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'15 Minutes': Chilling look at Cold War

15 MINUTES: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation, by L. Douglas Keeney. St. Martin's, 372 pp., $26.99.

American war planners in the 1950s assumed the onslaught would begin with the detonation of nuclear bombs secreted by Russian operatives in Washington, New York and at ports and airfields.

Then, Soviet bombers would head for the United States to finish the job, crossing Gen. Curtis LeMay's Strategic Air Command retaliatory force en route. A doomsday scenario -- though not everything need be lost. After tens of millions of people had been skinned, vaporized or roasted alive on either side, there could be a pause for negotiation.

For retrospective chills about the early days of the Cold War, it's hard to beat "15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation" by L. Douglas Keeney, a military historian.

LeMay emerges not as the manic Cold Warrior of "Dr. Strangelove." LeMay's verbal extravagances notwithstanding -- "We should nuke the bastards" -- he was, for Keeney, a supremely competent leader who built the Strategic Air Command, or SAC, from scratch as the key instrument to deter Soviet Russia.

The thrills and spills on the way keep you reading. And the spills were literal: Dozens of airborne bombs were dumped on land and at sea when the planes carrying them came down in the 1950s. The avoidance of a nuclear explosion was a miracle.

The hazards of warhead testing were similarly horrendous. A "hairy-chested" approach became semiofficial doctrine, Keeney says, describing a manly disinclination to worry too much about radioactive contamination. After the runaway explosion of the Bravo bomb during tests near the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific in 1954, the government worried more.

Visible fallout rained on sailors and technicians in shorts and shirts. The sickness some suffered was appalling, though less so than on the nearby Marshall Islands, where women produced "grape babies" -- newborns that resembled bunches of grapes.

As Russian capabilities developed, warning times narrowed. The SAC strived to shave seconds off the 15 minutes needed to get its bombers airborne. The next step, inevitably, was nuclear-armed planes permanently in the sky. Crews on 20-hour patrols chewed Dexedrine to stay alert.

Fortunately there were fail-safe procedures: Pilots ordered to head for Soviet Russia would turn back automatically after designated periods unless specifically instructed to continue.

The chill factor increases when we learn that both sides had perfected what the Russians called a "dead-hand switch" system of retaliation: Weapons were programmed to launch automatically if their controllers were annihilated.

"There was more truth than fiction," Keeney writes, "in the idea that machines could end the world." By the 1970s, intercontinental ballistic missiles were being perfected, rendering nuclear bombers largely obsolete, and the SAC was dissolved in 1992, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

The power of Keeney's book lies in his determination to avoid excess emotion and stick to the facts -- facts that, God knows, are themselves emotive enough. You finish this book a little numbed, though with a strange sense of hope: If mankind can get through years like these and learn the lessons, perhaps it can get through anything.

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