Did the Soviet Union know when DEFCON levels changed?

Did the Soviet Union know when DEFCON levels changed?

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The US military uses a scale of alert readiness called DEFCON, with DEFCON 5 being the lowest alert level and DEFCON 1 being the highest, preparing for imminent nuclear war. At least once during the Cold War, readiness was pushed all the way to DEFCON 2.

When DEFCON levels were raised, how secret was this? Did the Soviet Union know when DEFCON levels changed?

Sometimes it deliberately wasn't kept secret from the enemy. This is from William Taubman's Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, about the Cuban missile crisis in 1962:

At 10:00 A.M., Washington time, when the quarantine went into full effect, the U.S. strategic Command moved from Defense Condition 3 to DEFCON 2, one level below that of general war. For the first time in history all American long-range missiles and bombers were now on alert, and scores of planes loaded with atomic bombs were aloft around the clock, refueled by areal tankers, waiting over Greenland and northern Canada for the signal to proceed toward the assigned Soviet target. To make sure Moscow noticed, the SAC commander, General Thomas Power, took it upon himself to "announce" the move in uncoded message to his men.

A footnote identifies the following source for the last sentence:

Laurence Chang and Peter Kornbluh, eds., The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A National Security Archive Documents Reader (New York, New Press, 1992), p. 371.

An "announcement" would also seem to make sense under the logic of nuclear deterrence. I can't confirm whether Power's communication contained the verbatim phrase DEFCON 2, but perhaps it did, because at this point (one hopes) nobody wanted to issue ambiguous commands.

Soviet Union

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Soviet Union, in full Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), Russian Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik or Sovetsky Soyuz, former northern Eurasian empire (1917/22–1991) stretching from the Baltic and Black seas to the Pacific Ocean and, in its final years, consisting of 15 Soviet Socialist Republics (S.S.R.’s): Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belorussia (now Belarus), Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kirgiziya (now Kyrgyzstan), Latvia, Lithuania, Moldavia (now Moldova), Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. The capital was Moscow, then and now the capital of Russia.

During the period of its existence, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was by area the world’s largest country. It was also one of the most diverse, with more than 100 distinct nationalities living within its borders. The majority of the population, however, was made up of East Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians) these groups together made up more than two-thirds of the total population in the late 1980s.

At its greatest extent, between 1946 and 1991 (the figures and descriptions given below refer to this period), the U.S.S.R. covered some 8,650,000 square miles (22,400,000 square kilometres), seven times the area of India and two and one-half times that of the United States. The country occupied nearly one-sixth of the Earth’s land surface, including the eastern half of Europe and roughly the northern third of Asia.

The U.S.S.R. extended more than 6,800 miles (10,900 kilometres) from east to west, covering 11 of the world’s 24 time zones. The most westerly point was on the Baltic Sea, near Kaliningrad the easternmost was Cape Dezhnev on the Bering Strait, nearly halfway around the world. From north to south the U.S.S.R. extended some 2,800 miles from Cape Chelyuskin to Kushka on the Afghan border. Nearly half the territory of the U.S.S.R. was north of 60° N, at the same latitude as Alaska, Baffin Island, and Greenland.

In addition to having the world’s longest coastline, the U.S.S.R. had the longest frontiers. To the north the country was bounded by the seas of the Arctic Ocean, and to the east were the seas of the Pacific. On the south the U.S.S.R. was bordered by North Korea, Mongolia, China, Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey. On the southern frontier there were three seas: the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland sea, as well as the almost completely landlocked Black Sea and Sea of Azov. Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Finland, and Norway lay to the west.

The U.S.S.R. was the successor to the Russian Empire of the tsars. Following the 1917 Revolution, four socialist republics were established on the territory of the former empire: the Russian and Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republics and the Ukrainian and Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republics. On December 30, 1922, these constituent republics established the U.S.S.R. Additional union republics (Soviet Socialist Republics) were set up in subsequent years: the Turkmen and Uzbek S.S.R.’s in 1924, the Tadzhik S.S.R. in 1929, and the Kazakh and Kirgiz S.S.R.’s in 1936. In that year the Transcaucasian Republic was abolished and its territory was divided between three new republics: the Armenian, Azerbaijan, and Georgian S.S.R.’s. In 1940 the Karelo-Finnish, Moldavian, Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian S.S.R.’s were established. The Karelo-Finnish S.S.R. became an autonomous republic in 1956, leaving a total of 15 union republics (soyuznye respubliki). In addition to these, the U.S.S.R. as of 1990 was made up of 20 autonomous republics (avtonomnye respubliki), 8 autonomous provinces (avtonomnye oblasti), 10 autonomous districts (avtonomnye okruga), 6 regions (kraya), and 114 provinces (oblasti).

Under the constitution adopted in the 1930s and modified down to October 1977, the political foundation of the U.S.S.R. was formed by the Soviets (Councils) of People’s Deputies. These existed at all levels of the administrative hierarchy, with the Soviet Union as a whole under the nominal control of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R., located in Moscow. This body had two chambers—the Soviet of the Union, with 750 members elected on a single-member constituency basis and the Soviet of Nationalities, with 750 members representing the various political divisions: 32 from each union republic, 11 from each autonomous republic, 5 from each autonomous region, and 1 from each autonomous district. In elections to these bodies, the voters were rarely given any choice of candidate other than those presented by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), which, until the amendment of Article 6 of the constitution in March 1990, was the “leading and guiding force of Soviet society and the nucleus of its political system.” In theory, all legislation required the approval of both chambers of the Supreme Soviet in practice, all decisions were made by the small group known as the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, itself strongly influenced by the Politburo of the CPSU, and were unanimously approved by the deputies. The role of the soviets in the individual republics and other territories was primarily to put into effect the decisions made by the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R.

The political system was thus authoritarian and highly centralized, and this also applied to the economic system. The economic foundation of the U.S.S.R. was “Socialist ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange,” and the economy of the entire country was controlled by a series of five-year plans that set targets for all forms of production.

Dramatic changes, both political and economic, occurred during the late 1980s and early ’90s, ushered in by the adoption of perestroika (“restructuring”) and glasnost (“openness”). On the economic side the planned, highly centralized command economy was to be replaced by the progressive introduction of elements of a market economy, a change that proved difficult to achieve and was accompanied by declining production in many sectors and increasing distribution problems. In the political sphere, amendments to the constitution in 1988 replaced the old Supreme Soviet with the Congress of People’s Deputies of the U.S.S.R. The new congress had 2,250 members one-third of these were elected on a constituency basis, one-third represented the political territories (as in the old Supreme Soviet), and the remaining third came from “all-union social organizations” such as the trade unions, the CPSU, and the Academy of Sciences. Voters were presented with a choice of candidates, and many non-Communists were elected. The Congress of People’s Deputies elected a new Supreme Soviet of 542 members and also chose the chairman of that body, who was to be the executive president of the U.S.S.R. Congresses of People’s Deputies were also established in each republic.

These congresses could be legitimately described as parliaments, and they engaged in vigorous debate over the economic and political future of the country. From 1989, conflicts developed between the parliament of the U.S.S.R. and those of the individual republics, mainly over the respective powers of the centre (the U.S.S.R. government) and the republics. These conflicts were exacerbated by the resurgence of ethnic nationalism and increasing demands for autonomy and even for full independence. Following the abortive coup of August 1991, in which the CPSU was heavily implicated, the party itself was abolished.

By December 1991 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had virtually ceased to exist, and the future of its territories and peoples was uncertain. Three republics—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—had achieved complete independence and were internationally recognized as sovereign states, and several others were demanding independence. Attempts were made, led by Mikhail Gorbachev, the president of the Soviet Union, to establish a new “Union of Sovereign States” with some degree of integration in foreign policy, defense, and economic affairs, but agreement among the remaining 12 republics was not achieved. Whatever the legal position, the union republics had begun to act as if they were sovereign states and were negotiating with each other, bypassing the vestigial central government. This process culminated on December 8, 1991, in the signing of an agreement between the three Slav republics of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus for the establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), with an agreed common policy for foreign affairs and defense. The CIS later came to include all the remaining republics except Georgia, but great difficulty was experienced in arriving at agreed policies. The future thus remained uncertain, but there could be no disagreement with the statement by the leaders of the Commonwealth that “the U.S.S.R. has ceased to exist as a geopolitical reality.”

This article contains a history of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from 1917 to 1991. For the geography and history of the former Soviet Socialist republics, see the articles Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine.


While much of the United States' nuclear war planning process remains classified, some information on the former SIOP planning process has been made public. The planning process began with the President issuing a presidential directive establishing the concepts, goal, and guidelines that provided guidance to the nuclear planners. [6] The Secretary of Defense then used the President's guidance to produce the Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy (NUWEP) that specified basic planning assumptions, attack options, targeting objectives, types of targets, targeting constraints, and coordination with combatant commanders. The NUWEP was then used by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to create the "Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (JSCP), Annex C (Nuclear)." This document established a more detailed and elaborate set of goals and conditions that included targeting and damage criteria for the use of nuclear weapons. The final stage in the planning process occurred when the Strategic Air Command (SAC) (from 1961 to 1992) or the United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) (from 1992 to 2003) took the guidance from the JSCP and created the actual nuclear war plan that becomes the SIOP. Detailed planning was carried out by the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (JSTPS) co-located with SAC Headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska. [7]

As part of SIOP planning, Strategic Air Command (SAC, later USSTRATCOM) developed a set of plans and a series of options based on a target set known as the National Target Base (NTB). The number of targets in the NTB varied over time, from 16,000 in 1985 to 12,500 at the end of the Cold War in 1991, to 2,500 by 2001. [8] The SIOP was primarily directed against targets in the Soviet Union (later Russia) but targets in the People's Republic of China, which had been part of the SIOP until the 1970s, were added back into the plan in 1997. [9] In 1999, the NTB reportedly included targets in Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. [10]

SIOP, and its renamed successors, is most importantly an "integrated" plan that uses both Air Force and Navy delivery systems it is "single" only in the sense that it comes out of one planning group. The "plan" actually contains multiple "attack options" that are themselves complex plans.

Early targeting after the Second World War Edit

Truman Edit

There is no evidence that the Soviet Union's contingency plans from the end of World War II to 1950 were anything but routine and defensive, and the substantial postwar demobilization of the Soviet military supports the view that the USSR did not view a new war in Europe as likely. Although Soviet doctrine incorporated an assumption of innate hostility of the capitalist powers to Communism, Soviet leader Josef Stalin apparently believed that neither the USSR nor the West could afford to fight another world war, and was skeptical of the Western ability to raise an army large enough to occupy Soviet territory. Soviet planning thus emphasized defenses against nuclear bombing, and attacks on Western European bomber bases. Plans in 1946 and 1948 assumed that during war with an unspecified enemy, Soviet forces in Germany would assume defensive positions within the Soviet occupation zone and wait for reinforcements before counterattacking. [11]

Soviet conventional forces greatly outnumbered the West's, however, and United States strategic nuclear strike plans were developed accordingly. While the United States was the only nation with the atomic bomb, in 1946 it had only 17 Silverplate B-29 bombers and 11 atomic bombs. Many early American war plans were based on using hundreds of nonexisting weapons for example, an autumn 1945 plan envisioned using 196 atomic bombs on Soviet industrial targets, but SAC could not deliver such quantities until 1952. [12] The bombs were of the Mark 3 type, weighing five tons and requiring 39 men two days to assemble. [13] The press reported that "atomic-capable" B-29s were deployed to Britain in mid-1948 during the Berlin Blockade, by which time the US possessed about 50 atomic weapons. The Soviets likely knew through espionage, however, that none of the aircraft was a Silverplate rather, they would have been used as part of plan DOUBLEQUICK, involving World War II-like sustained conventional bombing raids on Soviet air bases in Eastern Europe. [12] Other than increasing its anti-aircraft defenses, the Soviets did not change its military preparations in any way during the blockade, unlike the reaction in the West. Although the Soviets launched an intensive public relations effort in 1949, aided by sympathetic Western European fellow travelers, to oppose the formation of NATO, the new alliance's military strength was so weak that the Politburo did not bother to discuss it for six months after its formation. [11]

Strategic bombing during World War II of key transportation and energy sites was more effective than attacking cities, and early postwar non-nuclear war plans envisioned focusing on the Soviet petroleum industry. US war planners lacked updated maps of the USSR, however, and had to use pre-World War II maps—some older than the Russian Revolution—or perhaps German aerial photos from the war. Due in part to the lack of updated intelligence, nuclear planning increasingly focused on urban areas, which were easier to target and offered the potential for "bonus damage". [13] [14] : 89–90,92 The early Plan Totality targeted 20 cities with the 30 nuclear bombs then available. [15] Plan BROILER (November 1947) envisioned 34 bombs on 24 Soviet cities. [13] It and later plans such as HALFMOON (May 1948 50 bombs on 20 cities) and OFFTACKLE (December 1949 104 urban targets, 220 bombs, 72 more reserved for follow-up attacks) envisioned Western forces in Europe slowly retreating while the United Kingdom was reinforced as an air base for atomic attacks on the Soviet Union. [12] [13] President Harry S. Truman hoped for an international ban on atomic weapons and believed that the American people would not support their use for "aggressive purposes", and ordered JCS to devise a plan for conventional war however, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal in July 1948 ordered it to stop and resume atomic war planning due to the Berlin crisis. [13]

Officials were pessimistic about the effectiveness of the atomic plans, however. Britain's December 1948 SPEEDWAY plan assumed that the Soviets would not have atomic weapons, but nonetheless forecast that the West could not "withstand a Russian advance in Western Europe, even with the full defence co-operation of the Western Powers", including 560 American and British atomic-capable bombers. [14] : 400–402 The American TROJAN (December 1948) envisioned 133 bombs (although only 50 existed) hitting 70 cities. A committee led by General Hubert R. Harmon reported in May 1949 that even if all precisely hit their targets, the USSR would not surrender, its leadership would not be seriously weakened, and its military could still operate in Western Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. The attacks would reduce Soviet industrial capacity by 30 to 40%, but only temporarily without follow-up attacks. [13] [14] : 92 [11] The Harmon report had three immediate results: 1) It supported those within the United States Navy and elsewhere who criticized the centrality of atomic bombs and mass attacks on cities in American war planning. 2) It led to a substantial rise in nuclear-weapons production. 3) It caused the Joint Chiefs of Staff to, in fall 1949, assign SAC with the duty of slowing a Soviet invasion of Western Europe as part of NATO. [13] Erroneous US and British intelligence reports led to exaggerated NATO estimates of Soviet conventional forces. One 1951 estimate foresaw 175 combat divisions allegedly prepared to simultaneously attack Western Europe, the United Kingdom, the Balkans, the Middle East, and North America. [11] The perceived imbalance in forces was so great that American planners feared that even Britain would have to be abandoned during the invasion, a possibility they did not discuss with their British counterparts. [12]

