Theory — December 17, 2015, 11:45 am

Revisionist History

Is George Orwell’s Animal Farm based on the work of a nineteenth-century Russian writer?

In 2001, a project of mine inflamed the Orwell estate, and I was called on for radio beatdowns. Snowball’s Chance, my novella, was a parody of Animal Farm; Snowball returned from his exile to bring capitalism to the farm, which of course had its own pitfalls. In the early nineties, post–Berlin Wall thaw of East/West relations, there seemed a possibility that the Cold War would end. But with 9/11, the 2.0 Cold War was underway, this time as a battle between capitalism and terrorism. Animal Farm, one of the great assets of the Cold War, struck me as suddenly outmoded; its utility for fighting jihad was feeble, even when advocated by Christopher Hitchens.

In talking about Snowball’s Chance, I emphasized the history of the cultural Cold War: Orwell coined the term “cold war”; Animal Farm and 1984 were massively supported by the CIA, the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom, and the British Foreign Office; and Orwell wrote enemy lists for the British Foreign Office. All known, all documented; and I volunteered to be the effigy with the truth pinned to his chest.

In the fall of 2002, I was preparing for one BBC excoriation at the hands of Hitchens himself, when I came across a proposed origin for Animal Farm. A Wikipedia line, which has since disappeared from the online encyclopedia, cited a story by the nineteenth-century Russian writer, Nikolai Kostomarov, as an antecedent to Animal Farm. This was new to me, but once I became aware of the lineage, I found it to be a common notation: Orwell ephemera. In Kostomarov’s “Animal Riot” the animals of a country manor rise up against their despot, the farmer, and take control.

At its face, the possible source seemed like more than a big coincidence, but the Internet discussion around the subject, and a few academic consults with colleagues, were discouraging: Orwell didn’t read or speak Russian; Orwell wouldn’t have heard of Kostomarov; Kostomarov’s story was more minor than Kostomarov himself; Orwell was clear about the inspiration for Animal Farm. “I saw a little boy,” he wrote, “perhaps ten years old, driving a huge cart-horse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them.”

That quote comes from the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm, which was released in 1947 as part of the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s soft war on communism. (As a result of the British Secret Services’ Foreign Office, which worked hand in hand with Orwell, the CIA, and CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom, Animal Farm was arguably the most massively translated and distributed small-press book in the history of literature.) If anyone was to have made the connection to “Animal Riot,” it was the audience for the Ukrainian translation of Animal Farm. Kostomarov, according to the Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, was one of “the three founders of the Ukrainian national renaissance.” Kostomarov was also a major influence of Mykhailo Hrushevsky, an author and political leader who was at the forefront of revolutionary Ukraine, a subject Orwell wrote about. Kostomarov, in Hrushevsky’s evaluation, was “the precursor of modern Ukraine.” So, it’s ironic that the Ukrainian edition is the evidence that Orwell came up with Animal Farm independently of Kostomarov. Ironic, as well, is the similarity of Orwell’s boyhood memory to a boyhood memory of Dostoevsky. In Crime & Punishment, Dostoevsky describes the cruel beating of a horse. In his notebooks of the period, Dostoevsky explains: “The dreadful fist soared again and again, and struck blows on the back of the head . . . This disgusting scene has remained in my memory all my life. . . . This little scene appeared to me, so to speak, as an emblem, as something which very graphically demonstrated the link between cause and effect. Here every blow dealt at the animal leaped out of the blow dealt at the man.”

Orwell had a penchant for concealing his sources. The titular year of 1984, for example, was not something that Orwell claimed as original, but neither did he claim otherwise. Gleb Struve, Orwell’s translator and lead cheerleader, authored the established provenance: 1984 was a transposition of 1948, the year the book was published. It’s an appealing theory, a this = that, but Struve never went so far as to say Orwell acknowledged this math, and it’s actually incorrect: 1984 was first published in 1949. Further, the year 1984 had appeared previously in works of dystopian fiction. The 1920s dystopian story “The Journey of my Brother Alexei to the Land of Peasant Utopia,” by the Russian writer A. V. Chayanov (writing under the pseudonym Ivan Kremnev), is set in 1984. And Chayanov was very likely alluding to Jack London’s novel The Iron Heel, of 1908, which features the year. The Iron Heel, still prevalent in the mid twentieth century, was, with 1984’s release, a reflex reference; the novels share a dystopian vision, a political orientation, and a love story, among other parallels. Perhaps foreseeing the association, Orwell reviewed a reprint of The Iron Heel for the London Tribune, judging it, along with Brave New World, as flawed and of marginal historical note. That essay was published nine years before 1984 was released.

