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We’ve Got to Talk About the Bomb Some More

Alex Wellerstein

Monday, July 1, 2024

00:00:00:02 - 00:00:21:23

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And I don't have the numbers right in front of me, but I came up with something like 90 megaton megatons worth of weapons on one Ohio class submarine in the 70s. Maybe I'm a little off. Maybe. But, like, it's basically as our Bomba submarine, right? And I like to bring this up because we like to make fun of the Czar Bomba like, oh my God, so ridiculous, so many megatons, so pointless, and like, yeah, sure it is in many ways.


00:00:22:01 - 00:00:37:06

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And the US flirted with making its own weapons that big two at the same time because I don't know, there's something to that maybe. And even the Edward Teller stuff, the gigaton range stuff. Oh my god, so ridiculous a doomsday machine. But like, we still built things like this. We just broke it into a lot of different pieces.


00:00:37:06 - 00:00:54:02

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And Dan Ellsberg, the late Dan Ellsberg, he made this argument, which I think is right. It's like we still built a doomsday machine. We just didn't do it in one machine. We did it in a system. And it would still be you know, this horrible thing. And I think that's a valid way to think about it.


00:00:54:04 - 00:00:59:19

Chris Keefer

Welcome back to Decouple and welcome back Professor Alex Wellerstein.


00:00:59:21 - 00:01:02:01

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

I'm happy to be here. It's good to talk again.


00:01:02:03 - 00:01:27:01

Chris Keefer

So we are recording our episode two here. as we were mentioning in the first episode, it was it was high time after 240, episodes to, to chat about the bomb. So we, we had a, we have to talk about the bomb, and it was a part one, really fun show. you know, again, I'm the son of two academics, and I was very impressed with how much ground were able to cover, despite you having some real areas of expertise that we didn't dive into.


00:01:27:12 - 00:01:54:22

Chris Keefer

but we covered, really the the origins, the origin story of the Manhattan Project, which obviously, you know, had relevance to the development of, atomic energy for peaceful purposes as well. But just, you know, really went through that crash program, you know, that two year program which resulted in the creation of the bomb? and we probably got up to, you know, the decision and we definitely got up a decision, very interesting about, dropping the bomb on Japan and a little bit about US atomic hegemony postwar.


00:01:54:22 - 00:02:18:18

Chris Keefer

So, you know, very characteristically, over ambitiously, I'm hoping to, you know, just breeze through that, post-World War Two history and bring it up to the present, which is completely unrealistic. but I guess some highlights I wanted to touch on. were you know, I guess, like the, the conflicts in which nuclear weapons were seriously on the table, I'm guessing it's Korea and Cuba and Cuban missile crisis.


00:02:19:11 - 00:02:41:13

Chris Keefer

the scaling up of of nuclear weapons, both in their sheer destructiveness, but also numbers and just kind of how crazy that got, some close calls. and I'm super interested in the evolution of command and control, the nuclear football, whether there are sort of best practices that have emerged that are kind of shared between, you know, all the weapons countries I have no idea, but I'm really interested about that.


00:02:41:13 - 00:02:50:14

Chris Keefer

So, yeah, let's be the focuses. And, I'm sure we'll have many tangents along the way. but again, great to have you back. Really enjoyed that first episode.


00:02:50:16 - 00:02:53:22

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Yeah, I'm happy to be here. And this is this is my bread and butter. It's fun.


00:02:54:00 - 00:03:12:19

Chris Keefer

Beautiful, beautiful. And, you know, I, I failed to mention in the intro again, you're professor of science at Stevens Institute of Technology, author of Restricted Data The History of Nuclear Secrecy Secrecy in the United States. And you have a forthcoming book on Truman, which, features Korea prominently. I'm guessing I was. Maybe we should maybe we should start there.


00:03:13:03 - 00:03:16:23

Chris Keefer

in terms of, again, touching on a few of the conflicts where where we got close.


00:03:17:03 - 00:03:32:14

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

I want to make one more plug for my. I just started a thing which people can go to, doomsday machines. Dot net. It's a new online thing about, how people think about the end of the world. So it'll be really fun. So doomsday machines, plural dot net.


00:03:32:16 - 00:03:33:21

Chris Keefer

Okay. And that's live right now.


00:03:34:00 - 00:03:42:08

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

That's it's it's there right now. There's a page that says, it's coming soon. It'll be live in July. So whenever this goes up, maybe it's live by then.


00:03:42:10 - 00:03:49:05

Chris Keefer

Okay. Okay. Beautiful. Beautiful. All right. So yeah, let's let's talk about, Yeah. Let's do it.


00:03:49:06 - 00:04:12:05

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Yeah. I mean, Korea is to me it's. Well, so in my book, which is about Truman, and the bomb, which covers this whole administration, it's not just Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Korea is not sort of even the end of it. It's it's almost like the climax of it, in a way, because maybe there's two climaxes, maybe they use the bomb and that's a climax in Korea is another.


00:04:12:05 - 00:04:47:23

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

But it's a fascinating thing, because this is a time in which the US could have used nuclear weapons in a variety of ways in the war. and a lot of people expected that it would, that this is exactly the kind of situation in which you might do that. And it presents this interesting question like, why? Why didn't we, and the usual the sort of glib answer you get, as are the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union had like one nuclear weapon.


00:04:48:01 - 00:05:06:06

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

It was not a mutually assured destruction situation. Even if they had a few more, they did not have the the realistic ability to project that power on to the United States. The United States had hundreds of nuclear weapons at this point. Like it's not, e and I guess this is just we get this. We talk about stockpiles.


00:05:06:06 - 00:05:28:19

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

It's not balanced in any way like the US. The arms nuclear arms race is not at parity in terms of being like equal capability until maybe the late 70s, early 80s. Wow. So there's this whole period in which, yes, the Soviets have weapons, but we have like and we'll jump just to jump the Cuban Missile Crisis, we had like 20 to 1 advantage in nuclear weapons with the Cuban Missile Crisis.


00:05:28:19 - 00:05:55:04

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

It's not even close. And whether that matters or not is, of course a big discussion point. But for 1950 and 1951, that isn't the reason. It's not that the fear was, Soviet retaliation, that nobody voices that within the government when talking about this as a reason not to do it. They have a lot of reasons that they don't that that that they end up not doing it, or reasons against doing it.


00:05:55:04 - 00:05:56:02

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

But that isn't one of them.


00:05:56:07 - 00:06:17:09

Chris Keefer

And this is occurring, within the kind of stalemate of, the North having invaded the South. and then I guess this joint task force, having pushed them out and kind of into the north and China getting involved and then and then the kind of stalemate afterwards is that kind of when nuclear weapons come into the, the conversation and this is general MacArthur pushing for their use.


00:06:17:11 - 00:06:37:23

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So what's interesting is, like the actual tensions, they're not usually stalemate. It's not like the nukes will break the stalemate. It's periods in which there's this fear that like the that there could be this increased push by the other side. Right. So it's actually usually not the stalemate portions. It's the portions in which the U.S. is not doing that.


00:06:37:23 - 00:06:59:12

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Well. That's when people start saying, hey, maybe nukes are what we use to offset this thing. and MacArthur is part of this. It's interesting because MacArthur it's complicated because there's the sort of what MacArthur did. And then there's the what MacArthur later said he did. And these are not exactly the same thing, though they have interesting overlaps.


00:06:59:14 - 00:07:23:10

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So, like MacArthur during the Korean War is, so, for example, in late 1950, Truman gives this press conference with reporters and he gets asked, are nuclear weapons on the table? And he sort of it's an offhand comment. He says, everything's on the table. It's always on the table. Of course, the bombs on the table. There's nothing that's not on the table.


00:07:23:12 - 00:07:46:23

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And this gets taken as a big statement of like, oh my God, U.S is considering using nukes in Korea. It's a thing which it wasn't. And we can get to this. But Truman I don't think had any intention of using nuclear weapons in Korea. And ultimately that's why they're not use whatever the other reasons are. He he just wasn't interested in doing it, was not something he ever thought was going to be a good idea.


00:07:48:09 - 00:08:08:22

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

and that's, you know, what the book is trying to probe into. Okay, well, how do we get there? How do you get from. Nukes are great on Japan, but like, totally unthinkable afterwards. To me, that's the conundrum of Truman and the bomb. right, right. But, this press conference gets all this attention, and it even gets attention from MacArthur because he's seeing the dispatches on this.


00:08:08:22 - 00:08:29:20

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And so one of his people says, oh, let's imagine they did want to give us nukes to use. How would you want to use them? And MacArthur, like, instantly rattles off all these targets. He would hit like he's got. Like, I forget, it's like 15 ready to go. And they're mostly in China, which is interesting. They're like airfields and military bases in China.


00:08:29:20 - 00:08:46:15

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

He's like, yeah, I'd hit all these targets. It'd be great. And then it comes back, you're not you're not getting nukes. I'm just this was a whole confusion thing. But I thought it was interesting that we, like he did this and this. We can we know he did because we have the correspondence, you know, the sending him back to, to his bosses.


00:08:46:15 - 00:09:08:21

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

But we also have, like, the diary of the guy who was his number two, who wrote all this down, which is super handy. I wish everybody had an assistant. historically, after the war, MacArthur had he was, you know, just for people who are not aware of all the ins and outs of this, Truman eventually fires MacArthur.


00:09:09:01 - 00:09:38:20

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And it's a big political hairy deal because MacArthur is relatively popular, publicly. And Truman is not at this time. And, and MacArthur is this gets sort of mobilized by anti Truman forces. And MacArthur is also this kind of. Bellicose bully of a personality. He's a real pain in the neck. And so, he goes on this essential campaign to voices unhappiness.


00:09:38:20 - 00:10:04:21

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And he has lots of people who want to back him up on this because they see it as a Truman thing. I think in the long run, people have concluded that MacArthur was not a good guy or a good general, even, but like at the time, that wasn't as clear, in all quarters. And so he tells people stuff, some of which only comes out way later, like decades later, about what he would have done if it was up to him.


00:10:04:21 - 00:10:25:03

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And it's just insanity. It's like, oh, I would have like created a belt of radioactivity across the border. And then they would use, radioactive warfare, and then I'd nuke all these bases, and then I'd bring in the Taiwanese forces, and they have like a bunch of people. And then we would just have taken over everything, and China wouldn't have gotten involved because they won't even mess with us.


00:10:25:03 - 00:10:45:02

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And you're just like, wow, that's unhinged. And I'm not sure it's hard for me to tell how much of that is actually something he would have advocated while he was in charge, versus what he advocates when he's doing Monday morning quarterbacking. And, you know, I don't know, but but but but yeah, he's bellicose and he's more prone to certainly than Truman was.


00:10:45:02 - 00:11:04:07

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And that is I think, part of it's not the exact reason why MacArthur gets fired, because that's a very specific thing. That's him basically contradicting the president in public statements. And you just don't do that. And, you know, he gets told he's not supposed to do that. And he does it again. And so that's it. It's like insubordination.


00:11:04:09 - 00:11:09:08

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

But that's part of it is like the idea that he's kind of unhinged.


00:11:09:10 - 00:11:26:20

Chris Keefer

One that touches on one of the, I guess, the themes we were talking about last time, which is the tension between, the military and, and civilian control of nuclear weapons. I mean, the US military is is, I mean, I guess it's kind of been floated ever since, but, you know, after World War Two and there's been significant investment.


00:11:27:05 - 00:11:49:08

Chris Keefer

I guess, and World War One, they moved from an isolationist position to, mobilized position. But, yeah, I mean, a massive military industrial complex. you know, how how does control of nuclear weapons end up on the civilian side as it's, it seems like that happened pretty early on. but I guess, you know, if the military had had more leeway here, potentially that could have been used in Korea, I don't know.


00:11:49:16 - 00:12:09:10

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

well, yeah, I mean, one of the things that I think Truman is not as well known for and again, why I'm trying to write interested in this book about him because he's more complicated. I mean, people assume. Oh, yeah, he used the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There's a whole story we talked about last time. Not exactly true story about how he made the decision.


00:12:09:10 - 00:12:34:12

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

He always defended it and they sort of assume that, oh, he's this very got us pro-nuclear as you get and in some ways he's not. And one of them is the civilian control. It's Truman who insists on not just civilian control but presidential control. I mean, he very consciously intervenes at really crucial juncture to say, we're going to set I don't trust the military to be in charge of this.


