Tag Archives: Cold War

Things Blow Up

When I’m not reading depressing books about people freezing to death, I enjoy reading books about things blowing up.

Bomb     Command and Control

Bomb: the Race to Build – and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin

This book is shelved in our Teen department and the book on CD is in our Children’s department (there are downloadable and Playaway versions too), but don’t let that deter you – it’s a great book for adults who enjoy science, spies, history, and of course, explosions. It’s chock full of fun facts.

  • Once, while on a date, Robert Oppenheimer wandered off to think about physics and left his companion behind (page 8).
  • A super-polite team of Norwegian resistance fighters sent to destroy a German heavy water plant delayed their mission long enough for one of the plant’s workers (a fellow Norwegian) to find his glasses (page 85).
  • Santa Fe’s drugstore owners found so many lost scientists wandering their streets that they eventually started calling the local Los Alamos office for advice (page 93).
  • Chemist Donald Horning spent the night before the Trinity test babysitting the bomb. He sat beside it in a metal shack atop a wooden tower, with a paperback book and a 60-watt bulb to get him through the night (page 176).
  • American-born Soviet spy Lona Cohen smuggled the plans for the atomic bomb out of New Mexico by cramming them into the bottom of a box of tissues. At one point an FBI agent held the box for her as she looked for her train ticket – he passed it back to her just as her train left the station (page 211).

The spy stuff in particular is really neat, mainly because it seems so low-tech today. Who knew that you could confirm your contact’s identity by matching up the torn cardboard flaps of a Jello box? Well, now you do.

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, by Eric Schlosser

This book unfolds in the popular dramatic nonfiction style of “let’s bounce back and forth between an exciting crisis (the Damascus Accident) and the somewhat less exciting history of our subject (nuclear weapons).” It’s available in multiple formats, though the print version does have a very handy diagram of a Titan II silo on its endpapers. Here are some more fun facts for you.

  • A dropped socket (the cause of the 1980 Damascus Accident) can put a hole in the fuel tank of a Titan II missile. Oops (page 7).
  • In 1961, a B-52 bomber carrying  two hydrogen bombs crashed in North Carolina. Neither bomb detonated – one was found in a tree, and the other, which landed in a swamp,  was never found at all (page 246).
  • In the late 1970s the United States placed  both real and fake MX missiles on 200 foot long trucks and drove them constantly between concrete bunkers to keep the Soviet Union from finding them (page 364).
  • In 1980, a faulty computer chip almost caused WWIII by putting twos in the wrong places in test messages – so instead of zero incoming missiles, there were suddenly 2,200. Cost to replace the chip? Forty-six cents (page 368).
  • In 1983, a Soviet early warning system detected five incoming Minuteman missiles. The commander on duty, puzzled by the small number (who starts a war with five missiles?), decided that it was a false alarm (whew). The “launches” were later revealed to be rays of sunlight reflected off nearby clouds (page 447).

And that’s just a few of the more memorable incidents listed in this book – it’s packed with countless fires, plane crashes, computer malfunctions, safety shortcomings, and just plain bad ideas. It’s honestly a wonder that any of us made it through the Cold War.

– Amy, whose elementary school was built on the site of a former Nike antiaircraft missile base, and who played on the silo covers at recess





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When It’s Very Cold Outside

When it’s very cold outside I like to read books about people who are even colder than I am. When I sit by my heater and ponder the insanity of those who go outside on purpose, I feel much warmer by comparison. So let’s consider, if you will, the band of hikers in this book.

Dead Mountain

Looks cheery, doesn’t it?

Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident is the rousingly weird story of a group of Soviet students who died under very mysterious and very suspicious circumstances in the Ural Mountains in January 1959.

Basically, they went out on their merry way, caught rides on clunky Soviet trucks and buses, sang lots of folk songs, tramped into the wilderness, and… never returned. A search party eventually found their bodies scattered about their wrecked campsite – food was left unprepared, boots and pants were abandoned, and someone was missing a tongue. Ew. Better yet, tests conducted at the time showed that the bodies were surprisingly radioactive – now things are getting interesting!

The story alternates between the hikers in 1959 and the author in the present, so you get a little about their trip and then a little about the author’s investigation. The chapters are pretty short and often feel disjointed, though I suppose you could just call it “suspenseful” and deal. It’s not quite enough to make you throw the book across the room; rather, it gives you plenty of opportunities to stop and get a fresh mug of hot tea.


What’s that? It’s roentgenizdat! Image from an article at boston.com; click the picture to read it.

