The Real Story of How We Came Close to Nuclear Armageddon
A new documentary focuses on the Sept. 19, 1980, explosion of one of the Air Force’s Titan II missiles in Arkansas—a Kafkaesque saga of human error and bureaucratic incompetence.
We live in terrifying times.
Nuclear Armageddon, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, remains a distinct possibility in the post-Cold War world, and that’s not just because Iran continues its bellicose saber-rattling and North Korea presses on with warlike weapons testing.
As documentary director Robert Kenner and investigative journalist Eric Schlosser chillingly demonstrate in their film Command and Control—which opens today in New York and, later, nationwide—it’s also because America’s apocalyptic arsenal is alarmingly accident-prone.
Yet, as Kenner and Schlosser sat at a conference table in their Manhattan publicist’s office the other day, that didn’t seem to be their most immediate worry.
“Quite honestly, I spend a lot of time with people who handle nuclear weapons, either as launch officers, weapons designers, maintenance guys or the commanders, and they had to undergo something called the Personnel Reliability Program,” said Schlosser, whose much-lauded 2013 book of the same title was the basis for Command and Control. “They had to undergo really strict psychological evaluation, mental health evaluation.
“Donald Trump would be disqualified from handling and working with American nuclear weapons because of his history of lying, because of the evidence of a kind of instability, and because of his financial dealings. If you’re a young launch officer, and they find that you’ve run up a huge amount of credit card debt—”
“And bankruptcies,” Kenner chimed in.
“And bankruptcies,” Schlosser agreed, “that could get you disqualified from handling nuclear weapons. They want people who are considered reliable. They want people who can’t be blackmailed. So it’s amazing that our potential commander in chief probably literally couldn’t pass the psychological evaluation.”
While the filmmakers conceded that Hillary Clinton hardly enjoys a sterling record of candor—notably failing to promptly disclose her bout with pneumonia, or her tall tales of landing “under sniper fire” in war-torn Bosnia—Kenner argued: “She’s not totally unstable. I think she could get us into land wars, but not necessarily shooting off missiles to do it. I think she would like to be on the earth…I think there’s a psychological advantage that she might have, although I disagree with her political instincts.”
So both men, residents of Democrat-leaning California, plan to hold their noses and cast their ballots for Clinton, though Kenner mused that since she’s likely to carry the state anyway, “our votes don’t mean anything.”
“I’m voting against Donald Trump,” Schlosser confided. “I can’t bear the guy.”
Their movie focuses on a little-remembered Sept. 19, 1980 explosion of one of the Air Force’s Titan II missiles in Damascus, Ark.—an aging and nearly obsolete two-decade-old technology that was mainly kept in the active arsenal as a bargaining chip in potential negotiations with the Soviets.
It’s a Kafkaesque saga of human error, panicked decision-making, bureaucratic incompetence, groupthink and ass-covering that could have resulted in millions of deaths if the 9-megaton warhead had detonated, a very real a risk, unleashing a destructive force equivalent to three times that of all the bombs dropped during World War II, including the atomic devices dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“This was a microcosm of all those other incidents,” said Kenner, whose film notes that at least a thousand mishaps of varying degrees of severity—most of them only acknowledged in recently declassified Air Force documents—have occurred over the past five decades. The Air Force brass has toiled assiduously to keep such lapses from the public.
This past January, the Air Force finally summarized but refused to provide details of a May 2014 incident at a Minuteman 3 launch silo on the Colorado-Nebraska border—in which three airmen were stripped of their nuclear certifications after damaging a missile during a routine diagnostic test—but this basic information was shared only after the Associated Press filed more than a year’s worth of legal challenges in support of a Freedom of Information Act request.
“Shit happened. It was called ‘human error,’ but it has kept happening and happening and happening,” Kenner said. “And at some point you have to think it’s a systemic problem.”
