While the news is often filled with reviews of the Iran Nuclear Deal, we no longer live in a time when fear of a nuclear attack is in the forefront of everyone’s mind. My wife and I visited two museums that brought back memories of such a time, and I have to admit, they were kind of fond memories. Weird, I know. Thank God it never happened, but let me tell you about our visits and see if you don’t feel the same odd nostalgia.
The first museum was the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, just a few blocks off the Strip on Flamingo. It was built just a few years ago, so it’s very new, well done, clean, and fascinating. It takes you from the Manhattan Project during WWII, through present day nuclear technology. One of the most surprising things I learned was that there used to be nuclear tests conducted just north of Las Vegas on government land known as Yucca Flats. HUNDREDS OF THEM! Tourists would flock to the location in their cars, park, and watch a nuke go off, and get a great tan (from the sun, not the blast). What an attraction! I’d do THAT in a heartbeat. Maybe Steve Wynn could work that into his next hotel project!
The next, very experiential museum visit was to the Titan Missle Museum in Tucson, AZ. This is an ACTUAL nuke missile silo, just like depicted in the movies, but for reals. It was decommissioned in the 80s as part of the START treaty with the Ruskies. It’s out in the middle of nowhere (south on I-19, 20 miles). In accord with the treaty, all of our Titan silos had to be filled with cement and unplugged, but this one was allowed to be kept open with the missile still in it, sans warhead. This is the largest missle ever made by the USA.
On the guided tour, you get to go down into the very small control room with the ancient early tech computers, the crew quarters, and walk through a tunnel to the launch silo. There are even times when you can spend the night in the crew quarters! How’s that for a slumber party? All very mysterious and cool. On the surface they have a museum with displays, and a viewing deck where you can look down at the missile through a glass cover.
Both places have docents who were part of the industry, whether scientists or air force personnel back in the day. I could see in their eyes they were pretty nostalgic about the era as well, much like talking to war vets. It was a perilous time, but their critical jobs in defense of the country gave them great purpose. I felt very honored to meet them.
So, why the nostalgia? The times were so dangerous!
I think a couple things play upon the human condition. One is that people of every generation have this strange sense that the end of the world is just around the corner. While people live their hum drum lives full of headaches and petty urgencies, they wonder what it would be like if the shit hit the fan. How would they react? What would happen to society? How would they survive? Despite it instantly cleaning up all the corruption in Washington DC (et. al.), it would make life a nightmare for the survivors. It’s all an incredible adventure, at least in movies and our imagination. Let’s hope it never happens. I don’t want my binge watching of TV shows interrupted, after all.
Another thing I think, is the having lived through a dangerous time unscathed. I remember as a kid doing air raid drills in grade school. The sound of those sirens were chilling, yet exhilarating. “This could be it, Billy, the big one!” I’m not sure how huddling in the hallway with our hands over our heads would have been much help if a nuke were dropped anywhere near our school, but hey, it was exciting. It’s real life drama that didn’t ever come to pass.
After visiting the Titan Museum, I did a little research and found some really fascinating stuff.
At the height of the Cold War, the US and the Soviets had amassed unbelievable stock piles of nukes. Wikipedia shows that the US had around 32,000 warheads, and the Soviets had as much as 40,000 warheads. Shazam! What kept the opposing sides from going over the brink? Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).
Present day arsenals of nuclear countries shows that their are 9 countries with nukes, the US having 2,104 (active), Russia with 1600 (active), and the others, like France (290), UK (160), China (250), (estimated) India (110), Pakistan (120), North Korea (<10), Israel (60 – 400). Soon, no doubt, Iran will be included in those stats, but they’re most likely, or so they proclaim loudly and repeatedly, to actually use them.
Today, the US has around 450 land based LGM-30G Minuteman III Intercontinental Balistic Missels (ICBM) in service in about a dozen silos across the country. Most of the US arsenal is ocean based. I’m sure it’s all quite enough to devastate the enemy, but by way of comparison to what we used to have, it’s only 6.5% of the peak, and sounds sparse.
The last thing I think makes me wistful is that it seems in those times the US was extremely powerful and ready to go up against another powerful foe and face them down. Peace through Strength is what Reagan called it. Although MAD sounds insane, it worked, and thank God it never happened. But today, it seems the leadership of our country has gone flaccid and willfully blind in standing up to immediate threats which has resulted in a much more dangerous world. These dangers have, without doubt, infiltrated us and could make those once only imagined scenarios very real, and coming to a town near you. No tension build up in the news. You’ll be coming out of a coffee shop and BLAMO!
I suppose it’s a difference of confidence of strength versus the vulnerability that I sense today. Remember how we used to feel very strong? The country used to have balls, clout, and feared by our enemies. Now we’re cowed by political correctness and shamed into letting brutal tyrants kick us in the shorts. Perceived weakness is provocative and invites bad people to seize opportunities.
Odd segue here…
Another startling bit I found was a video created by a Japanese film maker, Isao Hashimoto, who does a time lapse map of the world showing each of the nuclear weapons tests since the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
If you have 15 minutes to watch, it’s illuminating. Between the countries who conducted tests, a total of 2053 nukes were set off, some surface, some subsurface, with the US racking up over half of them.
The first question to pop into my head after watching that video is, “What happened to all the nuclear radiation?”
I thought the fall-out was supposed to have a zillion years half-life. You might suspect we’d all be growing extra limbs, giant heads, and three eyes, or some such mutation. Although, that does help explain the popularity of the Kardashians.
An even more disturbing question is, what happened to all those (65,000+) decommissioned nukes? Our own government is full of anti-nuke zealots that wouldn’t let the military hide them behind the fridge. What about trusty old Vladimir?