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Bruce Blair: Challenging the accidental nuclear war machine at every turn via Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Bruce Blair spent his professional life working to expose the dangers from the nuclear Doomsday Machine created by the United States and Soviet Union during their Cold War and advancing policies to reduce the risk of nuclear use. A leading expert on nuclear command and control, he focused especially on the risks of accidental nuclear war implicit in the “hair-trigger” postures of US and Soviet ballistic missiles. During his final 15 years, he led a campaign for the phased and verifiable elimination of all nuclear weapons. He died on July 19 at the age of 72 as a result of a severe stroke.

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In January 2004, Blair had occasion to tell McNamara this story about the codes having been set to 00000000. McNamara exclaimed, “I am shocked, absolutely shocked and outraged. Who the hell authorized that?”

Blair used the McNamara story to illustrate “the ignorance of presidents and defense secretaries and other nuclear security officials about the true state of nuclear affairs during their time in the saddle.” He later explained that this “ignorance” was not from a lack of concern; it was because “[t]hick secrecy, fact twisting about the US nuclear arsenal, and subterfuge aggravated the risks and allowed them to escape the control of the democratic process, and even to escape notice and remedial action within the inner precincts of the government… A cloistered nuclear priesthood, largely unaccountable, created an illusion of safety that masked the systematic potential for tragedy on a monumental scale.”

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Reflecting on his time in the Air Force, and on the similar experience of the generations of young launch-control officers who came after him and those who still serve in the underground centers, Blair concluded, “we have only ourselves to blame for putting them in such a morally untenable position. The thought that my son, or daughter even, might someday be expected to stand ready to fire nuclear missiles fills me with moral revulsion at our failed leadership in the world. It would not be his or her fault that we as a nation, having suspended our morality during the Cold War, lacked the vision and sensibility to stand down now that it’s over.”

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