Read The Pentagon's Brain Online

Authors: Annie Jacobsen

Tags: #History / Military / United States, #History / Military / General, #History / Military / Biological & Chemical Warfare, #History / Military / Weapons

The Pentagon's Brain (4 page)

BOOK: The Pentagon's Brain
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Von Neumann began developing ideas for creating an electronic computer of his own. Borrowing ideas from the ENIAC construct, and with help from Colonel Goldstine, he drew up plans for a second classified electronic computer, called the Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer, or EDVAC. Von Neumann saw great promise in a redesign of the ENIAC computer’s
memory. He believed there was a way to turn the computer into an “electronic brain” capable of storing not just data and instructions, as was the case with ENIAC, but additional information that would allow the computer to perform a myriad of computational functions on its own. This was called a stored-program computer, and it “broke the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things,” writes von Neumann’s biographer George Dyson, adding, “Our universe would never be the same.” These “instructions” that von Neumann imagined were the prototype of what the world now knows as software.

Von Neumann believed that this computer could theoretically speed up atomic bomb calculations being performed by his fellow Manhattan Project scientists at Los Alamos, in New Mexico. He and the team at the Moore School proposed that the Army build a second machine, the one he called EDVAC. But the atomic bomb was completed and successfully tested before EDVAC was finished, and after the war, EDVAC was orphaned.

Von Neumann still wanted to build his own computer from scratch. He secured funding from the Atomic Energy Commission to do so, and in November 1945, John von Neumann began building an entirely new computer in the basement of Fuld Hall at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Colonel Goldstine arrived to assist him in the winter of 1946, and with help from a small staff of engineers, von Neumann first constructed a machine shop and a laboratory for testing computer components. Officially the project was called the Electronic Computing Instrument Computer; von Neumann preferred to call the machine the Mathematical and Numerical Integrator and Computer, or MANIAC.

MANIAC was smaller and much more advanced than ENIAC, which weighed thirty tons. ENIAC was rife with limitations; gargantuan and cumbersome, it sucked power, overheated, and constantly needed to be rewired whenever a problem came along. ENIAC technicians spent days unplugging tangled cables in order to find a
solution for a numerical problem that took only minutes to compute. MANIAC was compact and efficient, a single six-foot-high, eight-foot-long machine that weighed only a thousand pounds. But the most significant difference between ENIAC and MANIAC was that von Neumann designed his computer to be controlled by its own instructions. These were housed inside the machine, like a brain inside a human being.

Indeed, von Neumann had consciously modeled MANIAC after the human brain. “I propose to store everything that has to be remembered by the machine, in these memory organs,” von Neumann wrote, including “the coded, logical instructions which define the problem and control the functioning of the machine.” In this way, MANIAC became the world’s first modern stored-program computer. Von Neumann’s friend and colleague Edward Teller saw great promise in the computer and used MANIAC to perform calculations for the hydrogen bomb.

After two and a half years of work, the team at Princeton tested MANIAC against von Neumann’s own brain. Initially, von Neumann was able to compute numbers in his head faster than the machine. But as his assistants entered more and more complicated computational requests, von Neumann finally did what human beings do: he erred. The computer did not. It was a revelatory moment in the history of defense science. A machine had just outperformed a brain the Pentagon relied on, one of the greatest minds in the world.

The Pentagon’s strategy for nuclear deterrence in the 1950s was based on a notion called mutual assured destruction, or MAD. This was the proposition that neither the Soviets nor the Americans would be willing to launch a nuclear attack against the other because that action would ensure a reciprocal action and ultimately guarantee both sides’ demise. At RAND, analysts began applying the Prisoner’s Dilemma strategy to a nuclear launch, keeping in
mind that the driving principle of the dilemma was distrust. This led a RAND analyst named Albert Wohlstetter to start poking holes in the notion that MAD offered security. The way Wohlstetter saw it, MAD most definitely did not. He argued that if one side figured out a way to decapitate the other in a so-called “first strike,” it might be tempted to launch an unprovoked attack to ensure its superiority. The only solution, said Wohlstetter, was to develop a new nuclear strategy whereby the United States had more nuclear weapons in more hardened missile silos secreted around the American countryside than the Soviets could decapitate in a preemptive strike. Wohlstetter’s famous theory became known as “second strike.” U.S. policy regarding second strike deterrence took on the acronym NUTS, for nuclear utilization target selection.

