CLOSE

Why Nukes Are Still Just As Scary As They Were in the 60s

I think people today, especially younger people, don’t think of nuclear weapons as a real threat the way that people who lived through, say, the Cuban Missile crisis did. Remember the days when campuses would erupt in “no nukes” protests? When activists would lie across train tracks to stop trains from delivering bombs to missile sites? The crises are hidden now. The protests small, when there are any. The Cold War has ended, the assumption goes, and with the Berlin Wall fell the threat of World War Three. I had been operating under this tacit assumption for some time: that a Dr. Strangelove-style disaster was, if not impossible, then nearly so. But as I recently heard someone point out, if the probability of something is not zero, it will eventually happen. So it’s not an antiquated concern; the nuclear threat is as present as it was when Kennedy said this to the UN, if not moreso:

As the documentary film Countdown to Zero eloquently and frighteningly lays out, that “Sword of Damocles” still hangs above our collective heads, despite significant reductions in the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the U.S., and the decision of countries like South Africa to get rid of their arsenals altogether. Kennedy cites “miscalculation, mistake, or madness” as reasons the next bomb could go off, and the film discusses each in turn. Mistake and miscalculation are why we’ve had a number of quiet but very serious close calls in the two decades since the Cold War supposedly ended — the U.S. and Russia still have thousands of nuclear warheads on hair trigger, such that if just enough mistakes or miscalculations were made in the right order, hundreds of millions in both countries could be dead within thirty minutes. It almost happened in 1995, in what’s known as the Norwegian Rocket Incident:

From PBS.org:

It was one of the most frightening moments since the Cuban missile crisis. In the early morning hours of January 25, 1995 a Russian radar crew spotted a fast-moving object above the Barents Sea at Russia’s northern border. A missile they couldn’t identify. The Russians have always viewed U.S. nuclear submarines as the greatest threat; a Trident missile launched from that area could reach Russia’s mainland in 10 minutes. At the Russian radar station, the crew saw the missile suddenly separate into several sections just as the warheads of a Trident missile would. Their trajectory seemed to be carrying them towards Moscow. In Moscow, a signal went out to the nuclear briefcases which always accompany President Boris Yeltsin and top defense officials. Russia had established a deadline: they’re supposed to detect an attack, assess it and reach a decision on retaliation within 10 minutes.

There were only 5 minutes left. Urgent radio contact was made with Russian submarine commanders. Orders were given to go into a state of combat readiness and the military issued orders to the Strategic Forces to prepare to possibly receive the next command, which would have been the launch order. For 4 minutes, the Russian commanders waited for the order to launch. The Russian strategic plans permit launching Russian missiles before enemy missiles hit Russian territory. Eight minutes after the alarm was first sounded, the mysterious objects fell into the seas. The decision to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike was averted; the Russian forces stood down.

Hours later, the Russians learned that the unidentified object had been a scientific rocket launched from Norway to study the Northern lights. The Russian government had been notified weeks earlier the launch was coming, but no one told the radar crew.

In other words, one day in 1995, Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who was by all accounts frequently drunk, and was characterized by one diplomat as a “robot on drugs,” had the proverbial red button placed before him. If he’d been in a less rational state of mind, or if he’s listened to the advice of his military commanders, there would have been a nuclear holocaust.

Other nuclear alerts have been triggered by flocks of migrating geese, meteor showers (in 1960), and a malfunctioning computer chip costing 46 cents (1980). Pentagon officials admit that even today, equipment failures cause two or three false alarms every year.

As for madness, let’s look at Pakistan. It is a nuclear power with some seventy bombs in its arsenal. Its government is highly unstable. It’s a hotbed for religious radicalism. Osama Bin Laden lives there. Bin Laden has stated that his ultimate goal is to kill somewhere in the neighborhood of four million American citizens, which according to his calculations, would just about even out the body count in his holy war. It’s pretty clear that terrorist organizations are not going to be able to kill that many people with airplanes or conventional weapons. They will need a nuclear bomb.

There’s lots of talk about terrorists smuggling a “dirty bomb” into the states. The government has spent billions of dollars installing radiation detectors at American ports, which scan the great numbers of shipping containers that come into the country every day. They are very good at detecting elements like Cesium, which you’d use to make a dirty bomb. Various reports have argued that while such bombs would cause plenty of panic and certainly some deaths, they would be nowhere near as destructive as an actual nuke. You can make perhaps a few thousand people very, very sick with a dirty bomb. You cannot level a city.

