Back in late 2014 the National Security Archive published a historical documentary produced in 2010 that went largely unnoticed. The film explores the history of nuclear weapons safety. And if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s pretty frightening.
Titled Always Never: The Quest For Safety, Control and Survivability, the most terrifying story from the film involves the protection of nuclear weapons in Germany. I’ve said before that it’s amazing anybody survived the Cold War. And this is just one more artefact testifying to that idea.
In 1960, a scientist from Los Alamos advised a US guard to shoot at the nuclear weapons on a West German aircraft if he ever became concerned about accidental or improper use. In fact, his exact words were, “shoot at those things and don’t worry about it.”
The American nukes were on German planes and ready to be deployed on a moment’s notice. But the concern was that there was no real civilian (which is to say US government) oversight about how and when those nukes would be deployed.
From the National Security Archive:
In late 1960, when members of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy were visiting U.S. nuclear weapons storage sites in Western European NATO countries, they were accompanied by Harold Agnew, a senior staffer with Los Alamos Laboratory. According to Agnew’s recollection years later, they stopped at an airbase where he noticed that German fighter-bombers were armed with nuclear weapons and that the German pilots had virtual control over them under nuclear sharing arrangements with the United States. Concerned about the possibility of misguided or accidental nuclear use, Agnew spoke to a young U.S. soldier who had responsibility for guarding the weapons and asked him what he would do if the German pilots came “running out and they’re gonna take off and no one has told you that it’s all right.” The sentry was uncertain, so Agnew advised him to disable the weapons with his gun: “shoot at those things and don’t worry about it.”
Sounds like one hell of a security protocol. Again, I’m truly amazed anybody survived the Cold War. Let’s just hope we survive the New Cold War.