Stalin did consider the possibility of war in Asia, as opposed to Europe. In January 1950, he approved Kim Il Sung's proposal to conquer South Korea in what became the Korean War that summer, believing that victory there would discredit NATO. The gambit backfired, however despite their initial optimism the Communists were unable to defeat the US-led forces in Korea, and the war greatly increased Western military spending, for the first time making NATO a significant threat against the Soviets in Europe. By late 1950, the USSR notified its Eastern European satellites to prepare for war by the end of 1952, a date matching Western estimates. In early 1951, based on an alleged NATO plan to launch a European war that year from Western proxy Yugoslavia during the Informbiro period as a response to its defeat in Korea, he ordered a massive increase in Eastern European forces that hurt the weaker Communist economies. Based on the Korean precedent, the Soviets apparently expected that the West would not use atomic weapons in a European war. During Stalin's lifetime, Soviet doctrine foresaw the next war as a more destructive version of World War II similarly decided by giant armies supported by massive home fronts, a type of conflict which benefited from the Soviet Union's innate strengths. [11]

The Soviet Union tested its first atomic weapon in 1949, but Stalin seems to have viewed possessing it as a political rather than military benefit, and he did not integrate atomic weapons into the Soviet military's equipment. [11] A 1951 Warsaw Pact war plan for Poland was, Vojtech Mastny wrote, "unequivocally defensive" even while "NATO was haunted by the nightmare of armed communist hordes sweeping all but unopposed through Europe". The Soviets assumed that Western forces were ready to invade and that Eastern Europeans would see them as liberators as in the West, the Soviets overestimated their enemies' strength. [16]

By this time, Truman was pessimistic about international arms control and told his advisors "Since we can't obtain international control we must be strongest in atomic weapons." He approved the Harmon report's recommendation for increased weapons production, and approved another increase soon after the start of the Korean War. JCS decided to emphasize "the destruction of known targets affecting the Soviet capability to deliver atomic bombs", with refineries, chemical and power plants, and shipyards as secondary and tertiary targets. The three categories were codenamed BRAVO (blunting), ROMEO (retardation), and DELTA (disruption/destruction) of the Soviet ability to fight, and formed the basis of American nuclear targeting for almost a decade. [13]

When military theorist Bernard Brodie studied the resulting target list, however, he strongly criticized the planners' ignorance of actual Soviet military capacity and resulting failure to estimate what effect the attacks would have. Brodie later recalled that "There was no calculated strategy for destroying Soviet capability to make war. The planners "simply expected the Soviet Union 'to collapse' as a result of the bombing campaign. People kept talking about the 'Sunday punch'." He recommended that targets be chosen based on analysis of the results of their destruction, and that "city-avoidance" strategies be studied. Brodie presented his report in April 1951, but JCS found SAC head LeMay more persuasive. LeMay objected to the list because of the difficulty of attacking isolated targets and the requirement for pre-attack reconnaissance for many of them. He preferred attacking industrial targets in urban areas so that even if a bomb missed, "a bonus will be derived from the use of the bomb". The target panel agreed to have SAC review future target lists before sending them to JCS. [13]

Eisenhower Edit

By the end of 1953, SAC would have 1,000 nuclear-capable bombers and was deploying the B-47 jet bomber. In January 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower inherited the Truman administration's large defense budget. The new president believed such expenditures threatened the economy, and cut $5 billion in defense spending that spring. Based on extensive experience with nuclear strategy and targeting from his terms as Chief of Staff of the United States Army and NATO Supreme Allied Commander, the Eisenhower administration's NSC 162/2 of October 1953 chose a less expensive, defensive-oriented direction for the military that emphasized "massive retaliation", still primarily delivered by USAF, to deter war. [17] [13]

The document formalized efforts begun under Truman to deploy newly developed tactical nuclear weapons small enough for most Air Force and Navy planes. The administration believed that they would be useful both during a general war and to deter a local one in Europe, [13] and Eisenhower said of tactical weapons that "on strictly military targets and for strictly military purposes, I see no reason why they shouldn't be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else". [18]

The doctrine of massive retaliation meant that, for the first time, atomic weapons became the basis of NATO strategy rather than an option of last resort. Similarly, the Soviet doctrine of non-atomic warfare began to change after Stalin's death in March 1953. In September that year a general proposed in a military journal that new weaponry might end a war quickly unlike World War II, and in October the Soviet Army held its first military exercise based on the enemy using atomic weapons. In 1954 Soviet forces in Europe received their first tactical atomic weapons, by which time Soviet officers publicly debated in the journal the merits of preemptive war. [11]

Prevention versus preemption Edit

Many in the West also seriously discussed the idea of preventive and preemptive war. Truman rejected preventive war, stating that "[s]tarting an atomic war is totally unthinkable for rational men", but Attlee stated in 1945 that "twice is he armed who gets in the first blow". JCS proposed in 1947 that the president be authorized to use atomic bombs to prevent a nuclear attack. NSC 68 of April 1950 opposed "a military attack not provoked by a military attack on us or on our allies", but acknowledged "if possible" the benefits of preemptively "landing the first blow" before the Soviet Union did so. [13] [14] : 93–95 In August 1950 Secretary of the Navy Francis Matthews publicly advocated a preventive war, but NSC 68 forecast that even after a massive preventive attack the USSR would likely not surrender and its forces could still "dominate most or all of Eurasia." [19]

A committee led by retired general Jimmy Doolittle suggested in spring 1953 that the administration study the possibility of giving the Soviets two years to cooperate, with the threat of possible war otherwise, and an Air Force study in August warned of "The Coming National Crisis" due to having to negotiate with a country run by "the whims of a small group of proven barbarians". Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles discussed that month their fears that, once the Soviets acquired fusion weapons, the resulting situation might force the United States into either war or dictatorship. While the president and other civilian and military leaders doubted the morality or legality of preventive war, preemptive war was much less problematic given that NSC 5410/1 March 1954 acknowledged that "the survival of the United States" was at risk. The Central Intelligence Agency believed that it could warn of a surprise Soviet attack days or even weeks ahead of time because of the necessary preparation time, and that up to 30 days would be needed to deliver all Soviet weapons. The BRAVO-ROMEO-DELTA targeting strategy continued, with tactical weapons to be used in Europe while SAC delivered strategic weapons to the USSR. [13]

SAC obtained almost independent target selection by 1955. The Air Force often used target lists to justify greater weapons production, then greater spending on delivery systems for the additional weapons. Although other services opposed such "bootstrapping", they did not have the IBM 704 computer that SAC used to analyze target priorities so could not offer competing selection lists. Its Basic War Plan of March 1954 planned for up to 735 bombers to simultaneously and massively attack all targets, military and urban, in the USSR. Eisenhower preferred to avoid civilian targets, and by 1954 several Air Force planners advocated a "no-cities" strategy. Other planners and USAF leadership, however, believed that the Soviet Union could support its "immense armed forces for at least two years of intensive warfare" if industrial and government centers were not attacked. The possibility existed, they believed, that SAC could in fact deliver a "decisive" attack on the USSR, a tempting idea given the power of the 15-megaton hydrogen bombs being tested. [13] LeMay stated in a 1988 interview that [20]

[t]here was a time in the 1950s when we could have won a war against Russia. It would have cost us essentially the accident rate of the flying time, because their defenses were pretty weak. One time in the 1950s we flew all of the reconnaissance aircraft that SAC possessed over Vladivostok at high noon . We could have launched bombing attacks, planned and executed just as well, at that time. So I don't think I am exaggerating when I say we could have delivered the stockpile had we wanted to do it, with practically no losses. [20]

Two studies soon concluded, however, that if such a window existed it had either closed or would soon. Weapons Systems Evaluation Group stated in February 1955 that destroying all known Soviet bases would require twice as large a force as the United States expected to field. A National Security Council study found that by mid-1958 the only defense against a devastating Soviet attack would be to attack first after being warned, which Eisenhower believed was impossible. Given the apparent impracticality of massive retaliation strategy, Army Chiefs of Staff Matthew Ridgway and his successor Maxwell Taylor argued within JCS that deterrence, instead of the "worst case" scenario of a full-scale nuclear war, should be the focus. More conventional forces were needed to prevent limited wars from leading to larger nuclear ones similarly, tactical nuclear weapons should be avoided in local wars to prevent escalation. Eisenhower, however, believed that tactical weapons should be viewed similarly to very large conventional "blockbusters", and did not want American forces stalled within small wars. Massive retaliation remained the basis of American war planning [13] the Killian Committee reported in 1955 that "We have an offensive advantage but are vulnerable to surprise attack" (emphasis in original), [21] and NATO estimated after the Hungarian revolution of 1956 that during wartime Western forces would retreat to the Rhine River within 48 hours. [11]

By the 1950s, around 5,500 targets were listed to receive SAC bomber strikes these targets consisted primarily of industrial sites but included counterforce targets. These plans, primarily by the Air Force, tended to be based on selecting targets in order to use up the available weapons, rather than considering the desired effects or strategic outcomes. [22] From a 1957 letter from John H. Moore, former director of nuclear planning, air operations branch, United States European Command, Air Force target planning methodology can be inferred "blast damage frame," with such references as "damage to concrete structures" and the requirement for a "high probability of cratering runways." He cited the "destructive and disruptive nature of nuclear weapons" with megaton yields: "the cumulative or ancillary effects may be as great or greater than primary damage." Specifically, he considered delayed radiation but not thermal effects, but called attention to the idea of "bonus" effects, [23] in which the totality of weapons effects would allow lower-yield weapons to achieve the "desired destruction." In the letter to the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss, Moore noted that the Pentagon "rigorously suppressed" this study and destroyed all copies. [22]

Prior to the development of SIOP and survivable command and control, Eisenhower predelegated nuclear release authority to certain senior commanders. [24] In April 1956, for example, he authorized Air Defense Command to use Genie air-to-air and Nike Hercules surface-to-air missiles during a surprise attack. [13] There have continued to be Continuity of Nuclear Operations Plans (COOP), which designated enough subordinates who, in the event of the National Command Authority and immediate successors being killed in a "decapitation" attack, could still retaliate. While the details have never been made public, Eisenhower's predelegation, and a Federation of American Scientists summary, give a framework.

Presidential involvement and start of civilian policy direction Edit

In 1958, George Kistiakowsky, a key Manhattan Project scientist and Science Advisor in the Eisenhower Administration, suggested to the President that inspection of foreign military facilities was not sufficient to control their nuclear weapons. Kistiakowsky was particularly concerned with the difficulty of verifying the number, type, and deployment of nuclear-armed missiles on missile submarines, and proposed that the arms control strategy focus on disarmament rather than inspections. [25] He was also concerned with the short warning times available from intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches, which took away the lengthy decision time available when the nuclear threat came exclusively from manned bombers.

Eisenhower sent Kistiakowsky to Strategic Air Command headquarters where he was, at first, rebuffed. At the same time as the early nuclear arms control work, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Nathan F. Twining, USAF, sent a memorandum [26] in August 1959, to the Secretary of Defense, Neil McElroy, which suggested that the Strategic Air Command be formally assigned responsibility to prepare the national nuclear target list, and a single plan for nuclear operations. Up to that point, the Army, Navy, and Air Force had done their own target planning. That had led to individual targets being multiply targeted by the different services. The separate service plans were not mutually supporting, as, for example, by the Navy destroying an air defense facility on the route of an Air Force bomber going to a target deeper inland. While Twining had sent the memo to McElroy, the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff disagreed on the policy during early 1960. [27] [28] Thomas Gates, who succeeded McElroy, asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower to decide the policy. [29]

Eisenhower said he would not "leave his successor with the monstrosity" of the uncoordinated and non-integrated forces that then existed. When Kistiakowsky was not given access, Eisenhower sent him back with a much stronger set of orders giving SAC officers the choice to cooperate with Kistiakowsky, or resign.

Kistiakowsky's report, presented on 29 November, described uncoordinated plans with huge numbers of targets, many of which would be attacked by multiple forces, resulting in overkill. Eisenhower was shocked by the plans, and focused not just on the creation of the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), but on the entire process of picking targets, generating requirements, and planning for nuclear war operations. Separate operational plans from the Air Force and the Navy were combined to form the foundation of the SIOP.

The first SIOP Edit

The first plan, following the White House policy guidance, was developed in 1960, consisting of a list of targets (the National Strategic Target List, or NSTL) and the assets to be used against each target. The targets themselves were pulled from the Bombing Encyclopedia, which listed over 80,000 targets of interest. [30] This first SIOP was extensively revised by a team at the RAND Corporation to become SIOP-62, describing a massive strike with the entire US arsenal of 3,200 warheads, totaling 7,847 megatons, against the USSR, China, and Soviet-aligned states with urban and other targets being hit simultaneously. Nine weapons were to be "laid down" on four targets in Leningrad, 23 weapons on six target complexes in Moscow, 18 on seven target areas in Kaliningrad, etc.

Weapon scientist, George Rathjens, looked through SAC's atlas of Soviet cities, searching for the town that most closely resembled Hiroshima in size and industrial concentration. When he found one that roughly matched, he asked how many bombs the SIOP "laid down" on that city. The reply: one 4.5 megaton bomb and three more 1.1 megaton weapons in case the big bomb was a dud (the Hiroshima bomb was 12.5 kilotons). [31] The execution of SIOP-62 was estimated to result in 285 million dead and 40 million casualties in the Soviet Union and China. [32] Presented with all the facts and figures, Thomas D. White of the Air Force found the Plan "splendid." [33] Disregarding the human aspect, SIOP-62 represented an outstanding technological achievement:

SIOP-62 represented a technical triumph in the history of war planning. In less than fifteen years the United States had mastered a variety of complex technologies and acquired the ability to destroy most of an enemy's military capability and much of the human habitation of a continent in a single day. [34]

The first SIOP, based on the massive retaliation doctrine, had little flexibility, treating all Communist countries as a uniform bloc. Document JCS 2056/220 expressed the concerns of U.S. Marine Commandant David Shoup that the 1961 draft was inconsistent with a 1959 NSC policy guidance paper approved by Eisenhower. [35] Shoup was especially concerned with language in the draft SIOP that said

The United States should utilize all requisite force against selected targets in the USSR—and as necessary in Communist China, European Bloc and non-European bloc countries—to attain the above objectives. Military targets in Bloc countries other than the USSR and Communist China will be attacked as necessary.

The National Security Archive commentary reports that Shoup asked USAF/SAC Commander Thomas Power ". what would happen if Beijing was not fighting was there an option to leave Chinese targets out of the attack plan?" Power was reported to have said that he hoped no one would think of that "because it would really screw up the plan"—that is, the plan was supposed to be executed as a whole. Apparently, Shoup then observed that "any plan that kills millions of Chinese when it isn't even their war is not a good plan. This is not the American way." [36] [37]

SIOP-62 included the virtual obliteration of the tiny country of Albania because within its borders sat huge Soviet air-defense radar, which had to be taken out with high assurance. Power smiled at Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and said with a mock straight face: "Well, Mr. Secretary, I hope you don't have any friends or relations in Albania, because we are just going to have to wipe it out." [38] McNamara was left with "macabre, shallow, and horrifying" impression. [39]

SIOP-63 Edit

During 1961–1962, the Kennedy administration revised this plan as supervised by McNamara. He aimed to change the doctrine from massive retaliation to flexible response. SIOP-63 took effect in July 1962 and remained mostly unchanged for more than ten years. Instead of one "spasm" attack, it proposed five escalating attack options: [19]

  1. Soviet nuclear missile sites, bomber airfields, and submarine tenders.
  2. Other military sites away from cities, such as air defenses.
  3. Military sites near cities.
  4. Command-and-control centers.
  5. Full-scale "spasm" attack.

