Last week I learned via an academic History List about a book documenting Project Dribble, underground nuclear tests in the US state of Mississippi in the early 1960s. Apparently the US government’s Atomic Energy Commission was concerned that it would not be able to detect secret underground tests by other countries, and so wanted to study the seismic footprint of such a detonation. Mississippi was trying attract high-tech and nuclear industry, and so volunteered for the test, which occurred in underground salt domes in the southern part of the state, in Lamar County, near the town of Hattiesburg.
Local family stabilizes their chimney in anticipation of the underground test. According to the state historical society, they had good cause to be worried, as there was some property damage. Note what appear to be polio braces on that poor little guy.
This story had me curious, because my wife’s family moved to Hattiesburg when she was young, and I asked her if she remembered anything of the tests. I had this notion that the testing might have been kept secret, but as the above picture indicates, it was public knowledge. My wife Kay remembers how her grade school class followed the preparations for the test, and on the day their teacher had them place glasses of water on their desks to see if seismic shock would be visible in the water. The vibration could clearly be seen.
That vibration was caused by a 5.3 kiloton device, roughly a third of the size of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. Today it’s impossible to imagine what the civic and political shock would be from residents told that an underground nuclear test would happen near their homes (apparently the people of Mississippi weren’t too pleased about it either, but were told it was for national security and weren’t given a choice), let alone imagine a local government trying to attract jobs and money by volunteering for such a program (actually, come to think of it, it’s depressingly easy to imagine). For my wife, it was part of her childhood, like the duck and cover drills she vaguely remembers teachers explaining to her (hard to imagine that today … oh, wait a minute, school lockdown drills … but I digress, never mind).
Yes, the Cold War was a strange, scary place, but after reading this piece by Eric Schlosser,I’m beginning to think it was stranger and scarier than our darkest comedy made it seem. Just a little over fifty years after the release of Kubrick’s satiric film, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, Schlosser compares the film to history and finds it was disturbingly prescient. Here are three examples of how life imitated art.
Nuclear launch authority delegated to the point where potentially psychotic generals could issue launch codes themselves? Yes, under the Eisenhower administration. The bit in Schlosser’s piece about German pilots sitting in planes with US nuclear weapons only hours from Moscow, only 20 years after the Soviet conquest of half of Germany (one US scientist who learned of this said it made him “wet his pants”), is an example of loose the command and control was early on.
Nuclear weapons with “FailSafe” devices to prevent unauthorized launches? Yes, under the Kennedy administration and thereafter, though elements of the US military resisted the idea, and all Minuteman missiles, perhaps apocryphally, had fail safes, called “Permissive Action Links” that were “00000000”. The idea of a failsafe code to abort or destruct a nuclear weapon which goes horrifically wrong showed up recently in the hilariously bad film “Olympus Has Fallen”, proving that the Cold War nuclear paranoia film is not entirely dead.
A Russian “Doomsday device” that will cause retaliatory destruction if the world if the USSR is attacked? Remember, the one that at the end of the film where Dr. Stangelove says “The whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret!”? Yes, in the 1980s, the Soviets built a system called Dead Hand, designed to launch nuclear weapons automatically if nuclear detonations were detected on Soviet soil and the leadership could not be reached. The USA did not learn about Dead Head until after the Cold War.
As Schossler writes, “In retrospect, Kubrick’s black comedy provided a far more accurate description of the dangers inherent in nuclear command-and-control systems than the ones the American people got from the White House, the Pentagon, and the mainstream media.
“This is absolute madness, Ambassador,” President Merkin Muffley says in the film, after being told about the Soviets’ automated retaliatory system. “Why should you build such a thing?” Fifty years later, that question remains unanswered and “Strangelove” seems all the more brilliant, bleak, and terrifyingly on the mark.”