August: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

HISTORY, 10 Aug 2015

Jeffrey W. Mason – Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

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August 5, 1950 – Two separate B-29 bombers were dispatched to Guam for possible deployment against the Chinese in the Korean War, one carrying the dense uranium core and the other aircraft carrying the high explosive outer casing – dual components for the Mark IV nuclear weapon.  After leaving Fairfield Suisun Air Force Base in California, the aircraft carrying the high explosive component developed mechanical problems and was forced to turn around and attempt an emergency landing, which was unsuccessful resulting in an uncontrolled crash landing.  Brigadier General Robert F. Travis was rescued from the crashed plane before the ensuing high explosive blast but he died from crash-related injuries enroute to the hospital (the airbase was later renamed Travis Air Force Base in his honor).  The 5,000 pound high explosive charge became overheated and exploded killing a number of military personnel on the ground near the crash site.  However, in the ensuring years after this and other nuclear incidents, the U.S. military decided that its “improved” safety protocols were sufficient to warrant carrying fully mated nuclear weapons onboard its aircraft allowing the U.S. Strategic Air Command to maintain a daily flight of bombers to a failsafe point located near the borders of the Soviet Union.   Comments:  This is just one of dozens of acknowledged as well as a potentially greater number of still classified nuclear accidents and Broken Arrows that have occurred involving the arsenals of the Nuclear Club nations.  (Sources:  Travis Air Force Base Heritage Center, and Eric Schlosser. “Command and Control:  Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety.”  New York:  Penguin Press, 2013.)

August 5, 1963 – Limited Test Ban Treaty negotiations held in Moscow since July 15th by representatives of the U.S., U.K., and Soviet Union concluded on this date with the signing of a treaty that prohibited nuclear tests in the atmosphere, in outer space, and underwater.   Less than a year after the world came to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 16-28, 1962, President John F. Kennedy, who first announced these high level talks on the same day as his June 10, 1963 American University speech, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were able in an amazingly short period of time to negotiate and sign the LTBT which was entered into force on October 10, 1963.  Comments:  A critical follow-on to the LTBT, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, has still not been ratified by the United States despite decades of progress in the area of verification as illustrated by the fact that there are now almost 300 global detection sites.  Despite the fact that President Bill Clinton was the first to sign the CTBT on September 24, 1996, the U.S. Senate rejected treaty ratification in October 1999.  There is no longer any legitimate excuse for the U.S. not to proceed with ratification.   Encouraging Congress to ratify the CTBT, as well as having that body direct the Pentagon to de-alert hair trigger U.S. strategic nuclear warheads, and begin the accelerated phase out of the U.S. nuclear triad (through bilateral negotiations with Russia) ought to be priority issues in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  (Source:  Jack Mendelsohn and David Grahame, editors.  “Arms Control Chronology.”  Washington, DC:  Center for Defense Information, 2002, pp. 1, 4, 10, 15.)

August 6, 1945 – Colonel Paul Warfield Tibbets piloted the 509th Composite Group’s B-29 Superfortress bomber named Enola Gay, in honor of the pilot’s mother, from Tinian in the Marianas chain of Pacific Ocean islands to Hiroshima, Japan where the enriched uranium-fueled fission bomb code named “Little Boy” was dropped over a city of a quarter million inhabitants at 8:15:17 a.m. local time.  43 seconds after release and 1,850 feet over the city, the bomb exploded (with a yield estimated to be 12-15 kilotons) registering an air temperature, for a fleeting millisecond of 100 million degrees.  In the city below, 5,400 degree temperatures vaporized thousands of human beings, melted granite, clay roof tiles, and gravestone mica for three-quarters of a mile in all directions from the explosion’s epicenter.  A blast wave of 1,100 feet-per-second blew down everyone and everything left standing that was not previously destroyed by the tremendous heat of the explosion.  The firestorm from the blast, as a result of a huge displacement of air, began to flow back to the epicenter at up to 200 miles-per-hour raising radioactive dust and debris into a mushroom cloud.  78,150 died, 13,983 were missing, and 37,425 injured as an immediate result of the blast.  But tens of thousands more would die of horrendous burns and associated direct radiation impacts within days and weeks and from longer-term radiation-caused cancers for decades afterward.  Two days later, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and launched a massive invasion of Manchuria and on August 9th hundreds of thousands more Japanese suffered a second atomic bombing (with a yield estimated to be 21 kilotons), from the plutonium-fueled “Fat Man” warhead, at Nagasaki.  Before the bombings, General and later President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, voiced misgivings about the use of these weapons against Japan, “It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing…”  More than two and a half months before the nuclear attacks, Leo Szilard and two other Manhattan Project scientists reported that Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, “did not argue that it was necessary to use the bomb against the cities of Japan in order to win the war…Mr. Byrnes’ view was that our possessing and demonstrating the bomb will make Russia more manageable in Europe.”   A few years after the bombings, Admiral William D. Leahy, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and previously chief of staff to President Roosevelt (1942-45) and President Truman (1945-49) publicly stated, “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan.  The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender…in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages…wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”  (Sources:  Craig Nelson.  “The Age of Radiance:  The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era.”  New York:  Scribner, 2014, pp. 211-220 and Gar Alperovitz.   “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb:  And the Architecture of An American Myth.”  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, pp. 3-6, 15, 672.)