Featuring on-camera interviews with participants, real-time news footage, Air Force training films and dramatic re-enactments (the filmmakers were granted access to the silo and deactivated missile at the Titan Museum in Sahuarita, Arizona), Command and Control presents a gripping minute-by-minute narrative of the Arkansas accident 36 years ago, back when Jimmy Carter was president and Bill Clinton was a 34-year-old first-term governor; one Air Force enlisted man was killed and several others were grievously injured in the explosion as they tried to stop a fuel leak eight stories below ground in a Titan II missile silo—briefly generating national headlines before being quickly forgotten.
The shocking thing is that an unprecedented catastrophe almost occurred because of a series of cascading misjudgments, usually animated by the Air Force hierarchy’s inflexible edicts and the unwillingness of underlings to disobey orders—all started by the most mundane of mistakes, when a socket slipped out of an airman’s grasp, striking the missile and causing a vapor emission during a routine maintenance procedure on a missile.
In the end, the critical—indeed, fatal—decisions were made by a top general in the Strategic Air Command hundreds of miles away, Vice SAC Commander Lloyd Leavitt, who had scant experience with or knowledge of Titan II missile silos. The brave men in their early twenties who risked their lives to carry out the general’s orders, even though they knew he was ill-informed and misguided, were variously blamed, disciplined, and drummed out of the Air Force in the aftermath of explosion.
“To err is human,” retired Col. John T. Moser, commander of the 308th Strategic Missile Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base, notes in the film. “To forgive isn’t SAC policy.” (Leavitt, perhaps understandably, didn’t respond to the filmmakers’ request to appear on camera.)
“He had no first-hand knowledge of the systems he was making decisions about, and he made some incredibly poor decisions,” Schlosser said, listing a catalogue of missteps, notably ordering the evacuation of the silo’s relatively safe command center, which prevented any measure of control of the situation, and ordering the repair crew to cut their way through heavy blast doors to get to the missile instead of climbing down through an open escape hatch. “He was never punished in any way. The guys who risked their lives, knowing that this was a terrible plan, and that they had come up with a much better plan—they were stigmatized and demonized, and they will carry the weight of what happened with them for the rest of their lives.”
The Air Force, meanwhile, worked feverishly to protect its brass from scrutiny and went to absurd lengths to enforce secrecy, consistently refusing to confirm or deny—even to Vice President Walter Mondale, who happened to be in Arkansas for a campaign event—that the destroyed missile had carried a live warhead (which was ejected during the blast and eventually discovered in a ditch).
“The Air Force rationale—and I’m not defending it—is that we were in the middle of the Cold War at a time when the Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan, when America had its hostages in Iran, and we were perceived as being very weak,” Schlosser said. “It’s true that the American nuclear arsenal was aging, but it was better to blame these guys than to admit we had a weapons system that was obsolete and problematic.”
The maddening irony, Schlosser said, was while the Air Force hid the truth about the deteriorating condition of its 54 siloed Titan IIs from the American public, the Soviets had effectively infiltrated the program and knew everything there was to know about it—owing to a young deputy commander of a missile complex in Kansas who had spilled the secrets of launch codes, attack options and the weapon system’s vulnerabilities in multiple visits and phone calls to the Soviet embassy in Washington.
Since the accident at Damascus, Arkansas, the Titan II has been replaced by more accurate intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying far less destructive warheads, and the United States has decreased its nuclear arsenal from around 32,000 weapons to 7,000 today—about 900 of which are ready-to-launch.
Kenner and Schlosser hope their documentary might end up influencing policymakers to increase vigilance and ensure the safety of these weapons of mass destruction—much as the 1983 made-for-television movie about a nuclear apocalypse, The Day After, famously influenced President Ronald Reagan to commence arms control negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev.
“This is the most important issue that’s not being discussed in this campaign,” Kenner said.
Command and Control is released Sept. 14, at Film Forum in New York City and Sept. 30, at the Nuart Theatre, Los Angeles