I Saw Nuclear Armageddon Sitting on My Desk
The father of the atomic bomb warned the Red Army could roll over Europe unless the U.S. stockpiled nukes but he was ignored and blackballed. I saw the top-secret danger myself in 1951.
With Russia playing a new game of dangerous brinkmanship – at least 40 scary incidents in the skies with NATO air defenses in the past eight months – it may seem like a Cold War replay. But things were once a lot closer to the brink than most people knew. I knew: Nuclear Armageddon was staring me in the face on a daily basis. Documents marked “Cosmic Top Secret” passed over my desk. They were military assessments of the Soviet Army’s order of battle in Europe. There was, I soon realized, nothing to stop Soviet tanks rolling over the central European plain and all the way to the North Sea coast.
This was not a war game. It was real.
It was 1951 and I was a conscript serving in the Royal Air Force. By pure chance I had been posted to Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers in Europe, SHAPE, on the outskirts of Paris. I was of extremely low rank, a Senior Aircraftman – only one rung above the bottom. Nonetheless, here I was sitting only two offices away from the very top, the office of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander himself.
Ike and his general staff, directing NATO’s European defenses, had seen the same documents, and had reached the same conclusion: Western Europe was defenseless against the Red Army. Militarily, all the European nations were hollow shells, exhausted economically by World War II and only now waking up to their vulnerability in the Cold War.
There was one line of defense left: the atomic bomb. According to the doctrine succinctly described by the acronym of MAD, Mutual Assured Destruction, each side in the Cold War could be deterred from attacking the other only by believing that, if they did, there would be immediate nuclear retaliation. No winners. A world rendered uninhabitable by radiation for centuries.
There was little consolation to be had from this revelation except a bizarre sense of personal privilege. At least I knew the reality behind NATO’s threadbare war exercises and rhetoric – I wore the SHAPE patch on my uniform declaring “Vigilia Pretium Libertatis,” Vigilance is the Price of Liberty, framed by two gold swords meeting at their tips.
Of course, if NATO were to be nuked by the Soviets we would be their Target Number One, politely known as decapitating the command and control. We had no deep bunkers. SHAPE was quartered in a rapidly assembled single-story complex at the edge of one of the Sun King’s hunting grounds at Marly-le-Roi not far from Versailles.
It never came to that, of course. MAD worked. The closest the world came to nuclear oblivion was the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 (which, as it happened, I covered for a British magazine, when I was advised of the location of the nearest nuclear shelter in New York on the fateful Saturday before suddenly Nikita Khruschev capitulated).
However, that early education in Cold War reality left a crucial lesson for me as a journalist: no matter how much you think you know about the true state of a crisis you’ll never know as much as those at the heart of managing it—they are not inclined to enlighten us at the time, and essential facts may be concealed for decades.
As indeed it now turns out was the case with nukes and the Cold War.
In 1954 J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father” of the atomic bomb, had his security clearance revoked and his long and distinguished career as a physicist was prematurely terminated. This was at the height of Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch-hunt of alleged communists in high places. Oppenheimer was suspected of being a Soviet mole on the basis of his associations in the 1930s – his brother and wife had been communist party members, as were many intellectuals of the day.
The accusation was rubbish. Oppenheimer’s work at Los Alamos in the 1940s had given the U.S. nuclear dominance. And now, after 60 years, the disgraceful falsity of the charge has finally been confirmed.
Transcripts from hearings held by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954 have recently been declassified and studied by scholars. The villain turns out to have been Oppenheimer’s mendacious rival physicist, Edward Teller. He told the hearing of Oppenheimer: “I would feel personally more secure if public matters would rest in other hands.”
In fact, Teller was competing with Oppenheimer for resources. Richard Rhodes, author of a history of Teller and his mission to build the Hydrogen Bomb, told The New York Times that Oppenheimer was worried about a ground war in Europe and that the U.S. urgently needed to stockpile atomic weapons to deter Soviet attack. Producing one H-bomb would have diverted enough resources to produce 80 atomic warheads.
In 45 pages of declassified testimony, Walter G. Whitman, a member of the Atomic Energy Commission’s advisory body, said of Oppenheimer: “…his advice and his arguments for a gamut of atomic weapons…has been more productive than any other one individual.”
The Energy Department, successor to the Atomic Energy Commission, has not explained why it has taken so long to release papers that would vindicate Oppenheimer and show that he was among those who knew how precarious NATO’s defenses were.
As I had seen at first hand, Eisenhower’s planners at SHAPE basically abandoned any hope of NATO ever being able to match the size of Soviet land forces. (I also realized at the time that NATO had no navies equal to the threat posed by the Soviets, particularly their strength in submarines.)
That left nuclear weapons as the only resort to stop a Soviet invasion. But what kind of nuclear weapons? The first intercontinental ballistic missile in the U.S. arsenal, the Atlas, was still seven years away from being deployed – with a warhead 100 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.
Bombers remained the only way of delivering nuclear weapons. So the urgent technical challenge was to reduce the size and weight of the nuclear warheads so that they could be delivered by a force of new, fast, high-altitude bombers. In 1944 the Pentagon drew up the specifications for a such a bomber but it was entirely theoretical—a jet that could fly that fast and high and evade air defenses had yet to be developed and was way beyond the technical knowledge of U.S. airplane builders until they were able to tap into secret German projects uncovered at the end of the war.
