After Joseph Stalin's death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev emerged as the new leader of the Soviet Union. To counter the superiority of the United States strategic bomber forces, Khrushchev immediately ordered the development of nuclear ballistic missiles based on Nazi V2 rocket technology captured by the Red Army during World War II. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first orbiting satellite named Sputnik into space and demonstrated their ability to conduct a nuclear attack on the United States with long-range missiles. The United States responded with the development of its own Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) capable of striking the Soviet Union. As missile technology evolved, atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons continued. During this time, other nations, including Great Britain, China and France, also developed and tested their own atomic weapons. In 1962, Nikita Khrushchev secretly deployed offensive nuclear missiles to communist Cuba that were capable of reaching the United States; which resulted in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even though the crisis was diffused by shrewd diplomacy from both sides, the nuclear arms race continued to accelerate. By the end of the 1970’s, the United States and the Soviet Union had stockpiled enough nuclear weapons to destroy every city on earth many times over. Finally, several nuclear weapons limitation treaties were reached between the superpowers that began to ease Cold War tensions and eventually slowed the nuclear arms race. ATOM DAYS shows us just how close we came to a nuclear war during the height of the Cold War and also reveals numerous accidents that occurred from the deployment and testing of nuclear weapons.
By the end of 1955, the Soviet Union had a small number of thermonuclear bombs and a small force of long-range TU-4 “Bull” bombers that had been reverse engineered and copied from the U.S. B-52 and were capable of reaching the American continent on one-way missions. Unlike the United States however, overall Soviet atomic air force capabilities were still very primitive. Faced with the overwhelming superiority of the United States Air Force, the Soviets began to focus their attention on developing missiles built on technology of the German V2 rocket program captured at the end of World War 2. The V2 rocket, develop by the brilliant German scientist Werner Von Braun for the Nazi secret weapons program, was the world's first ballistic missile. It was capable of reaching the upper atmosphere carrying a large warhead of explosives and then descend on a target hundreds of miles away. Late in World War II, V2 rockets had been fired at cities in Great Britain and caused significant casualties. At the time, the V2 was deployed by Nazi Germany in too few numbers and too late to effect the outcome of the World War II. At the time, the V2 only served as a weapon of terror due to its primitive guidance system and targeting ability. However, the design paved the way for the development of the world's most dangerous nuclear weapons.
During the invasion of Europe, both the Soviet Union and the United States had captured V2 rocket launching facilities. Immediately following the war, the Soviet Union began to reverse engineer this technology. By the early 1950s the soviets had developed short and medium range ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear warheads. While the guidance systems were initially very limited, arming them with a nuclear warhead made them an effective strategic weapon politically. In an attempt to alleviate tensions between the two nations Eisenhower and Khrushchev met at Geneva for their first summit conference in 1955. Eisenhower suggested to Khrushchev that both countries allow reconnaissance missions over each other's territory so each side would know the others nuclear arms capabilities and therefore reduce the threat of an arms race. Khrushchev rejected the idea, complaining it would be like "seeing into our bedrooms".
(The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis, pp. 68-70)
By the time of the Geneva summit meeting, the United States had begun the development of its own missile programs. While the Soviets began developing missiles immediately after the war, the United States had more advanced technology and quickly surpassed Soviet missile systems in numbers and accuracy. In addition, after World War II the United States had recruited German scientist Werner von Braun as the scientific leader of its rocket programs. Werner Von Braun played a key role in the development of United States missile weapons systems and eventually became the architect of the American space program. The development of the United States missile weapon systems were divided into two types: long-range surface to surface, offensive missile systems with nuclear warheads - which would become known as “Strategic Defense” Intercontinental Ballistic missiles (ICMB’s), and defensive surface-to-air (SAM) anti-aircraft missiles.
In 1953, the U.S. Army Nike-Ajax surface-to-air missile system became the first operational missile system deployed against bomber attack The first generation of the missile had a range of 30 miles and was armed with a conventional high explosive warhead. The Nike-Ajax missile replaced key Army Anti Aircraft Command (ARAACOM) artillery installations in the continental U.S., and were renamed to Army Air Defense Command (AADCOM). By 1958, there were 200 Nike-Ajax batteries in place defending key military installations and nuclear material production centers. That same year The United States and Canada formed the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which assumed operational control of AADCOM and other U.S. and Canadian air defense commands.
(U.S. Strategic and Defensive Missile Systems 1950-2004 by Mark A. Berhow, pp. (7-18)
Up to this time, only volatile liquid propellants were powerful enough to launch large missile payloads. Due to the combustible and corrosive nature of the chemical mixture, the propellant had to be added to the missile prior to launch or frequently replaced if stored in the missile. By the late 1950s, it was discovered that adding aluminum powder as an oxidizer to solid rocket fuel made it powerful enough to replace liquid fuel systems. Solid rocket propellants were much safer and could be stored in missiles thereby eliminating pre-launch fueling delays. Even prior to the deployment of the Nike-Ajax system the U.S. Army began to develop the improved Nike-Hercules that used a solid propellant for both its booster and sustainer rockets and incorporated improved radar targeting systems. The Nike-Hercules also had increased range and could be armed with a nuclear warhead capable of destroying whole squadrons of bomber formations rather than a single aircraft. By 1958, Nike-Ajax sites began to be converted to use the Nike-Hercules missile system.
(U.S. Strategic and Defensive Missile Systems 1950-2004 by Mark A. Berhow, pp. 20-21)
The Soviet Union launched the world's first orbiting satellite named
Sputnik on October 4, 1957. The satellite was launched into space with an R-7 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Armed with missile technology, Khrushchev began to publicly threaten the United States and her western allies with nuclear annihilation, claiming that the Soviet Union could hit any American or European city of his choosing. Khrushchev later admitted he had exaggerated and his son Sergei was quoted as saying "We threatened with missiles we didn't have". Nevertheless, Sputnik created fear of a possible "Missile Gap" in American public, political and military sectors and forced the United States to accelerate its own missile programs.
(The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis, pp. 68-69)
The United States development of a long-range missile system had initially favored air breathing jet propelled winged missiles rather than ballistic missiles. These systems were short-lived but would later provide a foundation for the development of the modern Cruise Missile. Ballistic missile development superseded jet propelled missiles in the early 50s due to their superior strategic value. Ballistic missiles were fired into a parabolic trajectory outside the Earth's atmosphere and then would descend to its predetermined target giving a missile enormous range. In 1954, the U.S. Air Force began developing the 82-foot Atlas missile powered by three pressurized liquid fueled rocket engines. It had a range of 5,500 nautical miles and traveled at a the speed of 16,000 mph. its guidance system was capable of delivering its 4.5 megaton nuclear warhead within two-miles of its designated target. After several development revisions the Atlas missile was first deployed on open launch pads at Vandenberg Air Force Base in 1959. Full squadron deployments began in early 1960 with the missiles being stored horizontally in a vulnerable launch building that had a retractable roof which was pulled back to allow the missiles to be raised, fueled and fired. Each launch complex had three missiles controlled by a guidance facility. Due to the vulnerability of the system, launch complexes were spread 20 or 30 miles apart. Later versions of the Atlas systems were housed in semi-hardened structures but the missiles still needed to be stored horizontally and fueled prior to launch.