00:12:34:14 - 00:12:54:11

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And the military at this moment, frankly, does not give him a lot of reason for trust. I mean, people like MacArthur. But it's not even just people like MacArthur, like someone like MacArthur is going to reinforce the idea that these generals are totally out of touch. For, in Truman's mind, about what these weapons should be thought about, how they should be thought, how they could be used.


00:12:54:13 - 00:13:16:12

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And they are trying through this whole period leading up to Korea to overturn civilian control to some degree. And, Truman won't have it. And he's having his whole top advisors, the National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they're coming in him and saying, well, yeah, yeah, civilian control is great, but but but you should give us some nukes.


00:13:16:14 - 00:13:38:15

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Like, how can we effectively do anything with regard to nukes if we don't have the nukes. And so they're building nukes in this period. They get started a little slower on that. But I think people realized they had very few nukes until about 1949, 1950. All of them are in civilian hands, all of them. Truman won't let them have them at all.


00:13:38:15 - 00:14:05:00

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And in fact, we can get into this. He ends up giving them access to exactly nine nuclear cores. Exactly nine. And it's an interesting number. I spent a lot of time looking into this. Why nine? That's all they get total under Truman. And that's not until, the spring of 1951. And interestingly, they don't even get more until like year two of the Eisenhower administration.


00:14:05:00 - 00:14:23:19

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Even Eisenhower doesn't initially give them access. And then by the end of the Eisenhower administration, they have 90% of the nuclear stockpile under their control. And so we can talk about how that happened. That's its own separate thing. But under Truman, they don't have the nukes at all, and they certainly don't have permission to use them. And the question keeps coming up, should we have them?


00:14:23:21 - 00:14:41:23

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Even the question of should the president be in charge of the decision? Like, why should a president be in charge? And Truman just like shuts this down repeatedly. He's very and not just for subtle reasons. He tells them to their face that he thinks they're they're being stupid about this, that, and that. They don't understand this at all.


00:14:41:23 - 00:15:00:22

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And there's no way he's going to let them treat this like, as he would put it, like a normal military weapon. Right? Right. interesting. I mean, and the military industrial complex stuff, it's not as smooth a through line as you looks in retrospect, the way I would think about is World War two. Huge buildup. World War two ends.


00:15:01:01 - 00:15:24:02

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Truman wants to demobilize. He wants to spend a lot less on defense. He does not want some giant standing army. He's not interested in that. And so they start to demobilize very rapidly, which has all these economic consequences and things. The generals hate this. They want this big standing army. And Truman doesn't really think that's a thing.


00:15:24:05 - 00:15:50:14

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

A lot of the generals attack the atomic bomb in this period, interestingly, and the use of it in Japan, because they think that if the bomb gets the credit for winning the war, people will think, well, if we just have the atomic bomb, we don't need a big conventional military. Right? So this is why you get Eisenhower Lee, he a whole bunch of these people saying that they don't think the bomb was necessary, which of course is a different context and how we would read that today.


00:15:50:14 - 00:16:13:09

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

This is a pro military, and it's not until around 48 that one that the they start to warm up to the bomb as they start to get more of them and start making plans for using them. it's only sort of after the Soviet nuclear tests in 49 that they win this sort of battle to stop demobilizing and to start going the other direction.


00:16:13:09 - 00:16:37:04

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And then the Korean War happens and we sort of like get this giant mobilization. And so it's this interesting. I really love this period. This might be called just the post war before the Cold War, because it's really not clear what's going to happen next. It's not unambiguously clear that it's going to be this Cold War thing. It becomes that, and maybe it feels a little inevitable after the fact for a lot of reasons.


00:16:37:04 - 00:16:42:19

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

It could be. But like at the time, there's all this internal friction about this question.


00:16:42:21 - 00:17:01:01

Chris Keefer

Well, maybe this is a stepping off point, to talking about, again, that that scaling up maybe start with kind of, I don't know, you start either with the sort of scale of destructiveness or, or just the sheer numbers that are, that are being added because it seems to go pretty quickly if they're hitting at kind of 20 to 1 ratio by the Cuban Missile Crisis.


00:17:01:03 - 00:17:28:00

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Well, it's it's really interesting. So in so you have the Manhattan Project, which is this massive. It's like creating a new industry overnight almost. It's not overnight. It's two and a half years. But that's still like a lot to create something that's a significant chunk of American industrial production. It's like 1% or something of American spending and and employment and like that's that's a big chunk to create in just two and a half years.


00:17:28:01 - 00:17:48:05

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And it's all about getting the bomb ready for World War two. So they're cutting corners, right? They're not doing things the way you would do it. They don't know what the right answer is. Always. They are not thinking about the future so much. They're just trying to get it done for that minute. And so they're cutting corners in a lot of ways, including things like waste storage.


00:17:48:05 - 00:18:07:20

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

They store the waste really poorly because they're like, somebody will take care of that later. Turns out they don't. But whatever. But even things like the reactor designs, they at Hanford, they don't really know how to run industrial sized nuclear reactors. This is the first time they're doing this. And it turns out there's all these problems that crop up, that they don't 100% know what the answer is.


00:18:07:20 - 00:18:26:09

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So it turns out when you run those reactors for a while, the graphite swells in complicated ways. And dangerous thing. So they, like, turn the reactors to half power for over a year, trying to figure out what the answer to this technical problem is that they didn't anticipate because they never did the sort of the pilot work.


00:18:26:11 - 00:18:47:01

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

These are just scale the full size immediately. And of course, you have issues with that. At the same time, at the end of the war, people go home like the labor force was this wartime labor force of people willing to contribute to the war. This is both the regular laborers and operators, but also like the scientists like. Yeah, they had a really interesting time at Los Alamos.


00:18:47:01 - 00:19:13:15

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Great time. Right. Interesting job. Now they want to go back to their jobs, right? They didn't sign up to be permanent weapons scientists. So like Los Alamos empties out, except for the people who really enjoy weapons work for some reason, in this period, there's also not a lot of certainty about what is the future of the nuclear complex going to be, who's going to run it, what legislation is going to run it?


00:19:13:17 - 00:19:38:21

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Is it going to be about making weapons? Are we going to ban nuclear weapons at the United Nations? These are like actually open questions, the result of which is Congress does not pass legislation about this, until 1946. It doesn't go into effect of 47. Until then, it's basically still the Manhattan Project. But being run on sort of a contingency basis without clear direction, they're not really building up much.


00:19:38:21 - 00:19:56:18

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

They have a lot of problems that their existing facilities that they're trying to sort of analyze and patch. They are not actively producing nuclear weapons in a meaningful sense. They are still producing fissile material. And some of it they're making it a little cause, but they don't have all the parts. They don't have all the facilities for making it.


00:19:56:18 - 00:20:17:20

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

They certainly don't have anything assembled. So by 1947, so now, two years practically after the end, the Atomic Energy Commission becomes in charge of all this and they go and they ask Los Alamos, how many weapons do we have ready to use if we needed to use them? And they answer zero zero. They have zero weapons at all.


00:20:18:00 - 00:20:47:07

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

They have like the fissile material for maybe 13 weapons ready to go, depending on how you define that. But they are not. They also, I'm not making any, any gun type weapons. So they have a bunch of uranium and they don't haven't really done anything with it. So what happens is over this period, what the Atomic Energy Commission is trying to do is first, just like regularize this thing, like the first weapons from World War two are, are handmade artisanal nuclear weapons.


00:20:47:07 - 00:21:09:12

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Right? Every little part is a guy putting it together. That's not how you do production of anything on a scale and reliability and all that. So they end up looking into, okay, we need like a contractor to do this. We need like full time people whose jobs it is to like build the different parts of this. And we need to make sure we have the right facilities and we need to make sure they're working correctly.


00:21:09:12 - 00:21:34:19

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And so they spend several years just basically getting the production on firm footing. And it's not until, around like 1948 that they are able to produce the maximum weapons per year that the Manhattan Project was originally designed to produce, like that's how far. So the production level goes down after World War two and doesn't come back up again until about 48 or so.


00:21:35:09 - 00:21:59:11

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

the Manhattan Project was designed to produce about three and a half weapons per month, and they end up by 47. I mean, they have again, like 13 cores after two years. They're not doing that. Right. So they start getting it up by the late 40s. They then start looking into expansion programs. And so the way they just do this is basically like they make another Hanford, they make another Oak Ridge.


00:21:59:11 - 00:22:28:16

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

These are these other factories that they end up putting together. Paducah. and I forget all the name, all of them, but there's a whole bunch of these little factories and they get literal bomb assembly factories with becomes pan X where like, these are assembly lines for nuclear weapons. They are still using by 1949, this essentially the same weapon technology as they were using in World War two with like little tweaks.


00:22:28:18 - 00:22:51:10

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So it's like upgraded versions of the Nagasaki bomb that are easier to handle, can accept different types of cause. They've done some testing in 48 that showed them they already had ideas from World War Two about different ways you could do the core to get more efficiency, use uranium and plutonium. You could make the core have a little air gap in it, which called levitation, and it compresses it better.


00:22:51:10 - 00:23:06:23

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

There's all these little tricks they figure out and they test in 48. So they make these like cores that could be interchanged in the weapons, so that by then they can like double the yield of the weapon if they want, or use half the fuel and so have twice as many weapons, but they're still like the size of a small car.


00:23:07:01 - 00:23:28:22

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

They're clunky. They, they're, they're they're not that powerful by nuclear weapons standards. Later. What changes in the early 50s is, one, all of these new production things start really ramping up and going online. They start getting more and more. They build another. They I think they build like two more Hanford. So like they build a bunch, they just duplicate fissile material production facilities.


00:23:29:04 - 00:23:51:22

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

They get full time like big factories that do nothing but do the electronics like they start like really treating it like it's essentially a car where every little part is made assembly line. And then, they also start having all this innovation and weapon design. So that's when you start going down the direction of both really small weapons and also, the H-bomb, the thermonuclear weapons.


00:23:52:00 - 00:24:20:14

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And so by the 50s, you now have all sorts of possibilities opening up. By the early 60s, they can make such a wide range of weapons for any kind of application. So by the early 60s, you have weapons small enough that a single person could carry the man, portable nuclear weapons and also weapons that are measured. And, you know, they have a basically a 23 megaton bomb.


00:24:21:03 - 00:24:37:19

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

that is that is, you know, about as big as you could probably need for anything. And a plane could carry two of them. and they are starting on like things like long range missiles and, you know, delivery mechanisms and everything in between. They have little weapons that are air to air missiles, like that kind of thing.


00:24:37:19 - 00:25:06:12

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Right. So and by the 60s, they can produce, thousands of weapons per year. So like they've ramped up production. So you're doing dozens of completed nuclear weapons per day. So but all of that took time to put in place. It took 15 years or more to get all of the infrastructure, both human and material, in place, that you could get to that stage.


00:25:06:14 - 00:25:23:00

Chris Keefer

Yeah. It was interesting. In prepping for this, I was, watching some videos about broken arrows, and they were talking about how, the Sputnik program created a ton of anxiety. it really sped up. You know, how quickly you need to be able to get your bombers in the air if you wanted to, have a first strike or response or not have your airbases wiped.


00:25:23:01 - 00:25:37:06

Chris Keefer

Wiped out. And so they were talking about how the core is used to used to be stored sort of separately from the bombs. And then they were put together. And, that led to a few famous incidents. I don't know if you want to kind of jump into that a little bit, but, I found the Broken Arrow thing pretty fascinating.


00:25:37:11 - 00:25:40:20

Chris Keefer

it's really dropped on Canadian and U.S. soil.


00:25:40:22 - 00:26:09:06

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

It's really interesting. But it also gets back to this bigger political question. So the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 says that the president is the only person who can authorize the transfer of fissile material to the military. And again, Truman wouldn't do it. And so what do you do in that situation? And what they come up with is the system where there's the sort of non-nuclear weapon that then you can insert the plutonium or uranium into and make into a nuclear weapon.


00:26:09:06 - 00:26:28:09

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And so some of those I mentioned that they modify the Nagasaki bomb. One of the modifications is to make it really easy to just plug that sucker in. You don't have to do this big, complicated assembly procedure. and so this is an interesting case for me. I hate these little gestures. I don't know what causes them.