President Eisenhower began to see the madness of it all. The year after Castle Bravo, the Soviets successfully tested their own deliverable hydrogen bomb. If something wasn’t done to stop it, the arms race would only continue to escalate. Speaking to his cabinet, Eisenhower wondered if it was possible to put an end to nuclear weapons tests. He launched his administration’s first investigation into the possibility of stopping nuclear science in its tracks. His vision was short-lived. After a month of study and discussion, the State Department, the Atomic Energy Commission, the CIA, and the Department of Defense were all unanimous in their opposition to ending nuclear tests. Atmospheric nuclear weapons tests must continue, they all said. The safety and security of the country depended on more nuclear weapons and more nuclear weapons tests. The president’s advisors instead encouraged him to focus his attention on strengthening a national effort to protect civilians in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack, an unpopular program called civil defense. This job fell to the Federal Civil Defense Administration, a three-year-old agency with headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The plan for civil defense in the mid-1950s was to have people
prepare to live underground for a period of time after a nuclear attack. An effort to build a national network of underground bunkers had been moving forward in fits and starts. The president’s advisors told him that his endorsement would boost morale. But the very idea of promoting civil defense put Eisenhower in an intractable bind. Ever since he had been shown the fallout map from the Castle Bravo bomb, Eisenhower knew how implausible a civil defense program was—how many tens of millions of Americans were destined to die in the first few hours of a nuclear attack. The idea that there was safety to be found in a civilian underground bunker program was apocryphal. One needed to look no further than what had happened to the men in the Station 70 bunker. Station 70 was a windowless bunker carefully constructed of three-foot-thick concrete walls with steel doors, buried under ten feet of dirt and sand. It was surrounded by a moat and had a secondary blast buttress wall. And even with a 10,000 factor of shielding, the radiation nearly killed the men inside; they barely made it off Enyu alive. After taking cover in the bunker’s urinal for eleven hours, the men were ultimately evacuated from the death zone by two Army helicopters in a carefully orchestrated military operation. The helicopter pilots were part of a ten-thousand–man task force, with unlimited access to state-of-the-art rescue and communication equipment. The rescue teams had fewer than one dozen rescue operations to perform, the majority of which had been rehearsed. Castle Bravo was a highly organized scientific test. In a real nuclear attack, there would be carnage and mayhem. Each person would be on his or her own.

To be caught outside, en route to a civil defense shelter, even forty miles away from ground zero, would be life threatening. The bomb blast and shock waves would rupture lungs, shred eardrums, and cause organs to rupture and bleed. Debris—uprooted trees, sheets of metal, broken glass, electrical wires, wood, rocks, pipes, poles—everything would be ripped apart and hurled through the air at
speeds of up to 150 miles per hour. How, in good conscience, could the president urge the public to support a program he knew was more than likely going to kill so many of them?

Paradoxically, in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack, there was a fully formed plan in place to keep the president and his cabinet alive. An executive branch version of the Station 70 bunker had recently been completed six miles north of Camp David, just over the Pennsylvania state line. This underground command center, called the Raven Rock Mountain Complex, was buried inside a mountain of granite, giving the president protection equivalent to that of walls a thousand feet thick. The Raven Rock complex, also called Site R, had been designed to withstand a direct hit from a 15-megaton bomb. The idea of an underground presidential bunker was first conceived by U.S. Army military intelligence (G-2) during postwar examination of the underground bunker complexes of the Third Reich. The survival of so many of the Nazi high command in Berlin was predicated on the underground engineering skills of a few top Nazi scientists, including Franz Xaver Dorsch, Walter Schieber, and Georg Rickhey, all three of whom were hired by the U.S. Army to work on secret U.S. underground engineering projects after the war, as part of Operation Paperclip.

Plans for Raven Rock were first drawn up in 1948, including some by Rickhey. Work began shortly after the Russians detonated their own atomic bomb, known in the West as Joe-1, in August 1949, and by 1950, construction crews with top secret clearances were working around the clock to build the first underground presidential bunker and command post. Site R was a three-story complex with living quarters for the president and his advisors, a hospital, chapel, barbershop, library, and water reservoir. By the time the bunker was finished, in 1954, the costs had reached $1 billion (roughly $9 billion in 2015).

