From the Desk of Sean Maloney: The Secret World of Nuclear Weapons

Sean M. Maloney is a professor of history at Royal Military College and served as the Canadian Army’s historian for the war in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2014. He is the author of Enduring the Freedom: A Rogue Historian in Afghanistan (Potomac Books, 2005), Learning to Love the Bomb: Canada’s Nuclear Weapons during the Cold War (Potomac Books, 2007), and Operation Kinetic: Stabilizing Kosovo (Potomac Books, 2018).

Once again, thanks to University of Nebraska Press and Potomac Books for publishing my latest book, Deconstructing Dr. Strangelove: The Secret History of Nuclear War Films (DDS). DDS takes you on a journey through the secret world of nuclear weapons and those who were in control of them, using influential Cold War motion pictures as means to show what was in the public domain for comparative purposes. DDS will show you how films like Dr. Strangelove, FAIL-SAFE, The Bedford Incident, Seven Days in May, and others came to be. We will examine what was really going on at the time, including how nuclear weapons would have been released and employed, the safety systems that limited their use, and the personalities involved in a massive enterprise that had the paradoxical function of threatening to end the world in order to save it.

There are many reasons why I wrote DDS but the primary one was the problem posed by the film, Dr. Strangelove. Over time, Kubrick’s masterpiece has taken on a documentary sheen, even though it was meant as satirical commentary on the very dangerous 1950s and 1960s. In some ways the film replaces historical reality because that reality remains secret, fragmented and hard to discern half a century later. My students, who are three generations separated from its initial release, do not have the period context. At the same time, the film’s caricatures of real people are used today to attack current and past policymakers, and are incorporated into Russian propaganda content in our present conflict. Tens of thousands of American military personnel were involved in maintaining the nuclear deterrent force during the Cold War. Their leaders have been repeatedly portrayed on film as insane, unbalanced, and psychotic; indeed, Soviet active measures contributed to that popular cultural mindset during the Cold War. That, I felt, did a disservice to those people, whose motives and actions could not be told at the time because of secrecy, people who subsequently passed away leaving historical reality in the shadows. Were they in fact insane, unbalanced, and psychotic?

The research for DDS went beyond the usual (and necessary) archival pick and shovel work. How exactly did the crew of a B-52 bomber authenticate orders to use nuclear weapons and then carry those orders out? That meant crawling into period B-52s and working through the process step by step. Could disaffected crews or outside forces take over a Minuteman missile Launch Control Facility and fire the ICBMs? That meant going underground and learning how that process actually worked from the practitioners themselves. Could a paranoid and fanatical naval captain have employed nuclear weapons on his own at sea? Climbing around the bowls of a destroyer that had been equipped with such weapons with former crew members gave me the answers. There are reasons why there was never an unauthorized detonation of an American nuclear weapon during the Cold War and DDS delves into them with some surprising conclusions.

What was supposed to be a chapter in Deconstructing Dr. Strangelove expanded into a whole other book the more I delved into the subject. Emergency War Plan: The American Doomsday Machine, 1945-1960 (EWP), which comes out in 2021, is a reconstruction of American nuclear war plans and how they evolved during a period of intense technological change. This was a period in history where we go from devastating Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 with kiloton-yield bombs to blowing mile-wide craters with thermonuclear weapons by 1952, and then being able to fight a war in 60 minutes by the 1960s (a “one-cigar war” according to some planners, referencing General Curtis LeMay). In parallel to the Dr Strangelove problem, there is a belief system surrounding the Emergency War Plan that is not grounded in what the plans were actually supposed to do. Again, that is due to secrecy, time, and neglect. EWP tells the story of a handful of people wrestling with nothing less than preventing the destruction of life on Earth while at the same time standing up the murderous Soviet regime and challenging its expansionist nature. What was the best means to deter Stalin and Khrushchev? How should those means be implemented in ‘peace’ and in war if it became necessary? How did the plans differ from what the public and their political leaders were told… and why was that the case? Under what conditions were the plans feasible… or not? And what did the Soviets have up their sleeves that was not known at the time, even by the CIA? (hint: that took some risky exploration of abandoned former Soviet sites in Ukraine to figure out).

I have enjoyed researching and writing Deconstructing Dr. Strangelove and Emergency War Plan. It has been a challenge to peel away layers and layers of secrecy and peer into the dark crevices of the Cold War. It has been fun to take on preconceived notions about what was going on back then and develop new approaches. I hope you will let me be your guide to this fascinating past that shaped your world and mine.

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