As to the claim that Orwell didn’t read or speak Russian, Orwell did read in English and French, and had at least enough Russian to mimic idiosyncrasies of the language. In 1984, Newspeak’s “Ingsoc” and “Minitrue” are modeled on Russian syllabic abbreviations such as “Politburo” (political bureau), “Kolkhoz” (collective farm), and “Komsomol” (“Young Communist League”). As to the second foil—Kostomarov is an unknown—Kostomarov was one of the most prolific writers of his time. His output was massive; he was a Harold Bloom, an Edgar Allen Poe, publishing over 300 articles and books. From the perspective of history and the arts and socialism—Orwell’s subjects—Kostomarov was among the most significant Russian minds of the mid to late nineteenth century, a period that would have been the wellspring of Orwell’s schooling and university education. Orwell wouldn’t have read about Kostomarov once; he would have read about him hundreds of times.

1 Some sources cite 1917 as the first publication of “Animal Riot,” but the full publication history of the story is lost, and we know that an English-language version of the story was discussed in the late nineteenth century, and it seems unlikely that a magazine would choose or would know to choose a totally unknown forty-five-year-old work to commemorate the Russian Revolution; rather, an editor knew of the story and remembered it.

Immediately after Kostomarov’s death in 1885, his collected writings were published, and the first biographies appeared. With the end of the tsarist regime and tsarist censorship, interest in Kostomarov surged, spawning new biographies and more extensive compilations of his writings. “Animal Riot,” dated to 1879, was published or republished in 1917, on the occasion of Russia’s February Revolution, by Niva, an enormously popular magazine in Russia at that time.1 But as a critic of Russian nationalism and icons, and as a supporter of Ukraine’s separate cultural identity, Kostomarov fell athwart of communist Russia, and until the death of Stalin, was on the outs with Communist and socialist ideology, a differentiator that to the contrarian, Orwell, would have been more intriguing than repelling.

With the twenties, we begin to find contemporary Kostomarov references that the young Orwell might have encountered. There was, for example, Chayanov’s “The Journey of my Brother Alexei to the Land of Peasant Utopia.” Chayanov, as it happens, was in England in the Twenties, and knew Evgeny Zamyatin, the author of the dystopian novel We, another formative influence to 1984. We was originally published in 1924.

In “On the Russian Peasantry,” an essay by Maxim Gorky that appeared in English and was translated into French (Orwell read and researched in English and French, and Gorky was one of the most well-known, if not the world’s most well-known writer at the beginning of the twentieth century), Gorky quotes a paragraph by Kostomarov that is especially Orwellian: “The population of the Russian plain has increased, the ‘geographical space’ has become restricted, but the psychology remains and is epitomized in the curious proverb which advises, ‘don’t run away from anything, but don’t do anything.’” Another Kostomarov essay that appears in English and French is “Two Russian Nationalities,” the thesis of which resembles Orwell’s “England your England.”

In 1922, Wladyslaw Reymont’s “Bunt,” which takes Kostomarov’s “Animal Riot” as a cue, was serialized in Polish. The work was published in book form in 1924, the year that Reymont was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The novel depicts a farm uprising led by a dog named Rex, the turbulent and violent failure of that revolution, and the ultimate capitulation, which takes the form of begging a gorilla to take leadership.

From 1934 to 1935, circa Orwell’s date for the inspiration for Animal Farm, Orwell was working at a London bookstore. By way of the ongoing conversation I’ve touched on here, Kostomarov would have been substantially represented on the shelves of the store, and as of the 1934 biography, Count Leo Tolstoy, he also would have been a figure of interest.

2 Tolstoy on Shakespeare was one of Orwell’s subjects: Orwell dedicated himself to “Tolstoy and Shakespeare,” in a 1941 BBC talk, as well as in the 1947 essay “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool,” 1947. (Robert Pearce explored the territory, and ties to Animal Farm, in his 1998 essay “Orwell, Tolstoy, and Animal Farm.”)

Tolstoy was a friend, colleague, collaborator, and neighbor of Kostomarov. Tolstoy wrote about Shakespeare, likely reading translations by Kostomarov.2 Dillon’s Count Leo Tolstoy reproduces a letter from a correspondence between writer and editor Emilie Mikhailovitch, and Vladimir Tchertkoff, Tolstoy’s editor, secretary, and the chief Tolstoyan. Writes Tchertkoff on March 16, 1891:

In a short while I intend to send, if you like for translation and publication in England, the story of our famous satirist, Kostomarov, written by him from an ancient legend of Little Russia—and some years ago worked on and perfected by L. N. Tolstoy ‘who gave to it quite a new and original ending’—but it has not once been permitted in Russia by the Censor. This story has wonderful spiritual force and is very sensational—for it depicts a sorrowful characteristic side of Russian life. It must be signed thus: written by Kostomarov and Leo Tolstoy. As soon as it is copied I will send it to you.

