After spending more than two decades working in the field of nuclear weapons policy, it’s hard to imagine being shocked by all that much anymore. And yet there I was in February 2020, stunned and shaken, staring wide-eyed as a Nike Hercules surface-to-air missile emerged slowly through blast doors from its underground bunker. A long-retired missileer, serving as a tour guide at the fully restored missile site in Rodeo Valley, California, explained how at the tender age of eighteen, he was responsible for launching these nuclear-armed missiles in a last ditch effort to defend San Francisco and the greater Bay area against a Soviet bomber attack.
A retired missileer explained how at the tender age of eighteen, he was responsible for launching these nuclear-armed missiles…
Each of these missiles carried a nuclear warhead of up to twenty kilotons, the same yield used to flatten the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945. The missile site is situated in the midst of rolling green hills along the pristine coastline of the Pacific ocean and a short drive from San Francisco over the Golden Gate bridge. During the Cold War, it served as one of twelve such sites located in the Bay Area and one of three hundred operated by the U.S. Army across thirty states.
Throughout my career as a nuclear weapons expert, I had learned scattered details about the defunct missile program. But I had never thought through the specific implications in a proximate way. Having spent many years surrounded by deterrence experts debating the logic of rationality and credibility, nuclear weapons have often felt like an abstract concept to me—something far away, somewhere out there, and separate from my daily life. As a nuclear professional, the idea of mutual assured destruction, which is supposed to prevent nuclear weapons from ever being used, had kept the risk of nuclear war safely at bay in my mind.
Nuclear weapons have often felt like an abstract concept to me–something far way, something out there, and separate from my daily life.
When pressed, the missileer admitted that with a range of only eighty-seven miles, these nuclear weapons offered a rather foolhardy means of defense against an enemy bomber squadron. Their use would lead to mass casualties and devastating radioactive fallout on American soil. As a nuclear weapons expert, I already knew that the government had placed nuclear weapons in our backyards during the Cold War—in the name of keeping us safe. But in that moment, the truth of the matter was made real to me for the first time. If these weapons had actually been used to defend our cities, they could have ended our way of life.
When I later reflected upon what had moved me so profoundly on that visit, I realized it was the close proximity of these nuclear weapons to an iconic city and the lives of millions of regular Americans that I found so utterly disturbing. In that moment, the risk of nuclear weapons had become proximate and personal. And it changed my thinking, giving the threat more urgency than before.
It was the close proximity of these nuclear weapons to an iconic city and the lives of millions of regular Americans that I found so utterly disturbing.
What if we could make nuclear weapons proximate and personal for regular Americans through a combination of geolocation and storytelling? Could we show them our geographic nuclear realities in a way that would transform their thinking, stimulate a conversation, and empower people to take action to reduce the risk of nuclear war?
This is the guiding question that underlies my production of Radioactive RoadTrippin’ (R&R). I hope you’ll join me on what will be a life-changing journey as I travel across the country to visit past and current sites of the U.S. nuclear complex, starting in December 2021.
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