I can vividly remember, as an undergraduate in the late 1990s, my introduction to the history of nuclear geopolitics. While working my way through a pile of texts on the Cuban Missile Crisis, I began compiling a list of the misunderstandings and mistakes that could have led to accidental nuclear conflagration had things turned out differently. Although not the most serious incident, one that sticks in my mind involved a black bear that stumbled onto an air defence command post in Duluth, Minnesota. A guard saw a shadowy figure attempting to climb the security fence, shot it, then activated an intruder alarm. Due to the wrong alarm being activated at nearby Volk Field Air Base, this caused an order to be issued to scramble nuclear-armed F-106A interceptors to repel a Soviet attack. Fortunately, at the last moment, the bear was identified as an honest American species and the order rescinded. Reading about these near misses, I nearly overwhelmed myself with imaginative anxiety. I left the university library, whose looming central tower had, in my fevered mind, come to resemble some kind of cruise missile silo, stared up at an appropriately ominous autumnal sky, and half-expected to see a fleet of Soviet bombers streaking over the English countryside, gunning grimly westwards despite being more than thirty years late for battle.
Thankfully, I made it home safely. But, as Eric Schlosser’s new book on nuclear arms and the messy effort to manage them makes clear, the events that produced such an emphatic response were by no means limited to the crisis of October 1962. Since beginning its experiments with atomic weaponry,