Highly enriched uranium, however — which you need to make a “real” bomb — is much easier to sneak past those sensors. When encased in lead, its radiation signal is quite weak. Porcelain, china, even kitty litter give similar signals. (Every day there are thousands of false alarms at ports involving household products like those.) The whole thing, even sealed in lead, would be about the size of a football. If it was hidden in a shipment of kitty litter, they’d never find it. (According to this article, we’re working on better detectors.) Once you had the material inside the country — say, in the heart of the target city — making the device that sets it off is not an insurmountable challenge. You need about a million dollars worth of equipment and the help of a few dozen people trained in various aspects of weapons technology. This sort of tech might’ve been a big secret in the 1950s — it’s not anymore.

So what can the world do to prevent a nuclear holocaust, accidental or intentional? The Global Zero foundation has a step-by-step plan (and a nice little petition you can sign if you feel so inclined) which involves a combination of further nuclear reductions (the ultimate goal being zero) and much better and more secure policing of the world’s existing stockpile of highly-enriched uranium, the key to bomb-making.

To close, here’s a nice little featurette on Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the bomb,” and the incredible regret he came to feel in the decades following the Manhattan Project.

Original image
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
arrow
Lists
11 Popular Quotes Commonly Misattributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald
Original image
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a lot of famous lines, from musings on failure in Tender is the Night to “so we beat on, boats against the current” from The Great Gatsby. Yet even with a seemingly never-ending well of words and beautiful quotations, many popular idioms and phrases are wrongly attributed to the famous Jazz Age author, who was born on this day in 1896. Here are 11 popular phrases that are often misattributed to Fitzgerald. (You may need to update your Pinterest boards.)

1. “WRITE DRUNK, EDIT SOBER.”

This quote is often attributed to either Fitzgerald or his contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, who died in 1961. There is no evidence in the collected works of either writer to support that attribution; the idea was first associated with Fitzgerald in a 1996 Associated Press story, and later in Stephen Fry’s memoir More Fool Me. In actuality, humorist Peter De Vries coined an early version of the phrase in a 1964 novel titled Reuben, Reuben.

2. “FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH: IT’S NEVER TOO LATE OR, IN MY CASE, TOO EARLY TO BE WHOEVER YOU WANT TO BE.”

It’s easy to see where the mistake could be made regarding this quote: Fitzgerald wrote the short story “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 1922 for Collier's Magazine, and it was adapted into a movie of the same name, directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, in 2008. Eric Roth wrote the screenplay, in which that quotation appears.

3. “OUR LIVES ARE DEFINED BY OPPORTUNITIES, EVEN THE ONES WE MISS.”

This is a similar case to the previous quotation; this quote is attributed to Benjamin Button’s character in the film adaptation. It’s found in the script, but not in the original short story.

4. “YOU’LL UNDERSTAND WHY STORMS ARE NAMED AFTER PEOPLE.”

There is no evidence that Fitzgerald penned this line in any of his known works. In this Pinterest pin, it is attributed to his novel The Beautiful and Damned. However, nothing like that appears in the book; additionally, according to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Association, although there were a few storms named after saints, and an Australian meteorologist was giving storms names in the 19th century, the practice didn’t become widespread until after 1941. Fitzgerald died in 1940.

5. “A SENTIMENTAL PERSON THINKS THINGS WILL LAST. A ROMANTIC PERSON HAS A DESPERATE CONFIDENCE THAT THEY WON’T.”

This exact quote does not appear in Fitzgerald’s work—though a version of it does, in his 1920 novel This Side of Paradise:

“No, I’m romantic—a sentimental person thinks things will last—a romantic person hopes against hope that they won’t. Sentiment is emotional.” The incorrect version is widely circulated and requoted.

6. “IT’S A FUNNY THING ABOUT COMING HOME. NOTHING CHANGES. EVERYTHING LOOKS THE SAME, FEELS THE SAME, EVEN SMELLS THE SAME. YOU REALIZE WHAT’S CHANGED IS YOU.”

This quote also appears in the 2008 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button script, but not in the original short story.

7. “GREAT BOOKS WRITE THEMSELVES; ONLY BAD BOOKS HAVE TO BE WRITTEN.”

There is no evidence of this quote in any of Fitzgerald’s writings; it mostly seems to circulate on websites like qotd.org, quotefancy.com and azquotes.com with no clarification as to where it originated.

