by Peter & William Arkin Pringle ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 24, 1983
The sensationalist title masks an otherwise informative and lively investigation of American nuclear weapons and their hypothetical mode of use. SIOP--Single Integrated Operational Plan--is the ""secret U.S. plan for nuclear war""; but that means only that it comprises the rules and systems for responding to attack--including stepped-up alerts, provisions for graduated introduction of tactical nuclear weapons, and so on up to the use of strategic nuclear weapons. It would be strange if no such plan existed, since every threat or potential threat would have to be handled on an ad hoc basis. Pringle (London Observer, The Nuclear Barons) and Arkin (Institute for Policy Studies), though horrified that the plan they have partially unraveled presumes steady intensification of conflict, are even more appalled that no such integrated plan existed in the early years of US nuclear superiority: the Strategic Air Command under Curtis LeMay, and later the Navy, picked their own targets and made their own plans. It was JFK's administration that, following an Eisenhower lead, pulled nuclear thinking together. The resulting SIOP, which the authors have pieced together from published sources and interviews, depends heavily on the communications, command, and control functions (which, together with intelligence, make up the code CI)--the means to stay in touch with (and thereby control) our forces, and assess enemy actions. From the beginning, the American premise has been that nuclear wars can be won if control can be maintained through CI. As the authors point out, the military is enthusiastic about its ability to do this (through satellites, radar, etc.), but no one really knows if it can under actual war conditions. At a more mundane level, the signs are not good--witness ex-secretary of State Alexander Haig's confusion over who was in command while President Reagan was on the operating table. How confident can we be knowing, too, that the ""hot-line"" telex hookup between Washington and Moscow is situated in the Pentagon ""in a 'soft' command post where the planners assume it will be destroyed."" What Pringle and Arkin add to previous knowledge is a lot of vivid detail. They run through the successive steps in a recent war game that began with North Korean attacks on South Korea and resulted, after a couple of days of gradual escalation, in the destruction of Washington, the death of the president (played by another former Secretary of State, William Rogers), and a massive retaliation ordered, from an airborne command post, by the vice-president (played by ex-CIA chief Richard Helms). They have also gone inside silos, intelligence monitoring stations, nuclear submarines, and other dismal remote places to convey the human element--the incredible boredom and isolation of the men, all down the line, who have fingers on buttons. (Interestingly, it requires the simultaneous action of four officers, rather than the usual two persons, to arm and fire nuclear missiles from a submarine. And only there--partly because of communications difficulties--are subordinate officers authorized to disobey the captain's orders if they suspect he hasn't understood or interpreted instructions correctly.) A certain cultivated aura aside, it's hard not to admire the kind of calm professionalism that responded to a false attack signal in 1980 with an alert and scrambled bombers and then cancelled the alert all in just over three minutes. This is one version of the nuclear tightrope that provides both substance and color.
Pub Date: Oct. 24, 1983
Page Count: -
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1983
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