would go critical if the central control rod were removed?” Answer: “Of course! We often talked about what we would do if we were at a radar station and the Russians came. We’d yank it out.”
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:48 PM on September 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Anybody find an mp3 link to any of the interviews?
posted by Jahaza at 12:58 PM on September 19, 2013


There's a stream for the Diane Rehm show, and you should be able to find a podcast to download somewhere on iTunes.
posted by Going To Maine at 1:00 PM on September 19, 2013


From the Politico op-ed:

"...At Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, the nose cone of a Minuteman missile, containing its thermonuclear warhead, blew off and fell 75 feet to the bottom of the silo because a maintenance officer used a screwdriver, instead of a fuse puller, to remove a fuse from the security alarm box at the launch site, causing a short circuit."

!
posted by Kevin Street at 1:01 PM on September 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


I am going to read the absolute shit out of this. It's like everything I love rolled into one: nuclear weapons, weapon control structures, safety mechanisms, and near-catastrophes/disaster analysis.

Thanks for this post. I may even skip the Kindle "sample" because I already know how that's going to end.
posted by disillusioned at 1:10 PM on September 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I just finished Rachel Maddow's Drift, and there's a chapter on nukes, probably including many of the same disasters & near misses, and it definitely made me want to read more. (In sort of a peeking through my fingers in horror way.) Will have to see if the library has a copy!
posted by epersonae at 1:19 PM on September 19, 2013


Absolutely chilling! And now I have to read this book. The Mother Jones excerpt ends with a hell of a cliff-hanger and I absolutely loved this part:
The airmen entered the launch duct at level 2. Far above their heads was a concrete silo door. It was supposed to protect the missile from the wind and the rain and the effects of a nuclear weapon detonating nearby.

I was a senior in high school when the Damascus Accident occured and was more upset at John Bonham's death a week later. Clearly my priorities were misplaced.
posted by TedW at 1:22 PM on September 19, 2013


Haven't read the book but heard him on Bob Edwards'Diane Rehm's radio show...

Oops. Sorry for the blunder.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:54 PM on September 19, 2013


Oh, this looks like fun!
posted by cool breeze at 2:47 PM on September 19, 2013


Oh for the love of-...for about five years now I've been getting Fast Food Nation mixed up with Super Size Me and I thought this was a book on nuclear bombs by Morgan Spurlock and was like "lol wut".

And then I look at Spurlock's Wikipedia page and he looks a lot like that character actor guy who is in everything but whose name I don't remember*, and I start to think, hey, maybe I could be in charge of a missile site too.

*I just remembered he was in The Rock: William Forsythe.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:26 PM on September 19, 2013


Some other very good Cold War books:

*The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy
Possibly the scariest book you'll ever read, a detailed look at the Soviet weapons programs in particular biological and chemical, and how close the world came to WWIII in the late 70s and early 80s.
*The Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro, and America's Doomed Invasion of Cuba's Bay of Pigs
Very compelling narrative of the Bay of Pigs. Overshadowed by the missile crisis, BoP was the ignition point of many other things (including Vietnam and all future relations with Cuba) so hugely important to know about.
*The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking
I guess this isn't cold war but it was so good and set in the same era (1960s and early 70s), it's more than a story of two people but the beginnings of the modern era of terrorism on airplanes, which turns out to be pretty funny in comparison to the post-911 era. Very entertaining and fascinating read.
posted by stbalbach at 4:24 PM on September 19, 2013 [7 favorites]


I grew up in the shadow of the Damascus site, and was born two months before that incident. My mom and dad became appropriately and deeply anti-war after that, since--as they tell it--it took a near cataclysm that was shrouded in mystery in rural Arkansas to really bring home the quieter side of national propaganda.

An interesting result, then, is that there are a whole bunch of thirtysomethings who grew up on farms and trailer parks in the area and happen to be remarkably politically active, disarmament-minded, self-identifying pacifists in a part of the country where that's not usually the case.

(Also, big shout out to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, which is an amazing resource and very diligently maintained.)
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 4:25 PM on September 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


That's a made up name.

Just to clarify what may be hamburger: Thomas S. Power^, Commander in Chief, Strategic Air Command

Curtis LeMay engineered the burning to death of over 100,000 Japanese civilians..

And Power was commander of the 314th Bomber Wing (Very Heavy), which carried it out.

Basically, all these mid-century air power guys make Jack D. Ripper look like not so much an exaggeration. When your only tool is a hammer, dropped from 20,000 feet....

“The whole idea is to kill the bastards … At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win.”

There's a line in In the Loop where the general played by James Gandolfini deadpans, in relation to a fictional invasion based on Iraq, "Twelve thousand troops. But that's not enough. That's the amount that are going to die. And at the end of a war you need some soldiers left, really, or else it looks like you've lost."

the thinking was that if they wanted to flood through the Fulda Gap and conquer Europe, there wasn't much that NATO could to to stop them without nukes

Basically this held both factually true and presumptively true through most of the Cold War, even being vividly described in The Third World War: August 1985 by John Hackett, retired, a senior British and NATO commander. The precedent dates back to the Second World War, when the "reserve strength" of the Allies was US production lines, but to be useful, they had to be brought to front lines -- and that proved logistically strenuous even to masters of the theatre such as Ike, Patton, and Bradley.

