Oven Setting ‘Apocalypse’: Nuclear Weapon Preflight Controllers

Bottom Line Up Front:

I have three major goals for this post. First, to put into the ether of the internet easily accessible pictures of nuclear weapon equipment (preflight controllers) that are otherwise difficult to find. Second, to outline what this equipment does and how it is used based on primary sources and reasonable speculation. Finally, I want to reflect on the affective responses I (and some others) have had to nuclear weapon preflight controllers as material instantiations of preparation for nuclear war.

Author’s Note: Special thanks to Taylor Genovese and Grant Trent for helpful comments and revisions! Also special thanks to Althea Atherton for the picture of me poking the bomb!

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A VERY Brief History of Nuclear Use Control

     I am most familiar with the history of US nuclear weapon use control efforts beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The scattering of US weapons across the world, including for delivery by allied NATO nations, was a significant driver for increased US civilian concerns about maintaining compliance with US law and preventing unauthorized nuclear use by allies. A popular anecdote has Harold Agnew visiting an airfield where he observed US nukes loaded on  German planes, with German pilots, and a lone US sentry. Agnew asked the sentry what he would do if the pilot attempted to take off without authorization. The sentry replied that he would shoot the pilot but Agnew told him to shoot the bomb instead.[1] These worries and reports led JFK in 1962 to issue National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 160 which directed that PALs (at the time ranging from mechanical locks to electromechanical coded switches) be installed on all European theatre weapons. As of the early 1980s, approximately half of all US nuclear weapons deployed in Europe were secured only with mechanical combination locks.[2]  Currently all 180 or so US nuclear weapons in Europe are fitted with coded-switch PALs that require six or twelve digit keys to unlock.

Encountering The Bomb

     The preflight controllers I discuss in this post were (and some still are) used to set weapon delivery options and to unlock the Permissive Action Link (PAL) of the weapon on the ground. The PAL is (probably) a coded switch that, upon entry of the proper key, enables critical weapon circuitry.[3] Some planes, such as the B2, have the ability to both unlock nuclear weapon PALs and to set all fuzing options in flight and from the cockpit. Using the preflight controller, as I discuss below, nuclear weapons can be set to detonate at particular altitudes, at particular times, and at particular yields. In the first part of this post I am especially interested in the affective responses I have felt, and observed some others to have felt, upon encountering nuclear weapon use control equipment.

     To paraphrase several comments made on Twitter, and by folk I have taken through the National Nuclear Museum of Nuclear Science and History (NMNSH), the preflight controllers for nuclear weapons seem more appropriate to a washing machine or an oven than to a nuclear weapon.

Controls Co America 1959 SA v200i4 who are we GENDER from missiles to housewives.jpg
Controls Company of America. “Who Are We.” Scientific American 200, no. 4 (1959): 31.[4]

     As an anthropologist, these moments of unease and experiences of the nuclear uncanny are fascinating points for productive analysis.[5] The occult and abstruse nature of information about nuclear weapons, just as for nuclear war, allows personal and cultural imagination great latitude in conceptualizing what these things are like.[6] There is relatively little opportunity for pesky reality to constrain our self-comforting beliefs about nukes.[7] For me, and at least some other folk, the seemingly apocalyptic nature of nuclear weapons demands that the procedures and machinery for their use should be appropriately solemn, complicated, and imposing. But they aren’t. In the United States at least, nuclear weapons were designed to be used and to be used certainly and rapidly in the event of authorization to do so. It is no mistake that preflight controllers resemble oven and washing machine controls; they were built with similar concerns for ease and quickness of operation.

Stromberg Carlson 1960 SA v202i1 p137 a tlent for command control systems
Stromberg-Carlson. “A Talent for Command Control Systems.” Scientific American 202, no. 1 (1960): 137.[8]

     I would argue that the nuclear uncanny, that sense of discomfort and unsettlement, some of us feel when confronted with the banality of nuclear weapon use controls is of the same type I have observed (and felt myself) in discussions about US nuclear launch procedures. Again, secrecy and obscurity have contributed to, or at least allowed, the development of widespread folk beliefs about supposed restrictions on the authority of the President of the United States (POTUS) to order nuclear use. It appears, again by design, that POTUS has virtually unchecked authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.[9] The US nuclear command and control system, of which preflight controllers are a material metonym, has been purposefully constructed to be rapidly responsive to an authorized fire order. By definition, almost any nuclear launch order by POTUS is authorized.

     Time for an illustrative anecdote! As part of a UNM Nuclear New Mexico class (Fall 2016), I was on a discussion panel after a public showing of the documentary Command and Control (the book is better).[10] To paraphrase, the discussion turned to US nuclear launch procedures. One person referred to my description as “simplistic” and argued that I failed to take into account the “checks-and-balances” on Presidential nuclear use but declined to elaborate what they are. It is difficult (for me at least) to repeatedly have these sorts of conversations and not conclude that some degree of what Robert Lifton called psychic numbing is in play: beliefs and emotional callouses that allow us to ignore, or at least reduce the impact of, the omnipresent threat of nuclear devastation.[11]

     In any case, the next part of this post is the fun stuff: pictures and explanations! All pictures of preflight controllers and bombs are mine unless otherwise noted. ENJOY!

What Are Preflight Controllers and What do they Do?

