In jarring contrast to the forested vacationland of Hood Canal — a shellfish and boating paradise about 20 miles west of Seattle — 560-foot-long black submarines silently come and go amid the water skiers and sailboats.
Thanks to the eight ballistic-missile submarines homeported at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor — the largest concentration of deployed nuclear weapons in the U.S. — Washington state would be the third-largest nuclear-weapons power in the world if it were a sovereign nation, according to government estimates.
Defense Secretary James N. Mattis visited the base last week, touring the USS Kentucky, which carries a nuclear payload equal to 1,400 bombs like the one dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. He pronounced the sub fleet ready for action if needed. On the same day, President Trump boastfully tweeted about the power of America’s nuclear arsenal, saying he wishes he won’t have to use it.
“Hopefully, all this is not as ominous as it sounds,” said Glen Milner of Seattle, a member of Ground Zero, a local anti-nuclear group that holds protests at the 7,000-acre base. The demonstrators are regularly joined by others, including priests and nuns who have been arrested for cutting through the base fence and wound up receiving jail and prison sentences.
These protests have been going on for years but have grabbed the spotlight — as have other issues connected to the Bangor base and nukes in the Northwest in general.
“But it should remind citizens of the Pacific Northwest,” Milner said, “that our area will be in the forefront of any nuclear exchange, whether it involves North Korea, China or Russia.”
Although North Korea on Monday said it will stand down on its threat to bomb the waters off Guam, a U.S. territory — apparently also ending threats to attack Hawaii and the West Coast, with Bangor and Seattle in the crosshairs — the city went through moments of confusion and concern broken up by moments of levity.
Seattle writer Erik Lacitis recently posted a reminder of the era of backyard bomb shelters and duck-and-cover drills — the image of a six-decades-old civil defense manual on his Facebook page depicting an atomic bomb exploding over downtown Seattle.
“I guess it’s time to reprint this 1951 manual,” he said.
“I am honestly scared,” commented one of his Facebook friends. Another asked, “Does anyone believe Trump?”
Who’s to say what two of Bangor’s subs are up to, but they are forward-deployed in Guam, from where they operate during much of the year. If North Korea does send its missiles (as it also threatened to do last year and in 2013 before standing down), Trump says its leader Kim Jong Un will regret it.
One of Milner’s fellow Seattleites, TV commenter and retired four-star Gen. Barry McCaffrey, says such a nuke exchange, though unlikely, is on the city’s mind after hearing U.S. officials claim that Seattle is also within striking distance of Kim’s missiles.
But Kim’s saber rattling is no less worrisome than Trump’s responses, said McCaffrey, who moved to Seattle seven years ago to be with family and is regularly shown on MSNBC with a view of the Space Needle.
“Seattle is hugely hostile to Mr. Trump,” said the general. “Most do not trust him….[He’s] impulsive, poorly educated and dishonest.”
Those are likely widely shared sentiments in uber-liberal Seattle, which overwhelming voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Seattleites have shared advice on social media on what to do if someone survives a nuclear blast (hide behind a structure with thick walls and drink bottled water only), while others admitted to having “nuclear nightmares” and expressed trepidation about a “mysterious” spy plane circling Seattle for days (the Air Force later confirmed it’s one of ours, conducting training flights).
Several real estate agents reported that bomb shelters were increasingly being mentioned in house-sale ads, such as this one: “This property has the historic Wishram bomb shelter on it too! Truly unique and very impressive!”
“While we are seeing people writing about preparing for a nuclear attack, I see little about preventing one,” says Leonard Eiger, a Ground Zero member. “I would expect that any sane military officer you speak with would say that there is no military response to the situation with [North Korea]. Sustained diplomacy is the only option.”
On Monday, Ground Zero members held a vigil before briefly blockading the Bangor sub base during the morning shift change, carrying banners onto the roadway at the main gate, Eiger said. The demonstrators were removed by state patrol officers, cited for being in the roadway illegally and released.
But perhaps the most perplexing news that residents have encountered is that if worried citizens truly want their government to prepare for a possible nuclear attack, they can’t.
In Washington, that’s illegal.
The state Legislature, in part to symbolically mark the winding down of the Cold War, approved a bill in 1984 stating the Washington State Military Department (which oversees National Guard and emergency operations) shall “not include preparation for emergency evacuation or relocation of residents in anticipation of nuclear attack” in its planning. It was the lawmakers’ way of celebrating the nuclear threat was over.
It was a dusty, forgotten law until it appeared North Korea would take out parts of the Evergreen State.
State Sen. Mark Miloscia, however, has introduced a bill to repeal the measure.
The bill wasn’t inspired by the current events. Miloscia learned of the old law in May. A B-52 pilot during the Cold War years, Miloscia worried that the preparation ban “puts like a big stop order on any sort of planning we have to do to prepare for the unthinkable.”
The bill won’t be considered until the next session begins in January, assuming everyone’s still here.
Anderson is a special correspondent.