Did anyone ever tell you about the last letter of Our Lady of Fatima? It’s more than a dozen years since the night it was revealed to me, but I remember the circumstances exactly. I was in an all-night place called the Peter Pan Diner with a high school buddy of mine. It was 1964, I was 17, and we had been arguing for hours, as we often would, about such matters as the nature of Time before the creation of the universe and the mystery of the afterlife, when this guy hit me with the Fatima prophecy. He said he’d heard it from some seminarians who said they’d heard it from people in the church hierarchy, who said it was a hush-hush matter of intense concern to the Vatican, and to His Holiness himself.
Back in 1913, the story goes, a holy apparition appeared to three Portuguese children near the shrine to the Virgin at Fatima. The heavenly messenger handed the kids three sealed letters for transmittal to the Pope. Eyes only.
The first letter—marked for immediate unsealing—astonished Pope Pius X with a graphic description of a horrifying world war, this just months before the guns of August opened fire. The second letter, said to be marked “Do not open for twenty-five years,” shocked Pius XI in 1938 with its vision of an even more terrible tragedy about to engulf civilization.
And then just last year—and here my friend’s voice dropped, presumably to avoid frightening the people drinking coffee at the next table—just last year, he said, that wonderful man, the late Pope John, unsealed the third and last letter.
The last letter. The chill I felt creeping over me could not be ascribed to the Peter Pan Diner’s creaky air conditioner.
“What was in it?” I asked.
“Nobody knows,” my friend said.
“What do you mean nobody knows? They knew about the other ones.”
“Yes,” said my friend. “But this one is different. They say that when the Holy Father opened it and read what was inside he fainted on the spot. And that he never recovered. And that Pope Paul ordered the letter to be resealed and never opened again. Want to know why? Because the letter tells the exact date of when a total nuclear war that will destroy the entire human race will break out and the pope can’t let it out because of the mass suicides and immorality if people were to learn exactly when they were going to die.”
On January 13, 1975, the New York Times published a brief dispatch headed air force panel recommends discharge of major who challenged “failsafe” system.
“What Major Hering has done,” according to the lawyer for the ICBM launch officer, “is to ask what safeguards are in existence at the highest level of government to protect against an unlawful launch order… what checks and balances there are to assure that a launch order could not be affected by the President gone berserk or by some foreign penetration of the command system.”
The major was not a hysterical peacenik. A combat veteran of Vietnam, he insisted he would have no moral scruples about killing 10 million or so people with his fleet of missiles. He just wanted to make sure that when he got the launch order it wasn’t coming from an impostor or a madman.
Sorry, major, the Air Force replied, a missile crewman like you at the bottom of the chain of command has no “need to know” the answer to that question. In fact, you have no business asking it. When the Times story appeared, the Air Force already was on its way to hustling the major into suspension and early retirement.
Interesting, I thought to myself back in ’75 as I tore out the story. But so many years after Dr. Strangelove and Failsafe, how was it possible that this question did not have a satisfying, reassuring answer, even if the Air Force did not want to disclose it to this troublesome major? And so I filed the clipping away in the semi-oblivion of my “possible stories” file.
We know there is no button wired into the Great Seal in the Oval Office. But that one phone call, the one that kills the seventy million—just where does it go? Who answers?
Two years later I was prowling the corridors of the Pentagon with that now-tattered clipping and a need to know. I was trying to find someone who could give me a satisfactory, reassuring answer to Major Hering’s question. I wasn’t getting any answers. What I was getting, I realized, right there in the Pentagon, was an onset of Armageddon fever unlike any since that night in the Peter Pan Diner when I heard about the Fatima prophecy.
I think it had something to do with seeing the man with the black briefcase face to face. It happened in a parking lot in Deerfield Beach, Florida, in January, 1976. I was traveling with and reporting on President Ford’s Presidential primary campaign. The man with the black briefcase was traveling with President Ford, ready in case the President had to interrupt his Florida primary campaign to wage a nuclear war.
You know about the black briefcase, don’t you? Inside are the Emergency War Order (EWO) authentification codes, which are changed frequently and are supposed to ensure that only the President, their possessor, can authorize a thermonuclear missile or bomber launch. When then-President Richard Nixon boasted to a group of congressmen shortly after the Saturday night massacre that “I could go into the next room, make a telephone call, and in twenty-five minutes seventy million people will be dead,” he left out one detail: he would have to take the black briefcase into the room with him.
That day in Deerfield Beach, Commander in Chief Ford was making his way through throngs of suntanned senior citizens and pale Secret Servicemen out onto a fishing pier to pose with a prize marlin. Passing up a glimpse of the big fish, I was ambling back across a parking lot toward the press bus when suddenly I came upon the man with the black briefcase.
Somehow he seemed to have become separated from the Presidential party in the procession toward the pier, and now he stood fully and formally uniformed in the midst of baggy Bermuda shorts and tropical shirts. Peering about, looking for his lost Commander in Chief, the nuclear-briefcase man looked cut off, detached, uncertain how to respond. And in a different sense so was I. I felt a peculiar sense of dislocation staring at that briefcase. (In case you’re interested it’s a very slim and elegant one: supple black pebble-grained leather with a flap of soft leather fastened by four silver snaps.)
If you wanted to get technical you could say that if the word of a surprise attack on the way reached the President while he was posing with the prize fish, the fact that the man with the black briefcase was here with me and not out on the pier might delay our potential for nuclear retaliation by several, perhaps crucial, seconds. On the other hand some half-a-billion citizens on the other side of the world might enjoy two or three more breaths before their lives were snuffed out by missiles sent by the black-briefcase code. Silly to make these calculations, but what is the proper response to the intimate presence of a key element of the doomsday trigger system? Scream bloody murder? Or should one take, as I did at the time, a detached, esthetic approach to the tableau—relish the piquant frisson of irony at that artifact of instant apocalyptic death standing like a scarecrow amidst the sun-ripening age of the retirees?
Last year when I came upon the Major Hering clipping and read it again, that unsettling vision of the man with the black briefcase came to mind. And my response was different. This time I felt possessed by a “need to know,” a compulsion that eventually led to a 4,000-mile tour of the nuclear trigger system, a pilgrimage that led me down into the Underground Command Post of the Strategic Air Command, up into B-52 bomb bays, down into missile silos, and deep into the heart of the hollowed-out mountain that houses our missile-attack warning screens.
My first stop was Washington, D.C., where, in the course of doing some preliminary research, I came upon a very unsettling document that has kept me up for many nights since. Entitled “First Use of Nuclear Weapons: Preserving Responsible Command and Control,” it is the transcript of a little-noticed set of congressional hearings held in March, 1976. The transcripts represent a concerted effort by the International Security subcommittee of the House Committee on International Affairs to get the answers to Major Hering’s question (indeed, it seems the Hering controversy in part provoked the hearings) and to questions about the curious behavior of then-Defense Secretary James Schlesinger in the last days of the Nixon Presidency.
As the impeachment process wore on and reports circulated about the President’s potentially unstable temperament at the time, Schlesinger took an extraordinary action: he sent out orders to the various communications centers in the nuclear chain of command to report back to him, Schlesinger, any “unusual” orders from the President. The implication was that Schlesinger wanted to know about and, perhaps, veto, a potentially deranged Nixon whim to nuke Vladivostok or the House Judiciary Committee.
The brief flare-up over the Schlesinger order illuminated little more than the extent of consensus ignorance on just how we actually will do it when we do it. Like the facts of life to a bemused child, the facts of nuclear death, before it comes, are more like vague notions than actual clinical details.
We know there is no button wired into the Great Seal in the Oval Office. But that one phone call, the one that kills the seventy million—just where does it go? Who answers? Will the people who answer be loyal to the President or to the Secretary of Defense if the President’s mental condition is suspect? If the Secretary of Defense could veto a launch by a mad President, could a Secretary of Defense initiate a launch if he felt the President was playing Hamlet and was mad not to launch?
The Command and Control hearings document reprints in its appendix a disturbing analysis of these questions by a professor of government at Cornell named Quester. Among other observations, Professor Quester suggests that it is the very precautions taken to thwart a madman general like Strangelove’s Jack D. Ripper that have left us at the mercy of a madman President. Making sure that no one below the President can launch a nuclear war means giving to the President alone more unchecked power to do it himself on a whim and a single phone call. But the more power placed in the President’s hands alone, the more vulnerable the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal is to being disarmed by simply knocking off the President. There must be some provision for a retaliatory threat to be credible in the event a “suitcase bomb,” for instance, results in the death of the President, Vice-President, and most of the Cabinet, and no one can remember whether it’s the Secretary of Agriculture or Commerce who is constitutionally mandated to decide whether we bomb Russia or China or both.
If such contingency plans—for physical rather than constitutional launch orders—exist, as Quester believes, then in effect we are almost back where we started. Because “Plan R,” the linchpin of General Jack D. Ripper’s surprise nuke attack plan in Strangelove, was just that sort of contingency plan—devised to ensure that our bombers would attack their targets even if the U.S. command authority were vaporized in a surprise attack.
Professor Quester’s analysis opens up a dismaying number of disturbing paradoxes in “Command and Control” theory as well as practice. More disturbing than any one of these questions is the fact that these problems haven’t been solved to everyone’s satisfaction by this time. I felt a sinking feeling reading Quester and the other documentary analyses attached to the hearings: O God, did I really have to worry about this? Weren’t people scared enough that it had been taken care of completely by now?
I went through the hearing testimony without much consolation. Some admirals and generals complained to the subcommittee that the new failsafe systems were too stringent—that, in fact, they were worried that they might not be able to launch their nukes when the time came because of all the red tape the bureaucrats had put between them and their missiles. But when the committee tried to get the answers to questions such as those raised by Quester about the actual control of nuclear weapons at the top of the chain of command and the mechanics of the transfer of constitutional succession, they were told either that such information was classified and they had no “need to know’,” or that “no one was sure” what would obtain.
So I took my underlined and annotated copy of the Command and Control hearings transcript over to the Pentagon. Most questions were referred to the Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, and that’s when SAC gave me the big invitation.
Would I like, the SAC people asked, to visit the Underground Command Post buried beneath the Nebraska prairie? Would I like a tour through a Looking Glass Plane—one of the curiously named “airborne command posts” that would take over the launching of missiles if the SAC Underground Command Post suffered a direct 5-megaton hit? Would I like to go to a missile base in North Dakota and descend into an operational launch capsule and crawl into a B-52 bomb bay? Would I like to enter the hollowed-out mountain in Colorado that housed the headquarters of the North American Air Defense Command, the supersensitive safety-catch on the nuclear trigger?
