9/11, Fifteen Years Later

When September 11, 2001 happened, I was ten years old. I didn’t understand at all what had happened, or why my mom and dad didn’t let me watch TV that night. I didn’t understand why all the teachers at my school were crying. I had never heard of the World Trade Center before.

My first hint that things were different was when we traveled to my grandparent’s house that Christmas. As we walked through the airport, I saw armed National Guardsmen, M16s in hand, walking towards us. I gazed up, wide eyed, at these men, who were approximately the age I am now, as if they were giants. Retrospectively, they were probably just as scared as I was, but then, they sure didn’t seem to be, with their stoic faces nearly enveloped by a Kevlar helmet. I followed my parent’s lead as we were instructed to unzip our carry-ons and walk through the metal detectors, all the while being watched by those giant men.

But in my ten-year-old brain, all that had changed was more security at airports. The words “World Trade Center” still meant nothing to me. Even when a group of F-16s flew over my elementary school, probably scanning the skies for some invisible threat, September 11, 2001 was simply another fall day.

As I grew older, it became apparent to me just how earth shaking 9/11 was. I can still remember on the night of March 21, 2003, when the first airstrikes hit Baghdad. My family and I were on vacation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I can clearly remember crowding around the hotel’s small TV to watch the events. The image of the skyline of Baghdad burning is seared into my mind.

It was my trip to New York while I was in high school that made me realize that September 11, 2001, was not simply another fall day. The view from our hotel window (unintentionally) looked directly at what was now an empty lot. Had we made the trip five years earlier, the World Trade Center would have taken up most of the view. For some reason, the History Channel was airing a documentary on 9/11 that night, which I watched after my parents had gone to bed. Suddenly, the events of 9/11 were very real. I am still unable to describe the feelings that I had while watching that documentary with Ground Zero right outside my hotel room.

But what’s changed?

It could be argued, nothing. Since 9/11, the now-infamous Transportation Security Agency (TSA) has not stopped one single terrorist attack. They have, however, stopped many dangerous pairs of nail clippers and bottles of hand lotion from coming on airplanes. Terrorist attacks are still occurring, and there is a very real threat of a terrorist group obtaining enough fissile material, such as spent reactor fuel rods, to create a “dirty bomb.”

However, a life lived in fear is no life at all. While terrorist attacks have occurred since September 11, 2001, they have been relatively infrequent. The reason why there have not been additional attacks is for the simple reason that intelligence agencies, such as the CIA, NSA, FBI (and additional three letter agencies) are now more aware of terror attacks and can now better predict for attacks.

These agencies can predict the majority of attacks, but obviously, they cannot predict and prevent every single one. Intelligence agencies receive thousands of terror threats every single day, and are simply unable to respond to every threat.

So the question then presents itself, “Is there an acceptable level of terror”? Just as a city cannot completely eliminate crime 100%, a country cannot completely eliminate terrorism 100%, either.

If living in fear is not the answer, is terrorism then the “new normal”? God, I hope not.


The Titan Missile Silo Part II, or How to Launch a Nuclear Missile

If the launch order was given, it would come through a set of speakers that was next to the Missile Combat Crew Commander’s (MCCC) station and Deputy Missile Combat Crew Commander’s (DMCCC) station.  The MCCC and DMCCC would hear a message that began with a loud ringing noise, and sounded something like this: “ALPHA TWO THREE CHARLIE HOTEL FOXTROT….”

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The launch commander’s station. The speakers are on the left hand side of the console. (Photo by T. Backus).

The phrase “Alpha Two” was the first indication for the crew that the message was an authentic order, and not a drill. This code would only come from one of two places: Washington D.C. (the President himself) or from a secondary location in California if Washington, D.C. was destroyed. The MCCC and DMCCC would immediately grab two red binders and write down the code that was being broadcast. At the end of the transmission, the MCCC and DMCCC would exchange binders to check their work. If the codes matched, this was considered a “Valid Launch Order.” They would then both stand up and walk to a red, double lock safe that stated “ENTRY RESTRICTED TO MCCC AND DMCCC ON DUTY.” Ominously called the “Go To War Safe,” the MCCC and DMCCC did not know each other’s codes to the safe. They would open the safe and find a set of small manila envelopes called authenticator cards.

The “Go To War” safe (Photo by T. Backus).

Both crewmembers would then find the authenticator card that matched with the first two letters of the transmitted code. In addition, the crews would also receive a six-letter code which allowed them to unlock the “butterfly valve.” This was a mechanical valve on the base of the missile that would not allow the rocket engines to fire unless the code was entered correctly. If the butterfly valve code was entered more than six times incorrectly, the missile would be rendered inoperative.

If the codes matched, this allowed the crew to place their launch keys into the console. The keyholes were placed on opposite ends of the room, so that not one person could turn both keys. In addition, the keys must be turned within two seconds of each other, and held for five seconds.

The launch control console (Photo by T. Backus).

Upon the turning of the keys, the “LAUNCH ENABLE” light would illuminate on the console, along with “BATTERIES ACTIVATED.” This would activate the power onboard the missile, instead of the missile being dependent on power from the silo. Next, the 760-ton silo door would slide open, and the “SILO SOFT” indicator light would turn on. This would indicate that the silo door was now open and vulnerable to a nuclear counter-strike. Four seconds later, the explosive bolts holding the missile in place would detonate, and the missile would launch.

But where would it go?

During the operational years of Titan, the actual targets for the missile were strictly classified, even for the crews. The only indicator to where the missile was targeted were three switches on the console that read “TARGET 1,” “TARGET 2” and “TARGET 3.” This particular missile was permanently aimed at “Target 2,” which many speculate was a Soviet missile silo. The missile also could be pre-set to “GROUND”  or “AIR.” “Ground” meant that the warhead would detonate at ground level, which would be utilized against hardened targets, such as bunkers or missile silos. “Air” meant that the warhead would detonate as an airburst about 3,000 feet above the ground.