8. “SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL, BUT NOT LIKE THOSE GIRLS IN THE MAGAZINES. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL FOR THE WAY SHE THOUGHT. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL FOR THE SPARKLE IN HER EYES WHEN SHE TALKED ABOUT SOMETHING SHE LOVED. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL FOR HER ABILITY TO MAKE OTHER PEOPLE SMILE, EVEN IF SHE WAS SAD. NO, SHE WASN’T BEAUTIFUL FOR SOMETHING AS TEMPORARY AS HER LOOKS. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL, DEEP DOWN TO HER SOUL.”

This quote may have originated in a memoir/advice book published in 2011 by Natalie Newman titled Butterflies and Bullshit, where it appears in its entirety. It was attributed to Fitzgerald in a January 2015 Thought Catalog article, and was quoted as written by an unknown source in Hello, Beauty Full: Seeing Yourself as God Sees You by Elisa Morgan, published in September 2015. However, there’s no evidence that Fitzgerald said or wrote anything like it.

9. “AND IN THE END, WE WERE ALL JUST HUMANS, DRUNK ON THE IDEA THAT LOVE, ONLY LOVE, COULD HEAL OUR BROKENNESS.”

Christopher Poindexter, the successful Instagram poet, wrote this as part of a cycle of poems called “the blooming of madness” in 2013. After a Twitter account called @SirJayGatsby tweeted the phrase with no attribution, it went viral as being attributed to Fitzgerald. Poindexter has addressed its origin on several occasions.

10. “YOU NEED CHAOS IN YOUR SOUL TO GIVE BIRTH TO A DANCING STAR.”

This poetic phrase is actually derived from the work of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who died in 1900, just four years after Fitzgerald was born in 1896. In his book Thus Spake ZarathustraNietzsche wrote the phrase, “One must have chaos within to enable one to give birth to a dancing star.” Over time, it’s been truncated and modernized into the currently popular version, which was included in the 2009 book You Majored in What?: Designing Your Path from College to Career by Katharine Brooks.

11. “FOR THE GIRLS WITH MESSY HAIR AND THIRSTY HEARTS.”

This quote is the dedication in Jodi Lynn Anderson’s book Tiger Lily, a reimagining of the classic story of Peter Pan. While it is often attributed to Anderson, many Tumblr pages and online posts cite Fitzgerald as its author.

Original image
davi_deste via eBay
arrow
Pop Culture
Fumbled: The Story of the United States Football League
Original image
davi_deste via eBay

There were supposed to be 44 players marching to the field when the visiting Los Angeles Express played their final regular season game against the Orlando Renegades in June 1985.

Thirty-six of them showed up. The team couldn’t afford more.

“We didn’t even have money for tape,” Express quarterback Steve Young said in 1986. “Or ice.” The squad was so poor that Young played fullback during the game. They only had one, and he was injured.

Other teams had ridden school buses to practice, driven three hours for “home games,” or shared dressing room space with the local rodeo. In August 1986, the cash-strapped United States Football League called off the coming season. The league itself would soon vaporize entirely after gambling its future on an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The USFL argued the NFL was monopolizing television time; the NFL countered that the USFL—once seen as a promising upstart—was being victimized by its own reckless expansion and the wild spending of team owners like Donald Trump.

They were both right.

Getty Images

Spring football. That was David Dixon’s pitch. The New Orleans businessman and football advocate—he helped get the Saints in his state—was a fan of college ball and noticed that spring scrimmages at Tulane University led to a little more excitement in the air. With a fiscally responsible salary cap in place and a 12-team roster, he figured his idea could be profitable. Market research agreed: a hired broadcast research firm asserted 76 percent of fans would watch what Dixon had planned.

He had no intention of grappling with the NFL for viewers. That league’s season aired from September through January, leaving a football drought March through July. And in 1982, a players’ strike led to a shortened NFL season, making the idea of an alternative even more appealing to networks. Along with investors for each team region, Dixon got ABC and the recently-formed ESPN signed to broadcast deals worth a combined $35 million over two years.

When the Chicago Blitz faced the Washington Federals on the USFL’s opening day March 6, 1983, over 39,000 fans braved rain at RFK Stadium in Washington to see it. The Federals lost 28-7, foreshadowing their overall performance as one of the league’s worst. Owner Berl Bernhard would later complain the team played like “untrained gerbils.”

Anything more coordinated might have been too expensive. The USFL had instituted a strict $1.8 million salary cap that first year to avoid franchise overspending, but there were allowances made so each team could grab one or two standout rookies. In 1983, the big acquisition was Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who opted out of his senior year at Georgia to turn pro. Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals in a three-year, $5 million deal.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young followed. Stan White left the Detroit Lions. Marcus Dupree left college. The rosters were built up from scratch using NFL cast-offs or prospects from nearby colleges, where teams had rights to “territorial” drafts.

