In January of 2014, Stanley Kubrick’s seminal film “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” will celebrate its 50th anniversary. In anticipation of this upcoming milestone—and given all of the arguments that are sure to surround potential negotiations between the United States and Iran on nuclear policy—it is worth revisiting Kubrick’s characterization of Cold War-era nuclear policy as the height of absurdity.
One troubling aspect of nuclear policy is that it is essentially subjective. Despite the existence of things like Transparency and Confidence Building Measures between nations, there are a number of historical anecdotes that do raise the possibility that the decision to engage in a nuclear exchange could some day come down to the whims of a handful of influential people.
Consider Lt. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, first chief of the United States Strategic Air Command. Before the Cold War, LeMay served as the head of the 20th Bomber Command and oversaw a firebombing of Tokyo that killed over 84,000 people in a single night alone. “We knew we were going to kill a lot of women and kids,” LeMay would later say of that incident. “Had to be done.” In a 1955 meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he presented a plan for a preemptive nuclear strike on Russia that would have involved an “instantaneous destruction of 645 military targets, 118 cities and 60 million people” and claimed that he had the power to authorize such a strike without any input from President Eisenhower. (If LeMay seems like the exception and not the rule, consider that President Truman referred to the bombing of Hiroshima as “the greatest thing in history” and claimed, according to one biographer, that he’d “never been happier about any announcement he had ever made.”) Commanders like LeMay are lampooned in “Dr. Strangelove,” but Kubrick’s characters are far closer to reality than we might like to think.
Even if those in charge could be trusted, there are other reasons to doubt the ability of even the U.S. to control these weapons. On Jan. 24, 1961, for instance, a B-52 bomber carrying two Mark-39 hydrogen bombs broke apart in the air over Goldsboro, N.C., killing three of its crew members and releasing the two weapons of mass destruction over United States soil. When the bombs—which crashed to Earth but thankfully did not explode—were recovered by a team of bomb disposal experts that included munitions specialist Jack ReVelle, one of them was found to have armed itself through five of the six stages that are required for detonation. A Mark-39 bomb is almost 300 times as powerful as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Had this one exploded, ReVelle explained during a presentation at East Carolina University earlier this year, it would have made a crater “eight football fields wide,” destroying “every structure within a four-mile radius” and earning a “100-percent kill zone for eight and a half miles in every direction.” The blast could have also spread lethal fallout to major cities like New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
In addition to this immediate carnage, there is also the possibility that an accidental detonation could be misinterpreted as a deliberate enemy attack and thereby precipitate a hasty international nuclear conflict. As investigative journalist Eric Schlosser details in his new book, the Goldsboro crash of 1961 was just one of at least 700 alarming incidents involving 1,250 nuclear weapons that occurred between 1950 and 1968 alone.
The problems with nuclear weapons are not limited to highly fallible officials or the ever-present threat of a catastrophic accident. Perhaps the most absurd element of U.S. nuclear policy has to do with things like the Military Strategic and Tactical Relay program. A satellite system that was designed to, in the words of New York Times reporter and investigative journalist Tim Weiner, “endure an all-out nuclear war, coordinating the detonation of five or 10 or 15 thousand nuclear warheads, choreographing the ballistic ballet down to the millisecond,” Milstar represents a $20 billion boondoggle that can barely even be said to work at all. Weiner says that Milstar has been accidentally set off in the past by defective computer chips, routine tests, a flock of geese and even the moon. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has described Milstar as “a very complicated system that’s prone to failure.” We have funneled away valuable time and resources to build an apparatus that will allow a few of us to survive a nuclear holocaust so we can live out our days foraging through the ruins of an irradiated landscape. (For what it’s worth, we’re not the only ones; the famous 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident also nearly brought an accidental nuclear war down on all of our heads.)
When Stanley Kubrick sat down to write “Dr. Strangelove,” he was frustrated by the way in which the dark drama that he wanted to write kept coming out as comedy. “I found myself tossing away what seemed to me to be very truthful insights because I was afraid the audience would laugh,” the filmmaker explained. “After all, what could be more absurd than the very idea of two mega-powers willing to wipe out all human life because of an accident?”
In the 50 years since “Dr. Strangelove” first appeared, the United States has seemingly tried its best to answer to that question.
Chris Bassil, Trinity ’12, is currently working in Boston, Mass. His column runs every other Tuesday. Send Chris a message on Twitter @HamsterdamEcon.
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