Roger’s note: If you are just getting over your Halloween frights, here is something that should really scare you. Only in a world that is controlled by politicians who follow the dictates of generals and CEOs (as opposed to “the people.” which is what democracy is supposed to be about) could such a danger to the very existence of the biosphere and humankind be put in jeopardy. Of course, when I refer to generals and CEOs you know that I mean the capitalist economic system that will doom us if we don’t do something about it. I hope this does not cause you to lose too much sleep.
JANUARY 17, 2014
BY ERIC SCHLOSSER
This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy about nuclear weapons, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Released on January 29, 1964, the film caused a good deal of controversy. Its plot suggested that a mentally deranged American general could order a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, without consulting the President. One reviewer described the film as “dangerous … an evil thing about an evil thing.” Another compared it to Soviet propaganda. Although “Strangelove” was clearly a farce, with the comedian Peter Sellers playing three roles, it was criticized for being implausible. An expert at the Institute for Strategic Studies called the events in the film “impossible on a dozen counts.” A former Deputy Secretary of Defense dismissed the idea that someone could authorize the use of a nuclear weapon without the President’s approval: “Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth.” (See a compendium of clips from the film.) When “Fail-Safe”—a Hollywood thriller with a similar plot, directed by Sidney Lumet—opened, later that year, it was criticized in much the same way. “The incidents in ‘Fail-Safe’ are deliberate lies!” General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, said. “Nothing like that could happen.” The first casualty of every war is the truth—and the Cold War was no exception to that dictum. Half a century after Kubrick’s mad general, Jack D. Ripper, launched a nuclear strike on the Soviets to defend the purity of “our precious bodily fluids” from Communist subversion, we now know that American officers did indeed have the ability to start a Third World War on their own. And despite the introduction of rigorous safeguards in the years since then, the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear detonation hasn’t been completely eliminated.
The command and control of nuclear weapons has long been plagued by an “always/never” dilemma. The administrative and technological systems that are necessary to insure that nuclear weapons are always available for use in wartime may be quite different from those necessary to guarantee that such weapons can never be used, without proper authorization, in peacetime. During the nineteen-fifties and sixties, the “always” in American war planning was given far greater precedence than the “never.” Through two terms in office, beginning in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower struggled with this dilemma. He wanted to retain Presidential control of nuclear weapons while defending America and its allies from attack. But, in a crisis, those two goals might prove contradictory, raising all sorts of difficult questions. What if Soviet bombers were en route to the United States but the President somehow couldn’t be reached? What if Soviet tanks were rolling into West Germany but a communications breakdown prevented NATO officers from contacting the White House? What if the President were killed during a surprise attack on Washington, D.C., along with the rest of the nation’s civilian leadership? Who would order a nuclear retaliation then?
With great reluctance, Eisenhower agreed to let American officers use their nuclear weapons, in an emergency, if there were no time or no means to contact the President. Air Force pilots were allowed to fire their nuclear anti-aircraft rockets to shoot down Soviet bombers heading toward the United States. And about half a dozen high-level American commanders were allowed to use far more powerful nuclear weapons, without contacting the White House first, when their forces were under attack and “the urgency of time and circumstances clearly does not permit a specific decision by the President, or other person empowered to act in his stead.” Eisenhower worried that providing that sort of authorization in advance could make it possible for someone to do “something foolish down the chain of command” and start an all-out nuclear war. But the alternative—allowing an attack on the United States to go unanswered or NATO forces to be overrun—seemed a lot worse. Aware that his decision might create public unease about who really controlled America’s nuclear arsenal, Eisenhower insisted that his delegation of Presidential authority be kept secret. At a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he confessed to being “very fearful of having written papers on this matter.”
President John F. Kennedy was surprised to learn, just a few weeks after taking office, about this secret delegation of power. “A subordinate commander faced with a substantial military action,” Kennedy was told in a top-secret memo, “could start the thermonuclear holocaust on his own initiative if he could not reach you.” Kennedy and his national-security advisers were shocked not only by the wide latitude given to American officers but also by the loose custody of the roughly three thousand American nuclear weapons stored in Europe. Few of the weapons had locks on them. Anyone who got hold of them could detonate them. And there was little to prevent NATO officers from Turkey, Holland, Italy, Great Britain, and Germany from using them without the approval of the United States.
In December, 1960, fifteen members of Congress serving on the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy had toured NATO bases to investigate how American nuclear weapons were being deployed. They found that the weapons—some of them about a hundred times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima—were routinely guarded, transported, and handled by foreign military personnel. American control of the weapons was practically nonexistent. Harold Agnew, a Los Alamos physicist who accompanied the group, was especially concerned to see German pilots sitting in German planes that were decorated with Iron Crosses—and carrying American atomic bombs. Agnew, in his own words, “nearly wet his pants” when he realized that a lone American sentry with a rifle was all that prevented someone from taking off in one of those planes and bombing the Soviet Union.
* * *
The Kennedy Administration soon decided to put locking devices inside NATO’s nuclear weapons. The coded electromechanical switches, known as “permissive action links” (PALs), would be placed on the arming lines. The weapons would be inoperable without the proper code—and that code would be shared with NATO allies only when the White House was prepared to fight the Soviets. The American military didn’t like the idea of these coded switches, fearing that mechanical devices installed to improve weapon safety would diminish weapon reliability. A top-secret State Department memo summarized the view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1961: “all is well with the atomic stockpile program and there is no need for any changes.”
After a crash program to develop the new control technology, during the mid-nineteen-sixties, permissive action links were finally placed inside most of the nuclear weapons deployed by NATO forces. But Kennedy’s directive applied only to the NATO arsenal. For years, the Air Force and the Navy blocked attempts to add coded switches to the weapons solely in their custody. During a national emergency, they argued, the consequences of not receiving the proper code from the White House might be disastrous. And locked weapons might play into the hands of Communist saboteurs. “The very existence of the lock capability,” a top Air Force general claimed, “would create a fail-disable potential for knowledgeable agents to ‘dud’ the entire Minuteman [missile] force.” The Joint Chiefs thought that strict military discipline was the best safeguard against an unauthorized nuclear strike. A two-man rule was instituted to make it more difficult for someone to use a nuclear weapon without permission. And a new screening program, the Human Reliability Program, was created to stop people with emotional, psychological, and substance-abuse problems from gaining access to nuclear weapons.
Despite public assurances that everything was fully under control, in the winter of 1964, while “Dr. Strangelove” was playing in theatres and being condemned as Soviet propaganda, there was nothing to prevent an American bomber crew or missile launch crew from using their weapons against the Soviets. Kubrick had researched the subject for years, consulted experts, and worked closely with a former R.A.F. pilot, Peter George, on the screenplay of the film. George’s novel about the risk of accidental nuclear war, “Red Alert,” was the source for most of “Strangelove” ’s plot. Unbeknownst to both Kubrick and George, a top official at the Department of Defense had already sent a copy of “Red Alert” to every member of the Pentagon’s Scientific Advisory Committee for Ballistic Missiles. At the Pentagon, the book was taken seriously as a cautionary tale about what might go wrong. Even Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara privately worried that an accident, a mistake, or a rogue American officer could start a nuclear war.
Coded switches to prevent the unauthorized use of nuclear weapons were finally added to the control systems of American missiles and bombers in the early nineteen-seventies. The Air Force was not pleased, and considered the new security measures to be an insult, a lack of confidence in its personnel. Although the Air Force now denies this claim, according to more than one source I contacted, the code necessary to launch a missile was set to be the same at every Minuteman site: 00000000.
* * *
The early permissive action links were rudimentary. Placed in NATO weapons during the nineteen-sixties and known as Category A PALs, the switches relied on a split four-digit code, with ten thousand possible combinations. If the United States went to war, two people would be necessary to unlock a nuclear weapon, each of them provided with half the code. Category A PALs were useful mainly to delay unauthorized use, to buy time after a weapon had been taken or to thwart an individual psychotic hoping to cause a large explosion. A skilled technician could open a stolen weapon and unlock it within a few hours. Today’s Category D PALs, installed in the Air Force’s hydrogen bombs, are more sophisticated. They require a six-digit code, with a million possible combinations, and have a limited-try feature that disables a weapon when the wrong code is repeatedly entered.