To draw a line in the sand, the USFL had advertising play up the differences between the NFL’s product and their own. Their slogan, “When Football Was Fun,” was a swipe at the NFL’s increasingly draconian rules regarding players having any personality. They also advised teams to run a series of marketable halftime attractions. The Denver Gold once offered a money-back guarantee for attendees who weren’t satisfied. During one Houston Gamblers game, boxer George Foreman officiated a wedding. Cars were given away at Tampa Bay Bandits games. The NFL, the upstart argued, stood for the No Fun League.

For a while, it appeared to be working. The Panthers, which had invaded the city occupied by the Detroit Lions, averaged 60,000 fans per game, higher than their NFL counterparts. ABC was pleased with steady ratings. The league was still conservative in their spending.

That would change—many would argue for the worse—with the arrival of Donald Trump.

Despite Walker’s abilities on the field, his New Jersey Generals ended the inaugural 1983 season at 6-12, one of the worst records in the league. The excitement having worn off, owner J. Walter Duncan decided to sell the team to real estate investor Trump for a reported $5-9 million.

A fixture of New York media who was putting the finishing touches on Trump Tower, Trump introduced two extremes to the USFL. His presence gave the league far more press attention than it had ever received, but his bombastic approach to business guaranteed he wouldn’t be satisfied with an informal salary cap. Trump spent and spent some more, recruiting players to improve the Generals. Another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, was signed to a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in pro football at the time. Trump even pursued Lawrence Taylor, then a player for the New York Giants, who signed a contract saying that, after his Giants contract expired, he’d join Trump’s team. The Giants wound up buying out the Taylor/Trump contract for $750,000 and quadrupled Taylor’s salary, and Trump wound up with pages of publicity.

Trump’s approach was effective: the Generals improved to 14-4 in their sophomore season. But it also had a domino effect. In order to compete with the elevated bar of talent, other team owners began spending more, too. In a race to defray costs, the USFL approved six expansion teams that paid a buy-in of $6 million each to the league.

It did little to patch the seams. Teams were so cash-strapped that simple amenities became luxuries. The Michigan Panthers dined on burnt spaghetti and took yellow school buses to training camp; players would race to cash checks knowing the last in line stood a chance of having one bounce. When losses became too great, teams began to merge with one another: The Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades. By the 1985 season, the USFL was down to 14 teams. And because the ABC contract required the league to have teams in certain top TV markets, ABC started withholding checks.

Trump was unmoved. Since taking over the Generals, he had been petitioning behind the scenes for the other owners to pursue a shift to a fall season, where they would compete with the NFL head on. A few owners countered that fans had already voiced their preference for a spring schedule. Some thought it would be tantamount to league suicide.

Trump continued to push. By the end of the 1984 season, he had swayed opinion enough for the USFL to plan on one final spring block in 1985 before making the move to fall in 1986.

In order to make that transition, they would have to win a massive lawsuit against the NFL.

In the mid-1980s, three major networks meant that three major broadcast contracts would be up for grabs—and the NFL owned all three. To Trump and the USFL, this constituted a monopoly. They filed suit in October 1984. By the time it went to trial in May 1986, the league had shrunk from 18 teams to 14, hadn’t hosted a game since July 1985, kept only threadbare rosters, and was losing what existing television deals it had by migrating to smaller markets (a major part of the NFL’s case was that the real reason for the lawsuit, and the moves to smaller markets, was to make the league an attractive takeover prospect for the NFL). The ruling—which could have forced the NFL to drop one of the three network deals—would effectively become the deciding factor of whether the USFL would continue operations.

They came close. A New York jury deliberated for 31 hours over five days. After the verdict, jurors told press that half believed the NFL was guilty of being a monopoly and were prepared to offer the USFL up to $300 million in damages; the other half thought the USFL had been crippled by its own irresponsible expansion efforts. Neither side would budge.

To avoid a hung jury, it was decided they would find in favor of the USFL but only award damages in the amount of $1. One juror told the Los Angeles Times that she thought it would be an indication for the judge to calculate proper damages.

He didn’t. The USFL was awarded treble damages for $3 in total, an amount that grew slightly with interest after time for appeal. The NFL sent them a payment of $3.76. (Less famously, the NFL was also ordered to pay $5.5 million in legal fees.)

Rudy Shiffer, vice-president of the Memphis Showboats, summed up the USFL's fate shortly after the ruling was handed down. “We’re dead,” he said.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios