Things Every Adult Ought to Know
We’ve been living under the shadow of the mushroom cloud for going on 76 years. It was on a Monday, August 6, 1945, that the Japanese city of Hiroshima was virtually fried off the face of the Earth by a single nuclear weapon dropped by an American Army Air Forces B-29.
Hiroshima, Burnt Out of Existence.
The bomb had exploded at approximately 8:16am, Japan Standard Time. An estimated 80,000 people were killed, either instantly by the momentary +10,000ºF temperature within the bomb’s 1,200-feet in diameter fireball or within moments by the firestorm that hellpoint ignited in the city 1,900 feet below it. Everything — vehicles, mules, birds, people, structures (except for a very few reinforced concrete, earthquake resistant buildings) — within a mile radius of ground zero was vaporized. Outside that circle, extending out another mile, everything was burned in a wind-driven inferno that lasted for hours. Only a lack of stuff left to burn caused the firestorm to fizzle out.
Within the next few months and years some 6000 more people died from radiation effects. Those who were in the blast zone and survived experienced for the rest of their lives a high risk of cancer directly related to their exposure to radiation
That particular bomb today seems laughably primitive. Even when it was dropped, Manhattan Project physicists and Army Air Forces commanders understood a much more complicated but also more efficient bomb would be used in the ensuing days as well as in future warfare. The Hiroshima bomb, nicknamed Little Boy, was a gun-type shell that produced a nuclear fission explosion. Its designers had re-purposed a large-bore naval artillery gun and encased it in a ten-foot-long aerodynamic cylinder. At the moment of detonation, a pellet of Uranium-235 was fired down the length of the gun tube until it nestled precisely within a hollow cylinder, also made of U-235. That created a critical mass, initiating an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction, releasing heat, light and X-ray energy of previously unimaginable proportions.
Three days later, another B-29 dropped a second nuclear weapon, this one nicknamed Fat Man, on the city of Nagasaki. In Fat Man, a 3 1/2-inch diameter ball of plutonium was squeezed into critical mass by a concentric shell of explosives, the resultant heat and blast wave killing another 75,000 or so people either instantly or by the explosion’s aftereffects. Japan surrendered within a week.
In the whole of human history, a total of more than 150,000 people have been killed in the only two wartime uses of nuclear weapons. Since those two incidents, the world’s nation have constructed well more than 60,000 nuclear weapons. A more exact total is impossible to ascertain since each nation’s nuclear weapon inventory is kept secret. Thus far, eight nations have been recognized as possessing nuclear weapons. They are the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, China, North Korea, Pakistan, and India. Most observers believe Israel also possesses a nuclear inventory but that nation refuses to verify it, preferring to let its Middle East rivals fret over the question. Were you to state in court that Israel is a nuclear power, it’s a good bet you wouldn’t be at risk of perjuring yourself.
By the way, it’s generally acknowledged that South Africa, under its apartheid rulers, had built a few nuclear weapons but after the African National Congress ousted that regime, the nation’s nuclear bombs were dismantled. Knowing humanity as we do, South Africa’s actions in this matter remain stunning to this day.
The nuclear bombs nations posses in the year 2021 (some 13,000-plus overall) are mostly of the thermonuclear variety. Dubbed “The Super” by its earliest advocate, physicist Edward Teller, and commonly known as the hydrogen bomb, a thermonuclear device actually uses an old fashioned atom bomb, something akin to the Nagasaki explosive, its critical mass being depleted uranium, as a detonator. When a hydrogen bomb is dropped, the atom bomb within it explodes, creating enough heat to cause a fusion reaction. In the old fission bombs, atomic nuclei caught in the chain reaction are split apart, releasing energy. In Teller et al‘s “Super,” the energy created by those spiltting nuclei is merely the match the lights the real guts of the thing, a mass of hydrogen isotopes. The nuclei of those hydrogen isotopes are fused together, forming helium atoms, the same type of reaction that goes on in the cores of stars. In order for the bomb to cause that fusion, that temperature must momentarily reach about 180,000,000ºF.
Fission vs. Fusion.
The blast generated by a hydrogen bomb makes both the Little Boy and Fat Man explosions look like firecrackers set off by children. Were a one-megaton hydrogen bomb dropped on Hiroshima that day in August 1845, its destructive power — including to one degree or another, the crushing overpressure, initial and residual radiation, heat and resultant fires — everything within a nearly five-mile radius would effectively be destroyed with significant damage to structures within a seven-plus-mile radius. A lethal dose of radiation would extend outward, depending on wind direction and speed up to 90 miles. Death for anyone caught within that radiation plume would ensue within two weeks. An area of up to 250 miles distant, again depending on wind speed and direction, would be uninhabitable for up to three years.
