The Threat of Nuclear Weapons to America

Did you know the U.S. has built nearly 70,000 nuclear weapons since 1945? Did you know the U.S. Air Force lost a B-52 and two hydrogen bombs in an accident over North Carolina in 1961, and that one of those H-bombs was a single safety-switch away from exploding with a blast equivalent to three or four million tons of TNT (roughly 200 Hiroshima-type bombs)? Did you know a U.S. nuclear missile exploded in its silo in Arkansas in 1980, throwing its thermonuclear warhead into the countryside?

On more the one occasion, the U.S. has come close to nuking itself

That last accident is the subject of a PBS American Experience documentary that I watched last night, “Command and Control.” I highly recommend it to all Americans, not just for what it reveals about nuclear accidents and the lack of safety, but for what it reveals about the U.S. military.

Here are a few things I learned about U.S. nuclear weapons and the military from the documentary:

  1. During the silo accident, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) general in charge of nuclear missiles was a pilot with no experience in missiles. His order to activate a venting fan during a fuel leak led to the explosion that destroyed the missile and killed an airman. (Experts from Martin Marietta, the military contractor that built the Titan II missile, advised against such action.)
  2. Airmen who courageously tried against long odds to mitigate the accident, and who were wounded in the explosion, were subsequently punished by the Air Force.
  3. The Air Force refused to provide timely and reliable knowledge to local law enforcement as well as to the Arkansas governor (then Bill Clinton) and senators. Even Vice President Walter Mondale was denied a full and honest accounting of the accident.
  4. Nuclear safety experts concluded that “luck” played a role in the fact that the Titan’s warhead didn’t explode. It was ejected from the silo without its power source, but if that power source had accompanied the warhead as it flew out of the silo, an explosion equivalent to two or three megatons could conceivably have happened.
  5. Finally, the number of accidents involving U.S. nuclear weapons is far greater than the military has previously reported. Indeed, even the nation’s foremost expert in nuclear weapons development was not privy to all the data from these accidents.

In short, the U.S. has been very fortunate not to have nuked itself with multiple hydrogen bombs over the last 70 years. Talk today of a threat from North Korea pales in comparison to the threat posed to the U.S. by its own nuclear weapons programs and their hair-raising record of serious accidents and safety violations.

Despite this record, President Obama and now President Trump have asked for nearly a trillion dollars over the next generation to modernize and improve U.S. nuclear forces. Talk about rewarding failure!

Threatening genocidal murder is what passes for “deterrence,” then and now. This madness will continue as long as people acquiesce to the idea the government knows best and can be trusted with nuclear weapons that can destroy vast areas of our own country, along with most of the world.

To end the insanity, we must commit to eliminating nuclear weapons. Ronald Reagan saw the wisdom of total nuclear disarmament. So should we all.

An Addendum: In my Air Force career, I knew many missileers who worked in silos. They were dedicated professionals. But accidents happen, and complex weapons systems fail often in complex and unpredictable ways. Again, it’s nuclear experts themselves who say that luck has played a significant role in the fact that America hasn’t yet nuked itself. (Of course, we performed a lot of above-ground nuclear testing in places like Nevada, making them “no-go” places to this day due to radiation.)

Update (4/27/17): I’d heard of Air Force plans to base nuclear weapons on the moon, but today I learned that a nuclear test was contemplated on or near the moon as a way of showcasing American might during the Cold War. As the New York Times reported, “Dr. [Leonard] Reiffel revealed that the Air Force had been interested in staging a surprise lunar explosion, and that its goal was propaganda. ‘The foremost intent was to impress the world with the prowess of the United States.’ It was a P.R. device, without question, in the minds of the people from the Air Force.” Dr. Reiffel further noted that, “The cost to science of destroying the pristine lunar environment did not seem of concern to our sponsors [the U.S. military] – but it certainly was to us, as I made clear at the time.”

The U.S. military wasn’t just content to pollute the earth with nuclear radiation: they wanted to pollute space and the moon as well. All in the name of “deterrence.”

