The Threat of Nuclear Weapons to America

W.J. Astore

Did you know the U.S. has built nearly 70,000 nuclear weapons since 1945? Did you know the U.S. Air Force lost a B-52 and two hydrogen bombs in an accident over North Carolina in 1961, and that one of those H-bombs was a single safety-switch away from exploding with a blast equivalent to three or four million tons of TNT (roughly 200 Hiroshima-type bombs)?  Did you know a U.S. nuclear missile exploded in its silo in Arkansas in 1980, throwing its thermonuclear warhead into the countryside?

On more the one occasion, the U.S. has come close to nuking itself

That last accident is the subject of a PBS American Experience documentary that I watched last night, “Command and Control.”  I highly recommend it to all Americans, not just for what it reveals about nuclear accidents and the lack of safety, but for what it reveals about the U.S. military.

Here are a few things I learned about U.S. nuclear weapons and the military from the documentary:

  1. During the silo accident, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) general in charge of nuclear missiles was a pilot with no experience in missiles.  His order to activate a venting fan during a fuel leak led to the explosion that destroyed the missile and killed an airman. (Experts from Martin Marietta, the military contractor that built the Titan II missile, advised against such action.)
  2. Airmen who courageously tried against long odds to mitigate the accident, and who were wounded in the explosion, were subsequently punished by the Air Force.
  3. The Air Force refused to provide timely and reliable knowledge to local law enforcement as well as to the Arkansas governor (then Bill Clinton) and senators. Even Vice President Walter Mondale was denied a full and honest accounting of the accident.
  4. Nuclear safety experts concluded that “luck” played a role in the fact that the Titan’s warhead didn’t explode.  It was ejected from the silo without its power source, but if that power source had accompanied the warhead as it flew out of the silo, an explosion equivalent to two or three megatons could conceivably have happened.
  5. Finally, the number of accidents involving U.S. nuclear weapons is far greater than the military has previously reported.  Indeed, even the nation’s foremost expert in nuclear weapons development was not privy to all the data from these accidents.

In short, the U.S. has been very fortunate not to have nuked itself with multiple hydrogen bombs over the last 70 years.  Talk today of a threat from North Korea pales in comparison to the threat posed to the U.S. by its own nuclear weapons programs and their hair-raising record of serious accidents and safety violations.

Despite this record, President Obama and now President Trump have asked for nearly a trillion dollars over the next generation to modernize and improve U.S. nuclear forces. Talk about rewarding failure!

Threatening genocidal murder is what passes for “deterrence,” then and now. This madness will continue as long as people acquiesce to the idea the government knows best and can be trusted with nuclear weapons that can destroy vast areas of our own country, along with most of the world.

To end the insanity, we must commit to eliminating nuclear weapons. Ronald Reagan saw the wisdom of total nuclear disarmament.  So should we all.

An Addendum: In my Air Force career, I knew many missileers who worked in silos. They were dedicated professionals.  But accidents happen, and complex weapons systems fail often in complex and unpredictable ways.  Again, it’s nuclear experts themselves who say that luck has played a significant role in the fact that America hasn’t yet nuked itself.  (Of course, we performed a lot of above-ground nuclear testing in places like Nevada, making them “no-go” places to this day due to radiation.)

Update (4/27/17): I’d heard of Air Force plans to base nuclear weapons on the moon, but today I learned that a nuclear test was contemplated on or near the moon as a way of showcasing American might during the Cold War.  As the New York Times reported,  “Dr. [Leonard] Reiffel revealed that the Air Force had been interested in staging a surprise lunar explosion, and that its goal was propaganda. ‘The foremost intent was to impress the world with the prowess of the United States.’ It was a P.R. device, without question, in the minds of the people from the Air Force.”  Dr. Reiffel further noted that, “The cost to science of destroying the pristine lunar environment did not seem of concern to our sponsors [the U.S. military] — but it certainly was to us, as I made clear at the time.”

The U.S. military wasn’t just content to pollute the earth with nuclear radiation: they wanted to pollute space and the moon as well.  All in the name of “deterrence.”

Two pictures of above-ground nuclear testing in Nevada in 1955

Atom Bomb Blast

Atom Bomb Blast
Here’s a tip, ladies: Wear light-colored dresses during a nuclear war.  They absorb less heat

6 thoughts on “The Threat of Nuclear Weapons to America

  1. A very informative article touching on a subject most people don’t know about. Thanks so much for sharing.


  2. When I was in college in 1969, extra-curricular activity involved searching out and entering the abandoned Atlas silos around the town of Abilene TX. Being less than five years since deactivation, the silos were in great shape and the adventure of finding one that did not have blast doors closed and the entryway sealed by flooding was challenging. Having seen the size of the doors that open to allow the missile to be elevated, I can appreciate the power of the Titan II explosion in Arkansas.

    Per the danger involved, my fear is that a single nuclear detonation for whatever reason would cause such panic that a nuclear conflict could begin in the confusion. Nuclear weapons are here to stay which means that eventually one will go off intentionally or not. I trust that the nuclear powers have some arrangement for a single event to be kept from causing a nuclear war.


    1. Clif: If I may when I worked in SAC Security Forces early Seventies the Term for a Nuclear Accident was the novel term “Broken Arrow” From what I’ve heard they’ve been 32 . A “Dull Sword” is the Air Force term for a minor incident involving Nuclear Weapons for an example: an Accident on the Roadways during one of our armed Nuclear Weapons Security Escorts involving them!. This was in SAC circa. 1973!. I agree the Major Nuclear Powers need to have a better system when these Weapons are on Constant High Alert Status its really just a matter of time…


  3. Heavens! I remember seeing a documentary several years ago about how the US nuclear arsenal was stored and managed and that was frightful enough : lack of oversight concerning the whereabouts of some of the warheads, no reponsible senior staff available in case of a disaster, outdated computers, storage facilities that could not be properly locked etc. But somehow I still thought that these were exceptions and overall ‘surely it would be ok?’. So ‘upgrading’ sounds useful, provided it would concern such management factors – I suppose that destroying the lot is not as simple as it might seem?

    The pictures with the ‘wounded’ mannequins remind of a old German documentary I saw much more recently, about Germans being – literally – shanghaied into the French Foreign Legion in I think the late ’50’s, some of whom witnessed the French nuclear tests in the Sahara. A few veterans claimed – and I rather believe them – that during one of the above-ground test Algerian prisoners were tied to stakes in relative proximity of the explosion, to ‘test its impact’… This of course in addition to the vast human and ecological price paid aby all the regions where such tests were carried out.
    How can all this madness happen? Is it because we stupidly buy into the fiction of superior knowledge, experience and wisdom of too many ‘experts’ who tell us not to worry as they know what’s best for us? Or is it because we have created a political system in which ‘we the people’ have no power whatsoever to stop evident madness, even when we recognize it as such?


    1. It’s both. We defer to “the experts,” and we’ve also stood by as our political system has been co-opted by special interests. I can’t say it any better than Ike did in 1961: the power of the military-industrial complex is immense. And that complex has never met a missile or bomb they didn’t like.


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