Thermonuclear porn revisited
The nearest motel to the SAC Command Post is a Ramada Inn in a place called Bellevue, Nebraska. I stayed up late the night before my descent into the underground war room rereading Failsafe, spellbound once again by the scenes in the war room—half the book takes place there—the very underground war room to which I was to descend the next morning. Rereading Failsafe was one of the final assignments in the task of preparation I’d given myself in the month between my visit to the Pentagon and my actual departure for triggerworld. The overall task had been to recapitulate the ontogeny of the thermonuclear fever I suffered as an adolescent by rereading, in the order I’d originally devoured them, all the classics of a genre I’ve come to call thermonuclear pornography. Back when I was a kid I’d read it all.
I’d started with the soft-core stuff: the tear-jerking, postattack tristesse of the slowly expiring Australian survivors in On the Beach, spiced as it was with a memorable seduction ploy in which a doom-maddened woman goes so far as to unfasten her bikini top on a first date, a hint of the unleashed inhibitions the end of the world could engender. This only aroused my appetite for the more explicit stuff: such nuclear foreplay novels as Red Alert and Failsafe with their mounting urgencies as the stiffening finger on the atomic button brought the trembling world to the brink of “going all the way,” to use a metaphor from another adolescent preoccupation whose urgencies may indeed have fueled this one. To a bored and repressed high school student, nuclear war novels were not about skin-searing blast-burns but were dramas of inhibition and release. In that sense the foreplay genre was somehow unsatisfying, ending, as most of them did, with some chastening and guilty retreats and vows of eternal nuclear chastity forevermore. Fruitlessly, I scoured the subgenres of post-World War III science fiction (mutants stalk humans in the rubble; wise aliens sift through ruins for clues to the extinction of life on Planet III) for at least a retrospective fantasy of what the actual outbreak of Armageddon would be like, but all they delivered were teasing references of the sort Woody Allen parodied in Sleeper (“We believe that the individual responsible for touching off the thermonuclear catastrophe was a man named Albert Shanker but …”).
It was not until I began reading the truly-hard-core stuff—the strategists—that I found some measure of voyeuristic satisfaction. Reading Herman Kahn’s On Escalation was like coming upon an illustrated marriage manual after trying to figure out sex from Doris Day movies. With what fierce joy and strange receptivity did I follow the exquisitely fine gradations on the forty-four-step escalation ladder erected by Herman Kahn, with its provocatively titled rungs like No. 4, “Hardening of Position”; No. 11,“Super Ready Status”; No. 37, “Provocative Counter Measures”; all the way up to the ultimate and total release of No. 44, “Spasm War.”
That night in Bellevue I felt a renewed rush of that thermonuclear prurience when I reread the first big war-room scene in Failsafe.
Do you remember the war-room scenes in Failsafe? Do you remember Failsafe? That was the trembling-on-the-brink novel that wasn’t funny like Strangelove. Or witty. But powerful. In Failsafe, a condenser burnout in a war-room machine fails to send a “recall message” to a nuclear-armed B-52 as it approaches its “failsafe point,” and the bomber heads toward target Moscow as men in the White House and the SAC war room try to defuse the fateful, final explosion.*
Back to the war-room scenes in Failsafe. Here’s something you might not remember about those scenes, something I recalled only on rereading the novel. When the big crisis occurs, the war room is sealed off and two civilian visitors touring the place, just as I will be, are trapped inside as the greatest drama in history unfolds before them.
Before falling asleep that night in my Ramada Inn room, I must admit I entertained myself with some old-fashioned nuke-porn fantasies. After all the SALT talks had broken down, détente was crumbling into recriminations about human rights. Jimmy Carter was flying around in his nuclear emergency command plane and running nuclear-alert escape drills at the White House. Did he know something we didn’t? Alarmist articles with ominous titles such as “Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Can Fight and Win a Nuclear War” were appearing in sober journals. A Soviet surprise attack could happen at any time, warned retired Colonel Richard Pipes in Commentary. What if it were to happen tomorrow? I fantasized. What if, as in Failsafe, I was to find myself trapped on the Command Balcony when the real thing began and the footprints of incoming missiles began stalking across the big war-room screens.
[*Failsafe and Dr. Strangelove are based on mistaken premises, as Sidney Hook pointed out in his contemporaneous polemic The Failsafe Fallacy. The Air Force never had a policy of ordering planes to strike their targets unless recalled at a certain point. Bombers would fly to designated points outside Soviet airspace during alerts, but the policy, now known as “positive control” rather than the tainted “failsafe,” required that a bomber turn around and head back unless it received a direct voice-communication order to strike. A mechanical failure might cause a plane to turn back by mistake but not to head for Moscow. Unfortunately Hook falls victim to a fallacy of his own in The Failsafe Fallacy, assuming that by discrediting a key assumption in a speculative novel he has somehow discredited the notion that we have any reason to fear a nuclear war caused by mechanical failure. In fact, warnings of possible surprise attacks have been triggered on NORAD radar screens by fights of Canadian geese and the reflection of the moon under peculiar atmospheric conditions. Under certain contemplated alert postures—the hair-trigger, or launch-on-warning, stance, for instance—such mechanical errors could be enough to launch our entire arsenal mistakenly.]
What an exciting prospect—that memorable phrase of John Dean’s on the White House tapes leaped to mind. I wouldn’t mind it one bit; I realized that in some small way I might be hoping for it. That I could entertain such shameful speculation indicates not only that nuclear annihilation appeals to infantile fantasies of grandiosity but also that it is almost impossible to take the idea of nuclear annihilation to heart, so that it can be felt the way other deaths are feared and felt. What sane human could be excited at the prospect of his friends and loved ones dying on the morrow. Yet there is something in the totality of the way we think of nuclear death that not only insulates but appeals. I think it has to do with some early extreme ways of phrasing and thinking about it.
When early strategists began to talk about the totality of nuclear war, they used phrases like “the death of consciousness” on the planet. Kissinger used the only slightly more modest phrase “an end to history.” Without consciousness not only is there no history, there is no sorrow, no pain, no remorse. No one is missing or missed. There is nothing to feel bad about because nothing exists to feel. A death so total becomes almost communal. The holocaust of the European Jews left behind millions to feel horror, bitterness, and loss. When people began applying the word “holocaust” to nuclear war they meant a holocaust with no survivors, or one in which, to use the well-known phrase, “the survivors would envy the dead.” Even now when a much-disputed scientific report argues the probability for long-term post-holocaust survival, at least in the southern hemisphere, one does not, if one is an American, think of surviving a total nuclear war. One thinks of dying in a flash before there’s time to feel the pain. Could that be the attraction, if that word may be used, of nuclear war? Is there some Keatsian element ‘’half in love with easeful death” in our fantasies of the end?
Back in 1957 Norman Mailer wrote in The White Negro that the absoluteness of the idea of nuclear annihilation will liberate the psychopath within us, and, indeed, Charles Manson wrote of the welcome cleansing prospect of atomic war. In a curiously similar passage in a letter home from Korea, David (alleged “Son of Sam”) Berkowitz wrote of his desire for release from atomic fear.
Such theories perhaps account for the perverse fantasy “attractions” of Armageddon, but how to account for the desensitization to the reality? As the demons of nuke-porn fantasies gathered about me in my Bellevue room that night I began to wonder if the very structure of the nuke-porn genre I’d been rereading that had been so stimulating in my adolescence—that thrilling sense of the imminence of release it created—might contribute to the problem of response I felt as an adult. The cumulative effect of pornography, particularly on a virginal sensibility, is to arouse expectations of intensity that reality sometimes fails to deliver. Back in junior high and high school saturation with nuke porn led me to a preoccupation with the dates and deadlines, with that familiar adolescent question, “When will it finally happen?”
Of course there was always an erotic component to the original thermonuclear fever. According to one study of the premillennial fevers that have swept religious communities (from the early Christians, who castrated themselves to avoid the heightened temptation to sin in the little time remaining before the Second Coming, to the wave of ark-building that swept the Rhine when a noted sixteenth-century astrologer predicted a Second Flood), in almost every instance the terror at the prospect of the end of the world was mingled with “fierce joy, sexual orgies, and a kind of strange receptivity.”
Back in October, 1962, when it seemed at last it would happen, it was with thrilled anticipation and fevered fantasies that my (male) high school cronies and I regarded the Soviet ships approaching the imaginary line in the Atlantic Ocean, breach of which could shortly trigger all-out war. The chief fantasy engendered in the giddiness of the lunchrooms and locker rooms was this: As soon as the Absolute Final Warning came over the P.A. we’d steal a car and approach one of the girls at the other lunch table with the following proposition: The bombs are gonna fall in twenty-four hours. You don’t want to die a virgin, do you?
But the October crisis passed and we were all still virgins. There still remained homework to do before graduation. The famous Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists doomsday clock has hovered close to the witching hour for three decades and we still haven’t heard the chimes of midnight. The Fatima prophecy still had power to chill me when I heard it in 1964—after all, hadn’t C.P. Snow declared in 1960 that nuclear war was a “mathematical certainty” by the end of the decade? But by 1970, when the C.P. Snow deadline passed, I’d forgotten there was something special to celebrate.
It’s not that these people were false prophets—indeed, at worst they may have been merely premature, at best they may have issued self-unfulfilling prophecies; by arousing enough concern they helped prevent or postpone that which they predicted. But whatever processes of internalizing, eroticizing, or numbing were responsible, there is no question that the Seventies have been a decade almost totally desensitized to the continued imminence of doom that caused hysteria fifteen years ago.
What happened to the superheated apocalyptic fever that pervaded the national consciousness from the mid-Fifties to the early Sixties? The bombs are still there, and the Threat, but when was the last time you had an opinion on the morality of massive retaliation? Can you even recall having an opinion on the gun-in-the-fallout-shelter question? Ban-the-bomb marches? The better-Red-than-Dead debate? Does anyone live his life as if the End were really twenty-five minutes away? Why did we say Good-bye to All That? Or did we?