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The Titan II in its silo (Photo credit: T. Backus)

The crews of each Titan missile knew what would happen if the missile was launched. They were well aware that their silos or the areas around them would become a nuclear wasteland. In the Titan II procedures binder, the crews are instructed to “Await Further Orders” after a launch. The silos were equipped with enough food and water for approximately one month, and contained an escape hatch at the rear of the control center.

This particular Titan II silo was in service from 1963 to 1982. When all of the Titan missiles were decommissioned, 571-7 was saved, however, the silo door must be welded open along with a hole drilled in the top of the warhead to comply with an arms control treaty.

The Titan II missile silo serves as a powerful reminder of the “MAD-ness” of the Cold War. A 9 megaton nuclear warhead, as carried by Titan II, would turn a city the size of Tuscon, along with much of the surrounding area, to ash. This very premise of a massive nuclear strike kept the peace in a very perverse way for the entirety of the Cold War.

The Titan Missile Silo, Part 1

In the entire United States, there are two locations where the public can see a completely intact missile silo. The first is the Minuteman National Historic Park in North Dakota. However, tours are conducted very rarely and are only limited to six people.  The second, however, is the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, Arizona about 30 minutes south of Tucson. Over Labor Day Weekend in 2016, I had the unique experience of touring the Titan missile museum on a one hour guided tour.

The Arizona Aerospace Foundation has made every effort to re-create what the original Titan silo looked like during operation. The silo itself is number 571-7 (571st Strategic Missile Squadron, Silo Number 7) and is the only remaining Titan II silo left in the world. The Titan II missile was (and still is) the largest nuclear weapon ever to enter Air Force service.  Over 100 feet tall, and carrying a massive 9 megaton nuclear warhead, the missile had a range of over 9,000 miles. If detonated, the warhead would produce a fireball nearly three miles wide.

In Arizona, there were 18 Titan II silos, out of 63 missiles total produced. Many (such as 571-7) were constructed in the early 1960s and decommissioned in the 1980s for the simple reason of modernization. The Air Force realized that the technology of the Titan II was simply becoming outdated. The missile silos still relied on punched paper tape (similar to punch cards) to communicate with the outside world. The computers in the Titan silo boasted an impressive 4K of usable memory, and 16K after an upgrade by the Air Force.

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A punched tape reader in the Titan II silo (Photo by T. Backus).

The primary distinguishing feature of Titan II was the fuel. Unlike previous missiles such as the Atlas and Titan I, the propellant could be stored for long periods of time, and were hypergolic. This means that upon contact, the fuel and oxidizer would ignite spontaneously without the need for igniters. Atlas and Titan I required 15-20 minutes to fuel. Titan II could be launched in approximately 90 seconds. Despite this, the fuel for Titan II was highly toxic. To fuel the missile, crew members had to wear a special Rocket Fuel Handler’s Clothing Outfit (RFHCO, pronounced “Ruf-co”) to protect themselves. These suits were highly uncomfortable and hot: crewmembers could only wear the RFHCO for fifteen minutes at a time in the Arizona summer.

Two Titan crewmembers wearing the RFHCOs.

Okay, enough specifics. Let’s get to the tour.

As you drive up to the museum, you will immediately notice a large sign that states: “WARNING. U.S. AIR FORCE INSTALLATION. IT IS UNLAWFUL TO ENTER THIS AREA WITHOUT PERMISSION OF THE INSTALLATION COMMANDER.” To the immediate left is a much more friendly looking visitor’s center, where one pays for the tickets and can take a self-guided tour of a small museum before entering into the silo itself.

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The entrance gate (Photo by T. Backus).

The museum has a small collection of Cold War-related memorabilia, including a television that plays “Duck and Cover,” an Air Force uniform and a mock-up of a Titan warhead. Tours are conducted every hour, and the museum allows visitors something to look at while they wait for the next tour.

At the start of the tour, the docent ushers the group into a room with a large television screen that tells a brief history of the Cold War and the Titan II program. At the end of the 20 minute movie, the docents (who are all former Titan crewmembers) take the group outside to the underground entrance to the silo. The docent specifically details the process that Titan II crewmembers took to enter into the silo and begin their shift.

First, the Titan crewmembers would drive up to the outer perimeter fence. One crewmember would get out and make the first of four phone calls to enter the silo. This crewmember would give the names, serial numbers and ranks of all the people inside the vehicle. The crew who was waiting to be relieved inside the silo would open the front gate electronically.

As the gate opened, the rest of the crew would get out of the car. They would preform a security inspection of the above ground portion of the silo. While this was occurring, the most senior member would make the second phone call. He would stand in front of the access hatch and again give the name, serial numbers and rank of the crew. He would also receive a one-time use alphabetic code which he writes down and the crew will use to enter the first door of the silo.

Once the rest of the crew has completed the above ground check, the crew walks down a flight of stairs and enters through the first of two blast doors. Once the crew closes this first door behind them, the third phone call is made. The senior crewmember again gives the name, rank and serial number of the crews along with the code. If the code that the senior crewmember has matches the code that was issued, the second blast door is unlocked. In addition, the senior crewmember lights the paper that the code was written on fire. He throws the burning paper into a red coffee can to ensure that the code can never be used again.

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The red coffee can (Photo by T. Backus).

The crew then proceeds down a flight of stairs to the fourth and final phone. The senior crewmember again gives the name, rank and serial number of the crew. The second blast door is opened for the crew to enter into the silo. This blast door was made out of one solid piece of steel, and there are no bubbles or cracks which could potentially compromise the integrity of the 6,000 pound door. In addition, the entire complex is built on large springs and all furniture is bolted to the floor, to ensure that if a nuclear attack were to happen, the crew would survive.

