Jeffrey LewisGreetings from Los Alamos

Update: Oh yeah, if any readers in the Los Alamos area would like to grab a cocktail on Friday evening, e-mail me!

Speaking of fancy conferences, I am attending one of the CSIS Project on Nuclear Issues conferences.

Harold Agnew was our keynote speaker. He told us the shoot the bomb story about his inspection of NATO Quick Reaction Alert aircraft in Europe:

The exact details are hazy, but the broad contours are clear: the inspection team found the control of the forward-based nuclear weapons inadequate and possibly illegal. In Germany and Turkey they viewed scenes that were particularly distressing. On the runway stood a German (or Turkish) quick-reaction alert airplane (QRA) loaded with nuclear weapons and with a foreign pilot in the cockpit. The QRA airplane was ready to take off at the earliest warning, and the nuclear weapons were fully operational. The only evidence of U.S. control was a lonely 18-year-old sentry armed with a carbine and standing on the tarmac. When the sentry at the German airfield was asked how he intended to maintain control of the nuclear weapons should the pilot suddenly decide to scramble (either through personal caprice or through an order from the German command circumventing U.S. command), the sentry replied that he would shoot the pilot; Agnew directed him to shoot the bomb.

Made my day.


  1. DAN PLESCH (History)

    The Agnew story is fascinating support for the contention that these NATO arrangements were/are a violation of NPT article 2, since they prepare to transfer control of nuclear weapons to a foreign power. once airborne (or earlier!) the transfer is complete.

  2. Stephen Young (History)

    Noting that, unlike the movies, this would cause the bomb NOT to go off, rather than TO go off.

  3. Anon (History)

    NATO nuclear sharing arrangements—in so far as they were and are merely preparations and training, and not actual turning over of control—do not violate the NPT’s Article I or II.

    Indeed, during the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Negotiations (ENDC), Uncle Sam and like-minded delegations pushed for language that would allow for war-time nuclear sharing arrangements. If you look up the ‘68 Senate hearings on the NPT’s ratification, you’ll find (I recall) SECSTATE Dean Rusk’s view on the NPT and NATO nuclear sharing. Rusk says something along the lines that, in the event of central war with the Soviets in Western Europe, the NPT would be suspended and irrelevant anyway, so actual turning over or sharing of control nuclears would be okay. In time of peace, though, sharing control in any form was a legal no-no.

    Note, however, that Articles I and II were worded so as to forbid strictly the sort of nuclear sharing agreements that some in the Kennedy/Johnson administrations (esp. European “integrationists” in STATE who were carrying on Bob Bowie’s torch) were pushing, such as the nuclear Multilateral Force (MLF). For whatever reasons, Bowie, et al., thought that MLF would lead to a bona find United States of Europe. (I’m serious, look this up.)

    Anyways, this Article I & II/NATO nuclear sharing is interesting history, and makes for good reading.

  4. mark F (History)

    The casual arrangement described here does not make the tiniest bit of sense. This attitude towards such weapons scares the #$&# out of any ordinarily sensible person. It reminds me of Dr. Strangelove.

  5. Anon (History)

    It makes a difference, too, when this took place. When did it?

    If this happened in, say, the 1950s or even early 1960s, I wouldn’t have been surprised. But if it happened after that, say in the 1970s…

  6. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Oh, yes, the inspection was during the 1950s, I believe. Certainly no later than the 1960s.

    It is such a famous story that I thought everyone knew it. I was just amused to get it from the source.