The Air Force’s land-based Minuteman III missiles and the Navy’s submarine-based Trident II missiles now require an eight-digit code—which is no longer 00000000—in order to be launched. The Minuteman crews receive the code via underground cables or an aboveground radio antenna. Sending the launch code to submarines deep underwater presents a greater challenge. Trident submarines contain two safes. One holds the keys necessary to launch a missile; the other holds the combination to the safe with the keys; and the combination to the safe holding the combination must be transmitted to the sub by very-low-frequency or extremely-low-frequency radio. In a pinch, if Washington, D.C., has been destroyed and the launch code doesn’t arrive, the sub’s crew can open the safes with a blowtorch.
The security measures now used to control America’s nuclear weapons are a vast improvement over those of 1964. But, like all human endeavors, they are inherently flawed. The Department of Defense’s Personnel Reliability Program is supposed to keep people with serious emotional or psychological issues away from nuclear weapons—and yet two of the nation’s top nuclear commanders were recently removed from their posts. Neither appears to be the sort of calm, stable person you want with a finger on the button. In fact, their misbehavior seems straight out of “Strangelove.”
Vice Admiral Tim Giardina, the second-highest-ranking officer at the U.S. Strategic Command—the organization responsible for all of America’s nuclear forces—-was investigated last summer for allegedly using counterfeit gambling chips at the Horseshoe Casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa. According to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, “a significant monetary amount” of counterfeit chips was involved. Giardina was relieved of his command on October 3, 2013. A few days later, Major General Michael Carey, the Air Force commander in charge of America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, was fired for conduct “unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.” According to a report by the Inspector General of the Air Force, Carey had consumed too much alcohol during an official trip to Russia, behaved rudely toward Russian officers, spent time with “suspect” young foreign women in Moscow, loudly discussed sensitive information in a public hotel lounge there, and drunkenly pleaded to get onstage and sing with a Beatles cover band at La Cantina, a Mexican restaurant near Red Square. Despite his requests, the band wouldn’t let Carey onstage to sing or to play the guitar.
While drinking beer in the executive lounge at Moscow’s Marriott Aurora during that visit, General Carey made an admission with serious public-policy implications. He off-handedly told a delegation of U.S. national-security officials that his missile-launch officers have the “worst morale in the Air Force.” Recent events suggest that may be true. In the spring of 2013, nineteen launch officers at Minot Air Force base in North Dakota were decertified for violating safety rules and poor discipline. In August, 2013, the entire missile wing at Malmstrom Air Force base in Montana failed its safety inspection. Last week, the Air Force revealed that thirty-four launch officers at Malmstrom had been decertified for cheating on proficiency exams—and that at least three launch officers are being investigated for illegal drug use. The findings of a report by the RAND Corporation, leaked to the A.P., were equally disturbing. The study found that the rates of spousal abuse and court martials among Air Force personnel with nuclear responsibilities are much higher than those among people with other jobs in the Air Force. “We don’t care if things go properly,” a launch officer told RAND. “We just don’t want to get in trouble.”
The most unlikely and absurd plot element in “Strangelove” is the existence of a Soviet “Doomsday Machine.” The device would trigger itself, automatically, if the Soviet Union were attacked with nuclear weapons. It was meant to be the ultimate deterrent, a threat to destroy the world in order to prevent an American nuclear strike. But the failure of the Soviets to tell the United States about the contraption defeats its purpose and, at the end of the film, inadvertently causes a nuclear Armageddon. “The whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost,” Dr. Strangelove, the President’s science adviser, explains to the Soviet Ambassador, “if you keep it a secret!”
A decade after the release of “Strangelove,” the Soviet Union began work on the Perimeter system—-a network of sensors and computers that could allow junior military officials to launch missiles without oversight from the Soviet leadership. Perhaps nobody at the Kremlin had seen the film. Completed in 1985, the system was known as the Dead Hand. Once it was activated, Perimeter would order the launch of long-range missiles at the United States if it detected nuclear detonations on Soviet soil and Soviet leaders couldn’t be reached. Like the Doomsday Machine in “Strangelove,” Perimeter was kept secret from the United States; its existence was not revealed until years after the Cold War ended.
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 that 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.
You can read Eric Schlosser’s guide to the long-secret documents that help explain the risks America took with its nuclear arsenal, and watch and read his deconstruction of clips from “Dr. Strangelove” and from a little-seen film about permissive action links.
Eric Schlosser is the author of “Command and Control.”
Sixty-nine years ago last week, a slender woman named Tomiko Shoji was struck and sent aloft by a bright white light. She’d just arrived at her secretarial job, at a tobacco factory, and was standing by the door when the flash occurred; the light’s source had a nickname, Little Boy, but it meant nothing to her at the time. She flew backward under the crushing force of the office door, passed out, and awoke with shards of glass in her head and an expanse of bodies around her—some dead, some alive but dazed, and many more, she soon found, floating “like charcoal” in nearby rivers. The nineteen-year-old climbed up and out of the shell of her younger self; she had survived the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Nearly seven decades later, Keni Sabath, Shoji’s youngest granddaughter, started to wonder: Had the bombing’s aftermath reshaped not just the psyche of her bachan (grandmother) but also, in ways both culturally and historically particular, her own?
In recent years, a public-health hypothesis has emerged that one of the world’s most poorly understood pandemics isn’t a conventional virus—like H1N1, say, or some hemorrhagic fever. This hypothesis suggests that untended wartime trauma can move vertically and horizontally through individuals and families, morphing across years, decades, or even centuries. Sabath began considering the prospect as early as high school, after certain overpowering symptoms emerged on a family visit to Hiroshima when she was six. It was Sabath who had arranged for me to visit her bachan at her aunt’s home in Hilliard, Ohio, where Shoji agreed to share her first full account of the bombing and the family mysteries that followed.
* * *
On my way to Hilliard, I carried my copy of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima.” (My 1989 edition bears the cover endorsement “Everyone able to read should read it,” and I agree.) Its text first appeared as an entire issue of this magazine, on the one-year anniversary of the bombing, and followed the fates of six civilians in the aftermath. Even now, on a more distant anniversary, Hersey’s granular rendering gives an urgency to these stories: of a young clerk, Shoji’s age, who found herself crushed beneath a pile of books; of a Methodist pastor who charged his way back into the city to help, passing victims whose eyebrows had been singed off and women with the flower patterns of kimonos burned into their skin.
As I entered Shoji’s home, on a quiet cul-de-sac, she swept my hand into hers and pressed her cool forehead against mine by way of welcome. Her eldest daughter, Minori, gave me a pair of slippers to wear inside; as the three of us shuffled into the kitchen, where fresh berries and tea cakes awaited, we paused to examine photographs of the Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, the same pastor who weaves his way through Hersey’s narrative, and who also, apparently, stood at the center of Shoji’s. She first came across him preaching in an open-air bazaar in Hiroshima not long after the bombing; he gave her a piece of paper with information about his church, and she soon converted to Christianity. (He later baptized her grandson, Isao, who served as my translator well into the early evening.) Some of the first words Shoji spoke to me in Japanese were about the Reverend: “He would say, ‘Tomiko, why don’t we go all over the world together and tell them of our experiences with the bomb?’ ”
Tanimoto made a second career out of his own suggestion; on the fortieth anniversary of the bombing, Hersey wrote a follow-up story for the magazine, “Hiroshima: The Aftermath,” in which he described the pastor’s extensive U.S. speaking tour to promote peace. But Shoji wasn’t ready to speak freely at the time. This past July, the last surviving crew member of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped Little Boy, died in Stone Mountain, Georgia, having given many interviews. By then, Shoji had made up her mind that, in her eighty-eighth year, she would share her own account of what happened on the other side of the bomb. So we began right there, with the flash.