00:26:28:09 - 00:26:51:04

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Okay, I gesture too much, and my computer puts a weird, so irritating. one of the. I find it really interesting because it's a, like, technical solution to a political problem. Right? So, like, the political requirement is you have to keep these functions separate. The technical requirement is we need to be able to assemble them very quickly.


00:26:51:08 - 00:27:18:16

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So they actually physically enforce that civilian military separation and make it sort of plausibly work. that goes away with what are called sealed pit weapons. So a sealed pit weapon is the pit is the fissile material. These are weapons where, like, the pit is always inside the weapon. You can't remove it. It's like sometimes glued to stuff, right?


00:27:18:16 - 00:27:50:08

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Like and what you get out of doing that is you can make much more compact weapons, and you can have the weapon be, in some ways, much more efficient use of material. without, and in different shapes and all sorts of stuff that would be not possible to keep it separate. And that's one of the factors for why they start transferring so much to the department of Defense under Eisenhower is that the weapon design no longer, accommodates this.


00:27:50:13 - 00:28:17:17

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

You could ask, could they have made weapons that accommodate this? I mean, within certain limitations, right. There's always an engineering trade off. But I always think like, this is a choice that was made that eliminated one distinction. to get to your accident things. There are a bunch of accidents and there's a several like ones that the there's a huge number of what we could call accidents.


00:28:18:18 - 00:28:38:09

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

and their severity depends on how you think about what's going on inside of them. And they're caused by different things. And they can be anything from the plane accidentally drops a nuke out of it, which happened, or to, like, a guy was handling a nuke at a factory and dropped it like, that's a different kind of accident.


00:28:38:11 - 00:29:05:01

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

The plane ones are the ones that usually get the most attention, because those are usually happening not at, like a U.S. military base. and the whole idea, you know, from the beginning, the idea has been that, yes, these weapons could be dangerous and are so powerful. But don't worry, we have control over them. And the accidents seem to indicate the limits of some kind of control.


00:29:05:01 - 00:29:07:22

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Right. they're often.


00:29:08:01 - 00:29:22:04

Chris Keefer

That's a product of just the sheer number that are around. And how many are kind of permanently in the air. I guess as as Bomber Command, as sort of ever ready to, to launch a strike on Russia. Is that. I mean, I'm sure some of it's great reasons.


00:29:22:04 - 00:29:54:08

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

But, yeah, some of it's that. So definitely if you they start in the late 50s and early 60s having these constant patrols where you always have some bombers in the air, and of course planes have an error rate and accident rate, human mechanical failure, whatever. And if you and for some of these planes, it's like a very well defined rate, like they'll have some catastrophic accident every so many flight hours, just as a probabilistic number.


00:29:54:08 - 00:30:09:16

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

You can figure this out and then you say, okay, well, how many planes are in the air for how many years? How many flight hours? And you work backwards and you say, okay, if these have live nukes on them, you'll get one major accident a year. is that a worthwhile trade off? I don't know, but, like, that's that's sort of.


00:30:09:18 - 00:30:34:23

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And the and the sorts of the accidents can come from anywhere. There's this whole idea out there. I'm sure you've heard of the normal accident theory, sociologist Charles Perot, where basically the idea is that in any like, sufficiently complicated nonlinear system, you will have the chances of things going wrong, and usually your system can accommodate for something going wrong.


00:30:35:00 - 00:31:08:20

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

But if you have too many things go wrong at the same time, especially on anticipated things, then you get this accident that looks incredibly specific and weird, but is actually normal in the sense that you would expect that. Yeah, there would be an intersection of five weird, unexpected things every so many hours. If you have a system of sufficient size and complexity, and has all sorts of human and technical factors going into it, and something like an airplane, which is just like a lot of things on it, especially at this period.


00:31:08:20 - 00:31:29:09

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

This is not I want to say, it's not a slick, safe commercial flight like we have today. But of course we've been having some issues today with supply, you know, issues with these systems. But like these are also military planes which have a different level of risk tolerance. And earlier generations. I was reading about a few of these recently.


00:31:29:10 - 00:31:48:22

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

I sometimes go down a little rabbit hole on some of these and it's just fascinating. So there's one in in called the Mars Bluff Accident, which is one of the earliest well publicized ones. It was actually like the 13th major accident, but like it wasn't the others weren't well publicized. Where this bomber is flying around, I think it's a 1950.


00:31:49:00 - 00:32:17:05

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And, they get this, they have a bomb inside of it, and they get this error. Light comes on in the cabin that says the electronic bomb release mechanism is malfunctioning. And so that's not good. So they send back the navigator or something to go put in. They have a way of putting in like a manual pin in there so that even if that for some reason that release opens, it shouldn't drop the bomb.


00:32:17:05 - 00:32:38:20

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

It'll like secure the bomb. And he's trying to do this in this unpressurized bomb bay. And he's like reaching around with the pin. And there's different accounts of exactly what goes wrong. But in the process of trying to insert the pin, he ends up releasing the bomb, which falls to the bottom of the bomb bay and then breaks open the doors.


00:32:39:02 - 00:33:03:06

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

The guy is hanging on in there because he's not secured in any way, and finally, the the the people in the cabin realize something's up. They close the bomb bay doors. The poor guy is okay, but the bomb falls into the small town in North South Carolina on their Ma's Bluff, South Carolina, near Florence and detonates when it hits the ground and, you know, detonates near a family's home.


00:33:03:06 - 00:33:21:19

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

There's. You know, these people get somewhat injured by it. you can't cover that up. Obviously, it's kind of a big deal. Now, this bomb does not have a nuclear core in it. This is before. Remember? I said Truman only gives them nine cores in 1951. This is 1950. It, like, literally could not have a nuclear core even in the plane.


00:33:21:23 - 00:33:45:21

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

They don't have nuclear cores. the military doesn't. So there's no possibility that had any nuclear impact, in the sense of a nuclear chain reaction or anything. There's a little radioactivity from the tamper which is made out of uranium, but nothing serious. but it does have, like, you know, two tons of high explosives in it. And those are what detonate and leave a little crater and things like this.


00:33:46:01 - 00:34:18:00

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So on the one hand, like, that's a screwball accident, right? That's a weird set of circumstances. And also literally no chance that that could have had a nuclear explosion as a result. But it's also indicative of like, okay, this is not as in control. And also once you start putting those sealed bits in, you have to start thinking a lot more carefully about would a weapon under those, what they call like abnormal conditions, have a chance of detonating?


00:34:18:02 - 00:34:24:01

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

What are you have to worry about in those situations? Are there ways to make it less likely, etc.?


00:34:24:03 - 00:34:32:15

Chris Keefer

And it sounds like, I mean, there's been some other near-misses. I'm thinking of, I think, Titan ICBM. I think it was like a three megaton bomb, or some repair.


00:34:32:15 - 00:34:34:03

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

People in the 80s. Yeah, yeah.


00:34:34:04 - 00:35:02:09

Chris Keefer

Dropped the ratchet had. And anyway, the whole kind of propellant of this ICBM blew up and launched the nuke out. and there's like, 3 or 4 mechanisms that have to go off to actually get the, the nuclear warhead to, to explode. And that that never happened. It was did we get close? So I did a couple of those mechanisms trip and the you know, I it's imagining sort of a domestic US nuclear explosion of the several megatons, would have had some pretty serious impacts on how history unfolded.


00:35:02:11 - 00:35:24:00

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So the closest that I have looked at is the Goldsboro accident, which is another one of these famous ones. And this is in 61. and this is one of those planes that's on one of these always in the air missions. It's doing, taking part in them. it was one called cover. All later they called them all Chrome Dome.


00:35:24:00 - 00:35:44:10

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

But this was when they saw the different names. and it had some mishap in the air relating to refueling. And, it was refueling and then it was leaking fuel. And so they were going to return to their base, this big plane. And as it was trying to go back, they sort of to lose control of this plane.


00:35:44:12 - 00:36:04:04

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

The people in it got out of the plane. and as it was sort of going back towards the base, it like broke up in the air. This, this plane. And as it broke up, it had two h-bombs inside of it that were I think they were. Yeah, three megatons or something like that, two megatons, something in that range.


00:36:04:04 - 00:36:28:19

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

I haven't looked it up right now. and these two h-bombs, they're sealed pit. They are fully complete bombs. But they also have all these little safety systems built into them. By this point, they're not all the safety systems that would later be built into them. there's been there's this tension between the military and the people in charge of the safety.


00:36:28:19 - 00:36:47:23

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

The safety is was mostly done by the people at Sandia National Labs. So these are the people. So Los Alamos, like, invents the bomb concepts. Sandia is the people who package the actual bomb up. So it's the electronics, the fuzing, the, safety mechanisms, how you fit it into it. What shape is the best shape to hit your target?


00:36:47:23 - 00:37:08:07

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

It's all of that, the non-nuclear stuff, essentially. And the final packaging stuff. and there's this tension that was going on where the military didn't want anything that might prevent a bomb from going off when you wanted it to. Right. Whereas the scientists were like, I think it's more important that we make sure the bomb never goes off unless we want it to.


00:37:08:07 - 00:37:35:21

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And these can be in tension. And at that point, there was perhaps more emphasis on the bomb being able to go off than on the bomb. You know what it really than not not going off unintentionally anyway. So these two bombs are thrown out of the plane. And interestingly, they have sort of different histories in terms of how their switches go and send it as a complete postmortem on them afterwards, digs up all the parts.


00:37:35:21 - 00:38:02:22

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And they're very interested in using this to figure out the safety. So one of the bombs, the one of the things that's supposed to keep them from ever detonating accidentally is that they have these, like, switches in them that determine whether they'll fire or not. so there's two let me just back up one. So there's, there's kind of two different ways in which a bomb could detonate accidentally.


00:38:03:08 - 00:38:22:13

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

and I think people sometimes don't know about the second way. They know about the first way. And it makes them misread this. The first way is like the Mars bluff one where the bomb doesn't do anything with switches, but it hits the ground. It's got explosives in it. Those explosives go off. Could that make a nuclear weapon yield and the answer is usually probably not.


00:38:22:13 - 00:38:42:18

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

There were some weapons that might have had a higher chance of that, because they were not designed around that kind of safety in mind. They had like too much fissile material. But in general, you need a pretty symmetrical, explosion, and you're not going to get that from the bomb. Just like randomly having its explosives go off, the coordination won't be there.


00:38:42:23 - 00:39:05:01

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

But again, even then, it depends how you design it. There's ways in which you can design it so that it's not what they call one point safe, just inherently it depends on how your bomb is set up, but most of them are set up so that they wouldn't be able to possibly. You know, I think it's like 1 in 1,000,000 chance that they could have a nuclear chain reaction from that kind of like blunt explosion.


00:39:05:03 - 00:39:05:22

Chris Keefer

Okay.


00:39:06:00 - 00:39:44:21

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

The other way is the scariest way, which is your bomb thinks it should detonate and runs the full electrical system. That's not like an accident. That's like the bomb is like, hey, I'm ready to go. Let's fire all this perfectly the way we're supposed to. And there's ways that can be triggered. Either we'll talk about the Goldsboro one, but even, like some of the early bombs, if they got, hit with lightning, they could have triggered their firing system because it turned out there were, like, shorts between the firing system and the wall of the bomb, and you only needed a certain level of wattage, and it would turn on the motor that starts the


00:39:44:21 - 00:40:13:22

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

whole system and charges up the batteries and all these kind of things. There were bombs that they later found out, if you like, heated them too much, it would turn on the electrical system because they use thermal batteries. there's bombs where, the Sandia people found that, like, if the electronics if the bomb was on fire for a certain amount of period, the electronics could melt, the soldering fluid could go through and create a short that might turn on the electrical system.


00:40:13:22 - 00:40:37:10

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So that's to me, that's the category people usually forget about. It's way scarier than the first category. I'm willing to say, like, sure, you could engineer away the first category, but the second quarter is a different kind of engineering, and they get good at doing that. So like later bomb systems have what are called weak links in them, which are like systems that will fail under certain circumstances and render the bomb a dud.


00:40:37:16 - 00:40:58:12

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So like if the bomb catches on fire, it'll melt some crucial part and the bomb can't work without that. And now you're safe from everything else, right? Anyway, so one of the systems in place to keep the electrical system from even engaging is that it has these, like, rods that are meant to be very hard to pull out.


