A Nuclear Near Miss In ’67

We’ve all heard about the Cuban Missile Crisis — the tense standoff in October 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union seemed on the brink of nuclear war over Soviet missiles based in Cuba.

It turns out that there was another very close call during those terrible Cold War days, when kids were trained to duck and cover, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. kept nuclear aircraft in the air at all times, ready to respond to any attack, and nuclear annihilation seemed an ever-present threat.  This particular near-miss happened in 1967 and hasn’t gotten any attention because everything occurred behind the scenes.  It hasn’t been given a catchy, alliterative name like “Cuban Missile Crisis,” either.

sun-big-solar-flare-100910-02Let’s call it the Solar Flare-up of ’67.

It happened on May 23, 1967.  The sun emitted a solar flare so powerful that it knocked out the three U.S. Air Force’ ballistic missile Early Warning System radar sites in the northern hemisphere.  The sites appeared to be jammed — which in those days was considered an act of war because it would be the first step in launching a preemptive nuclear strike.  Reasoning that the Soviets were behind the jamming, Air Force personnel began readying the American nuclear arsenal for a countdown to a strike, too.

At that point, fortunately, scientists and solar forecasters working at the North American Aerospace Defense Command figured out that the huge solar flare, and not the Russians, were responsible for the jamming.  The news went up the command chain, and the American forces stood down.  And, since the Soviet defense systems were presumably similarly affected by the solar flare, a similar scenario played out somewhere on the Russian side of the Iron Curtain.

The Solar Flare-up of ’67 just reaffirms how improbable it was that the world made it through the hair-trigger period of the Cold War.  If relations were on a hair-trigger basis such that even solar flares could plausibly spark a nuclear exchange, it’s amazing that some miscommunication or misguided leader didn’t send the world on the path to a radioactive holocaust.

Advertisements

Bridge Of Spies At The Arena Grand

Today, I wasn’t going to be gulled into watching the Browns.  It was a beautiful fall day, so Kish and I decided to walk down to the Arena District to catch Bridge of Spies at the Arena Grand.

It’s not easy to find a movie that we both like.  Kish favors romances and the kind of character dramas that fall into the “chick flick” category, and I prefer action-adventure and sci-fi films.  Bridge of Spies is one of those rare movies that we both can get excited about.  An historical drama with the always excellent Tom Hanks as its star, about Cold War incidents that happened during our lifetime, Bridge of Spies seemed to be the perfect choice for a Sunday afternoon movie.  And it was.

If you haven’t seen Bridge of Spies, you’re missing something.  Hanks is excellent, as always, but Mark Rylance’s performance as Rudolf Abel, the accused Soviet spy, is a stunning revelation.  Rylance’s bushy-eyebrowed, deadpan treatment of the stoic Russian secret agent (and talented painter), and his clear chemistry with Hanks, takes the film from the realm of an interesting period piece into a real tour de force.

The movie is filled with fine performances and little touches that will resonate with those of us who grew up in the early ’60s and remember “duck and cover” lectures and air raid drills during grade school.  And — for me at least — it was refreshing to see a movie treat lawyers with sensitivity and respect and depict them in a way that reflects honorably on our profession.  In his own quiet and determined and ethical way, Hanks’ depiction of insurance attorney James B. Donovan, who was charged with representing a man most Americans wanted to hang, is one of the most positive portrayals of a lawyer since Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird made many young Americans decide to go to law school to try to improve the world.

This is the first time I’ve been to the Arena Grand complex, by the way, and it’s a great place to watch a movie.  We sat in comfortable seats, split some chicken quesadilla, and had a great time reliving those tense Cold War days.

Cold War Timewarp

For a child of the ’50s who grew up in the ’60s, reading the news this week is weird and disturbingly familiar.

Stories about Russians testing ICBMs, engaging in adventurous activities in the Crimea, and issuing vague threats make me feel like we’re caught in a timewarp. It’s like it’s the Cold War all over again, and the Russkies are even being directed by one of those inexplicable, menacing leaders that Americans love to hate. Vladimir Putin is like this generation’s Nikita Khrushchev. What’s next? People building fallout shelters and making our kids watch Duck and Cover?