(U.S. Strategic and Defensive Missile Systems 1950-2004 by Mark A. Berhow, pp. 37-39)
During the production and deployment phases of the Atlas Missile system, the Air Force also began developing the Titan missile as an improvement over the Atlas design. The Titan was the first U.S. two stage liquid fuel rocket. It had a range of 6,300 miles and carried a 4.5-megaton thermonuclear warhead. Titan I missiles were housed in underground reinforced silos designed to survive a nearby atomic blast. The Titan was fueled with a liquid oxygen propellant oxidizer in its underground silo and was then elevated above ground to be launched. In 1959, a non-cryogenic liquid propellant was introduced into the Titan II missile that eliminated the pre-fueling procedure. Titan II silos were designed with a flame deflector and venting ducts that ran alongside the silo and allowed the missile to be launched from underground. The Titan II had an increased range of 9,300 nautical miles and could deliver an enormous 9-kiloton thermonuclear warhead. It also employed an improved inertial guidance system that eliminated the need for ground-based radar guidance and allowed Titan II's to be widely disbursed in individual silos which were less vulnerable to preemptive nuclear strike. Enormous subterranean control complexes that housed their operational crews, guidance systems and support facilities were required for both the Titan I and Titan II missile systems.
(U.S. Strategic and Defensive Missile Systems 1950-2004 by Mark A. Berhow, pp. 40-42)
Long before the development of the Nike system, The U.S. Air Force had begun research for a competing surface-to-air defensive missile system. Plagued by a long and difficult testing program, the BOMARC interceptor missile did not become operational until 1961. The BOMARC was the predecessor to the cruise missile and flew like a plane with a ram jet engine after being launched by a liquid rocket fuel booster. It had a range of 230 nautical miles and could carry either a conventional or nuclear warhead. Once in range of its target, an internal homing radar took over and guided the missile on its course. The BOMARC suffered from the same problems as all liquid fueled rockets. A key component of defensive missile systems was an integrated radar net, which was eventually deployed along coastal systems as well in Canadian territory to provide an early warning system of an impending attack. Later, early warning system developments by the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air command (SAC) included an extension of the system from the North American continent into the Arctic Circle as well as territories in Europe and US controlled islands in the Pacific. Antiaircraft missile systems in the United States were eventually replaced by anti-ballistic missile systems (ABMs) as it became apparent that the Soviet Union was placing emphasis on offensive ICBM weapon systems rather than long-range bomber aircraft forces.
(U.S. Strategic and Defensive Missile Systems 1950-2004 by Mark A. Berhow, pp. 20-29)
In 1958, President Eisenhower implemented a voluntary moratorium on the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons due to objections to the hydrogen bomb tests in the Marshall Islands by the International community and grave warnings from his scientific advisors. Eisenhower was aware of the environmental implications of sustained atmospheric testing. He also realized that ongoing testing would continue to fuel the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. Despite Khrushchev's nuclear missile saber rattling, he also listened closely to advice from scientists about the dangers of continued atmospheric nuclear weapons testing and caused the United States to promote a ban on such testing soon thereafter. For a moment, it appeared that there might be hope to control the unabated proliferation of the Atom. Unfortunately, this hope would be short-lived. By 1956, the United States had developed a new reconnaissance aircraft known as the U-2, that was capable of flying heights well above the range of Soviet fighters or antiaircraft missiles.
Between 1956 and 1960, the United States routinely flew reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union and took high-resolution photos of its suspected missile sites and military installations. The classified photography confirmed the limited size and capability of the Soviet long-range bomber aircraft force as well as the nonexistence of the number of Intercontinental ballistic missiles that Khrushchev claimed to have. By 1959, the Soviet Union had only six long-range missile sites in operation. U-2 Reconnaissance also showed that each missile site took nearly 20 hours to fuel and ready for launch leaving them extremely vulnerable to attack from United States Air Force bombers stationed in Europe. Khrushchev was well aware of the United States U2 missions and as a result prioritized the development more sophisticated antiaircraft missiles.
(The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis, pp. 70-72)
With the availability of reliable solid fuel rocket systems, the Air Force began development of the Minuteman ICBM system in 1958. This revolutionary missile was a smaller three-stage rocket that was less expensive to build and maintain. The Minuteman was designed so that its silos would be unmanned and linked electronically to a central control center. The Minuteman was successfully tested in 1961. The new missile program was rapidly implemented using prefabricated components and standardized construction methods and quickly replaced the obsolete Atlas and Titan I missile systems. Despite the development of the Peacekeeper missile a decade later, later improvements to the Minuteman system which included the addition of multiple warheads, would make it the primary land-based ICBM of the United States for the remainder of the 20th Century.
(U.S. Strategic and Defensive Missile Systems 1950-2004 by Mark A. Berhow, pp. 43-44)
The United States Navy launched the first ballistic missile nuclear submarine; the USS “George Washington” in 1959. Under the direction of Admiral Hyman Rickover, the Navy had developed pressurized water nuclear reactors small enough to power submarines by the early 1950s. The first true nuclear powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, was launched in 1954. Thereafter, the U.S. Navy began development of nuclear submarines that could carry missiles. By adopting solid fuel rocket technology, the Navy developed the "Polaris" Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile's (SLBMs) between 1957 and 1958. Prior to the availability of nuclear propulsion, submarines were primarily surface ships that ran on diesel engines and could run submerged for short periods of time under battery power. Nuclear powered submarines could remain submerged continuously. The Polaris missile system could be launched with pressurized gas from silos on the George Washington class submarine while it was completely submerged. Once the missile broke through the surface of the water the solid fuel rocket propellant ignited and propelled the missile to its target. The George Washington class nuclear submarine could carry 16 Polaris ballistic missiles. The marriage of the nuclear propelled submarine and solid rocket fuel ballistic missiles created the most deadly weapon system ever developed. Ballistic missile submarines, or "Boomers", could travel the oceans with stealth and attack targets nearly anywhere in the world. The first Polaris missile (A-1) successfully tested in 1960 only had a maximum range of roughly 1200 nautical miles but later SLBMs, including improved Polaris, Poseidon and Trident submarine ballistic missile systems had much greater range and allowed nuclear submarine launched missiles to hit nearly any land target from the safety of international waters. U.S. Navy submarines, became the third component of the United States strategic "Triad" of offensive nuclear weapons, which complemented U.S. Air Force bomber squadrons, and land-based ICBMs.
(Encyclopedia of the Atomic Age by Rodney P. Carlisle; Editor, pp. 201, 223, 322)
In addition to the military and civilian personnel at stationed at the Nevada Proving Grounds, civilian populations of surrounding communities, such as St. George Utah, were also unknowingly contaminated by radioactive fallout. St. George was located 135 miles from the Nevada Proving grounds, and had a population of approximate 5000 people at this time. The town was directly in the path of the prevailing winds blowing from the test site. The city of Las Vegas was less than 70 miles to the south, but the prevailing winds rarely carried radioactive fallout in that direction. In total, some 100,000 “Downwinders” lived under the canopy of radioactive fallout created from the Nevada test site. The majority of the people in these rural areas of Nevada were Mormons and followed a strict lifestyle and avoided cancer-causing substances such as alcohol and tobacco. They drank milk from their own cows and water from their own wells and most women from these families breast-fed their babies. A large portion of these inhabitants grew and ate food from their own gardens and spent most of their time outdoors. In the late 1950s, people in these surrounding areas began to experience unusually high incidences of cancer and leukemia. Prior to the testing of Atomic weapons in Nevada, leukemia had been virtually unknown in these populations and in many cases local doctors misdiagnosed the disease because they had never seen it before.
