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Guest Commentary

Close calls


CITYVIEW magazine asked its Facebook readers: “Is North Korea the ‘biggest threat to humankind’?”

Nov. 9, 1979, 2 a.m.:
In the depths of the Strategic Air Command’s underground bunker in Omaha, technicians stare at electronic monitors that scan the night skies, a vigilance that has been maintained for decades. Suddenly the screens show tiny dots that slowly enlarge to show hundreds of missiles sweeping across the Atlantic toward America. Calculations indicate the barrage will pulverize our eastern cities within two minutes.

If the vision on the screen is real, America has only fleeting moments to counterattack before a good share of our missiles and bombers are destroyed on the ground.

SAC alerts Air Force bases, and standby crews are ordered to man their bombers. One SAC officer argues for an immediate missile launch.

A call from the Pentagon awakens Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter.

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An aide to Brzezinski confirms that SAC is going forward with preparations, and is told that the apparent Russian assault involves 2,200 missiles — “an all-out attack.”

“Sitting alone in the middle of the night, Brzezinski had not awakened his wife, reckoning that everyone would be dead in half an hour,” according to General Robert Gates, Carter’s military aide, describing the incident in his book, “Shadow of Power.”

“Brzezinski was convinced we had to hit back.”

Brzezinski was seconds away from alerting the president and recommending that we respond with an all-out attack on Russia — guaranteeing the H-bomb exchange that would destroy much of humanity.

At SAC, the countdown was ticking off what the monitors feared might be the civilized world’s final 30 seconds.
The seconds passed.

No explosions. Total false alarm.

What had happened?

Some flunky in SAC had carelessly stuck a training tape into a computer.

• • •

The Nov. 9, 1979, entry in “White House Diary,” Carter’s day-by-day account of his presidency, makes no mention of the incident. It was years before it became public knowledge. But had key officers at SAC not kept their cool, the date — “119” — would symbolize a monstrously more devastating moment in history than “911” does today.

“Such were the terrors and nightmares of the Cold War, now faded so far from memory,” Gates wrote.

Maybe too far from memory, in the opinion of scientists and military experts. The incident demonstrated that a trillion-dollar defense system could, incredibly, be compromised by a two-bit error; that the very existence of humanity could be ended by one empty-headed individual’s incompetence.

Today, nuclear fears center on a North Korean madman who preaches hatred of America, his nation’s long-ago wartime enemy, and seems to have dedicated his life and all of North Korea’s assets to creating a confrontation that could mean mutual suicide. But his madness is equaled or surpassed by the madness of complacency concerning the huge stockpiles of monstrous bombs awaiting accidental detonation. And the vigilance vital to security, according to some reports, remains dangerously relaxed.

• • •

The United States and Russia each have more than 7,000 nuclear warheads. Seven other nations also have some, and four nations — North Korea, Israel, India and Pakistan — have refused to sign the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

In his latest book, “Duty,” General Gates recalls another “bent spear” event in which a B-52 bomber took off from Minot, North Dakota, and landed in Louisiana carrying six live nuclear bombs. The plane was left unattended on the tarmac for 11 hours before the potential danger was discovered.

In 1995, Russian radar showed a rocket soaring near its air space. President Boris Yeltsin was alerted. But he refused to believe it was an American missile — thankfully. It turned out to be a Norwegian scientific rocket.

More recently, a declassified document revealed a long-hidden 1961 nightmare: We came within a hair of nuking North Carolina when a B-52 broke up in mid-air and dropped two hydrogen bombs. They contained 260 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. Three of the four safety mechanisms affixed to the bombs failed. One low-voltage safety switch worked properly. It saved millions of American lives.

That was one of 1,200 nuclear weapon accidents recorded between 1950 and 1968. How many others have occurred since 1968? That info is still “classified.”

Some recent accounts tell of inadequately trained, bored-to-death personnel manning the missile silos, and wholesale cheating on the tests used to check the crews’ competence. And, of course, one must wonder whether missile crews on the other half of the globe are equally under-trained, equally bored.

“The threat posed by human error and accidents is compounded by our dangerous approach to nuclear security,” wrote Sean Meyer, strategic campaigns manager for the U.S. Union of Concerned Scientists. Missiles in our 454 silos are on “hair trigger” alert, Meyer said, making it “more likely that one or more missiles will be launched by accident, without authorization, or in response to a false warning of an incoming attack.”

Some top military leaders have argued that rocket-launching planes and submarines are more than sufficient, meaning land-based missiles could be safely eliminated. But missile-silo-state politicians object; they collect $100-millon-plus yearly for silo-maintenance.

• • •

The passage of time encourages a dangerous complacency that enables and encourages us to ignore — and even deny the existence of — the crises already upon us. A prime example: Climate change. We eat well and ignore soil losses; we trust our faucets to deliver safe water and ignore the diminishing reservoirs and aquifers while factory farms poison them. Monsanto’s “neonic” pesticides are wiping out America’s bees, creatures that are necessary for the pollination of an endless list of healthy foods.

We could halt or reverse the creeping catastrophes. But, hey, we’ve lucked out for decades. ♦

Bill Leonard, now retired, was a longtime editorial writer for The Des Moines Register.

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