“I had no idea we had so many weapons … what do we need them for?”
– A stunned president Bush, after his first briefing on US nuclear forces
It is the elephant in the room.
And it is a very big elephant, and a very big room.
We are living in a very surreal time, that much we know. Officials would even say, challenging – I would even say, it’s a bit worse than that.
We have a US president who still believes he won the election, despite the fact he clearly lost.
He imagines bizarre conspiracy theories, things that one can’t even comprehend, as proof that the 2020 election was rigged.
Yet there isn’t one iota of evidence to back up President Donald Trump’s claims.
He is, without question, angry, in denial and – most important – vengeful to those who served him, who he thinks let him down.
All in all, it paints a picture of a man who only cares about himself …. not the will of the people, not the country, and not the office of the White House.
A man with his finger on the nuclear trigger.
The exact opposite, in fact, of one president John F Kennedy, who, after a meeting with the Joint Chiefs during the Cuban missile crisis, dominated by gung-ho Air Force General Curtis LeMay, who destroyed Tokyo in a deliberate firebombing – men, women, children, anything that walked – thought they’d all lost their minds.
They had argued for the deployment of nuclear weapons and kept pressing to invade Cuba – an action that could have ended the world.
“These brass hats have one great advantage,” Kennedy told his longtime aide Kenny O’Donnell. “If we … do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.”
“This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich,” a bellicose LeMay had declared, warning that a blockade could lead to war. “In other words, you’re in a pretty bad fix at the present time.”
Kennedy took offense. “What did you say?”
“You’re in a pretty bad fix,” LeMay replied, refusing to back down.
The president masked his anger with a laugh. “You’re in there with me,” he said.
Jack and Bobby, for that matter, would prevail – their dual strategy of a blockade and overtures of peace to Nikita Khrushchev would finally persuade the Soviets to back down.
The US hawks lost – this time.
But Jack would be gone a year later, the victim of a mysterious assassination, one that has yet to be fully resolved in the minds of many Americans.
LeMay would strut around JFK’s body during the Washington, DC, autopsy, smoking his big cigar and telling the coroners what they could do, and what they couldn’t.
It was a moment of glory for old “Iron Pants” LeMay, who would get his Vietnam War – but not a victory.
Perhaps the best depiction, in a movie, of a nuclear accident waiting to happen was the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove.
The film follows a US Air Force SAC commander gone mad, sending an entire B-52 wing to attack the Soviets, as part of Wing Attack Plan R.
The latter an option for US generals, after Washington and other places had gotten pulverized.
Colonel Jack Ripper – one of the main characters in the film played brilliantly by actor Sterling Hayden – like the current US president, believes in mad conspiracy theories. Specifically, that fluoridation was a vast communist conspiracy invading “our bodily fluids.”
This is not a far cry from the bizarre tales being floated on Fox News and by other rabid Republicans to play down Joe Biden’s election victory.
Whether Trump actually believes this nonsense or is just a pathological liar on a sinking ship, we don’t really know, but it is worrying.
And by the way, prior to becoming an actor, Hayden was an operative in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) during World War II, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency.
He completed two overseas deployments working with Partisans in Italy and Yugoslavia. Like Kennedy, who served in the US Navy aboard PT-109, he had seen the face of war.
Today, America’s arsenal of nuclear warheads, which has thousands of times the destructive force of the weapons that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is carried in a metal Zero Halliburton briefcase in a black leather “jacket” that weighs around 20 kilograms.
Known unofficially as the nuclear “Football,” it is portable and hand-carried, and always near the president.
According to The Smithsonian, the Football does not actually contain a big red button for launching a nuclear war.
Its primary purpose is to confirm the president’s identity, and it allows him to communicate with the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon, which monitors worldwide nuclear threats and can order an instant response.
The Football also provides the commander-in-chief with a menu of nuclear strike options – allowing him to decide, for example, whether to destroy all of America’s enemies in one fell swoop or to limit himself to obliterating only Moscow or Pyongyang or Beijing.
Although its origins remain highly classified, the Football can be traced back to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Privately, JFK believed that nuclear weapons were, as he put it, “only good for deterring,” The Atlantic reported.
He also felt it was “insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization.”
Horrified by the doctrine known as MAD (mutually assured destruction), JFK ordered locks to be placed on nuclear weapons and demanded alternatives to the “all or nothing” nuclear war plan.
It was one of JFK’s many paramours, 19-year-old intern Mimi Beardsley, who spent the night of October 27 in his bed, The Atlantic reported.
She witnessed his “grave” expression and “funereal tone,” she wrote in a 2012 memoir, and he told her something he could never have admitted in public: “I’d rather my children be red than dead.” Almost anything was better, he believed, than nuclear war.
Former defense secretary James Schlesinger recalled that in the final days of Richard Nixon’s presidency he had issued an unprecedented set of orders: If the president gave any nuclear launch order, military commanders should check with either him or secretary of state Henry Kissinger before executing them, Politico.com reported.
Schlesinger feared that the president, who seemed depressed and was drinking heavily, might order Armageddon.
Nixon himself had stoked official fears during a meeting with congressmen during which he reportedly said, “I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead.”
Senator Alan Cranston had phoned Schlesinger, warning about “the need for keeping a berserk president from plunging us into a holocaust.”
A recurring complaint of presidents and military aides alike has been that the Football contained too much documentation.
President Jimmy Carter, who had qualified as a nuclear submarine commander, was aware that he would have only a few minutes to decide how to respond to a nuclear strike.
He ordered that the war plans be drastically simplified. A former military aide to president Bill Clinton, Colonel Buzz Patterson, would later describe the resulting pared-down set of choices as akin to a “Denny’s breakfast menu.”
“It’s like picking one out of Column A and two out of Column B,” he told the History Channel.
Which brings us back to America’s current president – a man who many of us will agree should have never held the office.
A classless buffoon who doesn’t even have the sense to allow President-elect Biden to begin important transition meetings — a fact that could cost lives, in the Covid sense, and leave America vulnerable.
Could a man of this eccentric fashion put an end to the world as we know it? One single US nuclear submarine could easily leave China a burning cinder.
The answer is … let’s hope and pray we never find out.
According to a study of projected destruction from attacks by Russian forces published by the Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), collateral damage to the US was calculated for two thermonuclear attack scenarios:
First, with 2,000 Russian warheads believed to be on high alert status; and second, a future Russian force of 500 warheads targeted in response to the deployment of a US National Missile Defense (NMD) system.
The first scenario would cause 52 million prompt fatalities, 9 million injuries, and massive destruction of US health facilities.
The second scenario produces more than 100 million casualties. Even with an effective NMD system – defined as capable of successfully intercepting more than 100 warheads –nearly 70 million fatalities would occur.
(Sources: The Atlantic, The Smithsonian, Politico.com, JFK Museum and Library, The Guardian and Wikipedia)