New York Revisited — June 19, 2014, 8:00 am

The Near-Death of Grand Central Terminal

And how it foretold the 2008 financial crisis

Main concourse, Grand Central Terminal, New York City, photographed between 1903 and 1920. Detroit Publishing Company, courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Main concourse, Grand Central Terminal, New York City, photographed between 1903 and 1920. Detroit Publishing Company, courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Many consider the destruction of New York’s original Pennsylvania Station in 1963 to have been the architectural crime of the twentieth century. But few know how close we came to also losing its counterpart, Grand Central Terminal, a hub every bit as irreplaceable. Grand Central’s salvation has generally been told as a tale of aroused civic virtue, which it was. Yet it was, as well, an affirming episode for those of us convinced that our political culture has become an endless clown-car act with the same fools always leaping out.

“In New York then, I learn to appreciate the Italian Renaissance,” said Le Corbusier of Grand Central. “It is so well done that you could believe it to be genuine. It even has a strange, new firmness which is not Italian, but American.” It was not seen as such by its owner, New York Central Railroad, which viewed it mostly as a cash cow. As early as 1954, the Central proposed replacing the terminal with something called The Hyberboloid — an I. M. Pei monstrosity that, at 108 stories and 1,600 feet, would have become the world’s tallest building at the time. There was enough public outcry that a scaled-down Hyberboloid was built instead just north of Grand Central, where it was retitled the Pan Am (later the Met Life) Building. Even at a lesser height, it proved every bit as grotesque as promised.

Still unsatisfied, New York Central proposed in 1961 to build a three-level bowling alley over Grand Central’s Main Concourse, which would have required lowering the ceiling from sixty feet to fifteen and cutting off from view its glorious blue mural of the zodiac. This, too, was stopped. Foiled again, New York Central resorted to plastering the terminal with ads and bombarding travelers with canned Muzak, complete with commercials, over the public address system.

Meanwhile, in the angry atmosphere that followed the demolition of Penn Station, New York City finally got a Landmarks Preservation Commission, which designated Grand Central a landmark in 1967. But the terminal still wasn’t safe. Now hemorrhaging money as Americans turned away from trains and the passenger rail system began to collapse, the New York Central merged with its old rival, the Pennsylvania Railroad. The chairman and CEO of the new “Penn Central” was one Stuart Saunders, former CEO of the Pennsy, and the man who had torn down Penn Station to build the latest Madison Square Garden.

Bear with us here, as we trace how the troubled new railroad nearly succeeded in tearing down Grand Central — for it says much about how we conduct business and politics in America today.

In his quest to save the new Penn Central, Saunders essentially turned it into a giant holding company. With the merger, the new company had become the nation’s biggest real-estate corporation. Already in possession of the Garden and the New York Knicks and Rangers, Saunders began snatching up others: hotels; pipelines; Arviva, a Florida real estate operation; Six Flags amusement parks; a mobile home company; and a private-plane charter operation.

Of course he wasn’t about to overlook the grandest property he already owned in his quest for cash. In open defiance of the Landmarks Commission, Saunders invited bids for a fresh excrescence just weeks after the commission’s 1967 ruling on Grand Central: a fifty-five-story office tower, to be built on top of the terminal. Some designs for the new building promised to preserve the main concourse, at least, but it was suggested that one side of the terminal might have to be razed in the process.

(Left) East end of the general waiting-room; (Center) A corner in the women's room; (Right) The general waiting room. Harper’s Weekly, 1900. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

(Left) East end of the general waiting-room; (Center) A corner in the women’s room; (Right) The general waiting room. Harper’s Weekly, 1900. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Who would have been foolhardy enough to encourage a flailing railroad to buy up everything it could get its hands on and enter a protracted legal battle with the City of New York? Pretty much the entire American banking establishment, as it turned out, led by the legendary Walter Wriston, the new president of what was then First National City Bank.

Wriston was an outspoken free-market ideologue who devoted much of his long tenure at City Bank — later Citibank — to rolling back nearly all of the checks and balances placed by the New Deal on the American banking and financial sectors. Rather than try to implement cost-saving measures at one of his largest clients, the new Penn Central, he encouraged it to grab whatever it could, organizing on its behalf a fifty-three-bank syndicate that provided the “railroad” — if it could still be called one — with a $500 million revolving credit line.

When it came to Grand Central, though, Saunders didn’t get what he wanted. In 1969, the Landmarks Commission, to its everlasting credit, voted unanimously to deny Penn Central permission to disfigure the terminal. Then the railroad sued.

1 The company also had the unmitigated chutzpah to argue that Grand Central’s aesthetic quality had been diminished because it was now “set against the backdrop and contrasting lines of the Pan Am Building, which appears to hang over the terminal and to dwarf it.” That’s right: the Penn Central actually argued that an awful building it had forced on the city so degraded Grand Central that the terminal could be partially or fully razed in favor of another awful building.

