Nuclear Weapons

Command and Control by Eric Slessor is a terrifying book. It a history of nuclear weapons that is a mixture of high politics and journalistic reportage of the Cold War and the moments when it so nearly went hot; so hot that it is doubtful that our civilization could have survived a man-made apocalypse that would have rivaled the great extinction caused by the Yucatan meteorite that finished the dinosaurs.

We all know the story of the Cuban Missile crisis, the Berlin flash-points and the build up of tension during the Regan era. Acres of print and miles of film have recorded and commented on each of these brushes with the nightmare. What is much less well known is the nearly seven hundred accidents or near misses that had the capacity at the very least to lay waste hundreds of square miles of the western hemisphere and at worst to set off an nuclear exchange that would have landed over three thousand warheads on Russia alone. At the ‘good’ end of the scale there were literally dozens of times when B52 bombers crashed or burned or released their weapons accidentally. One scattered four bombs across southern Spain and into the Atlantic. B52s are still in service and will be until 2040 even though that last one was manufactured before Kennedy was inaugurated. At the ‘really bad’ end there was a moment when NORAD, the American early warning system picked up a massive incoming Soviet first strike – that turned out to be the moon rising.

In some detail the book describes an accident near Little Rock in Arkansas at a Titan missile site when an engineer dropped a spanner inside the silo that ruptured the skin of the rocket. The governor of Arkansas at the time was a youthful Bill Clinton. The rocket exploded launching its 9 megaton warhead a couple of miles across the state. 9 megatons is more than ALL the bombs dropped in WW2 - including those on Hiroshima and Nagaski.

And this only includes the accidents that happened on the western side of the Iron Curtain. What happened on the other side doesn’t bear thinking about; Soviet technology was generally inferior and its carelessness with human life only too well known. This book should be required reading as what is almost unbelievable is that we have got away with it - so far.

Will our luck hold? On the good side the technology is much improved and the ‘hair trigger’ automatic response to any ‘first strike’ has been greatly reduced – though the chaos that surrounded the Bush regime’s response to 9/11 is not encouraging. On the other side the possession of these weapons by North Korea and Pakistan, and probably soon by Iran, is frightening indeed. There is an almost certainty that some of these weapons have been stolen along the way as the security, especially in Europe during the Cold War period, was unforgivably lax.

Odds? If a nuclear weapon is not detonated – by accident or malign intent – in my lifetime, it will be a miracle.

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