In 1960, four teenagers died of the disease in Parowan Utah. The village had a population of only a few hundred individuals. Statistically, only four persons out of a population of 200,000 would contract fatal cases of leukemia. In Washington, Utah a small town with only 450 residents suffered six leukemia deaths by 1960. In Bunkerville, Nevada, more than half of the town's population contracted some form of cancer over a five-year period. In addition to the many indigenous victims of fallout from atomic testing in Nevada were the members of the cast and crew of the John Wayne movie, “The Conqueror”, which was shot on location outside St. George Utah. Of the 220 people involved in making the movie over a three-year period at this location, 92 died of cancer by 1983; including John Wayne, Susan Hayward and director Dick Powell. Concerned citizens of Utah and Nevada were eventually supported by several well-recognized scientists, including future Nobel laureates that warned of the effects of low-level radiation caused by radioactive fallout from atmospheric testing. Dr. Linus Pauling warned that the effects of radiation were far worse and more widespread in the AEC acknowledged. In 1957, he indicated that more than 10,000 people had probably contracted leukemia in areas surrounding the Nevada test site. In 1958, Dr. Pauling stated that the tests would ultimately produce about one million seriously defective children and would cause millions of people to suffer from hereditary diseases. Another Nobel Laureate, Dr. Hermann Müller, stated that he feared the testing that had already occurred would cause worldwide irreversible genetic damage to all human populations. Dr. Andrea Sakharov, the inventor of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, admitted that the fallout from nuclear tests in the atmosphere would claim approximately 1000 lives for every megaton detonated. Based on his reasoning, over half a million people might have already been given a death sentence by the long-term effects of the 585 Megatons of Atomic weapons detonated into the atmosphere by 1958.
Victims of Atomic testing in Nevada had little recourse in the United States legal system. Despite the fact that it was common knowledge amongst the scientific community that high levels of radiation causes cancer, it is almost impossible to prove a direct link between Atomic testing and cancer deaths. In addition, because the AEC was conducting Atomic tests for national defense reasons, it has consistently used the defense of Sovereign Immunity when faced with legal suits in opposition to such tests. Sovereign Immunity dates back to the principles established under the rule of King's in medieval England. In essence it states: "that the king can do no wrong". Over the years, it has been the basis for legal defenses that immunize the United States government from liability surrounding its authorization of the atmospheric testing of Atomic weapons based on the argument that the government was acting in the interests of the National Defense and the well being for the overall population. In 1946, the Federal Tort Claims Act established that civilians could sue the government, but its provisions made it nearly impossible for an individual to win a court case against a government agency involved in nuclear weapons testing.
(They Never Knew by Glenn Cheney, 71-89)
On February 13, 1960 France exploded its first nuclear device in the Algerian Sahara with a yield of between 60 and 70 kilotons and became the fourth nuclear armed nation. With no native petroleum and only limited coal reserves, France was importing much of its energy needs by 1953. France had created an Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) immediately following World War II with a focus on developing nuclear energy for civilian purposes, in hopes of becoming energy independent. In 1958 Charles De Gaulle, leader of the Free French during World War II, became President of the Fifth Republic of France. De Gaulle feared that the United States would make unilateral decisions about the deployment and use of nuclear weapons in Europe and decided to pursue an Atomic weapons program to provide France with an independent nuclear weapons capability to autonomously protect its national interests. Beginning in 1961, France conducted several more atmospheric and underground nuclear tests and by 1966 had developed a limited strategic nuclear weapons capability.
(Encyclopedia of the Atomic Age by Rodney P. Carlisle; Editor, p. 107)
On May 1, 1960, a U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union. Powers had been able to eject from the aircraft but he was subsequently captured along with the reconnaissance photography from the plane wreckage and tried for espionage. Ironically, the United States was about to launch its first reconnaissance satellite and had already confirmed the Soviet Union's limited ICBM capabilities. Thus, Gary Powers mission was to be the last reconnaissance flight of the U2 over the Soviet Union. Eisenhower had ordered the mission to obtain the most up-to-date information possible on Soviet nuclear capabilities prior to his planned summit meeting with Khrushchev on May 15 in Paris. Khrushchev used the incident to create a political crisis and walked out of the Paris summit meeting after Eisenhower refused to apologize for the incident. Gary Powers was convicted of espionage and sentenced to three years in prison and seven years of hard labor. Twenty-one months into his sentence, Powers was released in a spy exchange for a senior Soviet KGB colonel named Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher (AKA Rudolph Able), who was serving a thirty-year sentence for espionage in the United States. Khrushchev had seen the high-resolution photography from the downed spy plane and realized that the United States knew of his limited long-range missile capabilities. At this juncture however, the Soviet Union did possess a large number short and intermediate range missiles, which were armed with their first generation nuclear warheads. These missiles could easily reach many western European nations on or close to the Soviet border and Khrushchev began to deploy them strategically.
(The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis, pp. 72-74)
In his farewell speech, President Eisenhower warned the American public of the far-reaching implications of what he called the "Industrial Military Complex". In this address, Eisenhower originally intended the warning to be phrased as the " Industrial-Military-Scientific Complex" but his scientific advisor successfully pleaded to him to have the term "Scientific" removed from the speech. The Cold War, coupled with the buildup of military forces in response to the Soviet threat had resulted in an arms race that was now being supported and advanced by the privatization of the development of weaponry for the United States military by American corporations. Ironically, Eisenhower's early policies were partly responsible for this. His successor, John F. Kennedy, entered office in 1961 and inherited a tense climate of relations between United States and the Soviet Union as well as the threat of a global communist movement armed with the atom.
In January of 1959, Fidel Castro’s communist guerrilla forces overthrew Cuba’s authoritarian regime of General Fulgencio Batista, after several years sporadic of guerrilla fighting. In April of 1961, President Kennedy authorized the infamous "Bay of Pigs" invasion of Cuba by armed Cuban exiles opposed to Castro under the direction of the CIA to overthrow Castro's regime. The CIA underestimated the strength and resolve of Castro’s forces and the invasion was a complete failure. Most of the invading Cuban exiles were either killed or captured and the supporting CIA backed insurgents were forced to retreat. After another poorly handled summit conference between Khrushchev and Kennedy the worlds only two Super Powers, Khrushchev authorized East Germany to construct the Berlin Wall separating the former German Capital, in an attempt to stop the exodus of East Berlin citizens into the western portion the divided city. In addition, Khrushchev also went one step further and resumed atmospheric nuclear testing with a series of Atomic weapons tests which included a 57 Megaton Hydrogen Bomb, detonated on October 30, 1961; This was the largest nuclear device ever exploded in the 20s century.
In response to the Soviet tests, the United States resumed atmospheric nuclear testing in the Pacific at Johnson island beginning with “Operation Dominic”. The operation consisted of 36 detonations of new, compact Atomic and Thermonuclear warheads developed for the nation's new missile programs. The operation included high altitude detonations many of which failed and were prematurely detonated in flight, spewing radioactivity over a wide areas of the Pacific Ocean. Within a span of two years, the progress that had been made to slow the arms race had been undone.
