John Kennedy delivered his inaugural address on Friday, 20 January 1961. For those who don’t remember those times, the Cold War was pretty darned cold right then. The Military Assistance Command in Vietnam would be established a bit over a year later, in February of 1962, while the Cuban Missile Crisis came around about six months after that, in October of that same year.
Against that backdrop: Two days after Kennedy asked not, just after midnight on 23 January 1961, a B-52 carrying two thermonuclear devices broke up over North Carolina. We now learn that one of the bombs came close to exploding.
This isn’t new information: Dr. Ralph Lapp told the story in his book, Kill and Overkill: The Strategy of Annihilation in 1962 (a used copy goes for about three bucks these days).
What is new is this: the story has been confirmed. Thanks to the automatic declassification schedule, what was Secret then is unclassified fifty years on. And due to a Freedom of Information Act request, someone has found other documents relating to this event. The Guardian has the original document: It’s commentary by Parker Jones, the gent who was responsible for the mechanical safety of US nuclear bombs. He nitpicks Lapp’s book. It wasn’t an “incident,” it was an “accident.” It wasn’t a 24 megaton device, it was a 2.4 megaton device (silly bugger slipped a decimal point!). And it wasn’t five out of six safety interlocks that failed, it was three out of four, and one of those four wouldn’t have functioned in the air anyway. Lapp claimed that the sequence of tripping the interlocks was important. Not true.
Not that a 2.4 megaton device is inconsequential. That’s a crater a third of a mile across and full-thickness burns out to nine miles.
My guess is that this is the classified document that Daniel Ellsberg claimed, back in 1981, that he had seen that confirmed Lapp’s claim.
So. Good thing they used four interlocks instead of just three. As Parker Jones says:
“Lapp’s report lacks objectivity and accuracy. His sources of information are patently erroneous, or he chooses to misuse them for his own benefit. But the central point is correctly stated. One simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe!”(Exclamation point in the original.)
If a short to the “arm” line occurred in a mid-air breakup, a postulate that seems credible, the Mk 39 Mod 2 bomb could have given a nuclear burst.
Now imagine that it’s just after midnight on 23 January 1961: John Kennedy gets a phone call: Someone just nuked Goldsboro. What’s Kennedy’s next sentence? “Count all our nukes to make sure it isn’t one of ours,” or “Launch!”?