     Preflight controllers are the devices used by ground crew to set nuclear weapon delivery and yield options and to unlock the weapon before flight. Command Disable, for the weapons I discuss today, is also operated through the preflight controller. For some delivery aircraft, all of these options can be set using Aircraft Monitoring And Control (AMAC) system equipment located inside the plane; for other aircraft these options had to be set on the ground before flight. Based on my readings of declassified documents and secondary sources, this is my best guess for what these dials and buttons do:[12]

B61 high rez disassembled
A dissembled B61 (mod unknown, not my picture. See endnote).[13]

     The B61 nuclear gravity bomb is now present in the US arsenal in mods -3, -4, -10 (so-called “tactical” versions); mod -7 (“strategic”); and mod -11 (earth penetrating).[14] Currently the B61 Life Extension Program (LEP) is in the process of converting B61-4 weapons into the B61-12 which will have four yield options between .3kt to 50kt. Most importantly, the B61-12 will ditch the parachute in favor of a precision guided tail kit. Supposedly all other mods of the B61, and the B83, will be retired afterwards. In this post, I discuss the preflight controller for two retired versions of the B61: the -0 and the -5. I start with the B61-5 because it is the most similar to controllers still used and also has helpful labeling.

B61-5

B61-5 preflight controller my picture.jpg
B61-5 preflight controller at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (NMNSH), my picture.

     I swear, the B61-5 is like the embarrassing relative nobody likes to talk about after they die. That is to say, I have had significant difficulty finding basic information about the B61-5 other than its yield options and that there were plans to convert it into B61 mods -6, -8 (both canceled). Based on my readings of declassified documents, the driving forces behind new B61 mods have included the desire for additional units (-1), different yield options, specialty missions (-7, -11), because the US didn’t want to dismantle warheads from other systems (-10), and for safety and fuzing upgrades. All of that said, this discussion starts at the upper left of the preflight controller and goes counter-clockwise for each point of interest.

TA, TB: 10-69
Planes in flight are, unsurprisingly, rather sensitive to nuclear detonation effects and the B61 was designed to allow delivery by low-flying aircraft. The TA/TB switches are for setting “two independent aircraft safe escape times” that must elapse before the weapon can go boom thus giving the delivery vehicle time to get away.[15] The range is from 10 to 69 (nice) seconds and the aircraft crew selects between TA and TB using equipment in the plane.

J2
This is the port for a strike enable plug that must be inserted to make the weapon usable. My understanding is that the plug completes a pathway for internal power systems.

DELIVERY: FF or RE
This selects between freefall and parachute retarded delivery. The crew selects the
laydown delivery option using AMAC equipment.

OPTION: A, B, C, D, E, F
Most B61 mods have multiple selectable nuclear yields providing a “Dial-A-Yield” (DAY) function. Although there are six choices, the OSINT I can find gives only four for any given mod of the B61. As far as I can determine, the B61-11 earth-penetrating weapon only has one yield (400kt). The B61-5 could go between 10-150kt which is suspiciously similar to the W80 warhead.[16]

DELAY: G, H, J
For parachute-retarded deliveries this sets a delay between weapon release and parachute deployment: G=.3 seconds, H=.6 seconds, J=1.6 seconds. In addition, or perhaps “instead,” for laydown deliveries this sets a delay between weapon impact on the ground and detonation: G & H=30 seconds and J=80 seconds. In the unlikely event that you ever find yourself nearby a nuclear weapon that has drifted to ground on a parachute, then I would suggest that you very quickly come to terms with your own mortality.

COMMAND DISABLE SYSTEM: A, B, & C dials (0-9); T-handle; dial with N, CC, DI, & R
As previously mentioned, the US has a habit of scattering nuclear weapons around the globe and then civilian leadership worrying about enemies, terrorists, or allies seizing the weapons and using them. PALs were initially, and presumably still are, conceptualized as a delay mechanism and so is command disablement. In the event that, say, US nuclear weapons stored at Incirilik AFB in Turkey are threatened with capture during a coup (impossible to imagine, I know) then the command disable allows for, well, disablement of the weapon. Put in the correct 3 digit code, spin the knob to ‘DI,’ (for disable!) and pull on the T-handle and a thermal battery powers up to (probably) fry some crucial part of the circuitry.[17] Now you have to return the weapon to Pantex in Texas for remanufacture. Alternatively, you can maybe just dig the plutonium out and make your own but that’s a pain in the ass and there is maybe (maybe not) an active protection system that violently (think one-point detonation) punishes penetrations of the tamper resistant membrane. Declassified documents I have seen are rather quiet on the whole thing but this is not a totally unreasonable possibility under some conditions I feel. Like the PAL itself, command disable will buy you some time but it probably isn’t a foolproof safety mechanism. Best not to let nuclear weapons escape your control.

J1
Permissive Action Link (PAL) plug. This is where a connector cable for ground control equipment to lock/unlock, recode, and check the status of the bomb. PALs are probably coded switches attached to the X-unit or other critical circuitry. Without input of the proper key to the PAL the weapon will not detonate.[18] Some planes have Aircraft Monitoring and Control (AMAC) equipment able to manage PAL functions; for other aircraft the weapon must be unlocked on the ground before flight.

B61-0

b61-0 nmnsh ROTATED 90 degrees
B61-0 preflight controller at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, my picture.

     For the B61-0 (the original B61 bomb), everything probably works the same EXCEPT you will note the absence of a Command Disablement system. I am unsure as to when command disable became a standard part of B61 design and deployment.

B83

B83 preflight controller my pics cropped
B83 preflight controller at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, my picture.

     The B83 is the only remaining megaton class (1.2MT) nuclear weapon the US deploys. As a FUFO (Full Fuzing Options) weapon, like the B61, it has more choices than a casino buffet. My discussion begins at the top and moves from left to right starting with “DELAY.”

DELAY: G, H, J
Time after weapon release that the parachute deploys or, for laydown delivery, time after the weapon impact before detonation.

FUNC: A, B, C, D, blank, blank
Presumably this is the Dial-A-Yield selector. Maximum yield for the B83 is 1.2 megatons but I have not seen much on other available yields. I find it interesting that the B61-0, -5 preflight controllers I have seen have six options whereas this B83 controller has four with two dial positions left blank.

DELIVERY: FF, R1, R2
The B83 has more fuzing options than Papa Johns does pizza choices. FF is “free fall” presumably and “R” refers to “parachute retarded.” I am not certain of the difference between “R1” and “R2.’ My first guess would be that R1 and R2 are airburst vs ground burst but this is open to question in light of the existence of the CONT/HOB dial.

CONT/HOB: CL, PL, PH, CH
I assume this allows for setting the weapon to a contact or airburst or laydown delivery. I have almost no clue what “CH,” “CL,” “PL,” and “PH” mean. ‘H’ might stand for ‘high’ and ‘L’ might stand for ‘low?’ Additionally, I am unsure where the actual height of burst would be set if this fuzing option were selected but presumably in the cockpit using AMAC. Setting an exact height of burst is desirable since it allows for maximization of the area covered by particular blast overpressures.

TA, TB
This option codes a minimum safe separation time that must elapse after the weapon has been released from the aircraft before it can detonate. Safe separation time is set by neat tabs that you click up or down. Although they go from 00-99 (10s and 1s switch), the actual time that can be set may not go all the way up to 99 seconds. For example, on the canceled B61 -6, & -8, the TA/TB could be set up to 99 but the max time was 69 seconds.[19]

J1
This is the plug for the PAL equipment to lock/unlock the weapon, check status, etc. For some planes, like the B2, the Aircraft Monitoring and Control (AMAC) system allows for all of these options (and weapon unlock) to be accomplished from the cockpit. The AMAC plug is on the top of the weapon. At the NMNSH the B83 is displayed with the T1563 PAL controller and T1571B power supply; the cable visible in my photo of the preflight controller is attached to the controller.

b83 with controller visible
B83 with T1563 PAL controller and T1571B power supply at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, my picture.

COMMAND DISABLE SYSTEM: A, B, C (0-9); T-handle; dial with “N,” “CC,” “DI,” and “R”
Setting the A, B, C dials to the proper code, rotating the other dial to “DI,” and pulling the t-handle fires up a thermal battery located in the preflight controller that then does…something… that non-violently disables the weapon. Based on documents I have seen, the effect is almost certainly within the “protected volume” of the weapon and quite possible within the nuclear subsystem itself. Guesses range from melting detonators to setting off small explosive squibs that guillotine vital firing circuitry.

WE177 Ground Control Unit

The WE177 was a UK nuclear gravity bomb deployed, in three major versions, between 1966 and 1998 and pictured below.[20] Apparently, the functional equivalent to the US preflight controller is quaintly named the “Ground Control Unit.”

WE177 at NMNSH my pic cropped
WE177 at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, my picture

     The GCU is a fun comparison to the US controllers. Notably absent are things like a command disable system and a PAL controller plug. In fact, as I will discuss below, physical use control for this weapon was based on what amounts to a bike-lock key. Starting at the top left and going clockwise the GCU options were:[21]

GCU at NMNHS my picture
WE177 Ground Control Unit at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, my picture.

“L”, “H”
The WE177A was the only version with a selectable yield. “L” (for low?) would have been .6kt and “H” 10kt. At the .5kt selection the WE177A would have been used as a nuclear depth bomb.[22]

“AIRBURST/GROUND BACK-UP”: “LOW,” “HIGH”; “OUT,” “IN,” “OUT,” “IN”
As with the B61, the WE177 could be delivered parachute retarded or freefall; this dial also allowed the selection of “salvage” fuzing for a ground burst in case airburst fuzing failed. Interestingly, at least for some B61 mods, non-detonation upon impact could not be assured for a weapon that failed to detonate as an airburst but for which salvage fuzing was not enabled.[23]

ARMING TIME SEC., PRIMARY & ALTERNATIVE: 8, 14, 20, 26, 32, 38, 44, 50
Legend has it that these specific times were selected by the Queen herself! Just kidding, but in the absence of a more logical or credible explanation as to why the UK did it this way, it’s the reason I’m going with. Brian Burnell describes this option as setting a delay between when the weapon is released from the aircraft and when the radar fires up; this allows the plane time to escape and reduces the period for potential enemy jamming. I am unsure if this, like the B61 safe-separation timer presumably does, sets an absolute bar to detonation before the full time has elapsed. In other words: if the WE177 were fuzed for a freefall airburst with a radar delay of 50 seconds, and with contact salvage fuzing enabled, would the bomb detonate if dropped at an altitude where the weapon impacts the ground before the chosen 50 second delay has passed? It seems likely to me (at least if the British were sensible about these things) that the ARMING TIME is equivalent to the B61 safe separation time and the delay in radars turning on is part of an overall senescence of the arming system.

CHUTE DELAY: A, B, C
This dial set a time delay between weapon release from the aircraft and parachute deployment.

SEF: “Strike Enable Facility”
As a final step in arming the WE177, ground crew inserted what looks like a bicycle lock key (pictured below) into this plug and turned. Bingo, weapon ready to go. No coded switches or dual-key system although the weapon fuzing and firing circuitry included environmental sensing devices.

WE177 Strike Enable Key Set picture from brian Burnell
Picture of the Strike Enabling keyset is from Brian Burnell’s excellent webpage on UK nuclear weapon projects.[24]

TEST
I assume this port was for ground equipment to check weapon status, power, etc.

