Ahead of speaking at the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, bestselling author Eric Schlosser speaks to Diplomat about the urgent effort to ensure that nuclear weapons can’t be stolen, sabotaged, used without permission, or inadvertently detonated
1. What made you research your book Command & Control?
I became curious about the future of warfare in space and spent time in Colorado with officers from Air Force Space Command. It sounds like a military unit out of a science fiction novel, but we do have such a command, and their work is fascinating. Many of the space officers I met had begun their Air Force careers as members of ballistic missile launch crews. They began to tell me Cold War stories about nuclear weapons, about accidents and near-misses. One of the stories was about a serious weapon accident involving a Titan II missile in Damascus, Arkansas. A dropped tool could have led to the detonation of the most powerful nuclear warhead the US has ever built. After hearing that story, I became a lot more interested in nuclear weapons than in the future of space warfare. The grave threat posed by these weapons seemed to have been largely forgotten. And yet it had never gone away.
2. What were the biggest surprises you uncovered in your research?
I was surprised to learn how close the US came, on a number of occasions, to having its own nuclear weapons detonate by accident on American soil. We almost lost some of our cities in these accidents. I was also amazed that our weapons were less safe than they should have been for much of the Cold War – and that they could easily have been used by unauthorised personnel in the American military. More than any lock or secret code, it was the strict discipline and professionalism of our armed services that prevented that sort of catastrophic misuse.
3. Do you think people are aware enough of the dangers of nuclear weapons these days?
It’s remarkable how little most people know about today’s nuclear threat. It’s understandable, as well. About half the population of the US were either small children or were not born yet when the Berlin Wall came down. For so many Americans, the whole subject feels like ancient history. I’m glad we don’t live with the same sort of existential dread that was so commonplace during the Cold War; the daily fear of an all-out nuclear war. But the current lack of awareness and the complacency about nuclear weapons can prove dangerous, too.
4. How real a threat is an international nuclear weapons incident?
The odds of NATO being involved in all-out nuclear war seem vastly lower today than they were 30 or 40 years ago. But the likelihood of a single city being destroyed by a nuclear weapon, somewhere in the world, is probably greater now. More countries have nuclear weapons today, and there are more fanatics eager to use one of them.
5. What are the prospects of lasting nuclear disarmament, and how might that be achieved?
The abolition of nuclear weapons has been a worthy goal ever since the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It will be difficult to accomplish. But we must strive to achieve it, nevertheless. The first step would be to prevent any more countries from obtaining nuclear weapons. The next would be to persuade the current nuclear powers to reduce the size of their arsenals significantly. As the numbers decrease, so will the danger. And some day, perhaps, the need to threaten the annihilation of civilian populations, as a means of deterring conflict between nations, will rightly be viewed as barbaric. Every nuclear weapon is an accident waiting to happen, a potential act of mass murder. I have no doubt that trying to get rid of them is the right thing to do.
Command and Control: The Story of Nuclear Weapons and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser (Penguin, £9.99)