Fist Of History

Posts Tagged ‘1950s’

Operation Plowshare and Operation Gnome – Atoms for Peace!

Monday, March 30th, 2015


So it is the 1950s and for the United States the Cold War has been humming along fairly nicely, both the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics are building an expanding collection of nuclear weapons, the first hydrogen bomb tests went well, but for the U.S. your government is running into a problem, the citizens are simply not accepting the awesome potential of atomic energy, and specifically atomic weapons, to remake the world into a better, more amazing place.  Instead they keep gripping about the possibility of utter devastation due to a potential nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.  So it was decided to put on a series of demonstrations of the fantastic peaceful applications for atomic weapons, mainly in the field of “massive construction projects involving making huge holes suddenly appear in the ground.”  Hence the creation of Operation Plowshare, a major U.S. initiative to develop a series of projects to improve America through the use of controlled peaceful nuclear explosions.


An example of an Operation Plowshare sub-project is the idea above, Project Chariot, a plan to use five carefully timed atomic blasts to create a brand new harbor in Alaska for use in trade and settlement.  Concerns about radioactive contamination and environmental damage did not deter this program, what did derail the plan was first concerns that setting of five nuclear weapons in close proximity to each other might be harmful to the local Alaskan native populations living nearby.  More critically though was the problem of cost, building this shiny new harbor would be expensive and the region in Alaska did not really need a new nuclear created harbor.  Most of the ideas considered were not actually tried, such as using atomic weapons to dig channels between underground aquifers in Arizona, or leveling off mountain tops in California for road construction, or my personal favorite, using multiple nuclear weapons to dig a huge trench for a new highway project.


However Project Gnome was implemented, a nuclear blast in New Mexico in 1961 aimed at the idea of detonating the weapon inside a huge salt dome.  The plan was the melted salt would retain a great deal of heat from the blast, allowing water to be bumped into the cavity, heated, and steam produced.  This in turn could be used to produce electrical energy from a constructed power plant on-site.  Ideally the system would provide a steady and regular source of extremely low-cost energy and the success could be duplicated in other eligible areas of the country.

The actual plan did not work out as well as hoped, when the weapon was detonated it failed to seal the shaft that had been dug down to get the weapon in position and cracks in the surface from the blast, along with the open shaft, vented radioactive steam into the atmosphere.  This turned off the U.S. population to the idea, although a year later a team sent down to check on the results of the blast confirmed the salt was still hot enough for use in steam production.  The idea though was abandoned, as was Operation Plowshare as a concept by 1977 after numerous additional test blasts to play with other ideas.  (Including an alternative to fracking as a means of natural gas production – rock shattered by water or rock shattered by the power of the ATOM!  What sounds cooler?)

Sources:  Wikipedia article on Project Plowshare and Project Gnome, io9 article on Operation Plowshare

World War II, the GI Bill, Homeownership, and Racism

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015


One of the more interesting comments I read online these days is the argument that, although racist policies in the past boosted whites in the United States into a position of economic dominance, those events happened “long ago” and it is too late to really rectify them.  Most people who make those arguments look to the early to mid-19th century, and argue that modern African-Americans have benefited from the infrastructure improvements and land development that characterized the changes to the United States economically during that period.  Arguments about modern advantages are normally dismissed as “soft advantages” – unfortunate policies that since the 1960s have been changed and, therefore, African-Americans should be able to pull themselves up to economic parity with white Americans now that the “barriers are gone” and they can “unleash their potential.”

This, in my opinion, is hogwash and the post-World War II GI Bill (formally the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944) was designed and implemented in a way to give a massive federal economic boost to white Americans and deny African-Americans the same benefits.


If you served in the United States military in World War II, and you were white, post-war the federal government opened the world of home ownership to you on a subsidized platter of low-interest loans.  White military veteran borrowers found themselves suddenly able, for the first time ever, to actually get affordable, longer-term, home mortgages that required minimal to no down payment.  Rapid development of new suburban neighborhoods allowed white veteran families to move out of crowded urban centers and gain new homes, homes that could become investments and gain value against inflation in the impending decades.  Combined with the more commonly known huge boosts in funding for white veteran educational benefits, including support for advanced technical certificate training and college bachelors degrees, and you had the combined elements to rapidly expand the middle class in the United States and raise millions of white families to the ranks of lower middle class.