When the Berlin Wall fell more than two decades ago, people confidently predicted “the end of history.” Of course, that’s not what happened. A bilateral world splintered and shifted, and now there are many more threats and many more unpredictable leaders who apparently are bent on doing us harm. I wonder whether this little demonstration of naked Russian aggression will cause President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to revisit their plans to cut defense spending and Cold War weapons programs.

I hope that we don’ return to the unsettling Cold War world, with its doomsday clocks and periodic crises that could blow up into catastrophic confrontation. I hope we also aren’t so smug, however, that we confidently conclude that it just can’t happen. Such conclusions are wishful thinking. There are lots of people out there with lots of territorial ambitions who are willing to run stupid risks to try to achieve them, and we need to recognize that reality and deal with it.

Moving Back From The Red Line, And Back In Time, Too

This morning Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. and Russia have reached agreement on resolution of the Syrian chemical weapons problem.  Under the agreement, Syria must turn over an accounting of its chemical weapons within a week, inspectors will arrive in Syria in November and begin to seize and destroy the weapons, and the destruction is to be completed by mid-2014.  The agreement will be “backed by a U.N. Security Council resolution that could allow for sanctions or other consequences if Syria fails to comply.”

With the agreement, the United States has backed away from President Obama’s “red line” that use of chemical weapons would produce immediate military consequences.  It’s been an awkward retreat, as I’ve pointed out in prior postings, but it recognizes reality — there simply is no international appetite for joint military action, and there is enormous opposition, both domestically and internationally, to the United States taking unilateral action.  I was opposed to the United States taking unilateral action, so I am glad that the Obama Administration ultimately came to its senses.  The use of chemical weapons in Syria is an international problem, not an American one, and the international community, collectively, should deal with it.

There are a lot of questions about this agreement, of course.  Our past experience with international weapons inspectors — in North Korea, Iran, and elsewhere — isn’t exactly cause for supreme confidence in their ability to handle the destructive ambitions of rogue states.  How in the world do international inspectors find and safely destroy chemical weapons stores in the midst of a raging civil war?  How does anyone trust the Assad regime, which denied having chemical weapons until a week ago, to honestly identify and produce all of its chemical weapons caches?   And we can’t lose sight of the fact that this agreement does nothing to end the suffering of the Syrian people who are trapped in the middle of a bloody fight among a regime that wants to hold onto power at all costs and a gaggle of “rebels” that undoubtedly include al Qaeda terrorists.

There’s another very interesting aspect to the agreement announced today.  It was negotiated by only two parties — the United States and Russia.  Syria was not part of the talks, nor were China, or France, or Great Britain, or other members of the UN Security Council, or the Arab League.  Apparently Russia is expected to deliver the agreement and cooperation of the Syrians, as if Syria is a kind of vassal state, and the U.S. is expected to bring the rest of the Security Council into line.  It reminded me of the bipartite, Cold War world I grew up in, where the U.S. and the Soviet Union led the two competing factions in the world and met occasionally at summit meetings to resolve international problems.  It’s odd to see this apparent return to those days.  I wonder how China and the other states in our increasingly diverse world feel about that?

The Greenbrier Bunker

Yesterday Kish and I took the “Bunker Tour” at The Greenbrier.  It was a fascinating 90 minutes.

One of the blast doors to The Bunker

For those not familiar with the story, during the Cold War America decided to build an extensive fallout shelter for the legislative branch of government for use in the event that bombers from the Soviet Union dropped nuclear bombs on Washington, D.C.  The concept was that after the Soviet bombers took off, members of Congress (and one trusted aide each) could be transported to the secure facility before the bombs fell and then would be safe to conduct the legislative business of the country for 60 days. The Bunker came on-line in 1962 — just in time for the Cuban Missile Crisis — and continued to operate as The Bunker until its existence was exposed in 1992.

The Greenbrier was selected as the site because it was close enough to Washington, D.C. to allow for evacuation and the facility could be constructed in secret under the cover story that The Greenbrier was building a new wing — which is what happened.  In fact, some of the parts of the Bunker — including the office space and the chambers where the Houses of Congress would meet — were hidden in plain sight and were routinely used by the public as an exhibit hall and a theatre.  Those areas could have been secured by a huge nuclear blast door that was kept hidden behind garish wallpaper.