In his study of Sabbatai Sevi, the fabulous false messiah of seventeenth-century Palestine, scholar Gershom Scholem distinguishes between two strains of eschatological (end of the world) sensibilities: the apocalyptic and the mystical. In the apocalyptic mode, the various revelations of cataclysmic messianic advents, and, to shift to a Christian example, the visions of the titanic last battle at Armageddon (an actual place in the disputed West Bank, by the way), are taken to represent actual physical upheavals, literal military battles that will be waged on the surface of the earth. In the mystical mode, on the other hand, these climactic wars between the forces of God and His Adversary, and similar upheavals described in sacred books, are said to be waged internally—within the mystical body (corpus mysteriosum) of the believer—for possession, not of the world, but of the soul.
After reading the literature of nuclear annihilation it seems clear to me that what happened in the mid-Sixties was an internalization of the apocalyptic fevers and their transformation into mystical symptoms.
When the test-ban treaty drove the visible mushroom clouds underground in 1963, it was not long before there sprang up among post-Hiroshima progeny the impulse to ingest magic mushrooms and their psychedelic cognates. The experience of “blowing the mind” from within was an eroticized replication of the no-longer-visible explosion. The once-feared death of consciousness on earth threatened by nuclear annihilation was replaced by the desire for the annihilation of the ego. It’s possible that the concept of “bad vibes” can be seen as a cognate of invisible radiation. A generation that grew up with the fear of the ineradicable contamination of its mother’s milk by fallout has developed a mystical obsession with the purity of all it ingests, and it can be argued that Jack D. Ripper, the nuke-mad commander in Strangelove obsessed with the purity of his “precious bodily fluids,” is the spiritual godfather of the health-food movement. The guru who offers a short circuit to “the clear light” is particularly seductive to a generation that expected to be short-circuited to heaven by the “light brighter than a thousand suns.”
That short-circuiting of time had long-term characterological effects that are only now being revealed: a belief that one would never live to be a grown-up discouraged any patience for the acceptance of the need to grow up. Indeed, like Peter Pan (not the diner), the bomb allowed the transformation of the present into a never-never land in which no gratification need he postponed and one could celebrate here what Tom Wolfe aptly called the “happiness explosion” instead of the unhappy one we once feared.
In a similar way the antiwar movement, which grew in part out of the ban-the-bomb fervor, found part of itself seduced into a mystical fascination with making bombs. One of the women survivors of the Weather Underground townhouse-bomb-factory explosion wrote a poem called “How It Feels to Be Inside an Explosion”—perhaps the ultimate internalization.
The persistence of the explosive word “blow” in the slang of the late Sixties and early Seventies may in itself be a residue of the internalization of the apocalyptic. Why else do we describe ourselves as feeling blown away, and getting blown over, blown out, getting the mind blown, getting blown (sexually). And is it an accident that the moving epitaph Ken Kesey spoke for the climactic failure of his attempt at a mystical group-mind fusion that failed to transcend fission was, as Tom Wolfe records it, “We blew it.”
There is an undeniable but puzzling erotic element in the mystical symptomology. As I was trying to explain my theory of nuclear pornography to a onetime SDS activist, now a feminist, she did a double take and said that the transformation I was talking about paralleled an explanation she had been developing for the persistence of rape motifs in the sexual fantasies of purportedly liberated women. Rape, she said, in the imagination of many women is an analogue of the unthinkable in nuclear terms, a traumatic, disarming surprise attack that leaves the consciousness devastated. Since there is no certain defense, and constant fear of psychic annihilation is impossible to live with, a transformation occurs in which the constantly terrifying specter of the external rapist is internalized and transformed into an erotic actor in sexual fantasies.
Tomorrow morning at last I would be able to stop fantasizing about the nuclear trigger. I was going to put my finger on it.
Alone with the sanest men in America
They Call It the “Command Balcony” of the war room, and it was to be, after two preparatory briefings, my first vision of triggerland. The Command Balcony—I loved the lofty theatricality of the name—was where the President’s phone call would be answered when he decided the time had come to unleash the missiles.
Uneasy is the descent into the war room. One is led down steel corridors where hard-nosed security-detachment men wearing blue berets and conspicuously displayed pearl-handled pistols guard the blast-proof doors which are marked NO LONE ZONE. The doors, my guide reassures me, are also gas-and radiation-proof and able to withstand a direct hit with a five-megaton warhead. This is not totally reassuring. In order to take my mission to the command post with proper seriousness, I had absorbed a full-scale “Briefing on Soviet Strategic Capabilities,” which emphasized the growing threat from larger Soviet missiles able to deliver a “throwweight” up to twenty megatons with increasing accuracy. But no matter. Provisions have been made against the sudden vaporization of these underground premises. The instant the circuits begin to melt, all command-post functions will instantly revert to “The Looking Glass Plane.” This curious code name is given to the “airborne command post,” one of a rotating fleet of planes that have been circling the Midwest since February 1961 ready to take over the running of the war from above the blasts.
At first I thought the code name “Looking Glass” must refer to the postattack function—reflecting messages back and forth to surviving authorities at various points on the ground, or perhaps to the mirror-bright aluminum bottom half of the plane designed to deflect the glare of the nuclear blasts from the battle below. I couldn’t believe the Air Force would deliberately advert to that dark Carrollian fantasy of hallucinatory chess. But when I asked my guide, an Air Force major, about the origin of “Looking Glass” he told me, “Sir, I can’t say for sure but I assume they had that Lewis Carroll book in mind.” Later that day I would be taken through an actual Looking Glass Plane on standby for an eight-hour shift aloft, but that morning when I went through the blast-proof doors and out onto the Command Balcony, then I was truly through the looking glass—although, as I would soon find out, not the side I thought.
The Command Balcony is a glassed-in mezzanine of the small two-story theater that is the war room of the Strategic Air Command. In the orchestra pit below, the “battle staff” works away at computer terminals and radar displays complete with all the glowing dials of dimly lit, melodramatic movies. Looming over all, of course, is the fourth wall of the theater—the “big board.” Its six two-story-high panels dominate the view from the Command Balcony. Above the open panel closest to me the alert-status indicator reads 1 on a scale of 5. During the October War of 1973 it read 3. A whirling red light flashed above the big board and a message flashed on ordering the battle staff to cease all unnecessary tasks and stand by for orders.
This morning as I walked in the big board was blanked out. For security purposes, I was told. It was not until some moments later that I was to look up and see that fateful sign on the big board. First I wanted to sit in the command swivel chair. There it was ahead of me, a big black swivel chair in the central well of the Command Balcony. The chair is reserved, in time of nuclear war, for the commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command, or CINCSAC as he’s known on the Command Balcony. It’s from this chair that CINCSAC will gaze at the big board and make his moves in the decisive first minutes of nuclear war. On a panel in front of the CINCSAC swivel chair are the red phone and the gold phone. The President and the Joint Chiefs call in the orders on the gold phone. CINCSAC executes them on the red phone.
“The President can make you a General,” observed onetime CINCSAC General Curtis Lemay, who sat in this chair for many years, “but only communications can make you a commander.”
I seated myself in the swivel chair. I picked up the gold phone. I picked up the red phone. The battle staff was humming away beneath me. And for a moment, sitting there in the CINCSAC swivel chair, indulging myself in the seductive grandiosity of this position in the last synapse between command and execution of that awesome final order, for a moment I felt like a commander.
I also felt like a child, let loose with the war toy I’d always wanted. And I also felt like a potential war criminal. Will some tribunal in the rubble see this article and condemn me posthumously for failing to rip both gold and red phones out of their sockets?
But suddenly, when I looked up from my command-chair reverie to the big board, I felt foolish. A three-line message had flashed onto the big board. Could this be It? Not quite. When I read it I cringed. All my fantasies fled in embarrassment. This is what the message said:
welcome mr. ron rosenbaum
from harper [sic] magazine
to command balcony sac headquarters
Then an Air Force photographer stepped forward to take my picture in the command chair as a memento, and then a whole dog-and-pony show of a briefing began, featuring a call on the red phone from the Looking Glass Plane airborne with a preprogrammed “Greetings from the captain and crew to Mr. Rosenbaum, distinguished visitor to SAC’s command post.”
I could go on. It was in many ways a fascinating briefing but from the moment I saw that first welcome sign on the big board I had the sinking feeling they had turned this place, this focal point of nuke-porn fantasies, into a tourist trap. It might as well have been Disneyworld or some bankrupt and bogus “astronautland” in some bypassed south Florida subdivision for all the magic that remained. Suddenly all that had seemed forbidden, awesome about the stage upon which civilization’s final drama may be played appeared like cheap stage tricks. Even the dimmed lights, “the pools of darkness” that in Failsafe “gave the sense of immensity of almost limitless reach,” were dimmed only for the duration of my stay on the Command Balcony. They were dimmed to make a slide show, complete with flashlight pointer, more visible as it was projected on the screen. I felt cheated, teased with the illusion of command, then brought down to earth feeling like a cranky, disappointed tourist. A thermonuclear crisis would just not seem at home here on the Command Balcony any more than on a high school auditorium stage.
And that perhaps was the point. The Strategic Air Command is proud of its command-and-control system, does not think of it as an exotic, thrilling Strangelovian mechanism. It’s just a mechanism, a sophisticated one, but a neutral mechanism they administer, certainly not an evil one—it hasn’t done any evil, it hasn’t really done anything except be there so long it’s become routine.
That moment on the Command Balcony, I later realized, was the point at which I passed through to the other side, a Looking Glass of sorts. I was the one who had been living in a fever of Carrollian nightmares. The world I’d stepped into was relentlessly sane, its people very well adjusted. The paradoxical metaphysic of deterrence theory had become part of their ground of being. No one gave it a second thought, seldom a first. They spent little time in reflection of any kind, much less a Looking Glass sensibility. They were not there to shoot missiles and kill people. They were there to act as if they would shoot missiles and kill people because by so doing they’d never have to actually do it. They were content that their role was ceaselessly to rehearse, never perform that one final act.
They could have fooled me. I was fascinated by the aplomb of the missile crewmen I met. These are the guys who will actually pull the trigger for us. Of course they don’t pull a trigger, they twist a key. Each two-man crew of “launch control officers” must twist their respective keys simultaneously to generate a “launch vote” from their capsule, and the two-man “launch vote” of another capsule is required before the four twisted keys can together send from ten to fifty Minutemen with MIRVed warheads irrevocably on their way to their targets.
These men will not be voting alone of course. When we pay our income taxes we are casting our absentee ballot in favor of a launch vote, and, should the time ever come, in favor of the mass murder of tens of millions of innocents. Morally, metaphorically, our finger is on the trigger too. But theirs are on it physically day in and day out for years.
