“Getting to Know” is an occasional series that will introduce Arms Control Today readers to interesting people active in the world of arms control.
Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (2013), is perhaps an unlikely nuclear expert. Best known for his 2001 book Fast Food Nation, the 54-year-old author has never worked in academia, the military, or the government. Yet, Command and Control has won rave reviews and was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in history. It also earned Schlosser an invitation to give a talk at the nuclear security summit in The Hague. That is where Arms Control Today caught up with him by phone March 26. The interview, conducted by Jefferson Morley, has been edited for length and clarity.
You wrote books about fast food and illicit drugs [Reefer Madness]. How did you get from there to nuclear weapons?
In the late 1990s, I became interested in the future of warfare in space. Many of the officers I spent time with at the Air Force Space Command talked about their experiences in the Cold War. One of the stories I heard was the Damascus accident story [in which a fuel-leak explosion destroyed a nuclear missile launch pad in rural Arkansas in September 1980]. It lodged in my mind. I was originally just going to write [it] as a minute-by-minute description of a nuclear weapons accident. When I heard about the safety problems with our arsenal, [the book] got bigger. And as I learned about command and control machines and nuclear targeting, it just got bigger and bigger.
Did you study the subject in school?
When I was an undergraduate, I studied game theory and nuclear strategy. During the 1980s, as the Cold War really heated up, I was a supporter of the nuclear freeze movement. So I was more conversant with these issues than maybe an ordinary student might be.
What was the moment that made you want to write Command and Control?
It was something in the zeitgeist. I felt that this was the greatest national security threat we face. And then, going back to the Damascus accident, I had tracked down one of the principal people, and it was just an extraordinary narrative. Then I came upon the work of the Drell panel, appointed by Congress in 1990, to look at problems in our arsenal. Reading their report, [I thought] “My God, maybe this weapon really could have detonated in Arkansas.” I don’t want to exaggerate how likely detonation would have been. It was a low probability. But it was also a low probability that dropping a socket wrench would destroy an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Do you think the book is having an impact?
I feel like the book has been read at a high level in our own country and in other countries. It’s very gratifying that the book has been read by the people who have the power to do something.
What was your biggest frustration?
The [Freedom of Information Act] requests took a couple of years. By comparing the documents I received that had been censored by different people, I was able to piece together what had been excised. Overwhelmingly, what was excised was information that [would] embarrass the national security bureaucracy. I found that frustrating. This secrecy has helped to prevent real debate and discussion.
What’s the best comment you’ve heard from a reader?
The comments that have meant the most have been from enlisted personnel in the Air Force who served in the nuclear mission [and] who felt that their service was honored and recognized.
Are you hopeful about the nuclear weapons issue?
When I was writing the book, I was less hopeful. I was just so immersed in the minutiae of war planning and weapons designs…. Now that it’s done, I am hopeful, but I’m deeply concerned too. The Ukraine crisis has increased my concerns. It’s a real setback in disarmament…. [It] is worth keeping in mind that the first Cold War was not a nuclear war. Most of the people who I spent time with in this world [of nuclear weapons] were stunned by the fact that there wasn’t a nuclear exchange, that there wasn’t even an accidental detonation. That helps me feel optimistic.
There are still 17,000 nuclear weapons; at one point there were 50,000 to 60,000. It doesn’t have to end badly, but I think we as a people need to make sure it doesn’t end badly.