Fist Of History

Posts Tagged ‘Cold War’

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

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…

The Year of Two Summer Olympics – 1984

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014


In 1980 in protest of the Soviet Unions 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, United States President Jimmy Carter declared a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics, taking place in Moscow.  As protests go it wasn’t the most effective but the slight was remembered by the leadership of the Soviet Union, so in 1984 when the Summer Olympic games were to be held in Los Angeles the Soviet Union declared it would be boycotting these games.  The official reason given was concerns for the “safety of the Soviet athletes” in Los Angeles but most people considered it a simple response protest to the earlier U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympic games.  Several other nations joined in the boycott, including:  Bulgaria, East Germany, Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, Hungary, Poland, Cuba, South Yemen, North Korea, Ethiopia, and Angola.

Iran, Libya, and Albania also did not participate in the games but did not do so for the same stated reasons as the Soviet Union, Iran bowed out in protest of United States policies in the Middle East officially, for example.

For anyone who thinks that the Communist powers were a united bloc during the 1980s, Romania, Yugoslavia, the People’s Republic of the Congo, and the People’s Republic of Benin joined the game.  Another famous People’s Republic joined as well, China, but they did so in part to tweak the Soviet Union as the two nations were having one of their repeated ideological/political spats.


But the nations not participating in the 1984 Summer Olympics were not going to miss all the medal granting fun, and the Soviet Union spearheaded their own set of games, called the “Friendship Games.”  These ran for several months in 1984 and had events hosted by several different nations, the Friendship Games were carefully timed to (mostly) not conflict with Olympic events.   Oddly enough the United States and most other western nations actually sent athletic teams to compete in these games as well, often backup teams but a presence was maintained.

With two competing games in place both ideological blocs dominated their respective games, United States athletes did incredibly well in Los Angeles and Soviet athletes rocked the Friendship Games.


Oddly enough one advertising promotion caused a great deal more problems than originally expected due to these events.  McDonald’s in 1984 offered a major promotion, each time the United States won a gold medal, you would get a free Big Mac if you had an entry event card that matched the event won by the United States.  You got free fries with a silver and a free beverage with a bronze.  McDonald’s did not plan their numbers well but they really did not anticipate the Communist bloc athletes almost entirely not showing up and the United States crushing their opposition in many events that normally the U.S. didn’t win.

The total impact to McDonald’s bottom line is not know but there were rumors throughout 1984 during the games of McDonald’s running out of supplies.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on 1984 Summer Olympics and the 1984 Friendship Games, New York Times article on the McDonald’s 1984 Olympic promotion and the boycott’s impact

Earlier Cold Wars – Opinion

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

The Death of General Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham at Quebec in 1759, part of the Seven Years' War.

So one of the primary reasons I originally started this blog was to make point of addressing the misuse of history by pundits, opinion writers, politicians, and other individuals who should know better.  So when a gem like this shows up in my feed, the current opinion piece by Thomas J. Friedman titled Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There I get rather excited.  Mr. Friedman is an expert in the Middle East and a correspondent from that region of long standing, and I will be the first to admit he has considerable skill in matters of foreign diplomacy and international relations, but this quote is what got a raised eyebrow:

“The Cold War was a unique event that pitted two global ideologies, two global superpowers, each with globe-spanning nuclear arsenals and broad alliances behind them. Indeed, the world was divided into a chessboard of red and black, and who controlled each square mattered to each side’s sense of security, well-being and power. It was also a zero-sum game, in which every gain for the Soviet Union and its allies was a loss for the West and NATO, and vice versa.”

Now if you include the presence of nuclear weapons as the sole criteria for making this struggle unique, then yes, Mr. Friedman is correct, nuclear weapons are a 20th century only item added to the arsenals of world power.  However as the Cold War was mostly dominated by the nuclear tipped struggle between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. I’d still have to argue a technical point, the Soviets and the Americans were wrestling for position from 1945 – 1948, a period in which the Soviets lacked shiny atomic weapons.  China also tossed its hand in the 1950s into the struggle before it had nukes.  But, I digress, because if you disregard the nuclear tipped spears and go for what I think Mr. Friedman’s broader point was in that statement, and from the rest of the editorial, that the Cold War was unique as a period of new technologies, new ideologies, bi-polar global struggle, and alliance gains and losses, then he would be incorrect.

I put before you the continual struggle between France and Great Britain that dominated the landscape of the later half of the 18th century globe.

These two powers engaged in a series of nasty wars during this period – specifically the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the Seven Years War (1756-1763), and the American Revolution (1776-1783), wars which were basically the two powers jockeying with each other to dominate the economic hotspots of the century, holdings in Indian and North America.  However these wars were the flash-points in a broader struggle that kept the two powers competing in brush wars and alliance building throughout the 18th century.  Let’s compare and contrast for a moment and see how things stack up:

Competing Ideologies:  During these wars France was dominated by a Catholic religious orientation, the idea of an absolute monarchy, and one could argue a far more state-centered, higher tax based economic model.  Great Britain was dominated by a Protestant religious orientation, a Constitutional monarchy, and one could argue a more market-based, decentralized mercantile outlook on economics.  These issues were all tied up in the nature of the wars they fought and also in the type of imprint that the two powers were attempting to stamp into the broader world.

Broad Alliances:  During this century the secondary European powers – the Netherlands, the Austrian Empire, Spain, Prussia, Bavaria, and to a far lesser extent the Ottomans, and even the Russians all would take part in these struggles.  Alliances were built back and forth between our two key hitters and these other powers to shift the balance of power in favor one way and then another.  Furthermore these alliances were built by both France and Great Britain in a mental context of dividing up competing sources of power and economic position to fuel their own struggles.

