Ticking Closer to Nuclear Midnight

Exclusive: President Obama embraced Japanese survivors of the Hiroshima bomb, but his policies, such as heightening tensions with Russia, have raised the potential for a far worse nuclear catastrophe, explains Jonathan Marshall.

By Jonathan Marshall

Even if you’ve never won an office raffle, a sports pool or a lottery, consider yourself supremely lucky. Unlike the atomic bomb victims who were recognized by President Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, you’ve never experienced the horrors of nuclear war.

That’s nothing any of us should take for granted, says former Defense Secretary William Perry. On at least three occasions, he noted recently, the U.S. military received false alarms of a Soviet nuclear attack. At least twice the Soviet military went on high alert from similar alarms. And anyone who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 survived “as much by good luck as by good management,” he added.

A scene from "Dr. Strangelove," in which the bomber pilot (played by actor Slim Pickens) rides a nuclear bomb to its target in the Soviet Union.

A scene from “Dr. Strangelove,” in which the bomber pilot (played by actor Slim Pickens) rides a nuclear bomb to its target in the Soviet Union.

The consequences of an accidental nuclear war would be staggering. Thousands of U.S. and Russian warheads, some of them orders of magnitude larger than the one that wiped out Hiroshima, are primed for launch on warning. Besides wiping out tens or hundreds of millions of people in urban centers, they would put a large fraction of the world’s population at risk from starvation.

A 2013 report by Physicians for Social Responsibility concluded that even a limited regional nuclear exchange — say between India and Pakistan — could “cause significant climate disruption worldwide” and jeopardize food supplies to as many as two billion people.

Many authorities believe the threat of accidental war is even greater today than during most of the Cold War. Last year, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved its famous Doomsday Clock forward to three minutes to midnight, its “direst setting” since the nuke-rattling days of the early Reagan era.

The group cited continued bluster and brinkmanship between NATO and Russia, including the shooting down of a Russian warplane by Turkey, as indicators of today’s risky nuclear environment.

Getting Lucky

National security experts and reporters such as Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control (2014), have compiled long lists of nuclear accidents and near-misses, some of which might have cost millions of lives but for a few quick-thinking heroes. Here’s a small sample:

–In 1958, a B-47 dropped a 30 kiloton Mark 6 atomic bomb into a family’s backyard in Mars Bluff, South Carolina. Its high-explosive trigger blasted the home and left a 35-foot crater. A few months later, another B-47 dropped a Mark 39 hydrogen bomb near Abilene, again setting off its high explosives but not a nuclear blast.

–In 1961, a B-52 exploded over North Carolina, dropping two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs. One of them nearly detonated after five of its six safety devices failed. The Air Force never did recover the uranium trigger.

–In October 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a Soviet submarine thought it was under attack from U.S. warships, which were practicing dropping depth charges in the Sargasso Sea. The submarine commander ordered a launch of nuclear missiles, but was persuaded to stop by his second-in-command.

President John F. Kennedy addressing the nation regarding the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

President John F. Kennedy addressing the nation regarding the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Other near misses during that mother of all nuclear crises in 1962 included a reckless U.S. spy plane over-flight of Siberia, the explosion of a Soviet satellite that U.S. authorities interpreted as the start of a Soviet missile attack, American test launches of two nuclear-capable ICBMs, and a screw-up at a Minuteman site that allowed a single operator to launch a fully armed missile.

–In 1966, a B-52 bomber collided with a refueling tanker over Palomares, Spain and broke apart, dropping its four hydrogen bombs. Two of them partially detonated, contaminating a wide region with radiation.

–Two years later, a B-52 crashed in Greenland, losing three hydrogen bombs and contaminating nearly a quarter million cubic feet of ice and snow.

–In 1979, a technician mistakenly confused NORAD’s computers with a war games simulation, triggering signals of a Soviet nuclear launch. The Strategic Air Command scrambled its bombers before learning of the false alarm.

–A year later, a defective computer chip prompted the Pentagon to waken President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser with reports of a massive launch of Soviet missiles from submarines and land-based silos.

–In 1985, a glint of sunlight confused a Soviet early-warning satellite, which reported that the United States had launched five intercontinental ballistic missiles. Fortunately, the watch commander risked his career by not reporting the alarm, saving the day.

–In 1995, Russia’s early-warning system confused a small Norwegian weather rocket with an incoming U.S. Trident missile. The Russian military went on high alert, notifying President Boris Yeltsin and preparing a possible counter-attack before recognizing the mistake.

Tensions Reduce the Odds

As MIT nuclear expert Theodore Postol noted last year, “Had the false alert of 1995 occurred instead during a political crisis, Russian nuclear forces might have been launched. American early warning systems would have immediately detected the launch, and this might then have led to the immediate launch of US forces in response to the Russian launch.”