Many smaller target options were also created for possible use. The plan contemplated the possibility that options 1 and 2 be used to prevent an "impending major Sino-Soviet Bloc attack upon the U.S. or its allies". By 1963, however, McNamara concluded that such plans were useless, because the situations for which nuclear weapons might be used were so unpredictable that advanced planning was impossible. [19]

The five attack options did not address each target category (much less any subsets) separately. Rather, the options were cumulative, each adding a target category to the previous one. All required the expenditure of thousands of nuclear weapons and were subsequently criticized as "five options for massive retaliation." [40]

By the mid-1960s both sides had much more accurate understanding of the opposition's forces. While the Soviets were catching up to the Americans' strategic nuclear weapons, NATO was catching up to the Warsaw Pact's conventional forces, in part with tactical nuclear weapons. This increased both sides' confidence a 1964 Warsaw Pact plan for Czechoslovakia written as a result of the Berlin Crisis of 1961 assumed that the East could capture Lyon within two weeks after the start of hostilities, while contemporary NATO plans expected that it could stop the Warsaw Pact near the eastern border of West Germany, in contrast to the earlier fears of the English Channel if at all. The Warsaw Pact plan did not consider the possibility that American strategic weapons might have crippled the Soviet Union, assuming that superior Soviet air defenses would have stopped most enemy missiles while invading NATO troops would have, the plan stated, "suffered enormous losses from [Soviet] nuclear strikes". [16]

The Czechoslovakia plan was approved on 14 October 1964, the day Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was overthrown, and after the Prague Spring in 1968 the Soviets had to completely remove the Czech military from its plans. By the late 1960s they moved to a war strategy that lessened the dependence on nuclear weapons, resembling the West's flexible response. Warsaw Pact plans continued to assume, however, that NATO would make a surprise attack which it would repulse into the west the East Germans even prepared occupation currency and new street signs. [16]

Counterforce migrates to deterrence and warfighting Edit

Studies began in 1972–1973 to provide more flexibility for the use of American nuclear weapons. In January 1974 President Richard M. Nixon approved NSDM-242, intended to add more "limited employment options" to help manage escalation, to SIOP-63. The related Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy (NUWEP) of April 1974 provided targets to achieve various goals for example, the document stated that the United States nuclear forces must possess the ability to destroy 70% of the industrial capacity the Soviet Union needed to recover after a war. These documents formed the basis of SIOP-5 (January 1976), [19] sometimes called the Schlesinger Doctrine after Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger. [41] The ever-expanding target lists were split into classes of targets, with a wider range of plans matching strikes to political intentions from counterforce to countervalue, or any mix/withhold strategy to control escalation. Schlesinger described the doctrine as having three main aspects:

  1. The National Command Authority or its successors should have many choices about the use of weapons, always having an option to escalate.
  2. Targeting should make it very explicit that the first requisite is selective retaliation against the enemy's military (i.e., tailored counterforce).
  3. Some targets and target classes should not be struck, at least at first, to give the opponent a rational reason to terminate the conflict. Reduced collateral damage was another benefit of this "withhold" method.

The SIOP policy was further modified during the Carter presidency under Presidential Directive 59, a key section of which stated

The employment of nuclear forces must be effectively related to operations of our general purpose forces. Our doctrines for the use of forces in nuclear conflict must insure that we can pursue specific policy objectives selected by the National Command Authorities at that time, from general guidelines established in advance. (S) [42] [43]

These requirements form the broad outline of our evolving countervailing strategy. To meet these requirements, improvements should be made to our forces, their supporting C3 and intelligence, and their employment plans and planning apparatus, to achieve a high degree of flexibility, enduring survivability, and adequate performance in the face of enemy actions. The following principles and goals should guide your efforts in making these improvements. (S)

In other words, PD59 explored a "warfighting" doctrine that suggested that nuclear plans might change during a war, and that nuclear weapons were to be used in combination with conventional weapons. Carter's Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, emphasized selective counterforce, but also explicitly threatened the Soviet leadership themselves. Major improvements in U.S. command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I), including making elements survivable during a nuclear war, were instituted to make the PD-59 doctrine feasible. [41] By 1982, SIOP-5 contained more than 40,000 possible targets in four categories: [19]

  1. Soviet nuclear forces. Examples: ICBM launch centers and control facilities, bomber airfields, ballistic-missile submarine bases.
  2. Conventional forces. Examples: Supply depots, conventional airfields, ammunition storage, tank storage yards.
  3. Military and political centers. Examples: Command posts, communications facilities.
  4. Economic and industrial centers. Examples: Factories for ammunition and tanks, refineries, steel and aluminum plants, power plants. [19]

Whether Soviet military doctrine recognized the difference between counterforce and a general attack was unknown. A 1982 analysis stated, however, that the technically inferior Soviet attack-assessment system would likely have difficulty in differentiating between such attacks. In any case, given that the majority of Soviet nuclear airfields and missile sites were located west of the Ural mountains, many in major population centers, the analysis concluded that the American plans for flexible use of force were meaningless. The author was also skeptical of whether communications to manage escalation—whether on the Moscow–Washington hotline, or between command authorities and their deployed nuclear submarines and bombers—could be maintained, and observed that use of nuclear weapons "are not suited to signalling any precise and unambiguous message". [19]

Return to counterforce, with strategic defense Edit

During the Reagan administration, there was a return to a strong counterforce strategy through NSDD-13. This included development of strategic weapons systems that were more accurate, more survivable, or both. Some of these systems eventually took the role of bargaining chips in arms control negotiations, although some, such as the B-2 "stealth" bomber remained highly classified as potential surprises in war. The B-2 was also seen as a counter to Soviet deployment of mobile missiles, which only a manned bomber could find and attack.

In 1983, President Reagan gave a speech proposing, at the least, research and development into non-nuclear defense systems against nuclear-armed missiles. [44] The idea of effective Strategic Defense Initiative was a potential disruption to the existing balance of Mutual assured destruction, even with its "warfighting" refinements.

Renaming and refocusing Edit

On 1 March 2003, the SIOP was renamed "OPLAN 8022", and later CONPLAN (contingency plan) 8022. [45] It went into deployment in July 2004, but it was reported cancelled in July 2007. It may have been superseded by an expanded CONPLAN 8044. [ citation needed ]

Another set of "Global Strike" plans include a jointly coordinated a nuclear option, intended for other than the general nuclear war situations, principally with Russia but possibly also with China, postulated in OPLAN 8022. Global Strike plans are codified in CONPLAN 8044. [46]

The President, as a member of the National Command Authority, (NCA) may order the use of nuclear weapons. [47] Subsequent to the President's decision, the release of nuclear weapons is governed by the two-man rule at all times. [ citation needed ] All military personnel that participate in loading, arming, or firing weapons, as well as transmitting launch orders, are subject to the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP).

If the NCA decides that the United States must launch nuclear weapons, the decision is communicated to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) and through him to the National Military Command Center (often called the "war room") via the Presidential Emergency Satchel, informally referred to as the "football." Inside the football is a black book listing a menu of strike options and "The Biscuit," a 3-by-5-inch card with authentication codes for the president to confirm his identity. [48] The menu of strike options include Major Attack Options (MAOs), Selected Attack Options (SAOs), and Limited Attack Options (LAOs). Individual countries or regions can be included in or withheld from nuclear attacks depending on circumstances. [ citation needed ]

To communicate the order, the CJCS, or, in his absence, the senior officer in the NMCC verifies the President's identity with a "challenge code" and the President responds with the corresponding authentication code from the biscuit. [48] Additionally, the message will go to the Alternate National Military Command Center (ANMCC), [49] located in Raven Rock Mountain, Pennsylvania, and also to an airborne command post, either the presidential National Airborne Operations Center (NAOC) or the military E-6 Mercury Looking Glass. [50] If the NMCC is destroyed by a first strike, either the ANMCC, NAOC or Looking Glass can issue the orders to execute the SIOP.

The senior NMCC officer directs preparation of the launch order in the form of an Emergency War Order (EWO) – a message that contains the chosen war plan, time to launch, authentication codes and codes needed to unlock the missiles before firing them. [48] A second officer will validate that order. [51] The order is then broadcast to each worldwide command and directly to launch crews by releasing an Emergency Action Message (EAM) which is an encoded and encrypted message about 150 characters long. [47]

As the orders go down the chain of command, always subject to the two-man rule, intermediate headquarters, and eventually the nuclear delivery platforms themselves, will receive Emergency Action Messages (EAM) to arm or launch weapons. For most modern weapons, the EAM will also include codes for Permissive Action Links (PAL). At a minimum, a PAL code will actually arm a weapon for release. The circuitry controlling the PAL is deliberately positioned inside the warhead such that it cannot be reached without disabling the weapon, at a minimum, to a level that would require a full factory-level rebuild. There may be separate PAL codes for arming and launch. Some weapons have "dial-a-yield" functions that allow the power of the nuclear explosion to be adjusted from minimum to maximum yield. Most weapons have additional arming circuitry that, even if a valid launch code is entered, will not arm the warhead unless the weapon senses that it has been released on an expected delivery path. For example, the first steps of the final arming process for a ballistic missile depend on physical characteristics of the weapon release, such as the acceleration of a rocket launch, zero-gravity coasting, and various physical aspects of hypersonic reentry into the atmosphere. A gravity bomb dropped from an aircraft will detect the altitude of release and the decreasing altitude as it falls.

Journalist Ron Rosenbaum has pointed out that the SIOP is entirely concerned with the identity of the commanding officer and the authenticity of the order, and there are no safeguards to verify that the person issuing the order is actually sane. [52] "The president has supreme authority to decide whether to use America's nuclear weapons. Period. Full stop," says the Arms Control Association's Kingston Reif. A president could only be stopped by mutiny, he explained, and more than one person would have to disobey the president's orders. [47] Notably, Major Harold Hering was eventually forced out of the Air Force for asking during his missile training course how he could know that an order to launch his missiles was "lawful," that it came from a sane president, one who wasn't "imbalance[d]" or "berserk." [52]

Although after World War II the formal military alliance between the United States and United Kingdom no longer existed, [14] : 72 American postwar war plans required using British air bases until the United States developed ICBMs and long-range bombers. American General Carl Spaatz and Chief of the Air Staff Lord Tedder informally agreed in 1946 to US aircraft using British bases. The discussions, and the subsequent actions such as extending runways, were so secret that it is unclear whether Prime Minister Clement Attlee was aware of them. [12] By 1948, the year of the Berlin Blockade, British leaders expected that "in a future world conflict, US and British forces will find themselves fighting side by side" although the alliance had not been formally renewed. [14] : 72 The two countries began coordinating their plans for a Soviet attack in Europe after the Czechoslovak coup d'état of 1948, and later that year General Curtis LeMay, head of Strategic Air Command (SAC), asked Tedder to allow the basing of American atomic weapons in Britain. By the end of 1948, several British bases were atomic-capable or were close to being so, but the ability to fight an atomic war from Britain did not exist until April 1949 when Silverplate B-29 bombers began rotating through the bases, [12] and no American atomic weapons were present in Britain until 1952. [53] : 29,97

Aware that with or without bombs, the bases made Britain what Winston Churchill called a "bull's-eye" for Soviet attack, he and other British leaders made repeated unsuccessful attempts to learn details of American war plans, [54] and not until 1951 did the United States formally, if vaguely, agree to consult with Britain before using atomic weapons based there. [14] : 120–121 As Tedder complained during the Berlin crisis, when war at any moment seemed possible, the defense of the West relied "on the use of a weapon about which we in fact know very little". British plans such as SPEEDWAY, which discussed American-British-Canadian joint planning for the early part of a war over the next 18 months, likely incorporated some information informally sent by the United States, including projections on future bomb production and targets. The Chiefs of Staff Committee was dissatisfied, however, writing that "We are at a disadvantage in that . we do not know the details of the number of [American] atomic weapons to be used and so cannot assess with any accuracy the results that can be achieved." [14] : 71–74,400–402

The United States preferred that Britain not develop atomic weapons at all. Because of the American fear of the USSR obtaining British atomic technology after conquering the country, in February 1949 Eisenhower offered to General William Duthie Morgan American atomic weapons if the British nuclear weapons program ended. Britain would have used the weapons in its own aircraft for its own targets, [55] but refused the offer, and the United States decided that partnership was preferable to losing influence with the United Kingdom. [56] The British sought an independent, domestic nuclear deterrent that by itself could persuade the USSR to not attack, in part because they feared that America might not be willing to defend Europe with its nuclear missiles once the USSR could attack the United States itself, or during wartime not prioritize targets that threatened the United Kingdom. [57] [53] : 106–107 In 1950 RAF Bomber Command asked for, and received, 70 B-29s from the United States after offering to place them under the control of SAC during wartime. The bombers were becoming obsolete, however. The British never made them nuclear-capable, [53] : 32 [56] [58] and the RAF refused the US's request for SAC's complete targeting control over the sophisticated British-built V bombers which began deploying in 1955. Britain's goal of an independent deterrent aimed at Soviet cities was so important that, when it offered to place the V Bombers under SACEUR authority in 1953 in exchange for American financial aid to purchase new fighters, it refused to agree to them being used in a tactical role against Soviet targets in Europe. The agreement permitted Britain to commit only nominal forces to SACEUR, and presaged future technology and targeting cooperation. [58] [53] : 99–100

As the USAF began in 1955 helping the RAF to convert V bombers to carry American atomic weapons under Project E and hydrogen weapons under Project X, [58] cooperation increased and the United States began sharing some war plan details. Although both nations remained reluctant to fully share their plans—as late as 1956, Britain did not have targeting information even for SAC aircraft it hosted—redundancies were eliminated by one side asking the other whether it planned to attack various targets. [58] [54] In February 1959, the USAF agreed to target 150 Soviet bases that threatened Britain with nuclear weapons, while V bombers would use nuclear weapons to attack Soviet air defenses before SAC arrived. The RAF retained a separate plan to attack 30 Soviet cities with hydrogen bombs. The agreement formed the basis for the ongoing nuclear-targeting cooperation between the two countries, [58] and the different target types resembled the two nations' different priorities during the Combined Bomber Offensive of World War II. [54] The Anglo-American dispute during the 1956 Suez Crisis only briefly disrupted the partnership, [56] and the desire to restore relations to their former level, and the Sputnik crisis, increased American willingness to help Britain improve its atomic weaponry. [58] [53] : 161 In March 1957 the United States agreed to sell 60 Thor IRBMs, [56] in 1958 American hydrogen-weapon designs, [58] in 1960 the Skybolt ALBM, and after its cancellation the Polaris SLBM in 1962 as replacement. Polaris was especially notable British officials initially refused to believe the Americans' offer of state-of-the-art submarine missiles at a moderate price, and one scholar later called it "amazing". [56]

While its contribution to SIOP was minor compared to the enormous SAC arsenal of 1,600 bombers and 800 missiles, as RAF officers who worked with the Americans rose to leadership positions their experience benefited later partnerships between the two countries. The joint targeting plan changed over time the 1962 list for the RAF included 48 cities, six air-defense sites, and three bomber bases, and the 1963 list had 16 cities, 44 airfields and other offensive sites, 10 air-defense sites, and 28 IRBM sites. The degree of cooperation was such by the Cuban Missile Crisis that RAF officers visiting SAC headquarters in Nebraska reported being "treated just like Americans. We went all through their briefings, computers, top secret rooms and so forth". While some British officers emphasized the continuing importance of maintaining the ability to act alone with an independent deterrent if necessary, by 1962 the independent list was essentially the RAF portion of the joint plan and no active training was done. [54] The British emphasis on retaining an independent capability, however, continued over several decades and changes in government. As the Defence Council stated in 1980, [59]

our force has to be visibly capable of making a massive strike on its own . We need to convince Soviet leaders that even if they thought . the US would hold back, the British force could still inflict a blow so destructive that the penalty for aggression would have proved too high. [59]

3. The 1979 NORAD Computer Glitch

By the late 1970s, both the United States and the Soviets relied on computer systems to detect possible nuclear attacks. But while the new technology was more sophisticated, it also came with a fresh set of risks in the form of false alarms and glitches. Perhaps the most famous of these errors occurred at Colorado’s North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. On the morning of November 9, 1979, technicians at the site received an urgent alert that the Soviets had launched a barrage of missiles at North America. Convinced a nuclear attack was imminent, the U.S. air defense program scrambled 10 interceptor fighter planes, ordered the president’s 𠇍oomsday plane” to take off, and warned launch control to prepare its missiles for a retaliatory attack.