* * *
“Radiation! Heat! The wind from the bomb!” When Shoji began to describe her recollections from August 6, 1945, she took on a staccato pattern of speech, gesticulating rapidly. A tiny woman with pixie-gray hair and a sweet, flushed face, she slapped her small hands together and pummelled her head with pinched fingers, as if to imitate flying debris from the blast. At one point, she pretended to fling burned skin across the room like zucchini peels. Then she closed her eyes and went into a deep repose, resurfacing with a sudden phrase: “I’m scared to meet people,” she said, speaking in the present tense of her teen-age self, who might also be herself at eighty-eight. “Something could just blow up. I’ve seen it before.”
On the morning of the bombing—it was 8:15, the start of the workday—Shoji recalls briefly losing consciousness at the Bureau of Tobacco. “When I got up, I ran down to the first floor, down to the bomb shelter,” she said. “All over was smoke; the entire city was covered with smoke. I saw people coming across the bridge just completely black—covered by blood, coming towards us. … The whole city was a sea of fire. And then, at night, it rained black rain.”
Collecting herself, she began walking with colleagues across the city’s many bridges, toward the sea. She caught a train in Hiroshima’s west hoping to find her sister, to no avail; en route were whole trolley cars that had been blown off their tracks, filled with singed corpses. After spending the night, she returned home to find a note from the same sister, which read, “You can find me at the school.” The two stayed in the school turned shelter for some time thereafter, living in a true dystopia. “There were tens of thousands of flies from the dead bodies,” she recalled. “Our greetings to each other became: are you having diarrhea?”
For all those who perished in the bombing, many more survived, day by day. Only later would some, like Shoji, come to discover that the most devastating aftereffects were like ghosts: coming and going on a whim, wreaking forms of havoc often incomprehensible to outsiders and, sometimes, even to those who suffered it.
* * *
I’d always assumed, in ignorance, that to survive the atomic bomb—to be ahibakusha, or “explosion-affected person”—was to have conferred upon you a certain esteem or deference, not unlike that afforded to the bearer of a Purple Heart. Shoji’s family wasted no time correcting me. To be a hibakusha, they explained, was not an honorific but a source of shame, a secret to be closely held. Even grandchildren have often feared telling romantic partners of their grandparents’ experience, worried that their genetic material would be perceived as spoiled goods.
Eventually, Shoji’s family planned for her to enter an arranged marriage with a prominent policeman in Taiwan, where she relocated in her early twenties. They kept her hibakusha status hushed, and refused to allow the two to talk before the ceremony, so as to better seal the secret. “My hands were shaking, holding my bouquet,” Shoji recalled. When her husband learned the news afterward, he spiralled into a rage that never lifted. For the rest of the marriage, Shoji’s daughter Minori said, “He felt he’d been cheated.”
The next several decades brought a parade of physical ailments that were easily traceable to the bomb: Shoji’s eyes and ears gave up early; her insides felt perpetually cold; her teeth fell out, requiring dentures in her forties. But perhaps most debilitating were the psychological symptoms that she didn’t think she could attribute to the radiation. “For thirty or forty years, I was so afraid of thunder and lightening,” she told me, as one of many examples. “It would just crush me. I just lost control.” Raising four daughters was a challenge of another scale. “Nobody understood me; I was like a beggar,” she said, recalling that when her children were young she faced almost daily bouts of overwhelming panic. At night, in dreams, she shouted, “The Earth—the Earth is going to fall!” “At the time, I didn’t know what was affecting me so badly,” Shoji said. “I couldn’t talk about it. Even before I opened my mouth, I would collapse with fear.”
Minori chimed in, gently stroking her mother’s shoulder: “When we would go into her bedroom in the morning, we would see her get so angry—she would throw things. When we were young, I never saw her laugh—she was quiet, and weak.” Back then, neither Shoji nor her children spoke openly about this behavior as tied to the bomb. Remarkably, Shoji says that the idea didn’t come easily to her. She was unfamiliar with the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder, or shell shock, or its classic presentation (nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance); these traits seemed unrelated to her experience. “Every year I have these crazy episodes—my family is so good to me, but I have these outbursts, these moments when I lose control,” she said. Years ago, she insists, it all seemed completely inexplicable.
Still, somewhere within her, she began to trace a clear line between her inner state and the events of her nineteenth year. “After I go married, the family would yell at me, and even when I’m beaten, I can’t respond, and I don’t know why. But deep inside, I remember, oh, that’s what it is: the bomb, the aftereffects of the bomb. It’s worse than the day of the bomb.”
* * *
Shoji’s granddaughter Keni Sabath grew up in Hawaii and Texas, the child of a New Jersey-born Navy JAG officer and a fashionable Taiwan-born language tutor. Like her older sister Zena, Keni often spent her days with her bachan, who lived in their home for years before joining Keni’s aunt Minori in Ohio. In the summers, the family would travel back to Japan. “I first became aware of my grandmother’s experience in a very disturbing way, when I was six years old,” Keni Sabath told me after my Ohio visit. “I went to the Peace Park in Hiroshima with my grandmother and my mom. We walked by the river and my mom would translate, ‘This river here was turned into a blood river, and people would jump into it and their skin would burn off.’ ” The family proceeded to the local memorial museum, where life-size wax statues depicted local children fleeing the bombing site, their skin melting and their clothing singed. “The children were my height!” Sabath said. “It was so hard for me to reconcile that hell with the current city. I couldn’t understand: How were people over it?”
Sabath’s crying became incessant thereafter. She couldn’t sleep; each time she saw a plane in the air, she panicked, just as her grandmother continued to do. “My mother ended up taking me to a witch doctor,” she told me. “They thought I was haunted by the ghosts of Hiroshima” (called yurie, or faint spirits). For years, the yurie resurfaced in Sabath each summer, making her anxious, watchful, her eyes skyward.
In recent years, a growing body of scholarship has sought to better understand accounts like Shoji’s and Sabath’s through the framework of “trans-generational trauma,” which traces experiences of catastrophic loss across the span of a family or a community. A wide range of studies have examined evidence of “secondary trauma” in the children of Holocaust survivors, the wives of Vietnam veterans, and, more informally, in the families of U.S. veterans who’ve faced P.T.S.D. after deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2007, a study on the wives of fifty-six traumatized war veterans in Croatia found that more than a third of the veterans’ wives met the criteria for secondary traumatic stress; often, this meant symptoms “similar to those present in directly traumatized persons: nightmares about the person who was directly traumatized, insomnia, loss of interest, irritability, chronic fatigue, and changes in self-perception, perception of one’s own life, and of other people.” More recently, speaking to Mac McClelland for an article on trauma in the families of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, the clinical psychologist Robert Motta said, “Trauma is really not something that happens to an individual.” Instead, he proposed, “Trauma is a contagious disease; it affects everyone that has close contact with a traumatized person.”
But even metaphors of trauma as contagion feel inadequate, or even potentially counterproductive; for one thing, they can get mixed up with questions of shame and stigma, seeming to assign blame or stir up anxieties about contamination where the antidote to both is needed. And stigma, too, gets internalized. As a small child, Sabath said, when she began to fear a plane above, “I would think, how could I let the plane know that I was American?” She would beg her father to come along to Japan during the summers, thinking, “My white military dad—a Navy JAG officer—he signalled my identity, my patriotic Americanness.” Only in his presence could she feel, as the mixed-race grandchild of a hibakusha, that “there is no way you would ever harm us.”
When she reached high school, Sabath became a debating champion and made nuclear proliferation her focus. She went on to college at Yale and visited the White House as a student leader for Global Zero, the international nuclear-disarmament group, for which she recently authored a personal essay on herbachan’s “scenes of living hell.” “I hope you will remember my grandmother’s message and act upon it,” she wrote.
* * *
In the late nineteen-fifties, the Japanese government began issuing certificates to hibakusha, entitling them to certain health benefits, and Shoji became the first survivor living abroad to travel back to Japan to reap the benefits. Over the course of those treatments, Shoji gathered for the first time with other survivors, at healing hot springs. It was in that community that she got her first glimpse of psychological relief, and perhaps began to decipher some of her experiences and speak of them to others. Last fall, she traveled to Yale to say to her granddaughter’s classmates, “I want with every breath, with all my strength, to tell people” about the bomb.