Recent years have brought us accounts of missing nuclear missiles, drug use by Minuteman missile crews, shocking security breaches, crew commanders falling asleep, computer failures, a silo fire that went undetected by smoke alarms, and much more.

President Barack Obama uncomfortably accepting the Nobel Peace Prize from Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland in Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10, 2009. (White House photo)

President Barack Obama uncomfortably accepting the Nobel Peace Prize from Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland in Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10, 2009. (White House photo)

And just this week we were reminded by the Government Accountability Office that the Pentagon’s “Strategic Automated Command and Control System” uses 8-inch floppy disks and 1970s-vintage computers.

The Pentagon insisted in 2014 that the system “is extremely safe and extremely secure” — after all, how many hackers know how to operate such ancient technology? — but Princeton University’s Bruce Blair, a former Air Force ICBM launch-control officer, said this week, “The floppy disks are associated with a nuclear-communications system that was unreliable even when the system was upgraded in the 1970s.”

No doubt the odds of any one of these accidents triggering a war or mass catastrophe were low. But odds increase with the number of incidents. If the probability of a disaster from one incident is only one in 100, the odds of ruin from 20 such incidents rise to nearly one in five. Those are not comforting numbers.

That’s why it’s critical that the United States and Russia get serious about promoting world security by eliminating first-use and “launch on warning” policies that heighten the risk of accidental wars. They must also sharply reduce the size of nuclear arsenals that are difficult to track, safeguard and maintain.

Instead, President Obama has embarked on a trillion dollar program of nuclear modernization and a dangerous policy of confrontation with Russia in Eastern Europe. (Russia is not blameless in these matters, of course.) Such policies are, in turn, prompting China’s military to pursue a nuclear expansion program of its own — including a dangerous shift to hair-trigger alerts and a launch-on-warning policy.

Former Defense Secretary Perry warns that all of this is putting the world “on the brink of a new nuclear arms race.” That’s not what we expected from the President who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in part for his call to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons. Let’s hope Obama’s visit to Hiroshima rekindles his commitment to helping create a safer world.

Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic (Stanford University Press, 2012). Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; “The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings”; “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.” ]

31 comments for “Ticking Closer to Nuclear Midnight

  1. Grover
    June 1, 2016 at 14:45

    We don’t even know nukes exist; we were told by proven liers/ governments. https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=nuke+hoax

  2. jimbo
    May 31, 2016 at 02:08

    I may be the only one who caught the dig at the Assad regime in Obama’s Hiroshima speech. While he spoke of the horrors of nuclear war he also said we still must deal with primitive weapons like “barrel bombs.”

    “For we see around the world today how even the crudest rifles and barrel bombs can serve up violence on a terrible scale.”

    Have you ever heard barrel bombs mentioned except how Assad uses them against his own people?

  3. Andrew Nichols
    May 29, 2016 at 06:27

    Instead, President Obama has embarked on a trillion dollar program of nuclear modernization

    Funny how those like Clintons team rubbish as pie in the sky unaffordable Sander’s modest proposals for a single payer health and taxpayer provided tertiary education (ie normal uncontroversial policies of civilised nations) for America but never even discuss the affordability of idiotic proposals like this nuke modernisation. What a weird political system.

  4. rick sterling
    May 28, 2016 at 13:52

    This article contains important information and warnings.

    The text of Obama’s speech at Hiroshima is here:

    It’s eloquent but without commitment. It was an opportunity to make a strong commitment or gesture that might have reassured Russia and China, and stop the dangerous drift, but that did not happen.

    Obama offered nice words while the dangers outlined in this article increase.

  5. rick sterling
    May 28, 2016 at 13:00

    This article contains Important review and warnings.

    The text of Obama’s speech at Hiroshima is here:

    It’s eloquent but without commitment. It was an opportunity to make a strong commitment or gesture that might have reassured Russia and China, and stopped the dangerous drift, but that did not happen.

    Obama offered nice words while the dangers outlined in this article increase.

    • Ron Johnson
      May 30, 2016 at 07:14

      I might be the only person who, while reading Obama’s speech, imagined it being delivered by an earnest 17 year old co-ed valedictorian. When it started with the hackneyed imagery, “death fell from the sky,” I knew it was going to be full of flowery words but no content.

      Let me take a moment to write a few lines that Obama should have written:
      “Our top generals opposed the use of the bomb, calling it pure murder, but the political rulers of my country overruled expert advice and common decency. They dropped a single bomb on a city of non-combatants and incinerated tens of thousands of people, then they created a fantastical tale of ‘saving lives’ as their rationale. Do not blame the American people for this evil action and the blatant lies. The American people had nothing to do with the decision, and they were subject to seventy years of propaganda to obfuscate the truth and exonerate the murderers. The fault lies entirely with the elite and secretive political rulers of America at that time. They are long dead, and history is slowly putting their actions into proper perspective.
      “There will be no end to this kind of wanton murder until we recognize that concentrated political power always attracts the power hungry. It was so at the beginning of World War II as it was at the end. It will be true of all future wars, one of which will be the last war for all humanity as the earth will be turned into a massive replica of Hiroshima. I say to the leaders of the world’s nations, stand down. Stand down your armies, stand down your nuclear weapons, stand down your rhetoric. Come to Hiroshima and see what can happen to the entire world.”

