Special Feature — February 27, 2015, 8:00 am

Burn After Reading

In 1971, William Powell published The Anarchist Cookbook, a guide to making bombs and drugs at home. He spent the next four decades fighting to take it out of print.

William Powell, the author of The Anarchist Cookbook, in 1971 © JP Laffont/Sygma/Corbis

William Powell, the author of The Anarchist Cookbook, in 1971 © JP Laffont/Sygma/Corbis

On September 10, 1976, during an evening flight from New York to Chicago, a bearded passenger handed a sealed envelope to an attendant. The note began: “One, this plane is hijacked.” In the rest of the letter, the passenger, a Croatian nationalist named Zvonko Busic, explained that five bombs had been smuggled onboard, and that a sixth had been placed in locker 5713 at Grand Central Station in Manhattan. Busic added that the pilot should radio the authorities immediately and that further instructions would be found with the bomb in the locker. “[It] can only be activated by pressing the switch to which it is attached,” he added, “but caution is suggested.”

While the captain notified air traffic control, Busic entered the cockpit wearing what looked like three sticks of dynamite attached to a battery. He told the captain that TWA Flight 355 was now headed to Europe. When members of the N.Y.P.D. bomb squad investigated the subway locker, they found a bomb inside, along with two lengthy tracts in favor of Croatian independence from Yugoslavia. Busic demanded the declarations appear in several newspapers the next day, including the New York Times and Washington Post.

Onboard with Busic were four accomplices, including his wife, who spent her time chatting up passengers and passing out leaflets. After multiple refueling stops, the Boeing 727 finally touched down at the Charles de Gaulle Airport, near Paris, where Busic finally surrendered. Surprisingly, the passengers—none of whom were hurt—emphasized the courtesy of the hijackers. “There was almost an excess of politeness,” one man told the Associated Press. “They were so polite it was ridiculous,” another told Newsweek. It turned out that the bombs onboard consisted of cooking pots, Silly Putty, and tape.

But all had not gone so smoothly on the ground. After removing what turned out to be a real bomb from the subway locker, the NYPD brought it to a demolition range in the Bronx. Members of the bomb squad tried to detonate it remotely, without success. When they approached the device, it suddenly blew up, killing one officer, Brian Murray, leaving another blind in one eye, and injuring two more. While being interrogated, Busic told investigators that he built the bomb—made of eight packages of explosive gelatin—by following instructions found in The Anarchist Cookbook.

Written by nineteen-year-old William Powell, The Anarchist Cookbook included sections such as “Converting a shotgun into a grenade launcher” and “How to make TNT.” The book’s message wasn’t subtle. In the forward, Powell expressed “a sincere hope that it may stir some stagnant brain cells into action.” The final sentence reads: “Freedom is based on respect, and respect must be earned by the spilling of blood.” When it was published, in January 1971, Powell was young and angry in a country where the young and angry had started to blow things up. But by the time the bomb detonated in the Bronx—marking the first of many connections between the book and real-world carnage—Powell had become a father and converted to Christianity and was having reservations about what promised to be his life’s most enduring legacy.

Powell is now a sixty-five-year-old grandfather. He still speaks with a slight English accent from a young childhood spent in London and has the professorial habit, before answering a question, of raising his eyeglasses to his forehead and pausing a beat to think. In 1979, he left the United States and has made his home in outposts throughout the world: Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Jakarta, Indonesia; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He has become a respected leader within the field of international schooling, heading several schools before launching an organization called Education Across Frontiers, which seeks to support international students with special needs. A recent book of Powell’s is entitled Becoming an Emotionally Intelligent Teacher. Much of his work has been funded by the U.S. Department of State.

When I first contacted Powell, he didn’t sound interested in revisiting the past. “The AC story is old and I’m not sure I can add much to it,” he wrote. This wasn’t surprising—he rarely speaks to the media. But as we continued to exchange emails and then talk over Skype, I learned that he had recently been working on a memoir. He later shared the manuscript, much of which deals with the circumstances that led him to his writing the book, along with his inability to fully get out from beneath its shadow. “The book has hovered like an awkward question on the rim of my consciousness for years,” he wrote, “and has the annoying habit of popping into mind every time I am about to be absolutely certain about something.”

Powell was an unlikely candidate to write a book espousing the virtues of violence. Born on Long Island, his family moved to London when he was three, where his father, a professor of philosophy, helped plan the first General Assembly of the United Nations. When they returned to New York in 1959, Powell’s home life was materially comfortable—his mother was a therapist, and his father would rise to become the spokesperson for the secretary general of the U.N.—but Powell felt out of place and bored in the suburbs. When he was a young teenager, his parents pulled him out of public school in White Plains after he and his friends stole a car and drove, for no particular reason, to North Carolina. He transferred to a boarding school in the Hudson Valley, where he was expelled for shoving a teacher’s parked car into a ravine.

[Do It Yourself]
Runaway hits

From a list of bestselling books by  Delta Press, the current publisher of The Anarchist Cookbook. 

The Black Book of Revenge
Clear Your Record & Own a Gun
How to Make Disposable Silencers
Butane Lighter Hand Grenade
Knife Throwing Techniques of the Ninja
Justifiable Homicide: The Intelligent Use of Deadly Force
Construction of Secret Hiding Places
How to Train a Guard Dog
Holding Your Ground: Preparing for Defense if it All Falls Apart

In 1967, when Powell was seventeen years old, he left home for New York City. The city—and the East Village in particular, with its in-your-face rebelliousness—felt different, more alive. He moved to an apartment near Tompkins Square Park with Steve Hancock, the older brother of a friend from boarding school. Hancock managed a store in the now defunct Bookmasters chain and helped find work for Powell as a clerk at their Midtown shop. Bookmasters aligned itself with the surging youth movement, and Powell spent his days flipping through counterculture publications and shelving books by Lenny Bruce and Che Guevara. It was a heady, unpredictable, intellectually stimulating environment, intensified by the Dexedrine he had started to pop. When cops from the “Public Morals Division” showed up, looking for copies of Fuck You—A Magazine of the Arts or Robert Crumb’s Zap Comix #4, Powell quickly shoved them under the counter. One day, a woman arrived hawking copies of something called the SCUM Manifesto. Powell was intrigued and placed a few in the window. The woman was radical feminist Valerie Solanas; SCUM was rumored to have stood for the Society to Cut Up Men. She was arrested a week later for trying to assassinate Andy Warhol.

Powell’s politics were vaguely left but sharply antiauthoritarian. He considered the older Hancock, a dedicated anarchist, “a trail guide” to the chaos of the times, where people were taking to the streets, marching and publicly burning draft cards, with some promising to “bring the war home.” Hancock was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, and told Powell about a plan the group once discussed to post recipes as broadsides throughout the city, instructing passersby on how to make everything from Molotov cocktails to LSD. Nothing came of it, but Powell filed the idea away in his head, intrigued by the possibility. Together, they attended a number of antiwar protests. At Grand Central Station, they watched police attack people with clubs. During the melee, officers shoved a Village Voice reporter into a glass door, bloodying his face. Hancock went out and purchased two motorcycle helmets for future demonstrations. The scene was turning heavy.

Dropping out of school meant that Powell was eligible for Vietnam, and he met three times with the Draft Board’s psychiatrist. While he’d been granted extensions—he showed up drunk and on speed and mouthed off during interviews—by 1969 he felt the walls closing in. “Get your ass prepared for Vietnam” is how he remembers the last interview had concluded. He didn’t believe in the war, didn’t want to move to Canada, and certainly didn’t want to spend time in prison. His personal life was slowly stabilizing: he had a girlfriend and, after a long struggle, finally kicked his speed habit. He purchased a used typewriter for twenty-five dollars and dreamed of becoming a writer. Yet the government seemed intent on tearing everything away by sending him across the globe to an early grave. (His fears were, in fact, unfounded: the government eventually classified him as 4-F, or unacceptable for military service, for reasons he never discovered.) On a return trip from a demonstration in Washington, D.C., Powell concluded that peaceful protest was too easily ignored to be effective; he decided instead to write a book that expanded on the broadside idea he’d heard from Hancock, teaching ordinary people how to blow things up.

Powell quit his job and began writing for up to ten hours a day. Despite the title, there is nothing about anarchism as a political theory in the book, which focuses on drugs, surveillance, weapons, and explosives. About drugs, Powell knew plenty. He had overcome a speed habit, smoked lots of pot, consumed his fair share of LSD, and seen lives destroyed by heroin. What he didn’t know he borrowed from underground publications like the Berkeley Barb, passing on tips that hadn’t been fact-checked. As it turns out, one cannot get high by eating banana peels that have been boiled and baked, or smoking crushed peanut shells. (Powell was right, however, about nutmeg’s hallucinogenic potential.) Nor had the city’s sewer system been taken over by “New York white,” the giant marijuana plants said to be the result of people flushing seeds to avoid arrest. “The sewer plants usually reach a height of between 12 and 15 feet and are bleached white because of the lack of sunlight,” Powell wrote, in the authoritative voice that permeates the book.

