June: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

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June: This Month in Nuclear Threat History


June 1, 1924 – William Sloane Coffin, a U.S. Army captain, CIA officer, 1960s Freedom Rider, Yale University chaplain after being ordained in the Presbyterian Church (he later received ministerial standing in the United Church of Christ) who became Senior Minister of the Riverside Church in his hometown of New York City, was born on this date.   He opposed the Vietnam and Iraq wars, and as president of SANE/Freeze (which later became Peace Action) he supported the Nuclear Freeze and opposed President Reagan’s space- and land-based strategic missile defense plan referred to as the Strategic Defense Initiative (and as “Star Wars” by the mainstream news media) as well as the nuclear arms race as a whole.  One of his many sermons criticized the abuse of power by political leaders, which still holds true today, “People in high places make me really angry, because they are so callous.  When you see uncaring people in high places, everybody should be as mad as hell.”  In regards to the nuclear threat, he cautioned that we are living in “the shadow of Doomsday.”  Shortly before his death on April 12, 2006, Reverend Coffin founded Faithful Security, a coalition of people of faith committed to working for a world free of nuclear weapons.  (Source:  Marc D. Charney.  “Reverend William Sloane Coffin Dies at 81; Fought for Civil Rights and Against a War.”  New York Times, April 13, 2006.  http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/13/us/13coffin.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.)

June 1, 1996 – President Leonid Kuchma announced that the Ukraine had transferred it last strategic nuclear warhead to the territory of Russia and was nuclear free.  Two other former Soviet republics, Kazakhstan, on April 25, 1995, and Belarus, on November 23, 1996, also became former nuclear weapons states.  Yet another example of nuclear weapons elimination was the unilateral announcement in March of 1993 that South Africa had manufactured seven nuclear warheads but then chose to dismantle them before joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime in July of 1991.  Comments:  These important precedents give hope that not only will smaller nuclear powers agree to eliminate these doomsday devices, but that the U.S. and Russia, in particular, will accelerate dramatically nuclear reductions and pursue global zero initiatives in earnest before the unthinkable happens.  An example would be a unilateral stand down of one squadron of U.S. land-based ICBMs on hair trigger alert status, delaying any possible launch of those missiles by 72 hours or more in order to convince Russia to follow suit and expand the stand down to increasing numbers of these deadly weapons including eventually the entire U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.   (Source:  Jack Mendelsohn and David Grahame, editors.  “Arms Control Chronology.”  Washington, DC:  Center for Defense Information, 2002, pp. 39-40; 67, 71.)

June 3, 1980 – President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was awakened by his military assistant, General William Odom, around 2:30 a.m. and informed that NORAD’s computers had detected a launch of 2,200 Soviet ICBMs heading for U.S. targets.  The incident was one of many so-called “false warnings.”  When early warning radars and satellites could not verify the fictional Soviet first strike, Brzezinski determined that the attack was a false alarm.  Later it was discovered that this doomsday scare was caused by a faulty computer chip – which cost a mere 46 cents.  Comments:  Such false warnings are still possible today although technological verification is more sophisticated and supposedly more foolproof.  It is still true however that the very short response times in nuclear crises, make accidental, unintentional, or unauthorized nuclear warfare a frighteningly real possibility now and in the future.  (Source:  Eric Schlosser.  “Command and Control:  Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety.”  New York:  Penguin Press, 2013, pp. 367-368.)

June 8, 1960 – George Barrett’s article in the New York Times, “Jersey Atom Missile Fire Stirs Brief Radiation Fear,” reported that after a helium tank ruptured at an air defense site in Jackson Township, New Jersey, a fire started which triggered an explosion inside a nuclear shelter for a 10 kiloton BOMARC missile.  After the high explosives were accidentally triggered by the fire, the warhead was discharged from the nose cone of the missile and the nuclear core melted resulting in a plutonium leak.  Although the nuclear warhead did not explode, the entire area was contaminated by the deadly, highly radioactive plutonium core, which was cleaned up at a cost of millions of dollars.  Comments:  This is just one of dozens of acknowledged, as well as a potentially greater number of still classified, nuclear accidents and Broken Arrows that have occurred involving the arsenals of the Nuclear Club nations.

