On the morning of October 22, 1964, the United States government detonated a nuclear bomb under Mississippi, 28 miles southwest of Hattiesburg. Residents described repeated shocks that rippled through the earth in waves, shocks that were powerful enough to burst pipes and crack chimneys, damaging hundreds of homes. "The editor of the Hattiesburg American, although almost thirty miles away, reported that he felt the newspaper building sway for nearly three minutes," writes Stephen Cresswell in a 2008 article on the test for the magazine Mississippi History Now.
To this day, Mississippi has the distinction of being the only state east of the Mississippi River the government thought fit to nuke. Two years later, they nuked it again.
Oddly, these tests were designed to explore how nuclear testing might be hidden. The project, codenamed Dribble, was part of a larger effort to explore the seismic effects of underground nuclear detonations. The United States and the Soviet Union had only agreed to a ban on setting off nuclear weapons in the atmosphere in 1963, after hundreds of tests filled the air with radioactive fallout.
Nuclear weapons are always closer than we imagine. I spent much of my childhood on the plains of Kansas surrounded by Titan II missile silos, completely unaware that Armageddon was hidden in some wheat field just over the horizon. Those missiles have been decommissioned now, but the United States still has about 3,500 thermonuclear warheads ready to launch. We have 6,000 other warheads in other states of readiness, down from about 23,000 at the end of the Cold War. The United States has manufactured 70,000 nuclear warheads since Hiroshima.
Now, President Obama has proposed that we negotiate new nuclear weapons treaties with Russia, which deploys about the same number of warheads. Under the proposal, each country would scale back to 1,000 deployed warheads. Obama has also signaled renewed interest in a comprehensive test ban. President Clinton signed a treaty banning all nuclear tests in 1996, and all the declared nuclear powers signed with him, including Russia and China. Then, the late Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., held the treaty up in committee until 1999, when all 45 Democratic senators signed a letter demanding a vote on the treaty. Under the leadership of then-Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., with the help of Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., all but four Republican senators voted against the treaty, defeating it 51-48. As a result, the government could set off a hydrogen bomb under Laurel tomorrow if it wanted, though they haven't tested a nuclear weapon since 1992.
Obama's initiatives follow eight years of cowboy diplomacy on nuclear weapons. The Bush administration was skeptical of treaties in general and took every opportunity to undermine arms control. Bush reserved the right to strike with nuclear weapons if we believed chemical or biological weapons were housed in hardened concrete bunkers, despite our previous commitments to use nukes only as a last resort. If the intelligence agencies confirm a threat, what could go wrong? Bush also pushed for production of new nuclear weapons at staggering costs. The United States spends more than $50 billion a year maintaining its nuclear stockpile.
Obama has seized the opportunity to restore American credibility on arms control. How can we lecture Iran about building nuclear weapons if we are building new weapons ourselves? How can we chastise Pakistan and North Korea for conducting underground tests when we reserve the right to test our own weapons? The United States has already conducted more than 1,000 nuclear weapons testsin the ocean, in the atmosphere, under the ground and in Earth's orbit. I think that about covers it. We should protect all our test data by doing everything we can to discourage testing by anyone else.
These efforts will give us a moral foundation for containing Iran's nuclear ambitions, and if Iran does develop a nuclear weapon, our 1,000 warheads will provide an overwhelming strategic advantage. The dark scenario spun since 9/11 by the Strangeloves in Washington never made much sense. The danger, they warn, is that Iraq Iran will build a nuclear device and slip it to a terrorist group. But even if Iran was willing to give up such a hard-won prize to some junior partner, nuclear weapons are never anonymous. Any bomb set off by terrorists would betray its origin, because all nuclear fuel carries the isotope signature of its manufacture. We would know within hours of any bombing that Iran was to blame, and then the surface of Iran would be vaporized by hydrogen bombs.
I do not mean to minimize the dangers of nuclear proliferation, but newcomers don't hold a candle to our potential inferno. Few people grasp how powerful our nuclear weapons became through all that testing. The largest bomb ever tested was 50 megatons, or more than 3,000 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It created a miniature sun three miles wide that could cause third-degree burns from 60 miles away. Our military still maintains detailed plans for raining hydrogen bombs down on Asia by the thousands, should the president command.
I submit to you that 1,000 Armageddons is enough to dissuade any aggressor. We need no more installments in Dribble, no further innovations in apocalypse. The world is safer with each warhead retired, with each missile silo converted into an underground bachelor pad. Each warhead dismantled robs terrorists and madmen of an opportunity to unleash death. In 1964, we teetered on the edge of the unthinkable. Let's take another step away from the brink.
Did you know they nuked Mississippi in the '60s? A little bump for the atomically inclined.
- Brian C Johnson
Thanks for this article. It is important to remember how close we were to nuclear war and close we remain.
For more information on modern nuclear weapons' destructive capacities, go to http://www.wagingpeace.org/articles/1997/00/00_babst_consequences.htm
To maintain our nuclear deterrence the tools of choice are Trident submarines. To learn the basic facts about these go to
Tatum salt dome in Lamar County.