00:40:58:14 - 00:41:19:12

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And so you would have to be, like, deliberately pulled out with like a lanyard in the cockpit. They'd pull a thing and would pull a bunch of rods out, and that would allow the thing to begin the the arming process. And in both of the bombs that fly out of the this plane at Goldsboro, the sheer force of them flying out pulls out those, those holes.


00:41:19:14 - 00:41:39:05

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Yeah. So in one of them, that happens really early on and it starts going through the firing sequence. So it's and the way it's firing sequence was set up. I don't have the whole checklist in front of me right now, but there's a whole bunch of things that it needs to do. For example, it needs to run out a timer.


00:41:39:07 - 00:41:56:19

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So this is to make sure there's a separation from the aircraft before it does anything else. It needs to start charging up batteries. And there's two separate kinds of batteries. It has. There's the battery that starts up some of the firing sequence stuff. And then there's the battery that like charges the condensers that will set off the actual bomb.


00:41:57:13 - 00:42:24:00

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

it needs to know its altitude in the air. So it's taking like altitude measurements with barometric sensors to know that it's about where it ought to be before it continues on the firing sequence. There's this whole chain of events that it has to go through, the final of which if it goes through all of them, right, if fires the bomb now, that first bomb goes through almost the entire chain of events, as if it was set to detonate.


00:42:24:02 - 00:42:47:20

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And the one thing that, fortunately was there, there's a what's called an arm safe switch. And so this is an electromechanical switch that is armed from the cockpit. There's a little button in there that turns it on, and it's normally in safe mode. And if you give it a very low voltage or things like 12V or something signal, it'll switch to arm mode.


00:42:47:22 - 00:43:11:21

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And when it's in ARM mode, all these other electrical signals go through it and do things like charge all the other batteries and and insert tritium into the core, and then eventually launch the weapon and even make it so that if the weapon contacts the ground, there's a switch there that if that other switch is open, will then send the signal and set the bomb off, and it goes through all of them.


00:43:11:21 - 00:43:35:01

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And fortunately, that switch is in the safe position. And so it stops. And so that bomb very neatly lands on the ground. It has a parachute open up and it lands and it tries to send the firing signal and it fails because that switch is there. And so it doesn't detonate. Good times. So that's bomb one, bomb two, it's parachute never deploys.


00:43:35:03 - 00:43:55:23

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So it also goes through the firing sequence. But it doesn't have as much time because it's going so much faster than it's supposed to. And it doesn't. The firing sequence doesn't start until I think, later than the other one, because it comes out of the plane a little later so it doesn't run down its timer and goes start a bunch of other things before it impacts with the ground.


00:43:56:00 - 00:44:12:15

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And it impacts hard because it doesn't have a parachute. And so it goes through the mud into the ground. There's no explosives. It's higher. I mean, it's high. Explosives don't go off, which is good. you can make insensitive high explosives. I don't think it had those, but, like, they they weren't they didn't go off by the impact.


00:44:12:17 - 00:44:36:03

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And it breaks up deep into the ground and it's hard to get out. So it's like those are these two different bombs. Now, when the Sandia people get there, they inspect these and they're quite interested in this. and they're very happy that this arm safe switch succeeds, but they're also not happy that they had all these other little safety things that were meant to make it really unlikely that you'd even get to that part.


00:44:36:05 - 00:44:58:07

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And so this is they sort of conclude like one switch, that's it. That's all that kept this from going off. And they would note and it's not me noting this is the Sandy engineers. That particular model of switch was known to be faulty and easy to trigger through like ambient electrical signals. Again, it's very low voltage switch and in some cases would spontaneously turn to armed.


00:44:58:09 - 00:45:15:22

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And so you could imagine a world in which you got very unlucky and it happened to do that and that weapon. But what of the other one? Because it didn't actually go through the whole sequence, had no chance of going off. But interestingly, when they dug it up, which took several days, they never got part of the weapon.


00:45:15:22 - 00:45:31:17

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

By the way, there's part of the weapon that's still buried 60, 80ft down in some mud, and they just gave up. But the secondary but they got part of it and they got the switch. And when they initially pulled it out, it said armed. And they said, oh my God, right. Like, what if this one had been that one?


00:45:31:22 - 00:45:56:06

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

But they took it apart at Sandia and found that the impact of the ground had broken the switch and it was just visually said, armed electronically. It was neither armed nor safe. It was like just broken inside. So it wasn't actually armed, but it looked armed. So that's a pretty. Yeah. Yeah, they were pretty. There's actually one of the reports I really love.


00:45:56:06 - 00:46:18:03

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

It's been only declassified a few years ago where one of the guys looking at it like the way he writes the report, he's like, at this moment we wondered why didn't it go off? And you're like, wow, that's a really disturbing like, really? It was armed. And then it turns out it wasn't armed, which, you know. Right. So like the post mortem on this was this is not adequate.


00:46:18:05 - 00:46:45:13

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So they were already with the small bomb, knew it wasn't totally adequate and had already instigated a change that would add one more essentially. Check in there that would isolate the electrical system in a way so that this wouldn't be the same thing, would the risk? Wouldn't have been there quite as large. and they basically took all the ones that didn't have the supplied and said, we're going to take those out of circulation until they get applied in later bombs.


00:46:45:13 - 00:47:14:11

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

By like the 70s, they have many more things in place so that the electrical system is way more isolated. And again, if something weird happened, if it's coming out of the plane and it's not at the right altitude, like it won't even start to, you know, trigger the sequence, they added a lot more safety things. So even as late as like the 90s, there were some weapons in the stockpile that had basically like a C or a D rating in terms of safety, in terms of accidental detonation.


00:47:14:11 - 00:47:38:05

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

All the ones now are like extremely designed around the safety. The explosives are insensitive. They have locks so that you have to put in the password correctly, essentially. And there's a lot of little tricks they've, they've used over the years. So I'm not that worried about that today. I just want to emphasize, okay, the ones in the 60s while uncomfortable.


00:47:38:07 - 00:47:39:01

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Yeah yeah yeah.


00:47:39:07 - 00:47:59:00

Chris Keefer

Okay. Well we've been pretty granular here. I'm a little bit conscious of time. It's still fascinating. Yeah, I'm super curious. Like, you know, like the stockpile. I'm not I'm sure when ten, 20, 30,000 bombs. Like, what was what was the kind of natural limit? Why did it sort of snap back from that? And also in terms of just sheer size, sir Bomba was the biggest, weapons test.


00:47:59:08 - 00:48:08:05

Chris Keefer

but you know, why stop there? Like, what was the decision making that led to, I guess, our contemporary reality of kind of the number of bombs and the kind of maximum yields of our bombs.


00:48:08:07 - 00:48:30:14

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So the period from about 1950 to 1961, I sort of like to call that the exponential stockpile, because it's got this just exponential growth rate. And then around 61 it they stop exponentially building weapons. They still build a lot. I mean, the stockpile still very large and they're still adding weapons into the stockpile, but they're also taking weapons out of the stockpile at the same time.


00:48:30:14 - 00:48:58:07

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And so the number goes down even though they're continuously in and and hoarding. and I, I've been very interested in like what are the conditions that produce that growth. And then also what are the conditions that stop that growth. And part of it was things concerns or things like safety, like every weapon you have is a weapon that can have a mishap that could go missing, that costs money, that needs a purpose and needs to be justified.


00:48:58:07 - 00:49:39:05

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And at some point, how many do you need of that number? I would point out, like at its max, like 50 to 60% of those weapons are tactical nuclear weapons. So they're small. They're they're meant for battlefield or even like air to air or torpedoes, that kind of thing, not strategic weapons. So that's one of the explanations for why it gets so big as we go very in on tactical weapons, and then we start to sort of pull back on that, because it turns out that, like having lots of troops with very small weapons that are hard to secure is like by the 60s, people are starting to fear accidental nuclear war.


00:49:39:05 - 00:49:55:19

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Right? Some guy accidentally or for you know, there's a reason Doctor Strangelove comes out in 64, right? Like it's representing actual fears that were there at the time, that some general or lower could just make a really stupid decision.


00:49:55:21 - 00:50:12:00

Chris Keefer

I've heard in terms of, I've heard in terms of like the wargaming that, in general, when they run these scenarios, like a tactical, use of weapons basically almost always leads to a strategic nuclear exchange and mutually assured destruction if it's the US and Russia. Is that is that accurate?


00:50:12:02 - 00:50:41:11

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Yeah. I mean, when you do the wargaming now, whether that's reflective of what reality would be, I don't know, because you're it's impossible to actually capture, you know, you don't actually have anything on the line in a war game, whereas there would be really people's risk. We don't actually know how people would react. And so like I'm saying, yes, but, there have been some interesting more recent war games where the accounts of them have come out, where people have said so there was war game in the Obama administration that we know a little bit about.


00:50:41:11 - 00:50:58:22

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Fred Kaplan writes about this in his book, The Bomb, which is really interesting, where, the old guard, Cold Warriors, they all want to jump to nuclear. And then the sort of new post-Cold War warriors are like, wait, wait, wait, why do we need to jump nuclear so fast? Why don't we try a conventional reply? Why don't we?


00:50:59:00 - 00:51:24:10

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So, like it's interesting that we don't I don't really know what would happen. We I don't want to find out, but, keeping that ambiguity is maybe the best. the thing also about the bigger just the throw one thing, the big stockpile before the 60s, the overall process was not, super centralized. It was also very classified and kept secret even by the military.


00:51:24:10 - 00:51:45:13

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

There wasn't even a lot of executive oversight. So if Truman is this, like all civilian control, it swings really far under Eisenhower towards military autonomy. And this is one of the the, the the work plans are not even synchronize between the services. The Navy and the Army and the Air Force have their own independent war plans in the 60s.


00:51:45:13 - 00:52:08:22

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

They start centralizing it. This is the Kennedy administration. some of the end of the Eisenhower two becomes the Psyop, the single integrated operated plan. Part of the effect of that is you stop that exponential. Nobody's actually looking at the big picture growth and you start having to justify everything. And so it's I'm not saying it gets rational, but that puts a damper on just endless growth on it.


00:52:09:00 - 00:52:11:08

Chris Keefer

And speaking in terms of growth of of yield.


00:52:11:10 - 00:52:12:11

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Yeah.


00:52:12:13 - 00:52:17:16

Chris Keefer

I mean, how big are the biggest bombs now and why did they kind of arrive at that size. What are they settle out there.


00:52:17:22 - 00:52:39:20

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So there's this enthusiasm in the 50s and 60s for bigger is better. especially after first making the H-bomb. and we've, we sort of deride the Soviets for this. But the US, in the 50s, there were people in the Air Force who wanted 60 megaton bombs. And this was a serious consideration. and basically, the president shut this down.


00:52:39:20 - 00:53:13:02

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Eisenhower was not interested, and politically, to problematic. And the applications weren't that obvious. to him, you can also make more bombs that are still plenty big. You know, we did have these 23 megaton bombs. The difference between 23 megatons and 60 is not as big as people think it is, because the yield doesn't scale linearly. So like 223 megaton bombs, is is essentially more flexible and the same amount of damage as you're 160 megaton bomb.


00:53:13:04 - 00:53:15:14

Chris Keefer

Are these basically doomsday devices when they get that large?


00:53:15:14 - 00:53:15:19

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

No.


00:53:15:20 - 00:53:17:18

Chris Keefer

In terms of like the strategic use?


00:53:17:20 - 00:53:40:11

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

No. They're just really big. The but they aren't like world killing. They do look at the possibility of not necessarily world killing, but what, what I think most people would call doomsday devices. So in the 50s, in the mid 50s, through the late 50s, the scientists occasionally float the idea of gigaton range nuclear weapons. So this is thousand megatons.


00:53:40:22 - 00:54:01:18

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

and Edward Teller, one of the inventors of the H-bomb, he actually pitches a ten gigaton bomb, which is, they call the sundial. And, he pitches this actually right after the Castle Bravo accident, which is probably not like, your best tactical move. you're like, they're already like, what went wrong with our bomb? That was bigger than it should have been.


00:54:01:18 - 00:54:24:00

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And then, like, hey, but what if we made it even bigger and, like, okay, Edward, calm down. And, interestingly, they bring this up in the Eisenhower administration, even just the idea of a one gigaton bomb and the Eisenhower Air Force just has no use for this. They believe in fighting a winnable nuclear war, and doomsday weapons are not a winnable nuclear war.


