In the early 1960s, at the height of America’s original Cold War with the Soviet Union, my old service branch, the Air Force, sought to build 10,000 land-based nuclear missiles. These were intended to augment the hundreds of nuclear bombers it already had, like the B-52s featured so memorably in the movie Dr. Strangelove. Predictably, massive future overkill was justified in the name of “deterrence,” though the nuclear war plan in force back then was more about obliteration. It featured a devastating attack on the Soviet Union and communist China that would kill an estimated 600 million people in six months (the equivalent of 100 Holocausts, notes Daniel Ellsberg in his book, The Doomsday Machine). Slightly saner heads finally prevailed — in the sense that the Air Force eventually got “only” 1,000 of those Minuteman nuclear missiles.
Despite the strategic arms limitation talks between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the dire threat of nuclear Armageddon persisted, reaching a fresh peak in the 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. At the time, he memorably declared the Soviet Union to be an “evil empire,” while nuclear-capable Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles were rushed to Europe. At that same moment, more than a few Europeans, joined by some Americans, took to the streets, calling for a nuclear freeze — an end to new nuclear weapons and the destabilizing deployment of the ones that already existed. If only…
It was in this heady environment that, in uniform, I found myself working in the ultimate nuclear redoubt of the Cold War. I was under 2,000 feet of solid granite in a North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) command post built into Cheyenne Mountain at the southern end of the Colorado front range that includes Pikes Peak. When off-duty, I used to hike up a trail that put me roughly level with the top of Cheyenne Mountain. There, I saw it from a fresh perspective, with all its antennas blinking, ready to receive and relay warnings and commands that could have ended in my annihilation in a Soviet first strike or retaliatory counterstrike.
Yet, to be honest, I didn’t give much thought to the possibility of Armageddon. As a young Air Force lieutenant, I was caught up in the minuscule role I was playing in an unimaginably powerful military machine. And as a hiker out of uniform, I would always do my best to enjoy the bracing air, the bright sunshine, and the deep blue skies as I climbed near the timberline in those Colorado mountains. Surrounded by such natural grandeur, I chose not to give more than a moment’s thought to the nightmarish idea that I might be standing at ground zero of the opening act of World War III. Because there was one thing I knew with certainty: if the next war went nuclear, whether I was on-duty under the mountain or off-duty hiking nearby, I was certainly going to be dead.
Then came 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Cold War was over! America had won! Rather than nightmares of the Red Storm Rising sort that novelist Tom Clancy had imagined or Hollywood’s Red Dawn in which there was an actual communist invasion of this country, we could now dream of “peace dividends,” of America becoming a normal country in normal times.
It was, as the phrase went, “morning again in America” — or, at least, it could have been. Yet here I sit, 30 years later, at sea level rather than near the timberline, stunned by the resurgence of a twenty-first-century version of anticommunist hysteria and at the idea of a new cold war with Russia, the rump version of the Soviet Union of my younger days, joined by an emerging China, both still ostensibly conspiring to endanger our national security, or so experts in and out of the Pentagon tell us.
Excuse me while my youthful 28-year-old self asks my cranky 58-year-old self a few questions: What the hell happened? Dammit, we won the Cold War three decades ago. Decisively so! How, then, could we have allowed a new one to emerge? Why would any sane nation want to refight a war that it had already won at enormous cost? Who in their right mind would want to hit the “replay” button on such a costly, potentially cataclysmic strategic paradigm as deterrence through MAD, or mutually assured destruction?
Meet the new Cold War—same as the old one
Quite honestly, the who, the how, and the why depress me. The “who” is simple enough: the military-industrial-congressional complex, which finds genocidal nuclear weapons to be profitable, even laudable. Leading the charge of the latest death brigade is my old service, the Air Force. Its leaders want new ICBMs, several hundred of them in fact, with a potential price tag of $264 billion, to replace the Minutemen that still sit on alert, waiting to inaugurate death on an unimaginable scale, not to speak of a global nuclear winter, if they’re ever launched en masse. Not content with such new missiles, the Air Force also desires new strategic bombers, B-21 Raiders to be precise (the “21” for our century, the “Raider” in honor of General Jimmy Doolittle’s morale-boosting World War II attack on Tokyo a few months after Pearl Harbor). The potential price tag: somewhere to the north of $200 billion through the year 2050.
New nuclear missiles and strategic bombers obviously don’t come cheap. Those modernized holocaust-producers are already estimated to cost the American taxpayer half-a-trillion dollars over the next three decades. Honestly, though, I doubt anyone knows the true price, given the wild cost overruns that seem to occur whenever the Air Force builds anything these days. Just look at the $1.7 trillion F-35 fighter, for example, where the “F” apparently stands for Ferrari or, if you prefer brutal honesty, failure.
The “how” is also simple enough. The vast military machine I was once part of justifies such new weaponry via the tried-and-true (even if manifestly false) tactics of the Cold War. Start with threat inflation. In the old days, politicians and generals touted false bomber and missile “gaps.” Nowadays, we hear about China building missile silos, as if these would pose a new sort of dire threat to us. (They wouldn’t, assuming that China is dumb enough to build them.) A recent New Yorker article on Iran’s ballistic missile program is typical of the breed. Citing a Pentagon estimate, the author suggests “that China could have at least a thousand [nuclear] bombs by 2030.” Egad! Be afraid!
