Sunday, August 7, 2011

Extreme Watchfulness

As I read the concluding chapters to Richard Rhodes' "Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb," the discussion of the internal and external struggles between atomic weapons researchers, the Atomic Energy Commission, and Strategic Air Command started sounding vaguely familiar. I thought for a while it was merely because I work in the nuclear industry (on the cleanup side) and have just heard this kind of discussion and language over and over again. That didn't seem quite right. Then I figured it was because of the other books I've read on the subject, and my interest in general in this time period between the end of World War II and the 1980s.

Then I realized that, too, was wrong. It all sounded familiar because of this:

Rhodes quotes Gen. Thomas Power, second head of SAC, as saying the following over open communication lines as SAC ratcheted itself up from DefCon 3 to DefCon 2 as the Cuban Missie Crisis unfolded:
This is General Power speaking. I am addressing you for the purpose of reemphasizing the seriousness for the situation the nation faces. We are in an advanced state of readiness to meet any emergencies and I feel that we are well prepared. I expect each of you to maintain strict security and use calm judgment during this tense period. Our plans are well prepared and are being executed smoothly . . .  Review your plans for further action to insure that there will be no mistakes or confusion . . .
Yeah, that's Gen. Jack D. Ripper speaking.

Reading this book -- particularly its concluding chapters -- helped me to understand better the paranoia of the 1950s and on into the 60s, as the United States and Russia faced off in the tensest period of the Cold War. Any student of Dr. Strangelove, then, would be well-served to read this book in order to gain that understanding as well. Hearing all of this firsthand, knowing it's not Hollywood embellishment or from the mind of the likes of Terry Southern or Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler help to bring the gravity of the situation home.

It amazed me to think how pell-mell humanity rushes into things as complicated as nuclear weaponry without really thinking things through. There for a whole, for example, the AEC had control of nuclear weapons and would only release them to the military when the president ordered. Military minds eventually wore down on that logic to the point the military had the weapons but could not fire them without direct order from the president or without special codes to release the weapons. Soon it evolved past that, where only the trust of the officers in charge kept missiles from being launched on accident or against orders. An instance at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana showed, as the installers worked to get the first weaponized thermonuclear bombs prepped for readiness, that corners were cut past safety systems so that anyone with just one of the four required keys could launch the missiles.

All that puts Gen. Ripper and Attack Wing Plan R in perspective, and not in a funny way that ends with a deleted pie fight, either.

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