00:54:24:00 - 00:54:44:19

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So, like, why would you do this? And to put it into context, ten gigatons, that's like pretty much the size of the entire U.S nuclear arsenal in the 60s, maybe a half a size or something. But like that's a lot for one bomb. And it's not clear how big that would have been. Also, it's not not that deliverable.


00:54:45:01 - 00:55:19:21

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

I said the damage doesn't scale linearly with yield with the weight basically does. And so like this is and volume. So like this is a barge or something. Right. This is not a missile. What happens is they get missiles and missiles put a priority on the smaller your package, the easier your missile. It's. And also as, especially as missile defenses start to get floated, they start doing things like moving where you're putting, like, ten individually targetable weapons onto one missile.


00:55:19:23 - 00:55:57:04

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And if you do that, your priority starts to be, volume and weight because you want to fit this tiny compact package. And any weight increases the amount of fuel. And, you know, it's, it makes it more difficult. And then accuracy. so you start having this drive towards more accurate missiles, and what you end up with is kind of a sweet spot with if you have really accurate missiles and you want a bomb that sort of fits into, maybe like a large trash can and has enough explosive power that you can knock out whatever you want.


00:55:57:11 - 00:56:20:16

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

if you have high accuracy, you don't need huge bombs. You could have a couple still quite large bombs, and you'll destroy anything worth destroying with that. And so the sweet spot ends up being in the sort of hundreds of kilotons. So most of the weapons today are between like 105 hundred kilotons. The US has maybe one bomb.


00:56:20:16 - 00:56:50:17

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

That's megaton range. The Chinese don't have as accurate missiles, so they compensate with some evil. They might have a few megatons, the Russians might have a couple megatons. But generally when you get to a certain type of nuclear power, the technical your your delivery vehicles meme or what determine what's optimizing it. And so it's better to have a lot of 100 kiloton weapons than it is to have a few gigantic as our bomb, but they couldn't even fit into a plane.


00:56:50:18 - 00:57:08:04

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

That's not a good delivery. You shoot down the plane, right? Like you see the plane coming up with a giant bomb under its belly. Right? That's the biggest target that's going to be there, right? That's going to be really hard to get to a target. Whereas a submarine launch ballistic missile or a cruise missile, there's no really very reliable way to try to avoid that destroying it.


00:57:08:04 - 00:57:25:07

Chris Keefer

So what about like, the collective, power of onboard? you know, a ballistic submarine like nuclear submarine? and again, this is just a wild platform. and I don't I mean, I don't I don't want to, like, get too much into, like, the nuclear triad, but, I mean, you know, you hear of a lot of countries that were pursuing nuclear weapons.


00:57:25:07 - 00:57:37:10

Chris Keefer

A lot of them gave up for a variety or different reasons. It's it's really expensive to deliver these things. But yeah, I mean, I'm interested in the, the submarine launched ICBMs and just the destructive potential on a on a single vessel like that.


00:57:37:12 - 00:57:56:05

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Yeah. And I'll just emphasize on delivery, if you look at, like, how much money the US spent on nuclear weapons in the Cold War, we spent way more money on delivery than we did the weapons themselves. It's way harder to build a fleet of submarines full of submarine launch ballistic missiles that are accurate and all this kind of stuff that's way and staffing them.


00:57:56:05 - 00:58:24:15

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

That's way more expensive than just once you've got your gaseous diffusion plant churning out more uranium or assembling the bombs or whatever, those are not the expensive parts. I mean, they are expensive, but the delivery rocket development plane development, fielding weapons way more expensive by like an order of like, you know, it's like three times more expensive. so it depends on what era of submarine and weapon and warhead and also, how many.


00:58:24:17 - 00:58:47:23

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So our, our missiles can have a lot of warheads on them, but we don't necessarily keep them fully stocked. there's treaties that dictate how many warheads we are allowed to allocate to just in total. and so we don't always allocate the maximum. So a lot of our subs for a while have only had like 1 or 2 warheads per missile instead of like the full 12 or whatever they can take.


00:58:48:22 - 00:59:08:00

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

but, like I did the math, for one, in the 70s, just as an illustration once where it's like, okay, let's say like, what was that era? And I don't have the numbers right in front of me, but I came up with something like 90 megaton and megatons worth of weapons on one Ohio class submarine in the 70s.


00:59:08:01 - 00:59:26:02

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Yeah, maybe I'm a little off. Maybe. But, like, it's basically as our Bomba submarine, right? And I like to bring this up because we like to make fun of the Czar Bomba like, oh my God, so ridiculous, so many megatons, so pointless. And like, yeah, sure it is in many ways. And the US flirted with making its own weapons that big two at the same time because I don't know, there's something to that.


00:59:26:02 - 00:59:46:12

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Maybe. But we and even the Edward Teller stuff, the gigaton range stuff. Oh my god, so ridiculous a doomsday machine. But like, we still built things like this. We just broke it into a lot of different pieces. And Dan Ellsberg, the late Dan Ellsberg, he made this argument, which I think is right. It's like we still built a doomsday machine.


00:59:46:12 - 01:00:00:20

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

We just didn't do it in one machine. We did it in a system. And it would still be, you know, this horrible thing. And I think that's a valid way to think about it. I mean, and it's interesting to think about why we think one of those sounds like more reasonable than the other.


01:00:00:22 - 01:00:17:04

Chris Keefer

Right? Right. Okay. Well, let's let's get into command and control because, I think that's a fascinating area. I'm sure it evolved a lot over time. And again, I'm just curious if like, you know, this is obviously so secretive, like, you know, within within each nation, but like, have best practices diffuse because it's pretty important.


01:00:17:06 - 01:00:37:08

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

I mean, we don't really know. That's that's the problem with the secretive stuff is it's it's been a source of concern for a lot of American analysts over the years, as we have had all these accidents and problems and command and control issues. Right. And we're not the most transparent about these things, but we are way more transparent than any other country about these things.


01:00:37:08 - 01:01:01:16

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

We you can read up, I can follow the accident reports and like they we've we've released information. Sandia is a great little documentary. You can look it up on YouTube always, never. It's like a three part in-house documentary on command and control and safety at Sandia by Sandia Nuclear Engineers. It's pretty good. it's not the whole story, of course, but, like, it's pretty good.


01:01:03:05 - 01:01:27:18

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

other countries are not transparent on this for the reasons. One is they don't like to admit to lack of control for probably good reason. I mean, you can see why that that makes it hard. But also there's a fear that if you know about how, a nation sets up its not just its safety issues, but how it sets up its nuclear launch procedures, which are pulled into all that.


01:01:27:18 - 01:01:46:19

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

They're all in command. Control is all of these things in our intersecting. It's everything involved and how you would keep how you would order a nuclear weapon to be used, but also how you keep that from not happening when it's not supposed to be used. if you know too much about that, in principle you can defeat it, right?


01:01:46:19 - 01:02:06:21

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

If we know that all their weapons can't be used on less, this signal goes from this person. Then we jam that signal or kill that person or whatever, and maybe they can't retaliate. That's the fear. And there's ways to work around that, of course, but they're also kind of scary. Like, let's have a lot of redundancy. That's not necessarily a safe thing anyway.


01:02:06:23 - 01:02:31:00

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

We don't know. Pakistani command and control. Right? We don't know. I mean, probably the CIA has some ideas, but like, we don't know North Korean command and control. One of my favorite jokes it's not really a joke, but like if you think a North Korean nuclear weapons system is scary, imagine a North Korean early warning system, like, like our early warning systems in the 70s were literally giving, at least one false alarm a week.


01:02:31:04 - 01:03:03:23

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Like, that's that's right. Like, that's a little terrifying. And they're not. Some false alarms are scarier than others, but like, how good you think the North Korean early warning system is, right? How many false alarms you think it gives them per week? Right. what would you like it to do during a crisis? yeah. we of, over the years, what's happened is that I think if you're going to make a criticism of us command and control as it currently exists, is that it's very patchwork.


01:03:03:23 - 01:03:25:18

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So it's not like we they sat down with one master system and we're like, here's the ideal system. It's more like over the years, these systems have had different things added on to them, to deal with different issues like how do you communicate with a submarine that's on the bottom of the ocean? Well, really long range radio, radio waves, long frequency radio waves.


01:03:25:20 - 01:04:00:15

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

You need like huge antennas, miles long to do that. So we built systems, physical ones, and also the, the president's like, emergency war plane can stream a, an antenna out the back of it. So that's like a mile low. Yeah. Which I thought was pretty crazy. So like, but that system was sort of developed at one time and then thrown into this mess of other systems, which are all technical human hybrid systems, of course, that date from different eras of development.


01:04:00:18 - 01:04:22:04

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So some of it is relatively up to date and some of it is really out of date. And there's advantages and disadvantages to that. I saw one of the top people, on this in the military give a talk once, and he one of the things he said as well, like you can't hack 10,000 miles of copper cable.


01:04:22:04 - 01:04:42:02

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Like, that's not a hackable situation. On the other hand, we're still using floppy disks like the big ones. Like, maybe that's not ideal. Like, some of these systems are really old, and there's only one guy who knows how to fix them or, you know, they're they're they're from the 70s or the 80s. How many computer systems do you want to use today?


01:04:42:02 - 01:05:09:23

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

They're from the 70s. 80s. On the other hand, new systems we know have like an infinite number of security breaches possible. And oh my God, do you really want this on the internet? And, you know, there's all sorts of like, some of these are the same concerns that you get in any, high risk infrastructure type situation. So, you know, to get more into your camp, like a nuclear power plant will have systems that are it'll a lot of nuclear power plant.


01:05:09:23 - 01:05:25:01

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

I don't need to tell you this, but like the infrastructure, a lot of it's from the 70s, essentially 70s design with them has been updated with sort of modern computer systems on top of them, some of which are air gapped with computers that are on the internet. So you can check your email because you got to check your email.


01:05:25:01 - 01:05:41:15

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

On the other hand, you don't really want the control systems to be on the internet. And so there's there's like I visited I think it was the one in, the Vermont. I can't remember the name of it. There's a plant up there. But they showed us the little simulation room and they showed us like, yeah, that machine would be on the internet and that machine is not on the internet.


01:05:41:17 - 01:05:56:06

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And then, of course, your computer security guys start immediately saying like, yeah, I bet I could figure out a way to get my virus from there to there. And like we did, you know, that's the Stuxnet thing. You put them on USBs because some at some point somebody is going to need to transfer some files between the two.


01:05:56:06 - 01:06:18:08

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So hit that vector really hard and give out free USB keys at conferences. And like, yeah. You know, if you work in the nuclear industry, never use a USB key you got from a conference. but like we that's how we got Iranian centrifuges shut down was by, like, bridging that air gap. And anyway, the point is that, like, the it's easy to come up with something that looks like a safe system.


01:06:18:10 - 01:06:36:16

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

But of course, there's really lots of ways to compromise them with modern stuff because it's just more complicated, which gets you back to the normal accidents thing. So anyway, like right now the US is spending is is planning to spend and is started. A program is spending a huge amount of money to modernize the command and control system.


01:06:36:18 - 01:07:00:16

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And I'm not sure anybody knows 100% what that is even supposed to look like at this point. Like, is it one new system to rule them all, or is it a bunch of subsystems that are all, you know, kind of separate and like there's different philosophies you could use to approach that kind of thing, but the fear is that this has not been really modernized that much, for a while.


01:07:00:16 - 01:07:10:15

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And, you know, you're having that's a lot of potential, you know, a lot of potential consequences you're putting onto these very old computer systems.


01:07:10:17 - 01:07:30:04

Chris Keefer

So it's probably like, again, beyond the scope of answering in a few short minutes. But, in terms of like, in order moving its way down from the president, the nuclear football, like just from, like 30,000ft view. What is what does that look like? Yeah, sure. If they were going to order a, you know, massive, you know, retaliatory strike or something like that.


01:07:30:10 - 01:07:55:20

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Yeah. Or any nuclear attack. I mean, it's the same kind of thing. Yeah. So, what we know about this and there's a big caveat around this where some of this stuff is essentially declassified or written in some way that we feel somewhat confident. That's real. Like like doctrine manuals and things and congressional testimony and things like that, declassified documents, etc..


