Ground Zero

The Cuban Missile Crisis was 59 years ago (October 16-28, 1962). For those of you who weren’t around or don’t remember, it is generally considered the closest we have come to world annihilation.

On August 6, 1945, the United States unleashed upon the world the most terrible WMD we have ever known. We’ve since invented worse weapons, but we don’t know them in the way we knew that bomb. We don’t know how many people died that day, as there is nothing left of them. The BBC estimates that we killed 40% of Hiroshima’s population. Others died in the aftermath – burns, radiation sickness, cancers…

The US was engaged in a “cold war” with the Soviet Union, its most powerful ally in WW II. “Cold” meant that we weren’t actively shooting at each other. This war brought us new terms and new weapons. We measured the destructive force of these weapons in megatons, meaning the number of millions of tons of TNT it would take to equal their explosive force. We didn’t measure the force of their delayed killing via radiation burns and sickness, or via famine from making farmland worthless for generations. When fission bombs weren’t powerful enough for us, we developed fusion bombs.

We invented the term “Mutual Assured Destruction” – meaning that the weapons we had on hand would guarantee that, if used, the US and the Soviet Union would destroy each other. This was supposed to comfort us. We didn’t talk about the fact that we would also assure the destruction of everyone else. Fittingly, the acronym is MAD.

We had “fail-safe” devices to prevent accidental nuclear annihilation and a “dead man’s switch” to ensure MAD in the case of a devastating first strike by the other side. In October 1964, the Sidney Lumet-directed film “Fail Safe”, starring Henry Fonda was released. With a screenplay by Walter Bernstein (based on the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler), it wondered aloud what would happen if that system failed. A gripping thriller, it required the President (Henry Fonda) to make some tough decisions under heavy pressure.

In January of 1964, the Stanley Kubrick-directed “Dr Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” was released. With a screenplay by Kubrick and Terry Southern (from the novel “Red Alert” by Peter George ), it took a darkly comedic look at the same events, with Peter Sellers starring in three roles. The film acknowledged our use of scientists who formerly worked for Nazi Germany to develop our missile capacity.

The two films are best seen back-to-back, or close to it. The source novel for Dr Strangelove (highly adapted) was written in 1957 and the source for Fail Safe in 1962 . Due to the strong similarities, a lawsuit ensued and, as part of the settlement, Columbia Pictures (which produced Dr Strangelove) gained the rights to Fail Safe and released it later in the same year. They are, essentially, the same film, or one film and its funhouse mirror image- one a comedy and the other a drama.

We measured our weaponry by the number of times we could kill every human on earth. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, we were at one time able to do that 690 times. We had WW I and WW II that dragged on for years (though nothing like the Hundred Years War). WW III, with the promise of total annihilation, might be a war with a duration measured in hours. Tom Lehrer considered that possibility:

Lehrer also acknowledged the contributions of former Nazis to US missile development:

Darkly comedic views of nuclear annihilation didn’t end in the 1960s. In 1986, Timbuk 3 released their debut album featuring Pat MacDonald’s “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades”. MacDonald was known for his obscure sense of humor – a previous song, “Einstein at the Pool Hall“, was about Albert Einstein’s growing reputation and his resultant failures as a student. (You can imagine a physicist would know a thing or two about vectors, which might be useful when shooting pool. For those who don’t like jokes being explained, I apologize, but even Apple engineers, who ought to be smart people, sometimes can’t understand a joke.)

“The Future’s So Bright” was about the absurdity of wearing sunglasses to protect your eyes from the flash of a nuclear weapon. While it was a pop hit, many heard its bouncy rhythm and assumed it was as optimistic as its sound. (Sort of like when Ronald Reagan thought Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” was just the song for his campaign.) I went to an Apple Computer company picnic that year and one work group had matching t-shirts proclaiming “Our future’s so bright, we gotta wear shades.” They wore them without irony – and probably without paying Timbuk 3 for use of the slogan. I didn’t have the heart to explain it to them.

Against the background of the Cold War came the Cuban Missile Crisis. On January 1, 1959, a Fidel Castro-led resistance overthrew the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Batista’s Cuba was a playground for the US idle rich – they could make the quick jaunt down there, gamble in their casinos, stay in their luxury hotels, and maybe evade some US taxes while they were at it. It was also a handy place for the Mafia to launder funds.

