5 Strange Nuclear Tales From the Cold War

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The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently moved the hands of the famous Doomsday Clock to two and a half minutes to midnight. And while the clock is a symbol rather than a true quantitative measurement, we’ve only been closer to theoretical destruction once, after the U.S. tested the first hydrogen bomb in 1952. Today, the U.S., Russia and six other nations have a combined total of more than 10,000 nuclear bombs in their arsenals. Can we survive this threat? We’ve done it before, during the Cold War, when nuclear tests, “duck-and-cover” drills and fall-out shelters were on everyone’s mind. As the Cold War continues to fade in history’s rear-view mirror, some of those old tales involving nuclear weapons and the superpower standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union deserve revisiting.


5. U.S. Tested Nuclear Weapons in Space

The Starfish Prime nuclear test in space, as seen from Honolulu, more than 800 miles distant.

The Partial Test Ban Treaty’s implementation in 1963 banned, among other things, nuclear weapons testing in space. Prior to ratification, the U.S. conducted a brief program beginning in 1958 that detonated several nuclear weapons in space. This culminated on July 9, 1962, with Operation: Starfish Prime, the detonation of a 1.4-megaton thermonuclear warhead 250 miles over the South Pacific. The largest detonation of a nuclear weapon in space to date, Starfish Prime was visible in the night sky as far away as Honolulu, more than 800 miles distant and must have been eerie to watch. Starfish Prime even sent seven satellites astray, including the United States’ Telstar and the UK’s first satellite, Ariel 1. The Soviets conducted their own nuclear tests on the edge of space, just before the treaty went into effect. Although that Starfish Prime test drew international condemnation, the Honolulu Advertiser’s headline billed it as “N-Blast Tonight May Be Dazzling; Good View Likely.”


4. Military Considered Using Tactical Nukes in Vietnam

The Vietnam War was terrible enough, but it could have been worse, as one U.S. military leader discussed using nuclear weapons.

The 1968 North Vietnamese offensive during the Tet holiday saw Vietcong forces strike targets across the country, including a suicide attack on the U.S. embassy in Saigon. One of the fiercest battles during the Tet Offensive: the six-month-long siege on the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sahn. A document declassified in 2005 revealed that the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, actually considered using low-yield nukes to break the siege around Khe Sahn, and the Joint Chiefs mulled over the prospect of ordering U.S. Pacific forces to prepare for a nuclear strike along the DMZ.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara narrowly averted the presidential authorization for such a strike, telling President Lyndon Johnson that such an attack would be largely ineffective along the hilly terrain surrounding Khe Sahn. Although the Vietcong lifted the siege in March and the Marines held the base, the U.S. withdrew from Khe Sahn just over three months later.


3. Did a Nuclear Test Launch an Iron Plate into Space?

A 1951 nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site. An urban legend claims a 1957 underground test there launched a “manhole cover” into space.

History tells us that the first manmade object in space was Sputnik 1, launched on Oct. 4, 1957. But what if the U.S sent an object into space weeks earlier, during a nuclear test? That year, the U.S. conducted the controversial Operation Plumbbob series of tests in Nevada. During the Pascal-B underground test on Aug. 27, scientists capped the 500-foot-deep bomb shaft with a one-ton iron cap, one of several methods tested to find the best way to contain the underground blasts. There had been some debate before the test about what would happen to the plate, so scientists trained a high-speed camera on the spot. Unfortunately, the 0.3-kiloton blast hurled the cap away at such tremendous speed it appeared in only one frame. Before the test, one of the scientists, Dr. Robert Brownlee, estimated the explosion would propel the cap away from the site at about 41 miles per second/150,000 mph; that’s six times the velocity needed to achieve Earth orbit.

Although an early urban legend of sorts sprouted that the test had launched the cap into space, Brownlee later calculated that it probably burned up in Earth’s atmosphere. As Brownlee himself noted in an essay in 2002, “As usual, the facts never can catch up with the legend, so I am occasionally credited with launching a ‘man-hole cover’ into space, and I am also vilified for being so stupid as not to understand masses and aerodynamics, etc., etc., and border on being a criminal for making such a claim.” Yet the steel cap was never found, and its true fate will probably always be a mystery, unless of course, some distant space mission finds it in orbit around the Sun.