(Encyclopedia of the Atomic Age by Rodney P. Carlisle; Editor pp. 231)
With his power now consolidated, Fidel Castro declared Cuba a Socialist Republic and made an ally of Nikita Khrushchev fearing a full-scale invasion by the United States. Despite the fact that the Soviet Union had little to do with the success of the Cuban revolution, Khrushchev, had been surprised and elated with it’s success and decided to support the regime militarily in an effort to protect Cuba from future aggression by the United States and hopefully help the spread of additional communist revolutions throughout Latin America. By 1961, the United States had deployed 15 Jupiter Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles in Turkey as a defensive measure against Soviet communist aggression in Eastern Europe. Khrushchev had publicly expressed anger at the Turkish missile deployment and decided the Soviet Union should deploy intermediate range nuclear missiles of its own to Cuba in response to those in Turkey that threatened Soviets cities. While this seemed a rational strategy to Moscow, it came to be perceived by the Kennedy administration of the United States as a lead-up to a preemptive nuclear strike. Later historical review suggests that Khrushchev might have sent the missiles to Cuba primarily as a tactical means of deterrence. Historians continue to debate whether Khrushchev had allowed his ideological pride for Cuba's revolution to overwhelm his strategic reasoning in the decision.
(The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis, pp. 75-77)
In August of 1962, A U2 reconnaissance mission over Cuba photographed the construction of surface to air missile bases (SAMS). On September 4, Senator Robert Kennedy met with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to expresses concerns about possible Soviet weapons in Cuba. The Ambassador assured Senator Kennedy that the Soviet military presence was not significant. On September 11, the Soviets stated that there was no need for the distribution of nuclear weapons outside the Soviet Union including Cuba. On the same day Khrushchev sent a personal message to President Kennedy stating there would be no offensive weapons deployed to Cuba. Despite these public assurances, the Soviets had already secretly deployed the first shipment of nuclear-armed SS-4 medium-range ballistic missiles to Cuba on September 8. The Soviets were by then already in the process of constructing six SS-4 sites and three SS-5 missile sites for a total of 40 launchers that would increase the Soviet Union's nuclear first strike capacity against United States by 70%. On October 14, 1962, a U2 flight clearly showed an SS-4 launch site under construction.
On October 16th, President Kennedy called a meeting of his Executive Council that included 14 key members of the Government and Armed Forces, including his brother Robert Kennedy. Three possible actions were considered; air strikes to destroy the missiles, a full-scale invasion of Cuba, or a blockade of the island. The armed forces Joint Chiefs of Staff voted that a full-scale invasion was the best solution, but Kennedy disagreed. "They, no more than we, can let these things go by without doing something. They can't, after all their statements, permit us to take out their missiles, kill a lot of Russians, and then do nothing. If they don't take action in Cuba, they certainly will in Berlin." Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, recommended a blockade of the island as a strong but limited action that would allow the United States to maintain control of the situation. On October 17, President Kennedy met with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, who still claimed that there were no offensive weapons being placed in Cuba and that the Soviets were simply involved in defensive military operations. Two days later a U2 flight showed that missile sites had now been made operational.
At 7 p.m. on October 22, 1962 President Kennedy delivered a nationally televised address announcing the discovery of the missile installations and issued an ultimatum to the Soviet Union. The following are excerpts from that address:
"First…To halt this offensive buildup a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated…Second…I have directed the continued and increased close surveillance of Cuba and its military buildup…Third…It shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union…Fourth…As a necessary military precaution, I have reinforced our base at Guantanamo…Fifth…We are calling tonight for an immediate meeting of the Organization of Consultation under the Organization of American States, to consider this threat to hemispheric security and to invoke articles 6 and 8 of the Rio Treaty…Sixth…Under the Charter of the United Nations, we are asking tonight that an emergency meeting of the Security Council be convoked without delay…Seventh and finally…I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations.”
The following day, worldwide United States military forces were put on a DEFCON 3 alert and within 24 hours, 180 United States warships were mobilized and deployed to Cuba to implement a naval blockade of the island and prevent any further deployment of Soviet weapons. While several ships en route that day from the Soviet Union to Cuba, reportedly turned around, Khrushchev claimed that the blockade was a illegal and ordered other ships to bypass the quarantine. On October 24, Khrushchev sent a telegram to President Kennedy stating "if you coolly weigh the situation which has developed, not giving way to passions, you will understand that the Soviet Union cannot fail to reject the arbitrary demands of the United States", and that the Soviet Union views the blockade as an "act of aggression" and our ships will be instructed to ignore it. That evening, for the first time in its history the U.S. Strategic Air Command was ordered to go to DEFCON 2.
At 1:45 a.m. on October 25th, Kennedy responded to Khrushchev indicating that United States had been forced to mobilize the blockade after falsely being reassured by Soviet diplomats and Khrushchev himself that no offensive missiles were being placed in Cuba. He also indicated. “I hope that your government will take the necessary action to permit the restoration of the earlier situation". That morning, Walter Lippman, an influential columnist printed an article suggesting a face saving trade-off to end the crisis. He suggested that in exchange for the Soviet Union's removal of the missiles from Cuba that the United States would remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey. This proposal had already been considered by the Executive Committee a few days earlier and US Ambassador to Turkey, George Ball, was in the process of working out the political implications of this option. By 5 p.m., US intelligence reported that the missile sites in Cuba were still actively being prepared. Kennedy issued security action memorandum 199, which authorized nuclear weapons to be loaded onto aircraft under the command of The Supreme Allied Commander of Europe (SACEUR) to be ready for air strikes against the Soviet Union. In addition, he also ordered the executive committee and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to prepare a full-scale invasion of Cuba if the blockade and diplomatic measures failed to resolve the crisis. "National security must come first...we can't negotiate with a gun at our head... if they won't remove the missiles and restore the status quo, we will have to do it ourselves."
The following day, Aleksander Fomin, who was known to be the KGB station chief in Washington, requested a lunch meeting with John Scalia of ABC news. Fomin unofficially suggested that there might be an acceptable resolution. If the United States publicly pledged never to invade Cuba again, the Soviets might be persuaded to remove their military presence from the island under UN supervision and that Castro would publicly announce not to accept such weapons in the future. That evening, another communiqué from Khrushchev was received by several sections of the State Department. The long and highly emotional message reiterated Fomin's suggestion to Scalia..." I propose: we, for our part will declare that our ships bound for Cuba are not carrying any armaments. You will declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its troops and will not support any other forces that might intend to invade Cuba. Then the necessity of the presence of our military specialists in Cuba will disappear."
