Archive for November, 2012

Redactions | Visions

Soviet drawings of an American bomb

Friday, November 30th, 2012

The United States government is pretty gun-shy on publishing drawings of nuclear weapon designs, even very crude ones. When it comes to implosion bombs, this is about all that’s allowed to come out of official sources:

From the 1977 edition of Glasstone and Dolan’s The Effects of Nuclear Weapons. “Then explodes” puts it a little mildly, I think.

Not extremely informative — a ball-within-a-ball — and a heck of a lot less information than you can find from other sources. The reasons for this are ostensibly based in security — terrorists, enemy powers, etc. — though I tend to suspect they are based in the fear of scandal more than anything else. Congressional oversight gets itchy when they see something that looks like a “bomb-making guide,” even when it is well-within the limits of security.1 (The basic implosion idea was declassified in 1951 as part of the Rosenberg trial, though there were knowledgable people arguing for it as early as 1945.)

I find the level of abstraction allowed in such drawings to be a little ridiculous, especially when far more detailed technical information is actually declassified. For reasons that I suspect are deeper than mere policy considerations alone, you can write a lot of things down that you can’t draw, if you’re someone with an actual security clearance. This isn’t totally nonsensical: drawings can make immediately clear lots of things that can otherwise hide in technical descriptions, which is one of the reasons that putative drawings of nuclear weapons are one of the topics that originally drew me to the topic of nuclear secrecy.

We aren’t really talking about blueprints here — these things aren’t usually to scale, they aren’t designed for engineers to use. Even if we were talking about blueprints, there are still quite a few steps in between a drawing of a thing and the thing itself. Drawings of this sort could certainly help an incipient nuclear program, but only in the sense that they can guide research questions or general directions. A drawing of an atomic bomb is not an atomic bomb.

But even though the US is fairly tetchy about its bowdlerized bomb drawings, it does better than most other nuclear states. The United States actually publishes things about their nuclear programs. Though the US has a well-deserved reputation for secrecy, they also have put out tons and tons of technical and non-technical information about how their bombs work(ed), how bombs in general work, technical details about the weapons themselves, and so on. Why? It’s a legacy, perhaps, of the Smyth Report, Atoms for Peace, and other gestures towards the positive role that nuclear information can play in the public sphere.

Ah, but there is one exception: post-Soviet Russia. The people working at Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear agency/corporation, have been publishing impressive amounts of raw historical documents information about the Soviet bomb project, as part of their on-going series Atomnyi proekt SSSR/Атомный проект СССР/USSR atomic project. The series started in 1998, and the early volumes have gotten a lot of good scholarly attention by folks like Alexei Kojevnikov and Michael Gordin, but only very recently did I find that they’ve been still publishing them, and from what I can tell, the newer volumes have not been used too much. The most recent volume that I’ve heard of — volume 3 — was published in 2009. Getting ahold of them is another matter altogether; in the United States, anyway, they’re devilishly hard to find to purchase, and even on Russian websites they are pretty rare. The Library of Congress has the first two volumes in their entirety, and I think I’ve found a source for purchasing the third (supposedly it is on its way), but not without some effort.

Here, for example, is the sort of drawing that the Russians declassified and published in one of the 2007 volumes:

Nuke aficionados will recognize immediately that this is a pretty good drawing of an implosion bomb, especially when compared to the ball-within-a-ball. The labels are pretty straightforward: A– detonator; B– explosive lens (1–Comp. B outer lens, 2–Baratol cone, 3–Comp. B inner lens); C–cork lining; D–aluminum pusher; E–uranium tamper; F–boron plastic shell; G–the Po-Be initiator. The only weird part is that they didn’t label the actual plutonium core itself (the cross-hatched sphere that surrounded the G sphere), but I guess it went without saying. Note also that they’ve indicated how the core can be added in after-the-fact with the removable “trap door” pusher. That’s one of those nice little touches that says, “I am not merely trying to explain an abstract concept, I’m trying to tell you how we might build one of these things.”

But more awesome than the drawing itself — which you can, incidentally, get on a T-shirt, if you’re interested and go for that sort of thing — is its source. It’s from the Soviet archives, part of a report dated January 28, 1946, titled “Notes on the design of the atomic bomb: Description of the construction of the ‘explosion inside‘ type bomb.”2 Get it, “explosion inside”? They hadn’t even formalized their terminology for “implosion” yet and were using a scare-quoted, made-up word in the meantime. As the report makes clear, this is a Soviet description of the American atomic bomb detonated at “Trinity,” based on intelligence received from Soviet spies at Los Alamos. (Other reports refer to Klaus Fuchs directly by name, though I’m not sure if the people drawing up this particular report knew he was the source.)

