History sat down next to me one day not long ago and told me how it almost started World War III.
History, in this case, is named Ron LeVene. We grew up together, hung out together, and got into occasional trouble together in the small town of Sullivan, deep in the heart of the corn and beans country, the flat land of central Illinois. We were the children of the Cold War, the kids who saw the “Duck and Cover” movies when they weren’t funny.
When we were four years old, the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated in New Mexico (on my birthday) and a month later, two more detonations destroyed cities and ended a war. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called “father of the Atomic Bomb,” recalled, “We knew the world would not be the same.” Oppenheimer said he thought of the Hindu Scripture from the Bhagavad-Gita, “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one…I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
When we were in the second grade, the Soviet Union set off its first A-bomb. In the fifth grade, the United States touched off the first hydrogen bomb. We were freshmen in high school when the Soviets exploded their first H-bomb.
We moved through our high school years with Hollywood giving our world post-atomic apocalypse films such as Godzilla, the story of a prehistoric beast awakened by atomic testing in the Pacific, and Them!, about giant ants created by atomic testing in the western desert, or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, a giant dinosaur frozen in arctic hibernation released and revived by an atomic bomb above the Arctic Circle, and The Fiend Without a Face, an invisible creature that fed on nuclear radiation and ate human brains and spinal cords to help it reproduce.
They’re laughable today for their dialogue and animations but they scared the Hell out of a generation living in the post-Hiroshima decade, especially kids.
The year Ron and I graduated from high school, the movie based on Nevil Shute’s novel, On the Beach, hit the screens with a still-haunting message from its last scene, “There is still time..brother.” The year we reached voting age, we watched tensely as Soviet ships moved toward Cuba in the face of warnings by President Kennedy that they would be attacked if they did not turn around. And as our generation was finishing college or serving as young soldiers while Vietnam became a life-sucking quagmire, we watched Fail Safe, about American planes mistakenly sent to bomb Moscow and the awful decision a President makes to atone for that mistake, and Doctor Strangelove, the classic satire that was all too serious.
We did not know that our friend Ron was becoming part of the real world of atomic warfare.
And one day he would be caught in circumstances that almost made film fiction become cataclysmic fact. Stay with us; you’ll see him tell his story in a little bit.
What few people realized during these years was that Presidents and the Pentagon were dealing with end-of-the-world-as-we-knew-it scenarios. Today, with inflammatory actions on the Korean Peninsula and instability in the White House, the military successors of Ron LeVene might be asking themselves what they might be called to do.
Eric Schlosser wrote in New Yorker magazine on the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Strangelove that President Eisenhower struggled with who should control our country’s nuclear weapons. Ultimate control rested with the President. But if there was an emergency and the President could not be contacted, he decided, the Air Force could use nuclear rockets fired from jet interceptors to down Russian bombers on their way to attack this country—and a few commanders could use bigger nukes for direct attacks if time and circumstance did not allow for specific Presidential clearance.
Eisenhower feared there might be a real General Jack D. Ripper (of Dr. Srangelove fame) who could go rogue, but he knew a worse alternative would be to fail to respond to a Soviet attack on this country or an all-out Soviet invasion of Europe. So he delegated authority to the Joint Chiefs of Staff to act under extreme circumstances when the President was not available to make the ultimate decision.
A stunned John F. Kennedy learned of the arrangement shortly after taking office. He and his advisors decided to put coded electric locking devices on NATO’s nuclear weapons. The weapons could not be fired without the proper code used only with permission of the White House. But here at home, the Navy and the Air Force refused to put those switches on the weapons they controlled. “The Joint Chiefs thought that strict military discipline was the best safeguard against an unauthorized nuclear strike,” wrote Schlosser. “A two-man rule was instituted to make it more difficult for someone to use a nuclear weapon without permission.” In those days, two people had to unlock the weapon. Each would have half of the code.
That was the situation on that day about forty years ago when Ron and his deputy, Lt. Bruce Olson, suddenly were faced with their greatest responsibility—and their greatest fear..
Ron retired from the Air Force a year or so later. He lives in Florida now but came back to Illinois a few days ago for an interim mini-class reunion and we had him record the story of a guy from a small Illinois town who faced being part of an event that would have ended life as we knew it then and know it today.
We are old men now. And we pray that the young men and women of today, wherever they are in the world, who have the power at their fingertips that Ron and his deputy had live to become old people telling stories, too.