In the final pages of Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” he observed that many people he met there were often reticent to speak or even think about the ethics of the bomb; instead, they would offer approximations of “Shikata ga nai,” a Japanese expression that he translated as “It can’t be helped. Oh well. Too bad.”
At eighty-eight, Shoji seems to have thrown off that cosmic shrug. When we finished in the dining room, her daughter gave me a bundle of pastries and fruit, and we all shuffled to the foyer. The whole family stood in the doorway and waved goodbye. Shoji’s cheeks looked pink, and, as I drove off, it was easy to imagine how she might have appeared on her way to work at nineteen, looking up at the August sky.
Sarah Stillman is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a visiting scholar at the N.Y.U. Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.
Roger’s note: Defenders of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings allege that they saved the lives of untold thousands of American and Japanese soldiers who would have died in an invasion of Japan. This, as a justification for the unleashing of atomic warfare and the massive civilian death and destruction, is highly questionable speculation. Credible historians have concluded that Japan was already defeated and that the bombings were unnecessary to achieve surrender. Some point to evidence that the bombings were a warning signal to the Soviet Union.
August 6, 1945 and not December 7, 1941 is truly the day that will go down in infamy.
Hiroshima, Japan in the wake of the atomic bomb dropped by the U.S. on August 6, 1945. (Photo: flickr / cc)
“I hate war,” Koji Hosokawa told me as we stood next to the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, Japan. The skeletal remains of the four-story building stand at the edge of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. The building was one of the few left standing when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945. Three days later, the U.S. dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed—many instantly, and many more slowly from severe burns and what would come to be understood as radiation sickness.
The world watches in horror this summer as military conflicts rage, leaving destruction in their wake from Libya, to Gaza, to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine. Never far from the dead and injured, nuclear-armed missiles stand by at the alert, waiting for the horrible moment when hubris, accident or inhumanity triggers the next nuclear attack. “I hate war,” Hosokawa reiterated. “War makes everyone crazy.”
Koji Hosokawa was 17 years old in 1945, and worked in the telephone exchange building, less than 2 miles from ground zero. “I miraculously survived,” he told me. His 13-year-old sister was not so fortunate: “She was … very close to the hypocenter, and she was exposed to the bomb there. And she was with a teacher and the students. In all, 228 people were there together with her.” They all died.
We walked through the park to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. There, on display, were the images of death: the shadows of victims burned into the walls of buildings, the pictures of the fiery chaos that followed the bombing, and of the victims of radiation. Almost seven decades later, Hosokawa’s eyes tear up in the recollection. “My biggest sorrow in my life is that my younger sister died in the atomic bomb,” he said.
The day before my meeting with Koji Hosokawa, I sat down in Tokyo to interview Kenzaburo Oe, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was 10 years old in 1945. “When Japan experienced the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this was a greater catastrophe than anything we had ever known,” he told me. “The feeling of having to survive this, go beyond this and renew from this, was great.”
Now nearing 80, Kenzaburo Oe thinks deeply about the connection between the atomic bombings and the disaster at Fukushima, the nuclear power plant meltdown that began when Japan was struck by a devastating earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. The Nobel laureate told the French newspaper Le Monde: “Hiroshima must be engraved in our memories: It’s a catastrophe even more dramatic than natural disasters, because it’s man-made. To repeat it, by showing the same disregard for human life in nuclear power stations, is the worst betrayal of the memory of the victims of Hiroshima.”
After the Fukushima disaster, Oe said, “all Japanese people were feeling a great regret … the atmosphere in Japan here was almost the same as following the bombing of Hiroshima at the end of the war. Because of this atmosphere, the government [in 2011], with the agreement of the Japanese people, pledged to totally get rid of or decommission the more than 50 nuclear power plants here in Japan.”
A-bomb survivors like Koji Hosokawa, writers like Kenzaburo Oe, and hundreds of thousands of others, now elderly, have lived through the dawn of the nuclear age in 1945 and seen its potential for devastation recently, at Fukushima. Nuclear-weapon arsenals and nuclear power plants each pose separate, horrific risks to humanity, yet the two are connected, with the byproducts of some power plants usable as material for nuclear warheads. Whether from an act of war, or an act of terrorism from a so-called loose nuke in the hands of a non-state actor, or from an uncontrolled meltdown at a nuclear power plant, nuclear disasters are massively destructive. Yet they are completely preventable. We need a new way of thinking, a new effort to eliminate nuclear weapons and shift to safe, renewable energy, worldwide.
As we were leaving the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, Koji Hosokawa told me to stop. He looked me in the eye, and told me not to forget the victims: “People lived here. They lived here.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on 1,100 stations in North America. She was awarded the 2008 Right Livelihood Award, dubbed the “Alternative Nobel” prize, and received the award in the Swedish Parliament in December.
Investigation reveals systematic exploitation of homeless by big business and organized crime
- Jon Queally, staff writer
Shizuya Nishiyama, a 57-year-old homeless man from Hokkaido, speaks during an interview with Reuters at Sendai Station in Sendai, northern Japan December 18, 2013. (Credit: REUTERS/Issei Kato)
Private labor contractors in Japan are “recruiting” homeless individuals throughout the country, luring them to perform clean-up work in the areas near the destroyed nuclear power plant at Fukushima for less than minimum wage.
That’s the finding of a new special Reuters investigation which says that shady business operators are employing men like Seiji Sasa to “prowl” train stations and other places throughout the country targeting “homeless men” who are “willing to accept minimum wage for one of the most undesirable jobs in the industrialized world: working on the $35 billion, taxpayer-funded effort to clean up radioactive fallout across an area of northern Japan larger than Hong Kong.”
The investigation found a shady but systematic labor scheme—much of it run by organized crime but also involving some of the nation’s top construction firms—in which day laborers are exploited by contractors receiving state funds to clean up areas near the plant.
“We’re an easy target for recruiters,” said 57-year-old Shizuya Nishiyama, a homeless man recruited at a train station in the city of Sendai. “We turn up here with all our bags, wheeling them around and we’re easy to spot. They say to us, are you looking for work? Are you hungry? And if we haven’t eaten, they offer to find us a job.”
In exchange for bringing workers to the sites, the middlemen receive a cut of their wages.
“I don’t ask questions; that’s not my job,” said Sasa, one of these so-called “middle men,” in an interview with Reuters. “I just find people and send them to work. I send them and get money in exchange. That’s it. I don’t get involved in what happens after that.”
Reviewing police records and conducting interviews with some of the people directly involved, Reuters reveals the ongoing and perilous nature of the clean-up work at Fukushima and the ways in which society’s most vulnerable are being exploited for profit in the aftermath of one of the worst nuclear disasters in history.
According to Reuters, the scheme plays out when large construction firms like Obayashi, the nation’s second biggest and major contractor at Fukushima, employs sub-contractors like Sasa:
Seiji Sasa, 67, a broad-shouldered former wrestling promoter, was photographed by undercover police recruiting homeless men at the Sendai train station to work in the nuclear cleanup. The workers were then handed off through a chain of companies reporting up to Obayashi, as part of a $1.4 million contract to decontaminate roads in Fukushima, police say. […]
Only a third of the money allocated for wages by Obayashi’s top contractor made it to the workers Sasa had found. The rest was skimmed by middlemen, police say. After deductions for food and lodging, that left workers with an hourly rate of about $6, just below the minimum wage equal to about $6.50 per hour in Fukushima, according to wage data provided by police. Some of the homeless men ended up in debt after fees for food and housing were deducted, police say.
Roger’s note: I posted a few days ago a similar article by the same author. Frankly, what is happening at Fukushima scares the hell out of me, and it seems that nobody is listening. This should cause you to lose sleep: “As former Ambassador Mitsuhei Murata has put it: full-scale releases from Fukushima “would destroy the world environment and our civilization. This is not rocket science, nor does it connect to the pugilistic debate over nuclear power plants. This is an issue of human survival.”
More than 48,000 global citizens have now signed a petition at www.nukefree.org asking the United Nations and the world community to take charge of the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant. Another 35,000 have signed at www.rootsaction.org. An independent advisory group of scientists and engineers is also in formation. The signatures are pouring in from all over the world. By November, they will be delivered to the United Nations.
The corporate media has blacked out meaningful coverage of the most critical threat to global health and safety in decades.
The much-hyped “nuclear renaissance” has turned into a global rout. In the face of massive grassroots opposition and the falling price of renewable energy and natural gas, operating reactors are shutting and proposed new ones are being cancelled.
This lessens the radioactive burden on the planet. But it makes the aging reactor fleet ever more dangerous. A crumbling industry with diminished resources and a disappearing workforce cannot safely caretake the decrepit, deteriorating 400-odd commercial reactors still licensed to operate worldwide.
All of which pales before the crisis at Fukushima. Since the 3/11/2011 earthquake and tsunami, the six-reactor Daichi site has plunged into lethal chaos.
For decades the atomic industry claimed vehemently that a commercial reactor could not explode. When Chernobyl blew, it blamed “inferior” Soviet technology.
But Fukushima’s designs are from General Electric (some two dozen similar reactors are licensed in the US). At least four explosions have rocked the site. One might have involved nuclear fission. Three cores have melted into the ground. Massive quantities of water have been poured where the owner, Tokyo Electric (Tepco), and the Japanese government think they might be, but nobody knows for sure.
As the Free Press has reported, steam emissions indicate one or more may still be hot. Contaminated water is leaking from hastily-constructed tanks. Room for more is running out. The inevitable next earthquake could rupture them all and send untold quantities of poisons pouring into the ocean.
The worst immediate threat at Fukushima lies in the spent fuel pool at Unit Four. That reactor had been shut for routine maintenance when the earthquake and tsunami hit. The 400-ton core, with more than 1300 fuel rods, sat in its pool 100 feet in the air.
Spent fuel rods are the most lethal items our species has ever created. A human standing within a few feet of one would die in a matter of minutes. With more than 11,000 scattered around the Daichi site, radiation levels could rise high enough to force the evacuation of all workers and immobilize much vital electronic equipment.
Spent fuel rods must be kept cool at all times. If exposed to air, their zirconium alloy cladding will ignite, the rods will burn and huge quantities of radiation will be emitted. Should the rods touch each other, or should they crumble into a big enough pile, an explosion is possible. By some estimates there’s enough radioactivity embodied in the rods to create a fallout cloud 15,000 times greater than the one from the Hiroshima bombing.
The rods perched in the Unit 4 pool are in an extremely dangerous position. The building is tipping and sinking into the sodden ground. The fuel pool itself may have deteriorated. The rods are embrittled and prone to crumbling. Just 50 meters from the base is a common spent fuel pool containing some 6,000 fuel rods that could be seriously compromised should it lose coolant. Overall there are some 11,000 spent rods scattered around the Fukushima Daichi site.
Dangerous as the process might be, the rods in the Unit Four fuel pool must come down in an orderly fashion. Another earthquake could easily cause the building to crumble and collapse. Should those rods crash to the ground and be left uncooled, the consequences would be catastrophic.
Tepco has said it will begin trying to remove the rods from that pool in November. The petitions circulating through www.nukefree.org and www.moveon.org , as well as at rootsaction.org and avaaz.org, ask that the United Nations take over. They ask the world scientific and engineering communities to step in. The Rootsaction petition also asks that $8.3 billion slated in loan guarantees for a new US nuke be shifted instead to dealing with the Fukushima site.
It’s a call with mixed blessings. The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency is notoriously pro-nuclear, charged with promoting atomic power as well as regulating it. Critics have found the IAEA to be secretive and unresponsive.
But Tepco is a private utility with limited resources. The Japanese government has an obvious stake in downplaying Fukushima’s dangers. These were the two entities that approved and built these reactors.
While the IAEA is imperfect, its resources are more substantial and its stake at Fukushima somewhat less direct. An ad hoc global network of scientists and engineers would be intellectually ideal, but would lack the resources for direct intervention.
Ultimately the petitions call for a combination of the two.
It’s also hoped the petitions will arouse the global media. The moving of the fuel rods from Unit Four must be televised. We need to see what’s happening as it happens. Only this kind of coverage can allow global experts to analyze and advise as needed.
Let’s all hope that this operation proves successful, that the site be neutralized and the massive leaks of radioactive water and gasses be somehow stopped.
As former Ambassador Mitsuhei Murata has put it: full-scale releases from Fukushima “would destroy the world environment and our civilization. This is not rocket science, nor does it connect to the pugilistic debate over nuclear power plants. This is an issue of human survival.”
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License
Roger’s note: I sit here at my desk and wonder when someone is going to do something about an impending disaster of possibly unprecedented magnitude. Maybe a couple of hundred people will read this post, which makes me feel quite impotent. Please pass this on to someone who has access to someone with power in government. Anywhere!!!
Fence made of silt that sits in harbor has been breached, TEPCO admits, sparking further concern of ocean contamination
- Andrea Germanos, staff writer
IAEA experts examine recovery work on top of Unit 4 of TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on 17 April 2013. (Photo: Greg Webb / IAEA)
In the latest in a series of mishaps to hit the crisis-stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant, a radiation-stopping “fence” around the reactors has developed a hole, plant operator TEPCO admitted on Thursday.
Fences made of earth and sand sit in the harbor next to the plant and were erected to help contain radioactive material from flowing into the ocean. They “are suspended from floats and anchored with weights on the seafloor,” the Japan Timesexplains.
One of the fences that sits next to still-intact reactors five and six was found to be breached, sparking further worry about the amount of radioactive contamination heading into the ocean.
As out of control as the situation seems, one expert has warned that it may actually be “much worse” than claimed. Also, long-time anti-nuclear activist Harvey Wasserman warned last week that a plan to “remove more than 1300 spent fuel rods from a badly damaged pool perched 100 feet in the air” risked putting the “hand of global nuclear disaster… painfully close to midnight.”
We are now within two months of what may be humankind’s most dangerous moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
There is no excuse for not acting. All the resources our species can muster must be focussed on the fuel pool at Fukushima Unit 4.
Fukushima’s owner, Tokyo Electric (Tepco), says that within as few as 60 days it may begin trying to remove more than 1,300 spent fuel rods from a badly damaged pool perched 100 feet in the air. The pool rests on a badly damaged building that is tilting, sinking and could easily come down in the next earthquake, if not on its own.
Some 400 tons of fuel in that pool could spew out more than 15,000 times as much radiation as was released at Hiroshima.
The one thing certain about this crisis is that Tepco does not have the scientific, engineering or financial resources to handle it. Nor does the Japanese government. The situation demands a coordinated worldwide effort of the best scientists and engineers our species can muster.
Why is this so serious?
We already know that thousands of tons of heavily contaminated water are pouring through the Fukushima site, carrying a devil’s brew of long-lived poisonous isotopes into the Pacific. Tuna irradiated with fallout traceable to Fukushima have already been caught off the coast of California. We can expect far worse.
Tepco continues to pour more water onto the proximate site of three melted reactor cores it must somehow keep cool. Steam plumes indicate fission may still be going on somewhere underground. But nobody knows exactly where those cores actually are.
Much of that irradiated water now sits in roughly a thousand huge but fragile tanks that have been quickly assembled and strewn around the site. Many are already leaking. All could shatter in the next earthquake, releasing thousands of tons of permanent poisons into the Pacific.
The water flowing through the site is also undermining the remnant structures at Fukushima, including the one supporting the fuel pool at Unit Four.
More than 6,000 fuel assemblies now sit in a common pool just 50 meters from Unit Four. Some contain plutonium. The pool has no containment over it. It’s vulnerable to loss of coolant, the collapse of a nearby building, another earthquake, another tsunami and more.
Spent fuel must somehow be kept under water. It’s clad in zirconium alloy which will spontaneously ignite when exposed to air. Long used in flash bulbs for cameras, zirconium burns with an extremely bright hot flame.
Each uncovered rod emits enough radiation to kill someone standing nearby in a matter of minutes. A conflagration could force all personnel to flee the site and render electronic machinery unworkable.
According to Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer with forty years in an industry for which he once manufactured fuel rods, the ones in the Unit 4 core are bent, damaged and embrittled to the point of crumbling. Cameras have shown troubling quantities of debris in the fuel pool, which itself is damaged.
The engineering and scientific barriers to emptying the Unit Four fuel pool are unique and daunting, says Gundersen. But it must be done to 100% perfection.
Should the attempt fail, the rods could be exposed to air and catch fire, releasing horrific quantities of radiation into the atmosphere. The pool could come crashing to the ground, dumping the rods together into a pile that could fission and possibly explode. The resulting radioactive cloud would threaten the health and safety of all of us.
Chernobyl’s first 1986 fallout reached California within 10 days. Fukushima’s in 2011 arrived in less than a week. A new fuel fire at Unit 4 would pour out a continuous stream of lethal radioactive poisons for centuries.
Former Ambassador Mitsuhei Murata says full-scale releases from Fukushima “would destroy the world environment and our civilization. This is not rocket science, nor does it connect to the pugilistic debate over nuclear power plants. This is an issue of human survival.”
Neither Tokyo Electric nor the government of Japan can go this alone. There is no excuse for deploying anything less than a coordinated team of the planet’s best scientists and engineers.
For now, we are petitioning the United Nations and President Obama to mobilize the global scientific and engineering community to take charge at Fukushima and the job of moving these fuel rods to safety.
Critic: ‘Israel has once again become the exception to international norms to reduce the potential of nuclear war and reduce nuclear weapons.’
- Sarah Lazare, staff writer
Occupied Bil’in, Palestine (Photo: Flicker Creative Commons / Edo Medicks)
The UN nuclear agency crushed an effort of Arab states to reign in nuclear Israel, rejecting a non-binding resolution on Friday that would have compelled Israel to join the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and place its arsenal under International Atomic Energy Agency supervision.
“Israel has once again become the exception to international norms to reduce the potential of nuclear war and reduce nuclear weapons,” Deborah Agre from the Middle East Children’s Alliance told Common Dreams.
The “Israeli Nuclear Capabilities” measure, backed by Iran, was brought by a coalition of Arab states frustrated over the postponement of an international conference on creating a nuclear-free Middle East. The measure, which was vigorously opposed by the U.S., was voted down at the IAEA meeting, with 51 countries voting against and 43 in favor.
The defeat of the resolution was broadly reported in the media as a triumph of the West over efforts to “single out” Israel. The backers of the resolution were publicly shamed by several Western powers, including the U.S. and Israel, for even bringing such a measure to the table.
Israel is broadly known to be the only country in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons and has been widely criticized for obstructing efforts to demilitarize the region.
Roger’s note: I read this last night, and was not able to get to sleep. I apologize for sharing this nightmare with you, but I think it is something we need to think about. I think it was the Russian playwright, Chekhov, who said that if a fire arm is introduced in the first act, then it is sure to go off in the third act. The nuclear pistol was both introduced and fired in the first act at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We have been waiting nervously since 1945 for the tragic third act. What scares me is the almost certainty that with all those tens of thousands of nuclear warheads laying around, the chance that one will either go of intentionally or accidentally is too scary to imagine. Just another one of those inconvenient truths that we ignore at our peril.
Now with respect to the insanity of it. If one of today’s nuclear has the destructive power of 600 Hiroshima bombs, why would any nation need over ten thousand, the way the U.S and Russia do? And how much safer are we if they are reduced down to 1500? The only sane world will be one where there is total nuclear disarmament.
I have not mentioned the obscene cost of maintaining a nuclear armory. See graph below.
Thirty-three years ago to the day, the United States narrowly missed a nuclear holocaust on its soil. The so-called “Damascus Accident” involved a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile mishap at a launch complex outside Damascus, Arkansas. During a routine maintenance procedure, a young worker accidentally dropped a nine-pound tool in the silo, piercing the missile’s skin and causing a major leak of flammable rocket fuel. Sitting on top of that Titan 2 was the most powerful thermonuclear warhead ever deployed on an American missile. The weapon was about 600 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. For the next nine hours, a group of airmen put themselves at grave risk to save the missile and prevent a massive explosion that would’ve caused incalculable damage. The story is detailed in Eric Schlosser’s new book, “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety,” which explores how often the United States has come within a hair’s breadth of a domestic nuclear detonation or an accidental war. Drawing on thousands of pages of recently declassified government documents and interviews with scores of military personnel and nuclear scientists, Schlosser shows that America’s nuclear weapons pose a grave risk to humankind.
NERMEENSHAIKH: Thirty-three years ago today, the United States narrowly missed a nuclear holocaust on his soil that would have dwarfed the horrors of the Hiroshima bomb blast that killed approximately 140,000 people. The so-called Damascus accident involved a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile mishap at a launch conflict outside Damascus, Arkansas. During a routine maintenance procedure, a young worker accidentally dropped a nine pound tool in the silo, piercing the missile skin and causing a major leak of flammable rocket fuel. Sitting on top of that Titan II was the most powerful thermonuclear warhead ever deployed on an American missile. The weapon was about 600 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. For the next nine hours, a group of airmen put themselves at grave risk to save the missile and prevent a massive explosion that would’ve caused incalculable damage.
AMYGOODMAN: To find out what happened next, we turn to a shocking new book called, “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety.” In it, author Eric Schlosser reveals how often the United States has come within a hairs breath of a domestic nuclear detonation or an accidental war. Drawing on thousands of pages of recently declassified government documents and interviews with scores of military personnel and nuclear scientists, Schlosser shows that America’s nuclear weapons pose a grave risk to human kind. We are joined by Eric Schlosser, author of a number of books, including the best-selling “Fast Food Nation.” Welcome to Democracy Now! So, talk about that story 33 years ago today.
ERICSCHLOSSER: Thirty-three years ago, during a routine maintenance procedure, a tool was dropped and it set in motion events that could have led to the destruction of the state of Arkansas and it just so happened that Bill Clinton was the governor at the time. Vice President Mondale was in the state at the time. And it is one of those events that literally could have changed the course of history. So, the book is a minute by minute account of this nuclear weapons accident. It’s unfolding, but I use that narrative as a way to look at the management of our nuclear weapons really from the dawn of the nuclear era to this day.
A great deal has been in the media lately about Pakistani nuclear program, India nuclear program, Iran’s, but not enough attention has been paid to our own and the problems that we have had in the management of our nuclear weapons. And it’s a subject that I think is really, really urgent. It’s interesting, as I was watching Bill McKibben, who I consider a true American hero, and I was just seeing the title of the show, Democracy Now, the whole system of managing nuclear weapons is an inherently authoritarian. And if you look at the kind of secrecy that we have now in this country, and the national security state, it all stems from the development of the atomic bomb, the secrecy around it, and the real point of this book is to provide information to Americans that the government has worked very hard to suppress, to deny an enormous amount of disinformation and misinformation about our weapons program.
NERMEENSHAIKH: You also point out, Eric Schlosser, that there is a link between the amount of secrecy around nuclear weapons and the level of their and un-safety. Could you elaborate? Could you explain why that is the case?
ERICSCHLOSSER: During the Cold War, and to a certain extent, today, there was such intense compartmentalized secrecy within the government, that for example, the engineers and physicists who were designing the weapons weren’t allowed to know how the weapons were being used in the field. And the Air Force and Navy and Army personnel who were handling nuclear weapons didn’t know about the safety problems or safety issues that the designers knew. One of the people I write about in the book is an engineer named Robert Peurifoy who rose to be a vice president at the Sandia National Laboratory, and is a remarkable man who realized that our weapons might be unsafe and pose a threat of accidental detonation.