The panic soon subsided after NORAD consulted its satellite data and realized the nuclear warning was little more than a false alarm. Upon further inspection, they discovered that a technician had accidentally run a training program simulating a Soviet attack on the United States. The incident sent shock waves through the international community—Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev even wrote President Jimmy Carter a letter noting the “tremendous danger” caused by the error𠅋ut it was not the last time a computer issue led to a nuclear scare. Computer chip failures would later lead to three more false alarms at NORAD in the following year.


For most sailors on board the USS Wisconsin in January 1991, the first they heard of Operation Desert Storm was an announcement from the commanding officer, Captain David Bill. The battleship, Bill told them over the loudspeaker, was now at DEFCON 2. According to Robert Ruby, a newspaper reporter embedded on the ship, one officer grabbed a spy novel to find out what the alert meant.

It’s embarrassing, perhaps, but not that surprising—this concept from the depths of the cold war still has so much popular fascination it has blurred under constant use. The term shows up in TV shows and movies, video games, cartoons, songs, and even hot-sauce labels. Going to the international hackers convention? That’s a DEF CON. A high DEFCON level is now techno-slang for a situation so pressing that it needs prompt, extreme action.

What’s “high”? Screenwriters often get the scale wrong, so begin with this fact: the lower the number, the higher the worry. DEFCON 5 is peacetime, while DEFCON 1 is imminent war. Hiking the DEFCON level activates a stack of scripted plans intended for quick execution, and is comparable to “Battle stations!” on a warship facing combat.

The idea of a graded scale indicating combat readiness goes back at least to World War I, but it wasn’t until 1959, following communication mixups during a joint military air-defense exercise called Top Hand, that the United States and Canada agreed to five “defense conditions,” or DEFCONs.

Strategic Air Command crews, kept at DEFCON 4 for much of the cold war, drilled in the 󈨀s with Convair B-58A Hustlers. (National Museum of the USAF) During the 1973 worldwide DEFCON 3 alert, Boeing B-52Ds at Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base were loaded with nuclear weapons. (National Museum of the USAF) Missile wreckage near the Suez Canal. In the first days of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, extensive use of surface-to-air missiles gave Egypt the upper hand. (Corbis/David Rubinger) U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Billy Davis stands sentry at the entrance of Strategic Air Command HQ, Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, ca. 1960s. (NASM (SI neg.2003-158)) An airman scans for intruders at Alaska’s Elmendorf Air Force Base in 2004. Today, even without heightened alerts, if a threat is identified, more than 100 fighters at North American bases can be scrambled within 10 minutes. (AP / Al Grillo) After the 1953 cease-fire, the Bridge of No Return was used to exchange POWs between North and South Korea. It was closed after two U.S. soldiers were murdered during the 1976 “tree-trimming” incident. (Department of Defense) In the Joint Security Area between North and South Korea, a 1976 confrontation between U.N. and North Korean soldiers led to two deaths and a raised DEFCON level at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. (Department of Defense) The General Dynamics F-111 participated in the worldwide 1973 DEFCON alert, as well as the limited 1976 incident in Korea. (National Museum of the USAF)

DEFCON levels are primarily for the military. But as the levels get more urgent—certainly by DEFCON 2 andف—Americans would notice unusual activity on the streets. White House staff on duty during the Cuban Missile Crisis later recounted plans to evacuate them from Washington by helicopter. (That would have happened immediately under DEFCON 2, to be triggered if the United States moved to invade Cuba to disable the Soviet missiles there.) Preparations to flee started under DEFCON 3. High officials got pink cards authorizing helicopter seats, specifying time and location. What about their families? Kennedy press secretary Pierre Salinger received an envelope on October 27, 1962, the height of the crisis: If his wife discovered that Salinger had gone into hiding, she was to rip it open for instructions on how to slip out of the city and join up later.

Real DEFCON alerts, as opposed to the ones in movies, don’t have to directly involve U.S. global defenses. At least a dozen alerts have been called for limited geographic areas since 1959, some of them imposed by commanders for individual units. Only four world-class DEFCON hikes are known: a very brief one caused by a Soviet-American diplomatic breakdown during talks in Paris (May 1960) the Cuban Missile Crisis (October to November 1962) a U.S. alert aimed at discouraging direct Soviet participation in the Arab-Israeli war in the Mideast (October 1973) and a hasty move to raise security around military bases after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. In the last case, the military knew that a worldwide hike to DEFCON 3 was not well suited as a response to terrorists using hijacked airliners, but according to Bruce Blair of Princeton University, in the first uncertain hours, authorities seized on it as the quickest way to secure the perimeters of U.S. military bases. Blair is the author of The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War and a former Minuteman launch officer. Side effects of the DEFCON 3 order that day included “continuity of government” routines that restricted the mobility of the president and vice president, slammed shut the blast doors at the NORAD Cheyenne Mountain Complex, and put bomber and missile bases on a short-notice alert.

No worldwide DEFCON alerts have jumped beyond level 3. The Strategic Air Command went to DEFCON 2 during the Cuban crisis, which was probably as close as the United States has ever come to tipping into a nuclear war since late 1956 (when a revolt in Hungary against the Soviets coincided with an international crisis along the Suez Canal).

Two DEFCON alerts that came late in the cold war were directly authorized by the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the direction of the White House in the hope of avoiding war: the worldwide alert in October 1973 and a limited one centered on the Korean Demilitarized Zone in August 1976. Although the decision makers intended the DEFCON orders to prevent armed engagement, there were moments in both alerts that could have gotten away from them. When I asked how close the 1976 crisis came to an exchange of bombs and missiles, one participant, an infantryman with UN command troops, suggested I put my finger and thumb together, just short of touching: “We were that close,” he said.

The events of October 1973 help explain why alerts have both risks and benefits. On one hand, calling a DEFCON hike can forestall opponents’ aggression by sending the message “We know what you’re planning and we’re ready, so don’t try anything.” But staging military alerts too frequently, or for the wrong reasons, can cause political backlash and exhaust the ranks.

Late on the night of October 24, 1973, a national security team in the Nixon administration authorized a DEFCON 3 alert for U.S. forces worldwide. Setting aside the larger geopolitics, the initial triggering event, on October 6, was Egypt and Syria leading a surprise attack on Israel. For the first few days, the tide of war favored the attackers: Israel sustained horrific aircraft and armor losses as Egyptian armor and infantry surged across temporary bridges over the Suez Canal, then broke through huge sand barriers on the Israeli side. Syrian tanks overran Israeli fortifications on the Golan Heights and looked likely to drive straight into Jerusalem. Israeli losses were so grave that soldiers were authorized to attach nuclear warheads to the nation’s Jericho missiles.

The crisis pulled in the Soviets, who had been supplying advisers, ammunition, and equipment to the Arab nations for years, and the Americans, who had been giving foreign aid to Israel.

Each country shipped arms to its chosen side, but in a matter of days, Israeli jets and ground forces stopped the invaders and blocked the Egyptians from retreating west across the Suez Canal.

Wanting to build on its spectacular gains, Israel stalled the rollout of a cease fire resolution from the United Nations. Now the Soviets and their Arab allies were the ones pressing for a halt to hostilities. After two weeks, the crisis was less about battles on the ground and more about the roles of the United States and the Soviet Union: Would the Soviets send in “peacekeeping” troops to relieve the Egyptian Third Army? U.S. intelligence reported that the Soviets had put seven airborne divisions on alert, a move that, along with a change in aerial resupply traffic, seemed to indicate troops were on their way.

Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s Secretary of State, feared that the arrival of Soviet ground troops in a Middle East war would lead to a dangerous spiral of moves and counter-moves. He wanted a sudden, dramatic gesture—suggesting the United States was willing to go to the brink of world war—to prevent the Soviet intervention. The decision to go to DEFCON 3 was made by Kissinger and his advisory team, the Washington Special Actions Group.

The resulting Pentagon order told commanders to pull out their DEFCON 3 plans and carry them out. In such circumstances, commanders have authority to take extra actions in the interest of readiness and defense…within limits.

For Bruce Blair, then a Minuteman missile officer on duty in an underground launch control capsule at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, the first news of the DEFCON came over the Primary Alerting System, a voice network connecting all SAC installations to headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. It started with a warble tone by loudspeaker, and a verbal alert to prepare for a coded message.

Blair and his fellow officer got out their binders and grease pencils, and learned that DEFCON 3 was now in effect: After verifying the message with all launch centers in the squadron, each pair of officers made sure the blast doors were closed. Each officer opened a safe and took out a launch key and the Sealed Authentication System code card, laying them on the console for quick use. The items remained on the console for the duration of the alert, including shift changes. Why the preparations? “A little less time would be necessary if [these actions were] done in advance,” Blair explains. “An officer might forget the combination to the padlock on his safe. Also the procedure puts you in the right frame of mind.” After the men’s shifts finished and they returned to quarters, orders confined Blair and his colleagues to their homes as long as the alert lasted—in this case, two days.

Steve Winkle was a 28-year-old Air Force captain, trained to navigate for B-52Ds operating out of Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. When the DEFCON order came down and the alert klaxon blew, he was on a porch overlooking the airfield. As other crews on alert raced from their barracks to the aircraft, he noticed that the normal gaggle of officers who watched such practices were absent it was such a common sight that the men at Andersen had a name for the phenomenon: a Gathering of Eagles.

“Then we got a phone call, told to report to the briefing room,” Winkle recalls. “Till then it was ‘Here we go, another exercise.’ With the exception that no commanders were there to watch, we didn’t see the difference. Then in the briefing room the lights went out and we heard ‘SAC is in DEFCON 3.’ The room went totally silent. To be crude about it, you could have heard a fish fart.” After the intelligence briefing was over, the next job was to increase the number of B-52Ds available to launch. Winkle’s flight crew prepared two more bombers and handed them over to alert crews, then stood alert on the third bomber.

Winkle and fellow crew members waited out the event on base, staying close to the alert barracks. Out on the ramp, separate security crews guarded each aircraft, which were, in the parlance of SAC, “cocked”: nuclear bombs loaded fueled and carrying aboard the highly classified war orders known as combat mission folders.

According to a cold war recollection posted on the website by former FB-111A pilot Ed MacNeil, the combat mission folders posed a real problem during the alert for his two-man crew at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. Summoned by phone at 1:30 a.m., MacNeil left his home and was at the base long before the 5:30 target briefing. He and his navigator received their combat mission folders at 7 a.m. The folder triggered special security requirements: Until the bomber was formally on alert—when it would be guarded by base security—no person could hold a folder without another officer present as escort. It was the equivalent of the “no-lone zone” that governed custody of nuclear weapons.

The FB-111A had a crew of just two men, so under military rules MacNeil and his partner had to hold tight to the highly classified folders, each keeping the other in sight at all times. This meant they could not catch any sleep. One could not go to the bathroom without the other. “Rest was becoming critical because if the crisis worsened, the next logical step would have been to disperse some of the alert aircraft to other air fields to keep from having ‘too many eggs in one basket,’ ” wrote MacNeil, who died last year. “We had had less than two hours sleep in the previous 36 hours, the weather both at Pease and at the dispersal base was near minimums and the aircraft was heavier than I had ever flown it. I was becoming uncomfortable with the odds.” At 6:30 that evening, the bomber was ready. Security took over and MacNeil could finally get some rest.

The worldwide DEFCON 3 alert had little immediate effect on U.S. naval forces in the Mediterranean, which were already at a high operational tempo and “nose to nose” with the warships of the Soviet Fifth Eskadra, according to Robert Rubel. Then a lieutenant and now dean of the Naval Warfare Center at the Naval War College, Rubel arrived on the carrier USS Independence during the crisis, fresh from A-7 transition training. Part of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, the Independence was positioned south of Crete and close to Soviet air resupply routes. The presence of the ship sent a message about America’s commitment to Israel while also serving as a “lily pad” to refuel tactical aircraft en route to Israel and guarding the American aerial resupply line.

During the day, the principal assignment for Rubel and his comrades was to fly around to inspect the sources of radar returns picked up by an E-2 Hawkeye checking on activity in the Soviet fleet. While orbiting over the opposition at 15,000 feet, he says, “our job was to keep an eye on the decks. If we saw the smoke of a missile launch, we’d send a Zippo report back, as in ‘Hey, World War III is on.’ The idea was that we’d get that report out before we died.

“It was a crappy situation,” Rubel adds. One problem was that the U.S. fleet had no long-distance anti-ship missiles comparable to those on the Soviet ships. “And all their [warships] had surface-to-air missiles.” Having only unguided 500-pound bombs, the A-7 pilots planned to descend on the Soviet ships “like [Douglas Dauntless pilot Wade] McClusky dive-bombing on the Japanese carriers at Midway.”

The worldwide DEFCON hike ended on October 26: The Soviets did not attempt to land troops in Egypt, peace broke out, and Kissinger’s team allowed the U.S. fleet to separate from the Fifth Eskadra in late October, whereupon tensions rapidly fell. In mid-November the fleet stood down from DEFCON 3.

DEFCONs can be focused more narrowly than the 1973 “Worldwide, no exceptions” order. The Joint Chiefs and White House can order DEFCON changes that are specific to one arm of the military or to a geographic command during a crisis. A vivid example of the latter occurred in August 1976, when U.S. Forces–Korea bumped up to DEFCON 3 at the direction of the Ford White House. The preparations pulled in an armada of B-52s from Guam, fighter-bombers from the USS Midway carrier group, F-111Fs from Idaho, and F-4 Phantoms from as far away as Florida. Events moved very quickly, and received little press attention outside Korea.

