Dedicated sardonically "to Dwight and Nikita"
President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev,
for those too young to remember Mordecai Roshwald's futuristic
7 was published in 1959. It was the "diary" of a "button pusher" responsible
for launching a nuclear war while living 4,000 feet underground in the deepest
part of a seven-level bomb shelter. In the course of the book, each level of
the shelter is successively snuffed out and falls silent. It represented, as
Paul Brians wrote in his Nuclear
Holocausts, Atomic War in Fiction, 1895-1984, "a seven-stage holocaust
that deconstructs, as it were, the results of the seven days of creation in
As in the 1957 nuclear
novel (and 1959 movie)
the Beach, Roshwald's embunkered world ended not with a bang but with
a whimper. His was but one of a riot of novels, movies, and even TV shows that
populated the 1950s and early 1960s with radioactive creatures, alien "rays,"
hordes of mutants, and post-apocalyptic landscapes galore like the desert
from which, 600 years after a nuclear holocaust, the monks of A
Canticle for Liebowitz struggle to get their prospective saint canonized.
Who could, for instance, forget the screeching sound made by the gigantic mutant
ants in Them! or the
Twilight Zone episode in which friends and neighbors fall
to fighting over who will occupy a private fallout shelter during a nuclear
alarm, or the one in which possibly the last
man on Earth after the apocalypse hits, being nearly blind, drops and breaks
his only pair of glasses.
While film-makers set loose their giant ants, spiders, dinosaurs,
and even rabbits (in the deeply avoidable 1972 film Night of the
Lepus), members of the National Security Council, in the privacy
of highly classified documents, screened nightmares of their own. From
perhaps 1950 on, in their new battle scenarios, which were but other
kinds of "fiction," these advisors to the president, began to plan for
the possibility that 100 atomic bombs landing on targets in the U.S.
would kill or injure 22 million Americans, or that an American "blow"
might result in the "complete destruction" of the Soviet Union.
About the time Roshwald published his novel, American military planners
were developing the country's first
SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan) meant to organize the
delivery of more than 3,200 nuclear weapons to 1,060 targets in the
Communist world, including at least 130 cities which would, if all went
well, cease to exist. Official estimates of casualties ran to 285 million
dead and 40 million injured (and this undoubtedly underestimated radiation
effects). Everyone, it seemed, had a version of the "unthinkable" to
offer, of future wars of annihilation in which humanity would descend
en masse into the charnel house of history.
And then, as if in imitation of Dr.
Strangelove, the Pentagon created its own version of Level 7 by
gouging out the insides of a mountain in Colorado. And among those who
ended up working inside Cheyenne Mountain was none other than Tomdispatch
regular William Astore, who now takes us into the real Level 7, while
reminding us that the unthinkable is still being thought about and
not only in outlaw "rogue states" either.
This piece is a shared venture of Tomdispatch on-line and the Nation
magazine in print. Tom
Leaving Cheyenne Mountain
How I Learned to Start Worrying and Loathe the Bomb
By William Astore
It took more than four years just to excavate
and construct that mountain redoubt outside of Colorado Springs, that Cold
War citadel whose two huge blast doors weighed 25 tons each. Within its confines,
under 2,000 feet of Rocky Mountain granite, fifteen buildings were constructed,
each mounted on steel springs, each spring weighing nearly half a ton, so
that, when the Soviet nukes exploded, each building would sway but not collapse.
When it became operational in 1966, the Cheyenne Mountain Complex
was the ultimate bomb shelter. Its 200 or so crewmembers were believed
to have a 70% likelihood of surviving a five-megaton blast with a
three-mile circular error of probability, even if the surrounding
countryside became an irradiated wasteland. Today, over four decades
later, the Complex remains an important command center, though last
year the military announced
that it would now serve primarily as a back-up facility (on "warm
stand-by," in military jargon).
From 1985 to 1988, in the waning years of the Cold War, as a young
Air Force lieutenant, my job took me inside that mountain citadel.
