Posts Tagged ‘Accidental Nuclear War’

Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine

February 6, 2019

In 1961, the philosopher Bertrand Russell said President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, because of their commitment to nuclear weapons, were worse than Adolf Hitler..

“…Macmillan and Kennedy, through misguided ignorance and deliberate blindness, are pursuing policies which are likely to lead to the extermination of the whole human race,” Russell said.  “Hitler set out to exterminate the Jews.  On a purely statistical basis, Macmillan and Kennedy are 50 times as wicked as Hitler.”

I recently got around to reading Daniel Ellsberg’s 2017 book, THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, which indicates that Russell was basically wright.

Kennedy, like Truman and Eisenhower before him and every President since, was willing to threaten nuclear war.  Ellsberg wrote that this not only could have led to the death of virtually the whole human race, but, on Kennedy’s watch, very nearly did.

I remember the 1950s and the 1960s, and the public’s well-founded fear of nuclear war back then.  The fear has gone away, but the danger hasn’t, as Ellsberg made clear..

The book is in two parts.  The first is a personal history of nuclear policy, leading up to the Cuban missile crisis.  The other is a historical look at how American leaders in World War Two came to regard mass killing of civilian populations as morally acceptable, and how no American leader since then has been willing to give it up.

The Eisenhower administration had a war plan called “massive retaliation.”  That meant that in the case of military conflict with either the USSR or China, the U.S. would implement a plan that called for the nuclear bombing of every town in Russia with a population of more than 25,000, and also every large population center in China.

The Air Force, in response to a query by President Kennedy, estimated that this would result in the deaths of 324 million people in China or Russia through blast and radioactive fallout, which is more than died at the hands of Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined.  It estimated that up to an additional 100 million people in Communist ruled nations in eastern Europe, in allied nations in western Europe and also in neutral nations, depending in which way the wind was blowing.

This amounted to more than 600 million people, a quarter of the human race at that time.

But wait.  There’s more.  The Air Force did not attempt to estimate casualties due to fire.  Nuclear bombing would have set off fire storms that would have made World War Two Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo seem like the victims of children playing with matches. Ellsberg wrote that, if you count direct deaths to fire, a nuclear attack on the Communist bloc would have taken the lives of between one third and one half of humanity.  I can’t get my mind around such an enormity.

All of these estimates were based on a successful U.S. first strike that destroyed the Communist countries so completely that their military would not be able to retaliate.  If that didn’t work, there would have been tens of millions or hundreds of millions of American deaths as well.

Later on certain scientists awoke to the possibility of “nuclear winter”.   Firestorms resulting from a nuclear attack would send so much soot and smoke into the upper atmosphere that they would literally blacken the sky.  The dark layer would be above the clouds, so there would be no rain to wash it down.  It would remain for 10 years or more, making it impossible for plants to grow or for most complex life-forms to survive.

So an all-out nuclear attack could literally be a Doomsday Machine.

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The danger of war with Russia over Syria

October 27, 2016

During the whole of the Cold War, American and Soviet troops never faced each other on the battlefield.  Both sides feared possible escalation into nuclear war.

If the United States proclaims a “no fly” zone in Syria or sends troops to create a “safe zone” for anti-Assad forces, there is a real danger of a shooting war between the United States and Russia.

The United States and Russia are the only two nations with enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other.  Presumably leaders of neither nation want this, but who knows what a direct Russian-American conflict could escalate into?  And for what?

LINKS

Making Sense of the Russian Task Force Off Syria by The Saker, a pro-Russian blogger.

Is the US Headed Towards War in Syria?, an interview with Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, on the Real News Network.

Looking Ahead: Clinton’s Plans for Syria by Peter Van Buren for We Meant Well.

Fact Check: Trump Is Right That Clinton Might Cause WW3 by Carl Herman on Washington’s Blog.

Nuclear peril was (and is) worse than we thought

January 8, 2014

We were in greater danger from nuclear weapons than we thought during the Cold War era, and that danger still exists.

That is what I learned from reading COMMAND AND CONTROL: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser, a history of nuclear weapons technology from World War Two to the present.

command-and-controlThe danger was not so much that the USA or USSR would intentionally start a nuclear war.  Deterrence did work.  The danger was an accidental discharge or launch of a nuclear missile.  As Eric Schlosser documented, this nearly happened literally hundreds of times.   Evidently nobody knows the actual number because the U.S. government doesn’t keep a list.

Even Robert Peurifoy of Sandia Laboratories, the leading advocate of safer nuclear technology within the government, didn’t know of all of them.