The crew then begins their shift. In every place except the living quarters, all crewmembers must travel with another crew member. This was called the “Two Man Rule” or the “No Lone Zone.” This was done for two reasons. First, there were many places in the Titan silo where someone could fall and hurt themselves. A second person would ensure that help would always be close by. Second, put quite simply, we’re dealing with nuclear weapons here. The “two man rule” makes sure that nobody can attempt to sabotage or even launch the missile by themselves.

To the surprise of many, Titan II silos did not have guards with M16s in armored vehicles guarding the sites. They did not need them. Behind the main fence of all Titan II silos, there were eight Doppler radar dishes on all four corners of the silo. The official name was the AN/TPS-39, but crews renamed this to “Tipsi.” Each radar dish would project an invisible radar beam around the perimeter of the silo and over the control center door. If the beam was broken, it would set off an alarm inside the silo. If this alarm was triggered, the missile crew would radio the base patrol to investigate.

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The AN/TPS-39 “Tipsi” radar dishes. 

But how do you launch this thing? That’s next.

The Nuclear Triad

Recently, there has been much debate over the American “nuclear triad.” But what is “the triad” exactly? Why do we have it?  Originally, the thinking behind the triad was based in the idea that if one leg of the triad became inoperable, the two other legs would still exist. In other words, if a Soviet nuclear strike destroyed all of the bomber bases, the United States would still be able to respond with its ICBMs and SLBMs.

At its heart, the triad is the basis for getting a nuclear warhead from “Point A” to “Point B.” Each “leg” of the triad represents a different delivery system. One “leg” represents aircraft and includes bombers, such as the B-52, and fighters, such as the F-16 and F-15. The second leg covers silo-based missiles. Currently, this only applies to the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The final section of the triad applies to submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and refers to the Trident.  During the Cold War, the triad was not so simplistic. Interservice rivalry along with the political atmosphere of the Cold War caused the triad to become a complex and convoluted structure. I will attempt to explain it in the clearest way possible.

Nuclear-Triad.jpgSection 1: Aircraft

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, nuclear technology was in its infancy. Nuclear weapons were so heavy that they could only be transported by the largest bomber aircraft, such as the B-29 and B-36. Initially, these bombers were the only nuclear deterrent that the United States possessed. In an attempt to solve the problem of the limited range of bombers, initial proposals called for the construction of multiple overseas bomber bases at the borders of the Soviet Union, along with additional development into aerial refueling technology so that bombers could remain aloft for an indefinite period of time.[1]  However, it was soon realized that it was not cost-effective in the long run to maintain numerous overseas bases with constant bomber patrols. As nuclear weapons became smaller, bombers began to represent flexibility with regard to weaponry. Rather than a single sized nuclear warhead, such as on an ICBM, an aircraft could utilize anything from a 15-kT cruise missile to a 9-mT bomb.

Section II: ICBMs

A dedicated investment in long-range ballistic missile development did not start until the early 1950s, when American intelligence reports indicated that the Soviet Union was developing their own ICBM. Even then, progress was slow as many Air Force generals feared that the unmanned ICBM would replace manned bombers.[2] In addition, technological hurdles slowed the program even more. An ICBM needed to be able hit its target from great distances way with pinpoint accuracy, and Air Force leadership was simply unwilling to invest large amounts of money into a yet untested program when bombers worked just fine. Plus, bombers were sexy. There was just something unsportsmanlike about flinging unmanned nuclear warheads at each other from opposite ends of the globe.[3]

This attitude towards ICBMs began to change with the development of multi-megaton hydrogen bombs. As Professor Alex Wellerstein writes, “With yields in the megaton range, suddenly it didn’t seem to matter as much if you couldn’t get the accuracy that high. You can miss by a lot with a megaton and still destroy a given target.”[4] In 1959, America’s first ICBM, the Atlas, began to be deployed around the United States. However, the limitations of Atlas was soon realized. Early versions relied on radio control for guidance, rather than gyroscopes, and had to be fueled with highly flammable fuel prior to firing.[5]

The Atlas missile being prepared for firing. Note the horizontal launch canister (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

In 1962, missile technology improved greatly with the introduction of the Minuteman. Unlike previous missiles, it was solid fueled, and therefore was able to remain fueled indefinitely, and had a truly intercontinental range of 6,000 miles. Despite Air Force Colonel Edward Hall’s lobbying, the Air Force saw no pressing need for the Minuteman.[6] The accuracy of missiles such as the Atlas and Titan were improving, along with technology to store liquid fuels for an extended period of time. However, Air Force leadership soon realized that the Minuteman’s onboard computer approached the accuracy of manned bombers: a Minuteman fired from the continental United States could hit its target in the Soviet Union within 1,500 feet.[7] Since the 1960s, the Minuteman has been continuously upgraded and currently is the only silo-based missile in service with the United States.

Section III: SLBMS

Nearly in parallel to the Air Force’s acquisition of ICBM’s was the U.S. Navy’s development of submarine launched ballistic missiles, or SLBMs. As early as the end of World War II, the U.S. Navy had been experimenting with launching early cruise missiles from surfaced submarines. This situation was far from ideal, as a surfaced submarine presented a huge target, and the Navy wanted to be able to fire a solid-fueled missile from a submerged submarine.

In 1960, this dream was realized. Named the Polaris, the missile had a range of approximately 2,800 miles and carried 3 warheads, each delivering a yield of 200 kT each. Polaris represented a radical restructuring in the dynamic political environment of the Cold War. Unlike a silo based missile, a submarine could hide underwater from surveillance satellites until it was time to deliver a nuclear strike. In addition, SLBMs represented a “second strike” weapon: if silo based missiles and land based bombers were destroyed in a nuclear attack, submarines would be able to survive the initial strike and counterattack. Furthermore, SLBMs could be used in a surprise attack: a submarine could hide underwater for an indefinite period of time within range of its target, then launch its missiles and slip away.

A Polaris missile (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

Over time, as with the Air Force’s ICBMs, SLBM technology improved allowing the missiles to be more accurate and fly even farther. Currently, the Trident D5 represents the U.S. Navy’s nuclear deterrent and the third leg of the triad.