The 1976 DEFCON hike that centered on the Korean DMZ was different not just because of its geographic focus, but also because it had a specific military action in mind. According to Air Force historian Jerome Martin, the 1976 Korean crisis “was an interesting event in which the DEFCON change did the two things that are normally expected: It improved the readiness of the forces that might be employed, and provided a strong signal of U.S. concern and potential intent to act militarily.”

The visible effects of shifting from DEFCON 4 to 3 included increased SR-71 reconnaissance flights and hundreds of trucks moving artillery and ammunition to fortified bunkers near the DMZ. Nike-Hercules missile bases there shifted from air defense to ground targeting: Their job would be to destroy North Korean radar sites.

The most dramatic moments of the event were crammed into less than 72 hours. The crisis started late in the morning of August 18 (Korea time) and was mostly resolved by 8 a.m. on August 21. It ranks as one of the fastest developing, most obscure DEFCON alerts ever authorized by the National Command Authorities.

The cause of the crisis was a tree. It stood in the Joint Security Area, a roughly circular patch of buildings, roads, and observation posts near Panmunjom that was patrolled by the North Korean People’s Army and United Nations Command. The UN Command was staffed by elite troops from the South Korean and U.S. armies, selected for size, toughness, and discipline. Each side kept hundreds of heavily armed troops in barracks a short distance away to respond to firefights, but in the JSA itself, UN and North Korean troops were banned from carrying weapons more powerful than sidearms.

Geographically, the JSA was a small but important part of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea it was the location of the Bridge of No Return, where prisoners were exchanged. Also crowded into the river valley were buildings for meetings and a set of observation posts for each side to watch the other. While the JSA was supposed to be a peaceful, neutral zone for resolving disagreements, harassment attacks on isolated troops were on the rise—sometimes brutal enough to send men to the hospital—so in mid-August, officers in the UN Command decided that because a large poplar tree blocked a view between guard posts in the JSA, it needed a trim.

Following notifications to the North Koreans, on the morning of August 18, a work team of Americans and South Koreans arrived at the tree and prepared to begin work. Minutes later, dozens of North Koreans arrived to confront the team. Then, on command from a sergeant, they attacked with axes. The fight was over in minutes although no shots were fired, two American officers lay dead.

The UN Command evacuated the casualties the question was how to respond. It was the latest in a long line of outrages: The North Koreans had shot down a U.S. intelligence-gathering airplane (1969), captured the USS Pueblo from international waters (1968) and held the crew hostage, and tried to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee (also 1968).

In command of U.S. Forces–Korea was General Richard Stilwell, who notified Washington of the attack. Intense discussions opened between Stilwell’s headquarters, the Kissinger-led crisis team called the Washington Special Actions Group, and President Park. Nobody knew the North Korean motive for the violence, but agreed that orders must have come from the supreme commander, Kim Il-Sung. North Korea was already sending out communiques blaming the Americans for the melee, but the propaganda was being disputed by American photographs that documented the entire fight.

Whatever the enemy reasoning, South Korea and U.S. leaders wanted to push back quickly. The North had taken no hostages during the attack, so the United States had more freedom of action than it had during the Pueblo crisis. The planning moved in a matter of hours rather than days. Air-attack advocates suggested that the United States blow up the tree, perhaps with a precision-guided bomb called the GBU-15 (a new weapon, not officially in use), which could convert the tree into toothpicks while other U.S. airplanes attacked targets inside North Korea. This group figured that a second try at trimming the tree would send men into a deathtrap, where zeroed-in North Korean artillery and machine guns would kill them all in seconds. Deputy Secretary of Defense William Clements was one of these who feared a trap. Some pressed for naval action to sink North Korean ships, or flatten harbor facilities.

The ground approach, pressed by Stilwell and his staff, reasoned that the tree stood as a symbol of the North’s intransigence, and had to be taken out by infantry action as a sign of resolve. An early-morning action backed by air support would, Stilwell believed, finish the job before the North Koreans could act.

President Park suggested to Stilwell that the North Koreans be given plenty of notice before a second tree-trimming squad went in. Then, when the North Korean troops stormed into the JSA to attack a second time, they would be met by 50 “expert Tae-Kwan-Do artists” from the nation’s special forces, who would deliver a “sound thrashing” to the enemy. Once captured on film like a Hong Kong action movie, Park felt, the slugfest would put an end to more such outrages.

Washington endorsed the Stilwell plan: With minimal notice to the North, lightly armed troops would enter the JSA at the soonest opportunity and begin sawing branches off the tree. This would serve the “You can’t scare us” goal, but not if the men were wiped out in a North Korean counterattack first. Therefore, just south of the demilitarized zone, a surplus of airborne troops, artillery, missile batteries, and airpower (attack and troop helicopters, F-111F bombers, F-4s and F-5s, and A-6s from the Midway) would be standing by. Careful timing was critical: At exactly the same time the North Koreans learned of the tree job, their radar should be reporting waves of American warplanes. In case opposition on the ground would block the tree-trimming crew, F-4Es flown all the way from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida to Osan Air Base, Korea, would be available to drop GBU-15s.

Air Force Captain David Ladurini of the 4485th Test Squadron saw how urgent these preparations were. When he arrived in New Orleans during a vacation with his parents, shortly after the attack, a hotel clerk greeted him: “Ladurini party? The FBI and your squadron commander are looking for you.” The FBI drove him to the airport so he could catch the next flight back to Florida. Having arrived at Eglin, Ladurini told the officer who met him that he needed to go get his gear. No need, said the officer: They had already broken into his house, so he was all packed. Next stop: Korea. Hustled onto a C-141 transport, Ladurini arrived at Osan early the next morning.

By August 20, the mood among the UNC troops and the 2nd Infantry Division was an ugly mix of fear, fury, and impatience. Having been given the warning order about action the following morning, they trained through the night. Wayne Johnson was the driver for an infantry captain, and while taking shelter from a rainstorm, had the chance to listen to a briefing that night. According to Johnson, an officer asked what would happen to the infantry company A-2-9 if the North Koreans started firing at them. The briefer took his chalk and marked a big X through the unit’s name.

Infantryman Mike Bilbo was among the UN Command troops who manned the JSA, and who would help protect the tree-trimmers from attack. If shooting began, the troops in the vicinity of the tree would be killed in short order, probably shredded by proximity-fused artillery set to explode a few dozen feet above the ground. Preparations were under way to the south, placing demolition charges that could destroy North Korean armor and block roads.

Johnson recalls that a thick layer of fog blocked his view of the sky, and shortly before the jumping-off hour he felt “bummed out” because he wouldn’t get to see the sunrise on his last day.

According to Glenn Burchard, a radar navigator in a B-52D, those in the first wave had only a half-day of preparation at Andersen Air Force Base. But they managed to send up at least a dozen bombers in support of Operation Paul Bunyan, leaving behind only those aircraft that were under repair or standing strategic alert under SAC’s routine nuclear war plan. After six or seven hours of flight, Burchard’s airplane reached South Korea, then angled north. “We flew straight north as far as we could go, and still be able to turn around before crossing the border,” he says. On the final leg his bomber flew barely 500 feet above the ground, a tactic that crews were familiar with, since it was how such airplanes would have tried to penetrate Soviet defenses when fighting a nuclear war. But notwithstanding rumors that passed among the troops below, the B-52Ds arriving from Andersen carried no bombs, conventional or otherwise. Burchard says this made sense because the purpose was to make a point to the North Koreans: massive firepower was available, and it would have taken extra hours to bomb up the airplanes.

In the end, Operation Paul Bunyan—conceived in a day and hastily executed in two days, the brainchild of officers in Korea but supported by leaders in Washington—met all expectations.

Dozens of deuce-and-a-half trucks rushed men of Task Force Vierra into the zone. Guards leapt from the trucks holding ax handles and formed a cordon around the engineers as they hacked with chain saws at the poplar tree alongside the Americans were 50 of the Korean black belts, eager for some action. (According to the recollections, guards had more weapons available than sidearms and sticks: Although automatic weapons were banned in the JSA, the beds of trucks held plenty of M-16s and spare magazines, all tucked discreetly under sandbags.) In a few minutes, the tree was reduced to a stump. Troops hustled into the trucks, without any shots having been fired, or anyone injured.

David Ladurini would have been weapons system operator on the F-4E that was armed and scheduled to join the fray, but given the peaceful outcome, his airplane stayed on strip alert at Osan. Whether the early morning start caught the Koreans off guard, or the heavy air escort cowed them into submission, the North Koreans stood by as the limbs fell. One leader even offered a near apology later.

One of those happy people on the tree-trimming job was Mike Bilbo. Reflecting back, Bilbo says the “Mad Dog” Platoon he served with “may have brought some of it on ourselves”—by baiting the North Korean guards and sometimes beating them up—“but that was the nature of the place.”

The same could be said of the entire cold war: Risks were taken and brinks were edged, all in the cause of keeping the peace. Then the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet bloc broke up, and in September 1991 President George H.W. Bush took SAC off its 24-hour alert—events that did much to reduce the likelihood of World War III. The October 1973 DEFCON 3 alert has taken its place in history as the last major superpower showdown.

But, as we know from subsequent news events, such as the regional DEFCON change before Desert Storm in 1991, the concept of Defense Conditions as a cookbook response to crisis remains a live concept, about which outsiders don’t know the details.

In a way, that goes for insiders too: Bruce Blair says U.S. leaders don’t know the effects and implications of DEFCON hikes. That includes Kissinger, who during the October 1973 war was near the height of his authority. “Kissinger didn’t know of the specific operations implemented at DEFCON 3,” Blair says. “He had no clue about that.” Blair explains that worldwide DEFCON orders set out “pre-scripted actions, putting hundreds of thousands of people into motion.”

If a future White House authorizes a DEFCON change and then has second thoughts afterward, Blair says, its only course of action is to rescind the DEFCON hike, restoring previous conditions worldwide DEFCONs can’t be fine-tuned.

Meanwhile: So far, so good. DEFCON exercises serve to keep the military sharp, and the occasional escalations haven’t accidentally triggered a world war. And what would thriller writers do without them?

Radiation levels rose. Bigger blasts loomed. Officials dithered.

The question was how to stop it from burning and producing ever more radioactivity. They bounced ideas off one another. Shcherbina wanted to use water, but they explained to him that dowsing a nuclear fire with water could actually intensify the blaze. Someone suggested using sand. But how to bring it to the reactor? Shcherbina had already called military helicopter and chemical units into the area. Their commanders were en route to Prypiat.

Soon after 9:00 p.m., while the members of the commission were brainstorming, the reactor suddenly awakened. Three powerful explosions illuminated the dark red sky above the damaged reactor, sending red-hot pieces of fuel rods and graphite into the air. “It was a striking spectacle,” remembered one of the commission’s experts who observed the scene from the third floor of the Prypiat party headquarters, where the high commission was housed. It looked as if the worst-case scenario was now coming to pass.

Earlier in the day, experts had predicted a possible chain reaction starting as soon as the reactor emerged from the temporarily disabling iodine well. The explosion might be the first indication of a much bigger blast to come: They had no choice but to wait and see.

But even without further explosions, the newest ones put Prypiat citizens in greater danger. The wind suddenly picked up, driving radioactive clouds northward from the damaged reactor and covering parts of the city. Radiation levels increased on the city plaza in front of party headquarters in downtown Prypiat, rising from 40 to 320-330 microroentgens (a legacy unit measuring exposure to electromagnetic radiation) per second, or 1.2 roentgens per hour.

Armen Abagian, the director of one of the Moscow nuclear-power research institutes who had been dispatched to Prypiat as a member of the government commission, approached Shcherbina and demanded the city be evacuated. Abagian had just returned from the plant, where the explosions in the reactor had caught him unawares—he and his colleagues had had to seek shelter under a metal bridge. “I told him that children were running in the streets people were hanging laundered linen out to dry. And the atmosphere was radioactive,” remembered Abegian.

But according to government regulations adopted in the Soviet Union back in 1963, evacuation of the civilian population was not necessary unless the radiation dose accumulated by individuals reached the 75-roentgen mark. Calculations had shown that with the existing level of radioactivity, the intake might be about 4.5 roentgens per day. With the official threshold not yet met, Yevgenii Vorobev, the commission’s senior medical officer, was reluctant to take responsibility for ordering an evacuation.

Children were affected the most by Chernobyl radioactive fallout, with 3,000 cases of thyroid cancer registered in the 1990s in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine in the population under 14 years of age. Here are the photos of the children born to the families of the liquidators and resettlers from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, on display in Kyiv Chernobyl museum, May 2013. (Credit: Oktay Ortakcioglu/iStock/Getty Images.)

END OF THE SOVIET UNION The Soviet State, Born of a Dream, Dies

The Soviet state, marked throughout its brief but tumultuous history by great achievement and terrible suffering, died today after a long and painful decline. It was 74 years old.

Conceived in utopian promise and born in the violent upheavals of the "Great October Revolution of 1917," the union heaved its last in the dreary darkness of late December 1991, stripped of ideology, dismembered, bankrupt and hungry -- but awe-inspiring even in its fall.

The end of the Soviet Union came with the resignation of Mikhail S. Gorbachev to make way for a new "Commonwealth of Independent States." At 7:32 P.M., shortly after the conclusion of his televised address, the red flag with hammer-and-sickle was lowered over the Kremlin and the white-blue-red Russian flag rose in its stead. No Ceremony, Only Chimes

There was no ceremony, only the tolling of chimes from the Spassky Gate, cheers from a handful of surprised foreigners and an angry tirade from a lone war veteran.

Reactions to the death varied widely, according to Pravda, the former mouthpiece of the empire: "Some joyfully exclaim, ɿinita la comedia!' Others, heaping ash on their heads, raise their hands to the sky in horror and ask, what will be?"

The reaction depended somewhat on whether one listened to the ominous gunfire from Georgia, or watched spellbound the bitter if dignified surrender of power by the last leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Mr. Gorbachev.

Most people vacillated. The taboos and chains were gone, but so was the food. The Soviet Union had given them pitifully little, but there was no guarantee that the strange-sounding "Commonwealth of Independent States" would do any better.

As for Mr. Gorbachev, public opinion polls indicated a virtually universal agreement that it was time for him to move on -- not because he had failed, but because there was nothing more he could do.

It was perhaps a paradox that the ruler who presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union was the only one of its ill-starred leaders to leave office with a measure of dignity intact. It was possible that history would reach a different verdict, but among many thoughtful Russians, it was to his undying credit that he lifted the chains of totalitarian dictatorship. Whether he could also have saved the economy was another question.

"Gorbachev was unable to change the living standards of the people, but he changed the people," Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote in a sympathetic farewell that seemed to capture the dominant mood. He didn't know how to make sausage, but he did know how to give freedom. And if someone believes that the former is more important than the latter, he is likely never to have either."