The approach to it wasn't in any way awesome, since the mountain,
at the south end of the Front Range of Colorado Springs, is overshadowed
by Pike's Peak. Except for all the communication antennae blinking
red at night, you'd hardly know that it was the site of a major command
center for a future nuclear war. Yet each time I drove up its access
road, its solid, granite bulk made an impression; so, too, did the
security fence topped by cameras and razor wire, the security police
toting M-16s, and the massive access tunnel, bored out of solid rock
and paved for vehicular traffic that still leads inside the mountain
to the actual command centers.
Like cereal box atomic decoder rings and "duck and cover" exercises,
the Complex is a relic of the Cold War era. I entered on a bus which,
though painted Air Force blue, was similar to the ones I had taken
in grade school. On a few nights, I left work after the last bus took
off and so had to hike the third of a mile out of the tunnel, a claustrophobic
and often bone-chilling experience in the windy and wintry Rockies
until, that is, you emerged into a starry night above with the
lights of the city twinkling below.
Of that "mountain," meant to corral and contain our nuclear fears,
what struck most first-time visitors were the huge steel-reinforced
doors, ten-feet high and several feet thick. They were supposed
to seal the Complex, protecting it from a nuclear strike. Then, there
were the enormous springs (1,319 in all) upon which each of the 15
separate buildings inside that mountain rest. I liked to think of
them as giant (if immobile) Slinkies. As visitors got their bearings
and looked around, they were sometimes disconcerted by the bolts embedded
in the granite walls and ceiling. These held wire mesh, meant to stabilize
the rock and protect against falling shards. Lots of exposed pipes
and cables gave the mountain a style that might be termed "early industrial
chic" and one that you sometimes see echoed today in high-end lofts
and dance clubs.
The blast doors were usually open except, of course, during "exercises,"
when the mountain "buttoned up" its self-contained world. Along with
enough food and other provisions to weather any initial rounds of
Earthly devastation, the mountain also had four freshwater reservoirs,
each with a total holding capacity of 1.5 million gallons. The inside
joke was that the Complex, technically an Air Force station, had its
very own navy the row boats used to cross the reservoirs (though,
sad to say, I never used one). Today, when I think of them, the River
Styx and Charon come to mind.
Images of the underworld were then, and remain, all too appropriate.
By the time I was inside Cheyenne Mountain, we knew it was vulnerable
to a new generation of high-yield, highly accurate Soviet Intercontinental
Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). In case of a full-fledged nuclear war,
as a popular poster of the 1970s put it, we had no doubt that any
of us could "bend over and kiss your ass goodbye."
The citadel that had been built to ensure official survival during
a planetary holocaust was, by then, sure to be among the initial targets
struck by those ICBMs perhaps a dozen or more warheads to ensure
a "first strike kill." Our job was simply to detect the coming nuclear
attack by the Soviets and act quickly enough to coordinate a retaliatory
strike to ensure that the Soviet part of the planet went down
before we, too, were obliterated, along with Colorado Springs (a "target-rich"
city that includes Fort Carson to the south, Peterson Air Force Base
to the east, and the U.S. Air Force Academy to the north).
Launched over the North Pole from missile fields in the USSR, those
Soviet ICBMs would explode over American cities in 30 minutes. Reacting
before they hit placed a premium on decisions based on computers and
early warning satellites. Due to the hair-trigger nature of such a
scenario, human errors and system malfunctions were inevitable. One
false alarm came on November 9, 1979, when a technician mistakenly
loaded a "training tape" that simulated a full-scale Soviet missile
attack. Two false alarms followed
less than a year later on June 3 and June 6, 1980 and were eventually
traced according to an official Air Force release to a defective
integrated circuit, a silicon chip costing less than $100. In each
case, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) alerted ICBM crews and scrambled
air crews to nuclear-armed B-52s, which were warming up engines for
takeoff before the alarms were rescinded.
