How Cold War Maj. Harold Hering Asked a Forbidden Question That Cost Him His Career

Scrutinizing culture.
Feb. 28 2011 5:40 PM

An Unsung Hero of the Nuclear Age

Maj. Harold Hering and the forbidden question that cost him his career.

(Continued from Page 2)

 AIR FORCE PANEL
 RECOMMENDS DISCHARGE
 OF MAJOR WHO CHALLENGED
 "FAILSAFE" SYSTEM

This seemed to me to be a more important story than its placement indicated, so I took the clipping up to Lewis Lapham at Harper's, and he commissioned a story that would explore not just the sanity question raised by the Major but the larger sanity of the system itself.
I spent three years investigating and writing a story about the mechanics and morals of the nuclear command and control system.

It was a story that took me into the underground war room of the Strategic Air Command (now STRATCOM) beneath Omaha's Offutt Air Force Base, and eventually out to a silo farm in the badlands where, at a missile launch control center, I got to hold a launch key in my hand and twist it in the slot in a test console, exactly as if I were executing a launch order that would kill 10 million people or more.

And believe me: Once you hold a launch key in your hand and twist it (hard to the right and hold for two seconds) it unlocks a door you never can close again. A door to the abyss.

So I came to understand the major's focus on "the time of the key turning." But I had trouble reaching the major. After his discharge, his job as long haul trucker made it difficult to reach him. But finally, as my story was going to press, I caught him at home in Indianapolis. He told me he'd just put his cartons of files on the Forbidden Question in storage, but that I was welcome to come out and go through them. I was already up to my eyeballs in Congressional hearings on the subject and he sounded as if he was weary of the matter and wanted to move on. And so did I.

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So I moved on—like we all did after the Cold War ended, during the "holiday from history" that ensued. I moved on until 2007, when several events awakened me to the fact that we had entered a new age of nuclear peril with the same old flawed command and control system the Major had questioned.

And I wondered what had become of the major.

In the intervening years, Maj. Hering's question was not a tree that fell in the forest. Even if it didn't get the attention it deserved, it influenced some influential people.

Daniel Ellsberg, for instance, was very familiar with Maj. Hering's question. Ellsberg's post-Pentagon career has been devoted in great part to anti-nuclear activities. In fact, Ellsberg had saved clippings he had found in Detroit and San Francisco newspapers about the Major's case which he'd scanned and sent to me.

Another key figure, Bruce Blair, the missile-crewman-turned-anti-nuke-activist, had also been provoked to investigate the question of launch-order authentication. (He's the one who figured out that he could launch 150 missiles all by himself. He even told me how he'd do it.)

After Blair left the Air Force, he eventually became a consultant to the Congressional Office of Science and Technology, where he was given "above top secret" clearance to study the Pentagon's nuclear command and control systems. Blair told me that one of the reasons he went from being an advocate of nuclear arms control—in favor of a reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons, but not abolishing them—to being an advocate of "Global Zero" for nuclear weapons, is that even now, with all the digital modernizations of command and control, "no one has yet come up with an answer to Maj. Hering's question."

In other words we have risked the fate of the earth, the fate of the species, on the mental stability of a few ambitious politicians who rise to the top of the heap, not necessarily because of their rationality. There is no foolproof command and control system. The imposing phrase "command and control" belies its meretriciousness.

It was Blair who put me back in touch with the major, whom he'd checked in on periodically over the years, and it was through Blair I first got a working phone number for the major during my research for this new book. But some voice-mail glitch led to an unreturned message and a feeling that perhaps Hering had moved on or didn't want to talk. It was only after the book went to press, at the urging of my editor, that I tried one more time. After all, I dedicated the book to him. I didn't want it to come as a complete surprise.

This time he got my voice mail, or a version of it.

He responded by e-mail that he understood from my phone message that I wanted to send him a copy of a Harper's story I'd written and that he was glad that people were still interested in what he called "my Board of Inquiry," the hearing before the division of the Air Force judiciary which had rejected his appeal of his dismissal from the missile class because of The Question.

In other words he'd never seen the original 15,000-word story that had been inspired by him. I would blame the turbulent state of my life back then for my not sending him a copy. I guess I just assumed someone had brought it to his attention and that despite my admiration for his question, he'd read it and not responded because it was a chapter in his life he wanted closed.

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