In the present, some have argued that the nuclear triad is a relic of the Cold War. Others insist that it is necessary in order to maintain a strong nuclear deterrent. Whether or not the triad is necessary is a highly contentious topic and one that is best left for another time. However, it is necessary that the public remain informed regarding America’s current state of nuclear forces, as an ill-informed populace runs the risk of making poor decisions regarding our foreign policy.


[1] L. Douglas Keeney, 15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation (New York: St. Martins Press, 2011), 197.

[2] Neil Sheehan, A Fiery Peace in a Cold War (New York: Random House, 2009), 265.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Alex Wellerstein, “A Brief History of the Nuclear Triad,” Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog, accessed July 23, 2016, http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/.

[5] Eric Schlosser, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident and the Illusion of Safety (New York: Penguin Books, 2013), 222.

[6] Donald MacKenzie, Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Society of Missile Guidance (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1993), 153.

[7] MacKenzie, 166.

Why is Radiation Green?

Ask someone what color they normally associate with radiation and they’ll almost universally answer “green.” From TV shows such as “The Simpsons”, comic books, and even video games, whenever anything radioactive or nuclear is a key plot element, it is almost always incorrectly depicted as an bright, glowing green substance . In reality, elements such as uranium and plutonium are grey or silver, and radiation itself is invisible. So why green? While there’s no “set” answer to the popular depiction of radioactive items as a green, glowing substance (after all, wouldn’t red be more sinister?), the most probable answer can be traced to radium.

Radium was first discovered in 1898 by Marie and Pierre Curie.[1] Initially, radium had no practical application. However, it was soon discovered that radium, while naturally a grey-brown color, glowed bright green in the dark. Upon this realization, many realized the new potential that radium represented-both in civil and military applications. Pilots could now see their instruments in the dark without any difficulty. Instrument panels on machines no longer needed to be illuminated by electric lights. The average person would now be able to see what time it was at any time of day. In 1917, the U.S. Radium Corporation was founded, which hired young women to paint watches and instrument dials with  radium paint, named “Undark” by the company.

A collection of various clocks and watches with radium dials (Photo credit: EPA.gov). 

In order to paint the detailed designs on porcelain, it was necessary that the tip of the paintbrush be licked to create a fine point. This same procedure was used with radium paint, which caused the workers to ingest massive amounts of radium. Over time, these women began to develop “radium jaw,”- causing their gums to bleed and teeth to fall out. Some workers, unaware of the dangers of radiation, and enticed by its eerie green glow, painted their nails and lips with radium paint as well.[2]

However, as more and more of the “radium girls” fell ill, they soon began to suspect that the radium paint was the culprit, and that their employer, the U.S. Radium Corporation, was concealing the true danger. Initially, their claims of radiation poisoning were dismissed. In an attempt to tarnish the reputation of the workers, the company blamed their sickness on syphilis.[3]

Partially contributing to this dismissive response was the naïve attitude that many Americans held towards radiation during this time. Radium and radiation were viewed as having an unlimited potential. Some predicted that radium could be used to paint the insides of homes, thereby eliminating the need for electric lights. Radium-infused consumer goods, such as patent medicines, hair tonics, and even toothpastes were rampant, and while it is debatable if all of these items actually contained radium or not, the idea of the curative properties of radiation still remained.[4]

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One of the many radium-infused “health tonics” of the early 20th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia). 

In 1928, however, this attitude drastically changed. Grace Fryer, an employee of U.S. Radium, finally managed to find a lawyer who was willing to take on her case. At the start of the trial in January, the five workers who joined Fryer were so ill that they were not able to raise their arms to swear an oath in court. Finally, by the autumn, the “Radium Girls” won their case. Each worker was paid $10,000 ($138,000 in 2015), along with $600 ($8,300 in 2015) per year. In addition, U.S. Radium would pay for all legal and medical expenses incurred.[5]

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Grace Fryer painting a watch face (Photo credit: Wikipedia). 

The lawsuit against U.S. Radium illustrated to many members of the public that radium and radiation was not a “cure-all” that they had been led to believe. Many of the radium-based consumer goods were taken off the shelves and radiation began to be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism, rather than a cure.

This fearful attitude towards radiation remains to this day, along with the depiction of radioactive elements and radiation as green.  While this depiction is incorrect, the association of “radiation = green” is one that shall remain in popular culture for years to come.


[1] Royal Society of Chemistry, “Radium,” Accessed July 21, 2016, http://www.rsc.org/periodic-table/element/88/radium.

[2] Denise Grady, “A Glow in the Dark and a Lesson in Science,” New York Times, October 6, 1998, accessed July 21, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/1998/10/06/science/a-glow-in-the-dark-and-a-lesson-in-scientific-peril.html?pagewanted=all.

[3] Ross Mullner, Deadly Glow: The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy (Washington, D.C: American Public Health Association, 1999), 20.

[4] Jean Matricon and Georges Waysand, The Cold Wars: A History of Superconductivity (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 113.

[5] “Newark Pathologist Shows Part of Miss Maggia’s Jaw,” Star Eagle, October 18, 1927.

“Hitting A Bullet With Another Bullet”

Warfare has always been a continuous cycle of “challenge and response.” The invention of the tank immediately caused the development of anti-tank rifles and armor-piercing ammunition to counter this new threat. This same phenomenon occurred with the development of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) along with missiles to shoot it down.

