Mushroom cloud from nuclear detonation at Los Alamos

Mushroom cloud of “Gadget” over Trinity, seconds after detonation.
Los Alamos, New Mexico. 


The Altered Air 1939-1949 Book 1
The Altered Air 1949-1959 Book 2
The Altered Air 1959-1969 book 3
The Altered Air 1969-1979 Book 4
The Altered Air 1979-1989 Book 5
The Altered Air Roads Not Taken Book 6

Click each book cover to see a list of the events and developments addressed in the lived history for that decade.

On July 16, 1945, working in deepest secrecy, American and British scientists detonated in New Mexico a “nuclear device” that produced at its core a temperature that was hotter for an instant than at the core of the sun. I was 4 1/2 years old and living with my mother in Tucson, Arizona, three hundred fifty miles to the west, just beyond where the light that was much brighter than the sun’s light might have been seen. My father, in command of a U.S. Navy amphibious group, was in Okinawa preparing for the invasion of Japan.

For the next four decades, I watched and wondered as the Soviet Union and the United States raced to develop more powerful nuclear devices and more effective means of delivering them. Trying also, and failing, to find some means of defending against the weapons. Their efforts did make it possible to bring life on earth to an end. In only a day or two.

In 1989, the Cold War ended. I realized then how ignorant I was about nuclear weapons and what had gone on in the Cold War. I began to make it my business to learn what I could not have during the Cold War about the tremendous, dramatic developments of those years, developments we were taught it was dangerous even to ask about.

The Altered Air is a memoir of the life I lived during the five decades of the Cold War woven together with the dramatic story of what was actually happening in those years, had I known. The reader learns along with me.

In the sixth and final book in the series, I look at the aftermath of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War and consider three Roads Not Taken early. At the end World War II, Albert Einstein said “the unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” At the end of this last book, I propose a new mode of thinking about these matters.

Readers of this series will learn, as I have, what they need to know about the technology of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, about the plans that were made to use them, and about the likely effects of their use to join confidently in the continuing work of trying to find our way into a world no longer threatened by them.

The Altered Air Book 1

The Altered Air: Living the Nuclear Arms Race

Book One: 1939–1949

Nuclear fission discovered. Author born. World War II begins. Plutonium discovered. Manhattan Project begins. First A-bomb test: Trinity. Hiroshima, Nagasaki. Author’s father returns from Pacific. Scientists try to speak. Efforts at International Control of atomic energy. Creation of US Air Force, Strategic Air Command. CIA and AEC. Author starts school. Cold War said to begin. First atomic tests by US in Pacific. Developments in bomb design. NATO created. Soviet Union tests its first bomb at the beginning of third grade. At end of 1949, 235 nuclear bombs in US stockpile, 1 in USSR’s.

The Altered Air Book 2

The Altered Air: Living the Nuclear Arms Race

Book Two: 1949–1959

Discovery of atomic spies begins with Klaus Fuchs. People’s Republic of China proclaimed. Military makes plans for pre-emptive strike on Soviet Union. Nevada Test Site established. Decision to go on the H-bomb. Rocket research and development takes off. Red Scare begins. Growing awareness–among scientists–of dangers of ionizing radiation. Secret blueprint for US foreign policy in Cold War (NSC-68) adopted. War in Korea begins with invasion of the South by North Korea. Civil Defense Administration created. Duck and Cover and Bert the Turtle make the rounds in schools. President Truman declares a national emergency (which will remain in place for next 27 years). First jet fighters. First jet bombers: B-47 and B-52. In-air refueling now standard. First British A-bomb test. US tests hydrogen bomb. Eisenhower elected. Covert action by CIA takes off. Soviet Union tests hydrogen bomb. Author completes elementary school, enters Junior High. Early warning radar lines developed. Author enters high school. Civil rights actions begin. Missile development: Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles. Ike’s Atoms for Peace speech. First successful launch of a satellite and an ICBM, by USSR. U2 and satellite photo surveillance developed (Corona). First successful test firing of Atlas ICBM. First successful launch of Polaris Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile. Khrushchev era begins. First commercial nuclear power plant in US generates electricity. Author goes to Buenos Aires, Argentina on an American Field Service exchange. NASA created. Airborne alert flights begin. Revolution in Cuba. Mercury astronauts selected. Author a senior in high school. In Spring 1959 warheads = 15468 [Britain tests H-bomb]

