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Please God Not the Cold War Again

January 29th, 2008 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

There was a disturbing article by Paul Richter in today’s Los Angeles Times, “A Cold War redux is seen on horizon,” Jan. 29, 2008. Mr. Richter reports there is “growing friction” between Russia and the United States, “part of an increasingly difficult relationship.” In fact, relations between the two countries now are in the “worst shape since the end of the Cold War, and at risk of further deterioration.”

To me, this is a nightmare scenario. It should be avoided at all costs. For our sake and the sake of future generations, the government must take whatever diplomatic measures are necessary in order to avoid impasse.

I know of what I speak. I grew up in the 1950s – 1960s in La Jolla, California, a suburb of San Diego. The previous Cold War was at its height. It was, as historian John Lewis Gaddis has observed, a time of “ever-present anxiety, that at some point, because of some miscalculation or act of hubris, we might find ourselves in the middle of a nuclear holocaust – a war that, if we survived it, would change our lives and our planet forever,” The Cold War (2005).

All the rocket scientists we bagged from Germany at the end of the Second World War were busy enjoying the sunshine, tinkering with electronics, and building bigger rockets. “Even before the war was over, teams from the major Allied powers began searching for the spoils of the Baltic coast center (Peenemünde) and its revolutionary technology,” Neufeld, M., The Rocket and the Reich 267 (1995). Thomas Pynchon captured the crazy mood in his amazing post-modern masterpiece, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). One of these whacky German scientists was Krafft Ehricke. I went to elementary school with his daughter, Astrid Ehricke (great name, considering her provenance). Another one, of course, was Wernher von Braun.


The Ruskies occupied Berlin. They launched the Sputnik. They built a hydrogen bomb. Spies were in our midst. Howard Hughes was going crazy. There was a “missile gap,” and we were falling behind. The Bay of Pigs invasion failed. A U-2 spy plane piloted by Gary Powers was shot down over Russia. Khrushchev moved his missiles into Cuba. John F. Kennedy responded with a naval blockade. Khrushchev pounded his shoe on the podium at the United Nations. “We will bury you,” he said. Ironically, Sergei Khrushchev – Nikita Khrushchev’s son – now is a Professor at Brown University (and a pretty smart one, too). Stands to reason he wasn’t for the burial proposal.

At the time, San Diego’s economy primarily was based on defense and tourism (maybe it still is). There was a huge naval base. There were aerospace contractors like Convair and General Dynamics, and a mysterious new company called General Atomics. Given its strategic importance, San Diego was a natural target for multiple atomic bomb attacks.

A 25-foot, bright-yellow tower stood close to our house, the better to warn us when the end was nigh. It had an air-raid siren on top. They tested it every Monday at 12:00 noon. Its piercing whine ricocheted off the streets and into the canyons.

Our neighbors built fall-out shelters. The theory was, you were supposed to scamper into your fall-out shelter when the siren went off. We were advised if you tried to enter somebody else’s fall-out shelter, it was OK for its occupants to shoot you stone cold dead. No hard feelings, of course. The family was reconstituted “as a kind of paramilitary unit,” see interview with Laura McEnaney on “America’s Response to the Civil Defense Message” at reference/interview/mcenaney04.html (accessed 2008); and McEnaney, L., Civil Defense Begins at Home (2000). Much in the same manner as the Swiss Family Robinson deterred the pirates who invaded their tranquil island paradise (in the eponymous 1960 Disney movie). They were loathsome, dirty fellows. Way before they became loveable, like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Another Disney image, gone awry.

During the same trip when he spoke at the U.N., Khrushchev was denied admission to Disneyland. The stated grounds: his wandering eye might catch a glimpse of state secrets. Possibly, the same techniques deployed by the previously-mentioned Swiss Family Robinson.

In lieu of building a fall-out shelter, and (sensibly) to avoid the possibility of any inadvertent misunderstandings over its utilization, our family acquired a ranch in the mountains near Descanso, California. No particular reason to believe the neighbor’s stupid fall-out shelter would survive a mega-ton bomb impact anyway, much less the subsequent radiation.

At the time, Descanso was remote and inaccessible. We drilled out the cellar, stocked up on canned food, installed some cots, and a tank for water. We went there every weekend.

I’m not sure what we would have done if the attack had occurred on a week-day – skedaddled out of town, I guess. But, the roads probably would be pretty crowded with abandoned cars and melting skeletons. So, we started spending summers there, too. Astute readers will notice this leads to the same problem as per above, that is, what if the attack occurred say, during the fall. There’s a limit to everybody’s contingency planning.

