The Cold War was one of the darkest and most serious eras in modern history, a time when a stray word or action (or bear) could have resulted in the total annihilation of the human race. But as tragically happens so often, we're really overlooking the zany side of this whole apocalypse thing. Where's the fun? The pizzazz? The shenanigans? Why they're all right here, folks. Take a gander at how ...
During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union competed in everything from space to missiles to boxing. We'd compare it to a dick-measuring contest, but considering that LBJ was involved, it probably wasn't limited to mere comparison.
There was one arena in which the two powers had no desire to compete, however: alien invasion. If little gray dudes came down from the heavens, Rocky and Drago would've torn off their partisan shorts, linked arms, and started throwing joint haymakers up at the sky.
This is absolutely not a joke.
In a 2009 interview, Mikhail Gorbachev revealed that during the 1985 Geneva Peace Summit, he and Ronald Reagan were taking a walk around the gardens when Reagan threw out something that'd clearly been bothering him for some time: "'What would you do if the United States were suddenly attacked by someone from outer space? Would you help us?' I said, 'No doubt about it.' He said, 'We too.'"
That's right, ladies and gents. If the peace summit the two were attending didn't work out, their next-best hope was a full-scale alien attack. We should point out that this wasn't some crazy fever dream of Reagan's, just a case of him taking his hobby waaaay too far. Reagan was a huge sci-fi nerd, a love that stemmed from a childhood spent reading books like the John Carter series. This eventually resulted not only in him staffing a space policy think tank with astronauts, engineers, and sci-fi writers such as Robert Heinlein, but also in the creation of a missile defense program named after the most popular sci-fi franchise of the day.
If the Cold War was a simmering pot of rage, the Cuban Missile Crisis represents the point when all the starch foam from your mac 'n' cheese boils over and burns on the stove top.
Yet somehow, in the midst of all that, one bumbling spy plane blundered into Soviet territory and nearly kick-started a war.
On October 27, 1962, a U-2 piloted by Captain Charles Maultsby took off from Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. As part of Project Star Dust, Maultsby's mission was simple: Fly headlong into clouds that drifted away from Soviet nuclear testing sites and sample them for radioactive particles, which could then be used to ascertain Soviet nuclear capabilities.
U.S. Air Force
Maultsby never made it that far. Thanks to a combination of difficult-to-read celestial conditions (pilots in those days still used the stars to navigate), the awkwardness of the U-2, and plain bad luck, he unknowingly went off-course and entered USSR airspace -- an incursion which triggered the launch of six interceptor jets.
It was only by hijacking tracking data from Soviet air defenses that the military was able to find Maultsby and make contact in an attempt to guide him home. There was one slight problem, though: After he made contact with "home" and was advised to turn left, another voice came over the radio and told him to turn right, further into unsafe airspace. They kept calling until Maultsby, who was presumably sick of starring in the horror movie prequel to Top Gun, demanded some proof of their identity ... after which they buzzed off for good.
U.S. Air Force
Maultsby's odyssey eventually came to an end on a U.S. runaway in Alaska. He never flew a U-2 again, and forever maintained a grudge against JFK, who called him a "son of a bitch" after learning of his flub. It seems that used to be a much more serious insult.
On August 21, 1945, Harry K. Daghlian Jr., an assistant physicist at Los Alamos, was undertaking an experiment with a spherical core of plutonium (code-named "Rufus") and a set of tungsten carbide bricks -- the object being to build a house of bricks around the core in order to generate a controlled nuclear reaction. As he was building, however, the core started to, as official physicist lingo puts it, go totally nutso. In his rush to compensate, Daghlian dropped a brick directly onto the exposed core, and was quickly enveloped in a beautiful hot blue light. Not usually a good sign when you're working with nuclear materials.
Daghlian received a radiation dosage nearing 40,000 rem -- and considering that a dosage of 5,000 rem is fatal, he was as super-dead as its physically possible for a person to be.
Only nine months later, Louis Slotin, another nuclear physicist, accidentally caused the exact same plutonium core to go totally nutso (told you that was the scientific terminology) on his internal organs. Henceforth it was no longer Rufus, but THE DEMON CORE (seriously). After getting hit with 21,000 rem of radiation, Slotin suffered for nine days before he died, after which hopefully somebody handed these guys some goddamn tongs or something.
Back in the 1940s, no one knew exactly what sort of monster they were unleashing with this whole nuclear bomb business. So on the off chance that the tests didn't quite go our way, the U.S. government hired William Laurence of The New York Times to write a whole suite of press releases that could be easily distributed following the country's first nuclear test, Trinity. They knew, at the very least, that the explosion would be LOUD, so that was the main premise of each release, with each one tailored to a different outcome.
Form A clarified that there had been "no loss of life nor injury" from the explosion of the "ammo dump":
U.S. Air Force
Form B says the same thing, but further talks about evacuating a bunch of civilians to protect them from "gas shells exploded by the blast" ("gas shells" being code for "radioactive fallout"):
U.S. Air Force
Forms C and D were releases that the government could use if things had gone seriously sideways -- the former in the event that anybody died, and the latter reserved for the explosion not merely killing people onsite, but in the surrounding area too. So they carefully thought out and wrote preemptive PR addressing all of those awful, gut-wrenching scenarios, but "maybe we should just not" was never on the table.
We did get some solid fiction from the Cold War though, like Billion-Dollar Brain.
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