I tried to get them to talk about it. Up at Minot AFB the Fifty-fifth Missile Wing helicoptered me out to an operational Minuteman-missile launch capsule nestled in the midst of vast fields of winter wheat. Fifty feet below the topsoil in the capsule I tried to edge into larger subjects—does it make a difference being able to know your target?—but there seemed to be nervousness on both sides, perhaps because of the presence of a senior officer and a tape recorder. Fortunately at the last minute I was able to arrange, as the final unofficial stop in my tour of the nuclear fortifications, a different kind of meeting with missile crewmen.
Let me tell you about that last stop. Because it was there that I finally got the feel of those brass launch keys—I actually got to twist them and get the feel of launching a nuke—and it was there that I first discussed such issues as nuclear surrender and the Judo—yes, Judo—Christian ethic, and it was there that I first learned the secret of the spoon and the string.
I can’t tell you exactly where it was—I agreed to keep the name of the base and the names of the missile men I spoke to out of the story. But I can tell you it was a Minuteman base and the men I spoke to were all launch-control officers. And these are no ordinary missile crewmen. Even among the highly skilled Minutemen men these are the crème de la crème I’m visiting with this Saturday morning. These six guys in their blue Air Force fatigues and brightly colored ascots are a special crack crew of missile men culled from capsules all over the base into a kind of all-star team. This morning they are practicing in a launch-capsule “problem simulator” for the upcoming “Olympic Arena” missile-crew competition out at Vandenberg AFB. where they will represent the honor of their base in a kind of World Series of missile-base teams.
You see, the Air Force goes to some length to imbue the men in its missile squadrons with a military esprit—a task rendered difficult by the sedentary and clerical nature of military-capsule duty. Missile men never need learn to fly a plane and most don’t. The romantic flyboy spirit is something of a handicap for men condemned to spend twenty-four hours in a twenty-by-nine-by-ten-foot capsule. There’s no need to develop that special brand of nerve and confidence Tom Wolfe, in his study of astronauts, called “the right stuff.” The right stuff for a missile crewman is a disposition far more phlegmatic and stolid. So the typical missile crewman of the sample I met was often a pudgy bespectacled graduate of a Southern technical school with a low-key, good-ol’-boy sense of humor, who volunteered for missile duty because the Air Force would pay for the accounting degree he could earn in his spare time in the launch capsule. The Air Force is still run by flyboys who tend to treat the missile crewmen as junior partners. Still the Air Force tries to incorporate the missile men into its traditional gung-ho spirit. It gives them all dashing ascots to wear, as if they were units of some Australian Ranger battalion trained to kill men with their bare hands, when all they actually are expected to do with their bare hands is twist a key. (One almost suspects some deadpan tongue-in-cheek flyboy parody in the ascot touch.) And there are all sorts of patches and merit badges for the annual “Olympic Arena” competition, which is strenuously promoted and prepped for all year round.
This morning these missile men have been practicing for “Olympic Arena” in a special glass-walled launch-control capsule “simulator” that replicates the conditions of the big missile Olympic games. These are not as dramatic as they might sound—no jousting between Titans and Minutemen, no target shooting, no actual launchings at all, in fact. Instead the competition consists of “problems” computer-fed into the capsule simulators, and the crews go through the checklists in their capsule operations manuals to solve the problems. Problems thrown at them can be anything from retargeting half their missiles from Leningrad to Moscow to putting out a fire in the capsule trash bin. For every possible problem it seems there is a checklist to follow, and the activity I watch in the capsule consists mainly of finding the right checklist in the right briefing book and following the instructions. Victory goes to those who follow their checklists most attentively. More like a CPA competition than an Arthurian tournament.
During a break in the problem-solving I am invited into the capsule simulator to look around. It is exactly like the working missile capsule I had been permitted access to a few days ago in every respect but one. The keys. In the working missile capsule the keys are locked securely in a fire-engine-red box that is to be opened only in time of high-level nuclear alert. But as soon as I walked into the simulator that morning I caught sight of the now-familiar bright red box with its little red door wide open. And then I saw the keys. They gleamed brassily, each of them inserted into their slots in the two launch consoles, just as they will be in the last seconds before launch. Apparently the keys had been left there from a launch-procedure problem. I looked at the key closest to me. It had a round brass head, and looked like an old fashioned apartment key. It was stuck into a slot with these positions marked upon it: SET on top, and LAUNCH to the right. This particular key was turned to OFF.
I asked one of the crewmen if I could get a feel of what it would be like to turn the key.
“Sure,” he said. “Only that one there, the deputy commander’s, the spring-lock mechanism is a little worn out. Come over here and try the commander’s key.” First I tried the deputy’s key all the way to the right from OFF to LAUNCH. Almost no resistance whatsoever. Very little tension.
“Come over and try the other one,” one of the crewmen suggested. “That’ll give you the real feel of a launch.”
To launch a missile, both launch-control officers in the capsule must twist their respective keys to the right within two seconds of each other and hold them there for a full two seconds. The key slots are separated by twelve feet so no one man can either reach over or run over from one key to another and singlehandedly send in a “launch vote.” Even if this were to happen, a two-key-twist, two-man “launch vote” from a second capsule in the squadron is still required to send any one missile off.
I sat down in the commander’s chair—it’s not unlike an economy-class airline seat, complete with seat belt. I turned the key to LAUNCH. This time it took some healthy thumb pressure to make the twist, and some forearm muscular tension to hold it in LAUNCH. Not a teeth-clenching muscular contraction—the closest thing I can compare it to is the feeling you get from twisting the key in one of the twenty-five-cent lockers at Grand Central Station. Nothing special, but the spring-lock resistance to the launch twist is enough to require a sustained effort of will from the person doing the twisting. For two seconds that person and at least three other people must consciously believe they are doing the right thing killing that many millions of people. Two seconds is perhaps time for reflection, even doubt.
Later, outside the simulator, I asked the missile crewmen if they’d ever imagined themselves having a doubt about their grip on the keys when the time came for that final twist of the wrist. What made them so sure they’d actually be able to do it, or did they just not think of the consequences?
“No,” one of the crewmen said. “During training out at Vandenberg they’d show the whole class films of the effects of nuclear blasts, Hiroshima and all that, just so we wouldn’t have any mistake as to what we’re getting into. It’s true that they ask you if you will carry out a properly authenticated launch order, and they check your psychological reaction, and the checking doesn’t stop there. We’re constantly required to check each other for some signs of unusual behavior. But you have to understand that when the launch order comes it won’t come as a sudden new trauma. We get practice alerts and retargeting procedures all the time, and the launch will just be a few more items on a procedural checklist we’ve gone through thousands of times.”
By this time we’d adjourned to a small, concrete-floored room containing vending machines for Coke and candy and a few scratched metal folding chairs. Being in a room with the sanest men in America can be disconcerting. And these men were—officially—extremely sane. That constant psychological checking of each other they spoke about is part of the Air Force’s Human Reliability Program, which is supposed to be a kind of mental early-warning system to catch people with access to nuclear warheads who are going insane, before their madness turns violent or, worse, cunning.
Of course the Air Force definition of sanity might seem a bit narrow to some, involving as it does the willingness to take direct part in the killing of, say, 10 million people by twisting a key when the proper order is given, while insanity means trying to kill them without proper orders or refusing to kill them despite orders. Nonetheless it is fascinating to read through Air Force Regulation 35-99, Chapter 7, “Psychiatric Considerations of Human Reliability,” which is the missile-base commander’s guide to early detection of “Concealed Mental Disorders.” Regulation 35-99 divides these hidden threats into four categories: “The Suspicious,” “The Impulsive,” “The Depressed,” and “Those with Disturbances of Consciousness.” Regulation 35-99 then details “the early signs in observable behavior that strongly suggest the possibility of present or emerging mental disorder” in, each category.
Now the trickiest category, according to Regulation 35-99, is “The Suspicious” (don’t ask me what school of psychopathology this taxonomy comes from), which enumerates thirteen “clues to paranoid traits.” Tricky, because as the Air Force points out “the following clues are sometimes seen in normal everyday behavior.” Indeed, it is difficult to read the description of the thirteen clues without thinking of the “normal everyday behavior” of nuclear powers.
There is, for instance: “a. Arrogance—wherein the individual assumes or presumes the possession of superior, unique, or bizarre abilities, ideas, or theories.”
Now. one would think that a man able to participate in the launch of up to thirty separate nuclear warheads and help extinguish human civilization with a twist of his key would be a bull goose loony not to “presume the possession of superior, unique, or bizarre abilities.” The implication here is that sanity in a launch means not thinking about this reality, sanity means the kind of studied insanity or fugue state that ignores one’s true relation to the world. Then there is: “b. Lack of humor—especially the inability to laugh at oneself, one’s mistakes or weaknesses.” Now that is pretty funny. When you think about all the occasions for merriment there must be down there at the controls of an ICBM launch capsule, it’s hard to believe anyone would be crazy enough not to see the humor in it all. It’s good to know that Regulation 35-99 will keep an eye out to yank the occasional gloomy gus right out of there, so we can be assured that when we go we’ll die laughing.
“One thing you have to remember,” one of the crewmen told me, “is that when I get an authenticated launch order I have to figure my wife and kids’d be dead already up above.
Now clue “1.”—“legal or quasilegal controversy about pay, time, accidents, unsatisfactory purchases, or matter of authority”—is an interesting one for a couple of reasons. This “paranoid trait,” according to the regulation, “is often seen in conjunction with ‘letters to the editor,’ ‘to the president of the company,’ or ‘to senior commanders.’ ” One can immediately see the appeal of this definition to the senior commanders who administer the regulation. But it raises interesting questions. One does not want the launch capsules filled with teeth-gnashing irritable cranks, yet the presumption of irrationality that attaches to any question about “matters of authority” assumes that all authority is rational, an assumption that was implicitly challenged by Secretary of Defense Schlesinger when he tried to ensure that if President Nixon went batty and decided to launch a few nukes during the impeachment crisis, someone would question his authority.
But for the moment let us leave Regulation 35-99 behind with a parting glance at the Air Force’s official characterization of the Mad Bomber. He comes under subsection 7-14, which cites “Some Specific Cases of the Paranoid Schizophrenic” for the missile-base commander to have in mind when he’s checking out his men. The only other “specific case” mentioned in this subsection is an unnamed “would-be assassin of President Roosevelt [who] came to Washington to shoot the President and thus to draw public attention to the buzzing sensation in his head.”
