If you’ve been following my journey the last couple of years, you know that my novel, THE BITTER PAST, revolves around that whacky time in our history when we were figuring out just how fast we could destroy the world. As we anxiously await publication day on July 18, I thought it might be fun to take a look back at our atomic history and showcase just how crazy things were. The photo above is of five Air Force officers who in 1957 volunteered to stand directly under a nuclear bomb detonation to prove, once and for all, that men are always dumber than women.1 

Also in 1957, we knew there was a chance that a nuclear bomber might one day have an accident, so we decided to conduct a test to see what would happen if the plutonium from a warhead cracked open and leaked all over someone’s living room. (The test was called Project 57, and THE BITTER PAST does a “what if” of its own with it.) Nine years later in 1966, a B-52 bomber collided with a refueling plane. One of its four unarmed bombs fell into the Mediterranean Sea, while the other three rained mainly on a plain in Spain, two of which spilled plutonium over a nice farming village. Fortunately, the U.S. Government was able to clean most of it up and ship it to the state that drew the short straw—South Carolina!2

Just a few years later in October of 1962—during the Cuban Missile Crisis—World War Three was moments away, and not specifically because the Russians had parked some nasty nukes in the Caribbean sand. In Wisconsin at the Duluth Sector Direction Center, a guard took a shot at something climbing the facility’s fence. Since we were sure the Soviets were coming at any minute, the alarms went off, and at a nearby airfield, planes carrying nuclear weapons were scrambled, their pilots certain that the world was about to end. They didn’t know the thing climbing the fence a few miles away was not the great Russian bear…it was just a black bear.3

Fast forward twenty years. It’s September 1983. The Soviet Union’s early-warning systems are telling them the United States has launched a missile strike at the motherland. Their computers confirm this is no false alarm. The response has been trained into the Soviet military, and it should be instantaneous. But the duty officer doesn’t trust the computers, and their radar systems don’t see any missiles. Minutes later, more sirens, more missile launches detected. Still, the duty officer suspected something was wrong. He called army headquarters and explained there was a system malfunction.

Nothing happened. No missiles struck Soviet soil. Because he refused to act on what a computer was telling him was true, Stanislav Petrov may have saved us all.4

We look back at these incidents and wonder how we’ve managed to survive this long. It’s no small wonder. Frankly, I don’t understand how me made it out of the 1950s. When you read The Bitter Past, you may not either.