PPM Picks is a weekly feature offering film, book, or music recommendations from our staff. The links provided in the article go to product listings on Amazon. Purchases made using these links support the Presidential Pet Museum. That said, we were not paid to review or promote any of the items mentioned. We just legitimately like them.
by Andrew Hager, Historian-in-residence
Happy New Year! 2018 has arrived, bringing record-low temperatures to most of the East Coast. One report I read this morning claims it will be colder in Florida than in Alaska on Friday. That’s the kind of news that makes a person brew hot cocoa, wrap themselves in an electric blanket, and watch a movie. Something that will warm the heart, frigid temperatures be damned.
And so, here you are, waiting for me to give you that happy little recommendation to get you through the Arctic blast. Surely, you think, this man has a deep familiarity with joyful things–he’s a historian!
It won’t make you warm and toasty, but Command and Control will take your mind off of the weather. This documentary, which aired originally on PBS as part of American Experience, details the terrifying sequence of events that led to a nuclear-equipped Titan II missile exploding in Damascus, Arkansas, in September of 1980. You know going in that the warhead did not detonate–the people involved are talking heads and (more obviously) Arkansas still exists as something other than a radioactive hellscape. Still, the film builds tension to hair-raising levels as you ponder just how thin the margin between an average day and nuclear annihilation can be..
Many of the workers maintaining the missile silo in question were teenagers in 1980. The men responsible for trying to prevent the emergency from spreading were in their early 20s. The disaster started with a single dropped tool, which fell 70 feet and punctured a fuel tank. These are not reassuring facts.
The United States has thousands of nuclear weapons–in underground silos, on submarines, in aircraft. Each of these weapons, if detonated, could kill everyone for thousands of square miles. Most of us go through life presuming that our greatest threat is an enemy nation. Command and Control makes the argument that we are at greater risk from our own stockpile than from foreign enemies. Had the Damascus warhead exploded, the same areas currently bracing for the cold would be in the midst of a nuclear winter.
“These bombs are machines,” one expert tells us, “and all machines break down eventually.”
For more details–and a look at other nuclear near-misses–check out Eric Schlosser’s book of the same name.