Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

By Eric Schlosser. New York: Penguin, 2013. 632 pages.

By Ron Shirtliff (reviewer)

As long as the bomb exists there can only be an illusion of safety. Some day an accident or a perverse act will take down a city, precipitate a nuclear war, possibly even end our civilization. Eric Schlosser details one near-accident in 1980—the Damascus accident in Arkansas—then impressively reviews the troubled history of the US bomb, with its inherent problems of command and control. He does this without criticizing his nation or individuals. This method makes it clear that the problems are inherent to the weapon itself.

Schlosser’s history extends from the early development of the bomb, and Truman’s decision to use it, to the George W. Bush presidency. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a movement in the US urged the creation of a real world government to take charge of the new weapon. Even parts of the military was on side, but the fear of the Soviets prevailed and Truman’s Cabinet led to the nuclear standoff that still keeps thousands of warheads ready to launch on warning. Follies that once might have seemed justified by overwhelming political differences now continue without justifications from either side.

After the Soviets built similar wea­pons, every president struggled with two critical issues: the moral one (should he authorize a pre-emptive attack or take the chance that the enemy would do so first?) and the practical one (how could he stay ready to launch an immediate attack while also preventing the possibility of mistakes that precipitate war?). More recently, the possible loss of a nuclear weapon to a terrorist group has added new control problems.

How should a war be fought? Or how should a retaliatory threat be expressed? This issue continued as new technologies developed. Should civilians in cities be the primary targets? (Though morally reprehensible, cities are easy to hit.) Or should military installations be destroyed (which would be more difficult)? Or should the enemy be decapitated by taking out top political and military leaders? Which of these options did the enemy have in mind and how could they be countered? Schlosser recounts all these debates, which lasted more than half a century.

Every military service wanted to be the one to deliver the bomb and receive its budgetary allocation. The Strategic Air Command with its long range bombers dominated that scene for years, but the development of missiles and bombs in ever smaller packages led the army and navy to argue for enhancing their tactical potentials. Initially the navy’s submarine-mounted missiles had limited accuracy, so its officers argued in favor of targeting easy-to-hit cities. The army, with its shorter-range rockets, wanted to fight a “conventional” war with nuclear weapons in Europe against the numerically superior Soviets.

The need for control and the need for a rapid response to an attack were constantly in conflict. At first the handmade bombs were under civilian control but the military argued that rapid response required them to have immediate access and control. They won the argument. Eventually the civilian labs simply filled orders for the military, even losing much control over safety and quality. The civilian control was only vested in the president, the commander-in-chief, who occasionally passed it on secretly to allies and generals.

But who would be in charge if the president were killed or unavailable? There was constant anxiety about the ability to maintain communications after an attack, especially after the development of hydrogen bombs that could destroy all conventional electrical circuits. The record is not good. Carter failed to catch the aircraft that was to be his command centre in a simulated raid. George Bush took almost an hour to get airborne on 9/11, and even so, many command communications failed.

Control of nuclear weapons includes the need to protect your own citizens from an accidental detonation, as well as from the military or other perverse persons, such as drunks, mad men, and terrorists. The security of weapons in storage left much to be desired. At times a single soldier guarded a whole stash of nuclear weapons. An accidental detonation might destroy a city through air crashes, fires, or simply dropping a bomb while loading or unloading a plane or missile. Some of the arsenal was so vulnerable that a single bullet might set off a whole rack of rockets and launch a nuclear war.

Schlosser documents at least 22 cases in which an American nuclear explosion might have happened in the US or Europe. He also cites lists of accidents, hundreds them kept secret even from the designers of the weapons. Bomb-laden bombers caught fire on airfields, melting their nuclear payloads, crashed, accidentally jettisoned their weapons, spread plutonium about. The public was always assured that there was no real danger. Yet the Damascus accident was caused by nothing more than a dropped socket wrench during the routine maintenance of a powerful but obsolete weapon. The resulting mighty explosion fortunately did not result in the detonation of the nine-megaton warhead—three times the explosive force of all the bombs used in World War II. It would have demolished Arkansas and probably President-to-be Bill Clinton.

Schlosser commends the conscientious people in the nuclear labs who worked hard, and with some success, to develop failsafe controls on nuclear weapons. Their efforts were hampered by their military customers, who wanted no controls that might, in a battle situation, even slightly diminish the force of their weapons. That dispute probably still goes on in all the nations that now have the weapons.

Near Launches On False Alarms

A more serious accident would precipitate a nuclear exchange. Schlosser reviews a number of cases when the US or the Soviets came within minutes of releasing their might upon the other. On November 24, 1962, while the Berlin and Cuban crises were brewing, a single faulty telephone switch had cut SAC communications with radar warning systems. Bombers were scrambled to retaliate against the expected attack. Fortunately, a bomber circling Thule was able to confirm that no attack had taken place and all-out war was avoided.

On November 19, 1979, computers told NORAD headquarters that the US was under attack by missile submarines off the West Coast. Hundreds of missiles ap­peared on the monitor screens. Within minutes a decision would have to be made to counterattack. Fortun­ately, the missiles didn’t result in explosions. A technician, perhaps high on drugs, had put the wrong tape into one of the “obsolete” computers; the tape was for a training exercise, a pretend war.

On another occasion when an attack appeared to be underway, someone noted that Khrushchev was in New York at that time: just another false alarm.

