To know where you are, it helps to know where you’ve been, right?
So early in his deeply reported, deeply frightening story of America’s massive nuclear arsenal, “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety,” investigative reporter Eric Schlosser takes us back to World War II and the Manhattan Project.
The day after the “Trinity” test in the desert of New Mexico, dozens of scientists who had worked on the bomb signed a petition addressed to President Harry S. Truman. The petition warned that using the atomic bomb against Japan would unleash “an era of destruction on an unimaginable scale.”
“The petition never reached the president,” Schlosser reports. “And even if it had, it probably wouldn’t have changed his mind.”
The rest is well known: Two bombs were dropped, Japan’s emperor ordered his subjects to surrender, and the nuclear arms race had begun.
But the race has been dangerous, just as the scientists warned. The danger has come not just from the possibility of war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union but from the routine handling of the very weapons that were meant to keep America safe.
Nuclear weapons have been lost, misplaced and left untended without security. Accidents at missile sites have been caught with only minutes, maybe seconds, to spare.
Using the Freedom of Information Act and conducting myriad interviews with technicians, military personnel and nuclear scientists, Schlosser explains how the enormous technical complexity of nuclear weapons and the military’s top-down, centralized management style have put the public at risk.
“The instinct to blame the people at the bottom not only protected those at the top, it also obscured an underlying truth,” Schlosser writes. “The fallibility of human beings guarantees that no technological system will ever be infallible.”
Add to the mix the military’s need/penchant for secrecy and the danger increases, “Command and Control” asserts, because it blocks out voices who might be able to spot problems before they become disasters: “The need to protect national security has long been used as a justification for hiding things to avoid embarrassment.”
Schlosser’s bold assertions are strongly supported by facts and a compelling narrative style — a formula that Schlosser honed in his 2001 bestseller “Fast Food Nation,” which explored unsanitary conditions and unhealthy food in the fast-food industry and was later turned into a film by Richard Linklater.
“Fast Food Nation” triggered much soul-searching about a topic that was part of Americans’ daily lives. This time, the facts are probably too technical for anyone outside the nuclear industry to dispute, but one can hope that “Command and Control” will spark debate about the safety and advisability of America’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, the kind of debate that Schlosser argues has been missing.
His main example is an incident that occurred in 1980 at a missile silo outside the farming community of Damascus, Ark. In the silo was a W-53 thermonuclear warhead, sitting atop a Titan II missile. An Air Force enlisted man, performing routine maintenance, dropped a wrench that fell 80 feet and pierced the skin of one of the rocket’s fuel tanks.
What follows is a techno-thriller of the first order. Schlosser describes the heart-pounding rush to avoid what the Manhattan Project scientists called the unimaginable: an explosion of the world’s most lethal weapon, multiple times more destructive than the bomb that leveled Hiroshima.
It is a testament to Schlosser’s skill that he can keep the suspense going even when we know — spoiler alert — that the warhead did not explode and casualties were limited to one dead, 20 injured and a deep hole blown in the Arkansas countryside. That a catastrophe was averted can be traced, Schlosser argues, to the training, quick-thinking and, yes, bravery of military personnel at the scene — and a good deal of luck.
But luck is a lousy way to bet against an accident in the future.
“I have no doubt that America’s nuclear weapons are among the safest, most advanced, most secure against unauthorized use that have ever been built,” he concludes. “And yet the United States has narrowly avoided a long series of nuclear disasters.”
Schlosser is particularly tough on the Navy and its handling of nuclear weapons aboard submarines. He sides with those nuclear scientists who believe the Navy is risking disaster by using an overly dangerous explosive to reduce the weight of its warheads.
One accident could set off a chain-reaction of warheads, according to “Command and Control,” and “spread a good deal of plutonium around the ports of Georgia and Washington state, where Trident submarines are based” — again the kind of allegation that only a few nuclear specialists have enough inside information to debate.
True, of the 70,000 — take in that number, 70,000 — nuclear weapons built by the U.S. since the two bombs that ended World War II, none has ever been detonated by mistake or without proper authority. But what about the problems of nuclear proliferation to Third World countries and the demonstrated sloppiness of the Russians? Chernobyl, anyone?
During the Cold War, there was some level of assurance that nuclear weapons had made war unthinkable, that both superpowers knew the risks. That calculus might not fit rogue countries like North Korea or nations such as India and Pakistan, stewing in religious and cultural enmity.
The push to abolish nuclear weapons comes not just from dedicated peaceniks, Schlosser points out, but from top-tier members of the U.S. security establishment, including former Secretaries of State George Schultz, Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell.
For anyone who thinks the end of the Cold War lessened the danger of nuclear conflict, Schlosser says, the opposite is now true. He writes: “The use of nuclear weapons had become more, not less, likely.”
The unimaginable remains.
Command and Control
Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety
Penguin Press: 640 pp, $36