Introduction: This article is a sidebar to Rick’s article, “Ukraine War Pushes World Towards Nuclear Precipice,” which is also posted in Unity 2022, News & Analysis section.
During my seven decades of life, the world has existed with, and somehow avoided the accidental or intentional use of, weapons from a global inventory that currently includes about 13,000 nuclear warheads.
Much of that arsenal comprises weapons dozens of times more powerful than the bombs that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 (five years before I was born). The United States and Russia each have currently deployed more than 1,500 of these hugely destructive strategic weapons – probably enough to erase human life from the planet.
Yet thoughts and feelings about this smoldering nuclear threat rarely intrude upon our private thoughts or public discourse. True, academicians debate nuclear strategies. Annual days of remembrance recall the horrific destruction of the U.S. bombs dropped on Japan. Occasional nuclear power plant accidents briefly highlight the lethality and persistence of radioactive materials and waste.
But mostly, life, and business, go on.
I first encountered a nuclear weapon – really, a delivery system without a nuclear warhead attached – some time before my ninth birthday. My father, an officer in the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps stationed in what was then West Germany, visited a muddy parcel of land where armaments of the quarter-million American troops in that country were test fired. He brought me along.
The purpose of the day was to observe the deployment and firing of something called an “atomic cannon” – referred to by the Army as a 280-millimeter cannon or 280 mm.
Now as a child on Army bases, I had seen cannons and caissons and camouflage aplenty. But I had never seen anything like the 280 mm: a 40-foot-long tube, sitting atop a steel gun carriage, with the capacity to lob one of its 800-pound, 54-inch-long shells up into the air and at least 20 miles away.
It seemed a miracle that this 85-foot-long, 84-ton assembly of steel could move at all. That feat, I later learned, was accomplished by attaching a 375-horsepower tractor to each end of the gun carriage.
In fact, the 280 mm was designed to make right-angle turns and move along a highway at 35 miles per hour. A Defense Department propaganda film posted on YouTube shows a 280 mm passing through the streets of Las Vegas in May 1953.[i]
But size and mobility weren’t the half of it. The 280 mm was designed to fire nuclear shells containing fissionable material with the same explosive punch as the atomic bomb that had dropped on Hiroshima.
I vaguely remember being given earplugs. I don’t recall seeing the 280 mm discharged. And I never heard the critics who said that the 280 mm would stick out like a sore thumb (and easy target) on a battlefield.
Yet even my eight-year-old mind couldn’t regard the 280 mm as an atomic peer of the Navy’s nuclear submarines, the long-range missiles hidden in hardened underground silos in the American west or the Air Force’s B-52 bombers (I had used kits to make plastic models of those).
The 280 mm sparked a macabre debate among military planners. A 1963 magazine article summarized a portion of the dispute: “The Air Force demanded to know why the Army should have a weapon that could paralyze cities at the press of a button? Strategic destruction of cities is the Air Force’s job, (Air Force leaders) contended.”[ii]
But Army brass prevailed with the argument that “since its soldiers were required to take ground in a battle, they needed a tactical nuclear weapon.”[iii]
The one they got is shown in the propaganda film posted on YouTube. It records the 280 mm arriving at a test site in Nevada, preparations by serious-faced soldiers, the command to fire and, at the end, the eruption of a distant mushroom cloud marking detonation of an atomic shell.
Ultimately, this nuclear addition to the Army’s arsenal had a short shelf life (and, fortunately, was never taken off the shelf for use in battle). Only 20 of the 280 mms were produced, and within a decade all had been consigned to museums or junk yards, supplanted by missiles and smaller artillery pieces that were more mobile and effective at delivering so-called “tactical” nukes.
The 280 mms were mainly deployed in Germany, where they proved to be troublesome and, when they were discharged, very noisy neighbors. “Villagers thought it was like having boxcars flying overhead,” according to a military historian. “Farmers blamed (280 mm’s) for chickens not laying eggs and cows not giving milk, and even said that the shells prevented women from getting pregnant.”[iv]
Even some of their minders celebrated the disappearance of the giant cannons. “The last time I saw one, it was sprawled on its side in a ditch near a little town in Germany,” an Army officer told a reporter in 1963. “That was over three years ago and as far as I know that big, ugly brute might still be there.”[v]
That’s the image with which I would love to conclude this essay: an outmoded weapon lying by the roadside, abandoned along with the nuclear technology that had proved too terrible for another use by humanity.
But the 280 mm’s demise is little more than a footnote in the actual history of the world’s nuclear arsenals. During a multi-decade arms race, the United States and Soviet Union scrambled to outpace each other in the development of nuclear weapons. The bombs and warheads got bigger. The range and reach of the bombers and missiles that delivered them got longer. The volume of mass killing devices climbed into the tens of thousands.