In Cuba, Castro was convinced invasion was eminent. Drunk and unaware of Khrushchev's message to Kennedy he dictated a letter that called for a atomic strike on the United States. He also ordered anti-aircraft weapons in Cuba to fire on U.S. aircraft. At 6 a.m. on October 27, 1962, Cuban intelligence indicated that six of the missile sites were now fully operational. At 9 a.m., contrary to his letter of the previous evening, Radio Moscow broadcast a message from Khrushchev that stated the missiles in Cuba would be removed in exchange for the removal of the United States missiles in Turkey. At 11 a.m. a new communication arrived from Khrushchev that stated "you're disturbed because Cuba is 90 miles by sea from the coast the United States of America, yet you have placed destructive missile weapons...in Turkey, literally next to us... I therefore make this proposal: we are willing to remove from Cuba the means, which you regard as offensive..., your representatives will make a declaration to the fact that the United States... Will remove its analogous means in Turkey.” Shortly after the message was received a U2 flight was shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile over Cuba. At 4 p.m., Kennedy’s Executive Committee reconvened to consider a possible offer to trade away the missiles. The Turkish government and members of the committee were opposed to the trade stating that it would set a precedent that would undermine the safety of western European nations. After deliberation, Kennedy and the Executive Committee decided to publicly ignore Khrushchev's second message and agreed to accept his first offer that was received the night before. As Kennedy prepared his letter to Khrushchev, it was made known to the Soviets through another meeting by Scalia and Fomin that the invasion of Cuba was eminent. The following day Kennedy's letter was delivered in which he stated he would publicly promise never to invade Cuba again in exchange for the removal of the Soviet missiles from the island. In addition to this pledge, Kennedy also secretly promised Khrushchev that the US missiles from Turkey would be removed.
At 9 a.m. on October 28, Radio Moscow broadcast a new message from Khrushchev which stated “the Soviet government, in addition to previously issued instructions on the cessation of further work at the building sites for the weapons, has issued a new order for the dismantling of the weapons which you describe as offensive...and their return to the Soviet Union.” Kennedy responded calling Khrushchev's message “an important and constructive contribution to peace”. During the standoff, the United States and Soviet Union's full compliment of conventional and nuclear forces had been mobilized for all out war. It was the closest the two superpowers ever came to using nuclear weapons against one another and demonstrated how easily the poor political judgment of the leaders of nuclear-armed nations could potentially lead to global Armageddon. The crisis resulted in the installation of a “hotline”, a direct telephone connection between the White House and Moscow so any future crisis between the nations could be discussed directly. After the crisis, Khrushchev was internally criticized for acquiescing to the United States and this eventually led to his removal as premier the Soviet Union. By the end of 1962, The United States had several times the number of Atomic and Thermonuclear weapons available to the Soviets. Based on new reconnaissance evidence from satellite imagery, the Kennedy administration had known, despite Khrushchev’s threats, that the Soviet Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capabilities were still very limited. The Soviet ICBM program had suffered a major setback in 1960 when an R-16 ICBM exploded during a launch test and killed the majority of the program's technical team. At the time of the crisis the Soviets still only possessed six fully operational land-based long-range ICBM launch sites and roughly 100 short and medium range primitive Cruise Missiles that could threaten either the Continental United States or its military forces in Europe and Asia that could only be launched from a surfaced submarine. By contrast the United States had over 300 land-based ICBMs that could strike Soviet territory and a fleet of submarines that could launch Polaris missiles fully submerged from various coastal positions throughout the world.
(The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis, pp. 77-78)
(Encyclopedia of the Atomic Age by Rodney P. Carlisle; Editor, p. 341)
The Cuban missile crisis had generated a variety of repercussions both politically and militarily that would dominate strategic thinking by the superpowers for years thereafter. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara immediately began to rethink his policy of "Flexible Response", by which future wars might be fought with nuclear weapons on a limited basis by targeting only military facilities. His new strategy known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) hearkened back to Eisenhower's philosophy that nuclear weapons should only be considered for use in an all out war. The assumption being that if it was impossible to survive a nuclear war - than a nuclear war was unlikely to occur due to the sheer terror of the possibility of such a conflict. Eisenhower had predicted, that with the development of thermonuclear weapons, warfare could no longer be an instrument of politics and that the future survival of nations required there be no future full scale war at all. This line of thinking became apparent in the leadership of both superpowers and began to lead to a series of agreements that acknowledged the inherent danger of nuclear weapons to both communist and capitalistic societies. The first of these agreements came in the form of a Limited Test Ban (LTB) treaty of 1963 that abolished the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons by the United States and Soviet Union. Thereafter, testing of nuclear weapons by the two superpowers were conducted underground.
(The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis, p. 131)
China became the world's fifth nuclear nation with an atmospheric test of a device on June 17, 1964. Mao Zedong, Chinas supreme leader, had set a goal for acquiring an atomic weapon as early as 1956 and by 1960 the Chinese had also developed short-range ballistic missiles. Evidence suggests that the Soviet Union provided China with technology and expertise to help develop its nuclear weapons program. The ongoing struggle between the communist government of mainland China and the exiled nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek since the end of World War II, forced the United States on several occasions to threaten the use of nuclear weapons to defend Taiwan from a communist Chinese invasion. The development of Atomic weapons by China now forced the United States to consider it a new strategic threat that would further perpetuate America's offensive and defenses nuclear weapons strategies. Ironically, the Soviet Union had also begun to have strained relations with China, which would eventually lead to a diplomatic and ideological split between the two communist nations.
(The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis, pp. 80-81)
After the removal of Nikita Khrushchev from power in 1964, Leonid Brezhnev became General Secretary of the Soviet Union and shared authority of the nation with Aleksey Kosygin; Chair of the Council of Ministers. Under the Brezhnev doctrine, the Soviet Union began a massive program to improve and enlarge Soviet nuclear forces to counter the United States overwhelming strategic advantage. By the end of 1964 the Soviet Union had increased its ICBM forces to nearly 200 operational launchers. During the late 50s the Soviet Union had also began developing nuclear submarines. Initial Soviet submarine reactor designs utilized liquid heavy metal cooling systems for performance and economic reasons. This design was prone to cooling system problems and was abandoned in favor of the safer pressurized water reactors used in U.S. nuclear submarines. The Soviet Union also developed Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs)to counter the American Polaris missile systems. In 1964, the Soviet Union commissioned its first Yankee class submarine that carried 16 ballistic missiles with a range of approximately 2000 miles. Over the next 10 years the Soviets would build 34 Yankee class ballistic missile submarines, surpassing the number of ballistic missile submarines the United States would deploy. Both the United States and the Soviet Union also developed nuclear attack submarines armed with nuclear torpedoes as countermeasures to each others Ballistic Missile Submarine fleets. During the remainder of the cold war these nuclear-armed stealth weapons would play a dangerous game of cat and mouse - tracking and stalking one another on a constant basis across all the oceans of the world.
(The Nuclear Age Reader: Soviet Strategic Policies by Jerome H. Kahan, pp. 182,183)
In response to the Soviet nuclear arms build-up and the acquisition of Atomic weapons by China, the United States increased it’s own nuclear weapons programs including the development of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems (ABMs). Early ABM systems were based on the success of the U.S. Army's Nike-Hercules program and became known as the Nike-Zeus. It used a multistage rocket that could carry a 5 megaton thermonuclear warhead to an altitude of 200 miles to intercept ICBMs. Later anti-missile system designs included the more advanced Spartan and Sprint ABMs and the Sentinel/Safeguard system that were used in tandem to intercept incoming missiles at various altitudes so as to provide multiple levels of redundancy in ballistic missile defense. In turn, the Soviets began developing their own ABM defensive weapons systems. This continuing development of ABM systems encouraged both superpowers to increase the numbers of ICBMs of their respective nuclear arsenals in an attempt to overwhelm the capabilities of the other side.