In June 1980, 220 attacking missiles were reported by the computers—a false alarm, followed a few days later by another. It turned out this one was caused by a faulty computer chip somewhere. There were other false alarms that could have precipitated a nuclear exchange; a rising moon, the launch of a weather satellite, tricked the sophisticated radars that were meant to protect us.

We do not know how often the Soviets discovered false alarms and didn’t launch counterattacks. We do know that on September 26, 1983, Soviet radar detected five missiles coming from the US. In Russia, Lieutenant Colonel Petrov was on duty. Convinced that it was a false alarm, he did not order an attack, and again a nuclear exchange was avoided. Later it was discovered that the radar had detected sunlight reflected off clouds. This was another grim reminder that a system glitch on either side of the great divide could bring Arma­geddon.

We learn that the Soviets had secretly created a “Dead Hand” computer-controlled system that would automatically retaliate even if their human command structure was eliminated. It used thousands of chips, one of which might fail.

Stand Offs and Secrecy

The Cold War invited a lot of bluffing, pretending to be stronger than the enemy, vying to seem the more determined or stubborn, as if unafraid of the consequences. The standoffs over Berlin and Cuba moved Kennedy from a position of publicly wishing to get rid of nuclear weapons to pushing to the very brink of all out war.

Roosevelt did not tell Vice President Truman that the bomb was being built, which meant that Truman was not well prepared to make crucial decisions when he suddenly became president.

Later, Eisenhower wrote a secret memo pre authorizing NATO generals to use American tactical nuclear weapons in case of a Soviet conventional attack, while assuring the world that they were completely under presidential control. He didn’t even tell Congress.

Johnson and Kennedy made election hay by accusing the Eisenhower administration of allowing a missile gap to develop and, when elected, refused to acknowledge that they had been wrong. Kennedy scraped through the Cuban missile crisis by secretly promising to remove missiles from Turkey and not invade Cuba.

Secrecy permeated the system. Most accidents were hidden from the public; when that proved impossible, assurances were given that there had been no danger of a detonation or plutonium pollution—even when this was untrue. Even at lower levels secrecy prevailed; when two airmen were hospitalized after the Damascus missile blew up, the air force refused for days to identify the chemicals they had breathed because they had assured people that there was no danger. One died and the other survived to live a truncated life. Secrecy enabled authorities to hide mistakes and avoid accountability. Schlosser argues that the absence of public scrutiny had often made nuclear weapons more likely to cause a disaster.

Secrecy also dominated relations between the great powers, creating the insecurity that nourished the military industrial complexes on both sides. In the Cuban standoff a crucial message sent by telex cable took eleven hours to get from Moscow to Washington. Not until August 30 , 1963, after the Cuban crisis was over, was a hotline provided to let a president negotiate quickly or ask his counterpart to hold fire after a minor accidental attack.

Though the men who controlled the terror weapons were not unaware of the magnitude of their responsibility, they and their presidents were locked into the game.

In 2007 a group of retired top warriors, including George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, Sam Nunn, later supported by Robert McNamara, Colin Powell and George H.W. Bush, jointly urged the abolition of the weapons they had brandished, noting their danger and immorality.

But by then the public had forgotten the fears of the Cold War, and responded with a yawn. They seemed unconcerned that tens of thousands of weapons are still targeted—many of them on hair-trigger alert, ready to respond massively to an attack, system malfunction, computer glitch, clever hacker, terrorist, or accident.

Of course many citizens and activists do understand the dangers but their appeals lack traction with those invested in the status quo, or those who don’t know how to get out of it. Presidents came to power determined to find a way to end the nuclear standoff. Kennedy, 1961, declared at the UN that “Mankind must put an end to war—or war will put an end to mankind.” He was soon forced by the system to play by the rules of the deadly “chicken” game.

Schlosser’s documentation is impressive with 112 pages of notes and bibliography. He tracked down all the records that became available, and found many hidden facts through the Freedom of Information Act. When the air force didn’t bother to keep or find accident reports, he found them in the archived papers of deceased Congressmen. He interviewed and even befriended many persons actively involved in the manufacture, control, and deployment of weapons to get the inside stories on safety.

The story of the Damascus explosion is personalized with biographical details of most participants. We know whose wife is about to deliver a baby while the drama is unfolding. Real people dwell in a world beyond their control. Schlosser offers us a glimpse into that world, which is also beyond our control—indeed, beyond anyone’s control.

What the Future has in Store

As a minor peace activist I doubted Schlosser’s thorough but even-handed analysis. Surely there were villains that ought to be exposed! But his epilogue forced me to acknowledge that the people who deal with the bomb, for all their limitations, are not the real problem. The evil is inherent in the bomb itself. Its very existence forces responses that are at once both logical and grossly immoral. No tinkering can solve the problems of command and control.

Very complex systems cannot be made immune to accidents; Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima prove it. Those are certainly less complex than the command and control of a world cluttered with nuclear weapons. There is only one solution and that is to get rid of the thing itself, find a way to ban the bomb.

I give the last word to the author:

“Right now thousands of missiles are hidden away, literally out of sight, topped with warheads and ready to go, awaiting the right electrical signal. They are a collective death wish, barely suppressed. Every one of them is an accident waiting to happen, a potential act of mass murder. They are out there, waiting, soulless and mechanical, sustained by our denial—and they work.”

Reviewed by Ron Shirtliff, a retired Ryerson University professor and member of Peace’s editorial board.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2014

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2014, page 27. Some rights reserved.

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