“To the Mad Bomber of New York,” according to the regulation, “the need for revenge seemed paramount, dating back to an ancient grudge against a public utility company.”
And yet isn’t our nuclear retaliatory policy based on our belief in revenge—that any strike against us must be avenged with nuclear warheads even if it means destroying the rest of human society? Just as planting bombs in public places did not restore the Mad Bomber his pension rights (apparently the source of his grudge against Con Ed), neither would a retaliatory nuclear strike restore the lives or freedom lost from the strike we suffered first. Could this analysis of the Mad Bomber have been a sly comment on the sanity of the nuclear balance of terror slipped into the Air Force insanity definitions by some military shrink with a sense of irony?
In any case let us return to that vending-machine room off the launch-capsule simulator, where indeed a discussion ensues with the sanest men in America, which gets into the basic question of revenge by way of Las Vegas and leads us to the secret of the spoon and string.
I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about these missile crewmen. I soon discovered that the Human Reliability Program in practice does not necessarily eliminate all but docile automatons. The missile men have lively responsive intelligences and very upbeat personalities. And despite their devotion to pure professionalism, even they are not entirely unconscious of the ironies of their particular profession. They, too, occasionally get that sense of dislocation at the awesomeness of their position and the ordinariness of their life. I got that sense from listening to one of the crewmen tell me a story about a curiously dislocating encounter he had in a Las Vegas hotel.
He’d accumulated some leave time from the long hours of vigils he had spent down in his launch-control capsule, and he’d decided to spend it in the gambling palaces of Vegas.
“I went alone and one night I wanted to get into one of the big floor shows they have,” he told me. “Well, when I asked for a ringside table they told me that as I was by myself, would I mind sharing with another couple. I say okay and these two people introduce themselves. The guy says they’re from North Carolina where he’s a dentist. Then he asks me what I do.”
Introductions can sometimes be awkward for a Minuteman launch-control officer. A stranger will casually ask him his line of work and if he just comes out and says “I’m a Minuteman-missile launch-control officer,” well, it’s not as if everyone will stare into his eyes for signs of incipient missile-shooting madness, but there is, sometimes, a feeling of wary scrutiny. People don’t know exactly how to respond to the unprepossessing presence of a man who is the most powerful and deadly warrior in human history.
“But not this dentist.” He displayed none of the usual fears about Strangeloves in disguise, no suppressed whiff of awe at the personified presence of the end of the world.
“Hell no,” the missile crewman was telling me. “The only thing this guy was worrying about was whether the thing would actually take off when it came time for wartime launch. He kept saying, ‘I just want that bird to fly when the time comes.’ He kept saying, ‘I want that bird to fly.’ ”
The crewman shook his head. “It was funny because when the bird flies that means he and his family are probably vaporized. I couldn’t figure it. It used to be people you’d run into would worry we’d go off half-cocked and start a war. Now this guy was all excited like he couldn’t wait to see it.”
“Fact is,” said another missile crewman, “most of us have never even launched even a test down at the Vandenberg range. And nothing’s ever been test-launched from an operational silo. Once they had a program that was going to let us launch from one of our silos. No warhead of course. From here into the Pacific. But some Indian tribe objected to missiles flying over their sacred burial ground or something and they canceled it. I can maybe see what that dentist was getting at. You sit down there and you know you’ve got launch capability and you know when you and your buddy turn the keys she’ll fly all right but you sure would feel more comfortable if you had it happen once. I tell you I’ve spent a year and a half underground and I’m halfway to my M.S., but for all those hours down there, when I get out I sure would like to be able to say ‘I launched a missile.’ ”
Again I asked these sanest of all men how they could be sure they’d be able to launch when they knew it was for real.
“One thing you have to remember,” one of the crewmen told me, “is that when I get an authenticated launch order I have to figure my wife and kids’d be dead already up above. The base is ground zero. Why shouldn’t I launch? The only thing I’d have to look forward to if I ever got up to the surface would be romping around with huge mutant bunny rabbits.” We all laughed. It seemed funny at the time.
“Okay, then, put it this way,” I said. “If you assume that when you get the launch order everyone on our side has been devastated by a Soviet first strike, is there any purpose served by destroying what’s left of humanity by retaliating purely for revenge?”
“What it all comes down to,” said one of the older crewmen, “is the Judo-Christian ethic.”
“You mean Judeo-Christian,” one of the others murmured.
“Right, like I said, the Judo-Christian ethic teaches that you never strike first but if someone hits you, you can strike back.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Isn’t it Christian to forgive, turn the other cheek, rather than seek revenge? Say you’re Jimmy Carter, a serious Christian, and you’re President when the whole deterrence thing fails and for some reason the Soviets are tempted to strike or preempt our strike. You see those missiles coming in on the radar screen and know mass murder is about to happen to your people and nothing you can do will stop it. Is there any point in committing another act of mass murder?”
“You think he should surrender?” one of the crewmen asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said, taken aback by the abruptness of his question.
“That’s the thing, you know,” another crewman said. “Once you start thinking about all that your head starts going in circles. You got to change the subject. There’s a point where you gotta stop asking questions and go to work. You’ve just got to have faith that you’re doing the right thing. It all comes down to professionalism. We know our presence here helps deter war and…”
“Course we thought about the problem if we get a launch order if one of us in a capsule crew suddenly turns peacenik at the last minute,” one of the crewmen interrupted to say. “And we came up with a solution. W’e figured out that the whole two-key thing is really bullshit when you get down to it because we figured out how to get a launch with just one man and a spoon and a string.”
“Spoon and a string?”
“Well,” the crewman continued, “what you do is rig up a thing where you tie a string to one end of a spoon and tie the other end to the guy’s key. Then you can sit in your chair and twist your key with one hand while you yank on the spoon with the other hand to twist the other key over.” Now this guy was talking about using some old-fashioned ingenuity to carry out an authorized “execution order.” It could of course he used in the service of an unauthorized launch conspiracy. Since launching an ICBM still requires a launch vote from two separate launch-control capsules, it would require two men in cahoots with two spoons and two strings—and probably two pistols—to carry out such an unlikely caper; however, since the two-key system is at the heart of the credibility of the entire command-and-control system, someone in the Air Force just might want to get out a spoon and string, go down into a capsule, and see whether someone might have overlooked a little safeguard.
Nevertheless, I actually found myself more reassured by the missile crewmen’s willingness to tell me about the spoon-and-string trick than I was frightened by its possible application. The kind of person who’d cheerfully volunteer the spoon-and-string story is not the kind of person who’d be likely to conspire to use it to try to provoke World War III.
In fact I was quite impressed with the robust psychological health of the missile crewmen. If they didn’t engage in rigorous analysis of the moral consequences of their triggerman role, none of them seemed at all the type to want to conspire to start a nuclear war. They put in a lot of idle hours down in the capsule studying for accounting and law degrees, and a nuclear war would seriously disrupt their professional prospects when they got out. Meeting the missile men was the most reassuring part of my trip.
Major Hering, you’ll recall, was likewise not the least concerned with the mental health of his fellow crewmen. He was worried about the upper links in the chain of command. And unhappily, as one studies those upper reaches more closely, the chain of command seems less like a chain than a concatenation of spoons and strings.
How will Vice-President Mondale, off in Hawaii when a suitcase bomb blows up the White House, wage nuclear war from Waikiki with no black-briefcase man at his side. And don’t think President Carter, notified of what looks on the radar screens like a surprise attack, will be able to dip into Russian literature to help him decide whether to retaliate against Moscow and Leningrad, or Leningrad and Kiev. If, in fact, the Joint Chiefs do decide to consult the Constitutional Commander in Chief on the nature of a retaliatory response (faced with a ‘use it or lose it’ situation military commanders tend to shoot first and consult the Supreme Court later; the Joint Chiefs have no need of the President to launch the missiles physically if they feel he’s wavering when the time has come to strike back), the consultation will consist of presenting the Commander in Chief with comprehensive preprogrammed attack options generated by our chief nuclear war-gaming computer, the SIOP machine.
SIOP, I should explain, stands for “Single Integrated Operating Plan.” It is the basic nuclear war plan for all U.S. forces and details exactly which missiles and which bombers will blow up which targets in case of nuclear attack. The SIOP machine is a vast computer complex in a subbasement of the Underground Command Post that generates the Emergency War Orders for transmittal to each element of the SIOP attack. In addition, the SIOP machine is constantly war-gaming its own war plan against its own estimate of the Russian war plan, which SIOP calls RISOP, and updating itself after it counts the computerized death score.
What this means in practice is that the key decisions about how we will respond in every conceivable nuclear crisis have already been made by the SIOP machine. Most of us may not think of nuclear war at all these days. The SIOP machine thinks about nuclear war for us twenty-four hours a day. The SIOP will run our nuclear war for us.
In fact, the only moment in my entire sentimental journey I felt genuinely “in touch” with nuclear war was the time I felt the SIOP machine. I don’t think it’s on the regular tourist trail in triggerworld but I made a special request to see the SIOP machine after reading so much about its awesome capabilities. Even in sophisticated strategic literature the SIOP is spoken of with reverential, almost Delphic, awe, and its pronouncements are surrounded with Delphic mystery. No one even knows how many targets are on the SIOP hit list. One scholarly study of recent nuclear targeting strategy devoted a long footnote to examining whether a fragmentary declassified report which declared that there were 25,000 targets in the SIOP really might have been a misprint, perhaps deliberate, for 2,500 targets.
The secrets inside the SIOP machine, our actual war plans, are perhaps the most secret secrets in America. According to a two-part report by Seymour Hersh in the New York Times (December, 1973), a story whose implications were lost in the Watergate deluge, the Nixon Administration’s hysterical and ultimately self-destructive reaction to the Ellsberg affair may have been triggered not by his release of the Pentagon Papers but by the possibility—explored secretly in the highest councils of the Nixon White House—that Ellsberg might also release some of the sacred SIOP secrets. In 1961, in the days when he was an eager young Rand Corporation analyst, a fledgling Strangelove who had already made a highly respected debut with a pamphlet on the “Art of Nuclear Blackmail,” Ellsberg had been summoned by the Pentagon to review the existing system for the command and control of the nuclear trigger weapons. As part of that work Ellsberg was permitted to review the SIOP and the Joint Strategic Target List. In a recent talk on “the nature of modern evil” at the Catholic Worker, Ellsberg, now repentant, described his first look at the primitive SIOP. It shocked him, he said, to learn we had only one nuclear war targeting plan: hit 400 targets in Russia and China. Estimated casualties 325 million. Whether Ellsberg went on to help redesign the SIOP he would not say, and whether he had any significant knowledge of the SIOP secrets as it evolved into a sophisticated computerized targeting system Ellsberg would not say. But according to Hersh’s unnamed source (who sounds like Ehrlichman), the very possibility that Ellsberg would reveal sacred SIOP secrets the way he revealed the Pentagon Papers—the possibility that he would thereby show the Russians our hand in the bluffing game that is deterrence strategy—was enough to drive Nixon and Kissinger up the wall. According to this theory all the seamy things done to Ellsberg and the Watergate cover-up that was necessary to even them up can be traced to fear for the sanctity of the SIOP.