And within two years of my encounter with the atomic cannon, a series of events demonstrated (as they were gradually revealed and understood) the ever-present danger that nuclear weapons might be used – intentionally by nuclear leaders or rogue actors or by accident. Those events also exposed the mechanisms and modes of organization and disorganization that could escalate a relatively small or isolated nuclear event into a civilization-ending all-out conflagration.
Those events occurred during October 1962, in what became known as the Cuba Missile Crisis.
That crisis intruded upon my pre-adolescent world in the form of news reports that the Soviet Union had placed missiles in Cuba capable of raining atomic weapons onto cities thousands of miles away. One of the cities presumed to be a target: Washington, D.C., the metropolitan area to which my family had moved when my father was transferred from Germany to a job in the Pentagon.
I remember attending a Boy Scout meeting during the crisis. Before pledging our patriotism and working on merit badges, we stood around trying to impress each other with our disdain for the danger. We interspersed bad jokes with tough exclamations of steely resolve. We knew, but no one said out loud, that our meeting place in a Congregational church in a Virginia suburb sat in dangerous proximity to the White House, the Pentagon and other obvious nuclear targets. But we didn’t know what to do with that knowledge.
We had become pawns in a nuclear chess game that pitted John F. Kennedy, the charismatic cold warrior in his second year as U.S. president, against Nikita Khrushchev, the rotund and voluble Soviet premier who had a few years earlier filled the leadership vacuum left by the death of Stalin.
The crux, as we were told: Khrushchev had sent ships loaded with nuclear-tipped missiles to Cuba. Kennedy had objected and instituted a naval blockade to stop the shipments. The Soviet missiles could reach American cities (including Washington), which we were told was a dangerous provocation. U.S. missiles could reach Soviet cities, which we were told was a rational move to defend freedom. Kennedy told Khrushchev to remove his missiles. Khrushchev balked. The world waited to see who would back down.
As the crisis generated headlines, announcers on TV talked about bomb shelters and canned goods and duck and cover drills. I don’t remember my fellow scouts and schoolmates practicing any of it. Nuclear weapons seemed like props in a melodrama – posing no more immediate danger to us than the movie guns fired in High Noon.
The reality was more serious. In his 2008 book One Minute to Midnight, former Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs described the events of Oct. 27, the fateful Saturday in which the finger of fate repeatedly brushed the superpowers’ nuclear hair triggers and barely avoided an apocalyptic discharge: “Soviet nuclear warheads were transported closer to Cuban missile sites, a U-2 spy plane (from the United States) was shot down over eastern Cuba, another U-2 strayed over the Soviet Union, a Soviet nuclear-armed submarine was forced to the surface by U.S. Navy depth charges, the Cubans began firing on low-flying U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, the Joint Chiefs of Staff finalized plans for an all-out invasion of Cuba, and the Soviets brought tactical nuclear weapons to within fifteen miles of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay,” he wrote. “Any one of these incidents could have led to a nuclear exchange between the two superpowers.”[vi]
How close was disaster? In a 1999 foreword to Robert F. Kennedy’s Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, historian Arthur Schlesinger described how “two superpowers overarmed with nuclear weapons challenged each other in what could have spiraled so easily into the ultimate catastrophe.”[vii] The result, Schlesinger added, was “a narrow escape from oblivion.”[viii]
JFK shared that assessment, according to Herbert Lin, a senior research scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation: “During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy estimated the odds of war between the United States and the Soviet Union at somewhere between one-in-three and one-in-two.”
Which raises the question: what are the unstated and unseen nuclear dangers embedded in the Ukraine war? What thoughts and judgments are guiding or driving the leaders of Russia and the United States, the world’s two nuclear superpowers, as they consider – or not – the use of nuclear weapons in what has so far been a non-nuclear conflict? What are the chances that one side or the other will use a nuclear weapon? What are the chances that such an event could escalate into an all-out nuclear conflagration?
The public statements of the two sides comprise only part of the story. Ultimately, the responsibility for avoiding nuclear apocalypse rests on the shoulders of the political and military leaders of Russia and the United States.
We must hope that historians will survive to someday critically examine the decisions and actions of those leaders.
Rick Jurgens lives in Vermont and is a retired newspaper reporter and former contributor to Unity newspaper. He also worked as a letter carrier, steelworker and cab driver. Off work, he was a member of Tenants Action Group, the International Hotel Support Committee, the Committee Against Nihonmachi Evictions, the Bennie Lenard Support Committee, the Harvard-Radcliffe Committee on Central America and the Central America Solidarity Association.