August 12, 1953 – Less than four years after their first-ever atomic bomb test on August 29, 1949 and only nine months after the first U.S. thermonuclear test, Mike, which took place at the Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands on November 1, 1952, the Soviet Union exploded their first hydrogen bomb, the RDS-6, with a yield of 400 kilotons at the Semipalatinsk site in Kazakhstan.  This was one of some 456 detonations, equal to about 2,500 Hiroshimas, in the Polygon test area of Soviet Kazakhstan that occurred in the period from 1949 to 1989 which resulted in extremely harmful short- and long-term health impacts to populations in an immense region.  Increased cancer rates, groundwater contamination, and other detrimental health and environmental impacts still plague global populations decades after over 2,000 nuclear bombs were exploded below ground or in the atmosphere by members of the Nuclear Club.  ((Sources:  Jack Mendelsohn and David Grahame, editors.  “Arms Control Chronology.”  Washington, DC:  Center for Defense Information, 2002, pp. 5-6, 24.)

August 17, 1997America’s Defense Monitor, a half-hour documentary PBS-TV series that premiered in 1987, released a new film, “Military Leaders for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (Program No. 1049).”  It was produced by the Center for Defense Information, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization and independent monitor of the Pentagon, founded in 1972, whose board of directors and staff included retired military officers (Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll, Jr.), former U.S. government officials (Philip Coyle, who served as an assistant secretary of defense), and civilian experts (Dr. Bruce Blair, a former U.S. Air Force nuclear missile launch control officer).  A news release described the film in these terms:  “U.S. Air Force General Lee Butler, formerly in charge of the U.S. Strategic Command, stunned the public and press with his call to abolish nuclear weapons as soon as possible.  He is not alone.  For the first time on television, high-ranking former military leaders such as U.S. Navy Admiral John Shanahan, British Royal Navy Admiral Sir Earle Eberle, and U.S. Army General Andrew Goodpaster, speak openly about the need to eliminate the world’s still formidable nuclear arsenals.”   Comments:  Since this program was first broadcast, over the last two decades, thousands of global military, political, business, legal, scientific, cultural, and artistic leaders have publicly committed to dramatically reducing and eliminating these doomsday weapons.  Many nuclear abolitionists also support an accelerated phase-out of global civilian nuclear power plants over the next decade.   Antinuclear advocates point not only to the high risks of continued and predictable nuclear power accidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, but also to the tremendously out-of-control civilian and military nuclear sequestration, remediation, and permanent storage conundrum, as well as the terrorist targeting potential, the economic unsustainability of civilian nuclear power, and the potential for nuclear proliferation.

August 28, 1974 – A newspaper article published on this date in the Montreal Gazette, “Erratic Nixon Might Set Off Nuclear Crisis, Officials Feared,” mentioned an alleged incident in which President Richard Nixon (who resigned from office on August 9, 1974) told a group of Congressional representatives during the time of the Watergate impeachment hearings that, “I could leave this room and in 25 minutes, 70 million people would be dead.”  Comments:  It is terrifying to realize that a usually rational, arms-control-minded commander-in-chief under whose leadership the U.S. reestablished relations with China, negotiated and signed treaties with the Soviet Union including the 1971 Accord on Accidental Nuclear War, the 1972 SALT-I and ABM treaties, and the 1973 Prevention of Nuclear War Agreement, could because of the severe stress he suffered during the Watergate political crisis and the 1973 Mideast War, heightened at times by his overconsumption of alcoholic beverages, have credibly triggered the accidental, unauthorized, or irrational use of nuclear weapons!   The world has dodged nuclear war many times over the last seventy years.   There is no doubt that the human species has been very fortunate but eventually one’s luck runs out.   The only way to ensure that the nuclear trigger is never pulled is to outlaw forever these doomsday weapons.  (Source:  Louis Rene Beres.  “Apocalypse:  Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics.”  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1980, p. 166.)

August 31, 1946 – Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and journalist John Hersey’s New Yorker article on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which filled the entire edition of the magazine, lifted the veil on the previously top secret medical and humanitarian consequences of the first use of nuclear weapons on human beings including the devastatingly long-lived effects of gamma ray radiation on survivors as well as the horrendously painful deaths suffered by tens of thousands of men, women, and children in the days, weeks, and months after the August 6 and 9 atomic bombings.  Undeterred by the public and scientific community’s shock and criticism of the U.S. government’s cover-up of these facts, the Pentagon, Atomic Energy Commission (later renamed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission), and other U.S. government agencies continued to secretly carry out decades of human radiation experiments, many on unsuspecting civilian hospital patients, including the exposure of our own soldiers to nuclear test radiation effects, which prompted Congressional representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.) in 1995 to note that, “One of the unfortunate, ironic twists of the Cold War is that the United States did more damage to American citizens in their use of nuclear materials than they ever did to the Soviet Union.”   Comments:  Poet Maya Angelou once wrote, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”  Nuclear weapons must be abolished before the unthinkable happens again.  (Sources:   U.S. Department of Energy.  Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety, and Health.  “Human Radiation Experiments:  The Department of Energy Roadmap to the Story and the Records.”  Washington, DC:  U.S. Government Printing Office, February 1995 and Center for Defense Information.  America’s Defense Monitor: The Legacy of Hiroshima (Program No. 847).  First aired on WHMM-TV, Howard University Television, and uploaded to PBS-TV and other stations via satellite link on August 6, 1995 and Maya Angelou.  “The Inaugural Poem:  On the Pulse of Morning.”  New York, 1993.  Read by the Poet at the Inauguration of President Bill Clinton.)

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