Concluding Thoughts

I hope you have enjoyed this discussion. Verified pictures of the B61-5 preflight controller are, I believe, my one small original contribution to OSINT about nuclear weapons. If you have additional primary sources, or ideas about the unknown (to me) bits, please share! As a final thought I would note that US nuclear deployments and levels of readiness are relative outliers. China, India, Pakistan, and (probably) Israel don’t keep nuclear weapons mated to delivery systems. Only the US and Russia currently deploy a fully functional triad+ of delivery systems and Russia has traditionally maintained a lower readiness posture than the US. Furthermore, the US is unusual, and maybe unique, in the extreme degree of autonomy it endows a single person with regards to the use of nuclear weapons. It is long past time that we reconsidered both our nuclear force structure and the institutional arrangements that allow one person the power to end the world as we know it.

Endnotes

[1] Huard, “When to Shoot a Nuclear Bomb with Your Gun,” 2015.; Stein & Feaver, Assuring Control, 1987.
[2] “PAL Control of Theatre Nuclear Weapons,” 1984.
[3] Bellovin, “Permissive Action Links,” 2017.; Bradbury & Schwartz, “NATO Weapons,” 1961.; Sandia, “PAL Control of Theatre Nuclear Weapons,” 1984.
[4] Controls Company of America, “Who Are We,”1959: 31.
[5] Masco, Nuclear Borderlands, 2006.
[6] Derrida, “No Apocalypse, Not Now,” 1984.
[7] Lifton & Falk, Indefensible Weapons: The Psychological and Political Case Against Nuclearism, 1982.
[8] Stromberg-Carlson, “A Talent for Command Control Systems,” 1960: 137.
[9] Wellerstein, “The President and the Bomb, Part III,” 2017.
[10] Kenner, “Command and Control,” 2016.
[11] Lifton & Falk, Indefensible Weapons: The Psychological and Political Case Against Nuclearism, 1982.
[12] Glenn, “B61 Nuclear Bomb,” 2010.; Sandia, “Interim Development Report,” 1989: 29, 35, 57.
[13] Honestly, I am not sure how to cite this photograph. I have seen low-rez versions of it in declassified documents and Wikimedia commons but I am unsure of the provenance of this higher resolution version.
[14] Kristensen and Norris, “B61 Family,” 2014.
[15] Sandia, “Interim Development Report,” 1989: 29.
[16] Kristensen and Norris, “B61 Family,” 2014.
[17] Sandia, “Interim Development Report,” 1989: 29, 35, 57.
[18] Bellovin, “Permissive Action Links,” 2017.; Bradbury & Schwartz, “NATO Weapons,” 1961.; Sandia, “PAL Control of Theatre Nuclear Weapons,” 1984.
[19] Sandia, “Interim Development Report,” 1989.
[20] Burnell, “WE.177,” 2016.
[21] I am indebted to Brian Burnell’s outstanding webpage for discussion of WE177 GCU.
[22] Burnell, “WE.177,” 2016.
[23] Sandia, “Interim Development Report,” 1989.
[24] Burnell, “WE.177,” 2016.

Works Cited

Bellovin, Steven M. “Permissive Action Links.” https://www.cs.columbia.edu/~smb/nsam-160/pal.html#CAH84, 2017. Accessed 06/12/2017.

Bradbury, Norris K., and Schwartz, G. P. “NATO Weapons.” AW-765,  Memo to General Starbird. https://www.cs.columbia.edu/~smb/nsam-160/pal-design.pdf, January 5, 1961. Accessed 06/07/2017.

Burnell, Brian. “We.177.” Nuclear Weapons: A Guide to British Nuclear Weapon Projects. http://nuclear-weapons.info/vw.htm#WE.177, 2016. Accessed 06/17/2017.

Controls Company of America. “Who Are We.” Scientific American 200, no. 4 (1959): 31.

Derrida, Jacques. “No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives).” Translated by Catherine Porter and Philip Lewis. Diacritics 14, no. 2 (1984): 20–31.

“Glenn.” “B61 Nuclear Bomb Preflight Controller.” Glenn’s Computer Museum. http://www.glennsmuseum.com/controller/controller.html, 2010. Accessed 06/12/2017.

Huard, Paul Richard. “When to Shoot a Nuclear Bomb with Your Gun.” War is Boring. https://medium.com/war-is-boring/when-to-shoot-a-nuclear-bomb-with-your-gun-f1f97093a64e, January 30, 2015. Accessed 06/16/2017.

Kidder, R. E. “Report to Congress: Assessment of the Safety of U.S. Nuclear Weapons and Related Nuclear Test Requirements.” UCRL-LR-107454. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: Livermore, CA. https://fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/testing/kidderucrllr107454.pdf, July 26, 1991. Accessed 06/12/2017.

Joseph Masco. The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Kenner, Robert. “Command and Control.” Film. Robert Kenner Films, 2016.

Kristensen, Hans M., and Robert S. Norris. “The B61 Family of Nuclear Bombs.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 70, no. 3 (2014): 79-84.

Lifton, Robert J., and Robert Falk. Indefensible Weapons: The Psychological and Political Case Against Nuclearism. New York: Basic Books, 1982.

Plummer, David W., and William H. Greenwood. “The History of Nuclear Weapon Safety Devices.” SAND-98-1184C. Sandia National Laboratories: Albuquerque. https://www.osti.gov/scitech/biblio/671923, 1998. Accessed 06/07/2017.

