U.S.

At the height of the Cold War, the US almost nuked ... itself

A newly declassified document shows how close the US came to an inadvertent nuclear detonation in 1961

North Carolina narrowly escaped being ground zero for an accidental nuclear blast in 1961.
AFP/GettyImages

The U.S. Air Force came perilously close to leveling a large part of North Carolina in a 1961 nuclear mishap, with a single toggle switch stopping an accidentally dropped bomb from detonating, newly declassified documents show.

A document published for the first time by the Guardian newspaper Friday details how narrowly the state escaped becoming ground zero for the inadvertent explosion after an H-bomb fell from the midair wreckage of a disintegrating bomber.

The accident happened on Jan. 25, 1961 -- mere days after the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, who as president had his own more publicized brush with the reality of nuclear detonation a year later during the flashpoint with the Soviet Union that was the Cuban Missile Crisis.  

The document, which was previously obtained by the investigative journalist Eric Schlosser in a Freedom of Information Act request for his new book "Command and Control," shows an internal report describing the midflight disintegration of a B-52 bomber carrying two 4-megaton Mark 39 nuclear bombs, over 200 times more powerful than the weapon the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.  

While one of the nukes safely deactivated according to safety protocols, the other, according to the document, was unsuccessful in its fail-safe on the way to plummeting to the earth in rural North Carolina.

The only thing standing between the accident and a nuclear detonation: a single toggle switch.

"The unalterable conclusion is that the only effective safing (sic) device during airborne alert was the ready-safe switch," the report said.

The newly public document was authored on Oct. 22, 1969, by Parker F. Jones, nearly nine years after the accident, in an attempt to underscore the lack of seriousness the government had previously paid to it.

Jones supervised the safety department of nuclear weapons at the Sandia National Laboratories. He wrote long after the event to review the initial account of the accident by a U.S. physicist who had been involved with the Manhattan Project, the top-secret government-funded program that led to the world's first nuclear weapon.

In a case of life imitating art, Jones named his report “Goldsboro Revisited: Or, How I Learned to Mistrust the H-Bomb: Or, To Set the Record Straight,” a play on the subtitle of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove,” a satire on U.S. nuclear policies during the Cold War.

The incident in question is extensively covered in Schlosser's new book, which is an in-depth look into the history of the U.S. nuclear program.

According to the book, the North Carolina accident was just one of hundreds he documented, including another dangerously close incident that took place in Damascus, Ark., in 1980.

"One document I got through a Freedom of Information Act request listed more than 1,000 weapons involved in accidents, some of them trivial and some of them not trivial," he said in a recent interview with the political magazine Mother Jones.

In the book, Schlosser notes that “the United States has narrowly avoided a long series of nuclear disasters.”

Despite the close calls, however, he calls it a "remarkable achievement" that "of the roughly 70,000 nuclear weapons built by the U.S. since 1945," none have detonated inadvertently.

While significantly lower than at the height of the Cold War, a stockpile of over 2,000 operational nuclear warheads is still maintained by the U.S., according to the Federation of American Scientists, a group that works to prevent nuclear war.

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