October is a scary month. And it's not just Halloween. October also happens to be the anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And if the ghosts and goblins don't make you wet your pants, the thought of Khrushchev, Kennedy, and Castro dancing on the edge of nuclear war should.
During the Cold War, the United States twice more raised the alert status of its nuclear forces -- in October 1969 and October 1973. And one of the worst reactor accidents at a military program -- the fire at Britain's Windscale reactor -- also happened in October.
You might start to think there is something particularly dangerous about October. But the reality is that there have been so many accidents, false alarms, and other mishaps involving nuclear weapons that you haven't heard about -- and every month contains at least one seriously scary incident. The Department of Defense has released narrative summaries for 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons between 1950 and 1980, many of which involve aircraft bearing bombs. False alarms? Please. The Department of Defense admitted 1,152 "moderately serious" false alarms between 1977 and 1984 -- roughly three a week. (I love the phrase "moderately serious." I wonder how many "seriously serious" false alarms they had?) I kind of get the feeling that if NORAD went more than a week without a serious false alarm, they would start to wonder if the computers were ok.
The hard part was choosing the most frightening moments. There is no reason to believe the apocryphal story about the British Army choosing red uniforms because they do not show blood. But after 60-odd years of nuclear accidents, incidents, and whatnot, I can recommend that the STRATCOM commander consider brown pants.
So, here's my list of 12 seriously scary events, one for each month. This list is not comprehensive, nor is it intended to be the worst events. And yes, it's written with a dark sense of humor, but you'd have to be very jocose not to ask some serious questions.
How responsible are the people who make decisions about our nuclear weapons? Have they been good stewards both of the weapons themselves and our trust? Why don't we discuss these accidents and mishaps more? Is it because taking seriously the danger that nuclear weapons pose to humanity is uncomfortably akin to activism of the nuclear freeze? Are human beings, fallible as we are, just too imperfect to rely on something as destructive as nuclear weapons to keep the peace? (A lot depends on how you view what Scott Sagan, our foremost scholar of nuclear accidents, labels "close calls.") Are we to be comforted by the fact that, for all the hair-raising moments, we've somehow made it through intact? Or should we be frightened by how little stood between us and catastrophe?