Cheyenne Mountain was something more than a bastion to seal in our
nuclear fears. It was also a repository of our technological dreams
and a response (however feeble) to our technological nightmares. In
this high-tech, man-made cave, we could for a moment forget how hydrogen
bombs had reduced the bravest of warriors to inconsequential matter.
To this end, we cultivated a quiet professionalism a studied detachment
from our surroundings as well as the implications of Cold War deterrence
That said, working within the mountain was decidedly unglamorous.
Obviously, there were no windows, so no natural light. Air circulated
artificially (and noisily). As big as that cavern sometimes seemed,
space was often at a premium in a complex manned 24/7 with at least
a brigadier general always on duty in case the "nuclear balloon" went
up. (I recall one quiet mid-shift where I read several chapters of
Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising the irony was not lost on
me.) Crewmembers sat in the Missile Warning Center in front of consoles,
processing data from satellites and other sensors. The most vital
of these were the super secret DSP satellites used to detect Soviet
missile launches. I worked mostly in the Space Surveillance Center,
which kept track of the objects orbiting Earth (including lost wrenches
and shattered satellites) tedious, but necessary work that involved
weekly software "crashes."
The men and women who served in the Complex were anything but Strangelovean.
The U.S. strategy of that time, known as Mutually Assured Destruction
(which boiled down to the distinctly Strangelovean acronym of MAD),
may have been comical in an obscenely dark way, but the crewmembers
themselves did their duty with little fanfare. Like them, I was caught
up in "the mission," in making everything work, even if everything
included a potentially world-ending event. We all each in his or
her own mundane way became servants of the early warning machinery
of nuclear war. We were, as technology critic Lewis Mumford might
have put it then, "encapsulated men" serving the Pentagonal megamachine.
"Manly" military glory was still an ever-present ideal in those
years; but, as we all were well aware, it lay somewhere beyond the
mountain and missile silos in the so-called air-breathing element
of the Strategic Air Command. It was the property of the air-jockeys
in the long-range bombers. Today, it's not the brilliant, but intentionally
deviant Dr. Strangelove that really catches the ethos of that
SAC moment a certain cocksure insouciance to what bombing actually
meant when your planes were nuclear armed. For that, check out the
1963 movie A Gathering of Eagles, starring Rock Hudson and
Rod Taylor. Watch for the scene in which Taylor resolutely reacts
to the news of a no-notice, make-or-break "Operational Readiness Inspection"
the dreaded ORI. He rips off his tie, Clark Kent-style, exposing
an impressive thatch of chest hair. It's a classic embodiment of testosterone-driven,
hard-charging command, whose end point is redemption for him as well
as the wing not the extinction of life on Earth as we know it.
Certainly though, Dr. Strangelove did a better job capturing the
surreal world of nuclear theory outside Cheyenne Mountain,
rather than the humdrum one inside the Complex. Serving in SAC in
the early 1970s, for instance, my brother routinely appended to its
official motto, "peace is our profession," the unofficial, but popular,
"war is our hobby." That, after all, was more consistent with the
mailed fist that dominated SAC's emblem. While it clearly existed
to deter nuclear wars, SAC also stood ready to fight and "win" them.
As late as 1999, one B-1 bomber pilot assured me, straight-faced,
"Don't tell me we can't win a nuclear war that's what I train for."
Buck Turgidson, eat your heart out.
My War Games
In 1986, the year President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail
Gorbachev teetered on the brink of eliminating superpower nuclear
weapons at their summit meeting in Reykjavik, I participated in a
computerized war game inside Cheyenne Mountain. It ended in a simulated
nuclear attack against the United States.
By today's standards, our computers were primitive leviathans: IBM
mainframes with old-fashioned tape drives roughly the size of jumbo,
sub-zero refrigerators in today's McMansions; they had disc drives
or "packs" roughly the size of dishwashers. Our computer screens were
a monochromatic green. From a Hollywood special-effects perspective,
they were poorly lit and relentlessly boring not at all like the
glitzy nuclear war room in the 1983 film WarGames that starred
a fresh-faced Matthew Broderick.
