By Nathan Barton
Back in the early 1970s, during one of the periodic flare-ups of tension in the Cold War, Reader’s Digest published a scare story. The major threat in the public eye at the time was Soviet ICBMs and bombers. But China had nukes, too, People didn’t worry as much about China at the time, because they didn’t have any ICBMs. And no long-range bombers, either. And being increasingly on the outs with Moscow (and Vietnam), it wasn’t likely to get them.
So Reader’s Digest tried to wake people up to the danger of Red China. (This was long before so many manufactured goods came to America (or the rest of the world) from China. And before Reader’s Digest got “woke.”) So they published a “what-if” story.
China didn’t need ICBMs to strike at the Fifty States: they had nuclear bombs that could be delivered by other means, especially in those days before security at American ports was far less than we have in the 21st Century. (Not that it ain’t full of holes even today. Which is good and bad.) BUT the Red Chinese had nuclear bombs: their first (successful) test was in 1964; their first hydrogen bomb was tested successfully in 1967.
Reader’s Digest posed a scenario in which Chinese nuclear bombs were delivered to American seaports on shipping containers delivered by merchant ships, and detonated by radio signals. It was not, as I recall, just seaports that were cremated by the Chinese weapons, as some of the containers were shipped to inland destinations.
It was, even in those days, a chilling story. Being young at the time, I have no idea whether or not the scenario was taken seriously by the DoD and whether any counteractions or security measures were ever taken. I suspect that none were, as radiation detectors were not (publicly and officially, at least) installed and used in American ports (air and sea) until after Bloody Tuesday (9-11).
At that time, of course, the US and USSR (and probably the UK and France) had already developed suitcase nuclear bombs, with only a few kilotons of power and intended for tactical use. Along with small nuclear warheads designed to be launched by small, tactical missile systems like the American Honest John. But in those days, with terrorism an unappreciated threat and usually associated with “people’s revolutions” in far-off places – or the Arab-Israeli conflict – there was no serious worry or thought given.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, there was concern for some time about missing “pocket nukes” as well as standard bombs and warheads. Today, it appears that the consensus is that none of those weapons exist in usable form any more, as radioactive decay gives both uranium and plutonium nuclear devices a limited shelf-life. They have to be refurbished every few years or they won’t work. Even worse than your car or laptop.
But the threat still remains.
North Korea, for example, continues to scare the world with its missile and nuclear tests, successful or not. Western fear of Iran having nukes (and already having proven delivery methods) is alive. Lost weapons from Russian, Pakistani, and Indian stockpiles are a fairly common feature in fictional thrillers.
And in particular, if Kim were interested in using their military weapons in any way other than to get handouts and concessions from the US, Japan, and the South, there is potential for delivering nukes to American (or Japanese) targets by shipping container. Or even selling those to Iran or even Al Queda to be similarly delivered to the Fifty States, Israel, or somewhere else.
So why don’t they? Why haven’t they? I don’t know. And I suspect that no one in the American, British, French, or other intelligence community does either. Except that the stakes are simply too high: even the nutjobs who run some regimes (or hide within those regimes) and who staff the terrorist organizations of the world seem reluctant to start a cycle which could end in planetary destruction.
Or so most people claim. Others argue differently, but they are suppressed more successfully than Trumpers, Creationists, or 9-11 conspiracy promoters.
Short of Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan deciding on Gotterdammerung, or a competent Islamic or other terrorist organization, the greatest threat of nuclear attack on the Fifty States continues to be a mistake or cabal in Russia, China, France, or the UK, or something truly nightmarish in India.
But it is only the greatest threat: there are others. Logically, China would not be anxious to use a nuclear weapon against the United States, either the Fifty States themselves or American military forces or bases: the risk of massive retaliation is far too great. A fact the Soviets and now Russians have realized for decades. But in an empire that is teetering and showing more than a few signs of fracture, a decision need not be rational or logical.
Unfortunately, there are less insane methods to attack the Fifty States. We’ll discuss those in a later community.