Warning signs appeared from the start. The world’s first nuclear explosion on July 16, 1945, saw the prototype of the Fat Man plutonium bomb that would pulverize Nagasaki detonate with a violence four times the Los Alamos Lab’s estimates. The Little Boy uranium bomb soon to be dropped on Hiroshima? Never tested.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the worst U.S. air attacks on Japan during World War II. The March 9-10, 1945, B-29 firebombing raid on Tokyo incinerated over 100,000 victims—more than died immediately following either nuclear attack. But not until Aug. 6 and 9, when they saw two entire cities destroyed by a single atomic bomb apiece, would Emperor Hirohito and his military leaders finally consider surrender.
Military analysts say nuclear weapons shortened the Pacific war by at least two years, preserved half a million American lives that would have been lost invading the Japanese home islands, and saved more than four million Japanese soldiers and civilians from death in battle or by starvation.
Nevertheless, the ensuing 67 years have seen U.S. stewardship of its nuclear policy and weaponry nudged to the brink of catastrophe by ignorance, arrogance, and mechanical malfunction.
Take the March 1, 1954, Bravo test shot of the first dry-fuel hydrogen bomb, its fusion reactions stoked by powdered lithium deuteride. At 15 megatons (a megaton = a million tons of TNT), it remains the largest explosion triggered by the United States—a blast exceeding 1,000 times the power of the uranium bomb that had leveled Hiroshima.
But at three times its projected yield, this Pacific test triggered frightening unintended consequences. With an initial fireball four miles wide, its roiling radioactive cloud eventually reached 130,000 feet and a breadth of 66 miles. It damaged a massive RB-36D reconnaissance bomber flying at 40,000 feet 15 miles from ground zero. Twenty miles away, radioactive fallout trapped the firing team in its concrete bunker. And 82 miles away, additional fallout contaminated a Japanese fishing boat, hospitalizing its crew—one of whom died. Radiation sickness then forced the evacuation of 264 U.S. personnel and nearby islanders. Three additional blasts in this Operation Castle test series also vastly exceeded predictions.
In the first B-52 airdrop of a 3.8 MT hydrogen bomb in 1956, the pilot missed his target island by four miles. In 1971 beneath the Aleutian island of Amchitka, the Cannikan test of the Spartan ABM warhead set off an underground blast of five megatons in one of the planet’s most seismically sensitive fault zones. The resulting tremblor of 7.0 on the Richter scale could have triggered a massive regional earthquake and tsunami.
The list goes on.
And what happens when presidential advisors and military leaders lose clarity of judgment and moral focus? At least three times from 1953 through the Berlin Wall Crisis of 1961, Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy were urged to launch preemptive nuclear strikes against the Soviet Union—by such civilian and military leaders as Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze, Strategic Air Command’s Gen. Thomas Power, and retired Air Force Gen. James Doolittle. Then, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, two senators along with presidential advisor McGeorge Bundy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff pressured Kennedy to order preemptive strikes against Cuba, followed by an invasion.
Fortunately Kennedy said no, for optimistic intelligence estimates were soon proven wrong. Russian crews were poised to prepare SS-4 missiles for launch against Washington, D.C., and southeastern U.S. cities, their megaton warheads having arrived in Cuba on Oct. 4. Moreover, nine Russian tactical nuclear missiles were unexpectedly available to cover approaches to potential invasion beaches.
“Never before or since,” writes historian Donald Kagan, “has the world been brought so close to nuclear war.”
Then, in 2002, President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Russia after releasing a Nuclear Posture Review that considered preemptive nuclear strikes and potential development of new ‘mininukes’ for use against deeply buried bunkers—despite U.S. endorsement of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty…
Today seven other nations possess nuclear weapons. North Korea has announced it also has them, with Iran moving toward their development. Given this burgeoning availability of nuclear weaponry, responsible global nuclear stewardship is needed now more than ever. If other governments look to the world’s only remaining superpower for leadership in this endeavor, careful examination reveals that more than six decades of miscalculations and ethical lapses suggest that the United States is, at best, a dubious role model.
Lee Gaillard, A resident of Saranac Lake NY, writes frequently on defense issues and military technology; he has written on nuclear stewardship for The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and the Center for Defense Information. His background includes experience in publishing, education, and industry; his book reviews and articles have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Times, U.S. Naval Institute PROCEEDINGS, The Marine Corps Times, Naval History, Defense News, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Submarine Review, and other newspapers and magazines across the U.S.
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