There was quite a bit of discussion at the time about the irony that Americans largely feared a Soviet first strike, while the Russians feared a US first strike with somewhat greater strategic realism. The rhetoric of Western leaders such as Reagan never quite acknowledged this, although anybody with their ducks in a row could tell you the truth.
posted by dhartung at 4:29 PM on September 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Leonard Lopate on WNYC had good interview with Schlosser about this book: Nuclear Weapons and Safety.
posted by pb at 4:46 PM on September 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


As a species, we're too damn stupid and irresponsible to handle nuclear power.

But, meh, we'll probably do ourselves in with global warming or major pollution before we get a chance to blow ourselves to kingdom come.
posted by BlueHorse at 5:26 PM on September 19, 2013


The odds of surviving an attack on Chicago in our house are near nil, but in the far more likely event of fallout from something else drifting this way, a small cache of Potassium Iodide tablets to flush away Iodine-131 are a reasonable precaution to have ready.
posted by MikeWarot at 6:23 PM on September 19, 2013


...a defective switch. One little broken component saved all those lives?

Or, in a fictional setting with more tragic results, ended all those lives: Fail-Safe (1964), directed by Sydney Lumet (trailer and Turner Classic Movies page).

From Global nuclear weapons inventories, 1945-2013Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 1 September 2013:
The authors calculate that some 125,000 nuclear warheads have been built since 1945, about 97 percent of them by the United States and the Soviet Union and Russia. The nine nations with nuclear weapons now possess more than 10,000 nuclear warheads in their military stockpiles, the authors estimate, with several thousand additional US and Russian retired warheads in storage, awaiting dismantlement. The nuclear stockpiles of China, as well as Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea, are minuscule in comparison with the US and Russian arsenals, but more difficult to estimate. Still, the authors believe that China’s nuclear weapons stockpile has surpassed Great Britain’s. Although the total number of nuclear warheads in the world is decreasing because of US and Russian reductions, all the nations with nuclear weapons continue to modernize or upgrade their nuclear arsenals.
It ain't over until the fat lady's incinerated.
posted by cenoxo at 10:38 PM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I can't believe you passed on the chance to title this

US accidentally nukes Damascus
posted by atchafalaya at 2:13 AM on September 20, 2013


My brother worked with a guy who was in the Air Force in the 1970s. He got into a lot of trouble when he dropped a nuclear warhead that wasn't strapped down properly off the back of a truck.
posted by double block and bleed at 2:21 AM on September 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I can't believe you passed on the chance to title this

US accidentally nukes Damascus


Didn't even think it. My day is ruined.
posted by Going To Maine at 6:13 AM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's a more official link to Amy Goodman's interview, which includes audio.
posted by Going To Maine at 6:39 AM on September 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Born in the 1950s, grew up in the 60s, I used to have a 'bug out' plan for when the nukes started flying. I went into great detail about what to put in the car and routes to take up north to avoid the major freeways. If I read this I will probably have to dust off the plan, just for my own peace of mind.
posted by Gadgetenvy at 10:57 AM on September 20, 2013


Just saw this on NPR: New Document Sheds Light On The Time The U.S. Almost Nuked Itself. The referenced document was given to The Guardian by Schlosser, which has the original story.
posted by Going To Maine at 6:36 PM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's uniquely American that that bomb over NC failed utterly. It failed to arm, the failsafes failed, and it failed to detonate.
posted by nevercalm at 11:17 AM on September 21, 2013


Well, it failed to detonate because at least one of the failsafes actually worked. If it had failed utterly we would be having quite a different conversation, and perhaps, world today. I'm not sure why you would say it failed to arm because it was not ordered to arm and if it had armed mechanically and unintentionally that would have been a failure.

The idea of redundant failsafes is that in non-nominal conditions not every failsafe will fail. A bomb dropping out of a plane and the surrounding HE detonating while the warhead did not indicates a working design, though probably closer to tolerances than the designers hoped would ever be tested in the field.

I'm not saying not to be upset about this incident or leery of nuclear weapons in general, but that interpretation doesn't really parse. The failsafes worked as designed and prevented detonation.
posted by dhartung at 1:11 PM on September 21, 2013


The Time a Cleveland Newspaper Divulged the Manhattan Project: Before Woodward and Bernstein, before Glenn Greenwald, there was John W. Raper, a columnist for the Cleveland Press, who stumbled across something very odd while on vacation in New Mexico
posted by homunculus at 5:09 PM on September 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Today is the 30th anniversary of Stanislav Petrov not blowing up the world.
Petrov has said he does not regard himself as a hero for what he did that day. In an interview for the documentary film The Red Button and the Man Who Saved the World, Petrov says, "All that happened didn't matter to me — it was my job. I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, that's all. My late wife for 10 years knew nothing about it. 'So what did you do?' she asked me. 'I did nothing.'"
posted by zamboni at 8:47 AM on September 26, 2013 [6 favorites]


Robert Farley at The Diplomat references the book for a brief post on North Korea: The Real North Korean Nuke Threat
posted by Going To Maine at 8:53 AM on September 27, 2013


Finally finished the book last night. I liked it, was impressed. Be aware that over 50% of the page content of the book is (very good) notes, references, etc.
posted by mrbill at 9:05 AM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I was wondering about that as I was getting deep into it and the Kindle was telling me "20% read".
posted by Artw at 10:23 AM on October 1, 2013


Reading it now, and of course the near misses are frightening to read about---so many lives saved by chance!--- but it's also remarkable how many of the successes in design, testing, deployment, decision-making were lucky breaks and/or on the spot improvisations, too.
posted by notyou at 9:01 AM on October 19, 2013


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