The Altered Air Book 3

The Altered Air: Living the Nuclear Arms Race

Book Three: 1959–1969

Eisenhower declares testing moratorium, proposes atmospheric test ban. USSR follows moratorium. Russia creates Strategic Rocket Forces. Ballistic Missile Early Warning system begins to be set up. Author leaves for Amherst College. First US ICBM (Atlas) becomes operational, Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (Thor, Jupiter) deployed. Vela program to detect nuclear explosions begins. U2 shot down by SU. First return of electronic intelligence from a satellite.  First successful launch of Polaris SLBM from submarine. Soviet SLBMs deployed. Apollo program announced. First SIOP developed. JFK elected. SIOP strategy changed. All time high in explosive yield achieved, 20,491 Mt. Ike’s farewell speech. Begin airborne alert (Looking Glass). Strategic target list developed. First human in space, by SU. Bay of Pigs. Freedom riders. B-52 crashes. Khrushchev renews testing, conducting what will be the largest test ever. Berlin wall built. Weapons development continues, B-61 Titan I deployed. Fallout shelters pushed hard. A number of shelters for leaders being developed. Cuban missile crisis. Continuing development of technologies for going to the moon. Satellite technology continues to develop. US resumes testing. Last atmospheric test at NTS, underground testing continues at rapid pace. Titan II (largest yield US ICBM, 9 Mt) deployed. Atmospheric Test ban treaty. Author graduates from Amherst, goes to Oxford University. JFK assassinated, LBJ becomes president. Radio guidance replaced by inertial. Number of ICBMs on alert exceeds number of bombers. Dr. Strangelove. Khrushchev deposed in SU. China gets the nuclear bomb. Bombing in Vietnam begins and troop buildup. NORAD construction completed. Minuteman 1 deployed. Author enters law school at NYU. Civil rights and Vietnam protests. Urban riots. Interplanetary exploration begins. Tet offensive in Vietnam. Robert Kennedy assassinated. Martin Luther King assassinated. Polaris reaches launcher/missile maximum, 656. Author gets degree from Oxford, returns to attend NYU School of Law. Non-proliferation treaty signed. Sakharov detained in SU. Testing of MIRVs begins. France gets H-bomb. LBJ declines to run. “Police riot” at Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Nixon elected. US troops in Vietnam reach maximum. US reaches peak of ICBMs, 1054. Deadliest year of Vietnam War for Americans. Author takes up clerkship in San Francisco. Continuous patrols by Soviet submarines begin. Author decides to leave law. We land on the moon.

The Altered Air Book 4

The Altered Air: Living the Nuclear Arms Race

Book Four: 1969–1979

Author goes to Laramie, Wyoming. Use of atomic weapons in Vietnam considered by Nixon. Author joins English Department at the University of Wyoming. Vietnam protests. My Lai massacre exposed. Nixon ends development of offensive biological weapons. SU surpasses US in number of ICBM launchers in 1970 (not in number of warheads until 1977). Cambodian incursion begins. Kent State shootings. Development of SIGINT satellites. Poseidon SLBM developed. Mutual Assured Destruction seen to require Launch on Warning. W88 WH developed. Minuteman III deployed. Pentagon Papers published. First Accidents Agreement this year between US and USSR. First space-based early warning satellites. Easter Offensive by NVN in Vietnam. Development of MX begins. ABM treaty 1972. Nixon defeats McGovern. Paris Peace Accords signed. Watergate burglars convicted. First Wyoming Conference. W66 neutron bomb begins production. Treaty limited yield of underground tests, 1974. Nixon resigns, is pardoned by Ford. ERCS tested. AEC abolished, becomes NRC and later also Department of Energy. CIA classified report on climate change potential. North Vietnam invades south, takes only 55 days to reach Saigon. Safeguard Anti-Ballistic Missile site activated in South Dakota, soon de-activated. Tomahawk cruise missile tested. Parity in nuclear weapons between US and SU achieved. Church Committee report on intelligence abuses. First GPS satellite launched. Su deploys MIRVed SS-20 IRBM in eastern Europe. USAF considers mobile ICBM. Enhanced Nuclear Detonation Safety developed. Protests at Rocky Flats pit production plant in Colorado. Stealth R&D. Office of Technology Assessment publishes The Effects of Nuclear War after request from Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Revolution in Iran.

