Did the Soviets really build a "doomsday machine"?

Scrutinizing culture.
Aug. 31 2007 3:52 PM

The Return of the Doomsday Machine?

Please don't count on me to save the world again.

Nuclear bomb test
Nuclear bomb test

"The nuclear doomsday machine." It's a Cold War term that has long seemed obsolete.

And even back then, the "doomsday machine" was regarded as a scary conjectural fiction. Not impossible to create—the physics and mechanics of it were first spelled out by U.S. nuclear scientist Leo Szilard—but never actually created, having a real existence only in such apocalyptic nightmares as Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.

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In Strangelove, the doomsday machine was a Soviet system that automatically detonated some 50 cobalt-jacketed hydrogen bombs pre-positioned around the planet if the doomsday system's sensors detected a nuclear attack on Russian soil. Thus, even an accidental or (as in Strangelove) an unauthorized U.S. nuclear bomb could set off the doomsday machine bombs, releasing enough deadly cobalt fallout to make the Earth uninhabitable for the human species for 93 years. No human hand could stop the fully automated apocalypse.

An extreme fantasy, yes. But according to a new book called Doomsday Menand several papers on the subject by U.S. analysts, it may not have been merely a fantasy. According to these accounts, the Soviets built and activated a variation of a doomsday machine in the mid-'80s. And there is no evidence Putin's Russia has deactivated the system.

Instead, something was reactivated in Russia last week. I'm referring to the ominous announcement—given insufficient attention by most U.S. media (the Economist made it the opening of a lead editorial on Putin's Russia)—by Vladimir Putin that Russia has resumed regular "strategic flights" of nuclear bombers. (They may or may not be carrying nuclear bombs, but you can practically hear Putin's smirking tone as he says, "Our [nuclear bomber] pilots have been grounded for too long. They are happy to start a new life.")

These twin developments raise a troubling question: What are the United States' and Russia's current nuclear policies with regard to how and when they will respond to a perceived nuclear attack? In most accounts, once the president or Russian premier receives radar warning of an attack, they have less than 15 minutes to decide whether the warning is valid. The pressure is on to "use it or lose it"—launch our missiles before they can be destroyed in their silos. Pressure that makes the wrong decision more likely. Pressure that makes accidental nuclear war a real possibility.

Once you start to poke into this matter, you discover a disturbing level of uncertainty, which leads me to believe we should be demanding that the United States and Russia define and defend their nuclear postures. Bush and Putin should be compelled to tell us just what "failsafe" provisions are installed on their respective nuclear bombers, missiles, and submarines—what the current provisions against warning malfunctions are and what kinds of controls there are over the ability of lone madman nuclear bombers to bring on the unhappy end of history.

As for the former Soviet Union, the possible existence of a version of a doomsday machine is both relevant and disturbing.

In the Strangelove film, the Soviet ambassador tells the president and generals in the U.S. war room that the device was designed to deter a surprise attack, the kind of attack that might otherwise prevent retaliation by "decapitating" the Soviet command structure. The automated system would insure massive world-destroying retaliation even if the entire Soviet leadership were wiped out—or had second thoughts. As a result, some referred to it as the "dead hand" doomsday device.

It is Dr. Strangelove himself, the madman U.S. nuclear strategist played by Peter Sellers, who detects the flaw in this plan. After being apprised of the system's existence by the Soviet ambassador, and the likelihood of its being triggered by a U.S. bomber on an unauthorized mission to nuke its Soviet target, Dr. Strangelove exclaims:

Yes, but the ... whole point of the doomsday machine ... is lost ... if you keep it a secret! Why didn't you tell the world, eh?

In other words, a doomsday machine kept secret is no good for deterrence, only for retaliation by extinction.

Did the Soviets actually design a variation on a doomsday device and not tell us about it? And could an accidental or terrorist nuclear attack on Putin's Russia (by Chechens, for instance) trigger an antiquated automated dead-hand system and launch missiles capable of killing tens, maybe hundreds, of millions at unknown targets that might include the United States?

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