In the event of a nuclear strike, the president would be
helicoptered from the White House lawn to the landing pad at Raven Rock, a trip that would take roughly thirty-five minutes. But the prospect of retreating underground in the event of a nuclear strike made President Eisenhower despondent. To his cabinet he expressed his view of what governance would be like after a nuclear attack: “Government which goes on with some kind of continuity will be like a one-eyed man in the land of the blind.”

While the president lived with his conundrum, the civil defense program grew. The details of the Castle Bravo test remained classified, as did the existence of the Raven Rock command center, leaving the public in the dark as to the implausibility of civil defense. Nuclear tests continued unabated, in Nevada and in the Marshall Islands. But the press attention created by the Castle Bravo fallout debate began to generate strong negative responses to the viability of civil defense.

In February 1955 the Senate Armed Services Committee opened a federal investigation into what civil defense really meant for the American people. The investigating committee was headed by a Tennessee Democrat, Senator Estes Kefauver, known for his crusades against organized crime and antitrust violations. The Senate sessions would become known as the Kefauver hearings, and in the course of them, shocking new information came to light.

Civil defense had a two-pronged focus: on those who would stay in the city and seek shelter, and on those who would try to leave. In the event of a nuclear attack, which would likely target a big city, some people living in urban centers were advised to hurry to air-raid-type shelters that had been built underground. As for those who could leave, the Federal Civil Defense Administration said that they should evacuate the cities, promising that this was a better alternative. During the hearings, the senators had questions. In the mid-1950s, most land outside big cities was little more than open countryside. Where were citizens supposed to evacuate to? And what were they supposed to eat?

The director of the Federal Civil Defense Administration, Frederick “Val” Peterson, took the stand. The former Nebraska governor was under oath. He revealed that the plan of the administration was to dig roadside trenches along public highways leading out of all the big cities across the nation. The trenches were to be three feet deep and two feet wide. When the bombs hit the cities, Peterson said, people who had already made it out were to stop driving, abandon their automobiles, lie down in the trenches, and cover themselves with dirt. Senator Kefauver, learning this along with the public for the first time, was dumbfounded. The government could use science and technology to create power as great as that generated by the sun, but when it came to civil defense, this was the best they could come up with? What about “food, water [and] sanitation in [these] trenches?” the incredulous Kefauver asked. Peterson fumbled for an answer. “Obviously, in these trenches, if they are built on an emergency basis, there would be no provisions for sanitation,” he admitted. But there was an alternative plan. Instead of the dirt trenches, another idea being discussed involved using concrete pipes, four feet in diameter, to be laid down alongside the highways. When the bombs hit the cities, Peterson said, people who had already made it out would stop driving, abandon their automobiles, and crawl into the pipes. Sometime thereafter, Peterson explained, federal emergency crews would come along and bury the pipes with earth.

Senator Leverett Saltonstall, a Republican from Massachusetts, expressed astonishment. He told Peterson that he found it impossible to imagine millions of “shell-shocked evacuees waiting out a nuclear war inside concrete pipes,” without fresh air, water, sanitation, food, or medical care. And for who knew how long. Senator Saltonstall said he would rather lie down in a dirt ditch “than get into a concrete pipe a mile long, with no exit.” Saltonstall shared his vision of being crushed in the mayhem by fellow American citizens fighting to stay alive.

Next came the issue of food. Committee members wanted to know how the government was going to help feed evacuees after a nuclear exchange. Peterson replied that the United States would open food kitchens, but there would be little food to be served. “We can’t eat canned foods,” he explained, because radiation could penetrate tin cans. “We won’t eat refrigerated foods,” he conceded, because most electricity would be out. The truth was not pretty, he acknowledged, but was “stark, elemental, brutal, filthy and miserable,” he said under oath. “We will eat gruel made of wheat cooked as it comes out of the fields and corn parched and animals slaughtered as we catch them before radioactivity destroys them.” The committee told Peterson his agency’s plans for evacuation were inadequate. In a matter of hours, the notion of civil defense became the subject of national ridicule. And yet the nuclear tests continued unabated.

BOOK: The Pentagon's Brain
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