01:07:56:02 - 01:08:16:18

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And then some of it is people have said things in interviews. Maybe it's part of the story, maybe it's full story. Sometimes people have said things in interviews that seem false. Maybe they don't know. It's also possible people within the system don't know the full story, always because it's compartmentalized, etc., etc. so there's big uncertainty bars here, but here's here's how I understand it.


01:08:16:20 - 01:08:40:08

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Having looked at it a bit, if you're president wants to so the president has to authorize the nuclear usage. The one caveat here, and this comes up in Eisenhower and Kennedy and potentially some later ones, and we don't know if there's anything like this today. There may be situations where the authorization has happened ahead of time. So what's called pre authorization.


01:08:40:11 - 01:09:04:00

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So Eisenhower for example, basically said under certain conditions you can use nuclear weapons and assume I gave you the the order. So in principle this would only be used for things where like you can't get in touch with the president and there's unambiguous the war has started, or something like shooting down enemy planes with your nuclear tipped air to air missiles.


01:09:04:01 - 01:09:27:12

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Like, that's not as big of a risk, right. but in principle, president has to authorize it. Everybody agrees on this. No question. That's the. They're the only person who can instigate an order and who can authorize an order from there, depending on the circumstances. There are different accounts about how that order ought to propagate or might propagate.


01:09:27:14 - 01:09:52:01

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And what strikes me as most likely is that there are, redundant ways to do it because you don't want a system that's so rigid that if it's, it has to go to this guy, but you can't contact that guy that you can't do anything. the value of the football, by the way, the football is for when the president is not near the Pentagon or the white House.


01:09:52:01 - 01:10:15:00

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

If the Pentagon, if the president is near the Pentagon or the white House or on his little mobile command center plane, I kept forgetting the name of it. You don't need something like the football that the football is for authenticating the president's order. It is the president. And it also the the bag, which is heavy, probably contains as much information as you could need to figure out what the order ought to be.


01:10:15:01 - 01:10:40:02

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Right? What nukes do we have? Where are they? What can they hit? You know, it's probably got the plans in it so the president can say, I authorized plan 84. See, they already have worked out a bunch of prearranged scenarios. it's the sort of mobile president authorization, so it's not absolutely necessary. if the president is in DC, he probably doesn't need the football, right?


01:10:40:02 - 01:11:08:20

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

He goes to the Pentagon, he's there with these people. The pathway, depending on the sources you're looking at, some say the order should go through the secretary of defense. It's very clear it doesn't have to go through the secretary of defense. The secretary does not need to give their assent on this. They cannot veto it. They can't even park the order and not follow it through or something, because they are absolutely not required for this chain.


01:11:08:20 - 01:11:38:17

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Whatever. they're it's it's it's it's not the normal chain of command. The other people it is meant to go through or could go through the one that is listed in various Air Force doctrine is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which is not necessarily just a person, but could be sort of the whole office. the other is the head of strategic Command, who is the this is the branch that's in charge of the actual missiles and things like that.


01:11:39:09 - 01:11:52:23

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

and then from those people, the order gets relayed to through whatever systems, command and control. I was just black boxes as like computers and satellites and wires and whatever that you said 10,000.


01:11:52:23 - 01:11:55:15

Chris Keefer

You said like 10,000 miles of copper wire. Like what?


01:11:55:17 - 01:12:01:01

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

There's there's like like across I'm message to the white states. Yeah. I don't know exactly how many miles, but it's a lot.


01:12:01:01 - 01:12:05:16

Chris Keefer

So it's like, it's like a network of like telephone wires that are dedicated just to this.


01:12:05:16 - 01:12:11:18

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Is that certain accurate, buried nuke proof, EMP proof? Yeah, yeah.


01:12:11:18 - 01:12:13:00

Chris Keefer

That's insane.


01:12:13:02 - 01:12:39:10

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Well, there that's how you have to do. Because otherwise, what if they set off an EMP and also have saboteurs cracked the wires or whatever, right. Like then you've disabled it. So this a system is built around the assumption that you might be under hostile nuclear attack, and it's got to be able to survive that. And any sabotage, any hacking, any whatever, that's built into the assumption of how this should work.


01:12:39:10 - 01:13:05:11

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And it's also white in principle. I have heard from somebody who knew about these things. He's deceased now, that like, the president could call up the guy in the silo and authorize deliver the order that way. Right. Like it? There's a lot of intermediary steps, but there's also sort of infinite variation. But eventually these orders go through to if it's a missile or a bomb.


01:13:05:11 - 01:13:33:22

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Now, the bombs and the missiles, not necessarily submarines, but they have, like, unlock codes where like the launch control center guy, his, his boss needs to approve some code that goes through so that the missile is armed and things like this. There's other little things that happen in here that I don't like. The details are sometimes known and sometimes on and are is interesting to me because to me, the core political question is can the president do it on his own?


01:13:34:00 - 01:13:59:01

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And the answer is in some sense, no, and in some sense yes. Right? No. In the sense that, like there is this huge system that needs to the president is not actually launching the missile. It doesn't work that way. It shouldn't work that way. the there is no red button on the desk that requires a signal. On the other hand, this whole system is set up to immediately, quickly and reliably translate that order into a result.


01:13:59:03 - 01:14:31:14

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

The people at the very top the chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Stratcom, probably not the secretary defense, but like those people, you could imagine them just disobeying an order and suffering consequences for that or whatever. Like that would be a crisis. It's clear they don't have a plan for what that would look like, worked out. That's certainly not part of the doctrine, but I don't see anybody after them doing that because they are drilled to just literally what they do is drill for for doing the order, the checklists so that if the order comes through, it's automatic.


01:14:31:14 - 01:14:51:08

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

They don't question it. They're also, when you get miss training, one of the things they train you to do, which we know because some of this has been declassified, they train you essentially not to ask questions about this and to assume that, like, look, your job in this is not to evaluate the global situation. You don't have the knowledge or the experience.


01:14:51:10 - 01:15:07:07

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Leave that to the people at the top. Just do what you're told and trust that it's been evaluated. Right. And if you ask too many questions about that, you don't become a missile lawyer. That's pretty clear. so like, I think all of that would go very fast, like with the designed to go within a few minutes of the order.


01:15:07:08 - 01:15:12:05

Chris Keefer

You need a certain Myers-Briggs testing personality to take on that role and probably very carefully.


01:15:12:07 - 01:15:33:15

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Selected. It's fun. It is carefully selected. It's funny because on the one hand, they don't want literal automatons. Like they could automate this whole thing they could have automated a decades ago. It's not you don't need AI, it's just turn on switches, right? Like you can automate turning switches, but they have always not done this. They've always said, we need the human in there.


01:15:33:15 - 01:15:52:15

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

We want a little human judgment. And in fact, at like the lowest levels, it's not even one human. It's two humans. It's always two people. two men rule. Now it's the two person rule, the no lone zone. I love the rhyming that they call it, but like, like the. It depends on the system, how it works.


01:15:52:15 - 01:16:07:06

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

But you need multiple people to turn a switch at the same time. And in theory, it's not possible for one person to do it. If you ask the soldiers, they sometimes tell you, oh, I figured out a way you could do it. But like in principle, one person at that level is not supposed to have the power to do it.


01:16:07:16 - 01:16:19:20

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

but yeah, anyway, they want the human factor, but they also don't want the human factor. They want a human who's responsive, but not a human who is unpredictable and won't follow orders. So it's complicated.


01:16:19:22 - 01:16:32:07

Chris Keefer

So speaking to that human factors like, you know, the example that pops to mind of like, a close call with the human factor was, I forget it was a senior officer on on the submarine during, the Cuban Missile Crisis, right?


01:16:32:07 - 01:16:34:02

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Yeah, that's certainly arguable on,


01:16:34:04 - 01:16:45:21

Chris Keefer

You know his name. Yeah. maybe everybody should, but, like, is that is that one of, like, the only examples where we were, we were close and and the human stepped in and prevented, you know, the dominoes from starting to fall.


01:16:45:23 - 01:17:05:19

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Well, that's one where we definitely can say, like, if that human had not been on that submarine that day, they probably would have used a nuclear torpedo. And we don't know what would have happened after that, but that would have been some kind of escalation. That would have been something, it's not necessarily the end of the world.


01:17:05:19 - 01:17:23:02

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Who knows? But like, yeah, an archipelago was not even supposed to. I mean, he was it's not that he was supposed to be on there, but he was not a normal fixture on that submarine. He happened to be there. He wasn't like he was the captain. He was this like, high ranking guy who happened to be stationed there that day.


01:17:23:04 - 01:17:28:10

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

A third guy who normally there would only be two guys there. there are other.


01:17:28:12 - 01:17:31:12

Chris Keefer

The other two, to be clear, they they were ready to launch.


01:17:31:12 - 01:17:37:02

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Yeah, they're ready to launch. They were like the captain and I forget the other one. Maybe they I don't know, assistant captain. I don't know boats.


01:17:37:07 - 01:17:42:23

Chris Keefer

and as you said, this isn't like an Ohio class death boat with 90 megatons on board. This is a, like, a tactical weapon.


01:17:42:23 - 01:18:02:05

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Essentially, they would have used it as a tactical torpedo. So they thought they were being attacked by an American destroyers above them. The American destroyers were not attacking them. They were basically dropping like, not grenades, but like small depth charges to try and tell them we got nothing to come to the surface. Right? We've cornered you, so give up.


01:18:02:05 - 01:18:21:16

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Haha. We win. And they thought they're trying to kill us. And in the situation where we're trying to be killed, they've. That must mean war has happened or something. We are authorized to blow them out of the water and the tool we have to do that is a low yield nuclear torpedo, which again, not they're not hitting cities.


01:18:21:18 - 01:18:46:01

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

But what would the response have been if the US thought that the Soviets were starting to use tactical weapons at that moment? Would they have understood this was just one torpedo went a misunderstanding? What would that have done? Well, there have been a retaliation in kind with the tactical weapon. Would that have pushed for like bombing Cuba or invading Cuba, which were definitely on the table?


01:18:46:01 - 01:19:04:17

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

There were people pushing for that. That was very close to happening. And if that had happened, then what happens next? Right. You could see a whole chain of things. so that's the that's the one that we know where it's something like that, where somebody is saying, I'm going to use this nuke and somebody says, you're not going to use that nuke, we're done.


01:19:04:19 - 01:19:36:13

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

The other kinds of human close calls we have are more either with, early warning systems that gave incorrect information that where they basically said, we're under attack. And either people figured out that this was false or they in the case of a Russian guy, Senator Petrov, they like, declined to pass this on because they feared that it was false and that if they passed it upward, it would be overreacted to.


01:19:37:12 - 01:20:09:12

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

so we have a few of those cases on the US and the Soviet side that we know about. We have, cases where certainly presidents have had advisors suggest things that would be Korea's one of them. Right. But but the Cuban Missile Crisis, things that would have escalated things highly and basically shot it down. so we have places where it's pretty clear that the human factor is there.


01:20:09:12 - 01:20:34:08

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

We also have cases where we know that the situation was more dangerous than any Cuban Missile Crisis. One of these that the people at the charge of these systems understood at the time where like the forces in the field were much more trigger happy than they were supposed to be. Dan Ellsberg, I mentioned earlier, he has his book, The Doomsday Machine.


01:20:34:19 - 01:20:56:23

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

which is a lot of it is about him and his work as a, analyst for the Rand Corporation. He's the Pentagon Papers leaker. But this was before he did the Pentagon paper stuff. He was in charge of analyzing command and control problems in the United States. And he didn't really leak anything on that until the book is a lot of him saying, here's what I told the Kennedy administration, here's what was actually going on.


01:20:56:23 - 01:21:17:17

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

He actually went to places like South Korea, to these forward bases where we had nukes, and talk to the people there about the procedures and realized, like, wow, they're doing the most dangerous thing you could imagine doing. That's really terrifying. that in the event of a crisis, this could lead to a nuclear explosion and that could make people think we'd started nuclear war.


01:21:17:17 - 01:21:42:23

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And the people at the base would think that nuclear war had started, and they had no locks on the weapons at that time, and they could have just attacked. And so it's a really fascinating book. and, he goes through a lot of stuff. And one of the things he says about the Cuban Missile Crisis, which I find fairly compelling, it's interesting, the standard reason why it ended is, you know, the two fellows looked at I and the other guy blank or whatever I think is Acheson, who said that.