There is no way in heck that the American government would ever allow the release of so “detailed” a drawing from any source that had access to classified information. Granted, it’s a long way from being a “blueprint” — something the drawing itself acknowledges; the text at the bottom reads “schematic drawing, not to scale” — but it’s still the sort of thing that no weapons lab would want a Congressperson to see them handing out, much less publishing widely. But apparently Rosatom is not as burdened by this — when it comes to publishing pictures of American bombs, anyway!3

Here’s another fan-favorite — a series of drawings breaking the final assembled “Fat Man” bomb into its constituent parts, showing how they call go together, IKEA-style (click any of them to zoom):

The outer casing and the placement of the bomb within it. The caption at bottom says, “Bomb used on Nagasaki (Total weight 10,500 pounds – 4,650 kilograms).” I’m having trouble making out the “note” at the top left but it is seems to be saying something is tentative about the drawing.

The first four “spheres”: 1–initiator, 2–plutonium, 3–tamper, 4–aluminum pusher. Note that the publishers have omitted the exact measurements and replaced them with ellipses. It seems to indicate that the plutonium core is in “3 parts,” which jibes with an earlier post of mine (and indicates that the intelligence source really knew what he was talking about, not that we didn’t already know that). Actually, as is pointed out in the comments, if I had continued translating, I’d see that it says the plutonium must have impurities of only 3 parts per million. Still, a nice little detail.

Spheres 5 and 6: a layer of 32 blocks of chemical explosives, and then a layer of 32 blocks of explosive lenses. The detonator is labeled as a “booster” in English, oddly enough.

Sphere 7: the duraluminum casing, with “holes for detonators.” Comrade Beria likes his details! Compared with the Trinity Gadget.

Lastly, the overall arrangement of the bombs within the casing itself, with its electrical and detonating systems indicated. (You’ll perhaps recognize the first and last images here from another post I did, awhile back, as they are reprinted in a tiny form in another source.)

It’s a veritable nuclear Matryoshka doll, is it not? I wish I could make this stuff up, but I can’t. My favorite part about this document, though, is the fact that so much of the captions are in English — again, as if any indication were needed about where this information was coming from. The document itself was written by Igor Kurchatov for Lavrenty Beria, dated June 4, 1946.

There isn’t anything remotely like a security threat here — you can get better drawings on Wikipedia these days, without the numbers redacted — but to have stuff like this published by an actual nuclear power, based on data they derived in the course of making their own atomic bomb, data taken from a source working in a weapons lab… well, let’s just say, I don’t think it’s going to happen over here anytime soon.

Still, the drawings do have a talismanic power, and the Mandala-like quality of the implosion design doesn’t hurt that. It’s the bomb, right? And yet, it’s really not. It’s a drawing. A technically crude one, albeit more detailed than the other “official” releases. It’s no surprise, I suppose, how easily we get sucked in by the superficially technical — whether it carries any real power or not.

Notes
  1. See, for example, page 70 of chapter 2 of the Cox Report, which criticized Los Alamos for releasing exactly this kind of heavily-sanitized information. []
  2. Заметки о конструкции атомной бомбы. Описание конструкции бомбы типа “взрыва вовнутрь.” []
  3. This reminds me of a joke from the Brezhnev-era USSR that a Russian teacher of mine told me: During a visit to the United States, Premier Brezhnev and President Carter happen to see a protest. “No Carter, No Reagan!” the protesters shouted. “You see,” said Carter, “in our country we have freedom of expression, something you don’t have over in your country.” “Ah, Comrade,” says Brezhnev, “you are wrong! Come over and see!” So they go to Red Square, and indeed, there is a mob of protesters forming, shouting, “Nyet Carter, nyet Reagan!” []
Redactions

How to make an atomic thunderstorm

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

The rapid temperature and pressure changes produced by atomic explosions can, in fact, alter the local weather. This isn’t conspiracy theory kookery — it’s actually occurred numerous times in the course of nuclear testing. Here, for example, is an excerpt from a report about Redwing CHEROKEE, a 1956 test of a 3.8 megaton hydrogen bomb:

As the cloud rose and cooled, a very  intense purple with Szchrinkoff [sic — Cherenkov] radiation. Rain started in the area at about H+3 minutes after the burst, and at about H+10 minutes, a thunderstorm developed within the stem. Mr. Tanner and I counted 21 flashes appearing exactly like lightning flashes within a cloud.1

Lightning accompanied many hydrogen bomb detonations. Ivy MIKE, the first H-bomb, produced quite a lot of lightning, later analysis of the Rapatronic footage found:

Great, another thing to worry about. Image from Colvin, et al., “An empirical study of the nuclear explosion-induced lightning seen on IVY-MIKE,” (1987). You can see film of this footage here. Note that these sorts of things should not be confused with the smoke trails that were sometimes used to visualize the moving blast wave on tests.

That local weather changes would follow nuclear explosions isn’t too surprising when you think about it. What is weather if not pressure, temperature, and electrostatic charge? All three of those things are present in quantity when you detonate a nuclear weapon. I wouldn’t necessarily have guessed, a priori, that rain, lightning, and thunderheads could be created in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear bomb, but after hearing about it, it makes sense.

What’s more surprising, though, is that this was actually investigated as a way to enhance nuclear weapons as early as 1945.

In late April 1945, two theorists working at Los Alamos working on the possible health hazards of the “Trinity” test stumbled upon the fact that rising hot air (such as that produced by a nuclear weapon)  might produce rain. They sent a memo to J. Robert Oppenheimer raising the possibility:

After the ball of fire and hot air produced by the gadget explosion start to rise, conditions could easily exist favorable for the formation of a thunderhead. The initial velocity of rise of the hot air should be about 25 meters per second. Hubbard believes that a velocity of only 15 meters per second would be sufficient to produce a thunderhead provided that the atmospheric conditions were just right. He believes that the time when the proper conditions of humidity and instability would prevail over Japanese targets can be predicted accurately. In general they would be quite likely to occur in the summer months,. We are going to make a careful study of this question and its consequences.2

Two days later, they sent him another memo, this time discussing raising the possibility of making this happen deliberately. (As a side note, I always love it when the defensive swings around to become the offensive — this might be a problem becomes this might be a cool weapon with amazing rapidity.)

The memo, written by physicist Joseph Hirschfelder, had an ominous title: “Strategic Possibilities Arising if a Thunderstorm is Induced by Gadget Explosion.”3 Hirschfelder, his 1990 obituary explains, was a leader of a theoretical group at Los Alamos, and later went on to do physics work on the bombs dropped at Bikini in 1946.

Hirschfeder’s 1945 memo explained that “it would be feasible, if desired, to choose the proper weather conditions for delivery [of the bomb] so that the gadget explosion would induce a thunderstorm.” The physics seems fairly clear:

Joseph Hirschfelder’s Los Alamos badge photograph.

Because of the high potential temperature of the hot air, the active material and fission products would surely rise to heights of the order of 10,000 feet (in a time of three minutes) before the thunderhead would develop. With even a light wind the major portion of the active materials would be carried away from the area of blast damage (for a 15 mile an hour wind, one mile in four minutes) and the products would rain down on an area which has not been severely damaged by the blast (a radius of A damage for blast is considerably under one mile).

A simple calculation shows that the radiation from the active material and fission products would be sufficient to to render an area of from one to one-hundred square kilometers uninhabitable. Calculations which I have made on the smoke column would indicate that the radius of our smoke column would be of the order of 500 to 1000 meters therefore we could not expect to poison an area of more than a few square kilometers. …

I do not believe that there would be any lessening of the blast damage if we deliver the gadget in weather conditions favorable for the formation of the thunderstorm (conditional instability, humidity above 60%) and therefore the radiation effects might cause considerable damage in addition to the blast damage ordinarily considered.

In plainer language, Hirschfelder is saying, “hey Oppy, I found a way to make the bomb even more radioactive than we had previously contemplated. We’ll set it off in a way that will create a thunderstorm, which will spread radiation all over the place, even to places that weren’t hit by the actual blast itself.” Clever? Undoubtedly. Horrible? I find it so — it’s an attempt to make the bomb even more unpleasant than it already was. But in a sense, that’s part of the job description, isn’t it?