  6. Lin Cleveland
    May 28, 2016 at 12:05

    “OK. The trouble is, when you said that*, the whole world heard it. David Cameron in Britain heard it. The Japanese, where we bombed them in ’45, heard it. They’re hearing a guy running for president of the United States talking of maybe using nuclear weapons. Nobody wants to hear that about an American president.”–Chris Matthews

    “Then why,” Trump shoots back in all his politically incorrect, rattle-the-establishment naïveté, “are we making them? Why do we make them?”

    I found the above q and a in a recent Robert Koehler article. During the cold war we kept hearing that defense includes first strike capability. Stop the insanity!

    * Trump began saying he thinks nukes should be off the table but. . .he might find a reason to use them

  7. Silly Me
    May 28, 2016 at 07:11

    With 264 nuclear plants, the US would be extremely prone to complete extinction in a missile war.

    Also, by now, the Russians and the Chinese have apparently agreed that if the US attacks one of them, the other one will attack the US. They are left with no choice, because they know once one of them is defeated, they will be the next.

    So worry about what is happening in Europe and in America now. People are being driven to slavery and most of them are too dumb even to realize.

  8. Peter Loeb
    May 28, 2016 at 06:58


    In a report on the President’s visit to Hiroshima, an NPR anchor asked why it was
    “courageous” for the US under Obama to increase spending on just the kind
    of nuclear weapons we were being lectured against in stentorian and stirring
    words (as per usual by our orator President), more than under previous Presidents.

    There was no answer. A so-called “liberal” continued to say how moving Obama’s
    words were. Which is to say, 150 % evasion. The discussion moved on comfortably
    from there, of course.

    Yes, Barack Obama is certainly great at those moving words. They warm the
    heart as well as the defence contractors’ pockets (profits). They give us all
    that “warm, fruzzy feeling” of goodness, innocent intentions.

    (Obama in a school class must have been one pain!)

    I congratulate NPR as well for the description by a Hiroshima survivor
    who saw men bleeding and holding their eyeballs in their hands.

    —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  9. Call A Spade
    May 28, 2016 at 04:52

    Russia is not blameless in this if they would just renounce their sovereignty and hand it to the west then they would be blameless well maybe.

  10. Secret Agent
    May 28, 2016 at 00:27

    The current thinking is that based on the experience of the Cuban missile crisis, if you take the Russians to the brink of nuclear war, they will back down. However, any mathematician will tell you, it’s impossible to extrapolate from a single instance.

    • Call A Spade
      May 28, 2016 at 04:57

      Mathematicians are the ones that control probability which is good?

    • Helen Marshall
      May 28, 2016 at 17:08

      The Cuban missile crisis is perhaps unique in that JFK and Krushchev actually worked together to defuse it, and then JFK made nuclear disarmament a priority, until he was assassinated. Using the experience of the Cuban crisis to claim that Russia will back down if threatened with nuclear war completely misses the point.

    • Stephen Sivonda
      May 29, 2016 at 01:12

      Secret Agent, a year or so back I saw a Doco that mentioned the Russian sub during the missile crisis and the Captains preparations to launch nukes. It mentioned that he was over ruled by the presence onboard of what they call a political Officer. Then above there were 2 other examples of decisions by the Russians to NOT over react to what seemed like ,as in the submarine example….first strikes by the US. The 1985 example was during the USSR era, the 1995 was post USSR. It’s apparent to me that the Russians are now ,as they were in ALL the previous years , not willing to incinerate the world on a whim. In 1995 the majority of the countries in eastern Europe, the post USSR ones that had their own governments were not members of NATO. Today we are at the COLD WAR part 2 and since the Ukrainian coup in the last 2 years the US has purposely by propaganda managed to recruit several more countries to encircle Russia right up to her borders. So I submit that if…there is any hint of nuke weapons in the air now…there will be no hesitation from Russia .

  11. Joe B
    May 27, 2016 at 21:52

    But it this very fear of nuclear war that the right wing needs to demand domestic power as false protectors.
    Peace is far better served by ignoring the threat, and denouncing the right attempts to create foreign enemies.

    The only risk of nuclear war is that of a small power being bullied by the US enough to install them here and set off a few when the US right wing attacks them. One wonders whether it might be the least unjust means of chastening the right wing.

