Command and Control


Awesome. It’s like a Tom Clancy novel except that it’s reasonable and factual. It’s rare to learn so much and have such a great time simultaneously. This is nonfiction, history and “current affairs” at it’s best. I have not read Fast Food Nation (also by Eric Schlosser) but I plan too now…

Command and Control takes you through America’s nuclear history, from Einstein’s warning letter to FDR that it was possible for the Nazis to develop the Bomb all the way through today’s nuclear issues and problems. Most of the history deals with the Manhattan Project, and the development of the USA’s nuclear arsenal and strategy (and all the terrible technical glitches and problems) during the Cold War. Woven through the history is the detailed, dramatic, nail-biting techno-thriller depiction of the Damascus Incident; the 1980 explosion of a Titan II rocket in the silo because of a dropped spanner wrench.


The focus rests primarily on the safety and control of the US’ nuclear weapons. The tone is reminiscent of techno-thrillers. It’s the Cold War: the Soviet Union could opt at any time for a nuclear strike; the US’ nuclear deterrent has to be real. Our bombers and missiles were on high alert; massive computers and radars sought the early detection of a missile launch; bunkers, shadow government…it’s all here. Perhaps most amazing is SIOP – the US’ all out nuclear attack plan on the Soviet Union, which reached a truly maniacal level of absurdity: bridges leading nowhere hit with multiple nuclear weapons, Moscow being hit dozens of times. A truly surreal document.

I highly recommend this book. Very highly. All sorts of people form all walks of life will enjoy and learn from this book.


I want to touch on something beyond the review of this book. What I was struck by was the terrifying logic behind nuclear weapons. A lot of this book deals with the bureaucracy of the Pentagon, the rivalry between the Services, and the growth of the military-industrial complex. But there is a deeper level here.

And that is the inescapable logic of the whole thing. Wave after wave of US presidents – from both sides of the aisle – come power and are shocked by the plans, the weapons, the lack of control, etc..the whole apocalyptic death wish of the thing…and they each wind up surrendering to the logic of the Bomb, in one way or another.

So. Truman decides to use the Bomb. It’s highly experimental, but it’s a massive expensive project and US war weariness is growing; the continuation of the war against Japan could be costly both in terms of US lives and politically. Look; Truman was very much trying to fill FDR’s shoes – an unenviable task; it’s like following George Washington and Abraham Lincoln combined.  Truman – remember, no college education too – decides to use the Bomb.

And really, without really thinking about it, the Bomb takes over. At no point does the horrific destructive power of the Bomb really impact the thinking of the top military brass, nor waves of presidential advisors. Even as the power of the Bomb goes from being a very big bomb to a truly insane device whose destructive power is truly unimaginable, nobody is able to step back and stop the stampede for nuclear weapons. Even though the command and control of these weapons has never really been establish and for most of the history of the Cold War the weapons were distressingly vulnerable, and the idea has nuclear deterrence is purely psychological and not grounded in reality at all…Truman’s decision has trapped all of his successors.

I’m not blaming Truman; I am trying to make a point about the amazing logic that is no logic of the thing. Any president (cough cough Carter) who really tries to undo the logic of the Bomb is quickly called an appeaser and a coward; it’s amazing how seemingly flawless arguments the effect that the US needs only about 300 or so nuclear weapons is so completely foiled. It’s an indictment of our technological society.

This book is not scary. You will not bother with a bomb shelter after reading this book. And that’s a good thing. You don’t want to survive anyway.


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