Michael KreponWhy No Mushroom Clouds?

Quote of the week:

 “In order to know what is going to happen, one must know what has happened.” — Nicolo Machiavelli

How have we managed to avoid mushroom clouds in warfare since 1945? Deterrence has to get credit, but not as much as deterrence strengtheners would have you believe. The possession of nuclear weapons is certainly among the reasons why nuclear-armed states haven’t fought major conventional wars and haven’t used nuclear weapons when they’ve fought limited wars. But deterrence fails, and given the historical record of deterrence failure, we can’t count on deterrence to extend the period of non-battlefield use. Deterrence alone doesn’t answer our central question.

What about diplomacy and arms control? For part of the Cold War, arms control was the primary channel of communication between the United States and the Soviet Union. Diplomacy and arms control ended nuclear testing in the atmosphere almost 40 years ago, controlled and reduced superpower arsenals, and established norms that limited the number of outliers from agreements governing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Diplomacy and arms control partnered with deterrence to help prevent mushroom clouds on battlefields. It was an awkward, uncomfortable partnership, to be sure, but the outcome was better than anyone had any right to expect in 1945, 1955, 1965, 1975, and 1985. And yet, diplomacy fails and treaties die.

While essential, deterrence, diplomacy and arms control are insufficient explanations for the absence of mushroom clouds in warfare since 1945. These factors don’t fully explain non-use during severe periods of tension. Heavy duty wonks know the story about a Soviet Foxtrot diesel submarine during the Cuban missile crisis that was being depth-charged to the surface to enforce President Kennedy’s quarantine of Cuba. No one suspected at that time that Foxtrots carried nuclear-armed torpedoes. No one knew at that time that the Captain, Second Captain, and Deputy Political Officer on board this particular submarine had made a private compact that, in extremis and if they were unable to reach authorized channels, they would make their own decision about using their aircraft carrier killing weapon. If all three voted in favor, they would do so. If the vote was not unanimous, they would hold their fire. They voted on October 27, 1962, the same day that a U-2 was shot down taking pictures over Cuba. Two of the three officers voted to fire their torpedo. The third, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, voted nyet.

Dedicated wonks also know about Stanislav Petrov, the commanding officer on the night shift on September 26, 1983, when he saw indications of what looked like the opening salvo of a U.S. surprise attack on his screen. Petrov was faced with the choice of notifying superiors during a period of heightened alert, superiors who would then notify key members of the Politburo, including General Secretary Yuri Andropov, who were convinced that the Reagan administration intended to fight and win a nuclear war. Petrov chose not to do so, assuming a technical malfunction. Petrov did not go by the book. He chose not to assume the worst.

What explains the actions of Arkhipov, Petrov and others like them when dealing with false alarms and excruciating, time-constrained decisions? Deterrence theory, diplomacy, and arms control don’t explain why these instances didn’t result in mushroom clouds. A sense of human connectedness does. Some close calls have been averted by human beings who have demonstrated allegiance to a common sense of humanity when staring into the Gates of Hell. So, let’s add human connectedness to our list of possible reasons for the absence of mushroom clouds in periods of intense tension.

And yet human connectedness, like deterrence, diplomacy and arms control, still do not explain why accidents and screw-ups haven’t resulted in mushroom clouds, especially early on when safety and security measures were rudimentary. 

Serious wonks know about the Goldsboro accident on January 24, 1961 when a B-52 bomber carrying two hydrogen weapons, each with a yield of almost four megatons, suffered a catastrophic failure in midair near Goldsboro, North Carolina. One of the bomb’s parachutes deployed, resulting in minimal damage to the weapon. The second bomb’s parachute malfunctioned, and the weapon broke apart upon impact. Five of its six safety devices failed. Had the sixth failed, the area between Raleigh and the Outer Banks would not be most known for basketball and natural beauty. 

My fellow wonks know about the Damascus incident. On September 18, 1980, a workman used the wrong tool and a nine-pound socket separated from its ratchet and clanged 80 feet down a Titan II missile silo, puncturing its first stage fuel tank. This liquid-fueled missile carried a nine-megaton warhead – the rough equivalent of 600 Hiroshima detonations. The resulting explosion sent the 740-ton silo cover 200 feet in the air and 600 feet to the northeast. The warhead was found 100 feet from the entry gate. Somehow, its safety features worked.

There were many, many serious accidents involving nuclear weapons. Not one of these accidents, malfunctions, and screw-ups resulted in a mushroom cloud. How can we explain this? Does every roll of the dice come up seven? Are we that lucky? If deterrence, diplomacy, arms control, a sense of human connectedness and plain dumb luck fail to explain the absence of mushroom clouds in warfare, during intense crises, extended periods of tension, and most of the time when we’re not paying much attention, what explanation is left?

