Ron Rosenbaum

More on Nukes...

My old friend and colleague from the Village Voice, the late Jack Newfield used to say that you don’t just do a story, you follow up and follow up and follow up. He did that throughout his entire career with the lead poisoning issue for instance. Alas I’m a somewhat differnt kind of reporter, and have tended once I’ve done a story to leave it behind for others to follow up on if they care.

But since the question of acccidental nuclear war could mean life or death for the entire human species and I never really followed up on it when I first wrote about it, I’ll make an effort to keep up with the scandalous state of control–or rather lack of control–over the still-vast planet-destroying potential of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals that I wrote about here

With some help of course. For instance here’s an extremely informative email I got from my extremely well-informed colleague at Slate Fred Kaplan, who writes on national security affairs and has spent considerable time in the past studying the nuclear war questions:

Ron – Fascinating, and I think important, piece. I’d somehow missed
all this business about Perimetr. (This is what happens when I stop
paying attention to nukes for too long.) You’re right, Blair, whom
I’ve known a bit for a long time, is a thoroughly sober-minded guy,
not given to rantings or spurious extrapolations… For the past week
or so, I haven’t been quite sure whether to regard Putin’s “strategic
mobilization” of his bombers as dangerous or a joke. The Russkies
have never had very many bombers; even in their heyday, they were
pretty bad; remarkably, even at the height of the Cold War, they were
never kept on fully loaded runway alert (precisely because of the
difficulty of control – some renegade lunatic can get in a bomber and
drop a bomb; there’s no key involved). This was discovered during the
Berlin Crisis of 1961, when some of JFK’s advisers worked up a plan
for a nuclear first-strike (in case the Russians tried to occupy all
of Berlin and we couldn’t resist them with conventional forces
alone). Their bombers were just sitting on runways, far away from the
weapons that had to be loaded. And this was in the days when they had
only a handful of ICBMs. Once they started building ICBMs, they
pretty much ignored their bomber fleet. The much-vaunted Backfire
bomber of the early ’80s (remember that one?) was mainly to protect
the Northern Fleet, not to attack America. So what the hell is Putin
doing, putting bombers on airborne alert – something the US stopped
doing in the mid-’60s, shortly after “Dr. Strangelove.” Funny story
about Strangelove. I don’t know if you remember, or read it at the
time, but I wrote a story in the NY Times’ Arts & Leisure section
about the degree of truth in that movie. Kubrick did a lot of
research into this (at one point, he was going to call the movie “The
Delicate Balance of Terror,” after Wohlstetter’s 1958 Foreign Affairs
article); he was also very friendly with Herman Kahn (so Kahn told
me). Much of Strangelove (the character)’s monologues are taken
straight out of Kahn’s “On Thermonuclear War,” esp the discussion of
fallout shelters. (I asked Kahn what he thought of Strangelove. I
meant the movie, but he thought I meant the character. He replied,
“He wouldn’t have lasted six months in the Pentagon. He was too
creative.”) Anyway, here’s what I’m getting to: At the time Kubrick
(and Terry Southern) wrote the script, the command-control system
described in the movie WAS the command-control system. (Ditto for the
similar system in “Fail Safe.”) By the time the movie came out,
McNamara had made some changes; for instance, a bomber pilot had to
get another positive GO command; and airborne alerts were wound down
considerably. (I think they weren’t eliminated until the late ’60s,
when a bomb accidentally fell on Greenland? There was a big race
between US and Soviet special forces on who would recover it first.
I’m pretty sure we did.) Dan Ellsberg was a special assistant to
McNamara when “Strangelove” was released. He remembers that he and
one of his colleagues played hookey one afternoon to go see it. They
came out white as ghosts. “That was a documentary!” McNamara
remembers telling his chum.
Anyway, I’m not sure if the US ever worked out protocols on command-
control with the Russians. There were, of course, the hot line (which
wasn’t really a telephone) and all the rest. But beyond that, I’m not
sure. Blair might know something about that. So might Ellsberg.

Somewhat re assuring about Russian bombers–at least inthe past. not reassuring at all about the huge gaps inour knowledge and assurance about the pssiblityu of accidental nuclear war. Sweet dreams.