He researched the other sections at the main branch of the New York Public Library, flipping through the card catalogue and returning with books such as the U.S. Army Field Manual for Physical Safety and Homemade Bombs and Explosives. He holed up in the building for months, reading about wristlocks and tear gas and nitroglycerine. Most of the book is a cut-and-paste creation; when Powell’s voice does emerge beneath the technical-manual speak, it’s usually in the form of a cocky young man trying to sound streetwise beyond his years. About explosives, he wrote: “This chapter is going to kill and maim more people than all the rest put together, because people just refuse to take things seriously.”

1Powell gives this figure in his unpublished memoir

He sent a book outline to more than thirty publishers, pinning the rejection notes to the walls of his apartment on Tenth Street. Dutton said they were certain they’d be sued if they published it; Viking diplomatically explained that it “didn’t quite match” what they were looking for. Finally, a publisher named Lyle Stuart expressed interest, offering Powell a contract and a $2,000 advance.1

Stuart was short and stout and impossible to intimidate. A reporter from Life once described him as “a gleefully Satanic Santa Claus.” Stuart started out as a journalist, making a name for himself after getting into a mudslinging contest with columnist Walter Winchell. A court eventually ordered Winchell to pay $8,000 to Stuart for libel, which he used to start a publishing house; he later put out the English-language version of Fidel Castro’s History Will Absolve Me. (For these and other transgressions, he landed on the FBI’s “Security Index” list, which FBI director Hoover envisioned would be used to jail “potentially dangerous” individuals in the case of a national emergency.) Stuart courted controversy and had a nose for the improbable bestseller. “It’s a fad country,” he once said. “People don’t buy a best seller to read it. They buy it to have it.” In 1969, he had published Naked Came the Stranger, a racy novel supposedly written by a “demure Long Island housewife” named Penelope Ashe. In fact, the book was the creation of twenty-five reporters at the Long Island–based paper Newsday who were seeking to combine an “unremitting emphasis on sex” with terrible writing. The cover featured a naked woman from behind; the content included sex with a rabbi and sex with a mobster. It spent thirteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Though The Anarchist Cookbook was weird and clunky, Stuart immediately saw its potential to capture a certain zeitgeist. At the very least, it would be hard to ignore.

Stuart had bet right again. Newspapers ran articles with titles such as “Book Teaches Do-It-Yourself Anarchy,” complete with images of bomb-planting hooligans. Stuart played up the controversy, stating that members of his staff were “appalled” that the book had been published and that shareholders were in “a state of shock.” The White House requested a copy and ordered the FBI to investigate. (They did, determining that the book broke no federal laws.) Concerned citizens wrote letters to J. Edgar Hoover. “DANGER! WHAT ARE YOU DOING ABOUT THIS???,” a man in Florida scrawled above a clipping about the book. The Saturday Review wrote that it was “the starkest example of irresponsible publishing” since the magazine had been founded. At a press conference held at a Manhattan hotel, Powell was interrupted when someone threw a stink bomb. People ducked for cover, and Powell dove behind the lectern. Anarchists were supposedly to blame, angry that a phony such as Powell was cashing in on the revolution. But Powell says that he wouldn’t be surprised if Stuart, master of the media stunt, had orchestrated the show. When the smoke cleared and Powell stood up, he realized that Stuart hadn’t moved an inch.

A photo from the press conference shows a young Powell sporting long hair and a bushy beard. His jaw is set, but there’s also a glimmer of uncertainty in his eyes, as if he’s not totally clear on how he ended up in front of the collection of microphones. The book had been written alone and in a hurry, and Stuart published it without making any changes. (“An angry kid’s blog, circa 1970” is how one Amazon reviewer put it.) As Powell weathered a media storm, an FBI investigation, and a number of threatening letters in his mailbox (“Dear Anti-Christ,” one began), he started to have second thoughts. “There wasn’t a seminal moment, like Paul on the road to Damascus, when a blinding light came down,” he says about his change of heart. “But the publicity surrounding the book spurred me to try and think it through again, to try and justify it. And I came up short.”