Yet the article neglects to mention America’s overwhelmingly superior nuclear weapons and the actual number of nuclear warheads and bombs our leaders have at their disposal. (The current numbers: roughly 5,600 nuclear warheads for the U.S., 350 for China.) At the same time, Iran, which has no nuclear weapons, is nonetheless defined as a serious threat, “an increasingly shrewd rival,” in the same article. A “rival” – how absurd! A nation with no nukes isn’t a rival to the superpower that nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, killing 250,000 Japanese, and planned to utterly destroy the Soviet Union and China in the 1960s. Believe me, nobody, but nobody, rivals this country’s military when it comes to apocalyptic scenarios — and the mindset as well as the ability to achieve them.
On a nuclear spectrum, Iran poses no threat and China is readily deterred, indeed completely overmatched, just with the U.S. Navy’s fleet of Trident-missile-firing submarines. To treat Iran as a “rival” and China as a nuclear “near-peer” is the worst kind of threat inflation (and imagining nuclear war of any sort is a horror beyond all measure).
The “why” is also simple enough, and it disgusts me. Weapons makers, though driven by profit, pose as job-creators. They talk about “investing” in new nukes; they mention the need to “modernize” the arsenal, as if nuclear weapons have an admirable return on investment as well as an expiration date. What they don’t talk about (and never will) is how destabilizing, redundant, unnecessary, immoral, and unimaginably ghastly such weapons are.
Nuclear weapons treat human beings as matter to be irradiated and obliterated. One of the better cinematic depictions of this nightmare came in the 1991 movie Terminator II when Sarah Connor, who knows what’s coming, is helpless to save herself, no less children on a playground, when the nukes start exploding. It’s a scene that should be seared into all our minds as we think about the hellish implications of the weapons the U.S. military is clamoring for.
In the late 1980s, when I was still in Cheyenne Mountain, I watched the tracks of Soviet nuclear missiles as they terminated at American cities. Sure, it only happened on screen in the missile warning center, driven by a scenario tape simulating an attack, but that was more than enough for me. Yet, today, my government is moving in a direction — both in funding the “modernization” of the American arsenal and in creating a new version of the Cold War of my Air Force days — that could once again make that old scenario tape I saw plausible in what remains of my lifetime.
Excuse me, but where has the idea of nuclear disarmament gone? A scant 15 years ago, old Cold War hands like Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, and Sam Nunn, joined by our “hope and change” president Barack Obama, promoted the end of nuclear terror through the actual elimination of nuclear weapons. But in 2010 Obama threw that possibility away in an attempt to secure Senate support for new strategic arms reduction talks with the Russians. Unsurprisingly, senators and representatives in western states like Wyoming and North Dakota, which thrive off Air Force bases that bristle with nuclear bombers and missiles, quickly abandoned the spirit of Obama’s grand bargain and to this day remain determined to field new nuclear weapons.
Not more, but no more
This country narrowly averted disaster in the old Cold War and back then we had leaders of some ability and probity like Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. All this new cold war rhetoric and brinksmanship may not end nearly as well in a plausible future administration led, if not by Donald Trump himself, then by some self-styled Trumpist warrior like former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or Senator Tom Cotton. They would, I suspect, be embraced by an increasing number of evangelicals and Christian nationalists in the military who might, in prophetic terms, find nuclear Armageddon to be a form of fulfillment.
Ironically, I read much of Red Storm Rising, Tom Clancy’s World War III thriller, in 1987 while working a midnight shift in Cheyenne Mountain. Thankfully, that red storm never rose, despite a climate that all too often seemed conducive to it. But why now recreate the conditions for a new red storm, once again largely driven by our own fears as well as the profit- and power-driven fantasies of the military-industrial-congressional complex? Such a storm could well end in nuclear war, despite pledges to the contrary. If a war of that sort is truly unwinnable, which it is, our military shouldn’t be posturing about fighting and “winning” one.
I can tell you one thing with certainty: our generals know one word and it’s not “win,” it’s more. More nuclear missiles. More nuclear bombers. They’ll never get enough. The same is true of certain members of Congress and the president. So, the American people need to learn two words, no more, and say them repeatedly to those same generals and their enablers, when they come asking for almost $2 trillion for that nuclear modernization program of theirs.
In that spirit, I ask you to join a young Air Force lieutenant as he walks past Cheyenne Mountain’s massive blast door and down the long tunnel. Join him in taking a deep breath as you exit that darkness into clear crystalline skies and survey the city lights beneath you and the pulse of humanity before you. Another night’s duty done; another night that nuclear war didn’t come; another day to enjoy the blessings of this wonder-filled planet of ours.
America’s new cold war puts those very blessings, that wonder, in deep peril. It’s why we must walk ever so boldly out of tunnels built by fear and greed and never return to them. We need to say “no more” to new nuclear weapons and recommit to the elimination of all such weaponry everywhere. We had a chance to embark on such a journey 30 years ago in the aftermath of the first Cold War. We had another chance when Barack Obama was elected. Both times we failed.
It’s finally time for this country to succeed in something again — something noble, something other than the perpetuation of murderous war and the horrific production of genocidal weaponry. After all, only fools replay scenarios that end in doomsday.
Copyright 2022 William J. Astore