The author, an investigative journalist who wrote the bestseller “Fast Food Nation,” takes the reader back to the dawn of the nuclear age. He documents decades of scary nuclear accidents, mistakes, and near misses: B-52s crashing and burning with bombs aboard, nuclear warheads tossed about in rocket mishaps, H-bombs that were inadvertently dropped from planes (one on South Carolina), false alarms of nuclear sneak attacks, bonehead policy decisions, saber-rattling, geopolitical trash talking, and more. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev warned John Kennedy that he should be careful or he would be the last president of the United States.
Schlosser ably traces the ebb and flow of superpower rivalry and its intrinsic dangers. There were American civilian and military leaders who argued for a nuclear sneak attack on the Soviet Union. Fear that Moscow would strike first led to hair-trigger, “launch-on-warning” readiness of nuclear forces for decades. President Eisenhower even delegated the decision to use nuclear weapons to NATO commanders in Europe. Like so many similar decisions over the years, this one was kept secret from the public. Nuclear weaponry and warfare are not conducive to transparency or a deliberate democratic process.
The author, however, spends most of the book building a case that Americans were, and still could be, in as much danger from their own nuclear weapons as from those of their enemies. When faced with a choice between safety and the readiness of its nuclear arsenal, the military has historically come down on the side of the latter. Being quick on the draw – i.e. using the weapons before losing them to a first strike – was viewed as vital to national survival and deterrence (Mutual Assured Destruction). Safety locks or time-consuming procedures for authorizing the use of weapons took a backseat. And what if the US president were dead or incommunicado? Well, others needed to have the authority to pull the trigger.