In 1953, the U.S. military’s first surface-to-air guided missile, named Nike Ajax, entered service. However, the military quickly realized the other potential uses that this missile would have. Within two years, the U.S. Army undertook a program to upgrade the Nike Ajax into a missile which would be able to intercept incoming ballistic missiles. The program took on a new urgency in 1957, when the Soviet Union launched their first intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7 Semyorka. Due to great interservice rivalry, the new missile, the Nike Zeus, did not enter service until 1962.[1]

The Nike-Zeus missile (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

It soon became clear that the Nike Zeus only worked on paper. Two issues were apparent. First, the Nike Zeus was too vulnerable to decoys from enemy missiles, and second, the growing number of Soviet ICBMs meant that the system would quickly becoming too expensive for practical use. Some predicted that it would take twenty Nike Zeus missiles to shoot down a single Soviet ICBM.[2] The military quickly returned to the drawing board, and in 1967, the U.S. military announced the Sentinel Program. It utilized a system of radars along with the Spartan missile interceptor to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles. However, the issue of placing nuclear-armed anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) in American cities became highly politicized. Many argued that it made American cities an even greater target for Soviet missiles along with concerns that one of the ABMs would detonate accidentally. In other words, “H-bombs would be in the backyard.”[3] Due to this negative public reception, Sentinel was cancelled.

Two years later, Sentinel was replaced by Safeguard. Instead of building ABM sites in American cities, this time, the missiles were clustered around missile bases to act as a defense. In theory, if a nuclear attack were to occur, U.S. defense planners figured that the Soviet Union would attempt to target American missile silos first. The program utilized a two-tier system: the Spartan interceptor would shoot down incoming missiles at a distance, and a second missile, named Sprint, would shoot down any other warheads that Spartan failed to hit.[4] The need for a second set of interceptors reflected the primary fear of the U.S. military at the time: that there would not be enough time to successfully intercept incoming enemy missiles.

A Sprint missile after firing (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

With the introduction of laser technology in the 1960s, many began to realize their potential for missile defense. Rather than attempting to fire an ABM at precisely the right moment and hope that it intercepts the incoming missile, a laser was potentially far more accurate and faster. Extensive testing was conducted primarily at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico during the 1980s which evaluated the potential application of lasers in missile defense. In 1983, President Ronald Regan formally announced the start of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, popularly known as “Star Wars” due to its futuristic nature). SDI used a complex system of space-based lasers, satellites and ground based interceptors to provide a layered system of defense.

An artist’s rendering of the SDI System (Photo credit: Wikipedia). 

However, in the eyes of the Soviet Union, SDI was inherently destabilizing. From the Soviet perspective, a system such as SDI-which the Soviets had no direct competitor to-made the United States invulnerable to a nuclear attack. In other words, the United States could launch a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union without any fear of a retaliatory strike.[5] For this reason, along with the high cost and ambitious nature of the program, SDI was cancelled.

During this time, the U.S. Army also realized that their current surface to air missiles, such as the Hawk, were aging rapidly. In 1975, the military conducted the first successful test fire of the Patriot missile at White Sands Missile Range.[6] Initially, the Patriot served exclusively as a surface to air missile to shoot down enemy aircraft. With the failure of SDI and the need for a replacement ABM system, the Patriot began to replace the Spartan missile. By the late 1980s, an ABM version of the Patriot, the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC)-2, entered service in time for the Persian Gulf War.

A Patriot missile battery (Photo credit: japantimes.co.jp).

The missile’s performance in the First Gulf War remains controversial. Initially deployed to defend against SCUD missiles fired from Iraq, Army records indicate that the missile engaged enemy targets forty times, however, some have argued that no enemy missiles were actually shot down. Further criticism was leveled at the system in the aftermath of a successful Iraqi SCUD attack on a U.S. military barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.[7]

In the aftermath of the Gulf War, the system underwent a massive overhaul. Many analysts have theorized that the missile’s performance problems stemmed from the Patriot’s original design as an anti-aircraft missile, rather than an ABM.[8] In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a third upgrade to the Patriot system, the PAC-3, also known as the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) entered service.

The most recent addition to the U.S. military’s missile defense is the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile. Entering service in 2008, THAAD is meant to be used against high altitude, rather than low and medium altitude missiles. Recent debates have erupted regarding the deployment of THAAD to South Korea as a defense against potential North Korean ballistic missile launches.[9]

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A THAAD missile firing (Photo credit: Wikipedia). 

In conclusion, as technology advanced throughout the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union entered into a massive technological and military arms race while one country always tried to outpace the other. Thankfully, the United States nor the Soviet Union has never seen the need to utilize their ballistic missile defense system to its full capacity. While the upgraded Patriot system may be effective against SCUD missiles, a tactical ballistic missile such as the SCUD is not an ICBM. While the utilization of this system in an operational manner is certainly not desirable, it remains critical that a capable ballistic missile defense remains operational.



[1] Barry Leonard, History of Strategic and Ballistic Missile Defense, Volume II (Collingdale, Pennsylvania: Diane Publishing Company, 2011), 329.

[2] Leonard, 180.

[3] Spencer Weart, The Rise of Nuclear Fear (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 311.

[4] Federation of American Scientists, “Safeguard,” Special Weapons Monitor, accessed July 14, 2016, http://fas.org/spp/starwars/program/safeguard.htm.

[5] Eric Schlosser, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident and the Illusion of Safety (New York: Pantheon Books, 2013), 447.

[6] Tim Weiner, “Patriot Missile’s Success A Myth, Israeli Aides Say,” New York Times, November 21, 1993, Accessed July 14, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/1993/11/21/world/patriot-missile-s-success-a-myth-israeli-aides-say.html.

[7] R. W. Apple, “War in the Gulf: Scud Attack; Scud Missile Hits a U.S. Barracks, Killing 27,” New York Times, February 26, 1991, Accessed July 14, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/02/26/world/war-in-the-gulf-scud-attack-scud-missile-hits-a-us-barracks-killing-27.html.

[8] Kari Hawkins, “Patriot Missile System Reaches 50 Years of Service,” Redstone Rocket, August 19, 2015, Accessed July 14, 2016, http://www.theredstonerocket.com/military_scene/article_e3803476-4678-11e5-aa6a-77952ed8b5ff.html.