Powell set out to rebuild his life: He graduated co-valedictorian from Windham College in Vermont and spent a year in Alaska, where he worked on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and taught emotionally disturbed children. He returned to New York, gained custody of a young son from a previous marriage, and met his current wife. By the late 1970s, he was earning a master’s degree in English and teaching at a private school in Westchester County in New York state for students with special needs, on the path that would lead to a long career in education. “All was quiet,” he remembers. The book had made a splash and, he thought, been forgotten.

In 1979, Powell left for what has been a life overseas. When I asked him whether there was a connection between authoring the notorious book and his exodus, he shook his head, saying that both he and his wife, fellow educator Ochan Kusuma-Powell, had grown up partly abroad and with a parent working for the United Nations. “It was a natural thing for us to do—to enjoy foreign cultures,” he said, noting that his wife was the driving force behind their departure.

Leaving meant that Powell was cut off from news in the United States, often living without a telephone, and so had no idea where his book was turning up in the 1980s: the apartment of Puerto Rican separatists who planted a rash of bombs; the storage locker of antiabortion extremist Thomas Spinks, found guilty for bombing ten abortion clinics; the storage unit of Walter Leroy Moody, Jr., convicted of the bombing murders of a federal judge in Alabama and an attorney in Atlanta. To what extent these criminals relied upon Powell’s book is unclear, though the basic instructions he included are apparently correct; the FBI’s laboratory division determined the explosive section “appears to be accurate in most respects.”

It wasn’t until the 1990s that Powell’s past finally caught up to him. He was in Tanzania running an international school and had decided to dismiss some teachers. “The school was a loose ship that needed tightening up,” he says. In response, someone sent an anonymous letter to the school board, threatening to go to the press about the book if he wasn’t fired. “It was a big ruckus, with the community taking sides,” said Powell, who resigned but quickly returned after the school board asked him to withdraw his resignation. He left the school on good terms in 1999—a student award is still named after him—and spent a year writing a book with his wife, funded by the U.S. Department of State, about creating international schools that support students with learning disabilities. But although he had spent two decades developing a solid reputation in his field, he had trouble landing a new job, which he attributed to the Internet. A search for his name will quickly direct users to the Amazon page for The Anarchist Cookbook, a title that promised to “shock” and “disturb” readers—not exactly the qualities one seeks in a school leader.

In 2000 he sent an email to Amazon, asking that it publish an author’s note. The company consented, and posted a letter from Powell that revealed new details about the book’s tangled publishing history:

In 1976 I became a confirmed Anglican Christian and shortly thereafter I wrote to Lyle Stuart Inc. explaining that I no longer held the views that were expressed in the book and requested that The Anarchist Cookbook be taken out of print. The response from the publisher was that the copyright was in his name and therefore such a decision was his to make – not the author’s. In the early 1980’s [sic], the rights for the book were sold to another publisher. I have had no contact with that publisher (other than to request that the book be taken out of print) and I receive no royalties. . . . I consider it to be a misguided and potentially dangerous publication, which should be taken out of print.

It is unusual for publishers to retain copyright, which effectively gives them ownership over text. But it’s not unthinkable that Powell wanted to keep some distance from the book. When he first approached Stuart, he suggested that he publish it under a pseudonym, which Stuart talked him out of doing.

In Powell’s case, the copyright issue only matters if a book goes out of print, at which point he could decide not to seek a new publisher. (Authors, of course, usually want their books to be read, and if their title goes out of print they might shop the book around in the hopes of finding a new home for it.) But because The Anarchist Cookbook has never stopped selling, it’s never gone out of print, and so there is little Powell could have done even if he had owned the copyright.

The issue of royalties is also contested. In 1989—not the early 1980s, as Powell wrote—Lyle Stuart sold his publishing house to the Carol Management Corporation for $12 million. A man named Steve Schragis was in charge of the new imprint, which focused on controversial books; one title, Final Exit, instructed people on how to kill themselves. But Schragis objected to The Anarchist Cookbook, saying it had “no positive purpose,” and declined to reissue it. So Stuart bought the title back for $75,000 and published it under his new company, Barricade Books.

2Columbia University was unable to say with certainty whether the papers were in its library.

