SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 175 February 2014

Whose finger on the button?

Command and Control: nuclear weapons, the Damascus accident and the illusion of safety By Eric Schlosser

Published by Allen Lane, 2013, £25

Paperback due out end of February

Reviewed by Bill Mullins

Lakenheath, the US Air Force/RAF airbase in Suffolk from where a Pave Hawk helicopter recently took off before it crashed, loaded with ammunition, was the scene of many accidents during the cold war including some with nuclear bombs. This is brought out by Eric Schlosser in his latest book, Command and Control. "On July 27, 1956, an American B-47 bomber took off from Lakenheath… The plane veered off the runway and slammed into a storage igloo containing Mark 6 atomic bombs… then exploded showering burning fuel… Preliminary exam by bomb disposal officer says it was a miracle that one Mark Six (atomic bomb) with exposed detonators sheared didn’t go off".

Another accident at Lakenheath occurred in 1961 when a fighter jet mistakenly dumped its fuel tanks and a hydrogen bomb strapped under its wing. The bomb was engulfed in flame and was only extinguished by fire-fighters with difficulty. Schlosser comments: "Because the accident occurred at a military base, away from the scrutiny of the press and the public, neither the American government nor the British would acknowledge that it happened".

Schlosser’s brilliant book exposes a frightening scenario of what went on during the cold war. He writes: "The emphasis in these pages isn’t on the high-level diplomacy behind arms control treaties. It’s on the operating systems and the mind-set that have guided the management of America’s nuclear arsenal for almost seventy years".

The nuclear bombs, both atom and hydrogen, were surrounded by high explosives to initiate the nuclear explosion. Sometimes they blew up and it was only good luck that they did not set the bomb off. In 1961 a B52 carrying two hydrogen bombs crashed in North Carolina. Three of the four arming devices clicked ‘on’. Only the fourth stayed in ‘off’ position. Had it gone off, the north eastern USA would have been covered in deadly radiation.

Schlosser details the internal discussions among the US military and political elite, and the competition between the generals who wanted the biggest bombs and more of them for their particular parts of the armed services. Henry Kissinger, secretary of state in Richard Nixon’s administration, and others, were preparing to use nuclear weapons during the Vietnam war as a warning to the Soviet bloc.

At one time, the US had over 30,000 nuclear warheads aimed mainly at the Soviet Union. Some of these weapons were ‘strategic’, such as the intercontinental ballistic missiles mainly based in America. Others were ‘tactical’, particularly those in Europe under Nato command. The tactical weapons included nuclear warheads fired from cannon, and even recoilless rifles. The latter would probably have incinerated the soldier firing it as they had a maximum range of one-and-a-half miles. There are thousands of tactical nuclear weapons still in the USA’s arsenal.

Control and Command highlights the inability of US politicians to have the final say over the use of these weapons. It would not just be some mad isolated general – as in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, Dr Strangelove. More likely their use would be initiated by an accidental firing.

Schlosser contends that the USA has introduced increased safety controls on the use of its nuclear weapons, but that that is not the case in other, more unstable, nuclear armed countries. When India and Pakistan were on the brink of war in 1998, the US government became very nervous about the limited control their respective governments had over their nuclear weapons. In Pakistan the decision to use them had been delegated to the military, including relatively low-ranking army colonels.

The book shows that the US ruling class was seriously preparing to use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent on China and Eastern Europe. The Stalinist bureaucracy of the Soviet Union had no real interest in invading the west in the cold war, but it suited the imperialist powers to pretend that was the case, whipping up their populations with the slogan, ‘better dead than red’.

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