[9] Jung Sung-Ki, “U.S. Anti-Missile Plans With South Korea Spark Fresh Backlash,” DefenseNews, July 14, 2016, Accessed July 14, 2016, http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/2016/07/13/us-antimissile-plans-south-korea-spark-fresh-backlash/87044222/.

A Walking Tour of Los Alamos

Drive up the mountain that leads to Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the first thing you will see upon entering the town is a sign that proudly states “Where Discoveries Are Made!” This small city in northern New Mexico played a pivotal role in the Manhattan Project, and continues to function as a critical component in nuclear weapons and scientific development.

The city of Los Alamos itself was not founded until 1942, during which General Leslie Groves, the military head of the Manhattan Project and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the chief scientist, agreed on a location for a new secret laboratory to build the world’s first atomic bomb. Oppenheimer, who had spent numerous years in New Mexico, liked the site because it combined his two loves: physics and the West. For General Groves, it was isolated, and its location at the top of a mountain was perfect if any experiments went awry. [1] Almost immediately, roads were paved, buildings were constructed, and pre-fabricated government housing was erected as fast as possible. Senior personnel, such as Oppenheimer, received their own houses, located on “Bathtub Row,” named for the fact that these houses were the only ones with bathtubs in the entire town.[2]

bathtub row sign.jpg
The sign for “Bathtub Row” today (Photo credit: T. Backus). 

As the Manhattan Project continued, the “Hill” expanded even more, but secrecy was paramount. Scientists coming to work on the Manhattan Project were first directed to an office at 109 East Palace Avenue in Santa Fe, New Mexico. From there, they received their security badges and were given final directions to Los Alamos from Santa Fe. However, the scientists and security personnel could not disclose their new location. Any mail which was sent to Los Alamos had to be addressed to “P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico.” This secrecy did not stop those on “the Hill” to try and tell their loved ones where they were. A young military policeman sent his girlfriend a letter saying, “Oh, how I wish you were here with me in Box 1663.”[3]

The commemorative plaque at 109 East Palace Avenue in Santa Fe, New Mexico (Photo by T. Backus). 

By the early 1950s and with the nuclear threat of the Soviet Union looming, Los Alamos National Laboratory began to take on a more permanent status. As the town expanded, many of the original buildings which were involved in the Manhattan Project were torn down to make room for more permanent buildings, along with growing concerns about radioactive contamination. Eventually, the laboratory itself was moved to the south, and the town of Los Alamos remained to the north.

Today, several historical buildings remain in the town. “Bathtub Row” remains as one of the primary streets, along with the houses of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe. As both houses are currently private residences, tours are very rarely conducted. The current Los Alamos Community Building sits in the location of the old Tech Area, where many of the original Manhattan Project experiments were conducted. Across from the community building is the Ice House Memorial, where the cores for the bombs were stored temporarily during the Manhattan Project.[4]

Perhaps the best preserved and publicly open building is the Fuller Lodge, which was originally used as the main building for the Los Alamos Ranch School, an elite private boy’s school. During wartime, the structure functioned as a meeting place for the scientists and as housing. After the completion of the Manhattan Project, the military awarded the prestigious Army-Navy Excellence Award to all Manhattan Project personnel outside the lodge.[4] Across from Fuller Lodge is the Guest House, the private residence of General Groves and the current location of the Los Alamos History Museum.

fuller lodge outside-location of the excellence award.jpg
The Fuller Lodge today (Photo by T. Backus). 

In November 2015, the National Park Service officially established the Manhattan Project National Historic Park. Plans currently exist to incorporate two other historical sites into the park: “Gun Site” and “V site.” During the Manhattan Project, these two buildings were some of the most secretive sites at Los Alamos, as they were the final assembly sites for both bombs.[5] However, these buildings exist on Los Alamos National Laboratory property and are therefore currently not accessible to the public (For a virtual tour of Gun Site and V Site, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axkQ4UjTc8M).

Currently, Los Alamos is both a historical site and one that critically supports the mission of national defense. The Manhattan Project structures remain as ones that tell the story of a scientific marvel, which brought an end to the costliest war in human history, and the establishment of the Manhattan Project National Historic Park will ensure that these structures remain preserved for future generations.




[1] Jon Hunner, J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Cold War and the Atomic West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), 83.

[2] Jon Hunner, Inventing Los Alamos: The Growth of an Atomic Community (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004), 32.

[3] Hunner, Los Alamos, 41.

[4] Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce, “Los Alamos Historical Walking Tour,” Accessed July 14, 2016, http://www.visitlosalamos.org/historic-walking-tour/.

[5] Los Alamos National Laboratory, “Los Alamos History in Images,” Accessed July 14, 2016, https://lanl.gov/about/history-innovation/history-images/index.php.

[6] U.S. Department of Energy, “V-Site Assembly Building and Gun Site,” Accessed July 14, 2016, http://energy.gov/management/v-site-assembly-building-and-gun-site.


Albuquerque’s Atomic Museum: A Walking Tour

Ask the average person on the street if they would like to go to a museum. Now ask that same person if they would like to go to a museum that is about nuclear weapons. The amount of people who would say “Yes,” to the questions above could probably be counted on one hand, however, the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (formerly the National Atomic Museum) in Albuquerque, New Mexico rests upon this very premise.

In 1969, Kirtland Air Force Base in conjunction with Sandia National Laboratories founded the “Sandia Atomic Museum” in an unused building on Kirtland Air Force Base.[1] It was aimed at preserving the history of the base along with tracing the role of Sandia National Laboratories in the development of nuclear weapons. The museum was initially aimed at Air Force and Sandia personnel as a study center, and featured several mock ups of nuclear weapon cases and several aircraft. While the museum was open to the public, it was not “family friendly,” as there were no interactive exhibits or sections specifically for children.

With the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, security concerns forced the museum to move off Kirtland Air Force base to a temporary location in Old Town Albuquerque.[2] Due to space restrictions, the exhibits at the museum were greatly reduced and many large objects, such as the museum’s B-29, could not be displayed.