Hirschfelder closed the memo by offering that, “if you are interested in this possibility, we should try to work out more explicit details: how long it would take before the rain started, how predictable would be the area on which the active material was dumped, etc.” It doesn’t appear that Oppenheimer followed up on the issue, but he didn’t condemn it either. My total speculation is that he never followed up on it because it sounds a little complicated to pull off under wartime conditions — and waiting around for ideal weather conditions was tricky enough as it was without trying to create atomic thunderstorms. 

(A small, weather-related meditation: As you probably know, bad weather saved the city of Kokura, Japan, from being the target of the Fat Man bomb. Nagasaki was the runner-up, and even its mission was almost scrapped because of cloud cover. There was probably somebody who lived in Kokura who complained about it being so cloudy on that day, August 9, 1945, without realizing how lucky he or she was. When clouds get you down, cheer up! You might be living in Kokura.)

I came across this memo for the first time while going through the footnotes of Sean Malloy’s excellent article on what was and wasn’t known about radiation effects prior to dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. What struck me about it, aside from the gee-whiz aspect of ATOMIC THUNDERSTORMS, was how bloodthirsty these physicists appeared. Another document from Sean’s article, Bill Penney’s calculations on the ideal height to detonate the atomic bomb (with the special goal of trying to kill as many Japanese firefighters as possible), similarly affected me.

A common depiction is of the Los Alamos scientists as a bunch of giddy geeks whose “technically sweet” lab experiments get appropriated by the military for awful ends. But it’s a far darker story than that. These were some of the smartest people around at the time, and they applied all of their mental energies to the making of war — to the production of deaths. It’s not incomprehensible, of course: they knew they were doing wartime work, and there was, of course, a particularly vicious war on. But the flip side of all of those cute films and photographs of them drinking at lab parties is that when they weren’t there, they were plotting, in meticulous fashion, for killing as many people as were possible.

I think we’ve lost some of that in our collective memory. It’s present in some of the earlier depictions of the scientists and their work, but we seem to have compartmentalized our “weapons scientists” into the “good guys” (Oppenheimer, Bethe, Feynman) and the “bad guys” (Teller, Von Neumann) in terms of who we think are more dovish or hawkish. And yet, they all made weapons of mass destruction — some with more ambivalence than others, but they made them nonetheless. I’m not a total dove about these things, but I still think it’s worth keeping that at the forefront of one’s mind when talking about these guys. What I think is easy to forget when we read about Feynman’s hijinks and Oppenheimer’s highballs is that these geniuses were applying the entirety of their brains to a very grim job, one they did quite well. It is impossible to imagine the military men thinking up atomic bombs — much less atomic thunderstorms — on their own.

Notes
  1. Cherokee Field Report Bikini Operations, page 10, quoted in Chuck Hansen, The swords of Armageddon: U.S. nuclear weapons development since 1945 (Sunnyvale, CA : Chukelea Publications, 1995), 1307. []
  2. Joseph O. Hirschfelder and J.M. Hubbard to J. Robert Oppenheimer (23 April 1945), Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, Nevada, document NV0123756. []
  3. Joseph O. Hirschfelder to J. Robert Oppenheimer, “Strategic Possibilities Arising if a Thunderstorm is Induced by Gadget Explosion,” (25 April 1945), Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, Nevada, document NV0124031. []
Meditations | Visions

One year of Restricted Data

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

Today, November 7, is the first anniversary of the launching of this site. It’s gone by pretty quickly for me. I think I am allowed to do a meta-blogging post on this day, am I not? Don’t worry, I’ll include a few cool pictures, so you can skip the meta if you want to.

The grooviest Edward Teller graphic, ever? Yes, I bought this on eBay — it’s an AP photo from July 1959. Caption on the back: “Dr. Edward Teller, who played a leading role in the development of both the atom and hydrogen bombs, feels that Russia will be the unquestioned leader in the scientific field in 10 years. He believes that it is inevitable that Russia should take the lead because educating a scientist is a long process and the Soviets currently are training more scientists than the United States. This photo-drawing by AP Newsfeatures artist Dick Hodgins Jr. symbolizes Dr. Teller’s work with the atom and also his many controversies with Congress.”

