Atomic Doomsday Was 15 Minutes Away for Zonked Bombers: Books

15 Minutes
The cover jacket of "15 Minutes: General Curtis Lemay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation." by L. Douglas Keeney. Source: St. Martins Press via Bloomberg

The onslaught would begin, American war planners assumed in the 1950s, with the detonation of nuclear bombs secreted by Russian operatives in Washington, New York and at ports and airfields.

Then Soviet bombers would head for the U.S. to finish the job, crossing General Curtis LeMay’s Strategic Air Command retaliatory force en route. A doomsday scenario -- though not everything need be lost. After tens of millions of people had been skinned, vaporized or roasted alive on either side, there could be a pause for negotiation.

For retrospective chills about the early days of the Cold War, it’s hard to beat “15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation” by L. Douglas Keeney, a military historian.

LeMay emerges not as the manic Cold Warrior of “Dr. Strangelove,” nor as the man who later sullied his reputation as the running mate to segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace, the Alabama governor. LeMay’s verbal extravagances notwithstanding -- “We should nuke the bastards” -- he was, for Keeney, a supremely competent leader who built the Strategic Air Command, or SAC, from scratch as the key instrument to contain and deter Soviet Russia.

The thrills and spills on the way keep you reading. So does a sense of awe. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the nuclear physicist, described early bombs such as the Fat Man dropped on Nagasaki as “haywire contraptions.” Norris Bradbury, head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said they “looked like they had the measles.”

A-Bomb Dumps

The spills of nuclear weapons were literal, too: Dozens of airborne bombs were dumped on land and at sea when the planes carrying them came down or got into trouble in the 1950s. Though official cover-ups soothed public fears, the avoidance of a nuclear explosion was a miracle.

The hazards of warhead testing were similarly horrendous. A “hairy-chested” approach became semiofficial doctrine, says Keeney, describing a manly disinclination to worry too much about radioactive contamination. After the runaway explosion of the Bravo bomb during the Operation Castle tests near the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific in 1954, the government worried more.

The yield was 15 megatons instead of the anticipated 8 to 10; visible fallout rained on sailors and technicians in shorts and shirts. The sickness some suffered was appalling, though less so than on the nearby Marshall Islands, where women produced children with two heads or “grape babies” -- newborns that resembled bunches of grapes.

Chewing Dexedrine

As Russian capabilities developed, warning times narrowed. The SAC strived to shave seconds off the 15 minutes needed to get its bombers airborne. The next step, inevitably, was nuclear-armed planes permanently in the sky. Crews on 20-hour patrols routinely overflew foreign countries, chewing Dexedrine to stay alert.

Fortunately there were failsafe procedures: Pilots ordered to head for Soviet Russia would turn back automatically after designated periods unless specifically instructed to continue.

Nuclear equivalence with the Russians was a concept LeMay and his successor, the equally ebullient General Thomas Power, wouldn’t have recognized: Overkill was what they wanted -- and what they got.

In 1956, the U.S. national stockpile was 4,618 nuclear bombs, Keeney says; by 1962, it had reached 27,387. The Russians, we now know, had 3,722. On top of that, the SAC was what the Central Intelligence Agency called a “jumpy, alert-happy force” -- a glamorous elite reveling in what Keeney describes as a “bring-it-on” culture.

‘Dead-Hand Switch’

The chill factor increases when we learn that both sides had perfected what the Russians called a “dead-hand switch” system of retaliation: Weapons were programmed to launch automatically if their controllers were annihilated.

“There was more truth than fiction,” Keeney writes, “in the idea that machines could end the world.”

By the 1970s, intercontinental ballistic missiles were being perfected, rendering nuclear bombers largely obsolete, and the SAC was dissolved in 1992, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

The power of Keeney’s book lies in his determination to avoid excess emotion and stick to the facts -- facts that, God knows, are themselves emotive enough. You finish this book a little numbed, though with a strange sense of hope: If mankind can get through years like these and learn the lessons, perhaps it can get through anything.

“15 Minutes” is from St. Martin’s in the U.S. (372 pages, $26.99). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(George Walden, a former U.K. diplomat and member of Parliament, is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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