Another man might have done things differently. But it was difficult to conceive that any of those then available -- the conservative Yegor K. Ligachev, the rough-hewn Boris N. Yeltsin, the bureaucratic Nikolai I. Ryzhkov or the scholarly Eduard A. Shevardnadze -- possessed just that blend of reformer and ideologue, of naivete and ruthlessness, that enabled Mr. Gorbachev to lead the Communists to the edge of the cliff.

"Gorbachev was a true instrument of fate," declared Viktor Yerofeyev, a writer and literary critic. "He had just enough intelligence to change everything, but not enough to see that everything would be destroyed. He was bold enough to challenge his party, and cautious enough to let the party live until it lost its power. He had enough faith in Communism to be named its head, but enough doubts about it to destroy it. If he had seen everything clearly, he would not have changed Russia."

Mr. Gorbachev struggled to the end, and beyond it, to keep the union alive. But in the end, it was by letting the union die and by stepping aside that he gave a new lease on life to the great Eurasian entity, whatever its name. The Union Epic Achievement And Epic Failure

Measured against its own ambitions, the U.S.S.R. died a monumental failure.

It had promised no less than the creation of a "Soviet new man," imbued with selfless devotion to the common good, and it ended up all but crushing the initiative and spirit of the people, making many devoted only to vodka. It had proclaimed a new humanitarian ideology, and in its name butchered 10 million of its own. It envisioned a planned economy in which nothing was left to chance, and it created an elephantine bureaucracy that finally smothered the economy. Promising peace and freedom, it created the world's most militarized and ruthless police state.

Promising a people's culture, it created an anti-culture in which mediocrity was glorified and talent was ruthlessly persecuted. An entire department of the K.G.B. existed to wrestle with art, trying first to co-opt any rising talent "to the service of the state" and if that failed, to muzzle or exile it. The roll-call of repressed or exiled artists is a stunning indictment: Mandelstam, Malevich, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Rostropovich, Brodsky, and so many more.

In the end, promising a new life, it created an unspeakably bleak society -- polluted, chronically short of everything, stripped of initiative and spirituality. While the bulk of the nation stood in line or guzzled rot-gut vodka, the Communist elite raised corruption to new heights: The likes of Leonid I. Brezhnev and his cronies pinned endless medals on one another and surrounded themselves with a peasant's notion of luxury -- grandiose candelabras, massive cars, vast hunting estates, armies of sycophants, secret hospitals filled with the latest Western technology.

And yet the Soviet Union was also an indisputable superpower, a state and a people that achieved epic feats in science, warfare, even culture.

Perhaps all this was achieved despite Communism, not because of it. Yet by some combination of force and inspiration, the system begun by Lenin and carried out by Stalin unleashed a potent national energy that made possible the rapid industrialization of the 1930's, the defeat of Nazi Germany in the 1940's, the launching of the first Sputnik in the 1950's, the creation of a nuclear arsenal in the 1960's and 1970's. Even now, for all the chaos in the land, two astronauts, Aleksandr A. Volkov and Sergei Krikalev, continue to circle the globe.

In culture too, both the "thaw" of Nikita S. Khrushchev in the 1960's and the "glasnost" of Mr. Gorbachev offered testimony that the enormous creativity of the nation was as tenacious as the people.

And in sport, the tangle of Olympic medals and international victories were a tacit source of national pride even among the staunchest critics of the Communist regime. The Dream A Utopian Illusion Survived Injustice

It is easy now, gazing over the smoldering ruins of the Soviet empire, to enumerate the fatal illusions of the Marxist system. Yet the irresistible utopian dream fired generations of reformers, revolutionaries and radicals here and abroad, helping spread Soviet influence to the far corners of the globe.

Until recently, rare was the third world leader who did not espouse some modified Marxist doctrine, who did not make a regular pilgrimage to Moscow to join in the ritual denunciations of the "imperialists."

Much of it was opportunism, of course. In the Soviet Union as in the third world, Communism offered a handy justification for stomping on democracy and keeping one party and one dictator in power.

Yet it was also a faith, one strong enough to survive all the injustices done in its name. Lev Kopelev, a prominent intellectual now living in Germany, recalled in his memoirs how prisoners emerged from the gulag after Stalin's death firmly believing that at last they could start redressing the "errors" of Stalinism and truly building Communism.

And only last March, Mr. Gorbachev would still declare in Minsk, "I am not ashamed to say that I am a Communist and adhere to the Communist idea, and with this I will leave for the other world."

The tenacity of the faith testified to the scope of the experiment. It was a monumental failure, but it had been a grand attempt, an experiment on a scale the world had never known before.

Perhaps it was the height of folly and presumption that Russia, a country then only at the dawn of industrialization and without a bourgeoisie or proletariat to speak of, would have been the one to proclaim itself the pioneer of a radically new world order. Two Worlds 'Westernizers' Vs. 'Slavophiles

But Russians have always had a weakness for the broad gesture. The greatest czars -- Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great -- were those with the grandest schemes. The greatest writers, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, explored ultimate themes in immense novels. The Russian Orthodox Church embroidered its churches and its liturgy in the most elaborate gilding and ceremony.

Nothing happened small in the Soviet era, either. Twenty million died in the war, 10 million more in the gulag. And the pride of place was always given to grandiose construction projects -- the world's biggest hydroelectric plant at Bratsk, the world's biggest truck factory at Kamaz, the trans-Siberian railroad.

The czarist merchant wrapped in coats of gold and sable racing in his sleigh through wretched muzhiks in birch-bark shoes translated into the ham-fisted party boss tearing through Moscow in his long black limousine.

Many theories have been put foward to explain these traits. There is the sheer expanse of a country that spans 11 time zones. There is the climate, which imposed a rhythm of long, inactive winters punctuated by brief summers of intense labor. Some posited the absence of a Renaissance, which stunted the development of an individual consciousness and sustained a spirit of collectivism.

Above all it was a nation straddling two continents and two cultures, forever torn and forever fired by the creative clash at the faultline of East and West.

Russians have ever split into "Westernizers" and "Slavophiles," and the death of the Soviet Union had everything to do with the struggle between the "Westernizing" democrats and free-marketeers and the anti-Western champions of powerful statehood and strong center.

The West has always been deemed both attractive and dangerous to Russia. Peter the Great campaigned desperately to open his nation to the West, but Westerners remained suspect and isolated. Communism found nourishing soil in the Russian spirit of collectivism, but its Western materialism proved alien.

Western democracy is foundering here on the same ambivalence. The Soviets plunged whole-heartedly into the plethora of new councils and parliaments inaugurated by Mr. Gorbachev. But their endless debate and inability to organize into cohesive interest groups soon diminished public attention, and at the end the parliaments readily transferred most of their powers to Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Yeltsin and other powerful men.

"What remains after the Soviet Union is this Eurasian essense, this unique interplay of Europe and Asia, which will continue to amaze the world with its culture and totally unexpected actions," Mr. Yerofeyev said.

"What was imported in Western Marxism will vanish," he continued. "But Communism will not disappear, inasmuch as the spirit of collectivism is at the heart of this nation. The nation will always say 'we' rather than the Anglo-Saxon 'I'.

"This was Lenin's deftness, that he realized Russia was ready to accept Communism, but needed only ɼlass struggle' for everything to fall into place. As soon as it had an enemy, the collective consciousness became dynamic." Contrasts Impressive Feats, Awesome Litter

That spirit was forever captured in the revolutionary posters, with their capitalists in top hats dripping with workers' blood, or the muscular young Communists crushing bourgeois vipers.

Lenin's successors understood this equally well, that it was easier to fire Soviets to enormous feats and extraordinary sacrifice than to organize them for sustained work and steady growth.

The capacity for suffering and sacrifice, whether in the war or in the endless lines today, is something that still awes foreigners. The ability to focus enormous talent and energy on a grand project is equally impressive, and from this came the great achievements in science, weaponry and construction.

Yet the sloppiness and inefficiency of everyday life make an even stronger impression on visitors. The shoddiness of even the newest apartment block or hotel is shocking. Old houses seem to list precariously in the mud. Wreckage litters every yard. Cars come off the assembly lines half broken.

The planned economy served only to intensify the squalor. It made volume, not quality or inventiveness, the primary measure of production, and it put a premium on huge factories over flexibility or distribution.

The system also gave consumer goods the lowest possible priority, thus institutionalizing shortages and reducing ordinary people to a permanent state of dependence on the state and rude salespeople. Icons The Cults End In State's Dotage

Whether Lenin would have built the Soviet state this way is not certain. Three years before his death, in 1921, he replaced "War Communism" with what became known as the "New Economic Policy," but was in fact a return to a measure of old laissez-faire. The national income rose to pre-revolutionary levels, but that failed to dissuade Stalin from starting the first Five-Year Plan.

Nonetheless, it was Lenin who became the first deity of the new order. He was a convenient hero: He had died while still enormously popular, and he left behind enough writings on every topic to support whatever position his successors chose to take.

Thus his goateed visage soon became the mandatory icon in every official building or every town square, and his words became scripture. All the powers of science were summoned to preserve his remains forever, and his mausoleum became the spiritual heart of the new empire. His name became an adjective denoting orthodoxy, as in "the Leninist way." Plaques were raised at every building he stayed in, and an enormous temple was built over his childhood home.

The cult seemed only to gain strength with the passing years, as his successors denounced one another and struggled to portray themselves as the one true interpreter of Lenin. Stalin set the trend, killing most of Lenin's comrades as he perfected the machinery of repression, all the while claiming to act in the name of the great founder.

Next, Khrushchev dismantled the Stalin cult and halted the worst of the terror in the name of restoring "true Leninism," only to be overthrown himself. Before long, Brezhnev was the sole heir, and Khrushchev's "voluntarism" joined Stalin's "personality cult" among the heresies of Leninism.

With Brezhnev, the Soviet state passed visibly into dotage. As he grew bloated and incoherent, so did the state. Production fell while an uncontrolled military machine devoured ever-larger portions of the national product. Foreign policy sank into a pattern of stagnant coexistence and fierce military competition with the West, while at home the political police steadily put down the small but brave dissident movement inspired by the brief Khrushchevian thaw.

After 18 years in power, Brezhnev was succeeded by two other old and sick men, Yuri V. Andropov and Konstantin U. Chernenko, and by the time Mr. Gorbachev took the helm in 1985, it was obvious to all that the state was in radical need of help.

Mr. Gorbachev, at 54 the youngest Soviet leader since Stalin, electrified the land almost immediately with the introduction of "glasnost," or openness. Suddenly the people could talk and think freely, taboos began to crumble, East-West hostilities evaporated, and dissidents emerged from labor camps and exile. The sweet perfume of hope scented the air.

But Mr. Gorbachev's parallel attempts to reform the economy perished on the same shoals as all previous reforms -- the thick and privileged Communist party apparat. The more glasnost flourished, the more it became evident that perestroika was foundering, and everything Mr. Gorbachev did seemed to be too little or too late.

Floundering in the end, he lurched first to the left, ordering a radical "500 day" reform plan in the summer of 1989, then to the right, rejecting the plan and encircling himself with party stalwarts and letting them use force, then back to the left last spring, opening negotiations with the republics on a new Union Treaty.

By then it was too late. The rejected right-wingers tried to seize power by force in the August coup, and with their defeat, the republics had no more need for or faith in Mr. Gorbachev or the remnants of his union.

On Dec. 8, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia pulled the plug, proclaiming a new Commonwealth of Independent States, and after that it was only a question of time before the breathing stopped. Afterlife Problems Survive But Will Pride?

The union was dead. But the great Eurasian entity on which it fed remained very much alive -- as Russia, as a new Commonwealth of 11 republics, as a culture and a worldview, as a formidable nuclear arsenal, as a broad range of unresolved crises.

The gunfire in Georgia, the long lines across the land, the closed airports and the myriad unanswered questions about the new Commonwealth -- would it confer citizenship? would it remain a single military and economic entity? would it manage transport and communications? -- made clear that the legacy of the union would long survive.

Mr. Gorbachev had given people a new freedom. But the Soviet Union had also given them something tangible -- the pride of superpower. Whatever their problems and shortages, they had been one of the two arbiters of global destinies, a nation that nobody could intimidate or bully.

Now that was being taken away, too, and how the humiliation would play out, especially in conditions of hunger and poverty, was among the troubling questions for the future.

"The parting with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics will be long and difficult," Izvestia warned. "We must acknowledge that many will not believe or agree to the end of their days with the death warrant written in Minsk and confirmed in Alma-Ata. The idea of superpower has a force equal to nationalism, and in certain conditions it is also capable of uniting millions of fanatic supporters."


When Yuri Andropov succeeded Leonid Brezhnev as leader of the Soviet Union in November 1982, the mainstream Western newspapers and magazines ran numerous front-page photographs and articles about him. Most coverages were negative and tended to give a perception of a new threat to the stability of the Western world. Andropov had been the Soviet Ambassador to Hungary during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Chairman of the KGB from 1967 to 1982 during his tenure, he was known in the West for crushing the Prague Spring and the brutal suppression of dissidents, such as Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He began his tenure as Soviet leader by strengthening the powers of the KGB, and by suppressing dissidents. [3] According to Vasili Mitrokhin, Andropov saw the struggle for human rights as a part of a wide-ranging imperialist plot to undermine the foundation of the Soviet state. [4] Much international tension surrounded both Soviet and American efforts to develop weapons capable of being launched from satellites in orbit. Both governments had extensive research and development programs to develop such technology. However, both nations were coming under increasing pressure to disband the project. In America, President Ronald Reagan came under pressure from a lobby of U.S. scientists and arms experts, while in the Soviet Union the government issued a statement that read, "To prevent the militarization of space is one of the most urgent tasks facing mankind". [5]

During this period, large anti-nuclear protests were taking place across both Europe and North America, while the November 20, 1983, screening of ABC's post-nuclear war dramatization The Day After became one of the most anticipated media events of the decade. [6]

The two superpowers had by this point abandoned their strategy of détente and in response to the Soviet deployment of SS-20s, Reagan moved to deploy cruise and Pershing II missiles to Europe. The Soviet Union's involvement in a war in Afghanistan was in its third year, a matter which was also contributing to international tension. In this atmosphere, on November 22, 1982, Time magazine published an issue with Andropov on the cover. When Smith viewed the edition, she asked her mother: "If people are so afraid of him, why doesn't someone write a letter asking whether he wants to have a war or not?" Her mother replied, "Why don't you?" [7]

Samantha Smith was born on June 29, 1972, in the small town of Houlton, Maine, on the Canada–United States border, to Jane Goshorn [8] and Arthur Smith. At the age of five, she wrote a letter to Queen Elizabeth II to express her admiration for the monarch. When Smith had finished second grade in the spring of 1980, the family settled in Manchester, Maine, where she attended Manchester Elementary School. Her father served as an instructor at Ricker College in Houlton [9] before teaching literature and writing at the University of Maine at Augusta [5] while her mother worked as a social worker with the Maine Department of Human Services.

In November 1982, when Smith was 10 years old, she wrote to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, seeking to understand why the relations between the Soviet Union and the United States were so tense:

Dear Mr. Andropov,

My name is Samantha Smith. I am 10 years old. Congratulations on your new job. I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you aren't please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war. This question you do not have to answer, but I would like it if you would. Why do you want to conquer the world or at least our country? God made the world for us to share and take care of. Not to fight over or have one group of people own it all. Please let us do what he wanted and have everybody be happy too.