I started the blog, in part, as a way to stretch out my mental limbs in a public way, having previously spent 7 or 8 years thinking about the history of nuclear weapons in relative isolation (which is to say, in an Ivy-clad cloister). I had hoped that the blog would be a forum for me to interact with new people, especially those from different fields or different vantage points in life, and to also work out — through writing — various little thoughts or preoccupations of mine that had accumulated over the years. It also was meant to be somewhat of an outlet for cool things that really can’t fit into the narrative of the book I am working on. In all of these things, it has been, for me anyway, fairly successful. I have a whole host of new contacts in a variety of communities (and over a fairly wide political range, I’ve found), and I’ve found that blogging regularly has helped me break out of some of overly-academic preoccupations that had been shaping my work and thinking.

As I know some people have noticed, I started with a much heavier blog schedule (three posts a week) and have since stretched that out a bit (one post a week). The initial burst was part of making sure that I really “bought in” to the idea, by investing a lot of my own time into it, and I also wanted to build up a store of content that would give people a pretty clear idea of the sorts of things I was interested in. Lately I’ve slowed it up, both so that I could make some more room in my schedule for other things (like writing that aforementioned book, which is coming along nicely), but also so I could spend a little bit more time on the posts, making them more like short essays than “look at this document/photo” posts. For those who prefer the latter types of posts to the former, don’t worry — I’ll probably start alternating them again when I have a little more time in my schedule. This is post 136.

Original drawing by the late Chuck Hansen showing the assembly of the “Fat Man” nuclear bomb, used as a reference for the more sophisticated technical drawing that appears in his U.S. Nuclear Weapons: The Secret History. From the Chuck Hansen papers, National Security Archive.

By I think any standards, this has been a very positive experience for a new academic blogger, much less an historian of science blogger. (In my heart of hearts, I’d love to call what I do here a form of creative non-fiction, as opposed to “blogging,” but there are conventions.)

Much of the traffic I received was driven not by my sterling content, but by that funny creature, the NUKEMAP. It was not my expectation that it would get so crazy and drive so much traffic to the blog itself, which is still does on a regular basis. Before starting the NUKEMAP, the blog had around 2,600 unique visitors and 9,300 page views which felt very large for someone whose normal audience came from specialist journals and conference talks. Since its launching, the NUKEMAP itself attracted around 1,500,000 unique visitors and over 1,900,000 page views. It’s over 8 million “detonations” by my count this morning.

Of those visitors for the map, a small number go from there to visit the blog. A small number of 1.5 million though is a relatively large number in human terms — over 30,000 people. And some number of those become regular readers. So it’s been a nice “feeder” of traffic into the site, in and of itself, and the blog itself gets around a thousand hits a day as its “normal” traffic, because of this. Which is bananas, even if it is still small potatoes in the world of blogs, much less the world of adorable kittens and puppies on the Internet.

Microphotograph showing alpha tracks from plutonium particles in a sample of crushed ice taken from the site of the 1968 Thule, Greenland, B-52 crash. From “Project Crested Ice: A Joint Danish-American Report on the Crash Near Thule Air Base on 21 January 1968 of a B-52 Bomber Carrying Nuclear Weapons,” (February 1970), page 61.

There have been a few, non-NUKEMAP posts that have been read by a lot of people. Some of these reasons are obvious — i.e., they were featured on NPR or elsewhere — but some of them have been surprises to me. The top non-NUKEMAP posts have been:

  1. Beer and the Apocalypse (9/5/2012) – 17,800 pageviews
  2. Rare Photos of the Soviet Bomb Project (7/27/2012) – 13,400 pageviews
  3. The Sound of the Bomb (7/13/2012) – 11,800 pageviews
  4. Hiroshima at 67: The Line We Crossed (8/6/2012) – 3,800 pageviews
  5. Mortuary Services in Civil Defense (2/29/2012) – 2,900 pageviews
  6. The Faces of Project Y (8/31/2012) – 2,000 pageviews

#1 and #3 were on NPR, so no surprise there. #5 was linked to from #1, so that’s probably its boost. #4 was an anniversary, and people are into those. #6 came with a little app, which helped. But #2 was just pure unadulterated interest in weird photos of the Soviet bomb project, circulated primarily through social media. Pretty neat.

Aside from the very popular ones, here are a list of posts I really enjoyed writing and documents I really enjoyed sharing. I put them here, in no particular order, just in case you missed them (or were new here) and didn’t want to wade through everything:

  1. War from Above, War from Below (1/2/2012)
  2. Edward Teller’s “Moon Shot” (12/12/2011)
  3. Bullseye on Washington (12/30/2011)
  4. Do We Want Another Manhattan Project? (4/2/2012)
  5. Ol’ Blue Eyes (5/4/2012)
  6. What if Truman Hadn’t Ordered the H-bomb Crash Program? (6/18/2012)
  7. Targeting the USSR in August 1945 (4/27/2012)
  8. The First Atomic Stockpile Requirements (5/9/2012)

(Though, if you do want to wade through, I recommend using the Post Archives page, which is arranged via a custom script I wrote to be especially browse-able.)

