America’s Shockingly Clumsy Nuclear History

In the drone of bad news from around the world these days, it’s bleakly reassuring that things aren’t as bad as they could be. For example, the United States continues to have a pretty solid record of not incinerating its own cities with the accidental detonation of a nuclear weapon. Solid, but not spotless: Eric Schlosser’s new book Command and Control explores the American history of near-misses, including a 1961 incident where Goldsboro, North Carolina, would have been destroyed but for a single part and a 1980 accident involving (seriously) a dropped wrench that caused an ICBM to explode in its silo.

Anyone who’s read Schlosser’s previous books can expect Command and Control to be meticulously researched and reported, but while Fast Food Nation at least gave us something we could do at the end to reduce our exposure to the terrors he unearthed (eat less meat), the danger of nuclear weapons in human hands isn’t exactly something under an individual’s authority.

Schlosser’s work fits well in the well-established body of work revising and expanding our history of the nuclear arms race—another good example is Richard Rhodes’ Arsenals of Folly, which dealt at length with the dangers of the last decade of the Cold War: As Ronald Reagan’s anti-Communist rhetoric was intensifying and the Americans were driving up military spending, the Soviets became more and more convinced that they were going to be attacked, leading to crisis during the Able Archer 83 NATO wargames.

Between massive errors both technical and political, it’s a small miracle that any of us are here today to fret about terrorism, in other words. Nuclear weapons aren’t really made for humans who make mistakes, which is another way of saying that we probably shouldn’t keep them around. Schlosser put it explicitly to the Guardian: “Our ability to create dangerous things exceeds our ability to control them.”

It may not be entirely fair to say that the world’s atom-mongers have always had a hard time swallowing that humility, but keep in mind that the nuclear age was born in some of the most strictly controlled company towns the US has ever seen (though it seems they weren’t as secret as we thought). Maybe the idea that these inventions could be kept monitored and chaperoned indefinitely just naturally appealed to the men in charge.

But then, they couldn’t know that the world would just sort of get used to living with thousands of nuclear weapons ready to be used at a moment’s notice. The nuclear age is coming up on its 70th birthday in 2015, as the baby boomers and nuclear weapons continue their long shared history. The children born after World War II—the war the atom bomb ended—have never known a world without the threat of nuclear war. It seems likely that nuclear weapons will outlive them all, despite some important people’s best efforts.

That isn’t the worst-case scenario, of course. After all, a world in which nuclear weapons exist is one where they haven’t all been used. And the arguments of some political scientists that nuclear weapons have kept the peace between great powers shouldn’t be ignored. But all that means is that for the foreseeable future we can’t just get by on hoping for continued (relative) world peace—we’ve got to hope that Lieutenant Butterfingers in the missile silo keeps a firm grip on his wrench. How safe are we supposed to feel, exactly?

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