America’s Almost Atomic Disasters
A review of ‘Command and Control’ by Eric Schlosser
When Jimmy Stewart finished his career as Frank Capra’s leading man in sentimental hits like It’s a Wonderful Life, he plunged back into military life as a colonel in the Air Force Reserve.
By 1955 he had a new cinematic collaborator, Curtis LeMay, Strategic Air Command’s belligerent commander. SAC was America’s main nuclear deterrent against the Soviet Union.
Stewart used his Hollywood contacts to make a feature film about a heroic SAC officer caught between devotion to the Air Force, his family and—as is so often the case—his second career as a professional baseball player.
This strange story is just one recalled in Command and Control, Eric Schlosser’s new history of U.S. nuclear weapons.
Reality mirrored dark comedy in this secretive world when, in 1958, an unfortunate crewmen on a B-47 bomber adjusted the plane’s atomic weapon in mid-flight and accidentally placed his arm on the manual release lever.
The result was very nearly a ride down to earth on a nuke, just as portrayed in Stanley Kubrick’s farce Dr. Strangelove. Luckily, the airman held on … but the bomb—whose nuclear core had been removed before the mission—fell out of the B-47 and dug a deep crater in Florence County, South Carolina.
Schlosser’s sprawling work begins and ends with a blow-by-blow account of an explosion at a Titan II missile silo in Arkansas. This incident is one among hundreds Schlosser discusses.
He pays particular attention to the people struggling to make nuclear weapons safer. That an accidental nuclear detonation has yet to take place is surprising, according to the retired Air Force officers and scientists Schlosser interviews.
It’s difficult to comprehend, but the construction and maintenance of nuclear weapons did not always take place in an ultra-high-tech environment. During the first U.S. atomic test, Army-surplus mattress were placed beneath the bomb as it was hauled into position on the test tower.
Later, Donald Hornig, a scientist on the project, kept watch over the bomb during an electrical storm—a storm that scientists feared might trigger the weapon.
It’s a thorough and illuminating read. On the downside, Command and Control could have benefited from illustrations—particularly diagrams—where Schlosser describes how a nuclear weapon is built.
Still, the book is a fine introduction to America’s frightening atomic history. Command and Control’s occult counterpart would be a similarly comprehensive history of the Russian nuclear program.
Schlosser presumes the Russians’ accident record to be far worse. He notes that the world’s “most contaminated city,” is Chelyabinsk-65, a.k.a. Ozyorsk, blanketed by radiation following a 1957 accident at an atomic weapons plant.