    • Call A Spade
      May 28, 2016 at 04:59

      Like it. Good Luck

  12. May 27, 2016 at 20:26

    “(Russia is not blameless in these matters, of course.)”

    of course..when it shows concern for what’s going on at its borders, this is seen as very provocative conduct here at master race ghq..

    and women are not blameless in matters of rape, of course, given their provocative dress,attitudes,behavior?


    • Realist
      May 28, 2016 at 05:40

      The author seemed to be making complete sense until he threw that bit of idiocy into his article. For what? Who was he trying to please with that rubbish? Pandering to the warmongers to any degree only lessens his credibility.

    • Gogi
      May 30, 2016 at 07:31

      A quote like the one you mention is a must in any writings concerning american policys visavi Russia. Otherwise you’ll be marked as a “Putin apologist” and never be heard of again.

    • Steve
      May 30, 2016 at 13:27

      I’m glad you both (realist and frank scott) brought this up. My sentiments exactly.

  13. Lois Gagnon
    May 27, 2016 at 19:40

    Is it really surprising that the money worshipers love the bomb? They have no affinity for living things. They love all that money buys them. They know global capitalism is destroying the biosphere and they don’t care. If it all ends tomorrow, they’ll still believe their opulent lifestyle is worth the horrific price of nuclear annihilation. They’ll retreat to their awaiting bunkers believing they will survive. We are ruled by idiot swine.

  14. Pablo Diablo
    May 27, 2016 at 18:53

    Visit the A-Bomb Museum in Hiroshima and see for yourself the sheer enormity of the devastation. And, see the documents of the Japanese willing to surrender days before the bomb. Today’s bombs are much bigger in both scale and evil. M.A.D. is over.

    • Bill Bodden
      May 27, 2016 at 19:43

      Today’s bombs are much bigger in both scale and evil.

      But the attending human elements are no wiser. To the contrary, they may very well be worse.

  15. Gray Brechin
    May 27, 2016 at 17:43

    Several months after Hiroshima-Nagasaki, technology historian Lewis Mumford published an article in the Saturday Review entitled “Gentlemen, You Are Mad,” the gist of which was that not only is the possession of nuclear weapons insane but that they would drive their possessors crazy. How else can one explain why, at the height of the last Cold War, the U.S. had 60,000 nuclear weapons ready to go — except that in addition to the illusion of omnipotence they provide, they are extraordinarily lucrative for their makers. My own institution, the University of California, has been instrumental in producing and promoting new generations of those weapons ever since the Manhattan Project, but no one is so impolite as to broach let alone question that unholy connection today.

    Given the two presumptive candidates, I was terrified about the chances for a nuclear catastrophe after next January, but with the “sane” men and women now playing chicken with Russia and China in their own backyards, we may not have to wait that long. Mumford was so right; he died in 1990 knowing where we are headed.

    • Merf56
      May 31, 2016 at 08:01

      Yours is not the only educational and research institution complicit in such madness. Mine is as well. Talking about it openly will blacklist you and effectively end your career…. Thank you for the apt Mumford reference….

  16. Bill Bodden
    May 27, 2016 at 17:17

    Let’s hope Obama’s visit to Hiroshima rekindles his commitment to helping create a safer world.

    Like so many topics for his speeches, Obama’s words are a con job – not a commitment.

    A book with a collection of essays about Obama by writers who quickly had his number – Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion – had the eye-catching word on its cover: HOPELESS.

    • Call A Spade
      May 28, 2016 at 05:04

      When you vote your vote for an right wing puppet choose who ever you like.

      • Ron Johnson
        May 30, 2016 at 06:28

        Left wing puppets are so much better.

  17. James A. Everett
    May 27, 2016 at 17:02

    I find it terribly sad that so much irrational hate still exists in the minds of certain people in the world. Hopefully those “certain people” will never be in charge of nuclear weapons. The use of an atom/nuclear bomb by any nation in the world against any other nation would be national suicide.

  18. Joe L.
    May 27, 2016 at 16:03

    When it comes to Obama it seems to me that he talks out of both sides of his mouth. He talks about nuclear disarmament along with a world free of nuclear weapons but then his actions of starting a new Cold War along with, I believe, supporting new or upgraded nuclear weapons speaks to the opposite. I rather believe what Chris Hedges had to say about “Brand Obama”:

    Obama’s campaign won the vote of hundreds of marketers, agency heads and marketing-services vendors gathered at the Association of National Advertisers’ annual conference in October. The Obama campaign was named Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008 and edged out runners-up Apple and Zappos.com. Take it from the professionals. Brand Obama is a marketer’s dream. President Obama does one thing and Brand Obama gets you to believe another. This is the essence of successful advertising. You buy or do what the advertiser wants because of how they can make you feel.


    • Call A Spade
      May 28, 2016 at 05:02

      Joel Obama is a right wing puppet you are not seeing the forest for the tree. The system is at climax the only way is not this way.

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