The Altered Air Book 5

The Altered Air: Living the Nuclear Arms Race

Book Five: 1979–1989

Vietnam and China have a war. Three Mile Island accident. SALT II signed by Carter and Brezhnev. Idea of fighting and winning limited nuclear war entertained. Iran hostage crisis. Author marries. NATO decides to deploy 572 new nuclear missiles in Europe, Pershing II and cruise. Soviets invade Afghanistan. Second false alarm at NORAD. Cruise missiles deployed. Titan II accident in Arkansas 1980. Last atmospheric test by any country (China) 1980. SU’s greatly improved anti-aircraft system deployed. Nuclear Freeze movement begins. Reagan defeats Carter. RR ignores climate warnings. Begins provocations against Russia. USSR goes on global nuclear alert. Begin secret war in Nicaragua. Launches of Space Shuttle begin. Zapad-81 is largest Soviet military exercise ever. F-16s deployed 1981. China’s first ICBM achieves IOC. US deploys Ohio class submarines (Tridents). Reagan says, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought.” Proposes SALT III, becomes START. Deactivation of Titan II begins. MX developed. Computers developed. Strategic Defense Initiative committed to by RR, 1983. GPS satellite system completed. The Day After viewed by Reagan 1983 October. Operation Able Archer 1983 November. Gorbachev becomes General Secretary 1985. Topol deployed, first successful Soviet mobile ICBM. Congress authorizes 50, not 100, MX missiles until basing problem can be solved. Gorbachev and Reagan meet in Geneva, then Reykjavik. Soviets now operating good imagery satellites. Challenger space shuttle disaster. Iran-Contra. Tenfold increase in accuracy of missiles from Minuteman I to III. Mattias Rust flies light plane into Red Square. Rail basing of MX proposed by RR but discarded. Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty signed, 1987. Midgetman designed. Senior military officers of US and SU meet for first time. George HW Bush elected. First MIRVed Trident II D5s deployed. Negotiations on conventional forces begin. Fall of Berlin Wall November 1989. Bush and Gorbachev summit in Malta in December 1989. End of Cold War declared. # US tests greater than tests by all other countries combined.

The Altered Air Book 6

The Altered Air: Living the Nuclear Arms Race

Book Six: Roads Not Taken

1992 Where are we now?

Huge back-end costs of arms race (from contamination) becoming recognized. Looking Glass airborne command center lands. Conventional Forces Treaty signed. Last nuclear test by Soviets. Soviet Union has dissolved. Strategic Defense Initiative has produced nothing much. Germany reunified. Strategic Air Command stood down, replaced by Strategic Command. START I signed by Gorbachev and Bush, START II being negotiated by Bush and Yeltsin. Missiles de-MIRVed on both sides.  Cooperative Threat Reduction program in operation. Last weapon assembled at Pantex Plant. Earth Summit in Brazil. US does last underground test. George HW Bush loses presidential election to Clinton.

2016 And now where are we?

Obama elected in 2008, makes commitment the next year in Prague to “a world without nuclear weapons.” Four Horseman declare commitment to a “nuclear-free world.” New START treaty signed 2011. Four international Nuclear Security Summits have been led by Obama to try to control nuclear materials and support non-proliferation. Russia deploys new nuclear submarine. Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty being negotiated. First “war plan” against Russia since end of Cold War developed by US. US 450 ICBM+ 14 Trident subs (number of WH classified, over 1000). Also Air Launched Cruise Missiles for bombers and Tomahawks on ships. Russia similar but behind in submarines. Other nuclear weapons states now: Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea. Donald Trump has been elected president.

Three Roads Not Taken, 1945-1953

  • Niels Bohr’s proposals from quantum principle of complementarity
  • Acheson-Lilienthal (Baruch) Plan
  • Robert Oppenheimer and Operation Candor

Revisiting complementarity: a new way of thinking?