Samantha Smith [10]

Her letter was published in the Soviet newspaper Pravda. [11] Smith was happy to discover that her letter had been published however, she had not received a reply. She then sent a letter to the Soviet Union's Ambassador to the United States asking if Andropov intended to respond. [12] On April 26, 1983, she received a response from Andropov:

Dear Samantha,

I received your letter, which is like many others that have reached me recently from your country and other countries around the world.

It seems to me – I can tell by your letter – that you are a courageous and honest girl, resembling Becky, the friend of Tom Sawyer in the famous book of your compatriot Mark Twain. This book is well known and loved in our country by all boys and girls.

You write that you are anxious about whether there will be a nuclear war between our two countries. And you ask are doing anything so that war will not break out.

Your question is the most important of those that every thinking man can pose. I will reply to you seriously and honestly.

Yes, Samantha, we in the Soviet Union are trying to do everything so that there will not be a war on Earth. This is what every Soviet man wants. This is what the great founder of our state, Vladimir Lenin, taught us.

Soviet people well know what a terrible thing war is. Forty-two years ago, Nazi Germany, which strove for supremacy over the whole world, attacked our country, burned and destroyed many thousands of our towns and villages, killed millions of Soviet men, women, and children.

In that war, which ended with our victory, we were in alliance with the United States: together we fought for the liberation of many people from the Nazi invaders. I hope that you know about this from your history lessons in school. And today we want very much to live in peace, to trade and cooperate with all our neighbors on this earth — with those far away and those nearby. And certainly with such a great country like the United States of America.

In America and our country, there are nuclear weapons — terrible weapons that can kill millions of people in an instant. But we do not want them to be ever used. That's precisely why the Soviet Union solemnly declared throughout the entire world that never will it use nuclear weapons first against any country. In general, we propose to discontinue further production of them and to proceed to the abolition of all the stockpiles on Earth.

It seems to me that this is a sufficient answer to your second question: 'Why do you want to wage war against the whole world or at least the United States?' We want nothing of the kind. No one in our country–neither workers, peasants, writers nor doctors, neither grown-ups nor children, nor members of the government–want either a big or 'little' war.

We want peace — there is something that we are occupied with: growing wheat, building and inventing, writing books, and flying into space. We want peace for ourselves and all peoples of the planet. For our children and you, Samantha.

I invite you if your parents will let you come to our country, the best time being this summer. You will find out about our country, meet with your contemporaries, visit an international children's camp – Artek – on the sea. And see for yourself: in the Soviet Union, everyone is for peace and friendship among peoples.

Thank you for your letter. I wish you all the best in your young life.

Y. Andropov [13] [14]

A media circus ensued, with Smith being interviewed by Ted Koppel [15] and Johnny Carson, among others, and with nightly reports by the major American networks. On July 7, 1983, she flew to Moscow with her parents and spent two weeks as Andropov's guest. During the trip she visited Moscow and Leningrad and spent time in Artek, the main Soviet pioneer camp, in the town of Gurzuf on the Crimean Peninsula. Smith wrote in her book that in Leningrad she and her parents were amazed by the friendliness of the people and by the presents many people made for them. Speaking at a Moscow press conference, she declared that the Russians were "just like us". [16] In Artek, Smith chose to stay with the Soviet children rather than accept the privileged accommodations offered to her. For ease of communication, teachers, and children who spoke fluent English were chosen to stay in the building where she was lodged. Smith shared a dormitory with nine other girls and spent her time there swimming, talking, and learning Russian songs and dances. While there, she made many friends, including Natasha Kashirina from Leningrad, a fluent English speaker.

Andropov, however, was unable to meet with her during her visit, [17] although they did speak by telephone. It was later discovered that Andropov had become seriously ill and had withdrawn from the public eye during this time. [18] Smith also received a phone call from Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to orbit the Earth. However, not realizing with whom she was speaking, Samantha mistakenly hung up after only a brief conversation. [19] Media followed her every step — photographs and articles about her were published by the main Soviet newspapers and magazines throughout her trip and after it. Smith became widely known to Soviet citizens and was well regarded by many of them. In the United States, the event drew suspicion and some regarded it as an "American-style public relations stunt". [20]

Smith's return to the U.S. on July 22, 1983, was celebrated by the people of Maine with roses, a red carpet, and a limousine [21] and her popularity continued to grow in her native country. Some critics at the time remained skeptical, believing Smith was unwittingly serving as an instrument of Soviet propaganda. [21] [22] In December 1983, continuing in her role as "America's Youngest Ambassador", she was invited to Japan, [23] where she met with the Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and attended the Children's International Symposium in Kobe. In her speech at the symposium, she suggested that Soviet and American leaders exchange granddaughters for two weeks every year, arguing that a president "wouldn't want to send a bomb to a country his granddaughter would be visiting". [24] Her trip inspired other exchanges of child goodwill ambassadors, [25] including a visit by the eleven-year-old Soviet child Katya Lycheva to the United States. [26] Later, Smith wrote a book called Journey to the Soviet Union [27] whose cover shows her at Artek, [28] her favorite part of the Soviet trip. [29]

Smith pursued her role as a media celebrity when in 1984, billed as a "Special Correspondent", she hosted a children's special for the Disney Channel entitled Samantha Smith Goes To Washington. Campaign '84. [30] [31] The show covered politics, where Smith interviewed several candidates for the 1984 presidential election, including George McGovern, John Glenn and Jesse Jackson. That same year, she guest-starred in Charles in Charge as Kim, alongside another celebrity guest star, Julianne McNamara. Her fame resulted in Smith becoming the subject of stalker Robert John Bardo, the man who would later go on to stalk and ultimately murder My Sister Sam actress Rebecca Schaeffer. Bardo traveled to Maine in an attempt to meet Smith, but was stopped by police and returned home. [32]

In 1985, she played the co-starring role of the elder daughter to Robert Wagner's character in the television series, Lime Street. [33] [34]

On August 25, 1985, Smith and her father were returning home aboard Bar Harbor Airlines Flight 1808 after filming a segment for Lime Street. While attempting to land at Lewiston-Auburn Regional Airport in Auburn, Maine, the Beechcraft 99 commuter plane struck some trees 4,007 feet (1,221 m) short of the runway and crashed, killing all six passengers and two crew on board. [35] Much speculation regarding the cause of the accident circulated afterward. Accusations of foul play circulated widely in the Soviet Union. [36] [37] An investigation was undertaken in the United States and the official report — which did not show evidence of foul play — was made public. As stated in the report, the accident occurred at about 22:05 EDT, the ground impact point located one mile (1.6 km) south-west of the airport, at 44°02′22″N 70°17′30″W  /  44.03944°N 70.29167°W  / 44.03944 -70.29167 . The report goes on to say, "The relatively steep flight path angle and the attitude (the orientation of the aircraft relative to the horizon, the direction of motion, etc.) and speed of the airplane at ground impact precluded the occupants from surviving the accident." [38] The main point of the report was that it was a rainy night, [39] that the pilots operating the aircraft were inexperienced, and an accidental, but not uncommon and not usually critical, ground radar failure occurred.

Samantha Smith was mourned by about 1,000 people at her funeral in Augusta, Maine, and was eulogized in Moscow as a champion of peace. Attendees included Robert Wagner and Vladimir Kulagin of the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., who read a personal message of condolence from Mikhail Gorbachev. [40]

Everyone in the Soviet Union who has known Samantha Smith will forever remember the image of the American girl who, like millions of Soviet young men and women, dreamt about peace, and about the friendship between the peoples of the United States and the Soviet Union. [41]

President Ronald Reagan sent his condolences to Smith's mother, in writing,

Perhaps you can take some measure of comfort in the knowledge that millions of Americans, indeed millions of people, share the burdens of your grief. They also will cherish and remember Samantha, her smile, her idealism and unaffected sweetness of spirit. [42]

The remains of Samantha and her father were cremated, [43] and their ashes were buried at Estabrook Cemetery, Amity, Maine. [ citation needed ]

Smith's contributions have been honored with a number of tributes by Russians and by the people of her home state of Maine. A monument to her was built in Moscow "Samantha Smith Alley" in the Artek Young Pioneer camp was named after her in 1986. [44] The monument built to Smith was stolen by metal thieves in 2003 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 2003, Voronezh retiree Valentin Vaulin built a monument to her without any support from the government. [45] The Soviet Union issued a commemorative stamp with her likeness. In 1986 Soviet astronomer Lyudmila Chernykh discovered asteroid 3147, which she named 3147 Samantha. [46] [47] Danish composer Per Nørgård wrote his 1985 viola concerto "Remembering Child" in memory of Smith. [48] A diamond found in Siberia, [49] a mountain in the former Soviet Union, [50] a cultivar of tulips and of dahlias, and an ocean vessel have been named in Smith's honor. [2] In 1985, a peace garden was established in Michigan along the St. Clair River to commemorate her achievements. [51] In Maine, the first Monday in June of each year is officially designated as Samantha Smith Day by state law. [52] There is a bronze statue of Smith near the Maine State Museum in Augusta, which portrays Smith releasing a dove with a bear cub resting at her feet. [53] The bear cub represents both Maine and Russia. Elementary schools in Sammamish, Washington, [54] and in Jamaica, Queens, New York City, [55] have been named after Samantha. In October 1985, Smith's mother founded The Samantha Smith Foundation, [56] which fostered student exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union (and, after December 1991, the ex-Soviet successor states) until it became dormant in the mid-1990s. [22] The Foundation was formally dissolved in 2014 after two decades of dormancy. [57]

A 1987 episode of the U.S. sitcom The Golden Girls entitled "Letter to Gorbachev" draws inspiration from Smith's story. In addition, the 1987 film Superman IV: The Quest for Peace included a scene where a boy writes Superman a letter to control the nuclear arms race according to Christopher Reeve, this scene was also inspired by Smith's story. [58]

In the mid-1980s, after Smith's death, a script was written for a television movie titled The Samantha Smith Story with Robert Wagner as producer. [59] Columbia Pictures Television and R.J. Wagner Productions were reported to have agreed to produce the film for NBC, with Soviet company Sovin Film interested in co-producing it. [60] Ultimately, Columbia Pictures Television decided not to film it due to lack of interest from any network. [61]

Speculation as to what a surviving Samantha might have done in adulthood was dismissed by her mother Jane as unanswerable in 2003, given Samantha was only thirteen when she died and her ambitions had varied from a veterinarian working with animals to a tutu-and-tights-clad ballerina. [62] The notion, which had been put to Samantha herself in the eighties, that she could be President of the United States in adulthood, was dismissed by her in the Disney Channel special that she hosted, with the words "being President is not a job I would like to have". [63]

In 2008, Smith posthumously received the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award for "helping to bring about better understanding between the peoples of the [USA and the USSR], and as a result, reduce the tension between the superpowers that were poised to engage in a nuclear war". [64] The Peace Abbey has also proposed The Peace Literature Project in Honor of Samantha Smith "to educate students about peace and promote peace literature for school-age children in 50 selected pilot schools across the United States" [28]

Elliott Holt's 2013 novel You Are One of Them, uses the story of Smith as inspiration for a fictional character, Jennifer Jones. [65]

On the 30th anniversary of the plane crash in 2015, the Maine State Museum opened a new exhibit of materials related to Smith, including photographs of her time at the Artek camp, traditional Russian clothing she was given, and an issue of Soviet Life magazine with her on the cover. [66]


Many basic features of Soviet law came into effect very soon after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The regime immediately placed itself above the law and gave the head of the Communist Party powers similar to those enjoyed for centuries by the tsars. The new government replaced elected officials with its own leaders it decreed that suspected enemies of the revolution should be eliminated without trials it expropriated land, banks, insurance companies, and large factories and it promulgated its ideology and suppressed opposing speech. In important ways, however, the legal system of the immediate postrevolutionary period differed from Soviet law as it developed later. The ideology imposed by the party was hostile to law, proclaiming, on the authority of Karl Marx, that the state and all its institutions (including legal ones) would “wither away” after the communist revolution. Accordingly, the new regime destroyed the prerevolutionary legal structure of the market economy, including property, contract, and business law. In 1921 Soviet communist leader Vladimir Lenin introduced the New Economic Policy, which restored the legal basis necessary for the economy to function. He ordered that a civil code based upon western European civil law be drafted and enacted. The code allowed the formation of business entities and protected basic contract and property rights. Other legislation established a court system to enforce these rights and to try criminal cases.

The New Economic Policy was ended after Joseph Stalin became leader of the Soviet Union and asserted total central control over the economy. The Soviet government nationalized the remaining private businesses and forced peasants onto party-controlled collective farms (kolkhozy). Soviet law developed a new role as an instrument for the implementation of party policy and national economic planning. Although political repression had begun immediately after the revolution and had continued afterward, it returned on an extensive scale in the 1930s, when large numbers of suspected political opponents and peasants who resisted forced grain requisition and farm collectivization were executed or sent to forced-labour camps. Some of this repression was accomplished through the regular courts, but much of it occurred through the state security apparatus, which had the authority to imprison anyone without a trial. In high-profile, carefully scripted purge trials, perceived political opponents of the government were convicted of heinous offenses that they had not committed. With the aid of his chief legal adviser, Andrey Vyshinsky, Stalin abandoned traditional Marxist ideology and announced that a strong Soviet state and legal system were necessary. In 1936 he promulgated a new constitution and proclaimed a new ideology, portraying Soviet law as a just system that would bring about an orderly transformation of society to a communist utopia. Legislation that contradicted this ideology was kept secret, and Stalin and his successors greatly restricted foreign travel by Soviet citizens to prevent exposure to free societies.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, set out to rectify some of the Stalinist legal system’s worst features. Many who had been condemned to labour camps were formally rehabilitated freer speech was allowed and decentralized regulation of the economy was attempted. After Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964, his successors restored centralized legal control of the economy and again limited freedom of speech, but through perversion of the legal system rather than by other means. They fired editors of liberal publications and committed dissidents to insane asylums or imprisoned them on false criminal charges.

The liberalization of the Soviet economy and political system by Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s undermined some of the basic elements of the Soviet legal system. The use of false criminal charges and psychiatric diagnoses to control dissidents was largely halted partially free elections and some free speech were allowed and private businesses were legalized. As the Soviet legal system disintegrated, the Soviet Union weakened. The Soviet republics and the satellite states of central and eastern Europe escaped from Soviet control and soon rejected Soviet law. The countries that retained systems based on Soviet law—for example, Belarus, China, Cuba, North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam—continued the arbitrary imprisonment of dissidents and eschewed open and fair democratic elections. With the exception of North Korea, however, these countries at least partially repealed the ban on private businesses. The prevailing ideology in these countries turned from Marxism to nationalism, and as a consequence their legal systems began to lose much of their Soviet flavour and became much more like the legal systems of ordinary dictatorial regimes.