(U.S. Strategic and Defensive Missile Systems, 1950-2004 by Mark A. Berhow, pp. 30-31)
Despite being fully entrenched in a nuclear arms race, the ideological struggle between the Soviet Union and United States for the remainder of the Cold War would be characterized by conflicts between states under their sphere of influence rather than a direct confrontation. It was also becoming evident that the United States and the Soviet Union's support of smaller nations put each of them in difficult political and military positions. Both Washington and Moscow had supported opposing Korean allies who ended up being embarrassments and counterproductive to their own national goals. In 1964, another divided east asian country once again forced the superpowers to support opposing sides. After Ho Chi Minh's guerrilla forces had defeated the French and ended their occupation of Vietnam in 1954, the Americans, British, Russians, and Chinese governments had agreed that the country should be partitioned at the 17th parallel. Ho Chi Minh established a communist regime in the north and the United States attempted to install an anti-communist government in the South under Ngo Dihn Diem. But the Diem regime was authoritative and brutal and the Kennedy administration had decided by November of 1963 to allow Diem to be overthrown. Three weeks later, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated leaving a new administration under Lyndon B. Johnson to handle the quickly deteriorating situation in South Vietnam. Faced by the prospect of an invasion and take over of the country by Ho Chi Minh's communist forces, the Johnson administration obtained congressional authority through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to take military action to defend South Vietnam. In the interests of containing communist aggression, the United States was reluctantly forced into an armed conflict that had little to do with its own national interests and the Soviet Union was reluctantly forced to support North Vietnam's communist government with military supplies and economic assistance. Once again a smaller nation had locked the superpowers in a confrontation neither wanted. Major military escalation in Vietnam started with the bombing of North Vietnam's military facilities and supply lines and by the end of 1964 the United States had deployed over 184,000 troops in South Vietnam. The war would last until 1975 and claimed the lives of approximately 58,000 American soldiers and over 2 million North and South Vietnam combatants and civilians.
(The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis, pp. 132-134)
Although the ongoing ideological clash of Communism and Capitalism continued during the Vietnam War and with the Soviet invasion of its own satellite nation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, relations between the United States and The Soviet Union slowly began to improve during the late 1960's and 1970's. The Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 was put forth by President Kennedy after the Cuban Missile crisis. The Soviet Union, the United States and Great Britain agreed on a partial ban of atmospheric and underwater testing of nuclear weapons. This important first step demonstrated that nuclear armed nations could cooperate on some level to slow the arms race. In 1967, President Johnson met with Soviet Premier Aleksey Kosygin to open a dialogue for the limitation of nuclear arms including a possible ban or restriction of anti-ballistic missile system programs started by both nations that had resulted in a strategy of developing even larger numbers of ICBMs and SLBMs in an attempt to overwhelm on another's defensive systems. Both the Soviet Union and the United States had begun to realize that the arms race was completely out of control. This new climate of cooperation between the Soviet Union and the United States would become known as the policy of détente; which in French means "the ease of tensions". By 1968, public opposition in the United States to the Vietnam War was so severe that the country was nearly in a state of anarchy. In March of 1969, military units of the Soviet Union and China clashed along their common border of the Ussuri River and the conflict soon spread to surrounding territories. Although overshadowed by the Vietnam War, a limited conflict had begun between the world’s most powerful communist states, and there were rumors of full-scale war including the use of nuclear weapons. That year, President Lyndon Johnson did not seek re-election and was replaced by Richard Nixon who won a landslide victory for the Presidency by promising to end the Vietnam War and improve relations with the Soviet Union. Despite Nixon's escalation of the War prior to seeking an armistice with North Vietnam in 1973, he made a bold move of opening diplomatic relations with communist China in an unexpected extension of détente. Soon after, the Soviet Union and China reached an uneasy diplomatic resolution of their differences. Nevertheless, subsequent visits by both Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Nixon himself secured a foundation for relations with China, the world's second most powerful communist nation.
(The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis, pp. 143-151)
The Treaty for the Non-Proliferation of nuclear Weapons was signed
July 1, 1968 and came into force in March 1970. The Non-Proliferation Treaty was an attempt to limit the number of countries that could develop nuclear weapons. Up to that point in time there were only five nations that possessed nuclear arms; the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and China. Under the treaty, these nations agreed not to export nuclear weapons or technology that could assist other countries in developing nuclear weapons programs. In addition, countries that did not possess nuclear weapons were asked to join the treaty and pledge not to use nuclear technology for the development of weapons. Provisions of the treaty would also provide participating nations assistance in developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Countries with nuclear energy programs could export reactor technology to developing countries provided there were adequate safeguards against the misuse of such technology for the development of weapons program. Nations who were the recipients of nuclear technology were required to allow regular inspections of their nuclear power facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that nuclear materials had not been diverted for the development of nuclear weapons. However, exporting nations established their own requirements for how equipment for these programs would be used. Several countries refused to join the Treaty including India and Pakistan. Both of these countries acquired nuclear technology and eventually developed Atomic Weapons programs. While proponents of the Non-Proliferation Treaty believe it has helped slow the spread of nuclear weapons, critics argue it ultimately resulted in the distribution of key nuclear technology that has allowed under-developed nations to pursue nuclear Weapons programs and develop unsafe nuclear power plants.
(Encyclopedia of the Atomic Age by Rodney P. Carlisle; Editor p. 213)
The nuclear arms race became the focal point of détente between the United States and the Soviet Union and finally led to the strategic arms limitation talks. Both nations had by this time realized that the continuation of the arms race threatened their overall security. On May 26, 1972, President Nixon and Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) which included two separate agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union; The Interim Agreement on Certain Measures with Respect to the Limitation of Strategic Offensive ICBMs and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The Interim Agreement limited the United States to 1054 ICBMs and the Soviet Union to 1618 ICBMs over a five-year period. The more permanent ABM Treaty provided that each nation could only deployed two anti-ballistic missile systems; one around each nation's capital and one around a single ICBM base. Initially, the Soviet Union was unwilling to enter into an ABM Treaty but finally did so as part of an overall package that provided them with superiority in offensive ICBMs and a small lead in SLBMs Critics of the agreement were unhappy with any Soviet advantage in nuclear arms that made the treaty difficult to sell to the U.S. Congress.
SALT I made no provisions for limitations on strategic bomber forces, in which the United States had an overwhelming lead with its Intercontinental B-52 bombers, and therefore still provided the United States with significant offensive superiority. While SALT I was clearly a step in a positive direction its short duration and offensive arms limitation component was ultimately not comprehensive enough to slow the arms race. The SALT I treaty only provided for limitations of the number of offensive missiles, no provisions were made for the number of nuclear warheads each nation could produce. In the late 1970's both nations deployed Multiple Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs), which allowed their ICBMs to carry and deliver multiple nuclear warheads on multiple targets.
The SALT I accords also included agreements that both nations would pursue negotiations towards more permanent limitations on offensive nuclear weapons. During the 1970's President Gerald Ford and Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev continued negotiations towards a more comprehensive nuclear arms treaty. When SALT I expired in 1977, and a new agreement had not yet been reached, both nations signed a joint communiqué that they would continue to abide by the SALT I limitations provided they continued the negotiation process. During the next year and a half these negotiations were hampered by disagreements on how to deal with new offensive weapon technologies including cruise missiles developed by the United States and the new Soviet bomber called the Backfire. Finally, it was agreed that the negotiations should be based on a framework that would treat different issues in nuclear weapons limitations as separate treaties.