At some point during this back and forth, Powell signed over rights to future royalties, telling me that Stuart sent him a check for $5,000. He claims that he has only earned about $35,000—total—on the book, an astonishingly low figure for a title Stuart said had sold 850,000 copies by the late 1980s, when Powell signed over all rights. (It is reported to have sold more than two million copies total.) It’s probably impossible to know with certainty where the truth lies. After Stuart’s death, his papers were deposited at Columbia University. Among the collection are decades worth of book contracts and author agreements, but many of the papers relating to Powell and The Anarchist Cookbook are not included.2

In December 2013, eighteen-year-old senior Karl Pierson entered Arapahoe High School in Centennial, a Denver suburb, armed with a shotgun, machete, and three Molotov cocktails. He was reportedly upset with the debate coach and searched the halls calling his name. Not finding his target, he randomly shot and killed seventeen-year-old Claire Davis before turning the gun on himself. One of Pierson’s friends told NBC’s Today Show that Pierson had been reading The Anarchist Cookbook for years and passing it along to friends. Arapahoe High School is just eight miles from Columbine High School, where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed thirteen people in 1999; after that massacre, investigators found a page from The Anarchist Cookbook in Harris’s room. A year before Columbine, Kip Kinkel, a fifteen-year-old student, killed his parents and two students at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon. He had also been reading the book.

It’s too much, of course, to blame a book for an act of violence. (Kinkel’s father, for example, purchased a 9-mm Glock semiautomatic for his mentally ill son.) The Internet has also rendered the book’s instructions mostly superfluous; websites with titles such as “The Anarchist Cookbook IV”—inspired by, but not connected to, Powell’s original—now proliferate and cost nothing to download. But perhaps one reason the hard copy continues to turn up in the possession of school shooters is that it speaks in a tone that resonates—that of the besieged and alienated teenager confronting a world of injustice, which is exactly who Powell was at the time.

After the shooting at Arapahoe High School, Powell wrote a piece for the Guardian to call again for the book to go out of print. “I suspect that the perpetrators of these attacks did not feel much of a sense of belonging, and the Cookbook may have added to their sense of isolation,” he wrote. “I do not know the influence the book may have had on the thinking of the perpetrators of these attacks, but I cannot image that it was positive.”

When Powell was in his late twenties and teaching special-needs students in New York, he returned to White Plains High School. At the school he had struggled academically and socially, and looking through his results from two intelligence tests, he found what he took to be a clue to his unhappiness. “There was a huge discrepancy between my verbal and performance I.Q.,” he says. “That would have been a clear red flag in today’s world that something was going on. But at that point in time, nobody paid attention to it.” Powell thinks he likely had a learning disability of some sort, which contributed to his trouble in school, his alienation as a young adult, and his current work to support learning-disabled students. His memories of being ostracized at school remain vivid and painful. As he wrote in Count Me In!, the Department of State–funded book about developing inclusive international schools, “Our philosophical orientation is that as a starting point all children belong.”


n 2002, Lyle Stuart sold the copyright to The Anarchist Cookbook to a now sixty-nine-year-old marathoner named Billy Blann, who lives in El Dorado, Arkansas. Blann owns Delta Press, which he bills as “The World’s Most Outrageous Catalog.” (Book titles include Build Your Own AR-15 and The Militia Battle Manual.) Like Stuart, he has been involved in his fair share of controversy, at one point facing accusations from local preachers and a former police chief that he was operating a “satanic stronghold.” One of the preachers took to waving the Delta Press catalogue during sermons.

3Delta Press does not release sales information and could not confirm these numbers.

Blann apparently weathered the storm, as he is now a member of the El Dorado city council. “They sure do keep buying it,” he tells me when I mention The Anarchist Cookbook. Though the book was published nearly forty-five years ago, he sells thousands of copies a year.3 He has no plans to stop and little sympathy for Powell’s claims. As he once told a newspaper, “All hippies at one time or another renounce themselves. Sooner or later they put a tie and a coat on.”

There is a precedent for a publisher pulling a book that an author later came to believe was harmful. In 1977, Stephen King, under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, published Rage, about a high school senior who shoots up a school. After the book was said to have inspired a number of real-world shootings, King asked the publisher to take it out of print, and the publisher complied. But even if Blann did honor Powell’s wishes and yank the book, which would mean giving up a steady stream of income, it’s unlikely it would disappear. I noticed, while on Amazon, that the publisher of the The Anarchist Cookbook hard copy was a company called Snowball Publishing, which I hadn’t heard about before. When I asked Blann about this company, he exploded.

“Pirates!” he shouted. “Frauds! Thieves!”

According to Blann, Snowball Publishing is illegally publishing the book. He tells me that he has lawyers working on a case against the company and is hoping to put them out of business soon.

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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

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