The mushroom cloud of shot Franklin of Operation Plumbbob rises over a blimp at the Nevada Test Site, June 1957. The shot was a fizzle — only 140 tons of TNT, predicted yield 2 kilotons. From the DOE’s Nevada Site Office. Would it be crass of me to mention that a cleaned-up version of this photo is included in my 2013 Nuclear Testing Calendar? Only $19.99, all (meager) profits support the blog…

Looking over my past posts, I’ve found myself surprised by the themes that I keep coming back to. My academic work, and the aforementioned book-in-progress, is mostly concerned with unearthing the origin of practices and contexts of secrecy. In many ways it is a very traditional historical approach: look for periods of stability, look at what jars them into a periods of uncertainty, then look at what gels it back into a period of stability again. Repeat. It’s interesting stuff to research and write, to be sure — especially since most narratives of nuclear secrecy posit (implicitly or explicitly) a period of general stability from 1939 to the present, which just isn’t what I’ve found. Things have been much more up in the air, much more rocky, much more subject to change than you’d think from reading the “standard narratives” of the bomb. Moreover, there is a delicious little methodological point buried in it: the apparent homogeneity of the nuclear secrecy regime is in fact an artifact of the nuclear secrecy regime — its internal debates, challenges, and fractures were often hidden out of sight.

In my work on the blog, though, what I find myself preoccupied with is recapturing the qualitative experience of the bomb and its people. I’m fascinated with how lost history can be for those of us in the present, and how taking the time to reconstruct it, as it was lived and experienced at the time — and not how it necessarily has been handed down to us in neat, edited narratives of either triumph or disgrace — opens up such a rich, unusual, and often surreal world.

So I’m interested in how nuclear explosions sound, and how people who saw them described them, and how people planning to use them thought they could be really used, how they sketched them on the backs of steno pads, and how they danced across the headlines, and how the people who made them looked, even what color their eyes were, and how hard it is to imagine the size of a mushroom cloud. I am enraptured by the visual content of these times, and what direct access it seems to give us to the eyes of the long dead as they gaze upon horrible maps or bizarre security videos or the emblems of the atomic institutions or even just one another’s hairstyles.

A hauntingly grim painting that I’d love to know more about: “Atomic Landscape (Japanese Burial Detail),” Nagasaki, Japan 1946, by Robert Graham. From the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

I’ve always known that I was interested in such things, as a hobby, but I had never tried writing any of that down before, this obsession with the wonder of it all (to tap a phrase of James Ellroy’s). My enthusiasm for such things is sometimes hard to articulate without me sounding like a madman, because the “such things” in this case are monstrous nuclear weapons or other disturbing legacies of the nuclear age. Some of my early NUKEMAP interviews came off wrong, I felt, for this reason.

But I’ve learned to live with it, in a sense. There’s no point in pretending I don’t find this stuff fascinating, even if it is macabre. I can’t hide it; the answer is not to pretend to be disinterested, but just to try to be more thoughtful. That’s my responsibility, if I don’t want to look like I’m out of my mind, and if I don’t want to trivialize a lot of suffering and potential suffering. The blog has pushed me in that direction very forcefully, and that, at least as much as everything else, has been worth the payoff. One year down — here’s to the next year.

Meditations

Lessons from the Crisis

Friday, November 2nd, 2012

We’re just past the anniversary of the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis, though as Svetlana Savranskaya emphasizes, in various forms the Crisis was still on-going through early December 1962. The missiles were still there, there were still huge numbers of tactical nuclear weapons on the island, and the military forces of the USA and USSR were still wound up and ready to pounce — nuclear war, even accidental nuclear war, was still a very real possibility. The claiming that the Crisis was “over” on October 28 was a publicity move (one well-timed for the 1962 midterm elections as much as anything else).

October 5, 1962: CIA chart, “Reconnaissance Objectives in Cuba.” We’re still looking, in a way. Via the National Security Archive.