The book has two narrative threads.  One is the evolution of nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy from FDR to Reagan, the technical and engineering difficulties, and a relentless piling up of reports of bomber crashes, accident bomb drops, computer system failures around nuclear weapons and weapons being lost or left unguarded.  We’ve been on the brink of nuclear war and nuclear disaster many more times than we know.

The other thread is an hour-by-hour report on a near-disaster a Titan missile complex near Damascus, Arkansas, in 1980.   I had not thought of missile crews as brave in the sense that fighter and bomber pilots are brave, but the missile crews deal with dangerous and not completely predictable forces.

The accident began when an enlisted man, performing routine maintenance near the top of the missile, accidentally dropped a socket, which punctured the oxidizer tank of the lower stage.  Both the oxidizer and the fuel are toxic as well as highly flammable and explosive.  If the air pressure in the oxidizer tank were to fall below a certain level, the tank would collapse and the rocket fuel would explode.  The rocket carried a nuclear bomb with the explosive power of all the bombs dropped during World War Two, including the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The following few hours were a story of bureaucratic paralysis and individual heroism as a fire broke out in the complex and the rockets eventually exploded despite everything the crew could do.  It was only by good fortune the nuclear warhead was not detonated.

The U.S. nuclear arsenal, both as a whole and in its individual parts, is an example of what the writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls a fragile system.  The failure of any of its parts would have led to the cascading failure of the whole system.

Nuclear strategy for 40 years was based on the “Single Integrated Operational Plan,” which was an all-out attack which would have taken the lives of an estimated 200 million people in Russia, China and eastern Europe.  Some U.S. military leaders actually contemplated launching such an attack which would have taken the lives of more people than were killed by Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined; presumably the Soviets had a similar plan.

The U.S. had no plan for what to do after the attack.  Planning ended with the nuclear holocaust

Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger and others sought alternatives.  Their efforts were unsuccessful for, in my opinion, good reason.  If the leaders of a nation are going to use nuclear weapons at all against an enemy which also has nuclear arms, it is too late to hold back.

Schlosser gives great credit to General Curtis LeMay, who commanded the Strategic Air Command from 1948 to 1957 and higher Air Force positions through 1965, for his strict insistence on proper procedures and checklists and tough unannounced inspections.  It was said of LeMay that he did not distinguish between the unfortunate and the incompetent, and that to err is human, but to forgive is not SAC policy.  This tough attitude saved many lives, Schlosser said.

The situation is different now.  In 2003, Schlosser reported, half of the Air Force units responsible for nuclear weapons failed their safety inspections, despite three-day advance warnings.

Schlosser pointed out that the United States has never had an unauthorized detonation of a nuclear weapon—a remarkable achievement.  But each day that nuclear weapons exist is a gamble that a detonation won’t take place.  Meanwhile nuclear weapons proliferate.  India, as Schlosser noted, has double the industrial accident rate of the United States, and Pakistan has three times the rate.  How long until one of those weapons goes off?  And then what?

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America’s biggest threat is its own N-weapons

September 26, 2013

nuclearaccident1Americans are in greater danger from accidents in our own country’s nuclear arsenal than we are from the spread of nuclear weapons to countries such as Pakistan, North Korea or Iran.

An investigative reporter named Eric Schlosser tells in a new book, Command and Control, of narrow escapes from accidental nuclear explosions, and from launching of nuclear bombs based on false alarms.  The thing about narrow escapes is that you can’t count on them happening.  After

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAIn the period from 1950 to 1968 alone, he discovered 700 “significant” nuclear accidents.  The government was uncooperative, but he was helped by whistleblowers who were worried about lax handling of dangerous weapons.

An atomic bomb without its warhead was accidentally dropped on Mars Bluff, S.C., in 1958.  A fully armed atomic bomb was dropped near Goldsboro, N.C., in 1961; there were four fail-safe switches designed to prevent the bomb from going off accidentally, and three of the four failed.

Suppose you were President of the United States and you were told that an atomic bomb had been dropped on North Carolina.  Would you stop and do nothing until you figured out what had happened, or would you assume that the nation was under attack and strike back.

The Cold War is over, but both the United States and the Russian Federation still have their nuclear missiles ready to launch, and an nuclear false alarm is just as possible now as it was then.

I don’t know which is worse—to think, as Schlosser does, that the U.S. Air Force is negligent in its handling of nuclear weapons, or to think that the current system is working as well as is humanly possible.

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