Finally, a second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty was negotiated in Vienna, Austria on June 18 1979. SALT II limited each nation to 2400 strategic launch vehicles including ICBMs, SLBMs and Bomber Aircraft until the end of 1981 and a limit of 2,250 total launch vehicles until the expiration of the treaty in December 1985. Both sides also agreed not to deploy mobile ICBM systems before 1981 and limit the range of cruise missiles to 375 miles. In 1979, the next U.S. President Jimmy Carter, signed the SALT II Treaty submitted it to Congress for ratification. Shortly thereafter the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the Carter administration withdrew the treaty from the Senate for ratification in protest. Later, President Carter announced that he would continue to honor the terms the agreement if the Soviet Union did so as well. When Ronald Reagan became President in1981, he also agreed to honor the terms of SALT II. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union's military occupation of Afghanistan had created a diplomatic rift between the two nations that resulted in renewed and heightened Cold War tensions which led to an unabated continuation of the arms race after expiration of SALT II.
(The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis, pp. 200-203)
(Encyclopedia of the Atomic Age by Rodney P. Carlisle; Editor, pp. 293,294,317,318)
President Reagan proposed a “zero option” in 1981 that proposed the eliminations all intermediate range nuclear weapons from the Superpower's arsenals. In 1987, the Soviet Union and the United States signed the Intermediate Range nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) that effectively removed all ground launched intermediate and short-range nuclear missiles located in Europe over a three-year period. However, the strategic nuclear arms race would continue to increase until 1991 when the Soviet Union and United States signed the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) and a subsequent more comprehensive treaty (START II) in 1995. These strategic arms reduction treaties eliminated multiple, independently targeted warheads (MIRVs), and mobile ICBMs. In addition, the maximum number of delivery systems for nuclear warheads would be reduced to a total of between 3,000 and 3,500 for each nation. Despite this reduction in delivery systems, by the end of the 20th Century, the Soviet Union and the United States would each have a stockpile of approximately 10,000 thermonuclear and atomic warheads; far more than necessary to destroy every major population center on earth.
Despite future agreements to reduce delivery systems, by the end of the 20th Century the Soviet Union and the United States would each have a stockpile of approximately 10,000 thermonuclear and atomic warheads; far more than needed to destroy every major population center on earth. It has been suggested by the scientific community that a war involving even a first strike of this stockpile of nuclear weapons would result in a "Nuclear Winter". The smoke and dust ejected into the earths atmosphere from the simultaneous detonation of several hundred thermonuclear weapons would block out sunlight for months or possibly years, creating below freezing temperatures on a global scale. This would result in the destruction of the world's food supply, and coupled with the effects of radiation, might lead to the extinction of humans and many other forms of life on earth.
(Encyclopedia of the Atomic Age by Rodney P. Carlisle; Editor, pp. 147,225)
The development, testing and deployment of nuclear weapons during the Cold War resulted in many accidents and near nuclear weapon detonations that are collectively referred to by the military community as "Broken Arrows". It is estimated that as many as 60 significant accidents involving nuclear weapons and their delivery systems have occurred throughout the world since World War II. Many of these accidents released highly fissionable materials that have resulted in severe radioactive contamination of the environment. Due to their secret military nature, the complete facts of these events are largely unknown. It is estimated that at least thirty-two documented incidents have occurred where nuclear reactors or nuclear weapons were lost and have never been recovered…
Shortly after take off, a U.S. B-29 bomber carrying a nuclear bomb crashed into a mountain. The bomb was destroyed in the crash but did not detonate. Its nuclear capsule had not been inserted for transport safety and remained intact.
A B-29 bomber carrying a nuclear weapon without its fissionable core crashed near a trailer park occupied by 200 families. The bomber was carrying at least ten 500 lb. conventional bombs that exploded 15 minutes after the crash, killing eighteen personnel including Air Force General Robert F. Travis.
A B-50 experienced an in flight emergency and jettisoned a Mark 4 Atom Bomb as a precaution over the St. Lawrence River near Riviere-Du-Loup, about 300 miles northeast of Montreal. The weapon's high explosives detonated on impact. Although it lacked its fissionable plutonium core, the explosion scattered nearly 100 pounds of uranium. The plane later landed safely at a U.S. Air Force base in Maine.
A B-47 bomber carrying two nuclear weapon cores in their carrying cases disappeared over the Mediterranean Sea. After takeoff the B-47 was scheduled for two in-flight refueling's before reaching its final destination. The first refueling was successfully completed, but the aircraft never made contact with the second refueling tanker. Despite an extensive search, the aircraft, the nuclear weapon cores, and crew were never found and remain undiscovered to this day.
A B-47 bomber crashed into a nuclear weapons storage facility at the Lakenheath Air Base in Suffolk, England, during a training exercise. The nuclear weapons storage facility, known as an "igloo", contained three Mark 6 bombs. A preliminary report by a bomb disposal officer said, "it was a miracle" that one Mark 6 nuclear weapon that had its detonators sheared off didn't explode.
A C-124 transport aircraft that was having mechanical problems jettisoned two atomic weapons without their fission cores off the east coast of the United States. The C-124 was en route from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware when it lost power in two of its engines. The crew determined that level flight could not be maintained with the weight of the weapons onboard and decided to jettison the cargo. Although neither weapon detonated, both were presumed damaged on impact with the ocean surface. They bombs were never recovered.
A nuclear weapon without its core fell from the bomb bay of a B-36 at an altitude of 1,700 feet and exploded upon impact. The nuclear weapon was completely destroyed when its high explosives detonated, creating a blast crater approximately 25 feet in diameter and 12 feet deep. Fragments of the bomb and debris were scattered over a one-mile area.
In a simulated combat mission, a B-47 collided with an F-86 near Savannah, Georgia. After attempting to land at Hunter Air Force Base with the thermonuclear weapon onboard, it was jettisoned over water. The plane later landed safely. The hydrogen bomb was never recovered.
A B-47 based at the U.S. air base at Greenham Common, England, reportedly loaded with a nuclear weapon, caught fire and completely burned. In 1960, signs of high-level radioactive contamination were detected around the base by a group of scientists working at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE). The U.S. government has never confirmed whether the accident involved a nuclear warhead.
A BOMARC nuclear air defense missile being stored in a ready state that permitted its launch within two minutes was destroyed after a high-pressure helium tank exploded and ruptured the missile's fuel tanks. The resulting fire melted the weapons nuclear warhead spilling radioactive plutonium at the launch site. The contaminated area had to be entombed in concrete and quarantined for 40 years.
While on airborne alert, a B-52 suffered structural failure of its right wing, resulting in the release of two nuclear weapons. One of the bomb's parachutes deployed properly its damage was minimal. The second bomb's parachute malfunctioned and the weapon broke apart upon impact, scattering its components over a wide area. Five of the six safety devices had failed. Only a single safety switch had prevented the bomb from detonating.
The K-19 "Hotel" class Soviet nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine on patrol off Norway experienced a reactor cooling system failure. The interior of the submarine was exposed to high levels of radiation. One of the sub's two reactors soared to 800 degrees Celsius and threatened to melt down the reactor's fuel rods. Heroic crew members managed to manually bypass the failure and restore coolant flow to the reactor. Several fatalities were reported.