Since I last wrote about the Cuban Missile Crisis, I’ve read a few more editorials on it, all from people trying to derive new timely new lessons from the past. Coming up with something that isn’t either entirely wrong-headed or really bland is a hard thing to do. Michael Dobbs can pull it off, but it helps to have already written the definitive book about the Crisis, I imagine.

The Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School has put together a pretty cool website dedicated to the Crisis (and managed to snag a pretty premium URL for it, which I bet they had to buy off of a loathsome cyber-squatter) where, among other things, they hosted a contest for new “lessons.” I was sort of intrigued with the contest idea — you had to write very short lessons (<300 words), and, again, they had to be novel. How many novel lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis can there be, 50 years later?

I tried my hand at it, though I realized immediately after submitting it that I had enough ties, present and past, to the Kennedy School to automatically disqualify me from entering. (Lesson: always read the fine print.) My lesson was also kind of a blatant attempt at both promoting my own topic (nuclear secrecy) while simultaneously trying to one-up the whole idea of the contest by presenting a meta-lesson: a lesson that dictated the means of production of other lessons. Trés academic, I know. Even without the automatic disqualification, I knew that this wasn’t really going to cut it, but it was a fun exercise.

My lesson — in brief — was that unless you peel back the layers of secrecy surrounding historical events, you can’t really figure out what happened there, and thus can’t formulate lessons at all.1 As I said, that’s a little too meta to be satisfying, an attempt to be too clever by half. But there are some things that would be nice to know that are still hidden behind layers of classification. The reasons, as usual, aren’t entirely clear (the weapons systems are no longer in use and the tactics have surely changed considerably since then), but assuming there is a rationale other than the knee-jerk approach to secrecy that happens whenever anything nuclear is on the table, I suspect there are diplomatic relations at issue.

As unimpressed as I was with my own showing, I was terribly impressed with one of the winning “lessons” in particular — and thought it was much more clever than my own. That it was provided by a member of the “general public” is even more satisfying. Here is what Zachary Elias, a Dartmouth sophomore (!) wrote:

Lesson: The Cuban Missile Crisis taught the United States what containment feels like.

The lesson from the crisis is the extent to which containment is terrifying for the country being contained. Because the U.S. had been a global military superpower since the end of World War II, it had never faced an existential threat close to its borders. At the time, U.S. nuclear missiles were stationed in range of Soviet cities as a means of containment — but, for U.S. policymakers, it was unthinkable that the U.S. could end up in a similar position. So, when the USSR decided to raise the stakes by placing its own nuclear missiles in range of American cities, U.S. policymakers were inclined to compromise with the Russians on containment policy — trading nuclear warheads in Turkey for those in Cuba – to lessen the direct military threat posed to each nation by one another.

This is a lesson to keep in mind when deliberating the best means of dealing with rising powers. When making policy concerning the rise of China, for example, one would do well to remember that military containment and antagonism makes the contained country feel threatened, which in turn makes aggression more likely in response to U.S. provocations. It took trust, diplomacy, and compromise to resolve a crisis that was precipitated by military buildup, as dictated by standard realist power calculus. While it is unlikely that China will be able to challenge U.S. power as the USSR did during the Cold War, one should remain cognizant of the fact that surrounding another state with military threats is less likely to spur long-term trust and cooperation – which, in an era of cooperative globalization, is more important than ever.

That is some clever stuff — a wonderful reversal of perspective, one I’ve never really seen laid out quite that way before. Very smart. The Cuban Missile Crisis was when the US really got a glimpse at what it felt like to be “contained.” It wasn’t a nice feeling. It didn’t encourage us to view our “containers” as benevolent and peaceful. We should keep that feeling in mind when we happily talk about containing other nations.

Oct. 27, 1962: “Cuban anti-aircraft gunners open fire on low-level reconnaissance planes over San Cristobal site no. 1.” That is really low-level! Via the National Security Archive.

I had this in mind while I was at a big Cuban Missile Crisis conference at George Mason University last weekend. It was a great conference, better than I had even expected. It was moderated by Martin Sherwin (author of American Prometheus and a nice guy, to boot), who did an excellent job of it. Among those who spoke were a number of veterans of the Crisis: Colonel Buddy Brown (USAF, Ret.), who flew U-2s over Cuba; Dino Brugioni, who worked to analyze the U-2 data; and Lt. Commander Tad Riley (USN, Ret.), who flew F8U-1P Crusade Crusaders over the island’s surface-to-air-missile sites.