Again, in the book, I go through a number of instances that we almost had American weapons detonate on American soil. So, I write about his effort to bring modern safety devices to our nuclear weapons. Through the Freedom of Information Act, I was able to get about a 250 page document that listed all these different accidents, mistakes, short-circuits, fires involving nuclear weapons, and I showed it to him, and he had never seen it. This is somebody who were decades was at the heart of our nuclear weapons establishment. So, the secrecy was so intense, that the Air Force wasn’t telling the weapons designers problems that they were having in the field.
AMYGOODMAN: Tell us some of those accidents, some of those near misses and how things are being handled today.
ERICSCHLOSSER: Yeah, I mean, one of the most significant near misses occurred just three days after John F. Kennedy was inaugurated. A B-52 bomber broke apart in the sky over North Carolina, and as it was breaking apart, the centrifugal forces affecting the plane pulled a lanyard in the cockpit, which released one of the hydrogen bombs that it was carrying. And the weapon behaved as though it had been released over the Soviet Union, over an enemy target deliberately. It went through all of its arming stages, except one. There was one switch that prevented it from detonating in North Carolina. And that switch, later, was found to be defective and would never be put into a plane today. Straight electricity in the bomber as it was disintegrating could have detonated the bomb.
The government denied at the time there was ever any possibility that weapon could have detonated. Again and again there have been those sort of denials. But, I obtained documents through the Freedom of Information Act that say conclusively that that weapon could have detonated. I interviewed former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara who had just literally entered the administration, and was terrified when he was told the news of this accident when it occurred. The official list of nuclear weapons accidents that the Pentagon puts out lists 32. But the real number is many, many higher than that. And again —
AMYGOODMAN: What are some of the more recent ones?
ERICSCHLOSSER: Well, just this summer, two of our three Minutemen missile wings were cited for safety violations. A few years ago, the Air Force’s largest storage facility for nuclear weapons, the group that ran it was de-certified for safety violations. And one of the more concerning things right now, this sounds like a Hollywood movie, is the potential vulnerability of our nuclear command and control system being hacked to cyber attack. The Defense Science Board put out a report this year that the vulnerability of our command and control system to hacking has never been fully assessed. There were Senate hearings on the spring that didn’t get very much attention, but in 2010, 50 of our missiles suddenly went off-line and the launch control centers were unable to communicate with them for an hour. It would later turn out to be one computer chip was improperly installed in a processor, but what we have seen with Snowden and a relatively low level private contractor able to obtain the top secrets of the most secret intelligence agency, the cryptography and some of the code management of our nuclear weapons, is being done by private contractors.
AMYGOODMAN: Who is doing it?
ERICSCHLOSSER: I think Boeing is doing some of it. And again, they may be doing a wonderful job, but when you’re talking about nuclear weapons, there is no margin for error. If you managed nuclear weapons successfully for 40 years, that is terrific. But if you make one severe error and one of these things detonate, the consequences are going to be unimaginable.
NERMEENSHAIKH: You’ve also said that the command-and-control structure system in place for nuclear weapons has actually weakened since the end of the Cold War. Is that right?
ERICSCHLOSSER: One of the things that has happened and one of the problems the Air Force is having is once the Cold War ended — and during the Cold War, having control of nuclear weapons was a high prestige occupation in the Air Force and the Navy, but since the Cold War, it has been seen as a career dead-end. So, there have been all kinds of management issues, underinvestment — and I’m not saying we should be building hundreds and hundreds of new bombers or — but if you’re going to have nuclear weapons, no expense should be spared in the proper management.
AMYGOODMAN: How many do we have?
ERICSCHLOSSER: And what I was going to say was, some of the systems we have right now are 30, 40 years old. We’re still relying on B-52 bombers as our main nuclear bomber. Those are 60 years old. They haven’t built one since the Kennedy administration. The Titan II missile that I write about it some length in my book, one of the problems and one of the causes of the accident was that it was an obsolete weapon system. Secretary of Defense McNamara had wanted to retire it in the mid-1960s and it was still on alert in the 1980s.
And again with nuclear weapons, the margin of error is very, very small.
AMYGOODMAN: Let’s go to President Obama in June. He was speaking in Berlin, in Germany, and called for nuclear reductions.
PRESIDENTOBAMA: Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons, no matter how distant that dream may be. And so, as president, I strengthen our efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and reduce the number and role of America’s nuclear weapons. Because of the New Start Treaty, we are on track to cut American and Russian deployed nuclear warheads to their lowest levels since the 1950s.
AMYGOODMAN: That was president Obama speaking in Berlin in June. Shortly afterwards, Fox News contributor, Charles Krauthammer, criticized Obama for discussing nuclear arms reduction.
CHARLESKRAUTHAMMER: The idea that we’re going to be any safer if we have 1000 rather than 1500 warheads is absurd, so why is he doing this? Number one, he has been obsessed with nuclear weapons and reducing them ever since he was a student at Columbia and thought the freeze, which was the stupidest strategic idea of the 1980s, wasn’t enough of a reduction, and second, because I think that is all he has got.
AMYGOODMAN: That was Charles Krauthammer on Fox. Eric Schlosser?
ERICSCHLOSSER: I think that given his record on the Iraq war, nothing he says should be taken seriously. The fact of the matter is, every nuclear weapon is an accident waiting to happen or a potential act of mass murder. The fewer nuclear weapons there are, the less likely there is to be a disaster. I think that President Obama on this issue has been quite courageous in calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. It’s something that presidents have sought in one way or another since the end of the Second World War. I think that it is urgent that there be real arms control and reduction, not just of our arsenal, but of worldwide arsenals of nuclear weapons.
NERMEENSHAIKH: I want to turn to a video released by anti-nuclear weapons group, Global Zero, that shows many members of Congress don’t even know how many nuclear weapons the United States has. Here members of Global Zero approach Republican Representative Morgan Griffith of Virginia, Republican Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer of Missouri, Republican Representative Rob Wittman of Virginia, and Democratic Representative Pedro Pierluisi of Puerto Rico, Republican Representative Duncan Hunter of California, Republican Representative Mark Amodei of Nevada and Republican Representative Bill Flores of Texas.
GLOBALZEROINTERVIEWER: Do you happen to know roughly know how many nuclear weapons we do have?
REP. MORGANGRIFFITH: Uh…
REP. BLAINELEUTKEMEYER: Well,…
REP. ROBWITTMAN: The current arsenal, I don’t have an exact number.
REP. DUNCANHUNTER: My understanding is it’s about 300.
REP. PEDROPIERLUISI: No, no, it is much more than that.
GLOBALZEROINTERVIEWER: It’s more than 15,000?
REP. PEDROPIERLUISI: In terms of nuclear heads? Of course.
GLOBALZEROINTERVIEWER: More than 15,000? Really?
REP. PEDROPIERLUISI: Well, I don’t know.
GLOBALZEROINTERVIEWER: Do you have any idea about how many nuclear weapons we have?
CONGRESSIONALREP.: Uh, no.
REP. MARKAMODEI: Nope, not the exact number.
REP. BILLFLORES: It changes every day.
NERMEENSHAIKH: According to the group, Global Zero, more than 70 members of Congress were polled and more than 99% of them did not know, even roughly speaking, how many nuclear weapons the United States has. Eric Schlosser, your remarks on that?
ERICSCHLOSSER: It’s not an entirely fair question because the numbers are very different whether they are being counted for the SALT Treaty, how many are in reserve, etc. So it is a difficult thing to say specifically. We have about 1500 under the SALT Treaty deployed. We have a few thousand other—
AMYGOODMAN: And where are they?
ERICSCHLOSSER: … in reserve. They’re mainly on our nuclear submarines that are at sea. We have 450 strategic land-based missiles that are in the northern Midwest. But it is important to keep in mind that there is grounds for optimism. At the height of the Cold War, the United States had 32,000 nuclear weapons and the Soviet Union had 35,000. So right now, the number of weapons that both the Soviet Union and the United States have on alert ready to be launched combined is maybe 2000, 2500. So, to go from 60,000 to 2,500, you know 8,000 to 10,000, is a huge achievement; but there need to be much greater reductions.