The chapters set in 1959 include a Cold War crash course, with just enough information about the era to help you make sense of things – though as a librarian, I was mildly horrified by the lack of a bibliography. But still, there are some mighty Fun Facts in here. For example, did you know that Soviet students with a hankering for Western music would make their own records out of used x-ray film? They’re called roentgenizdat (“bone records,” more or less) and they are amazing. That one weird fact, now lodged forever in my mind, totally makes up for the short chapters and occasional authorial digressions.

The present-day chapters introduce you to the lone survivor of the group (who turned back early due to illness) and to a fellow who maintains a whole apartment/museum dedicated to the incident – he’s the source of the pictures that appear throughout the book. You also get to see what happened to the formerly swanky university town of Sverdlovsk (like many Russian cities, it’s had a few name changes).

The hikers and a clunky Soviet truck, from the camera found at their campsite. Image from the book's website.

The hikers and a clunky Soviet truck, from the camera found at their campsite. Image from the book’s website, deadmountainbook.com.

But what really happened to the hikers? Of course, conspiracy theories abound – weapons test gone awry, crazed animals, serial killers, and (yes, I know) aliens are mentioned, and since the book is set in the Soviet Union there are suggestions of evil government cover-ups. In the end, the author decides to drag Science into it and comes up with a plausible new theory – but since Eleventh Stack is largely spoiler-free you’ll have to check it out and read it yourself (note: it wasn’t aliens; I don’t mind telling you that much).

– Amy, slightly chilled


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“Where there’s red smoke there’s usually Communist fire.”

What do Leonard Bernstein, Dashiell Hammett, Langston HughesGypsy Rose Lee, Alan Lomax, Arthur Miller, Zero Mostel, Pete Seeger, William L. Shirer, and Orson Welles have in common?

They all appear in Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, which was first released on this day in 1950.  The Library of Congress describes it succinctly:

In June 1950, three former FBI agents who had created American Business Consultants, a vigilante organization to combat communism, issued Red Channels, a booklet listing 151 people connected with the broadcasting industry whom they suspected of subversive activities. The publication listed organizations and activities with which each individual had “reported” associations. Along with in-house private lists, Red Channels was adopted by the radio and television industries as a blacklist to deny employment to those named.

Pretty crazy, huh? Well, it gets even crazier once you wade into it:

The purpose of this compilation is … to indicate the extent to which many prominent actors and artist have been inveigled to lend their names, according to these public records, to organizations espousing Communist causes. This regardless of whether they actually believe in, sympathise with, or even recognize the cause advanced. (p. 9)

Looks ominous.

Let’s for a moment ignore the fact that “inveigled” is an awesome word that doesn’t get used nearly often enough, and focus on the fact that you could end up on this list even if you didn’t believe in Communism. Even if you didn’t know or care about Communism. Damn, that’s harsh.

To a modern reader, the variety of “subversive activities” listed within is both confusing and hilarious. According to Red Channels, those sneaky Communists intend to destroy America by attending spring balls, supporting Paul Robeson, entertaining at anti-Fascist rallies (isn’t that a good thing?), trying to abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee (that one’s a big no-no), reviewing Russian poems, sending telegrams to the President, and sponsoring milk drives.

Telegrams and milk drives. Wow.

If you’d like to learn more about this depressing, paranoid, and just plain weird chapter in American history, look in our catalog under Blacklisting of Authors – United States and Blacklisting of Entertainers – United States. You’ll find books like these, and more.


For easy, clickable fun, here are a few web resources.

I learned about Lord Haw Haw in college. Neato.

The title of this post comes from an August 15, 1949 editorial in Broadcasting magazine, quoted on p. 6 of Red Channels. The full editorial, pictured at left, is taken from AmericanRadioHistory.com.

Subversively yours,

Amy (once again not writing about Film or Audio)


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Today’s library blast from the past is How to Build Your Own Garage, published by Popular Mechanics in 1953. While it is very detailed, informative, and well-written, I didn’t think that it was terribly exciting until I reached chapter seven, WHAT ABOUT AN A-BOMB SHELTER?

So without further ado, please enjoy these helpful hints for constructing your very own bomb shelter and surviving an atomic blast.

Since I did most of my growing up during the latter years of the Cold War, I have vivid memories of elementary school civil defense drills – which mainly involved crouching under our desks in confusion until the teachers gave us the all clear. So when I was in third or fourth grade, and thus able to fully understand the impending nuclear doom, I decided that if those sirens ever went off I was going to go outside and watch. No bomb shelters for me, please.

Ah, those were the days.

– Amy

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