The museum’s temporary location in Old Town Albuquerque (Photo credit:


Finally, in 2009, the museum re-opened at a new, permanent location in southeast Albuquerque and was re-named the “National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.” In an attempt to increase the number of visitors, the museum included a new section for children, along with sections on the peaceful applications of the atom, such as nuclear medicine and atomic power. The changes were successful and within years, the museum saw thousands of guests from across the nation to visit.

Today, the museum hosts an impressive array of permanent exhibits. Extensive coverage is devoted to the role of New Mexico during the Manhattan Project along with the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Highlights of the collection include an American flag which was flown at Trinity site, a mockup of the Trinity bomb, and photographs from Hiroshima.

trinity flag.jpg
The American flag that flew at the Trinity Site on July 16, 1945 (Photo credit: T.Backus).

A second section is devoted entirely to the Cold War. The exhibit hall includes a mock-up of a fallout shelter, a section on the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a display detailing the 1966 Palomares B-52 crash. The museum also maintains an extensive display of nuclear weapons casings, which were transferred from the museum’s original location.Moving through the museum, visitors also encounter a section on atomic popular culture. Featuring artifacts such as “radium infused water,” and atomic-themed comic books, this section details the cultural effects that the Cold War had on the American public. Visitors can view how the cultural representations of the atom changed from one of a limitless source of energy to a fear of the Soviet Union, and finally a celebratory attitude once the Cold War had ended.

The exterior of the museum also boasts several outside exhibits, including aircraft and missiles. Among the displays is a B-29, a Nike Hercules surface-to-air missile and the M65 280mm atomic cannon (nicknamed “Atomic Annie”). In addition, the museum holds the unique distinction of owning one of the only B-52s to ever drop a nuclear weapon in history.[3]

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B-52, tail number 52-0013 on display outside the museum (Photo credit: T. Backus).

The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History is unique. Despite the difficult subject matter, the museum is able to successfully attract thousands of visitors in a way that is both educational and entertaining.

The museum is located at 601 Eubank Boulevard Southeast in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It is open daily, 9AM to 5PM. Admissions are $12 for adults and $10 for children.

[1] http://www.nuclearmuseum.org/, Accessed July 13, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Associated Press, “Albuquerque Museum to Restore Historic B-52 Bomber,” kob4.com, April 4, 2016, accessed July 13, 2016.

“The Cold War: The Game”

The cultural effects of the Cold War were far reaching: movies, music, theater, books, and perhaps most recently, video games. However, it was not until the late 1970s and early 1980s when consumer technology was able to be effectively utilized in a personal, entertainment role. Previously, computers had been too large and unwieldy for home entertainment use. However, with the release of video games such as Pac-Man and Asteroids, dedicated video game systems and the idea of computers-as-entertainment began to gain momentum.

In 1980, the arcade game Missile Command was released. The objective of the game was to shoot down as many enemy missiles as possible before the player was destroyed, which would inevitably happen as the missiles came at the player faster and faster. In other words, there was no way to “win” Missile Command. While the idea of an “un-winnable” video game seems strange by today’s standards, it acted as an accurate representation of the philosophy of Mutually Assured Destruction.

A screenshot from Missile Command. Note the Statue of Liberty in the right hand corner (Photo credit: gamesdbase.com).

By the end of the Cold War, a drastic cultural shift occurred with the collapse of the Soviet Union. No longer was the “Evil Empire” targeting American suburbia with multi-megaton nuclear warheads. As a result, a new, younger generation “had not grown up in a world where talk of nuclear war, radiation, reactors and so forth showed up frequently in the news, and even in personal conversation, within a context drenched with anxiety. Often their first encounters with nuclear topics took place in the tedium of the school room.”[1]  In addition, movies and television shows that featured nuclear war treated the threat as a “cheesy plot device, not a viscerally felt reality.”[2]

In other words, due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new, younger generation viewed the threat of nuclear war as a Cold War relic and caused many to view the nuclear culture of the 1950s and 1960s as farcical. As the years passed, and the threat of the Soviet Union continued to diminish, video games such as Goldeneye 007 or Command and Conquer often trivialized the threat of the “Evil Empire.” In many cases, the game’s primary antagonist was a highly caricaturized Russian, complete with a fur hat and greatcoat. Furthermore, video games allowed for the player to freeze the action while they went to refill their soda or use the restroom. Unlike in a real conflict, a player could be fighting off endless waves of computer-generated Soviet tanks one second and pause it the next. With the rise in popularity of video games by the late 1990s, the nuclear threat became as threatening as pixels on a computer screen.

The primary antagonist from Command and Conquer: Red Alert (PC, 2008. Photo credit: cncwika.com)

However, the events of September 11, 2001 acted as a brutal wake-up call to many Americans. A new threat thrust itself onto the forefront of the American consciousness: that of the radicalized Islamic terrorist. Many video games, such as Battlefield 3 and the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series (first released in 2007) capitalized on this new fear, with the new antagonist hailing from an “unspecified Middle Eastern country.” In games such as these, players often take the role of a Special Operations soldier who is tasked with stopping the next terror attack (often involving a so-called “dirty bomb”) on American or European soil. In the 2000s, countless video games were released based on this premise. It could be argued that these video games acted as a coping mechanism: in a time which a terror attack could come at anytime and anywhere, video games allowed for the feeling that the player was able to control an otherwise uncontrollable situation. In a video game such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the player could be a hero-they could stop the terror cell and save the world.  It allowed the temporary feeling that the player was “doing something” to stop what was otherwise unpredictable violence.

The mid and late-2000s also saw the rise of a new genre: that of the post-apocalyptic game. Games such as Metro 2033 and the Fallout series rested on the premise that a nuclear World War III had already occurred. Instead of preventing a global thermonuclear war, the player was tasked with surviving in a Mad Max-esque world: one with rivaling factions that acted as the last vestiges of a civilized society.