Two pictures of above-ground nuclear testing in Nevada in 1955

Here’s a tip, ladies: Wear light-colored dresses during a nuclear war. They absorb less heat
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at wastore@pct.edu. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.

5 thoughts on “The Threat of Nuclear Weapons to America”

  1. The moon? Oh that’s easy. They secretly wanted to nuke the Nazis that have been building a base there.

    BTW when did they retire the 8″ floppy drives? Not yet? I can’t remember.

  2. Can you imagine learning there’s a nuclear silo near one’s home? Yikes.

    I wish they’d reveal some region of the US that’s nowhere near nukes.

    1. The talk at white sands, and even some of the posters in of all places one of the mess halls was the Soviets were trying to beat us to the moon, (Apollo was still going on) not to be first on the moon but to build the first Base on the moon. What Apollo did was demonstrate that a launch from the moon would take far less energy than a launch from the Earth. And that accurate landing coordinates on both surfaces. There was much Science speculation of mining bases being possible. With a lot of the minerals being of the sort that would be amenable to weaponization. There wasn’t at the time a source of water on the moon. Water which you need to get oxygen supplied to the bases.

      And that the mining operations would have the capacity to throw (literally) tons of ore from the surface past lunar orbit and right into earth orbit. Which is a big similarity to launching a warhead into low earth orbit, then drop it back from orbit to the ground or water and do it with the payload, in the case of Apollo, really fragile cargo like live humans.

      Just like putting an ICBM into orbit, and putting it right where you want it. With Apollo it was done twice each trip. The lunar lander had enough fuel to get back into high lunar orbit with most of the mass being the astronauts and the life support system. To get to the moon was hugely expensive.The launch from, not expensive.

      But it depends on water. You’d be in a base that nobody would be able to sneak in and hit the silo with sledgehammers and likewise you’d see ANY launch from Earth and have two days to track it’s trajectory and exactly when it would get close enough to be dangerous.

      The Soviets had a little bit of a financial savings by not pursuing a moon landing. All the data and the Big Datum, the knowledge that it is possible and will work, was provided at Taxpayer Expense funneled through the Pentagon.

      The other part of how that’s relevant, a missile base needs some human presence, to maintain the silos and defend them, and support teams, like cooks and doctors and mechanics. Like on a B52 base. The vast majority of the personnel are Combat Support. about a hundred to one ratio. That takes resources. The uninhabited regions of Earth are empty for a reason. We need food and water and air. The food can be either shipped in at huge expense or you build your military compound near civilian populations. All the crap spewed about Saddam or Gadafi or Kim hiding behind Human Shields, well, Peterson AFB here in the Springs, the front gate is right across the highway from where my mom and niece and her kids had their apartment. The school they attended was less than a mile from there. Ft Bliss, the largest Military installation in America, is right in the middle of El Paso TX and Juarez Chihuahua Mexico. Juarez is several times the size of El Paso. Area and population. I guess the U.S. Military is hiding behind human shields.

      But, and it’s a big ol’ but, where the hell else would they put it? Utah, Arizona, New Mexico Nevada have the lowest population density. There’s bases where there are resources to support them. It’s also where the largest concentration of Indian reservations, AND… the truly uninhabitable land is where they bury Toxic Waste and test weapons.
      Antarctica would be a neat place, other than the climate and isolation and the huge amounts of glaciation, really unstable and a thousand feet or more between the surface of the glacier to the ground.

  3. I saw on the Science Channel, yesterday, “What on Earth?” which is a propaganda show about satellite surveillance, they described the U.S. AND MAYBE BRITISH OR ISRAELI nuclear weapons and certainly nobody else’s nukes to be a “Nuclear Umbrella, guarding US and the rest of the world from chaos.” I got all choked up, my eyes filled with tears, my heart pounded more quickly.. you know, the normal human reactions to the strong odor of Bovine Faecal Matter.

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