Thinking About the Unthinkable.
There have only been a few occasions during my lifetime when I have thought seriously about what a nuclear attack would be like. The first was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 when thoughtful, intelligent, serious people—Russian as well as American—brought us back from the brink.
About a year after that, right here in Hawaii, the military conducted an experiment that involved detonating a nuclear bomb above the earth’s atmosphere. They fired a rocket—I think it was from Barking Sands on Kauai—and set the damn thing off some 120 miles up. It was late at night, but it lit up the sky, bright enough so you could read a newspaper from the light. It lasted for four or five seconds, then gradually faded.
Later, in the mid-1970s, the Mayor of Honolulu and five department heads were invited to Pearl Harbor for a briefing about the Navy’s state of readiness. Our host was CINCPAC—that’s Navy talk for Commander-in-Chief Pacific—Admiral Maurice Weisner.
The most interesting part of the briefing was being shown a giant TV screen on which was projected a satellite image of the entire Pacific Ocean. It was covered with dozens of bright dots—each one a ship traveling in the Pacific. For each dot, the Navy knew the name of the vessel, where it was going and how fast it was moving. And no doubt a great deal more than that.
At one point, the officer conducting the briefing tapped his pointer on a dot some 200 miles northeast of us. That particular dot, he explained, was a Russian submarine loaded with a dozen or so missiles, each tipped with a nuclear war head. In the event of war, the sub’s mission was to fire one of its missiles at the very building in which we were sitting at the time.
There was an uncomfortable silence for several seconds, until one of the city’s department heads asked what they should do once word came that an attack was imminent. Where the people in charge of the critical departments—police, fire, civil defense, and so on—where they should go . . . a safe place from which to direct their personnel.
The naval officer hesitated, looking quite uncomfortable. He glanced at Admiral Weisner, who nodded and said, “Tell him, Commander.”
“Well, sir, “ he said apologetically, “You have to realize, this is a very small island.”