Chernobyl disaster: how the Soviet Union's cover story was blown

In casting through the British newspapers from the days immediately following the Chernobyl disaster, the world's most disastrous nuclear accident, disarray was clear, but not all of it was in the Soviet Union

This article was originally published in the 23 April 1987 issue of New Scientist, a year after the Chernobyl accident occurred.

Science and technology took a beating in the press in the first months of 1986. There had been the Challenger explosion and there was continuing uproar about nuclear waste, signalled by that infallible evidence of public debate in Britain, the daubing of slogans on motorway bridges. Sellafield and its mysterious sequence of mishaps was hardly ever out of the news or the mouths of MPs, both uncomfortable places for the nuclear industry. In the US, it was reported, some workers at a nuclear plant had heated up an overfull tank of liquid radioactive waste to reduce its volume, the way cooks do with a sauce. This, if noticed, was probably put down to the slaphappiness of Americans, and the nuclear industry in particular. The successful meeting of spacecraft and Halley’s Comet hardly made up for the unease about technology in general, and nuclear matters especially. Early in April, the new chairman of British Nuclear Fuels was saying that the nuclear industry had to learn to adjust to the outside world, to communicate with it in everyday language, while denying that the industry was defensive and secretive. The points were to be made sharper by events elsewhere.

Read more: Wildlife is thriving around Chernobyl since the people left

On the last weekend in April, a cloud of radioactive material blew across Scandinavia. The culprit was a reactor at one of the Soviet Union’s largest nuclear power stations, at Chernobyl. The catastrophe did not burst into the headlines all at once, as catastrophes generally do in the Western world. Accidents in the Soviet Union, for one reason or another, slowly develop, so that the newspapers were watching, as it were, a nuclear disaster in slow motion or a jigsaw gradually being pieced together. So how did the daily papers in Britain handle the news of the Chernobyl catastrophe? A study of those first few days is certainly enlightening.


Tuesday, 29 April 1986

The papers were in no doubt from the reports coming in from their diplomatic corespondents, foreign staff and the agencies that, some days before, an accident of an appalling nature had happened. Scientists had detected radioactive fallout in Sweden and traced it to the area around Kiev in the Soviet Union.

“Serious accident hits nuclear power plant in Soviet Union,” said the Financial Times, reporting the official (and terse) announcement from the Soviet news agency, TASS, that one of the reactors at Chernobyl had been damaged. It printed a map of northern Europe that located the nuclear site and quoted remarks from Swedish authorities outraged at the lack of warning from the Soviets. It also carried some details of the capacity and design of the reactor concerned. The Times was a little more excited (“Huge nuclear leak at Soviet plant”, “Overheating of nuclear fuel raises fear of possible meltdown”, “European alarm” and “Moscow acts”), and gave the news much more prominence. It, too, printed a map, with arrows to show the track of the radioactive cloud, reminiscent of those over the same territory a generation before, showing German attacks.

Science journalists were concerned early on. The Times’s science editor reported the opinion of the spokesman from the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) that Britain had no need to fear radiation released in the accident (“Britain safe, says watchdog body”), and a rather soothing statement from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Guardian was lower in temperature (“Radioactive Russian dust cloud escapes”), and filled its space with a rundown of facts about other nuclear accidents and an explanation by its science correspondent of the types of radioisotope released and their effects on the human body. The Daily Telegraph remained cool, with a straightforward account of events so far.
It looked as if the so-called “quality” newspapers were, on the whole, holding off until more was known the big question in everyone’s mind was: What precisely had happened?

The popular press, or at least its subeditors, was in no doubt about the dimensions of the accident from the start. Its stories were based on no more than the other papers had, but the headlines were definite enough. “Atom cloud horror”, said The Star the Daily Express, “Nuclear disaster-radioactive cloud heads for Britain” and “Russia’s cloud of death” in The Mirror. Today raised a mild eyebrow with “Atom leak”, but the Sun was less inhibited. “Red nuke disaster”, it yelled. “Scores feared dead. Thousands flee leak.” It was clear that Chernobyl was about to become as well, or better, known than Three Mile Island or Windscale. Perhaps a hint of Schadenfreude crept into the report of “An American nuclear safety expert” who had said that “the leak made Three Mile Island look like a tea-party”.

Wednesday, 30 April 1986

The next day demonstrated that the press had got its second wind. Incidentally, so had the wide boys of the international markets. They had shrewdly seen that if the leak from Chernobyl contaminated the ground water of the lush, grain producing areas of the Ukraine, then spring and winter wheat would be affected. Reports claimed that wheat futures were climbing at a great rate. All the papers carried accounts of parliamentary debates in which “outbursts from all sides” had shown the anger at the scarcity of information coming from the Soviet Union. In the uproar, a cautionary article in the Financial Times struck an odd note. Headed “When total publicity served only to alarm and confuse”, it warned against the effects of conflicting statements. This, apparently, was one of the worst features of press reports of Three Mile Island and was liable to cause confusion, panic and cynicism. Elsewhere, the paper said that pictures from American satellites showed that the roof of the reactor had been blown off. The FT’s science editor, in a long article which detailed the construction of the Soviet reactor and explained its system, still had nothing definite to offer about the cause of the accident but emphasised its seriousness: “Those I spoke to yesterday about the problem of fighting a major fire in such a reactor expressed nothing but horror at its magnitude. No one had any ideas.”

The Financial Times, as did many others, pointed out that the Chernobyl reactor was of a type that had no containment of the kind demanded by authorities in the West. (Several quoted an article in the official magazine Soviet Life that described the reactor as “totally safe”.) The Times, nevertheless, had a diagram under the title “What happened at Chernobyl” (nobody yet knew this showing a containment wall around it. “Gigantic reactor ‘kettle’ that became a killer”, said The Times. Elsewhere it had an article by Ian Smart, an energy consultant, headed “Chernobyl is not Sizewell”, and illustrated, not entirely relevantly, with a skull surrounding the formal sign for radioactivity. This stressed the likelihood of the disaster being a peculiarly Soviet problem because of differences in design and then said: “… the large number of independent cooling circuits in an RBMK makes it hard to believe that this [loss of coolant] could happen in routine circumstances without extraordinary negligence on the part of its operators”. In the light of later revelations, the author’s name is appropriate.

The Telegraph had abandoned its cool by 30 April: “25 000 flee nuclear plant disaster”, “Help us plea by Moscow” and “Meltdown could kill 10 000 in 10 years”, it printed, along with a cartoon depicting Death looking up appointments for the year 2006. The Guardian saw that better safety precautions for nuclear reactors could provide business opportunities, and had another diagram of the radioactive plume curving round Helsinki and heading back to Russia. Nearly every page of the paper had some reference to the disaster. From Washington, it reported American pressure on the Soviets to release all available information on the accident. It also mentioned a subject that other papers were starting to raise: the effect of the disaster on Eastern European countries and Soviet allies, not only from drifting radioactivity, but on exports of electric power from the Soviet Union to them.

By now, the papers were beginning to appreciate the far-reaching consequences of the accident and nearly all were expanding their coverage in what some journalists call “think pieces”. The Guardian characterised the Soviet Union as the last stronghold of the Victorian idea that science was progress, an idea that Chernobyl was bound to shake and possibly shake most in the historically independent areas of the republic and its satellites, such as the Ukraine, Latvia and Lithuania. It foresaw, too, greater opposition to British plans for nuclear power stations and disposal of waste. A leader, while agreeing that it would be premature to draw conclusions on safety matters, advocated more attention to “green” policies and said that the question of the limits of technological tolerance” should be addressed. The Telegraph took a firm line with the Soviet Union, saying that planners cut corners, accepted defective equipment and threw safety precautions out of the window (presumably not even looking to see if anyone was underneath). It pointed out that nobody had ever been killed in a Western nuclear power station. A leader in The Times, under the title “Nuclear paranoia”, made scornful remarks about a statement by the chairman of the CND that a disaster of the Chernobyl type could occur in Britain and called, like everyone else, for a “vital” explanation of the cause of the accident. In one of the columns of reporting on Chernobyl, it said that the Central Electricity Generating Board, conscious of the antinuclear climate, was working on a new type of coal-fired station, but left it unsatisfyingly at that.

The tabloids were on the second day of boil and one – Today -had discovered the reason for the reactor fire. A power station worker, it said, “dozed off on the job”. This was reported under headlines such as “Help us plea as Russians writhe in nuclear agony” and “Nuclear nightmare”. The Star, with more patriotism than objectivity in reporting the same Soviet request for assistance, ran the headlines “HELP! Russia’s disaster plea to the West. Only our experts can save the day.” The paper’s leaders are always printed under the legend, “The Star says”. The Star said that the Soviet Union must come clean and then, mysteriously: “No decision on Sizewell can possibly be taken until all the causes and consequences of the Chernobyl incident are analysed. And surely the Soviets will realise this”-a remark that was asking a lot of the Soviets at the time, faced as they were, according to the Daily Express, with a “nuclear nightmare” demanding “suicide squads on edge of hell” to fight the fire. The paper said that 100 000 were doomed, while the Daily Mail was more sober, “2000 dead in atom horror”. It was less certain of events than some of its contemporaries, saying only that initial reports “suggested that a sleepy worker may have missed the first alarm”. It was not the only newspaper to quote John Donne’s “No man is an island” etc while referring to the drifting radioactive cloud.

The Sun regained its nerve with “A pretty British student trapped inside the Russian nuclear disaster area pleaded to be rescued last night”, a story based on a telephone call. The Mirror’s front page led with the same story, “Please get me out, Mummy”. Inside was a much more sensible view. Generally supporting the development of nuclear power, the paper said that whatever other arguments might be deployed, not telling the truth about it “has certainly made it dreaded”. The Morning Star, torn perhaps between its antinuclear and pro-Soviet line, stuck to official statements with the muted “Two die in accident at Soviet nuclear station”. Scottish papers were altogether more restrained than Fleet Street, with The Scotsman reporting the Swedish indignation at Soviet reticence and the Glasgow Herald keeping to facts.

Thursday, 1 May 1986

Most papers reported the news programme on Soviet television which showed the Chernobyl reactor with fire out and under control, but there was still no word from high Soviet authority. Nearly all the papers carried the claim from the US that a second reactor was in trouble, a claim based on satellite photographs that appeared to show “hotspots” elsewhere on the site. “So much for ‘glasnost’, the Russian word which means ‘openness’,” said The Guardian, reiterating anxiety about the tatters of information released from Moscow. Its leader hacked away at the subject, with the opinion that Gorbachov’s successes in international public relations had been obliterated overnight. The Daily Telegraph said outright that a second reactor was on fire, appearing to draw the conclusion from a Soviet radio “ham” – though it described him as a short-wave radio operator – who talked about explosions and mass evacuations. A columnist in The Times said: “In this country the combination of Chernobyl and the Libyan bombing is likely to strengthen the hand of those who want the Labour Party to stick to its policy of getting rid of American nuclear bases” – which possibly was an accurate reflection of the utter confusion that Soviet silence had sown in the outside world. With the aplomb of one keeping his eye on the ball among all this, the paper asked, in a leader, “Should Britain now have an energy policy?”

The Daily Express weighed in with a dire description, furnished by Friends of the Earth, of the consequences of a similar accident at Hinkley Point. It called this “prophetic”. The Mirror had an attack of near hysteria. “Now will the whole plant explode?” it cried. “A second nuclear reactor exploded in Russia yesterday. Panic is spreading. Panic in the countries which border on the Soviet Union. Panic in their streets. Panic over a whole continent.” Its readers proved steadier, and on another page the paper, too, showed a calmer tone: “After the atom disaster, we reveal what CAN be done.” This was conveyed in a series of questions and answers. “Q. What is the first priority at Chernobyl? A. To put out the fire and stop radiation escaping. Q. How can this be done? A. Scientists aren’t sure.” The Sun was hitting straight from the shoulder as usual with “The masters of the Kremlin do not give a damn about people”, while the Morning Star was reporting Soviet resentment about its treatment over the accident. “USSR denies wild rumours,” it said and passed on the information that 197 people had been hospitalised and that factories, farms and institutions in the area were working normally. But this did not fool The Star: “The world asks, ‘What in hell is going on?’”

Friday, 2 May 1986

The normal parades were held in Moscow on May Day and the British papers noted the occasion with passion spent. Only the Express found the pressure of blood to print, “As nuclear fury grows, parade goes on”. Most of the dailies, including the Scottish ones, were still hitting at the sealed lips of the Soviets, and John Donne and glasnost appeared once more. In The Times, one of those puzzling people who surface in crises to pronounce for the benefit of correspondents duly did so. He was an “American economic expert” who happened to be in the Moscow crowd. He said that the Ukraine was the Soviet Union’s breadbasket and that the long-term effects of the accident would be bad.

The popular papers concentrated on British students returning home from Kiev. “Ordeal of the A-blast Brits” and “Doomwatch check on atom students”. The students, arriving in clothing provided for them while their own was monitored for radiation, were alarmed, mystified, relieved and fed up at having their studies interrupted, depending on the paper you read. The Morning Star said that they did not want to leave Kiev and that radiation levels at Chernobyl were declining, while 18 people were in serious condition.

West Germans check Eastern Europeans for radioactivity

Saturday, 3 May 1986

The weekend had been reached—a holiday weekend to boot. The arrival of the wisps of the radioactive plume over Britain brought little reaction. The newspapers were content to report the NRPB’s statement that there was absolutely no danger from the fallout. Even the strange proviso that it would be advisable to stop drinking rainwater “continuously”, as the statement said, excited few.

There was to be a press conference in Moscow. On the one side would be the Soviets, complaining that the coverage by the Western media of the disaster was despicable “slanderous inventions around the Chernobyl nuclear accident”—and on the other, criticisms that the Soviets had done their best to hide what it was impossible to conceal.

There is little reward in following the progress of events from this point: the heroic efforts of the Soviets to seal off the bottom of the core, at last successful, and the gradual emergence of more information, culminating in the surprisingly frank admission, for Moscow, of almost unbelievable, arrogant mishandling of the reactor that made the catastrophe inevitable. The newspapers handled these developments in typical fashion.

Are there any valuable conclusions to be drawn from the reporting of the first few days of cataclysm? There are some, I think. First is that, whatever the treatment of the accident in the British press, there was not one word unsympathetic to the suffering Soviet people. There were, certainly, some hard things said about designers and technologists in the Soviet Union, but none that would not have been said, and most likely has been said, about their British equivalents. The heavier dailies did their quite impressive best with a story that frustrated them from the beginning for its absence of salient facts. The tabloids, despite occasional forays over the top, did the same for their readers. They knew, from the pricking of their thumbs, that the disaster was worse than the Soviets were admitting. The language they used was sometimes lurid and may have offended some, but I doubt whether it was anywhere near as forceful as that employed by Soviets on the spot. It is easy to pick out the jumps to conclusions or the unwarranted headlines, but it is true that the newspapers as a whole and the tabloids in particular were, because of the secrecy of the Soviets, negotiating territory with only the sketchiest of maps. Navigational errors were unavoidable.

I am aware that choosing what to mention from the mass of reports in many papers leaves me open to accusations of bias, conscious or unconscious. I have no defence. But I shall not be persuaded that the press did other than an excellent job on the news of the worst nuclear accident in history.