The acclaimed investigative journalist Eric Schlosser brings the Vietnam War into play several times in Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety (Penguin, 632 pp., $36), his riveting, best-selling book that focuses on accidents and near-misses, as well as on more positive aspects of nuclear weapons technology in the U.S. since the end of World War II.
The subtitle alludes to what happened on September 18, 1980, when an unlikely accident in a Titan II missile silo near Damascus, Arkansas, came within a hair’s breath of detonating a nine-ton W-53 thermonuclear warhead. That bomb, “the most powerful weapon ever carried by an American missile,” Schlosser notes, contained “about three times the explosive force of all the bombs dropped during the Second World War, including both atomic bombs.”
As for the Vietnam War, Schlosser gives disgraced Kennedy Administration Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara credit for his “tireless and sincere” efforts “to avoid a nuclear war” during his time in Washington, from 1961-68. He notes, though, that when he resigned in 1968 McNamara “left office as one of the most despised men in the United States” because he arrogantly dismissed the advice of the Pentagon’s military men and disastrously micromanaged the Vietnam War.
Then there was Gen. Curtis LeMay, the USAF Chief of Staff from 1961-68. LeMay, to his credit, opposed sending large numbers of combat troops to Vietnam. On the other hand, he was in love with massive air power, including nuclear weapons. LeMay’s “anger at how the Vietnam War was being fought—and his belief that both Democratic and Republican candidates Hubert H. Humphrey and Richard M. Nixon were willing to appease the Communists—persuaded him to run” as George Wallace’s vice presidential candidate in 1968.
At his press conference announcing his candidacy, LeMay “refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam,” Schlosser notes. That sounded “heartless and barbaric” as “images of Vietnamese women and children burned by napalm appeared on the nightly news.”
Speaking of heartless and barbaric, Schlosser covers Richard Nixon’s “madman theory,” which he and his close adviser Henry Kissinger developed after Nixon took over the presidency in 1969. The idea was for Nixon to make it appear he was willing to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam, in the hope that the “madman” image would convince the North Vietnamese to end the fighting.
How to show the world he was a “madman”? Nixon and Kissinger came up with a plan in 1969. They ordered the Strategic Air Command to go on airborne alert for two weeks. “Ignoring the safety risks,” Schlosser notes, “B-52s loaded with hydrogen bombs took off from bases in the United States and flew circular routes along the coast of the Soviet Union. Neither the Soviets nor the Vietcong was fooled by the bluff.”