3 Even after two years of reading and research, I have by no means chased down every lead. This thread suggests a possible Tolstoy version of “Animal Riot.” The “beast fable” is a standard of Russian literature and folklore, and while my knowledge of Russian folklore is slim, Ivan Krylov’s voluminous renditions of Russian animal stories of the early nineteenth century may well include the “ancient legend” to which Tolstoy refers. A further exploration of Tolstoy’s correspondence of this period would likely yield some answers; Tolstoy’s collected archive has been announced for a site,, now underway, which will compile works currently located in forty-nine nations. Other archives with likely references to Orwell’s knowledge of Kostomarov are in Leeds (Lydia Jackson, Elisaveta Fen Papers at the Leeds Russian Library), and California (Gleb Struve’s archives at Berkeley University).

On the twenty-ninth of March, Tchertkoff follows up; he has yet to receive permission from Tolstoy to publish the work, but he believes he will.3

“Animal Riot” is an allegory / about revolution / in the form of a farmyard story / that tells of anthropomorphic animals / who overthrow / the farmer / and take control of the economy of the farm / to no good end.

The action is equally familiar. Of the first 5,300 words of “Animal Riot,” compared to the first 5,200 words of Animal Farm, approximately twenty paragraphs—most of the word count—are directly analogous. From the outset, the tone, the language, the imagery, the plot run parallel. A few points of comparison (“Animal Riot” translation by Tanya Paperny): 

1) In the evenings, an old bull speaks to the animals in their pens, decrying the injustice of their lot. The old bull begins: 

Brother-bulls, sister- and wife-cows! Honorable animals, worthy of a better lot than the one you bear at the will of some unknown fate, one which enslaves you to the tyrant-human! For a long time—so long that our animal memory cannot even estimate—you have drank from the trough of calamity and can never seem to get to the bottom. . . . 

In Animal Farm, we’ll begin with the second paragraph of old Major’s barn oration:

Now, comrades, what is the nature of this life of ours? Let us face it: our lives are miserable, laborious, and short. We are born, we are given just so much food as will keep the breath in our bodies, and those of us who are capable of it are forced to work to the last atom of our strength . . . 

2) For the next three paragraphs, Kostomarov’s bull discusses humankind:

“Using the superiority of his mind over ours, the treacherous tyrant subjugates us, we of feeble minds, so much that we have lost the dignity of living beings and have become like unthinking tools to satisfy his whims. The humans milk our mothers and wives, depriving our little baby-calves, and what don’t they make from our cow’s milk! After all this milk is our property and not theirs! Instead of our cows, let them milk their own women. But no, apparently they don’t like their own milk so much—ours is tastier! 

. . . In fact, the grass growing on that field is our property and not man’s. After all it was our brother who dragged the plow and tilled the earth. Without that this grass would not have grown on the field by itself. He who labors should get to reap the benefits of that labor. So it should follow: you yoked us to the plow and used our labor to dig up the field, so give us the grass sown on that field.”  

Orwell’s old Major, in his next two paragraphs, the same:

“This single farm of ours would support a dozen horses, twenty cows, hundreds of sheep—and all of them living in a comfort and a dignity that are now almost beyond our imagining. Why then do we continue in this miserable condition? Because nearly the whole of the produce of our labour is stolen from us by human beings. There, comrades, is the answer to all our problems. It is summed up in a single word—Man. Man is the only real enemy we have. Remove Man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished forever.

Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself. Our labour tills the soil, our dung fertilises it, and yet there is not one of us that owns more than his bare skin.”

3) The bull’s next paragraph, the slaughterhouse:    

“The herd is so plump, happy and playful! You might think the tyrant has taken pity and repented for his misdeeds against our breed. He fattened us up and set us free. . . . Do you know, brother, about this slaughterhouse where they are taken? You will feel a chill creep through your veins as soon as you realize what they do at that slaughterhouse.”

Old Major’s next paragraph, also, the slaughterhouse:     

“And even the miserable lives we lead are not allowed to reach their natural span. . . . No animal escapes the cruel knife in the end. You young porkers who are sitting in front of me, every one of you will scream your lives out at the block within a year. To that horror we all must come—cows, pigs, hens, sheep, everyone.”

4) Next two paragraphs, the bull comes to his subject, revolution:

“Are we actually so weak that we can never free ourselves from this slavery? Do we not have horns? Were there not times when in a fit of righteous indignation our horned-brothers ripped open the stomachs of our oppressors? When our horned brother kicks a human, does he not immediately break the human’s leg or arm? What are we, weak? After all, our enemy harnesses our horned brother precisely when he needs to carry a heavy load, one a human can’t lift himself. 