World as a ChessboardThe entire world in the 18th century, certainly not, but the chunks of the world that were seen to matter and were the economic prizes of the world, yes.  Central and South America were owned by Spain, the Middle East was owned by the Ottoman Empire, North Africa was…a mess but not considered vital at the time, central and south Africa were a mystery, and China was a sealed power unto itself as was Japan.  But the zones of struggle and change, the dynamic areas, India and North America, those were areas of constant shifting back and forth.  In fact the wars of the period were extremely similar to a game of chess, with edge territories shifting back and forth between the main players constantly.  Wars fought and lands yielded by treaty, working to create proxy states supported by weaponry and aid to fight with the enemy, even proxy wars were all tools in this struggle between Great Britain and France.

Precisely like the struggles between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. in the 20th century.

The 18th century even had its “Cold War China”:  During most of the Cold War China sat between the two powers, not really intervening often outside its borders in the struggles between the two, but engaging in its own wars and interventions and shifting which of the two it favored, the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. as its needs and the situation dictated.  Now its wars were brutal but were, except for Korea, fought with non-aligned areas or were not central to the struggle between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.  That role in the 18th century was filled by Spain, a powerful but economically underdeveloped empire that regularly jumped into the French/British struggles of the 18th century but as a junior partner in every case.  Spain was focused on holding onto its own territories, trying to figure out the economic muddle it was in, and trying to snatch up goodies by backing the winning side in the 18th century French/British struggles.

The 18th century EVEN had an existential threat:  So the key uniqueness about nuclear weapons is the chance they offer to devastate an opposing state if used in combat.  The 18th century did not have that threat, but what it did have was the threat of massive invasion by both nations.  Great Britain and France share a very close border, separated by a razor thin body of water, and both nations feared the other getting enough of an edge to launch a successful seaborne invasion of the other.  To do so, if successful, would have lead to the collapse of the invaded power and the utter global domination of its holdings potentially by its rival.  (Certainly a loss of position that would end the struggle.)

There was even an on-going naval arms race between the two, which Great Britain usually pulled out ahead, and regular sneaky planning by the French to get around this disadvantage.

So, although just my opinion, I would argue that no, the 20th century Cold War is not unique in human history or even European history, it’s grand adventures have been played out at least once before in scale, scope, and even savagery.

Russia and Syria – the Specialist of Buddies

Friday, September 13th, 2013


With Syria recently dominating the news, both due to its ongoing domestic conflict/civil war and the diplomatic/military tensions over the use of chemical weapons in the region, it seemed a prudent moment to briefly explore how Syria and Russia became such close diplomatic buddies over the last fifty years.  It is one of the more amusing offshoots of the Cold War between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, these two states worked very hard from the 1950s until the late 1980s to cultivate allies/client states in the Middle East and Syria was part of a broader effort by the USSR to offset growing US influence in the region.  Interesting the center point of this Cold War diplomatic maneuvering was Egypt under President Nasser and his efforts to create a new pan-Arabic federation in the Middle East and the temporary union he was able to negotiate turning Egypt and Syria into one nation, at least on paper.


Nasser, concerned about the rising power of the Syrian Communist party in 1957 worked with the Syrian government to create a unifying alliance between the two nations, the United Arab Republic, which legally linked Egypt and Syria into one unified nation.  At the time Nasser was also courting economic and military aid from the USSR – Khrushchev in the USSR wanted to push as far as a formal military alliance between Egypt and the USSR but Nasser was not ready to go that far diplomatically in his connection with the USSR.  So the merger of the two nations in 1957 was an effort to keep Communist influence in the Middle East lessened and replace it with a new unifying political center.  Although the effort appealed to other Arab states in the region, including Iraq, the new United Arab Republic collapsed in 1961 when a military coup in Syria changed the government and ended the experiment.  This coup, with a strong leftist lean, pursued a tighter relationship with the USSR, specifically for economic aid but, more critically for military aid.  This desire for a closer military connection to the USSR, and pushing for greater Soviet aid, rested upon the Syrian goal of finding a superpower partner that would arm them to counteract US military aid to Israel.  The USSR, happy for the alliance the expansion of its strategic position in the USSR – with friendly nations in Egypt, Iraq, and now Syria, through the 1960s and 1970s poured billions in military aid into Syria.

The 1967 war between Syria (among others) and Israel, ending in Syria’s defeat, further tightened links between Syria and the USSR.  The 1973 war between Syria (and others) against Israel was another setback for Syria and another push for further military aid to Syria.  The close ties came to an end with Syria’s intervention in the 1975 Lebanese civil war and the rise of the Gorbachev era, when the USSR focused on cultivating tighter relationships with the western powers and reducing Cold War tensions.  That, followed by the collapse of the USSR in 1991, has left Syria without a superpower buddy, but the new state of Russia has worked to maintain its past influence with Syria by keeping a looser, but still present, diplomatic tie between itself and Syria.

The interesting question – which is not easily found – is how much Syria’s chemical weapons production might stem from former aid from the USSR?  The question I find particularly interesting is, if an investigation into the attacks turns up chemical weapons with a distinctive chemical signature, and they were released by non-government forces, might they have been acquired from the Russian black market?

Sources:  Jewish Policy Center article on Syrian-Soviet relations, Wikipedia page on Foreign Relations of the USSR (Middle East), Wikipedia on the United Arab Republic

A fun site to check out – Atomic Information

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Check it out – original documents from the Cold War era