June 14, 1946 – Bernard Baruch, a financier and philanthropist chosen by President Truman to create an “International Atomic Development Authority” (known as “The Baruch Plan”) that would control all phases of the development and use of atomic energy from uranium mining to reactor operations and nuclear weapons research and development, told a gathering of United Nations Atomic Energy Commission representatives at Hunter College gymnasium in the Bronx, “We are here to make a choice between the quick and the dead…We must elect world peace or world destruction.”  Influenced by Manhattan Project scientist Niels Bohr and others, the Baruch Plan proposed to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of sovereign nations by placing them under the supervision of a supranational international entity that would have the power to, as Baruch himself explained, “mete out immediate swift, and sure punishment” to any nation that attempted to acquire nuclear weapons.  Due to opposition from the Soviet Union, the U.S. military, and the American public, the plan never materialized into actuality.  Comments:  However, some parameters of the plan may still have viability in a future Global Zero or near-Global Zero world.  (Source:  Michael Mandelbaum.  “The Nuclear Question:  The United States and Nuclear Weapons, 1946-1976.”  New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1979, pp. 23-34.)

June 17, 1967 – The Chinese conducted their first thermonuclear test when military scientists exploded a three megaton nuclear weapon at the Lop Nor test site only 32 months after their very first nuclear weapons test conducted on October 16, 1964, which measured about 15 kilotons.  In all, a total of 45 nuclear tests were staged by the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with the last one occurring on July 29, 1996.  Although the Chinese conducted fewer tests by far than the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., it still bears responsibility for increased cancer rates, groundwater contamination, and other detrimental health and environmental impacts still plaguing global populations.   Comments:  In the last several years, the PRC has pointed to increased future funding for U.S. and Russian conventional and nuclear weapons as justifying their accelerated military spending on similar weapons systems.  And, in turn, the U.S. and its allies (NATO, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and other ASEAN member states) continue to seek an improved and expanded nuclear umbrella against Chinese and Russian military threats.  Therefore, the unending, dangerously destabilizing nuclear arms race cycle, that many so-called experts claimed ceased to exist after the Cold War ended in 1991, persists into the 21st century.  One failure in this extremely fragile “house of cards” deterrence system could spell global doom.   (Source:  Jack Mendelsohn and David Grahame, editors.  “Arms Control Chronology.”  Washington, DC:  Center for Defense Information, 2002, pp. 10, 18.)

June 24, 2013 – Elbridge Colby reported in the journal The National Interest in an article titled, “Cyberwar:  The Nuclear Option,” that U.S. military and political officials reached a consensus (unfortunately apparently without Congressional debate or extensive agreement by the American public) that in the event of “large-scale, brutally effective cyber attacks on critical elements of U.S. military and civilian infrastructure that would impose significant loss of life and tremendous degradation of our national welfare,” that the United States could credibly retaliate with nuclear weapons against the cyber attacking nation or subnational entity.  Ten days before this article appeared, former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke and Steve Andreasen, one of President Clinton’s top NSC officials, put forth a much more reasoned and sane argument against “the nuclear option” in a Washington Post op ed.  Clarke and Andreasen renounced any nuclear retaliatory responses to cyber attack by arguing that Russia and/or China would probably adopt a similar policy which would increase the chances of a future nuclear conflict.  Comments:  This issue brings to light another related concern.  Would the U.S. or other members of the Nuclear Club resist responding with nuclear strikes on nations or subnational entities responsible for exploding nuclear weapons high above those nation-states (100 miles or more) despite the extensive EMP (electromagnetic pulse) damage inflicted on e-commerce and other elements of the targeted nation’s military and civilian infrastructure?   In the interests of peace and the paramount avoidance of future nuclear conflicts, not to mention the need for public transparency and feedback, the U.S. and other Nuclear Club members should open this matter up to public scrutiny and debate in order to seek broad international consensus opposing nuclear retaliation to EMP or other cyberwar infrastructure attacks as a clear violation of international and humanitarian law.  (Sources:  Elbridge Colby.  “Cyberwar and the Nuclear Option,” The National Interest.  June 24, 2013.  http://www.nationalinterest.org/commentary/cyberwar-the-nuclear-option-8638. and Richard Clarke and Steve Andreasen.  “Cyberwar’s Threat Does Not Justify a New Policy of Nuclear Deterrence.” Washington Post. June 14, 2013.  http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/cyberwars-threat-does-not-justify-a-new-policy-of-nuclear-deterrence/2013/06/14/91c01bb6-d50e-11e2-a73e-826d299ff459_story.html.)

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