The rest of the bunker, which is now used as a highly secure data storage area by Fortune 500 companies, featured bunk bed dormitories, offices, kitchens, a radiation shower, redundant power and water systems, an incinerator, a medical facility, communications areas, and storage areas where food and medicine sufficient to keep more than 1000 people fed and healthy for 60 days was kept.

Although the idea of The Bunker presupposed a horrific nuclear bomb exchange, there was something naively optimistic about the whole concept.  The notion that our legislators would faithfully keep debating and legislating for 60 days, living cheerfully in military fatigues, eating C-rations, and sleeping communally in bunk beds while the nuclear winds raged outside is hard to understand now.   Did they really think that, when they emerged, our country could continue as even a semblance of its former self — and that, if it could, the Members of Congress who led us to nuclear holocaust should be the ones to then lead the American survivors of the nuclear conflagration?

Fear Of Vietnam?

I’ve seen several articles raising the concern that President Obama’s decision to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan is likely to result in “another Vietnam.”  This article from George McGovern, the anti-war candidate who was the Democratic standard-bearer in 1972, is pretty representative of the arguments that you see in such articles.  The points of comparison include propping up a corrupt local government, fighting an entrenched opposition that enjoys local support, and spending money on a war that would be better spent somewhere else.

I respect George McGovern, who served his country nobly and well in World War II and enjoyed a long career in the Senate, but I think his argument is fundamentally misplaced.  The essential difference between Afghanistan and Vietnam is that no one attacked the United States from Vietnam, whereas al Qaeda did attack the United States, on September 11, 2001, from bases in Afghanistan.  McGovern makes the point that al Qaeda is not in Afghanistan but is in Pakistan.  Even if that is so (and no one seems to know precisely where Osama bin Laden and his number 2 are at the moment) McGovern neglects to mention that the only reason that al Qaeda is not in Afghanistan is that the United States military drove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan and thereby eliminated al Qaeda’s safe haven in that country.  I question whether the other points of comparison that are cited really are comparable — for example, I don’t know that everyday Afghan citizens view the repressive Taliban as favorably as Vietnamese viewed the populist Viet Cong — but those points of comparison really are irrelevant and ancillary.  The main distinction is that our activities in Afghanistan are defensive, not the result of abstract Cold War geopolitical considerations.

I have no desire to see American soldiers fight and die on foreign soil, but we cannot quit until we capture or kill Osama bin Laden and render al Qaeda powerless to attack us again.

Fall Of The Wall

Today is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall — an event which marked the beginning of the end of the Iron Curtain, the Cold War, and the divisions between Eastern and Western Europe.  Germany commemorated the day with a tremendous celebration attended by the heads of state of Germany, Russia, France, and Great Britain and thousands of German citizens.  The United States was represented at the event by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a videotaped address from President Obama.

The fall of the Berlin Wall is an extraordinarily memorable historical milestone.  Anyone who grew up during the Cold War, as I did, recognized the Wall as an iconic physical symbol of the fundamental differences between democracy and communism, freedom and repression.  The Wall was a ready, irrefutable response whenever the supposed accomplishments of the Soviet Union were touted.  There was no more powerful evidence of the grim reality of the failed Soviet system than a wall built by a government not to keep others out, but to keep its own citizens in.

Still, the barrier of ugly grey concrete, marred by graffiti, harshly lit by spotlights and patrolled by armed soldiers and dogs, seemed permanent — until the day it wasn’t.  The scenes of Germans East and West scrambling up the Wall and over it, dancing, shouting, weeping with joy, besotted with the heady taste of freedom after so many years of separation, are unforgettable to anyone who witnessed them.  It was a day that deserves to be remembered and celebrated — as the many attendees at today’s festivities in Berlin, including the head of the Russian government, clearly recognized.

pod_11-10-09_reading_PS-0175I also stand by what I wrote several weeks ago:  I think President Obama exercised poor judgment by not attending in person.  I found myself wondering what he is doing instead of joining in the ceremonies, and found his daily schedule for today here.  The White House website has a “photo of the day” that shows the President sitting alone, reading, in the Rose Garden.  (I’ve attached the photo to this posting.)  Was he really doing something so important that he could not leave Washington, D.C.?  Would it really have been so difficult for him to travel to Berlin on such an auspicious occasion, which was brought about in significant part by America’s steadfast support for freedom, and opposition to Soviet tyranny, over a period of four decades?