Well, you might say, doesn’t everyone know what we’ll do when attacked? What difference does it make which missiles go where when they all go boom and make everyone dead? It makes a difference to the strategists. For them the game of deterrence, the delicate balance of terror, is not a stalemate but an ongoing poker game in which the dynamics of bluff, ambiguity, and esoteric as opposed to declaratory policies are constantly shifting. As Bernard Brodie, the elegant grand master of civilian nuclear strategists, notes, “Good military planning should distinguish between what the President says he’ll do and what he’s likely to do.” Kissinger, an unreconstructed Machiavellian among strategists, called the latter—our real plans as opposed to what we say we’ll do—the esoteric strategy.
Inside the SIOP machine are not only the secret war plans of our esoteric strategy but, in addition, a wide array of targeting options based on computerized war-gaming of possible Soviet responses to our responses to their responses. One missile crewman I spoke to, overwhelmed by the majesty and complexity of the SIOP, burst into a veritable ode to its chivalric, jousting-like possibilities. “Just think,” he said, “we’re engaged in a test of wills with the Soviets somewhere and they push us too hard and push comes to shove, we don’t have to choose between incinerating the planet and giving up. With the new SIOP options we can pinpoint a shot across the Kamchatka Peninsula and if they don’t start listening to reason just walk those Nudets [Air Force word for nuclear detonation] across Siberia till they start to feel the heat in Moscow. Course they’ll probably start on the Gulf of Mexico with theirs, walk ’em across to Houston, and start to head north, but we’ll have our response to that all programmed in the SIOP. You know something else? I understand that before Carter took office he was given a detailed SIOP briefing and the guy was so shaken by it, that’s why he suddenly comes out and says we got to abolish all nuclear weapons. The SIOP was too much for him. He just couldn’t handle it.”
So what actually goes on within the SIOP machine? Many nuclear wars: “practice” wars between SIOP and RISOP. After each battle a computer program counts the dead, estimates the damages, and looks for a way to improve the score in our favor in the next nuclear war. The predictive value of the nuclear wars waged within the SIOP machine is handicapped since it has to match itself against its own estimate of RISOP, which, like SIOP, consists of preplanned reactions that can be changed or rejected by national leaders in the heat of crisis. So the wars within SIOP can become a tenuous solipsistic affair, like a computer playing chess with itself. Still it is awesome being in a room in which the world has ended so many possible ways, perhaps even the precise way it will.
Toward the end of my tour of the SIOP machine I asked the colonel guiding me through the warrens of computers in the SIOP subbasement if I could touch the machine. He looked at the captain accompanying me and shrugged. Not far from me was a first-generation computer element of the SIOP machine. On top of its stacked magnetic tapes was a red “Top Secret” sign, but there was nothing secret for me to see. Only to feel. So I put my hand on its gray alloyed surface and felt in my palm the residual hum and tremor of the thousands of nuclear wars waged by SIOP and RISOP, those ceaselessly clashing computer programs, locked like Gog and Magog in endless Armaggedons within its ghostly circuitry.
What was the closest I came to the answers. The answers to Major Hering’s question. To my questions about the nitty-gritty details of our actual as opposed to our declared or bluffed targeting strategy. All the answers but one. What happens if we lose?
It was at the very end of my tour of the SIOP machine that I happened to ask an innocuous question that led me down the road into the swamp of “surrender studies.”
“In all these wars between SIOP and RISOP,” I asked the colonel in charge of the SIOP room, “do we always win?”
The colonel seemed taken aback. He said something about “programming optimum outcomes” or something like that.
“Well, does SIOP ever admit defeat to RISOP or surrender to it?”
“I should hope not,” he said.
I had heard whispers about forbidden “surrender studies” when I was down in Washington, whispers about people who have been hounded out of government for daring to suggest that, despite our endless contingency planning and war-gaming, we wouldn’t know how to surrender if forced to because we’re not permitted to consider the possibility of a loss. It sounded silly, and until that brief exchange in the SIOP room I’d assumed—as I had when I first read of Major Hering’s question—that someone somewhere had the answers. But now I was told that even the SIOP machine was not programmed to consider surrender. And so when I returned from my pilgrimage I decide to track down these “surrender studies” I’d heard about.
What I discovered was that in the entire exotic garden of nuclear-war-fighting strategy theory, surrender is the one forbidden fruit. A subject more unthinkable than The Unthinkable itself. In fact, thinking about it has actually been declared illegal in some cases.
Indeed, the short, sad history of surrender studies in the nuclear age reveals that the few intrepid theoreticians who have ventured into that terra incognita have come back scarred by the charge that just talking about it can cause it. Back in 1958 a Rand Corporation analyst by the name of Paul Kecskemeti published a modest scholarly monograph entitled Strategic Surrender. Beginning with the premise that surrender, like war, is an extension of politics by other means, Kecskemeti explored the various strategies of twentieth-century surrenders—what each party to a surrender was able to win and lose (yes, a loser can “win” a surrender by getting more concessions than his actual strength should command). High marks go to the Vichy French and Germans for their eminently professional disposition of the surrender of France in 1940; a pathetic failing grade to the Americans and Italians who botched the surrender of Italy in 1943. Though his is largely a historical study Kecskemeti did append to the work a section on “Surrender in Future Strategy,” with a subsection on “Surrender in Nuclear War”—the latter slightly more than one page long. That was enough. When his book appeared, the great post-Sputnik, Red-or-Dead debate still raged across the land and Kecskemeti had been gracious enough in his preface to acknowledge that “this study was prepared as part of the research program undertaken for the United States Air Force by the Rand Corporation.” Swift and massive retaliation fell upon the book. You could call it overkill. There were outcries from the warlords of Congress that taxpayer money was being used to pave the way for capitulation to the Soviets. President Eisenhower was described as upset and horrified as he demanded an immediate explanation from the Pentagon. “I’ve never seen Ike more mad,” said one aide. Everything at the Pentagon stopped for two hours while they tried to get to the bottom of the surrender-study flap. The New York Times reported a “tumultuous session” of Congress, and “the most heated debate of the year” brought forth near unanimous passage of one of the strangest resolutions ever to issue from that body. This one, attached as a rider to an appropriations bill and passed in August, 1958, specifically forbade the use of any federal funds to finance the study of surrender.
On the inside cover of the library-battered copy of Strategic Surrender I have in my hands, some outraged reader has scrawled: “Americans would rather die on their feet than live on their knees.” It’s an attitude that has made even the boldest nuclear strategists a bit gun-shy about discussing surrender. In what seems like a characteristically black-humored recognition of the delicacy of using the forbidden word, the index to the second edition of Henry Kissinger’s early study of Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy contains the following laconic citation: “Unconditional Surrender. See Victory, Total.”
Even the fearless Herman Kahn, forever urging us to call a spade a spade and a grave a grave in matters of nuclear war, prefers to discuss “responses to postattack blackmail” rather than “surrender negotiations.” In his treatise On Thermonuclear War, Kahn grumbles that “the investigation of the feasibility of various [postattack] blackmail tactics is not only a difficult technical question, but seems contrary to public policy as set forth in recent legislation forbidding use of federal funds for the study of ‘surrender.’ ” But the master strategist is something less than his usual crusading self when he quits the subject with the terse comment that “such research is important.” When he publishes research on surrender problems, Kahn talks of “conflict termination.” He talks of “crisis resolution,” and, most ingenuous of all, “de-escalation.” None, not even he, dares call it surrender.
Officially anyway. Inconclusive inquiries to the Defense Department failed to turn up any indication that the surrender-study ban had ever been repealed, although no one there seemed to know of its existence or was prepared to believe its existence, even after I read them several front-page New York Times stories on the controversy.
Kecskemeti remembers. I spoke to him last summer, almost two decades after the big fuss, and it sounded to me as if in his scholarly way he was still steamed up about what happened to his book. He blamed it on “a stupid article in the St. Louis Post,” leaked, he said, by Missouri Senator Symington, the former Secretary of the Air Force, who was preparing to run for President on a Strengthen-America’s-Defenses platform.
Kecskemeti described the Senate debate on surrender. “Sensational, demagogic—and silly,” he says. “My book was totally misunderstood. The question is whether great powers are able to end a war short of total annihilation. If this is to be done it must be thought about ahead of time.”
The seductions of strategy
My pursuit of what might seem like the arcana of surrender studies led me next to a question, another one of those Carrollian rabbit holes in the landscape of nuclear strategy, that is even more fundamental and immediate: Will we respond to a Soviet nuclear attack at all? Is it possible in some circumstances, despite our declarations, that we just won’t retaliate?
I first came upon this notion in an elegant analysis of “War Termination” by Fred Ikle, the hawkish former head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. (Ikle took over after the doves there were purged in exchange for Henry Jackson’s support of the original SALT agreement.) In the conclusion of his analysis Ikle argues that deterrence—the threat of nuclear retaliation if we are attacked—commits us to a morally abhorrent, genocidal, retaliatory vengeance if the threat fails and we are attacked. The logical implication is that in the aftermath of a Soviet surprise attack, we might surrender without firing a shot.
Turn the other cheek and give in.
No less a person than Richard Nixon acknowledged the possible wisdom of such a course of action. Consider the situation I’d be in, Nixon said, “if the Soviet Union, in a surprise attack, were able to destroy all of America’s fixed land-based missile force and would confront the U.S. with a choice of doing nothing or launching air-and sea-based nuclear forces only to see the U.S.S.R. inflict even more damage upon us in return.” The implication is that Nixon would have surrendered in such circumstances.
I used to have long arguments on this point back in high school. What good would pure vengeance do you if you’re dead, I’d ask. Ridiculous, my friends would say: if they knew someone like you was running things and bluffing they’d be more likely to attack. So don’t tell them, I’d say, make them think we will strike back but if it does happen, don’t. What is to be gained by killing off the rest of the human race?
