On March 4th, 1983, Queen Elizabeth did not give this speech:
“Now this madness of war is once more spreading through the world and our brave country must again prepare itself to survive against great odds.”
It was, however, prepared and ready to be given, following close on the heels of Ronald Reagans “Evil Empire” speech, which raised the stakes in the Great Nuclear Game. The Queen’s speech went on:
“We all know that the dangers facing us today are greater by far than at any time in our long history. The enemy is not the soldier with his rifle nor even the airman prowling the skies above our cities and towns but the deadly power of abused technology.”
It’s a time and a feeling those of us who lived through it remember well, and one that I tried to channel in a story I did earlier this year for the Washington Post Magazine. It was the feeling that we were always 30 minutes from the end of everything. For many of us, that will always remain in the back of our minds. Whenever I’m at REI buying camping gear, I have two uses in mind: 1) Fun family camping! 2) Post-thermonuclear survival.
Today, we don’t think too much about that. A massive, two-sided nuclear strike seems to have receded from the realm of probability. If there is a nuclear strike, it will likely be a small dirty bomb in a big city like Mumbai or Bangkok, or a swift and devastating backlash by the U.S. against a rogue state.
Where will these missiles come from? Right here in the Midwest, where 450 ICBMs are scattered across the great plains. They sit quietly along dirt roads and in cornfields. You can park next to them and peer through the chain link fences at the 90-ton blast doors and the odd arrays of antennas protruding from the ground. I know this because I’ve done it.
Late in the summer of 2012, I drove through North Dakota researching the story I mentioned above. And like you, I assumed those weapons were in good hands. But since then, some alarming revelations have come out about the competence of the people with their fingers on the keys.
Earlier this year, a commander of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base based in Minot complained about “rot” in the force after the unit got a “D” rating on a launch simulator test, and 17 officers were relieved for “dereliction of duty.” Then in August, the 341st Missile Wing in Montana failed a safety and security test and the officer in charge off all 450 nuclear missiles was removed from command.
All of this follows on a 2008 report which found a “a dramatic and unacceptable decline” in the nuclear force, according to James Carroll, a columnist for the Boston Globe. “The land-based ICBMs,” he wrote in a column titled: US nuclear weapons poised for catastrophe, “more than nuclear armed submarines or aircraft, have become the thread from which hangs the sword of accidental holocaust. Fail-safe “right procedures” are the only protection — yet current crews are proving incapable of following those procedures.”
For many people, these revelations were a reminder that these weapons exist at all, let alone that they sit right next to us. But there they are, and they won’t be going anywhere soon. So with that in mind, I’ll leave you with a list of books on both nuclear tourism, the legacy of the cold war, and on the nuclear arsenal that is still out there, waiting:
The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in the American Heartland How we forgot the cold war
A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry
How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey across America