The commission’s rulings were unconstitutional, Penn Central argued, because they went, “beyond the scope of any permissible regulation and constitute[d] a taking of plaintiff’s private property for public use without just compensation.”1 This appeal to the takings clause of the Bill of Rights has since become a pillar of right-wing thought, but it was no easy sell in 1969 New York. The railroad found the right judge in Justice Irving H. Saypol of the New York State Supreme Court. 

Saypol’s judgeship had been a reward for his successful prosecution in 1952 of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage. Sitting now in judgment of New York’s most magnificent building, he found it lacking. In January 1975, he ruled that Penn Central had indeed suffered an unfair “taking” of its property — a ruling that threatened to invalidate New York’s landmarks law altogether. He also agreed with the railroad’s lawyers that Grand Central had little or no remaining aesthetic value, and said that it evoked “no reaction here other than that of a long neglected faded beauty.”

Saypol’s aesthetics aside, taking from whom? By the time the judge’s ruling came down, the Penn Central Railroad didn’t really exist anymore and hadn’t for years. Some $100 million of its debt had come due in 1969 and 1970, when Wall Street had hit a downturn and the country was in the midst of a credit crunch. The banks Walter Wriston had organized to support Penn Central were the first to bail. Rumors of insider trading abounded. Economist and securities analyst Alan Lechner explained the railroad’s downfall in his 1980 book, Street Games:

A lot of banks had lent money to Penn Central. A lot of banks had trust departments that were heavily invested in Penn Central stock. It is illegal to trade on insider stock, but when serious trouble began to show at the railroad, you can be sure that the bankers were the first to know about it — in their role not as trust officers but as lending bankers . . .

[W]hat happened to Chase Manhattan Bank, Morgan Guaranty Trust, Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust, and all the others when Penn Central began to go? You bet. Their trust departments sold massive amounts of the company’s stock. Put it out on the market for us investors to buy up. There had been some talk circulating in the Street about difficulties with Penn Central. Nothing serious. But these banks unloaded.

In other words, the banks sold investors stocks they knew were about to collapse in order to save their own investments — a practice Americans became very familiar with in 2008.

Within a year, Penn Central’s stock price had dropped from $85 to $15 a share, with the suckers taking all the losses and First National City Bank left holding the bag. For at least a fleeting moment, Walter Wriston must have thought that those New Deal firewalls he had assiduously chipped away at for so many years had something to recommend them after all. But faced with disaster, the great champion of the free market did not flinch: he ran straight to the government.

Appealing to the Nixon Administration on grounds of national security, Wriston asked for a $200 million Defense Department loan to Penn Central and a bailout package of $750 million for all of the nation’s railroads. Spooked by the growing unease on Wall Street, Nixon tentatively agreed, but the Democratic Congress said no.

Penn Central went under. With $6 billion in assets, it was at the time the largest U.S. corporation ever to go bankrupt, and the first major corporation to fail since the Great Depression.

None of the bankers suffered any consequences. The Federal Reserve simply struck down another New Deal regulation, allowing the banks to increase their interest rates while the Fed pumped $676.3 million in loan guarantees into the banking system. Congress, meanwhile, consolidated most of the nation’s passenger railroads into Amtrak and authorized some $7.7 billion to turn Penn Central and five other railroads into the combined passenger–freight company known as Conrail.

Conrail would start to make money by 1981. The feds earned a $579 million dividend in 1987 and sold off the company; its services were divided into a freight subsidiary and several state-run local passenger lines in the Northeast. By 1983, the passenger lines in and out of Grand Central were being operated under the name Metro-North by the state of Connecticut and the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), which remains the case to this day.

So what does this have to do with saving Grand Central Terminal?

Well, while his railroad had been saved by the public, Walter Wriston had got himself into another fine mess. In 1960, a New York bond attorney by the name of John Mitchell had come up with the idea of a new sort of financial instrument, known as a “moral obligation bond.” Unlike every other bond previously known, the moral-obligation bond was not backed by any government treasury or promise of future revenues, such as tolls on a highway — only by the “moral obligation” of the state to pay them.

Mitchell’s invention was overshadowed by his tenure as Nixon’s attorney general — and by the prison sentence he received for his role in Watergate. But Robert Moses, the “Master Builder” of New York, found moral-obligation bonds ideal for one of the many largely unaccountable public authorities he was still controlling, the Urban Development Corporation (UDC). Wriston and other leading bankers were happy to underwrite and sell UDC bonds, supported as they were by Moses, the New York state legislature, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and Nixon’s secretary of housing and urban development, George Romney, in a worthy effort on all of their parts to build more public housing.

But by February, 1975, Moses, Nixon, and Romney were all retired, and Rockefeller was moldering away as Gerald Ford’s vice president. UDC held over $1 billion in outstanding moral-obligation bonds, and had only some half-finished public-housing developments to show for it, with no revenue coming in. Wriston led his fellow bankers to a meeting with Governor Hugh Carey, who had been inaugurated just a few weeks before. Hoping to buy time and maybe get a bridge loan until he could cobble together a solution, the bewildered new governor asked Wriston for advice. Seymour P. Lachman and Robert Polner describe the scene in The Man Who Saved New York:

“When Carey asked the nation’s leading underwriters if any had advice for him on how to get through a period of difficulty, Wriston glared at Carey.