A country no longer in our pocket was bad for business, so the US immediately set to work to overthrow the new government and, particularly, to assassinate its leader. We hatched many plots, from the macabre to the ridiculous. They included sex workers, exploding cigars, poison, Mafia hitmen, and invasion (April, 1961).

With the US clearly no longer an ally (having tried to wipe out Cuban crops to destabilize the economy in addition to assassination and invasion), the new government turned to the Soviet Union for assistance. The Soviets wanted to install missiles in Cuba, aimed at the US. Since the US was used to fighting “world wars” on other continents (mainly Europe), the idea of fighting that close to home was abhorrent. We did, by the way, have missiles in Turkey, which shared a border with the USSR.

During the crisis, we were (not) prepared to jump out of bed at a moment’s notice in case of attack. Would we go to the basement? Head for the nearest public shelter? Do nothing? For a fortnight we were unsure if we would wake up the next morning. I was scared. The US blockaded Cuba to physically stop the Soviet ships. Would the ships ram the US fleet (or vice versa)? Would someone get nervous and open fire? Ultimately the Soviets agreed to turn their ships around and the US agreed not to invade Cuba.

The Cold War brought the principle of “Duck and Cover” to US schools. Students were taught that, in the event of nuclear attack, they should duck under their school desks and cover their heads with their hands. I don’t recall learning “Duck and Cover” in elementary school, but I was taught to tell my parents to build a fallout shelter. We lacked clarity about the difference between a bomb shelter (to protect against the immediate blast) and a fallout shelter (with air filters and stored supplies to hide out for a long time.) I went home and told my parents we needed a fallout shelter. They let me know that wasn’t going to happen.

The alternative was to reinforce a portion of the house. I told my mom that we needed to get sandbags and be prepared to cover the kitchen floor with them. I chose the kitchen because the pantry was directly below. We would then go the basement where we stored canned goods. We’d also be by the laundry tub so we’d have access to water. I wasn’t thinking about the loss of infrastructure and the low likelihood that opening the tap would provide potable water – but the water heater was also there, so we at least had those 30 or 40 gallons. She didn’t seem to take me very seriously.

Others did. I remember going to the Parade of Homes, where every home featured a fallout shelter – a sub-basement with water storage tanks, shelving for food, filtered air ducts, and a generator. I don’t remember about toilet facilities. Rod Serling wondered what would happen if some of us took that threat seriously and built shelters, while others did not. “The Shelter” was released in September of 1961. Think “The Grasshopper and the Ants: Nuclear War Version.”

Condensed version.

It was about 1967. I was studying computer programming in a summer course – learning to write FORTRAN to program an IBM 1620. For a special treat, we programmed in FORTRAN IV to run on an IBM System 360.

IBM 1620 from IBM archives. Neither of these machines could match the computing power of your smart phone. To use them required a separate keypunch machine (not shown) to produce the cards to feed instructions to the machine.
IBM System 360 from IBM archives. The machine I worked on had additional tape drives and took up much more space than this. It had a raised floor with cables underneath to connect the components. The room was kept cold to counteract the large heat output of the components.

Our class went on a field trip to the SAGE (Semi-Automated Ground Environment) building. We entered a concrete bunker. The walls, we were told, were three feet thick and hardened to protect against direct bombing. In that bunker was a massive computer (AN/FSQ-7 Combat Direction Central) belonging to NORAD (North American Air Defense Command). The computer’s size could be measured in tons, or square feet of floor space required. It contained thousands of vacuum tubes. We were told that there was a maintenance person with the job of replacing tubes. He would begin at one end of the machine and work to the other, then start over. It was actually two machines in one, so that it could be operational 24/7 while still undergoing maintenance.

A computer big enough to walk through. Image from Southwest Museum of Engineering, Communication, and Computation.
Image from Pinterest. Still inside of the computer. These images are brightly lit. I remember feeling like I was in a cavern. The lights were dim to avoid generating excess heat.

Since this was the brain of our cold war missile defense (remember that the War Department was renamed the Department of Defense after WW II, so defense was a euphemism), we were at Ground Zero. If the Soviet Union wanted to defeat the US in an all-out war, taking out this system would be an important first step. Since my father worked on that base, maybe he knew this. Maybe that was why my parents never took my defense preparation instructions seriously. The best instruction we could receive would not be to duck and cover, but to bend over, put your head between your legs, and kiss your ass goodbye.

[Thanks, Martha. Your mention of UNIVAC led to this…I thought the SAGE computer was a UNIVAC. I remembered wrongly.]