01:21:43:05 - 01:22:07:04

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And that's we've known that that's not true for a long time. But like, why does Khrushchev push to end it? When he does, he pushes really hard to end it. All of a sudden, he accepts terms. It's clear that there's people in the Politburo who don't want to accept those terms. And Khrushchev just essentially pushes to end the thing really suddenly and is willing to like, as the kids would say today, take the L like back down and really not succeed at this.


01:22:07:09 - 01:22:34:00

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Why does he do that at that moment? And, Dan's argument, which I don't think is totally and I think it's fairly plausible. I don't know what all the Cuban missiles scholars think about this. but basically, the U.S. had delivered this sort of secret ultimatum to the Soviets that said, look, if you shoot down another one of our planes in Cuba, we're going to escalate.


01:22:34:01 - 01:22:54:00

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

We're going to escalate hard. So stop shooting, trying to shoot down our U-2 planes or our other photo photography planes. Just knock it off. Because if you do that, that's a red line. We're just letting you know, huge red line shooting down another plane. And in Cuba, the people who are trying to shoot down the planes are the Cubans not really happy?


01:22:54:02 - 01:23:19:15

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Yeah. And they're not good at it. But they're getting better. They're getting experience. They're trying every day and they're getting a little better at shooting, trying to shoot down planes. And Khrushchev realizes he doesn't have control over that. He doesn't have control over the Cubans at all. He can't tell Castro exactly what to do. And if this goes on, they're going to get lucky and shoot down one of those planes, and the Soviets are going to be blamed for it.


01:23:19:15 - 01:23:41:19

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

The U.S. is not going to believe that the Soviets don't have control over the Cubans, and then they're going to escalate it, and it's not going to be in Khrushchev's power. So Dan is arguing that, like he thinks that's what actually triggers the end of the crisis is the fact that the guy in Moscow realizes that the people, the guy in Havana, is not under his control and is going to accidentally start nuclear war.


01:23:42:01 - 01:24:02:19

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And that that that is too much of a risk to deal with. And I think that's an interesting example, again, of this human. It's not a technical thing. It's even not a deterrence thing. It's a like a oh, man, how much control do we have over the people at the lowest level of these things? And, and how about a disconnect is the policy from those people's actions.


01:24:02:21 - 01:24:19:11

Chris Keefer

And at that time you're saying the US had a 20 to 1 advantage over the Russians. you know, getting to this question and maybe this would be sort of our close here of, you know, what's what's held us back, you know, mad, mutually assured destruction seems to be a pretty good reason not to start lobbing nukes at each other.


01:24:19:20 - 01:24:34:18

Chris Keefer

and again, part of the reason why you need the hardening of these systems that you're describing to be able to resist the impulses, for whatever reason, have a credible ability to to respond. But maybe just let's, let's explore that, to kind of cap off this, very interesting conversation.


01:24:34:20 - 01:24:54:02

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So the one thing I always point out, Matt, is one flavor of deterrence. So there's a broader ideas, deterrence, which is basically which we don't forget all the details. There's also a thing called complaints. Anyway, deterrence is basically me making a threat to you and saying, don't do this thing against me or I'll do this thing against you.


01:24:54:04 - 01:25:17:00

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Right? So that's the essential nature of it. don't nuke me or I'm going to nuke you. Mutually assured destruction is the idea that we are safer if we're both mutually vulnerable, to this kind of threat. And so it was only any kind of official policy for, like, a moment in the 60s, but the military didn't like it.


01:25:17:00 - 01:25:39:19

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Even the US doesn't really like it because we don't really like being vulnerable. So, like, if you really embrace mutually assured destruction, you would not pursue missile defense because that that actually breaks the dynamic. If you believe in mutually assured destruction, because you sort of want to enhance the vulnerability and say, like, look, we'll both be vulnerable and thus will never be tempted to try and go first.


01:25:40:15 - 01:26:02:00

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

if you go first, you might be able to knock out some percentage of the nuclear forces or the command and control system, or decapitate the leadership. And maybe you avoid getting nuked at all in a mad relationship, you want to make sure nobody has any temptation to go first whatsoever. we generally have never done that. We've always wanted in the United States.


01:26:02:04 - 01:26:23:05

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

We keep open the possibility of going first, even though we will say, well, we won't likely go first. We actually never say we've never done a no first use pledge. We've never said we will definitely not go first. We always say, probably not, but don't try us, right? Don't think you can get anything. Don't, don't, don't get cute.


01:26:23:06 - 01:26:44:20

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Don't use bioweapons against us and say, they're not technically nuclear weapons. Well, you don't get to go first. No, we'll nuke you like we we've we use the ambiguity and hope that that keeps things deterrence. there are other ways you can think about deterrence. I think the biggest mistake people have about deterrence is thinking that it needs to be that mutual or at parity.


01:26:44:20 - 01:27:10:13

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So my favorite example of this is like North Korea, North Korea might have a dozen nuclear weapons of unknown reliability, on top of missiles of unknown reliability and unknown range. Unknown doesn't mean zero. It's enough that we, the United States, has many more weapons that are very much more better known. Reliability and accuracy and AI and everything like that.


01:27:10:15 - 01:27:31:14

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

There's no parity there, right? They don't have the ability to hurt us as much as we can hurt them, but we are pretty effectively deterred by them. We don't want to invade North Korea because the cost they could exact against us is not worth whatever we would get from from destroying them. Right? What do we get if we destroy North Korea and they don't hurt us?


01:27:31:14 - 01:27:51:14

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

We get a broken North Korea then now we have to deal with right? Like South Korea now has to like reintegrate with this radioactive sludge. We have to figure out, like, what the future. We have to deal with the international fallout that would come from that. and like, okay, we've reduced one threat, but we probably create other threats in the process.


01:27:51:14 - 01:28:10:02

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Right? Like, like it's not worth it. Even if we got that, it wouldn't be worth losing Los Angeles. Right. Like that's not a good trade, right? Like, if I was North Korea, I'd aim at places like Los Angeles or San Jose. Not because I dislike these places. I have, like family who live near there, but they're like big soft targets.


01:28:10:04 - 01:28:39:15

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And or even if they don't try to hit us, we don't want to lose South Korea or Tokyo. Like they can hit stuff near them, probably much easier. And so like, none of that is worth the cost. And the example I like to also use is there's a lot of YouTube videos of house cats scaring off bears. Know, I don't know if you're familiar with this this genre of content and of course, yeah, like a a bear could eat a house cat like a bear is all muscle, right?


01:28:39:15 - 01:28:58:13

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Like there's no competition. But the bear evaluation is. I don't know what this little thing is. It is angry. It is full of claws. It doesn't look delicious. It's trying to scratch my eyes out. I need my eyes. This is not worth it. I'm going home. I guess I'm out of here, right? And like, that's the that's that's another way to think about deterrence.


01:28:58:13 - 01:29:20:04

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So I always like to bring this up because if you think of it as being matched or matching tit for tat perfect thing, then you need all of these systems and all of these nukes and all this redundancy. If you think that it's about just raising the cost of something unacceptable, we could argue about what the Russians or Chinese think is unacceptable.


01:29:20:04 - 01:29:45:07

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And that's a complicated question. And people will say they don't value life as much as us. I don't know, but like you could argue about that. But if you only need a smaller number, this is what they call the minimum means of deterrence. Like what's the minimum amount you need to make it not worth it? For years, the Chinese thought that was about 100 something, and the British think it's about 100 something, and the French think it's about 100 something.


01:29:45:07 - 01:30:08:03

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Right. These are this, like smaller, deliberately capped arsenals. It seems like China now thinks the number is bigger than that. They've been expanding, and they probably think that because we've been threatening their minimum means of deterrence. I don't know this. There's probably a lot of factors going on because these things always have a lot of internal factors. But like we've been investing in missile defense, we've been investing in cyberattacks.


01:30:08:03 - 01:30:30:15

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

We've been investing in very fast, accurate missiles. And 100 missiles might not be able to survive our worst attempts to blunt their deterrent. And we might they might worry that we would think at some future time that we're going to feel like they can't deter us. So, okay, one way to do that is to make like three times as many missiles and add a bunch of hypersonic warheads on to them, and now you can't.


01:30:30:15 - 01:30:48:16

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Now we're still deterring you. And so, you know, I feel like we should be pushing towards the minimum. And I get annoyed that some of our policies seem to be not only pushing us, but also like other countries like North Korea and China towards not feeling like they have that. but anyway, that's that started a long divergence.


01:30:48:16 - 01:31:06:07

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Why haven't we use nukes? I don't know, I mean, yeah, deterrence is probably part of it. I don't think it's the whole story especially is definitely not the story for the early nuclear period where those dynamics had not been set up and that theory had not completely taken hold, like the US did not believe in nuclear deterrence in the 40s and much of the 50s.


01:31:06:07 - 01:31:28:13

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

It believed in first strikes. It believed in nuclear threats. The dispatch portion of retaliation, even against non-nuclear attacks like that's that's not deterrence. but, I think it's one of the things. So so just to go all the way back to Truman, the why didn't Truman use nuclear weapons in the Korean War? Like there were rational arguments against using them.


01:31:28:15 - 01:31:50:03

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

My favorite is they probably would not lead to an instant resolution of the war. And that would devalue this bomb. Right? Imagine you use this nuke against five Chinese airfields, and the Chinese don't pack up, and instead they redouble their attack. What have you done to this thing that you still are the only nation that has this threat in your pocket.


01:31:50:03 - 01:32:10:23

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

It's better to keep it as a threat. And also, what if you normalize using it? We are way more vulnerable in our military endeavors. This is one of the arguments against using it in Vietnam. You probably wouldn't win. And if you normalize the use of nuclear weapons, combat level nuclear weapons, American bases are way more vulnerable. We're centralized.


01:32:11:00 - 01:32:33:05

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

We put everything on one big base. The guerrillas don't do that. Right. Like, so like there's like, we don't want to normalize. We benefit from the what they call the nuclear taboo or nuclear nonuse. but why didn't we use it in Korea? Because Harry Truman didn't want to use it. Like if if you had put different people in that role.


01:32:33:05 - 01:33:02:12

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

I think if Eisenhower had been president in 50, they probably would have used nuclear weapons in Korea, like he was not opposed to that at that point. so I think it's interesting to look at that. Again, the personal factor is why I think writing a book on Truman is valuable. It's, you know, as historians, we try to look at forces and big things and the markets and the economies and culture and those sort and often devalue individuals because we're not doing great man history anymore, which is correct.


01:33:02:14 - 01:33:42:03

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

But there are sometimes people in positions of great influence. And I'm not saying he's a great man or anything like this, but some of this came down to like, idiosyncratic, individual psychological. That guy on that day. And one of the things that's kind of terrifying about nuclear weapons, even today, is that because the U.S. questions are so centralized, you're really talking about how a small number of people feel about them on any given day or any given crisis, like it's not the forces that will determine whether we so like Ukraine, it's not global forces that will determine whether or not Russia uses nuclear weapon.


01:33:42:03 - 01:34:04:05

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

It's Vladimir Putin. Like how much what's going on inside that head? I don't know, and I don't know. I'm not saying there's one reaction to that. But like that's unusual to centralize that kind of power even in a state like that, to have it be that that decision, be that centralized nuclear weapons do that in a way that almost nothing else does.


01:34:04:06 - 01:34:29:06

Chris Keefer

Okay. So I think this will be the concluding, concluding, concluding question, but you mentioned you're working on, another kind of web based tool. You have the map, and it has to do with, with threats of apocalypse, by way of, kind of closing out and shining a light on that project. nuclear winter is is something that's at least as top of my mind, in terms of thinking about that's that's what I sort of mischaracterizing as mutually assured destruction.


01:34:29:06 - 01:34:50:12

Chris Keefer

But. Oh, yeah. how kind of valid is that? Is that as a as a term or how much is that a is it a deterrence? I mean, I think obviously that would be different in terms of something more limited, smaller arsenals like North Korea, Israel or something like that. But in terms of the Russians and Americans or Chinese and Americans lobbing stuff back and forth, what does that look like in kind of a worst case apocalyptic scenario?


01:34:50:12 - 01:34:53:19

Chris Keefer

And does your does your web based tool touch on that.