A nuclear test device on a U.S. Thor rocket fell into the Pacific Ocean near Johnston Island after the rocket had to be destroyed. The test was part of the U.S.'s first of a series of high altitude atmospheric nuclear detonations. The nuclear warhead was reportedly recovered.
A second attempt to detonate a nuclear device in the atmosphere failed when a Thor rocket booster was destroyed over Johnston Island. The nuclear device fell into the Pacific Ocean. It is unknown whether the warhead was recovered.
On a routine patrol off the New England coast, the nuclear submarine USS Thresher indicated by radio message to its escort that it was having minor difficulties with its ballast tanks. A few minutes later another garbled message was received and the submarine sank taking all 179 sailors, and its nuclear reactor to the bottom of the sea. The submarine and its reactor were never recovered.
An A-4E Sky hawk attack aircraft loaded with one B43 thermonuclear weapon rolled off the deck of the USS Ticonderoga Aircraft Carrier during heavy seas. The pilot, plane and hydrogen bomb were never found.
A B-52 carrying four hydrogen bombs collided with a KC-135 during refueling operations and crashed near Palo Mares, Spain. One weapon was safely recovered on the ground and another from the sea, after extensive search and recovery efforts. The other two weapons hit land, resulting in detonation of their high explosives and the subsequent release of radioactive materials. Over 1,400 tons of contaminated soil was sent to the United States for storage.
Four nuclear bombs were destroyed in a fire after a U.S. B-52 bomber crashed approximately seven miles southwest of a runway at Thule Air Force Base in Greenland. The plane crashed after a fire broke out in the navigator's compartment. Upon impact, the bombs explosive shells detonated, scattering plutonium and other radioactive materials over a 300-yard area.
A Soviet diesel-powered "Golf" class ballistic missile submarine sank about 750 miles northwest of the island of Oahu, Hawaii. It was reported that the submarine was carrying three nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, as well as several nuclear torpedoes. Part of the submarine was reportedly raised by the CIA using a specially constructed deep-water salvage ship design and built by Howard Hughes for named the Glomer Explorer.
The nuclear powered submarine USS Scorpion was lost at sea. The sub, carrying unidentified nuclear weapons, was last heard from on May 21, 1968 while returning to Norfolk, Virginia after a three month training exercise in the Mediterranean Sea. The crew of 99 U.S. servicemen perished. The nuclear reactor and weapons were never recovered.
A B-58 bomber lost control and slid off a runway while taxing to take-off, causing portions of the five nuclear weapons onboard to burn in an ensuing fire. There were no detonations and contamination was limited to the immediate area of the crash.
The U.S. nuclear-powered submarine USS Gato reportedly collided with a Soviet submarine between November 14 and 15, 1969, near the entrance of the White Sea.
The Soviet K-8 "November" class nuclear-powered attack submarine experienced an apparent nuclear propulsion problem in the Atlantic Ocean about 300 miles northwest of Spain. Although an attempt was made to attach a towline from a Soviet bloc merchant ship, the submarine apparently sank, killing 52. The submarine was carrying two nuclear-armed ASTOR torpedoes.
The aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy and the cruiser USS Belknap collided in rough seas at night during exercises. Although it was declared as "a possible nuclear weapons accident," no subsequent nuclear contamination was discovered during the fire and rescue operations.
Fuel vapors from a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) exploded in the missile's silo, blowing off the 740-ton silo door of reinforced concrete and steel and catapulting the missile's nuclear warhead 600 feet. The explosion killed one person and injured twenty-one others. The missile's reentry vehicle, which contained a nuclear warhead, was recovered intact.
While at the Chazhma Bay repair facility, about 35 miles from Vladivostok, an "Echo" class Soviet nuclear-powered submarine suffered a reactor explosion. The explosion released a cloud of radioactivity toward Vladivostok but did not reach the city. Ten officers were killed in the explosion.
The K-219 Soviet "Yankee" class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine suffered an explosion and fire in one of its missile tubes 480 miles east of Bermuda. The submarine sank while in tow on October 6 in 18,000 feet of water. The two nuclear reactors and 16 ballistic missiles with 2 nuclear warheads each were never recovered.
About 300 miles north of the Norwegian coast, the Soviet nuclear-powered attack submarine K-278, caught fire and sank. The vessel's nuclear reactor, two nuclear tipped torpedoes, and 42 of the 69 crew members were lost.
A collision occurred between a CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) "Sierra"-class nuclear-powered submarine and the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Baton Rouge. Both vessels reportedly suffered only minor damage. There was a dispute over the location of the incident as to whether it was in or outside Russian territorial waters.
The nuclear-powered submarine USS Grayling collided with a Russian Delta III nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine. Both vessels reportedly suffered only minor damage.
The CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) Kursk, an "Oscar II" class nuclear submarine, sank after a massive onboard explosion. Attempts to rescue the 118 men failed. It is thought that an accidental torpedo detonation caused the accident. It is claimed that the submarine had no nuclear weapons on board. The nuclear reactor was never recovered. all hands aboard perished.
1957 | The First ICBM
The Soviet Union launched the world's first orbiting satellite named "Sputnik" on October 4, 1957. The satellite was launched into space with an R-7 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Armed with this missile technology, Khrushchev began to publicly threaten the United States and her western allies with nuclear annihilation.
1960 | Bombing America
In addition to the military and civilian personnel at stationed at the Nevada Proving Grounds, civilian populations of surrounding communities were also unknowingly contaminated by radioactive fallout. In total, some 100,000 “Downwinders” lived under the canopy of radioactive fallout created from the Nevada test site.
1960 | Proliferation Begins
On February 13, 1960 France exploded its first nuclear device with a yield of between 60 and 70 kilotons and became the fourth nuclear armed nation. In 1958, Charles De Gaulle, leader of the Free French during World War II, became president of France. De Gaulle feared that the United States would make unilateral decisions about the deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe and decided to pursue an Atomic weapons program.
1964 | At The Brink
In August of 1962, A U2 reconnaissance mission photographed soviet built surface to air missile bases (SAM's) in Cuba. The Soviets were also beginning construction medium range nuclear missile sites in Cuba that would increase a nuclear first strike capacity against United States by 70%. On October 14, 1962, a U2 flight clearly showed an SS-4 launch site under construction and the U.S. responded with a naval blockade of Cuba.
1964 | A New Threat
China became the world's fifth nuclear nation with an atmospheric test of a device on June 17, 1964. Mao Zedong, China's supreme leader, had set a goal for acquiring an atomic weapon as early as 1956 and by 1960 the Chinese had also developed short-range ballistic missiles. Evidence suggests that the Soviet Union provided China with technology and expertise to help develop its nuclear weapons program.
1968 | NPT
The Treaty for the Non-Proliferation of nuclear Weapons was signed July 1, 1968. The Treaty was an attempt to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other countries. At the time there were only five nations that possessed nuclear arms; the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and China. Under the treaty, these nations agreed not to export nuclear weapons or technology to other countries.
1972 | SALT 1
By 1970, The U.S.S.R. and the U.S. had realized that the nuclear arms race threatened their overall security. On May 26, 1972, President Nixon and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) which included an interim agreement for the limitation of offensive ICBMs and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. A SALT 2 treaty was reached in 1979, but the U.S. withdrew after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.