During this holiday season, regardless of which deity you pray to, or whether you don’t pray at all, kindly give this a thought.


  1. Ed Yandek (History)

    Very thought provoking article. I was aware of some of these near catastrophes, but not all of them. One hopes each one led to some lessons learned. Both the US and USSR had a similar professional class educated military officers corps, and this was another safeguard as implied. Periodically the US would worry when the airmen in the missile silos did not automatically turn their keys in a drill. But this has proven to be a good thing as stated in the article. We never want an automatic nuclear war. Sufficient residual in the triad system ensures no sane county would ever think it could launch a pre-emptive strike against the US without enuring its own destruction in the process. I worry less about Russia in that regard, and even China, than I do the other new or potentially new nuke countries such as Pakistan and India, North Korea or any Islamist fundamentalist state such as Iran or Turkey. Fundamental religious beliefs forged in the 7th century of ignorance and modern day WMDs are the worst possible mix, especially if a military class really believe in the more twisted elements of Islamist Jihad and that 7th century version of the after life.

    Happy Holidays!

    • E. Rhym (History)

      I agree – quality engineering and a professional military cadre who take the war-fighting aspect of their mission gravely seriousness (including the potential employment of nuclear weapons) have worked in combination as intended to instill extreme caution when contemplating the consequences of armed conflict–particularly if it elevates the risk of nuclear conflict.

      Former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Amb Robert Joseph,who spear-headed the Proliferation Security Initiative during the G.W. Bush Administration designed to foster international cooperation to interdict the trafficking in WMD, particularly nuclear weapons, has long declared his greatest fear would be that non-state actors (e.g., Islamic fundamentalist terrorists), unrestrained by international norms or common sense (let alone a legitimate morality), might acquire nuclear weapons and the capability to deliver them to target.

      Let us pray such actors never obtain the means to threaten, let alone employ, such weapons of mass destruction.

      Merry Christmas

  2. Patricia Lewis (History)

    Thanks MK
    A must read:
    The unbearable lightness of luck: Three sources of overconfidence in the manageability of nuclear crises
    Benoît Pelopidas


    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Thank you, Patricia.
      Here’s to you and yours—

  3. John Chick (History)

    Good piece, Michael, as usual. With regard to your point that “deterrence fails”, Margaret Thatcher is reported to have noted that every French village has a monument to conventional deterrence – and thus the difference. Conventional deterrence fails. Nuclear deterrence has not. Luck has surely been with mankind in terms of accidental detonations, but I would argue that nuclear deterrence and the norm of non-use/taboo are the major factors in nuclear use during conflict since 1945. Merry Christmas.

  4. Jonah Speaks (History)

    On the issue of no accidental detonations, hats off to good engineering (so far) in all nuclear armed nations. Unauthorized detonations could be more problematic, but so far none of those either.

    The issue of nuclear war is still quite problematic, as it could involve thousands of deliberate nuclear detonations and lead to global catastrophe. In a published article, I have estimated the odds of nuclear war during the Cold War at around 50%. No amount of conventional war “deterrence” can justify this level of risk of global catastrophe.

    Fortunately, we are no longer in a cold war, so the odds of a nuclear war this holiday season are rather low.

  5. gururajpamidi (History)

    An excellent article which adds the much needed element of human connectedness. Undoubtedly, luck too has played its role and as global citizens , we all are ” blessed” to be alive despite having the potential to blow it all up, many times over.
    A professional military too has played it’s undeniably important part. However as already aptly brought out, a plethora of religiously minded groups increasingly coming to power in countries with access of nuclear weapons and fissile material is a scary proposition.
    In this festive season, let us all pray that sanity prevails and true spirituality continues to triumph.
    Merry Christmas and a Happy New year.

  6. Debra K Decker (History)

    Another brilliant piece. Thank you, Michael – and Happy Holidays. I’ll keep praying.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Thank you Debra
      Looking forward to your daughters next movie!

  7. Mark Gubrud (History)

    The saving grace is what you call “human connectedness,” or let’s just say love – of life, one’s own & others, and all things. If you are a human being, it is never a good day for the world to end.

    This is what has motivated every person who knew the weight of their own decisions to look for a way out of the crisis, to err on the side of hope, to veto or delay the next step in the chain of events.

    Also, for the Goldsboro and Damascus accidents, the diligence of engineers who, after all, really were not as reckless as all that. “Five of its six safety devices failed” is a loaded telling, and it’s not clear that in Damascus there was any way the warhead could have been detonated by the fuel explosion.

    But arms races push people to cut corners, compromise safety and accept risks. If the saving grace has been the human intelligence tied to the will to live, the brain tied existentially to the heart, then taking that human whole out of the many stations it has until now occupied in the loop of military and nuclear response has to be the most reckless and dangerous thing anyone has ever proposed.