01:34:53:21 - 01:35:18:02

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Or even that? The other one that has been studied for that is India, Pakistan. So that's a fair amount of nuking to, you know, 100 on each side more or less. What is the impact of that? the answer is it's hard to know. I, you know, the these are very so the work on whether nuclear so nuclear winter just to make sure everybody's on the same page.


01:35:18:02 - 01:35:42:07

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

It's, it's it's caused by burning. So it's not the mushroom cloud. It's not radioactivity. It's how much stuff do you start on fire and then do those fires send up particulate matter like soot into the upper atmosphere? And if you burn enough fires all at once, does that create sort of a layer that is reflecting some amount of sunlight?


01:35:42:07 - 01:36:03:11

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So it's kind of like some of these geoengineering ideas. the other thing it's kind of like or when these massive volcanoes erupt, and those can put up the Tambora eruption in 1815, put up enough stuff in the air that crops failed in Europe for several years. It was the year without a summer way for temperatures in Indonesia.


01:36:03:16 - 01:36:20:23

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

This affected Europe. And they they basically the sun didn't come out for a summer. And, interestingly, just to plug the other project, the doomsday machines, this is where the first post apocalyptic, literature in English comes from is imagining what the world would be like if the sun just went away. And they and it's also where Frankenstein comes from.


01:36:20:23 - 01:36:48:18

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Anyway, it's very interesting moment where this natural event has this rippling effect on culture, because it has this rippling effect on the ecosystem. and so the idea with nuclear winter is you'd cause enough darkening for enough period of time that it would have massive impacts on food production. And so globally, you get famines as a result of this until, you know, the normal atmospheric process.


01:36:48:18 - 01:37:17:16

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Essentially, they call scavenge, like raining out all this crap in the upper atmosphere. and this idea was first put out there in 1983 by a team who the most famous member of was Carl Sagan. and, it was immediately controversial, because it's got big political implications in the sense that they're saying you can't win a nuclear war above a certain size, like it's just literally suicidal.


01:37:18:12 - 01:37:40:12

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

and not only do you not win a nuclear war, but noncombatants definitely don't win it. So you could imagine a nuclear war that happens and South America is not hit by it, and Africa is is not hit by it. And maybe, you know, Asia, Europe and North America are pretty heavily targeted. but that would still be bad.


01:37:40:12 - 01:38:03:23

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Like for people in South America, they it's not like they'd be isolated, but you could imagine them being less invested in, in those outcomes than, you know, the countries that are actually targeted with nuclear winter. Everybody is killed essentially. And potentially you get extinction level depending on how much it is, etc., etc.. the difficulty is that these equations and models are like pretty complicated.


01:38:03:23 - 01:38:30:21

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So you're not only have to know how many nuclear, what is the nuclear burning going to look like, which requires you to know the nuclear targeting, not all targeting is the same amount of burning, right? Cities are different than deserts or water, for example. Right. you need to know how hot that burning is going to be and whether or not these fires are going to inject how much material and at what levels of the atmosphere.


01:38:31:06 - 01:38:51:04

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

you have to know how those are going to circulate in those levels of the upper atmosphere, how much sunlight reflectivity there will be, how much the scavenging processes will be. And you're doing this on a global scale. So interestingly, some of this nuclear winter early work led to simulations that made it better to some easier to simulate climate change because of the same kind of general models.


01:38:51:06 - 01:39:08:01

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And there were people in the 80s who said, well, I ran this with my own numbers, and I didn't see any wintering effects. Or you see a tiny effect, but none effect. And there have been people since then who have said that there's there's like a guy at Los Alamos who still publishes on this and he says, no, no.


01:39:08:01 - 01:39:39:19

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

If you use the right input variables and physical processes, you don't get any nuclear winter effects. There have been other work by academics who have said, we've refined our model, and we actually find or we've done some experimentation to get some info from these models. And we've narrowed down the amount of uncertainty and we still see big effects, maybe not the exact same effects as the 80s, but we still see effects that could lead to, if not, we're not necessarily extinction, but could lead to like hundreds of millions or billions of starvation deaths.


01:39:39:19 - 01:40:02:05

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Because if you fail a crop at this right moment, then you know this could happen and things. I'm not a climate scientist at all or a modeler. I don't weigh in on this. I out of over my head. But for me, what's interesting is that whatever your inputs are determines your outputs. And so and it's not clear what the right inputs are.


01:40:02:05 - 01:40:25:22

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So there's a lot of I don't want to say subjectivity, but people unsurprisingly tend to find the answer that matches up really well with their prior convictions. So like the military and Los Alamos tends to find that there is a nuclear winter and people who are against nuclear weapons, then the find that there are nuclear winter. And that doesn't mean that either of them are wrong, but it means that it's hard to know.


01:40:26:00 - 01:40:56:00

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

It's hard for me as somebody who is not an expert and does not pretend to be in this area, to possibly sort out the political categories from the technical categories, because they are a 1 to 1 matchup in all cases. Given that, what should the response to the uncertainty be? And this is a nice general question, should you assume that because you can't know if nuclear winter is real, we should not factor that in to any planning?


01:40:56:02 - 01:41:17:00

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Or should you assume that because we do not know it is real and it could be real, we should assume the worst in factored in? And what I find interesting is that also maps on to your political categories generally as well. The same people who, when you're talking about Chinese capabilities, will tell you you have to assume the worst every time or else you're stupid and suicidal, right?


01:41:17:00 - 01:41:34:03

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

If you don't assume the Russians and the Chinese are waiting every minute of the day for us to to make one mistake, and then they can nuke us all, which I think is highly unlikely to be. I don't see any evidence of that. But like, that's the common military assumption about this. They assume the worst case in the face of that uncertainty.


01:41:34:08 - 01:41:53:13

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

But when it comes to something that threatens their nuclear plans, they suddenly say like, hey, if there's no evidence for it, don't worry about it. I think that's an interesting how the politics of uncertainty to me is the interesting part. But I would say for any of your listeners, if you're used to seeing people say, oh, I heard they disprove nuclear winter, that's not true.


01:41:53:13 - 01:42:23:03

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

But also it's not true that they proved it like it's in this limbo. There are active researchers doing I work with some of them, not in the research side, but with some of the logistics. I'm building some software to help them with their data management stuff. like who do research on this? And, I don't think they're, nobody's a a bad scientist, but they are still, you know, human beings.


01:42:23:03 - 01:42:40:23

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And the same can be true of the Los Alamos people who I don't know, I don't think any of them are probably evil. But I do think that they have, the in the face of this thing where it's not clear what the right answer is or how, and we're never going to be able to test it, really, unless we get into a really bad situation.


01:42:41:15 - 01:42:47:18

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

like, how do we deal with this in this uncertainty? And what should the response be? I think that's the interesting social question.


01:42:47:23 - 01:42:49:09

Chris Keefer

at least it's low stakes. So, you know.


01:42:49:14 - 01:42:52:09

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Yeah. Right. It doesn't matter. Yeah. The fun.


01:42:52:09 - 01:42:52:16

Chris Keefer

All right.


01:42:52:16 - 01:42:54:22

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So trolley problem. Oh yeah.


01:42:55:00 - 01:43:01:01

Chris Keefer

Let's just close. I want you to, because I'm personally interested, in the website. It's going to go live soon. So it's the doomsday machine. Is that what it's called?


01:43:01:02 - 01:43:02:01

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Doomsday machines.


01:43:02:01 - 01:43:07:10

Chris Keefer

Plural machines. Plural. Okay, so just tell us a little bit more about that, because I'm intrigued.


01:43:07:12 - 01:43:26:13

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So Doomsday Machines is, I'm calling it an exploration of the post-apocalyptic imagination, in fact. And fiction, though you could argue that it's all fiction to some degree, but so part of it is going to be. So the backstory is, I've been working on a video game for the last few years with students, which I have never made a video game before.


01:43:26:13 - 01:43:55:18

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

I've been programing a long time, but that's been a very interesting exploration and thinking about game design and worldbuilding and fiction, which I was also not really what I do. And it's a video game that is set in, 1983 after a full scale nuclear war. It's basically Oregon Trail in that place. And, that's setting. And I'm trying to make it a very plausible world, like I'm trying to actually look into, like, modeling what that would really look like as part of the for the the game.


01:43:56:00 - 01:44:19:17

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

And so as I've been working on that, I've been going through all these historical documents that are like U.S. government models for what the post-nuclear situation might look like, which range in what they even look at and gets you into wonderfully deep, like micro questions like, how much gasoline would there be? Right? Like, that's a fascinating. And for a game where you have to use a car like that's a key.


01:44:19:19 - 01:44:40:18

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

I want a realistic gasoline availability model along with the radiation models and the fallout and all this kind of stuff. It's got like realistic fallout models, etc., realistic targeting. So it's pulling together a lot of stuff I'm interested in as a, as a historian, but also this kind of world building stuff. But in the process, I'm also looking for ideas for the fictional content of it.


01:44:40:18 - 01:44:55:01

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So I've been reading even more post-apocalyptic fiction than usual and watching more movies and thinking about it this way. And I had this thought of like, man, I should do something with all this. This is fun and also can be a dev blog for the game, which, you know, build up a little bit of interest and knowledge about it.


01:44:55:04 - 01:45:12:14

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So basically what this is, is part of it is discussions of fiction, self-conscious fiction. So one of the first posts will be about the road, which I've thought a lot about Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and is sort of things that I thought were interesting about the road and, and things I thought other people would find interesting about the road.


01:45:12:14 - 01:45:33:03

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Like what Cormac McCarthy thought the book was about is probably not what you think it's about. And that's interesting. and also it was like chosen by Oprah to be her book club book. What is going on with that? How should we think about this anyway, in 2006 or whatever? What does this tell us? So it's kind of like a little media analysis, but with a strong historical bent to it and some trope analysis.


01:45:33:05 - 01:45:55:09

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

One part of it is going over these official government documents, stuff like interesting stuff that's come up that I've learned about from there, or weird documents that I found that I think other people would find interesting or illustrate some way in which governments plan nuclear war or plan recovering from it. Part of it is about the game and world building.


01:45:55:09 - 01:46:14:00

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

So it's some of it's just going to be about like why I decided we needed to have faces for everybody you talk to in the game and how we set up a system to do faces, in this weird retro 90s inspired game thing that we've been building with a bunch of undergraduates for several years. and that's fun if you're interested in game design.


01:46:14:00 - 01:46:36:01

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

But it's also about fiction and, like, why I need a face. Like, I hate games where I don't get to see who I'm talking to. I just can't get into it. Even if it's a dumb little animated thing. I like a face. It's also going to have stuff on, like how we built up the radiation model and how we built up the the food available remodel stuff that powers the game but might not.


01:46:36:01 - 01:46:52:17

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

The research might not be obvious to anybody playing it. I think it might be fun. And then some of it's just, I'm going to be interviewing people, kind of like what you're doing here, who I've known over the years, who work on various aspects of the end of the world. It might be nuclear winter people. It might be, anthropologists who study preppers.


01:46:52:17 - 01:47:17:19

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

It might be, I have friends who do all sorts of weird historical and technical stuff over the years. So I'm going to interview these people. So that's basically what it's going to be. Plus some miscellaneous fun things that I found over time. So I, I think it'll be fun. it's it's it's, it's, it's for the kind of person who, if any of those things sounded interesting to you, you should go there because it's going to be like, it's going to be fun and it's going to be different.


01:47:18:07 - 01:47:28:00

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

it's not the same old stuff. It's a weird little mixture of stuff, and everything's kind of short and, I think it's gonna be really fun, so I'm very jazzed about it.


01:47:28:02 - 01:47:43:20

Chris Keefer

I'm one of those people that, has a hard time with kind of suspension of disbelief. And when I'm watching a show and I see something that just is not realistic, it completely falls off for me. So I think I'll be a super fan here because, it sounds like, you're doing a lot of rigorous analysis to make it hyper real.


01:47:43:22 - 01:47:59:20

Chris Keefer

Okay, we went 45 minutes over. Happy to do so. thanks so much for being so generous with your time. And as always, like, so much nuance here. again, I did a bunch of prep for this and, just learned so much more. So thanks again and, hope to talk to you again soon.


01:47:59:21 - 01:48:02:21

Prof. Alex Wellerstein

Yeah, I'll be ready for part three. Anyway, good to talk with you. Super fun.



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