Only in 1953 was the first unit with those bombers, Boeing B-47s, ready to be deployed in Europe from a base in England. Oppenheimer’s priority had been to use his resources to develop warheads compact enough for the B-47. (In fact, by then the technology was advancing so fast that the bomb bay in the B-47 was soon able to be reduced in size, making the airplane more effective.)
But there was a much more challenging idea that the SHAPE planners wanted before they were confident that they could deal with the Soviets: tactical nuclear weapons, able to be moved into battlefields and be fired with precision at targets like tank formations. In 1957 the U.S. Army first fielded artillery able to fire shells with atomic warheads.
It was, however, a cumbersome weapon. Retired Major General William F. Burns recalled a few years ago being a young first lieutenant assigned to Europe from Fort Sill in Oklahama with the first of these weapons. It was a decades-old howitzer Burns called a “multi-ton behemoth” and the atomic shell had a range of only ten miles. It took an hour to ready the warhead for firing.
Underpinning the use of tactical nuclear weapons was the somewhat optimistic belief that a Cold War battle might be fought with some nuclear weapons without escalating to an all-out catastrophic nuclear exchange. Yet defenders of the policy can now claim with credibility that it was the threat of these tactical weapons that saved Europe when it was otherwise defenseless.
Sadly, it was Eisenhower himself who was placed in the position of beginning the process of ending Oppenheimer’s role.
A year after I arrived at SHAPE we were aware that his old wartime chief of staff George C. Marshall, author of the eponymous plan to rebuild Europe after the war, had stopped by on a mysterious mission. Later it became clear that he had persuaded Eisenhower to leave SHAPE and run for president in 1952. I have photos I took of Ike waving farewell to his staff from the top of the steps to the airplane that flew him home from Paris on June 1, 1952 – a striking reminder of how short a presidential campaign could be back then.
Early in 1953 Oppenheimer headed a State Department panel that recommended that Eisenhower adopt a policy of openness and candor about nuclear weapons with the American people. Eisenhower was sympathetic. (This was, after all, the U.S. President who when he left office presciently warned of the excessive powers of the Military Industrial Complex.) The idea gained traction under the name of Operation Candor, and urged disclosure of the true size of the U.S. nuclear weapon stockpile and its rate of increase.
But some of those around Eisenhower thought him gullible and that, under Oppenheimer’s influence, information would be released that would be valuable to the Soviets.
One of these critics was William Borden, executive director of the congressional joint committee on atomic energy. Later Borden sent a message to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover saying “based on years of study of the available classified evidence” Oppenheimer was “more probably than not” an agent of the Soviet Union.
Borden provided no documentary proof of this, but Hoover informed the White House and Eisenhower directed that a “blank wall” be placed between Oppenheimer and classified information – a move that essentially made it impossible for Oppenheimer to continue his career. Such was the corrosive paranoia of the time, fueled by McCarthy and abetted by Hoover.
At SHAPE Eisenhower had sustained his reputation as a general who was empathetic with enlisted men and intolerant of mediocrity in an officer – both traits that I saw at first hand. But his temper was frequently tested by his co-commander, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, the British war hero.
They were an odd match. “Monty” was a bantam-sized martinet known to be cautious in battle until he felt he had overwhelming strength and, at the same time, prone to theatrical plans that sometimes went amiss, like Operation Market Garden, an attempt to seize bridges over the Rhine toward the end of World War II using paratroops dropped far ahead of supply lines, a disaster memorialized in the movie (and the phrase) A Bridge Too Far.
Ike was the ultimate organizational genius, and a patient diplomat not only with Monty but with a wide variety of competing egos from the other NATO armed forces. Like most of the senior officers around him, Ike had seen ghastly battlefield carnage at first hand and wanted, at all costs, to avoid reliving total war again. Monty and Ike both had grey-blue eyes; Monty’s were narrow, cold and steely, Ike’s had more warmth but a suggestion of some kind of unspoken desolation. Both men had the inner scars of having done something few do, command large armies in great battles with a cost to their psyches that could only be estimated.
I found that serving under American officers was usually a lot more congenial than under Brits. There was far less sense that military rank was aligned with social rank. My immediate chief was a Lieutenant Colonel Verne L. Bowers, clearly picked out by Eisenhower as a highly talented staff officer. Bowers was always open to ideas, no matter from how low a level they originated, and when I had the cheek to suggest faster paths through the army paperwork he adopted them, with thanks.
Nonetheless I very nearly lost my post at SHAPE. We all had very tight security vettings but I was young and callow and not fully aware of how tight the security was for those who had the clearance to see Cosmic Top Secrets. I innocently wrote a letter home to my mother telling her how great the French chef was in the headquarters canteen.
Unknown to me, the letter, like all my mail, had been intercepted by British military intelligence. I was summoned to a bleak room and told by two blow-hards that on no account was I to write to anyone about anything describing even the most seemingly harmless functions of SHAPE, that any and all details could be useful to the enemy and if I didn’t understand this I would be re-assigned to the war zone where many of my contemporaries were serving: Korea. I promised never again to wax lyrical about the fries in gravy.
There was an unexpected sequel to my time serving Colonel Bowers. When I returned to civilian life and work as a reporter on a local newspaper, I was assigned to cover the recipients of medals awarded to mark the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. It turned out that one of them was awarded to me. It was, I have to say, at the bottom of the hierarchy of royal honors, a British Empire Medal. But it was a real gong and it came with a nice ribbon and a letter from the Queen.
I later discovered that I had been nominated by Colonel Bowers, who ended a very distinguished career in the 1970s as the Adjutant General of the U.S. Army.