2. The Vela Incident Remains a Mystery

An artist’s depiction of the Vela Hotel satellite that detected a mysterious “double flash” over the Southern Atlantic in 1979.

On Sept. 22, 1979, a U.S. Vela Hotel satellite detected a “double flash” in the South Atlantic, where it meets the Indian Ocean. The distinctive double flash suggested a nuclear test, which would have been in violation of international treaty. Yet the U.S. Air Force flew more than two-dozen missions over the area afterward and found no traces of radiation. Through the years several other theories arose to explain the incident, including a bright meteor, equipment error, and a cosmic ray hit on the detectors. Designed to detect gamma and X-rays generated by a nuclear explosion, the satellite’s detectors, although usually reliable, were susceptible to reporting an atmospheric phenomenon known as a lightning super-bolt as false positives.

The mysterious incident is still being debated today. In fact, in December 2016, the National Security Archive issued a comprehensive report. Featuring newly declassified documents, the report generally concludes what many suspected almost 40 years ago: the incident involved the clandestine test of an Israeli nuclear weapon, conducted with the aid and naval support of South Africa. It has been theorized that the Carter administration downplayed the incident and evidence of a nuclear test to avoid upsetting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.


1. Scientist Proposed Detonating Nukes to ‘Shield’ U.S.

Have other technologically advanced civilizations annihilated themselves?

A top-secret U.S. program studying the use of nuclear bombs as a shield against Soviet missiles thankfully ended after only three tests.

The first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, made an astonishing discovery in 1958, identifying two powerful radiation belts around the Earth. Dubbed the Van Allen belts after discoverer James Van Allen, the finding caused a stir; Van Allen himself appeared on the cover of Time magazine twice. The discovery also gave the U.S. military a strange idea. The concept: Detonate nuclear weapons in space, thereby creating a “radiation shield” that would disrupt incoming Soviet missiles. A scientist who had first theorized this might work, Nicholas Christofilos, had been virtually ignored at the time. But after the discovery of the Van Allen belts, he was invited to join a top-secret military program, Operation Argus, to test his theory. And on the very day Allen himself announced his famous discovery, he also joined the project.

Project Argus exploded three nuclear bombs in space in 1958 to test Christofilos’ theory. It’s probably a good thing today the blasts didn’t achieve the intended result; they generated a temporary, weak energy field that probably wouldn’t do much to deter incoming missiles. Christofilos actually proposed that thousands of nukes launched into space would do the trick. Some proponents even advocated for the replenishment of such a “nuke shield” over the U.S. on a daily basis. This reflected the sort of “sledgehammer vs. fly” approach U.S. strategy had when it came to nuclear war in the early 1950s and 1960s. U.S. Air Force interceptors, for example, were equipped with nuclear-tipped AIM-4 Genie air-to-air missiles, meant to be fired into fleets of incoming Soviet bombers. The New York Times eventually broke the story of Operation Argus in 1959, ending the lunacy of a nuclear “space shield.”


One More: Miss Atomic Bomb and 1950s Nuclear Culture

Lee A. Merlen, Miss Atomic Bomb 1957 in Las Vegas. © Las Vegas Sun/Fair use

Perhaps the strangest tales of the Cold War were hidden in plain sight. Even as a Sword of Damocles hovered over the duck-and-cover generation of the 1950s, there was a sort of parallel black humor fascination with all things nuclear and atomic. Comic books and movies of the day featured atomic-powered heroes and villains. Songs such as The Louvin Brothers’ The Great Atomic Power and Soul Stirrers’ Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb climbed the charts. Las Vegas even hosted the Miss Atomic Bomb Pageant, complete with contestants decorated with swimsuits adorned with mushroom clouds. Though strange to imagine today, the culture of the time has a certain fatalism about it, in an era when the future seemed bleak.


Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.