By the way, a megaton in nuke-speak is analogous to one million tons of TNT. That’s big. How big? Consider this: the biggest thermonuclear device ever exploded, the USSR’s “Tsar Bomba,” dropped from an airplane in October 1961 over the absolute nowheresville locale of Russia’s Novaya Zemliya island archipelago north of the Arctic Circle, had a yeild of 50 megatons. The crew of the aircraft that dropped the bomb barely survived the blast even though the plane was more than 24 miles away at the moment of the explosion. Soviet planners previously had estimated the crew would have a 50 percent chance of surviving the blast but it was important enough to them to risk those lives in order to prove to the United States how big its nuclear dick was.
The Tsar Bomba’s Explosive Force in Terms of a Cube of TNT. That’s the Eiffel Tower on the Left, for Comparison.
Here in the United States, a nation just as concerned with nuclear genital size as the (now) Russians, we go about our daily business, most of us, believing only the president can authorize the use of nuclear weapons by our armed forces. To this point, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force (the Army Air Forces became a separate service in 1947) possess and control separate nuclear stockpiles. Spy movies and suspense novels over the last eight decades have led us to believe the President of the United States travels around followed by a military officers carrying the “Football,” a briefcase containing the launch codes and communications devices that allow only him (that gender thus far) to “press the red button.” No general or admiral, the belief goes, no matter how high up in the chain of command, can launch the Bomb without a presidential go-ahead.
It’s all bullshit.
A Member of the Armed Services Carrying “The Football” Accompanies the President at All Times.
From the weeks before the Hiroshima bombing when Harry S Truman lay awake in bed for nights at a time trying to decide whether to authorize the use of this nation’s terrible new weapon, the assumption always has been it’s the president who has the sole authority to use a nuclear bomb. The average American thinks there’s some kind of mechanical barrier — that “Football” — in addition to tradition and an abundance of prudence that make it impossible for anyone but the Chief Executive to make such an apocalyptic decision.
Not so. Not at all.
In fact, the number of people who can elect to drop a hydrogen bomb on a city — be it Moscow, Beijing, Tehran or any major metropolis in a country that happens to stick in their craw at that moment — reaches into the thousands.
Let’s ponder that again: thousands of people, American people, can, on a whim, obliterate a major world city, killing hundreds of thousands, even millions, in a blinding flash of light and heat.
In the last few years, a number of books have been published recounting the history of this Holy Land’s nuclear arsenal. That history has been a doozy.
Two books in particular illuminate what is in reality a not-very controlled control of this nation’s nuclear arsenal. It can be assumed that the arsenals of Russia and at least some of the rest of the nuclear powers are similarly left in the hands of many people, not all of whom, of course, have been vetted for sanity, compassion, morality, or decency. The books are reporter Fred Kaplan’s The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War, and Daniel Ellsberg‘s The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear Planner.
Kaplan‘s book is largely based on Freedom of Information Act requests as well as scheduled classified information releases. Ellsberg’s research was more direct; he was a nuclear war planner for the RAND Corporation, the nonprofit financed by the US government to analyze, basically, how big and effective our military dick is.
Both Kaplan and Ellsberg became aghast at both the destructive power of our nuclear arsenal and the mechanisms to control and utilize it. Both authors remark every president from John F. Kennedy to the present day * were stunned by the power they controlled, a capability they learned their first days in office. And, yes, there is a “Football” and it does indeed contain the codes the president needs to launch a nuclear attack. But that “Football” is no barrier to all those people whose fingers are not on the nation’s entire nuclear inventory but merely some of it.
[ * Not only that, the succeeding presidents to a man immediately became convinced the nuclear arms race must be reversed, with one exception, acc’d’g to Kaplan. When the 45th President took office, he nearly gleefully urged his military commanders to increase significantly the number of nuclear weapons in the United States arsenal, just because, it can be surmised, bigger is better.]
Those button-pushers range from military theater commanders, admirals or generals in charge of broad regions of operation like the Pacific Ocean or Europe down to bomber pilots and submarine captains whose craft are laden with one or more thermonuclear weapons. For instance, acc’d’g to Ellsberg, President Harry Truman in the early 1950s gave the then-named Commander in Chief–Pacific Command (CINCPAC), Admiral Harry Felt the authority to use any and all of the nuclear weapons under his command, basically, any time he felt the need to. That order, Felt attested, had never been rescinded by the time The Doomsday Machine was published.
Going one step further, Regional CINC’s have authorized pilots and submarine commanders to use their thermonuclear weapons at their individual discretion any time communications are lost between themselves and their bases at times of high alert. Knowing what we know about the reliability of any of our modes of reaching out to each other (phones, radios, the internet), it’s reasonable to assume those pilots and captains’d be on their own, burdened with the decision to roast a city of several million, far more often than is comfortable to ponder.
In other words, a small town’s worth of potential Major T.J. “King” Kongs from “Dr. Strangelove” are flying airplanes or sailing on or beneath the surface of the world’s seas are all that stand between us and armageddon.
Given that both Russia’s and the US’s strategies are to respond en masse with nuclear weapons should either party launch a single bomb against the other, only the sanity and sense of human decency of those few thousand has kept the lot of us from being cremated into our constituent atoms.