May 19, 2013
A Hundred Holocausts: An Insider’s Window Into U.S. Nuclear Policy
Posted on Sep 10, 2009
At Kadena, the pilots weren’t in the planes on alert or in the hut on the alert strip; they were allowed to be elsewhere, at the post exchange or in their quarters, because each was accompanied at all times by his individual jeep and driver to return him in minutes to the strip when an alert was sounded. They practiced the alert at least once a day. The officer in charge told our research group that we could choose the time for that day’s rehearsal. When our leader said “OK, now,” the klaxons sounded all over the area and jeeps appeared almost instantly on all the roads leading to the strip, rushing around curves, pilots leaping out as they reached the strip and scrambling into the cockpits, still tightening their helmets and gear. Engines started in 10 planes, almost simultaneously. Ten minutes.
These were tactical fighter-bombers, with limited range. There were more than a thousand of them, armed with H-bombs, in range of Russia and China on strips like this or on aircraft carriers surrounding the Sino-Soviet bloc (as we still thought of it in 1961, though China and the Soviets had actually split apart a couple of years before that). Each of them could devastate a large city with one bomb. For a larger metropolitan area, it might take two. Yet the Strategic Air Command (SAC), which did not command these planes (they were under the control of theater commanders), regarded these tactical theater forces as so vulnerable, unreliable and insignificant as a factor in all-out nuclear war that SAC planners had not even included them in their calculations of the outcome of attacks in a general war until that year.
Before 1961, planners at SAC headquarters took into consideration only attacks by the heavy bombers, intermediate-range ballistic missiles and ICBMs commanded by SAC, along with Polaris submarine-launched missiles. In the bomb bays of the SAC planes were thermonuclear bombs much larger than those I saw in Okinawa. Many were from five to 20 megatons in yield. Each 20-megaton bomb—1,000 times the yield of the fission bomb that destroyed Nagasaki—was the equivalent of 20 million tons of TNT, or 10 times the total tonnage the U.S. dropped in World War II. Some 500 bombs in the arsenal each had the explosive power of 25 megatons. Each of these warheads had more power than all the bombs and shells exploded in all the wars of human history.
These intercontinental bombers and missiles had come to be stationed almost entirely in the continental U.S., though they might be deployed to forward bases outside it in a crisis. A small force of B-52s was constantly airborne. Many of the rest were on alert. I had seen a classified film of an incredible maneuver in which a column of B-58s—smaller than B-52s but still intercontinental heavy bombers—taxied down a runway and then took off simultaneously, rather than one at a time. The point—as at Kadena and elsewhere—was to get in the air and away from the field as fast as possible, on warning of an imminent attack, before an enemy missile might arrive. In the time it would normally have taken for a single plane to take off, a squadron of planes would be airborne, on its way to assigned targets.
The planned targets for the whole force included, along with military sites, every city in the Soviet Union and China.
On carriers, smaller, tactical bombers would be boosted on takeoff by a catapult, a kind of large slingshot. But since the general nuclear war plan, as I knew, called for takeoff around the world of as many U.S. planes and missiles as were ready at the time of the execute order—as near-simultaneously as possible—to attack targets that were all assigned in prior planning, the preparations contemplated one overall, inflexible global attack as if all the vehicles, with more than 3,000 warheads, were launched by a single catapult. A sling made for Goliath.
The rigidity of the single, coordinated plan—which by 1961 included tactical bombers—in what was termed the Single Integrated Operational Plan, or SIOP, meant that its underlying “strategy” amounted to nothing more than a vast trucking operation to transport thermonuclear warheads to Soviet and Chinese cities and military sites. The latter were the great majority of targets, since all the cities could be destroyed by a small fraction of the attacking vehicles.
One of the principal expected effects of this plan—partly intended, partly (in allied, neutral and “satellite” countries) unavoidable “collateral damage”—was summarized on the piece of paper I held that day in the spring of 1961: the extermination of over half a billion people.
(In fact, this was certainly a vast underestimate of the fatalities. Dr. Lynn Eden, a scholar at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, has revealed in “Whole World on Fire” (Cornell, 2004) the bizarre fact that the war planners of SAC and the Joint Chiefs have—throughout the nuclear era, to the present day—deliberately omitted entirely from their estimates of the destructive effects of U.S. or Russian nuclear attacks the effects of fire. They have done so on the grounds that these effects are harder to predict than the effects of blast or fallout on which their estimates of fatalities are exclusively based. Yet the firestorms caused by thermonuclear weapons are known to be predictably the largest producers of fatalities in a nuclear war! Given that for almost all strategic nuclear weapons the damage radius of firestorms would be two to five times the radius destroyed by blast, a more realistic estimate of the fatalities caused directly by the planned U.S. attacks would surely have been double the figure on the summary I held in my hand—a billion people or more.)
The declared intent of this planning deployment and rehearsal was to deter Soviet aggression. I knew by this time something that was rarely made clear to the American public, that what was to be deterred by all this was not only nuclear attacks by the Soviets but conventional, non-nuclear Soviet aggression, in Europe in particular. In both cases, the story went, it was all designed to prevent such Soviet attacks from ever taking place. This global machine had been constructed in hopes that it would never be set in motion: or, as it was often put, so that it would never be used. The official motto of SAC, on display at all its bases, was “Peace Is Our Profession.”
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