Sandia National Laboratories. “Interim Development Report for the B61-6,8 Bombs.” SAND88-2986. Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque. https://nnsa.energy.gov/interim-development-report-b61-68-bombspdf-3714kb, 1989. Accessed 06/12/2017.

Sandia National Laboratories. “PAL Control of Theatre Nuclear Weapons.” SAND82-2436. Sandia National Laboratories: Albuquerque. https://www.cs.columbia.edu/~smb/nsam-160/Theater_Control/Theater_Control.pdf, 1984. Accessed 06/07/2017.

Stein, Peter and Peter Feaver. Assuring Control of Nuclear Weapons: The Evolution of Permissive Action Links. Lanham: CSIA  Occasional Paper Series, 1987.

Stromberg-Carlson. “A Talent for Command Control Systems.” Scientific American 202, no. 1 (1960): 137.

Wellerstein, Alex. “The President and the Bomb, Part III.” Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog. http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2017/04/10/president-bomb-iii/, April 10, 2017. Accessed 06/07/2017.

Wolfgang, Raymond B. “The Enhanced Nuclear Detonation Safety Theme – an Introduction.” SAND2012-0793C. Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque. https://www.osti.gov/scitech/servlets/purl/1090221, 2012. Accessed 06/12/2017.

“Our Product Is Not For Sale”: Selling The Bomb to 1950s America

Bottom Line Up Front

This post discusses nuclear weapon laboratory advertising in Physics Today and Scientific American 1956-1964. I focus on a set of ads published 1956-1959 by Sandia National Laboratories and distinguished by their overt engagement with Cold War nuclear ideologies. I demonstrate how these advertisements often drew on tropes of the history and violence of the “American West” to justify, represent, and recruit for nuclear weapons work. This discussion, although drawing on historical examples, offers a lens for examining contemporary discourses about US nuclear weapons and apocalyptic violence.

Author’s note: portions of this post are adapted from my final paper for a Western History class, UNM, Spring 2017. I give special thanks to (in alphabetical order) Taylor Genovese; Araina Hansen, PhD; Cheryl Rofer; and Grant Trent for offering feedback and comments on drafts.

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Sandia! The West! Nuclear Weapons! Violence! Advertising! (Introduction)

One of the best parts about being an anthropologist is the opportunity to indulge my morbidly broad curiosity and get course credit for it. The final paper for my Western History class this spring meant a week in the archives flipping through every page, of every issue, of Physics Today (PT) and Scientific American (SA) from 1950-1964. My toils and ink-stained fingers were rewarded with an abundance of GLORIOUS Cold War advertising (800+ images). For this blog post I selected these particular advertisements to examine because of their unusually “explicit rah-rah Cold War ideology” and temporal coincidence (1956-1959).[1] Between 1956 and 1964, it was only during those three years (1956-1959) that Sandia published advertisements in PT and SA that discussed in a non-negligible way the supposed purposes of US nuclear weapons. Of the ten unique tokens of Sandia ads I collected from 1956-1959, six of them resemble “…out of this nettle” and overtly theorize about relationships  between nukes, peace, and morally justified violence.

Sandia 1956 SA v195i1 p104 OUT OF THIS NETTLE DANGER SAFETY
Sandia Corporation. “Out of this Nettle…” Scientific American 195, no. 1 (1956): 104.

As I have suggested (ranted) on Twitter, the “American West” has disproportionately provided the labor, resources, land, and imaginaries for the US nuclear weapons complex.[2] Frederick Jackson Turner (in)famously went so far as to proclaim that the Western frontier experience itself generated the uniquely American Nation and character. However, the American “taming” of the frontier was a violent, messy, and genocidal process.[3] One point of this post is to demonstrate how the aforementioned series of Sandia ads (1956-1959) mobilize imagined histories and conceptualizations of violence in the “American West” for persuasive purposes.[4] In other words, tropes and images of the “American West” and its violence were often the rhetorical and cultural (semiotic) building blocks used by Sandia to advertise their work, recruit employees, and shape public beliefs about nuclear weapons. As I will show, Sandia advertising minimized, erased, and romantically recast both the problematic violence of US Western history and the potentially apocalyptic violence of nuclear war. In doing so Sandia advertisements discursively laid claim to both occupied land and nuclear weapon projects.

Using advertisements as data involves potentially prickly questions about communicative context and referentiality. Sandia hired outside advertising agencies to produce the advertisements I collected and thus the exact relationships between animator/text (the ad), author (advertising company), and principal (Sandia) are complex and somewhat opaque. The genre of advertising, by definition, involves a hedged or nuanced relationship to fact and the referential functions of language. Advertising may present facts to inform but it is a positioned and incomplete informing connected to persuasive goals. Finally, Sandia’s advertisements must also be considered as a performance of institutional identity and therefore potentially aspirational or disconnected from actual practice. Recruitment advertisements are like online dating profiles in this sense: more about how one wants to be (or be seen) than how one actually is.

Nuclear War at High Noon

Sandia, the least academically written about of the three nuclear weapon labs, began as an offshoot of Los Alamos tasked with developing & testing non-nuclear components and assembling atomic weapons. In 1949 Sandia Corporation, a Western Electric subsidiary, was formed to manage the newly independent ordnance laboratory for the US nuclear weapons complex.

Sandia 1956 SA v195i3 p256 PEACEMAKER
Sandia Corporation. “Peacemaker.” Scientific American 195, no. 2 (1956): 110.