I had long dismissed this as a naive adolescent hobbyhorse of mine until I tried the question out on the missile crewmen that morning and found it provoked an interesting discussion about the Judeo-Christian ethic. I was even more surprised to find, when I plunged back into the literature of nuclear strategy upon return from my tour, that “Deterrence as a Great Big Bluff” is discussed by some of the most sophisticated nuclear strategists as a very real possibility.
The most rational deterrence policy, writes Bernard Brodie, perhaps the most authoritative and rational of the first generation of strategists, involves convincing an enemy that we are utterly inflexible, vindictive, and even irrationally committed to retaliation against a potential attack, no matter what.
But, argues Brodie, that most rational deterrence policy “involves commitment to a strategy of response which, if we ever had to execute it, might then look foolish.” In other words, a rational person may decide it’s foolish to retaliate. “It remains questionable,” Fred Ikle tells us, “whether the execution of a retaliatory strike can serve the national interests once it has failed as a threat.” And there it is again, in the most graphic terms possible, in, of all places, Strategic Review, one of the most militantly—albeit scholarly—hawkish nuclear-strategy journals. In the February 1976 issue of Strategic Review military strategy writer R. J. Rummel asks, “If deterrence fails would a President push the button? Of course not.”
What does this mean? Is Jimmy Carter, who pledged never to lie to the American people, bluffing us along with the Russians? Is that part of the esoteric strategy? Has he secretly decided he won’t push the button in that situation? Do the Joint Chiefs know? Would they let him get away with it? Do we want him to tell us, and thus the Russians, making an attack at least marginally more likely?
As you can see, once you get into the Looking Glass world of esoteric strategy, answers become elusive as the questions develop elaborate mirror images: What do we think they think we think they think about what we plan to do? Nuclear war is waged these days not with missiles but with conceptions of missile strategies, with manipulations of perceptions and metaphysical flanking maneuvers. Mental nuclear war (after Blake’s Milton: “I shall not cease from mental flight…”) goes on all the time, often in obscure and veiled forms.
Consider the esoteric implications behind the appearance and disappearance of a single footnote from the prepared text of a speech Henry Kissinger delivered to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco on February 3, 1976. Appended to his otherwise unremarkable address on “The Permanent Challenge of Peace: U.S. Policy Toward the Soviet Union” was an eight-line footnote—appended, that is, to some printed versions of the speech and not to others. The official version delivered to the Soviet embassy by the State Department did have the footnote, and there was a message for the Soviets in that footnote, a veiled threat of great consequence between these lines:
To be sure, there exist scenarios in planning papers which seek to demonstrate how one side could use its strategic forces and how in some presumed circumstance it would prevail. But these confuse what a technician can calculate with what a responsible statesman can decide. They are invariably based on assumptions such as that one side would permit its missile silos to be destroyed without launching its missiles before they are actually hit—on which no aggressor could rely where forces such as those possessed by either the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. now and in the years ahead are involved.
Now the real subject of this footnote is a declared U.S. nuclear strategy known as the “ride out” doctrine. Under it, we have committed ourselves not to respond immediately to a Soviet missile attack we see developing on our radar screens. Instead, incredible as it may sound at first, we are pledged to just sit back and track the incoming missiles, presumably aimed at our missile silos, watch as they blast holes in the Great Plains, ride out the attack, count up the number of missiles we still have left in working order, and then, and only then, strike back.
There are several strategic considerations behind what sounds like very odd behavior. First, we have confidence that our silos, for now at least, are sufficiently “hardened” so that the Soviets could not confidently expect to knock enough of them out to cripple our ability to retaliate. Second, confidence in our ability to ride out an initial attack allows us the luxury of not having to fire off our missiles merely on the basis of a radar warning that our silos are under attack; which means that we are less likely to be put in the “use it or lose it” dilemma, as the strategists call it, and precipitously launch our missile force on the basis of perhaps mistaken warnings or small accidental or unintended Soviet launches. Finally, declaring that we’ll keep our missiles in their silos during a first strike against us almost compels the Soviets to target on them rather than on our large cities. They are bait of a sort.
Between the lines of that footnote there was an explicit message for Soviet nuclear strategists: a warning to them that if they attempted to develop a silo-busting missile capability—warheads accurate and powerful enough to destroy our Minutemen inside their hardened silos—they’d be making a big mistake and wasting billions of dollars. Because if they did develop that capacity we could simply renounce our “ride out” policy and shift to a “launch on warning” stance. This would make them look silly because under that posture, at the first sign of attack our missiles would let fly and the billions of dollars the Soviets had spent on a silo-busting capacity would be wasted busting empty silos.
Of course there are grave dangers to a launch-on-warning policy. Critics call it a “hair trigger” posture. And indeed if the Soviets thought we had shifted to it, they would, in the event of an accidental launch on their part, feel compelled to launch the rest of their arsenal because they’d know our hair trigger would be sending ours their way before we’d have time to verify whether it was an accident.
When the footnote set off a controversy over a possible U.S. “hair trigger” stance, and the footnote was dropped and then restored again, the State Department blandly denied there had been any change in U.S. policy. And officially there had not been. But Kissinger was playing what his former aide, Morton Halperin, calls the game of “the clever briefer.” The footnote was designed to frustrate the ambitions of a hypothetical wily Kremlin advocate making a brief for a silo-busting capacity. “You want us to spend billions for this,” a Soviet leader would reply to “the clever briefer.” “But Kissinger has declared they will go to launch-on-warning if we do it and we will have gained nothing for our billions. What do you say to that?”
There is no good answer. Even though the footnote was deleted and the veiled warning shrouded in ambiguity, raising the possibility should be enough to defeat the arguments of “the clever briefer.” That doesn’t mean that the feint worked, that we won the War of Kissinger’s Footnote. Indeed some military critics argue that Kissinger’s subtle Machiavellianism was no match for the Soviets’ mushrooming megatonnage. But that, in any event, gives you an idea how the game is played.
By this time, several months after my return from the nuclear shrines, several months of immersion in the literature of nuclear strategy, pursuing the paradoxes of esoteric and declaratory strategy ostensibly to write about the state of the art, I realized something was happening to me. I was becoming obsessed by the art, hooked again as I was as an adolescent by the piquant intellectual seductiveness of nuclear strategy. Finally, last August, I felt compelled to make a second pilgrimage. I was looking for some way to escape from the accumulation of nuclear esoterica I had submerged myself in and all of which seemed to be insulating me further from rather than bringing me more “in touch” with nuclear war, whatever that meant—I was sure I would know it if I felt it.
So I flew up to Boston on Hiroshima Day. A small item in Boston’s Real Paper had attracted my attention: someone was actually going to hold an old-fashioned ban-the-bomb-type demonstration up there to commemorate the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. I’m not talking about one of those anti-nuclear-power demonstrations. These have become very fashionable of late after the organizational success of the Clamshell Alliance’s mass civil disobedience on the site of the proposed Seabrook nuclear reactor. There’s no shortage of anti-nuclear-power demonstrations.
But a demonstration against nuclear weapons. How odd. As a sometime chronicler of the antiwar demonstrations of the late ’60s and early ’70s I knew that the only people who still did that were the small and aging band of the pacifist faithful, the War Resistors League, and other, smaller, old-fashioned peace groups; and I couldn’t recall the last time I’d heard of them doing anything. This demonstration, part of a series of Hiroshima Day actions, seemed to have been engendered by many of the old peace-movement people hoping to rebuild the kind of mass movement that had disappeared after the test-ban treaty was approved. Apparently this was causing some ruffled feathers among the anti-nuclear-power partisans. According to a friend of mine in Boston, the Clamshell Alliance had refused to give its support to the Hiroshima Day demonstration because “some of them think it’s just these old peace-movement people trying to take advantage of the energy the Clamshell people have established. The Clamshell people believe it’s important to organize a base in the community rather than just to demonstrate.” This snooty attitude confirmed a theory I’d had that the anti-nuclear-power movement was a way for activists to sublimate their feelings of impotence in the face of the massive nuclear-weapons establishment. You can prevent a reactor from being built, you can even shut it down if it’s unsafe, but the nuclear warheads are already there, they are extremely unsafe, and no one believes they’ll ever go away.
I remember how far gone into the swamp of strategic thinking I was by the time I arrived at Fanueil Hall for the opening speeches of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki ban-the-bomb demo-commemoration. I can remember because my first few pages of notes on that event are devoted to a four-line joke I found written on a wall of the men’s room at Faneuil Hall and an analysis of the way that particular joke illuminated the dilemma of just-war theologians who employ the principle of “double effect” (developed in the thirteenth century to justify the use of the catapult as a siege weapon) to justify the “unintentional” slaughter of innocents contemplated by certain nuclear retaliatory strategies.
The joke on the men’s-room wall was unusual only in that it was not really dirty, just mildly “sick.”
“How did you get that flat tire?” it began.
“I ran over a milk bottle.”
“Didn’t you see it?”
“No, the damn kid was carrying it under his coat.”
Get it? Now let me explain what this has to do with nuclear war. The late ’50s and early ’60s were full of heady debate for theologians with almost everyone wrestling with the problem of whether conduct of thermonuclear war could, or should, be guided by the same moral principles that were used to define a “just war” or whether thermonuclear war must be considered beyond the bounds of anything justifiable under any circumstances. Even thornier was the question of whether possession of nuclear weapons for deterrent purposes without use, but with the threat of potential use, could be moral if use was immoral. And were some kinds of use, some kinds of threatened use, better than other kinds of threats? No one wrestled more heroically with these problems than Protestant theologian Paul Ramsey. No one tried more strenuously to demonstrate that the application of complex Judeo-Christian moral principles to the most esoteric elements of nuclear strategy was a possible, indeed important, enterprise. Differing with Christian pacifists and “international realists,” both of which schools insisted that no moral distinctions could apply to such an essentially immoral or amoral (respectively) enterprise. Ramsey plunged into the thicket of targeting strategy. For my money his finest or most ridiculous hour is his attempt to synthesize an acceptably Christian deterrent posture: he calls for a declared policy of massive counter-city retaliation that will really be a bluff.