AMYGOODMAN: Is there a possibility of a domestic Stuxnet, you know like the U.S. released against Iran, a virus that would affect command and control?
ERICSCHLOSSER: It is a great concern. These weapons are not connected to the internet, but there are command information systems that run software. During the Cold War, Zbigniew Brezinski was woken up in the middle of the night. He was National Security Adviser. He was told the United States was under attack. He got another call and was basically preparing to call President Carter and advise a retaliation. It turned out that there was a faulty computer chip in the NORAD computers that was saying that Soviet missiles were coming toward the United States and they weren’t. So, as long as you have a weapons stance in which we need to be able to retaliate immediately, it puts enormous pressure on acting quickly and there’s are all kinds of possibilities for error.
AMYGOODMAN: So, what has to be done?
ERICSCHLOSSER: I think firstly, the reason that I wrote the book, is in a democracy these sort of decisions need to be debated by the American people. And really, since 1944 or 1945, fundamental decisions about nuclear weapons have been made by a small group of policy makers acting in secret. So firstly we need openness, secondly we need a debate, and thirdly we need fewer nuclear weapons much more carefully managed, not only in this country, but in every country.
AMYGOODMAN: Eric Schlosser, we want to thank you for being with us. “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety” is the book. It has just come out.
Washington doesn’t merely lack the legal authority for a military intervention in Syria.
It lacks the moral authority. We’re talking about a government with a history of using chemical weapons against innocent people far more prolific and deadly than the mere accusations Assad faces from a trigger-happy Western military-industrial complex, bent on stifling further investigation before striking.
Here is a list of 10 chemical weapons attacks carried out by the U.S. government or its allies against civilians..
1.The U.S. Military Dumped 20 Million Gallons of Chemicals on Vietnam from 1962 – 1971
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military sprayed 20 million gallons of chemicals, including the very toxic Agent Orange, on the forests and farmlands of Vietnam and neighboring countries, deliberately destroying food supplies, shattering the jungle ecology, and ravaging the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Vietnam estimates that as a result of the decade-long chemical attack, 400,000 people were killed or maimed, 500,000 babies have been born with birth defects, and 2 million have suffered from cancer or other illnesses. In 2012, the Red Cross estimated that one million people in Vietnam have disabilities or health problems related to Agent Orange.
2.Israel Attacked Palestinian Civilians with White Phosphorus in 2008 – 2009
White phosphorus is a horrific incendiary chemical weapon that melts human flesh right down to the bone.
In 2009, multiple human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and International Red Cross reported that the Israeli government was attacking civilians in their own country with chemical weapons. An Amnesty International team claimed to find “indisputable evidence of the widespread use of white phosphorus” as a weapon in densely-populated civilian areas. The Israeli military denied the allegations at first, but eventually admitted they were true.
After the string of allegations by these NGOs, the Israeli military even hit a UN headquarters(!) in Gaza with a chemical attack. How do you think all this evidence compares to the case against Syria? Why didn’t Obama try to bomb Israel?
3.Washington Attacked Iraqi Civilians with White Phosphorus in 2004
In 2004, journalists embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq began reporting the use of white phosphorus in Fallujah against Iraqi insurgents. First the military lied and said that it was only using white phosphorus to create smokescreens or illuminate targets. Then it admitted to using the volatile chemical as an incendiary weapon. At the time, Italian television broadcaster RAI aired a documentary entitled, “Fallujah, The Hidden Massacre,” including grim video footage and photographs, as well as eyewitness interviews with Fallujah residents and U.S. soldiers revealing how the U.S. government indiscriminately rained white chemical fire down on the Iraqi city and melted women and children to death.
4.The CIA Helped Saddam Hussein Massacre Iranians and Kurds with Chemical Weapons in 1988
CIA records now prove that Washington knew Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons (including sarin, nerve gas, and mustard gas) in the Iran-Iraq War, yet continued to pour intelligence into the hands of the Iraqi military, informing Hussein of Iranian troop movements while knowing that he would be using the information to launch chemical attacks. At one point in early 1988, Washington warned Hussein of an Iranian troop movement that would have ended the war in a decisive defeat for the Iraqi government. By March an emboldened Hussein with new friends in Washington struck a Kurdish village occupied by Iranian troops with multiple chemical agents, killing as many as 5,000 people and injuring as many as 10,000 more, most of them civilians. Thousands more died in the following years from complications, diseases, and birth defects.
5.The Army Tested Chemicals on Residents of Poor, Black St. Louis Neighborhoods in The 1950s
In the early 1950s, the Army set up motorized blowers on top of residential high-rises in low-income, mostly black St. Louis neighborhoods, including areas where as much as 70% of the residents were children under 12. The government told residents that it was experimenting with a smokescreen to protect the city from Russian attacks, but it was actually pumping the air full of hundreds of pounds of finely powdered zinc cadmium sulfide. The government admits that there was a second ingredient in the chemical powder, but whether or not that ingredient was radioactive remains classified. Of course it does. Since the tests, an alarming number of the area’s residents have developed cancer. In 1955, Doris Spates was born in one of the buildings the Army used to fill the air with chemicals from 1953 – 1954. Her father died inexplicably that same year, she has seen four siblings die from cancer, and Doris herself is a survivor of cervical cancer.
6.Police Fired Tear Gas at Occupy Protesters in 2011
The savage violence of the police against Occupy protesters in 2011 was well documented, and included the use of tear gas and other chemical irritants. Tear gas is prohibited for use against enemy soldiers in battle by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Can’t police give civilian protesters in Oakland, California the same courtesy and protection that international law requires for enemy soldiers on a battlefield?
7.The FBI Attacked Men, Women, and Children With Tear Gas in Waco in 1993
At the infamous Waco siege of a peaceful community of Seventh Day Adventists, the FBI pumped tear gas into buildings knowing that women, children, and babies were inside. The tear gas was highly flammable and ignited, engulfing the buildings in flames and killing 49 men and women, and 27 children, including babies and toddlers. Remember, attacking an armed enemy soldier on a battlefield with tear gas is a war crime. What kind of crime is attacking a baby with tear gas?
8.The U.S. Military Littered Iraq with Toxic Depleted Uranium in 2003
In Iraq, the U.S. military has littered the environment with thousands of tons of munitions made from depleted uranium, a toxic and radioactive nuclear waste product. As a result, more than half of babies born in Fallujah from 2007 – 2010 were born with birth defects. Some of these defects have never been seen before outside of textbooks with photos of babies born near nuclear tests in the Pacific. Cancer and infant mortality have also seen a dramatic rise in Iraq. According to Christopher Busby, the Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk, “These are weapons which have absolutely destroyed the genetic integrity of the population of Iraq.” After authoring two of four reports published in 2012 on the health crisis in Iraq, Busby described Fallujah as having, “the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied.”
9.The U.S. Military Killed Hundreds of Thousands of Japanese Civilians with Napalm from 1944 – 1945
Napalm is a sticky and highly flammable gel which has been used as a weapon of terror by the U.S. military. In 1980, the UN declared the use of napalm on swaths of civilian population a war crime. That’s exactly what the U.S. military did in World War II, dropping enough napalm in one bombing raid on Tokyo to burn 100,000 people to death, injure a million more, and leave a million without homes in the single deadliest air raid of World War II.
10.The U.S. Government Dropped Nuclear Bombs on Two Japanese Cities in 1945
Although nuclear bombs may not be considered chemical weapons, I believe we can agree they belong to the same category. They certainly disperse an awful lot of deadly radioactive chemicals. They are every bit as horrifying as chemical weapons if not more, and by their very nature, suitable for only one purpose: wiping out an entire city full of civilians. It seems odd that the only regime to ever use one of these weapons of terror on other human beings has busied itself with the pretense of keeping the world safe from dangerous weapons in the hands of dangerous governments.