The two pilots were fascinating to listen to, and their experiences were surprisingly different. U-2s were high-altitude spy planes, as you know. They required hours of preparation before taking off, including having the pilot spend two hours breathing 100% oxygen to purge all of the nitrogen from his blood, so he wouldn’t get “the bends.” The importance of the pilot’s physiology was key — if his blood pressure was slightly off normal, he would be cut from the mission. The tolerances of flying in such planes at such high altitudes were very small. Everything had to be perfect… except, in Brown’s case, the weather, which was dangerously awful when he took off for Cuba. And while up there, the margin of error was slim. Brown was basically wearing a spacesuit up there, because if he had lost pressurization, his blood would have literally begun to boilBrown also said they primarily used celestial navigation to find out where they were — he was literally using a sextant to figure out where to fly.

As for Riley, his planes had the opposite problem: he was flying a mere 200 feet off the ground… at 500 mph. Which is really nuts if you think about it, navigating solely by maps and visual landmarks. He said it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, since Cuba didn’t have very many power or phone lines. That’s cutting it pretty close. He said that the Cubans would occasionally take pot-shots at such planes, but their equipment was too outdated to hit them. The Soviets on the island had better equipment, but they knew not to fire.

Nov. 5, 1962: “Low-level photography documents loading of Soviet missiles at the main Mariel port facility for return to the USSR. On the dock are vehicles later identified… as nuclear warhead vans.” Via the National Security Archive.

As for analyzing the 6,000 feet of U-2 film that came back from each mission, Brugioni said that it was like going over a roll of film stretching from the White House to the Capitol building with a magnifying glass, looking for things that resembled known installations in the Soviet Union. One interesting point he made was that the reason they (erroneously) didn’t think there were actual nukes on the island was because their baseline was the level of security given to nuclear warheads in the Soviet Union. The nukes on Cuba were barely guarded — just in anonymous vans or barely-attended-to bunkers — so they assumed they must not be nukes. The reason they were so unguarded is not known — that is, whether it was purposeful to avoid scrutiny, or just a different (lax) security standard.

Lastly, there a talk and commentary from Sergei Khrushchev, son of Nikita. He was pretty amazing — he looks just like a slimmer version of this father (in person, the resemblance is uncanny). The spitting image. He spoke with a melodious, article-dropping Russian accent that really gave an authentic touch to everything. At one point, he was asked how he, a rocket scientist in his 20s, felt at the time of the Crisis. He said that he, like most average Soviets (in his view), was not unusually disturbed by it at the time. Why? Because Russia had been living with the “enemy at the gate” for a very, very long time. They whole 20th century, at the very least, had been one long crisis for them. So this was nothing new.

The United States, Khrushchev said, had the luxury of two oceans separating it from the real horror of war and invasion, so its newfound vulnerability during the Crisis affected it much more on a psychological level. He concluded — now imagine this in the aforementioned article-dropping Russian — that “America was like tiger raised in zoo, suddenly released into jungle.” If that’s not a strong take on the situation, I don’t know what is!

Notes
  1. My verbatim lesson:

    Lesson: Government secrecy can cloud our understanding of the past’s lessons.

    The Cuban Missile Crisis continues to be a source of scholarly attention and public interest. The reason for this is clear: as arguably the closest moment the world came to thermonuclear war, it was, and remains, one of the most momentous diplomatic conflicts of human history. Never have the decisions of two men — Kennedy and Khrushchev — held so many lives in the balance.

    And yet, we seem to learn new things about it every year. It was not until 1989 that there was confirmation that Kennedy had agreed to remove the United States’ Jupiter missiles from Turkey as a condition of “the deal” that diffused the Crisis, for example, and this confirmation came during a conference held by a Soviet Union in the throes of glasnost, at that. Of all of the facts to know, this was one of the most important: it showed that one of the unambiguous lessons of the Crisis was that toughness and compromise need not be incompatible, a lesson worth repeating in any age.

    In the decades since the end of the Cold War, the declassification of new sources, including the Oval Office tapes, have greatly enhanced scholarly and public understanding of the Crisis. Is there more to be known, still under official hold, or blacked out by a redactor’s pen? It seems foolish to imagine there is not, but it is not always clear in whose hands some of this information could plausibly be dangerous at this point.

    If historians are to make real sense of the lessons of the past, we must be given the access to study the facts of the past. Until then, we will just be grasping at guesses and official narratives.

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