“Peacemaker,” published 1956 in Scientific American, exemplifies the articulation of utilitarian, gendered, and generative frontier violence to the justification of US nuclear weapon projects: “They called this weapon the Peacemaker. In the hands of the Western lawmen, it brought peace and order to the turbulent frontier.”[5] In the next lines Sandia identifies with an imagined Western heritage of gunslinger justice: “In the West today, Sandia Corporation engineers and scientists explore new frontiers in research and development engineering to produce modern peacemakers…the nuclear weapons that deter aggression and provide a vital element of security for the nations of the free world.” The limits of this analogy are clear even in the ad text itself. Although the peacemakers of Western films & imagined histories brought victory through use (killing the bad guys), nuclear weapons exist “to deter aggression and provide a vital element of security for the nations of the free world.” Whereas the “Western lawmen” demonstrated their masculine toughness through violence and killing, to do so using nuclear weapons would destroy the very things ostensibly being defended. However, the mobilization of the “Western lawmen” trope allows Sandia to invoke Manichean frames of good vs evil and morally justifiable utilitarian violence. In a demonstration of the longevity and mobility of the trope, twenty-six years later the ten warhead MX Peacekeeper would supposedly avoid being named the “Peacemaker” only because of its homophonic similarity to “Pacemaker.”[6]

Sandia 1957 v10i9 p33 no second best gunslingers
Sandia Corporation. “No Second Best.” Physics Today 10, no. 9 (1957): 33.

In 1957, Sandia again drew on notions of Western gunslinger justice as an analogy for understanding the Cold War and nuclear arms race.[7] The text of “No Second Best” declares: “When an aggressor threatens, you can’t be second best.” Presumably the Soviets, whose ability to conduct a nuclear attack against the CONUS in 1957 was mediocre (at best), would have had some thoughts about this characterization. In any case, the ad copy overtly connects Sandia’s nuclear weapons work to an urgent and morally unambiguous imaginary of the West: “That’s the way it is in our business, too. Our business is design and development of nuclear weapons—weapons that stop potential aggressors and defend our freedom. And, in this kind of work, either you’re best or you’re nothing. We can’t afford to settle for less than the best—ever. That applies to our engineers and scientists too.” The multi-millennial, and ongoing, inhabitation of the Albuquerque region by Indigenous peoples is commodified as a perk of “attractive living…In Albuquerque, a fine climate and a blending of ancient and modern cultures provides pressure-free, relaxed, pleasant living.”

Graphically, “No Second Best” indexes a common and deeply gendered scene in the wildly popular Western cinema of the 1950s. The use of this imagery offers an interpretive lens, reinforced by the text, suggesting that the white-hatted United States must fight, and kill, or die. However, in the Westerns I’ve seen, the face-off generally ends with one person dead and the other, at worst, wounded. In 1957 a full-scale thermonuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union would have resulted in tens of millions of people dead in Western and Eastern Europe alone. One US nuclear war plan, prepared in 1956 for a war in 1959, assigned high-yield nuclear weapons to be ground burst on airfields in China, the USSR, and across Eastern Europe; this would have sent lethal levels of fallout onto swaths of Western Europe even without considering Soviet use of nuclear weapons.[8] Also targeted with nuclear weapons by the United States was the population of East Berlin.[9] The SIOP-62 nuclear war plan, which went into effect in 1961, if executed, was estimated to kill over 200 million Soviet, Chinese, and Eastern Europeans in the first three days.[10] Bluntly put, the use of the Western trope of individual gunslingers facing off at high noon was massively distorting.

Sandia 1957 SA v197i1 p171 our product is not for sale repeat
Sandia. “Our Product is Not for Sale.” Scientific American 197, no. 1 (1957): 171

The 1957 Sandia advertisement “Our Product is not for Sale” largely lacks frontier and “American West” tropes.[11] It is also unusual among the ads I collected in overtly theorizing the brand and intangible “product” of Sandia Corporation through the language of middle-class consumer commodification:

“Our product is not for sale. You won’t find it in the supermarkets or department stores, this product of ours. It can’t be packaged and displayed on a shelf. Our product is protection—protection derived from the strength to deter aggression and defend the freedoms we cherish. Our job—design and development of nuclear weapons essential to the defense of our nation.”

Graphically, the image of a cash register indexes experiences of buying material consumer commodities produced through labor. Textually, the actual material entity created by Sandia (deliverable nukes), along with resources consumed and waste produced, is semiotically obscured through replacement with the imagined products of “protection” and deterrence.

“Our Product is not for Sale” is not completely bereft of Western tropes. Sandia’s Thunderbird logo was the winning entry in an employee design contest in 1955 and it openly appropriates the designs and cultural meanings of Indigenous peoples.[12]  In 1999 Sandia LabNews, the employee newsletter, noted that “[t]he thunderbird is a mythical symbol that stems from American Indian Folklore.”[13] The Thunderbird logo offers an example of how American colonial practices have provided semiotic elements used by Sandia in public relations and to construct an institutional identity.

Sandia 1959 SA v200i2 p167 the challenge of new frontiers REPEAT
Sandia Corporation. “The Challenge of New Frontiers.” Physics Today 11, no. 11 (1958): 33.