But the GI Bill in 1944 had been carefully written to respect the principles of federalism, and each state was able to administer the program as it saw fit.  This meant that states, in particular southern and midwestern states, had the freedom to implement a series of charming little “quirks” to their Veterans Benefits programs to keep African-American veterans from claiming their benefits.  Distant and hard-to-reach offices from black communities, employing only white office workers and enforcing policies that African-American benefit claim paperwork be “lost in processing”, lying to African-American veterans about their benefits, and ensuring that other systems implemented to keep African-Americans away from educational and housing opportunities were maintained.

The United States military helped these goals as well, often “losing” vital discharge paperwork for African-American veterans and rigging the discharge system to give African-American soldiers more dishonorable or non-military discharges than they were supposed to receive to reduce the number of eligible claimants.  These policies were seen as critical, because without them southern Representatives and Senators had threatened in 1944 to scuttle the entire bill and the “compromise” was seen as necessary.


This federal gift kept on giving post-World War II, with any drafted serviceman gaining access to these benefits and white America getting another major micro-boost of support for Korean War veterans.

I bring this up not to demand solutions – the problems of racial equality in the United States are too thorny and entrenched for a 500 word essay to properly attack – but I do bring this up in contrast to the arguments by many whites I’ve heard myself that any advantages whites gained were “too long ago” to be corrected today.  This benefit directly helped the grandparents of many readers of this blog, and their own access to middle class status rests upon the foundation laid for them in the late 1940s and early 1950s by the federal government.

A foundation African-American families were directly denied in the same period.

Sources:  VA History of the GI Bill, master’s thesis by Cyd McKenna on the GI Bill and the Homeownership Gap

1950s United States Air Defense – put a nuke on it!

Monday, October 13th, 2014


So it’s the 1950s and you are a top military planner in the United States, and you are faced with the challenge of defending against the Soviet Menace, specifically the capacity of the Soviet Union to deploy bombers with sufficient operational range to reach the United States mainland.  (Bombers such as the powerful Tupolev Tu-95 featured above with its weapons bay open.)  The core plan is to rely on fighter interceptors, high speed jets that can reach the bombers and attempt to shoot them down before they reach their targets in the United States, but the problem is that there are simply not enough fighters to successfully prevent all Soviet bombers from reaching their targets.  Furthermore conventional anti-aircraft guns are simply not up to the challenge of shooting down these high-flying, high-speed Soviet bombers.  During World War II the army determined that a new weapons system was needed, specifically a guided missile system, and so one was developed.


The Nike Ajax missile system was a series of batteries deployed around major United States strategic sites, military bases, and major cities with the stated goal of tracking Soviet bombers entering United States airspace and shooting them down before they reached their targets.  The Nike defense system was seen as a weapon of last resort however it was also believed that used properly, in combination with interceptor fighters, it could greatly reduce the number of Soviet bombers that could reach their targets.  Although effective defense against an atomic war that prevented all nuclear damage was seen as unfeasible, this system was felt sufficient to potentially lower the damage to an acceptable level.  However as the number of potential Soviet bombers attacking the United States continued to rise and it was realized the Nike Ajax would not be able to successfully track individual Soviet bombers within large flying formations, it’s ability to destroy the bombers with its conventional warhead was uncertain.


Meet the Nike Hercules, a larger developed rocket deployed in the mid-1950s that was very similar to the Nike Ajax with one minor, key refinement, it carried a nuclear warhead aboard the rocket.  The new plan was to fire this missile into the middle of a Soviet bomber formation and detonate it, with the goal that the nuclear blast would destroy multiple Soviet bombers in one explosion.  As a bonus it also was cheaper to deploy potentially than the Nike Ajax because fewer missile silos could be used to gain the same level of anti-bomber protection.  Now the challenge in planning was the fact that a nuclear weapon with roughly double the destructive power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs would be detonated a mere seventy-five miles or so from the target it was protecting, but this was felt to be an acceptable risk in what was, again, a last line of defense weapon