“Hence our tyrant knows well that we have much strength, more strength than he. . . .”     

Old Major, next two paragraphs, the same: 

“Only get rid of Man, and the produce of our labour would be our own. Almost overnight we could become rich and free. What then must we do? Why, work night and day, body and soul, for the overthrow of the human race! That is my message to you, comrades: Rebellion! I do not know when that Rebellion will come, it might be in a week or in a hundred years, but I know, as surely as I see this straw beneath my feet, that sooner or later justice will be done. Fix your eyes on that, comrades, throughout the short remainder of your lives! And above all, pass on this message of mine to those who come after you, so that future generations shall carry on the struggle until it is victorious.

And . . . among us animals let there be perfect unity, perfect comradeship in the struggle.”

5) On to the bull’s rousing conclusion:

“Let us stop obeying the tyrant: let us announce our intentions not just with our bellowing but with simultaneous jumping and head-butting . . . all domestic creatures whom the human has enslaved will rise up for freedom from our shared tyrant. We will cease all our internal fighting, all petty disagreements between individuals, and at every moment we will remember that we share a common enemy and oppressor.

“We will achieve equality, liberty and independence; restore the overthrown and trampled dignity of all living animals; and bring back those happy times when animals were still free and not trapped under the cruel reign of humans. Let us go back to those blissful old times: all the fields, meadows, pastures, groves and wheat fields will be ours, and we will have the right to graze, buck and playfully butt our heads where ever we want. We will start living in total freedom and absolute happiness. Long live bestiality! Down with mankind!”

And, like the bull, old Major then lands a galvanizing note, speaking of rebellion, warning the animals that “whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy,” that “all the habits of Man are evil,” and then leading the animals in the soon-to-be anthem, “Beasts of England.”

In the ensuing pages of “Animal Riot,” to paraphrase, the bull plants the seed of foment, the equine workforce is addressed, and the “manor” is stormed and taken over by the animals. (This term, “the manor,” is not exclusive to Animal Farm, it’s a likely translation from Kostomarov’s “Animal Riot.”) Post revolution (both stories): the greed of the pigs arises, as does the proper utilization of the dogs, as do the mindless, bleating sheep, as does a possible inspiration for Moses the raven, as well as a wooden tower, very much in keeping with the windmill. So too, in the pivotal moment, will the four-legged animals walk on two legs. And all the while, propaganda commands the proles. And, ultimately, the revolution founders. In “Animal Riot,” the humans return; Animal Farm, the pigs become the humans. And if all this doesn’t indicate some deep correspondence, let me point out again that these similarities, one to the next, come in order.

Referring to the some dozen-plus sources for 1984, Orwell biographer Bernard Crick notes that Orwell “greatly improved and transcended” his borrowings. Orwell brought his journalistic consciousness to the preparatory stages of his novels, assiduously researching his subjects and his precursors. Kostomarov, in “Animal Riot,” expended no such energies. “Animal Riot” was a quickie, dashed off, and not a work that martialed the historian in Kostomarov. In “Animal Riot,” Kostomarov’s characterization was thin, his dialogue ponderous, and his story rushed. Orwell, not so. The gulf between “Animal Riot” and Animal Farm doesn’t look like chance; it looks like revision. Like what you’d expect when an established novelist runs with a fledgling effort, and expands it from 9,000 to 30,000 words.

Still, the question: why would Orwell keep it a secret? Two answers; 1) Orwell didn’t talk about “Animal Riot,” which isn’t to say he denied a connection; 2) the works are too alike. I don’t know what copyrights were in effect (Russian laws varied by state), but if “Animal Riot” was originally published in 1917 (current thinking in English), it may have been under copyright in 1945.

Or, it could be this pattern of borrowing from Russian thinkers was more endemic than Orwell felt comfortable revealing. More digging? Alas, yes. Another fallen hero? Perhaps not so much. Wouldn’t Old Benjamin have wanted us to know the truth?

Single Page

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



August 2018

Combustion Engines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

There Will Always Be Fires

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The End of Eden

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How to Start a Nuclear War

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

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·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

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·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

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·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

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

Amount of aid Connecticut agreed in May to provide Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund:


A survey of national narcissism found that Russians see themselves as responsible for 61 percent of world history, whereas the Swiss put themselves at 11 percent

Marvel Entertainment's CEO exerts influence over the VA; Mike Pence lays out plans for The Space Force; Paul Manafort's trial reveals his tax evasion (and much more)

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


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.”

Subscribe Today