In “The Challenge of New Frontiers” the Western tropes of scenic beauty and frontier opportunity are connected to a parallel myth of scientific progress: “Here in the West where sweeping plains and lofty mesas once challenged the conquistadores of New Spain, Sandia Laboratory now explores new frontiers of science and engineering—seeking the answers to vital questions in many areas of knowledge.”[14] The advertisement copy, acknowledging the centrality of nuclear weapons work to Sandia, suggests that its work, and by extension the colonial violence of the Spanish and Americans, is all for the best and in the name of progress: “research and development in the ordnance phases of nuclear weapons…is still our main task, but in doing it we have learned much in the way of theory and advanced technique that has applications outside the field of weaponry.” Not mentioned by “The Challenge of New Frontiers” are the less progressive legacies of Spanish & American colonial practices such as poverty and relatively low rates of educational achievement in New Mexico. Also absent is consideration of how Hispanic, Indigenous, and Mexican descended persons continue (both in 1957 and 2017) to be present at Sandia but disproportionately concentrated in lower-paying, lower-status jobs.[15]

Sandia 1958 SA v199i3 p211 Warhead
Sandia Corporation. “Warhead.” Scientific American 199, no. 3 (1958): 211.

The 1958 “WARHEAD” advertisement presents constructions of American West and Indigenous histories that symbolically justify the US nuclear weapons project and lay claim to land and resources.[16] Both Sandia and Los Alamos occupy land acquired through processes of colonial dispossession of Indigenous peoples; San Ildefonso Pueblo continues to claim the Pajarito Plateau as Tribal land. However, the  multi-millennial Indigenous persons’ inhabitation of the region, the varied experiences by multiple groups of imperial and colonial violence, and the continued presence of Indigenous peoples and claims are erased by exile to the past: “[c]enturies ago, the Indians of New Mexico designed and developed warheads like this one.”

The “WARHEAD” text goes on to equate hunting and tribal warfare using stone tools with the US deployment of over 7,000 nuclear weapons in 1958: “Today, we at Sandia Corporation do very much the same job—but we call it research and development in the ordnance phases of nuclear weapons for the Atomic Energy Commission.”[17] Simultaneously, and through the analogical articulation of Western and Indigenous heritages, “WARHEAD” naturalizes Sandia’s work and the production of (nuclear) warheads as a human constant.

Sandia 1958 SA v198i5 p135 about men and weapons
Sandia Corporation. “About Men and Weapons.” Scientific American 198, no. 5 (1958): 135.

The text of “About Men and Weapons” is unique in both the Sandia and Los Alamos advertisements I have collected in that it openly addresses a central paradox (or “THE BIG PROBLEM OF EVERYBODY DYING” issue, as I like to call it) of nuclear deterrence theory.[18] Like in the text of “WARHEAD,” the development of “new and more powerful” nuclear weapons is normalized through an invocation of the past: “[f]or centuries men have tried to develop new and more powerful weapons to achieve victory in war.” The nuclear age, as an epochal experience of modernity, means now that “war can be race suicide and victory thus gained is a delusion” but “we keep on trying to develop new and more powerful weapons, because we must.” Why, you ask, and for how long are we compelled to risk “race suicide?” “For as long as there are powerful forces with a record of cynical duplicity and oppression, the free world must have weapons capable of neutralizing them. At least until men learn that the only alternate to peace is oblivion.” American nuclear weapons are thus naturalized as part of historical progress in weaponry and also justified by reference to an implacably evil external threat. Potential Sandia applicants (and America) are cast as reluctant, almost tragic, defenders forced by human ignorance to risk Doomsday.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS!

At least in the publications and time period (1950-1964) I have examined, the Sandia ads published 1956-1959 were distinctive. Later (1960-1964) Sandia advertisements, like “New Sources of Pulsed Energy,” avoided overtly engaging with theories of nuclear deterrence and apocalyptic violence.[19] Instead, and in a pattern continuing today in Sandia public relations, non-weapon and obliquely-weapon related activities were disproportionately highlighted.

Sandia 1960 SA v203i3 p269 New sources of pulsed energy ferromagnetic and electrical e transducer
Sandia Corporation. “New Sources of Pulsed Power.” Physics Today 203, no. 3 (1960): 269.

The PhD student in me is screaming at how short this post is and how much I have left unsaid. I may fill some of those gaps in future blog posts. For instance, here I have given short-shrift  to issues of gender and race; the ways in which nuclear weapon laboratory advertising imagined an American “good life” of middle-class consumerism; and the similarities of lab advertising to private defense industry advertising. What I have tried to say is that the way we talk about nukes, and the analogies we use, matters and to offer some fun illustrations of how.

Footnotes

[1] Wellerstein, Alex. “Advertising for Weapons Designers.” Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog.  http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2012/12/14/advertising-for-weapons- designers/, December 14, 2012. Accessed 01/01/2017.

[2] Masco, Joseph. The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.; Voyles, Traci Brynne. Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

[3] Blackhawk, Ned. Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.; Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973; Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

[4] I use the term “American West” in quotation marks to acknowledge the historically contingent nature of the American state as a geographically deictic center. Furthermore, “The West” and “frontier” were different things at different times in American history but the advertising I examined treats these historically (and geographically) distinct “Wests” as a broad set of shared semiotic features. That is to say, the ads I examined generally treated all “Wests” and “frontiers” as though they were the same.

[5] Sandia Corporation. “Peacemaker.” Scientific American 195, no. 2 (1956): 110.

[6] New York Times. “’Peacemaker’ Loses Missile Name Game.” http://www.nytimes.com/1982/11/23/us/peacemaker-loses-missile-name-game.html, November 23, 1982. Accessed May 30, 2017.

[7] Sandia Corporation. “No Second Best.” Physics Today 10, no. 9 (1957): 33

[8] National Security Archive. “U.S. Cold War Nuclear Target Lists Declassified for First Time.” Edited by William Burr. George Washington University. https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb538-Cold-War-Nuclear-Target-List-Declassified-First-Ever/, December 22, 2015. Accessed 04/20/2017.; Wellerstein, Alex. “Mapping the US Nuclear War Plan for 1956.” Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog. http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2016/05/09/mapping-us-nuclear-war-plan-1956/, May 9, 2016. Accessed 04/20/17.

