Command and Control
Our own nuclear missiles may be a greater danger to us than those of our enemies.
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Schlosser ably traces the ebb and flow of superpower rivalry and its intrinsic dangers. There were American civilian and military leaders who argued for a nuclear sneak attack on the Soviet Union. Fear that Moscow would strike first led to hair-trigger, “launch-on-warning” readiness of nuclear forces for decades. President Eisenhower even delegated the decision to use nuclear weapons to NATO commanders in Europe. Like so many similar decisions over the years, this one was kept secret from the public. Nuclear weaponry and warfare are not conducive to transparency or a deliberate democratic process.Skip to next paragraph
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The author, however, spends most of the book building a case that Americans were, and still could be, in as much danger from their own nuclear weapons as from those of their enemies. When faced with a choice between safety and the readiness of its nuclear arsenal, the military has historically come down on the side of the latter. Being quick on the draw – i.e. using the weapons before losing them to a first strike – was viewed as vital to national survival and deterrence (Mutual Assured Destruction). Safety locks or time-consuming procedures for authorizing the use of weapons took a backseat. And what if the US president were dead or incommunicado? Well, others needed to have the authority to pull the trigger.
Scary as this history is, the central narrative of the book concerns the explosion of a Titan II missile in Damascus, Ark., in 1980. This frightening tragedy is ladled out in stages throughout to build suspense and to provide a focus amid reams of other information and vignettes. And while as of this writing no nuclear weapon has exploded accidentally, servicemen have given their lives to keep us safe. For example, a previous Titan II accident in 1965 took 53 lives.
Schlosser concedes that much of his book focuses on times and practices that have since changed and improved. The end of the Cold War was a boon to improved safety. There are many fewer nuclear weapons today, and they are under tighter supervision and at lower states of readiness. Still, the United States has enough nukes – 4,650, according to the author – to get everyone’s attention: more than the Russians and more than the Chinese, who have some 240 such weapons in their arsenal. [Editor's note: This review originally mistakenly stated that Russia and China combined have 240 nuclear weapons.]
Things may have improved, but accidents continue to occur and a single detonation would be catastrophic. Some American military leaders recently argued that about 300 nuclear weapons would be enough to deter our enemies. Go figure.
David Holahan is a regular contributor to the Monitor's books section.