“Yes, I do, Governor,” he said tersely. “Pay your debts.”

On February 25, 1975, UDC became the first large government agency in America to default since the Great Depression. The contagion that ensued on Wall Street soon threatened to bankrupt the entire city. But in another meeting with Carey, in May 1975, Wriston and his fellow bankers once again adamantly refused to help.

The threat of bankruptcy directly jeopardized New York’s ability to appeal Judge Saypol’s ruling in the Grand Central case, and in turn to defend the city’s landmark laws. Here the battle to save the terminal went right through the looking glass. The Penn Central Railroad no longer really existed, but its government-subsidized successor stood to win its battle to mangle one of mankind’s greatest achievements by default, because the man who had allowed the zombie railroad to make its ruinous acquisitions, Walter Wriston, now had the city on the ropes thanks to his own reckless investments.

Like something out of Dickens, the spectral Penn Central was still alive in court, claiming that the Landmark Commission’s delays had already cost it $60 million. A lost appeal could result in much higher damages. Mayor Abe Beame feared that this would be ruinous for the city, and was reportedly on the verge of letting Grand Central be demolished or mutilated when civic virtue came riding at last to the rescue.

As Sam Roberts recounts in Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America, Brendan Gill wrote a passionate defense of Grand Central in his New Yorker architecture column, while attorneys Nina Gershon and Dorothy Miner fought for it in court, and the Municipal Arts Society and other preservationists rallied leading politicians, celebrities, and cultural leaders to save the terminal. But one voice stood out above all.

“Jackie Onassis will save us,” predicted architect Philip Johnson near the beginning of the campaign, and he proved to be right. The former First Lady made an eloquent handwritten plea to Mayor Beame, invoking President John F. Kennedy’s preservation efforts in Washington and asking about New York, “Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children?”

The City of New York decided to appeal, and an appellate court overturned Judge Saypol’s decision by a 3–2 vote. The railroad carried out its own appeal, first to the highest court in New York state, where it lost again, and then to the U.S. Supreme Court where, on June 26, 1978 — some eight years after Penn Central went bankrupt, and more than seven years since it had ceased to exist — a 6–3 decision in favor of New York City’s Landmark Law finally put a stake through the company’s heart.

Bird's-eye view of the remodeled Grand Central Station, from the balcony of the Manhattan Hotel. Harper’s Weekly, 1900. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Bird’s-eye view of the remodeled Grand Central Station, from the balcony of the Manhattan Hotel. Harper’s Weekly, 1900. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Grand Central was saved. Though in a sign of things to come, Justice William Rehnquist, writing for the minority, sneered, “The City of New York, because of its unadorned admiration for the design, has decided that owners of the building must preserve it unchanged for the benefit of sightseeing New Yorkers and tourists.”

Yes, it was true. A great city had decided that a profoundly beautiful and useful building might be preserved against the claims of stock jobbers and confidence men, and of an impecunious transportation entity that had already thrown itself at the mercy of the public weal.

Eventually, of course, Rehnquist and the other clowns would come to run the circus. First, though, Saypol would be charged with bribery and perjury for a scheme to steer appraisal and auction commission funds to his son. (He received a fairer hearing than the people he railroaded to the death house, and the charges were dropped shortly before his death from cancer.)

Governor Carey later turned to President Ford for the federal loans and guarantees that Wriston and the nation’s leading bankers had refused him. He was denied again, because Ford’s chief of staff, a native of Illinois, had consulted with Mayor Richard Daley Sr., and agreed with him that if the nation’s largest city went bankrupt, it would be a good thing — for Chicago. The name of Ford’s chief of staff was Donald Rumsfeld.

Carey turned instead to Albert Shanker and his much maligned United Federation of Teachers union for the nearly $500 million needed to keep New York afloat. He got the money. The city was saved by the further sacrifices — the cutbacks and the layoffs — endured by its municipal workers and its other citizens.

Ford eventually came around with the loan guarantees necessary to let the city borrow again, but only after intense pressure from Congress and European governments — and after his chief of staff’s assistant, an ambitious young draft dodger named Dick Cheney, made the city agree to end free tuition at the City University system — something it had provided through war, recession, and municipal malfeasance since 1847.

Ford’s turnaround was too late to save his 1976 election campaign, when he lost New York — and the national vote — by just four percentage points. But his underlings, Rummy and Cheney, survived and went on to long careers of public service, as did Rehnquist, the man who regarded Grand Central Terminal as a sightseeing gimmick.

Walter Wriston would die just a few years short of seeing his vision come to fruition in 2008: a world of largely unregulated banks and financial firms, free to bring the world economy to its knees before turning to the government for a bailout that dwarfed his old record with the Penn Central. The circus never closes.

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Combustion Engines

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There Will Always Be Fires

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The End of Eden

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How to Start a Nuclear War

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Combustion Engines·

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
The End of Eden·

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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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