As those monochromatic missile tracks crossed the Arctic Circle
and began to terminate at various U.S. cities, the mood among the
battle staff grew reflective. Yes, it was only a game, but everyone
present knew that nuclear Armageddon with the Soviet Union was
possible, and that it would kill tens, perhaps even hundreds of millions
of people in both countries. That day, in that command center, we
were virtual witnesses to our worst nightmare: a nuclear holocaust
that might not only destroy our country and the Soviet Union, but
perhaps civilization as we knew it.
How We Never Left Cheyenne Mountain
When the Soviet Union began to disintegrate in 1989, few people were more
surprised than our intelligence agencies and our military (myself included).
After putting decades of thought and planning into mutually assured destruction,
after planning not just to fight but to win nuclear wars, we now faced a brighter,
potentially less nuclear, or even non-nuclear future. And all this had come
about under the shadow of true global terror without a Department
of Homeland Security, or an Orwellian "PATRIOT Act," or so many of the other
accoutrements of our present homeland security moment. (Without, in fact, even
the emotive, vaguely un-American word "homeland" being in use.)
Indeed, when it was over, we claimed victory on the very basis that
our freedoms and our political system were stronger than our
rival's. We had, those declaring victory claimed, trusted and empowered
the people, not an ossified state bureaucracy.
The optimism of 1990 was strikingly mainstream. President George
H.W. Bush spoke of "a new era, freer from the threat of [nuclear]
terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the
quest for peace." We were supposedly lining up as a society to cash-in
our "peace dividend" chips with our winnings designated for pressing
domestic concerns. Like presidential candidate Warren G. Harding,
who campaigned for a return to "normalcy" after World War I, Jeane
Kirkpatrick, Reagan's tough-talking ambassador to the United Nations,
wrote that, after so many decades of vigilance and sacrifice, we could
once again become "a normal country in a normal time."
But it never happened. Instead of normalcy, we remained hunkered
down in Cheyenne Mountain. We continued to look fearfully out at the
world, while arming ourselves to the teeth. We became wedded to the
idea of bunkers and barriers, whether fortified fences along the Mexican
border, imperial military bases along the peripheries of a burgeoning
empire, or, on a micro scale, security gates patrolled by small armies
of private guards to keep the "have nots" out of "have" communities.
(To these, the ultra-rich have now added "panic rooms" in their mansions
tiny domestic Cheyenne Mountains secured by mini-steel blast doors,
monitored by cameras, and stocked with provisions.) After the attacks
of September 11, 2001, it was as if we had "buttoned up" and slammed
shut the blast doors to Fortress America.
How did the planet's self-proclaimed "sole superpower" in its moment of triumph
become such a fearful country? In our endless face-off with the Soviet Union,
did we come to resemble it far more than we ever imagined? After all, instead
of the USSR, it's now we who are fighting a difficult war in Afghanistan; it's
now we who are inflating our currency with massive deficits for weapons of marginal
utility; it's now we who put forward unilateral proposals for earth-penetrating,
bunker-busting nukes; it's now we who are often seen as aggressors on the world
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the North American Aerospace
Defense Command (NORAD) this May ("Guarding What You Value Most" is
the motto at its web site),
isn't it high time that we closed those 25-ton blast doors one last
time and, without glancing back, walked toward those starry skies
and the twinkling lights of that city in the distance? Isn't it high
time that we fulfilled the Reykjavik dream?
As Americans, shouldn't we again learn to start worrying and loathe
the bomb so much so that we roll up our collective sleeves and
work to eliminate it from our planet? It's never too late to cash-in
whatever peace-dividend chips still remain. And as we walk away with
the last of our Cold War winnings no matter how meager let's
leave behind as well the bunker and barrier mentality that went with
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), has taught at the
Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School. He now teaches at the Pennsylvania
College of Technology. He is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism
(Potomac Press, 2005) among other works. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2008 William Astore