Fallout 3
A post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C. in Fallout 3 (Photo credit: Wikipedia). 

Currently, the release of video games such as Fallout 4 in 2015 illustrate that the Cold War is alive and well in the American consciousness. Admittedly, while historical accuracy is not the priority-after all, their very premise is entertainment rather than educational-atomic and Cold War-themed video games still remain highly popular amongst a younger generation. It remains to be seen how current geopolitical events in countries such as North Korea will shape our cultural perceptions of the potential atomic threat.




[1] Spencer Weart, The Rise of Nuclear Fear (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012), 259.

[2] Paul Boyer, “Sixty Years and Counting: Nuclear Themes in American Culture, 1945 to Present,” in The Atomic Bomb and American Society: New Perspectives, ed. Rosemary Mariner (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2009), 14.

The Battle at the Smithsonian

In the early 1990s, public attention concerning nuclear affairs was scant. The Soviet Union had fallen and the threat of nuclear destruction seemed to temporarily disappear. Awareness of the dropping of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki diminished greatly. However, as the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II drew near in 1995, interest over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki renewed. This occurred for three reasons. First, many veterans who had served in the war were still alive, but realized that they were aging quickly. For some, the fiftieth anniversary would be the last time that they would be able to record their stories. Secondly, enough time had passed for these veterans to come to terms with their actions during the war. Finally, unlike previous years, “the late 1980s and 1990s did not see the emergence of such all-consuming issues such as the Vietnam War, urban riots, or Watergate, which had earlier diverted attention from nuclear issues.”[1] Coinciding with this anniversary, the Smithsonian Institution planned an exhibit that would showcase the fuselage of the Enola Gay, along with several other World War II-era aircraft. The Enola Gay had been in storage for several years because the Smithsonian had no room for the airplane and was in dire need of restoration.

The Enola Gay fuselage in a storage warehouse at the Smithsonian Institution (Photo credit: Wikipedia). 

The director of the museum, Martin Harwit believed that the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan was so significant in the context of the fiftieth anniversary that the full debate of the bombings should be explored. However, by the summer of 1993, Robert Adams, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and senior curator Tom Crouch, began to disagree over the portrayal of the Japanese in the exhibit. Crouch eventually wrote the now-infamous words to Adams in July 1993: “Do you want to do an exhibition intended to make veterans feel good, or do you want an exhibition that will lead our visitors to think about the consequences of the atomic bombing of Japan? Frankly, I don’t think we can do both.”[2]

In January 1994, the first draft of the proposed exhibition “The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War” was completed (See the book Judgement at the Smithsonian: The Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki edited by Philip Nobile for the full exhibit text). The exhibit extensively detailed the Manhattan Project, along with the after-effects of radiation and the continuing debate regarding the bombings. Publically, Harwit stated that criticism regarding an unbalanced exhibit was “unfair”; however, in an internal memo, he called for a revision.[3] After several more revisions, the script eventually became “The Last Act.”

The revised Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian (Photo credit: National Air and Space Museum). 

Throughout 1994, criticism regarding the Enola Gay exhibit continued to mount. Veterans of World War II did not want their memories challenged by an exhibit that called into question their actions during the war. For these veterans, World War II was the “Good War” and the atomic bombs brought a good end to the “Good War.”[4] Additionally, for the veterans who had been scheduled to invade Japan, many argued that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved their lives. However, some historians and other critics argued that the proposed exhibit had “abandoned history with all its uncomfortable complications in favor of feel-good national myths.”[5]  Historians did not want an exhibit that only told one side of the complex debate to drop the bomb. For children of World War II veterans, their displeasure stemmed from what has been dubbed “Vietnam Syndrome.” They had been raised to examine historical events, especially American wars, under a much more critical lens. They argued that the exhibit perpetuated the myth of World War II as the “Good War.”

The debate also became highly politicized. For conservatives, the Enola Gay symbolized an American military triumph over an inferior enemy and criticized the Smithsonian Museum for falling prey to “liberal revisionism”.[6] In contrast, those on the political left argued that the exhibit represented a “woeful catalog of [American] crimes and aggressions against the helpless peoples of the earth.”[7]

On January 30, 1995, the Smithsonian announced the cancellation of “The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War.” By May, the debate still showed no signs of abating and Harwit was compelled to resign. One month later, the revised exhibit went on display at the Smithsonian. After the unveiling of the revised exhibit, American conciseness regarding the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki began to fade gradually until the exhibit closed in May of 1998. When the complete Enola Gay went on display in 2003, the Smithsonian Institution took great pains to report only the objective facts concerning the airplane, with only one sentence devoted to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.[8]

In conclusion, even fifty years was not long enough to settle the Hiroshima debate. While the decision may remain forever unresolved, only time will tell how the 100th anniversary will shape perceptions of this momentous act.

The current Enola Gay exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia).


[1] Paul Boyer and Eric Idsvoog, “Nuclear Menace in the Mass Culture of the Late Cold War Era and Beyond,” in Fallout: A Historian Reflects on America’s Half-Century Encounter with Nuclear Weapons, ed. Paul Boyer (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998), 204.

[2] Edward Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt, History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 35.

[3] John Correll, “Air and Space Museum Director Resigns,” Air Force Magazine 78, no. 6 (June 1995): 13.

[4] Studs Terkel, The Good War: An Oral History of World War II (New York: The New Press, 1984).

[5] Linenthal and Engelhardt, 161.

[6] Michael Kilian, “Smithsonian Puts Enola Gay Exhibit on Hold,” Chicago Tribune, January 21, 1995, accessed April 12, 2016, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1995-01-21/news/9501210185_1_enola-gay-space-museum-smithsonian-institution.

[7] Linenthal and Engelhardt, 160.

[8] For the current exhibit text, see https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/boeing-b-29-superfortress-enola-gay.