Command and Control (2013) by Eric Schlosser is a fantastic non-fiction account of nuclear weapon safety, control issues and nuclear weapons in the US. Schlosser is the author of excellent Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness. He is a superb craftsman of non-fiction.
I remember being in a supermarket in the late 1980s and being scared out of my wits hearing a warning that scientists estimated the probability of nuclear war before the war 2000 at about 50%. Films like The Day After and regular news stories at the time emphasized that hundreds of millions and possibly billions of people could die within hours should a nuclear war take place.
Schlosser’s book looks at a particular incident, that of the puncturing of an oxidiser tank at a Titan II missile base in Arkansas during the late 1970s and uses that to provide a narrative for his story of the US nuclear arsenal, its readiness and safety.
Schlosser writes about how the US nuclear arsenal started as a project of a few brilliant scientists who then became worried about what would happen if weapons were used and who left to return to other physics studies. They were replaced by people who produced better weapons but also didn’t have ideas about safety and control in mind. A series of accidents with nuclear weapons did prompt better safety measures to gradually be built. Quite a few military nuclear accidents still occurred.
The book also describes how neither side had sufficient warning systems and good enough command and control to definitively prevent a decapitation attack that removed their leadership and enough of the static land based ballistic missile. Perhaps only the threat of retaliation from ballistic missile submarines kept the balance given that they would not be destroyed in an attack. Also the risk and numbers of deaths would have been enormous even if everything went according to plan.
Schlosser looks at how each incoming administration would not properly understand the way the US arsenal worked and the protocols involved and would then rapidly become shocked at the dangers involved. Schlosser is also really good at portraying the figures involved. In particular he paints a rounded picture of Curtis LeMay, pointing out that Lemay strongly opposed sending ground troops to Vietnam and praising his courage in leading bombing raids during WWII.
The Epilogue is also well worth reading, there Schlosser points out that despite all the problems with nuclear safety there has never been an accidental nuclear detonation. He also looks at how nuclear weapons in the hands of Israel, Pakistan and India present a new and terrible danger.
This book is excellent. A fine narrative and a fascinating tale are combined by a master of non-fiction. It’s very much worth reading.