Of course Soviet development, and increased reliance on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) made such a system outdated, as Nike Ajax and Nike Hercules missiles could not destroy a Soviet ICBM before it reached the United States.  Although never deployed in large numbers the United State army did rise to the challenge, with development work on the next generation of missile system, the Nike Zeus (pictured above), a massive extremely high-speed missile that could destroy an incoming Soviet ICBM.  The missile proved partially successful in the late 1950s but technical developments, and rising costs, led to the program ultimately being scrapped and the research used in new efforts in later decades.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on Project Nike and a Straight Dope entry on the Nike project

The Atomic Cannons – Full-size and Fun-size

Monday, September 29th, 2014


Meet the M65 Atomic Cannon, one of the more interesting atomic weapon deployment systems created by the United States military during the Cold War.  The M65 Atomic Cannon was developed in the early 1950s and was deployed in Europe and Korea to provide a moderate range tactical deployment method for stopping large scale military assaults with atomic shells.  The M65 Atomic Cannon fired a 240mm shell and could lob an atomic shell approximately twenty miles.  It was only actually used once with a test fire shot at the Nevada test site.  The test was successful and the weapon demonstrated it could fire an atomic shell without the “firing” part of the process accidentally setting off the nuke in the guns barrel.


The M65 atomic cannon, although technically a functional weapon, was never something considered a serious means of halting any sort of major or minor tactical movements.  The weapon was a slow-moving vehicle, it would be hard to defend in actual battle, and the number of technical situations where it would be really useful in contrast to a nuclear weapon carried by a missile or an aircraft were fairly minor.  What it was though was a big, impressive cannon that could be used to shore up local defenders feeling of superiority to a threat and scare up possible aggressors with the threat of massive atomic shells raining down.  (Hence its consideration as a “prestige weapon.”)  At a cost of $800,000 (nearly $8 million in today’s currency) each these weapons were deployed in Europe and Korea and moved around regularly so that enemy air attack, if it occurred, wouldn’t destroy them immediately.


On the other side of Cold War crazy nuclear weapons systems is the Davy Crockett, a small nuclear weapon launcher that could be either mounted on a jeep or carried by a team of infantry men into battle.  The Davy Crockett used an extremely small tactical nuclear weapon and was fairly inaccurate when fired, it’s main plan was to be used for deterrent effect and also to create pockets of lethal radiation in advancing enemy troops.  The Davy Crockett was deployed from the mid-1950s through the late 1960s and was stationed with United States troops in Germany.  In its single atomic warhead test it showed it had a firing range of about one and a half miles, making it a rather “cozy” ranged nuclear weapon.

Both weapons were a product of the broader fears in the 1950s regarding the Cold War, the United States strategically was in a transitional period, facing two competing challenges, on the one hand building a sufficient strategic nuclear force to allow war against the Soviet Union to be successfully waged and render its military capacity moot and also facing a potential tactical challenge of stopping a far larger Soviet ground military with limited ground troops in Europe.  These two nuclear weapons delivery systems were both responses to that second challenge, a lower-cost means of harnessing the “wonder of atomic weapons” to tactical battlefield use.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the M65 atomic cannon and Davy Crockett nuclear rifle

Operation Big Buzz, Big Itch, Drop Kick, Magic Sword, and May Day

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014


Ah the 1950s, specifically the Cold War of the 1950s, a time of experimentation, a time of national development, and a time also filled with a large mix of insanity inducing efforts to close the perceived power-gap and risks between the United States and its new rival the Soviet Union.  The 1950s in the United States were politically dominated by a period of anti-Communist “Red Scare” paranoia and concern that the Soviet Union was either pulling even to, or possibly pulling ahead, of the United States in the new race to command the forces of mass destruction.  This concern mainly focused on nuclear weapons, with the United States undertaking a large number of projects to enhance its capacity to deploy nuclear weapons and working to expand its limited nuclear arms arsenals, but it also involved more fringe research projects with a goal of ensuring the United States military dominance in all possible fields of struggle with the Soviet Union.  This lead to a large number of unusual projects, ranging from the sudden United States entry into the space race to research into fringe weapons programs and unusual warfare methods, such as doping random individuals with LSD to see if the drug made them more susceptible to brain washing.