Here the milk-bottle joke is instructive. According to Ramsey’s just-war reasoning (and assuming the milk bottle is some deadly weapon), it is okay to run over the boy as long as you intend to run over only the milk bottle. Or to apply it now to nuclear targeting, it is okay to respond to a nuclear strike by hitting an enemy’s military targets (counterforce targeting) and killing tens of millions of people who happen to live within radiation range—it is okay so long as you intend to knock out only the military installations and the killing of innocent civilians is “unintentional” collateral damage resulting from the “double effect” of an ICBM on both combatant and noncombatant elements of the population.
This rationalization was developed to justify the use of the catapult as a siege-breaking weapon since it was impossible to see over the besieged walls to make sure the catapulted projectile hit only the combatants within a city. Ramsey also endorses a modified “bluff of deterrence” position: he believes that an efficacious deterrent threat requires that we declare we will wreak retaliation on cities, but that when the moment for retaliation comes we should adhere to counterforce military targeting or none at all.
Ramsey’s efforts are a heroic act of rational apologetics, but one can’t help but wonder if they don’t serve to legitimize all forms of nuclear response since only a few scholastic quibbles seem to separate the sanctified from the unsanctified bomb blast.
I have been staring at blast wounds and radiation burns on and off for two days. The organizers of the three-day demonstration had assembled every major Hiroshima documentary film and they were running them over and over in various church basements around Boston. In addition, there was a round-the-clock three-day vigil in memory of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At first, rather than standing in public I preferred to sit in anonymity and watch the wound films. I felt that after all the intellectualizing over the metaphysics of deterrence theory I might have lost a sense of compassion and that a good dose of Hiroshima horrors might bring me back to my humanity.
I was wrong. Too many pictures of wounds end up blurring the distinctions between the agony left behind by any war and the potential for utter annihilation to be feared from the next one. After all, the missile crewmen told me they had been shown graphic films of Hiroshima before being asked if they’d be willing to twist those keys. And still they’d said yes.
At last, driven by shame, perhaps at my lack of response to the wound watch, I headed for the plaza outside Fanueil Hall, where I resolved to spend the hours until dawn standing silently in the memorial vigil for victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The vigil—a semicircle of people standing still around a mushroom-shaped memorial—had been going on round the clock since the anniversary hour of the Hiroshima bombing, and would continue until eleven the next morning, the time the bomb hit Nagasaki. I had actually resolved to stay up all night in the vigil on each of the previous two nights, but it was raining one night and there were some friends to see the second night and I never quite made it out onto the plaza. But this time I was determined to make it nonstop through to the dawn, hoping to do some quiet thinking about the whole matter. Instead of running around looking for another esoteric document, another trigger icon to touch, another fantasy to explore, I needed to stand still and think for a while.
The sociable sounds of a late-night singles-bar complex and the aromas of an all-night flower market wafted over to that part of the plaza where memories of mass death were being memorialized in defiance of the summer merriment. The semicircle around the mushroom-cloud memorial was manned mainly by members of the old peace-movement crowd sprinkled with some young Boston Brahmin pacifist types. On a nearby bench, apparently keeping an intermittent vigil on the vigil, were two shopping-bag ladies. They spent most of their time endeavoring to fix the mechanism of a rusty, skeletal umbrella someone must have discarded many rains ago. There was a rambling discussion in some obscure mode of communication in which I could make out references to cancer of the thyroid, which one or both of them thought she was getting. About 2 or 3 A.M., a wino tried to challenge the silent vigilants to argument on nuclear strategy but he tired of the lack of response. The singles bar closed up and until dawn there was little but silence to disturb the thinking I wanted to do.
For the first three hours I tried my best to think about the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but I was thinking mainly about my feet. Should I shift my weight from the right to the left and back again, or divide it between the soles of both. Which strategy was more likely to get me through the morning with the least discomfort? (Ever since high school days working in a supermarket job I’ve had trouble standing up for prolonged periods. I have high arches, you see, and…)
God, how inhumane, you must be thinking to yourself. This guy is at a memorial for 180,000 people blasted and burned and he’s talking about his high arches. In my defense I would say I was aware of the absurdity of it—the emblematic absurdity at least. By spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about my physical stance I was avoiding what I felt was my duty in this story, in life, to find a comfortable stance, the correct strategic stance, or at least a moral position, on the subtleties and the stark crudities of nuclear war.
As I shifted about for a stance I recalled my final phone conversation with Major Hering. It had taken me some time to track him down. He’s an ex-major now and he and his family have had to shift location more than once as he looks for the right position, readjusts to the civilian job market. In the meantime he’d been doing some long-haul trucking in order to make ends meet.
At first the Air Force had tried to disqualify him for missile-crewman service under the provisions of the human-reliability regulation: because he wanted to be reassured a launch he executed was constitutional, he was, they tried to say, unreliable. When that failed the Air Force removed him from missile-crewman service and tried to transfer him to other duties. The major appealed that decision all the way up to the Secretary of the Air Force, lost, and then took an early retirement. He really had wanted to be a missile crewman and he fought his appeal fiercely with copious research into command-and-control problems to support his thesis. He told me he had a number of filing cabinets filled with documents that supported his position and revealed new unanswered questions, and he felt I should read through the files and the transcript of his hearings and appeals before I spoke to him. “It’ll take you about a week or more of reading,” the ex-major told me. I’d have to wait until after his next truck run, and after his new job was resolved. Then he’d be prepared to get back into it with me. “This whole thing has taken a lot out of me, as you can imagine, so I’d want to know you’re serious before getting back into it all again,” he said. The next time I called his number he’d moved to another city and I decided to pass up the filing cabinets.
I had a feeling that Major Hering’s question had cost him a lot, cost him a comfortable couple of years down in the cozy launch-control capsules, years in which as it turned out he never would have had to face the constitutional command question his stringent conscience compelled him to ask. Cost him a promising military career and a couple of years of his life trying to extract from fragmentary unclassified sources what were the contingency plans for constitutional succession problems at the top of the chain of command and control. Finding himself alone among all missile crewmen in thinking independently on such questions must have been a burden.
Should we call our own bluff?
Kecskemeti, Ramsey, all those who try to think about nuclear war as more than the three-dimensional chess of the strategists suffer for their efforts.
There are two kinds of “unthinkables” in the thinking on this subject. There is the fashionable “unthinkable” of Kahn and company (how many million casualties are “acceptable” in a nuclear war: twenty? forty?), which in fact was never unthinkable at all to the Defense Department and defense contractors who funded this self-proclaimed daring intellectual adventure. And then there are unfashionable unthinkable questions. Major Hering’s question. Unilateral disarmament. Remember that? While Herman Kahn’s unthinkables have bankrolled him into a comfortable existence giving posh seminars on the shape of centuries to come, a man like David McReynolds, the War Resisters League organizer who helped lead the big ban-the-bomb demonstrations in the Sixties, sits in a drafty old room near the Bowery and speaks to an audience of five. He’s raising again the question of unilateral disarmament at an anarchist-sponsored “Freespace University.” In addition to the moderator and me, there are two men off the Bowery with shopping bags who seem mainly interested in getting out of the rain. There’s an unreconstructed Stalinist who keeps changing the subject to a long-winded defense of the legitimacy of Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia (counterrevolutionary provocation, he says) and an ex-Marine who begins all his questions with long quotations from Marcus Aurelius.
Despite it all, McReynolds delivers a brilliant polemical analysis of deterrence theory, in which he argues that unilateral disarmament is the only moral alternative to the mass murder for vengeance our declared retaliating policy calls for. Despite Air Force Regulation 35-99, McReynolds may be the sanest man in America on this subject, yet he has me and a Marcus Aurelius freak to listen to him, if you don’t count the shopping-bag men.
Speaking of shopping-bag people, it’s getting close to dawn now at this vigil we’ve drifted away from. I’ve drifted into a trance after settling into a more or less comfortable stance, but the shopping-bag women bring me out of it with a vociferous discussion of the skeletal umbrella and more talk of thyroid cancer. I recall a groggy illumination at this point: here, before me, was a perfect emblem of what I’d been trying to think about—how the shopping-bag ladies were not unlike sophisticated nuclear strategists, arguing in their peculiar language over the operation of that rickety contraption of an umbrella which, like the contrivance of deterrence theory, provides only symbolic protection for the two powers who seek shelter beneath its empty framework. Suddenly, I realized that the fact that these women had been talking about cancer of the thyroid as they watched the vigil was no accident. An increased incidence of thyroid cancer was a much-feared consequence of strontium 90 in the fallout-scare days of the late ’50s and early ’60s. They were thinking about it. Maybe, unlike the rest of us, they never stopped thinking about it. Maybe that’s what drove them to the streets and shopping bags. Maybe they were among the unfortunate few who have not been afflicted by that mass repression we’ve used to submerge nuclear arousal in our consciousness.
Who else do you know who talks about it?
Well I figured it all out after dawn. My stance.
The illumination I finally received that morning came in the notion of a simple modest proposal. Open up the SIOP. The most frustrating barrier to intelligent thinking about the strategic and moral consequences of our nuclear policy is our continued preoccupation with esoteric strategy—with bluff, ambiguity, and mirror-image metaphysics.
Every targeting strategy, every targeting option the SIOP machine presents to the National Command Authority, represents a profound moral choice. An eye for an eye. Or two eyes. Two cities or one. Total vindictive retribution. Symbolic response or none at all. It’s impossible to calculate the moral consequences we as individuals bear for such choices made in our name if the actual content of the choice is hidden behind the sleight of hand of esoteric strategy.
Should we resign ourselves and allow the SIOP machine and its think-tank tenders to make perhaps the most important decisions ever made, to churn out “optimum outcomes” according to definitions of “optimum” values that remain hermetically sealed in its program? We have no way to engage the machine or those who program it in debate over those values or the options they generate. If we were to move toward a democratically determined SIOP, we would have to reveal our bluffs, lay our cards on the table. Games of bluff are inevitably incompatible with democratic decision-making since an electorate can’t vote to bluff by policy without, of course, betraying any possible success to an adversary.
Well, let them know. Let us know. Let us no longer be insulated from the master target list, from the master targeting strategy, from the moral options. We are all missile crewmen—all of us who pay taxes pay for the twin brass keys, even if we won’t twist them ourselves when the time comes. But in one way or another we all have our finger on the trigger, and it’s about time we knew where we’re aiming, who’s really giving the orders to fire, and whether we ought to obey.
ICBM (Intercontinental ballistic missile)
SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks)
NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command)
SDS (Students for a Democratic Society)
MIRV (Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle)
[Photo Credit: Chester Burger via NYPL]