The first ranch was determined to be insufficiently remote and inaccessible. So, we got another one, even more remote and inaccessible. Just to hedge our bets, my brother and I became expert shots with our .22 rifles. We speculated on how we could plant land mines in the winding dirt road leading up to the house. Actually, that part was kinda fun.

“Think tanks” like RAND in Santa Monica, California invented peculiar concepts like “mutually-assured destruction” (“MAD” for short), inspiring bizarre movies like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964). According to these (and other) analysts, “containment of the Soviet Union was the only sensible alternative. An immediate victory was not in the cards, and trying for one could unleash a nuclear holocaust,” Reed, T., At the Abyss 31 (2004). In its cold-war enthusiasm, RAND actually hypothesized some level of kill-off was both quantifiable, and acceptable. Enough people would survive – the damage might be containable – and the human race would live on. Echoing this sentiment, novels like Nevil Shute’s On The Beach (1957) and Fail-Safe (1962) by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, depicted a bleak, post-apocalyptic future.

The Civil Defense Administration printed up 35 million copies of a pamphlet instructing concerned citizens what to do, Boyer, P., “From Activism to Apathy – the American People and Nuclear Weapons 1963 – 1980,” 70 J. American History 821 (Mar. 1984). One of the main prophylactics was duck-and-cover drills. These were conducted once per month at our local elementary school. If we got under our desks and crouched into a little ball, it was likely we would survive for upwards of five minutes more. We dutifully complied. Comforting thoughts for the little tykes we were. Fortunately, iconic figures like Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio instructed us how to keep our spirits up, despite fatigue and disillusionment.

We were told the Russians had made a list of all of the people they were going to kill, after they invaded. If anybody still was alive, once the radioactive fall-out blew off. In retrospect, the concept of “the list” was somewhat elastic, basically expanding to include anybody with a brain. This wasn’t exactly playing by American rules. So, fostering a spirit of rivalry, “The only good Red is one who’s dead,” or so the slogan went.

It was imperative to avert the possibility of a Pearl Harbor-style surprise attack. “Once bitten, twice sky.” The Strategic Air Command, under the direction of General Curtis LeMay, kept B-52 bombers in the air 24/7. They circled the North Pole, ready to head east. Sealed envelopes apprised them of their target, to be opened only upon receipt of a coded “go” command. In 1970, I saw General LeMay give a speech at Royce Hall at UCLA. He was one scary dude.

As back-up, our government spent billions building intercontinental ballistic (and anti-ballistic) weaponry, housed in hardened concrete silos, deep in the desert. The launch console had a lot of meters, dials, and two shiny red launch buttons. The meters and dials basically were meaningless. In a manner not dissimilar to the way Napoleon’s artillery commanders calculated cannon-ball trajectories, analog computers filled with tubes and transistors already had plotted each rocket’s requisite arc. It all came down to commanding it to launch, which entailed pushing the buttons.

The best visual image of how this must have looked is the denouement to Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003). This movie starred our erstwhile governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. It recreates the aforementioned console, and its associated computery, with breathtaking (and frightening) accuracy.

Why two buttons, you ask? To eliminate the possibility of inadvertent error, because they were spaced far apart, too far for one person to reach, even with both arms outstretched, and both buttons had to be pushed at once in order to launch the missile. But what happens (you continue to ask), if one of the soldiers got himself killed? No way for the other one to persevere on, and push his counterpart’s button. And, no saying what might happen if both were killed simultaneously, or if one went crazy and shot the other, then refused to push his button, or killed himself (thereby being unable to push his button) (unless he inadvertently slumped on both of them during his death-throes) (which would be entirely avoidable, simply by shooting yourself in the middle of the bunker, rather than near the console with the shiny red buttons on it).

Fortunately there were intricate Launch Enable Systems, or launch safety systems, to deter such malarkey. See an interview with General Sam Phillips conducted by Martin Collins on September 8, 1989, available at dsh/TRANSCPT/PHILLIP5.HTM (accessed 2008). Unfortunately, for all of his good intentions, General Phillips doesn’t explain what happens when the systems monitoring those systems go wrong, etc. Not only was there the possibility of personnel, but also the possibility of electrical and mechanical component failure. What if a mouse ate a wire, or a twig got stuck in the gyro motor opening the hatch into the starry night? There is no perfect “fault tree analysis,” because no matter how granular it becomes, it can’t account for the myriad elements of human behavior (particularly under stress), or other unplanned events in the world.

Most “high-confidence” systems are oblivious to this dynamic. What range safety officer really will push the self-destruct button, when all else has failed? For the answer to this and other intriguing mind-twisters, see Frankel, S., “Aborting unauthorized launches of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles through postlaunch destruction,” 2 Science & Global Security 1 (1990).

No wonder it made me – and many others like me – crazy.


Duck-and-Cover Drill


“We Will Bury You”