Of particular interest was the United States research into entomological warfare, specifically the use of insects as delivery vectors for biological agents, and the United States military undertook a series of feasibility tests to determine if this sort of program could be implemented, could be effective, and if it was cost effective.

Operation Big Itch – a 1954 test in Utah in which fleas were deployed by air in a series of carefully designed custom bombs to test the insects spread patterns for delivery of infectious agents.  The fleas did perform successfully although it was discovered that one design of bomb “leaked” and the fleas were able to escape and bite the airplane crew.

Operation Big Buzz – a 1955 test in Georgia in which several hundred thousand uninfected mosquitoes capable of carrying yellow fever were dispersed in swampy terrain to determine how far they would spread in a fixed length of time.  This test was successful in proving the fleas would disperse and would seek out fresh meals.

Operation Drop Kick – a 1956 and 1958 test of mosquitoes again, and once more in Georgia, this time using uninfected insects released in an inhabited area of Georgia to see how many would enter individual homes and bite citizens.  The test results proved successful and data was gathered showing that mosquitoes dropped in residential areas by bomb would indeed enter homes and bite people.

Operation May Day – another 1956 test, in Georgia once more, that showed mosquitoes put into a stupor with dry ice would awaken upon being dropped in urban areas and bite humans successfully.

Operation Magic Sword – a 1965 test, off the coast of the southeastern United States, that mosquitoes could be preserved for ocean deployment and could be relied upon to fly inland and bite humans.

Overall the tests showed that using these techniques would provide a “cost per death” of $1.21 per kill (2014 dollars) which was considered quite competitive with other means of deployment and fifty percent mortality rate was possible.

Of course one of the challenges of researching early Cold War operations is many of them are still classified, and I personally as a historian look forward to more such interesting discoveries as archives are declassified.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on Operating Big Buzz, Big Itch, May Day, Magic Sword, Drop Kick, US Cold War Entomological Warfare, and a confirming entry in Chemical and Biological Warfare, a Comprehensive Survey…

“In God We Trust” – a commentary grounded in history

Friday, August 26th, 2011

In 1956 the United States formally declared the national motto of this nation to be “In God We Trust” – a motto that would be stamped on currency and a motto that had appeared previously in US history, on and off, on coins.  A famous line talking about this comes from a Supreme Court ruling, the phrase “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being” – from the ruling of Zorach v. Clauson (1952) by the US Supreme Court.  Today many candidates for the top office of the land are starting to argue that the United States is a “Christian Nation,” a nation founded on Christian ideals and one in which Christian morality should guide the nation’s course.  Many cite the sentence from the Supreme Court ruling above as proof the United States is a pious nation at its core – but I think people should read the whole paragraph instead:

We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. We guarantee the freedom to worship as one chooses. We make room for as wide a variety of beliefs and creeds as the spiritual needs of man deem necessary. We sponsor an attitude on the part of government that shows no partiality to any one group and that lets each flourish according to the zeal of its adherents and the appeal of its dogma. When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe. Government may not finance religious groups nor undertake religious instruction nor blend secular and sectarian education nor use secular institutions to force one or some religion on any person. But we find no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion and to throw its weight against efforts to widen the effective scope of religious influence. The government must be neutral when it comes to competition between sects. It may not thrust any sect on any person. It may not make a religious observance compulsory. It may not coerce anyone to attend church, to observe a religious holiday, or to take religious instruction. But it can close its doors or suspend its operations as to those who want to repair to their religious sanctuary for worship or instruction. No more than that is undertaken here.

I particularly like the phrase “We make room for as wide a variety of beliefs and creeds as the spiritual needs of man deem necessary” – if anything should be the driving goal of our nation, to my eye, when it comes to religion that should be the creed of the land.  Our Founding Fathers, to use an old phrase, had many motivations driving them when they crafted the Constitution of the United States but many of them, spearheaded by Jefferson, I’m sure would have approved of that ruling by the Supreme Court.

Sources: Zorach V Clauson, 343 US 306 (1952) sourced on and