[9] National Security Archive, “U.S. Cold War Nuclear Target Lists,” 2015.; Wellerstein, “Mapping the US Nuclear War Plan,” 2016.

[10] Burr, William. “U.S. War Plans Would Kill an Estimated 108 Million Soviets, 104 Million Chinese, and 2.6 Million Poles: More Evidence on SIOP-62 and the Origins of Overkill.” Unredacted. https://nsarchive.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/u-s-war-plans-would-kill-an-estimated-108-million-soviets-104-million-chinese-and-2-3-million-poles-more-evidence-on-siop-62-and-the-origins-of-overkill/, November 8, 2011. Accessed 04/20/2017.

[11] Sandia Corporation. “Our Product is Not for Sale.” Scientific American 197, no. 1 (1957): 171.

[12] Sandia National Laboratories. “Sandia Gearing up for 50th Anniversary Celebrations, Observances in 1999.” Sandia LabNews. June 19, 1998. http://www.sandia.gov/LabNews/LN06-19-98/fiftieth_story.html, accessed 05/10/2017.; Furman, Necah Stewart. Sandia National Laboratories: The Postwar Decade. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.

[13] Sandia National Laboratories, “Sandia Gearing Up,” 1999.

[14] Sandia Corporation. “The Challenge of New Frontiers.” Physics Today 11, no. 11 (1958): 33.

[15] Government Accountability Office. “Equal Employment Opportunity: Information on
Personnel Actions, Employee Concerns, and Oversight at Six DOE Laboratories.”
Washington DC: Government Accountability Office, 2005. www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-05-190. Accessed 04/02/2017.; Masco, Nuclear Borderlands, 2006.

[16] Sandia Corporation. “Warhead.” Scientific American 199, no. 3 (1958): 211.

[17] Sandia Corporation, “Warhead,” 1958.; Norris, Robert S., Hans M. Kristensen. “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945-2010.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 66, no. 4 (2010): 77-83.

[18] Sandia Corporation. “About Men and Weapons.” Scientific American 198, no. 5 (1958): 135.

[19] Sandia Corporation. “New Sources of Pulsed Energy.” Physics Today 203, no. 3 (1960): 269.

Works Cited

Blackhawk, Ned. Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Burr, William. “U.S. War Plans Would Kill an Estimated 108 Million Soviets, 104 Million Chinese, and 2.6 Million Poles: More Evidence on SIOP-62 and the Origins of Overkill.” Unredacted. https://nsarchive.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/u-s-war-plans-would-kill-an estimated-108-million-soviets-104-million-chinese-and-2-3-million-poles- more-evidence-on-siop-62-and-the-origins-of-overkill/, November 8, 2011. Accessed 04/20/2017.

Furman, Necah Stewart. Sandia National Laboratories: The Postwar Decade. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.

Government Accountability Office. “Equal Employment Opportunity: Information on Personnel Actions, Employee Concerns, and Oversight at Six DOE Laboratories.” Washington DC: Government Accountability Office, 2005. www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-05-190. Accessed 04/02/2017.

Johnson, Leland. Sandia National Laboratories: A History of Exceptional Service in the National Interest, Edited by Carl Mora, John Taylor, and Rebecca Ullrich. Albuquerque: Sandia National Laboratories, 1997.

Masco, Joseph. The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

National Security Archive. “U.S. Cold War Nuclear Target Lists Declassified for First Time.” Edited by William Burr. George Washington University. https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb538-Cold-War-Nuclear-Target-List-DeclassifiedFirstEver/, December 22, 2015. Accessed 04/20/2017.

New York Times. “’Peacemaker’ Loses Missile Name Game.” http://www.nytimes.com/1982/11/23/us/peacemaker-loses-missile-name-game.html, November 23, 1982. Accessed May 30, 2017.

Norris, Robert S., Hans M. Kristensen. “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945-2010.”  Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 66, no. 4 (2010): 77-83.

Sandia Corporation. “About Men and Weapons.” Scientific American 198, no. 5 (1958): 135.

Sandia Corporation. “The Challenge of New Frontiers.” Physics Today 11, no. 11 (1958): 33.

Sandia Corporation. “New Sources of Pulsed Energy.” Physics Today 203, no. 3 (1960): 269.

Sandia Corporation. “No Second Best.” Physics Today 10, no. 9 (1957): 33.

Sandia Corporation. “Our Product is Not for Sale.” Scientific American 197, no. 1 (1957): 171.

Sandia Corporation. “Out of this Nettle…” Scientific American 195, no. 1 (1956): 104.

Sandia Corporation. “Peacemaker.” Scientific American 195, no. 2 (1956): 110.

Sandia Corporation. “Warhead.” Scientific American 199, no. 3 (1958): 211.

Sandia National Laboratories. “Sandia Gearing up for 50th Anniversary Celebrations, Observances in 1999.” Sandia LabNews. June 19, 1998. http://www.sandia.gov/LabNews/LN06-19-98/fiftieth_story.html, accessed 05/10/2017.

Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600- 1860. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Voyles, Traci Brynne. Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Wellerstein, Alex. “Advertising for Weapons Designers.” Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog.  http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2012/12/14/advertising-for-weapons-designers/, December 14, 2012. Accessed 01/01/2017.

Wellerstein, Alex. “Mapping the US Nuclear War Plan for 1956.” Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog. http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2016/05/09/mapping-us-nuclear-war-plan-1956/, May 9, 2016. Accessed 04/20/17.