There was once a time when nuclear weapons were fresh in the minds of the American people. In 1945, America ignited the atomic age after dropping two nuclear bombs on Japan. In 1962, people watched as the world teetered on the edge of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1969, nuclear testing drove the creation of Greenpeace. Despite all the major events during the Cold War, America has enjoyed relative stability with regards to nuclear weapons in the last 25 years. Thanks to hard fought treaties, numbers dwindled. Governments banned testing. In tandem with the increased security and stability of these treaties, nuclear weapons fell out of the minds of the American public and left those working in the nuclear field somewhat jaded by their daily tasks.
In U.S. policy today, nuclear weapons play a fundamental role in deterring adversaries and assuring allies. However, without the major threats and events of years gone by, nuclear weapons drifted from the forefront of American minds. As an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) operations officer for the United States Air Force, I have witnessed this firsthand. When people ask what I do, I get mixed responses from them after I explain the nature of my job. “We still have those?” Or, “You get to push the big red button?,” they might say. Their reactions seem to indicate that they might not have kept track of nuclear weapons policies or strategies.
The ICBM world seemed only to be recognized by outsiders in recent years after a cheating scandal rocked the community. Of course, none of this is to suggests that the lack of recognition by the American public is a bad trait. Part of the role of nuclear weapons is that Americans can sleep peacefully and not worry about such outside threats. Perhaps, to the credit of the weapons, they have simply done the job too well.
If nuclear weapons are forgotten by the American public, where does that leave those working on the ground floor? In my experience, I have seen missile operators become easily jaded by the daily tasks because operators rarely see any tangible product of their work. Each day they stand ready while the rest of the world remains quiet. On a recent trip to a Department of Energy facility, I met with employees who seemingly had the same line of thinking. Despite the incredible work that they put into the job, they rarely see anything other than the part that they play, but it is crucial to maintaining a nuclear deterrence policy.
The men and women that work to keep up the nuclear umbrella will diligently strive for excellence every day. The jaded feeling often felt will not halt or diminish their work, neither will any unfamiliarity by the public. The mission will continue until U.S. policy decides otherwise. They do not expect a thank you – nor does this post suggest that they need one. If you ever run into a member of the nuclear community and find that his or her attitude on the weapons seems casual, remember that this attitude is simply a result of working on the ground floor of a much larger, and often overlooked, role. If you find that attitude disconcerting, know that it does not reflect the level of expertise, drive, and sense of duty of those in the nuclear world. Make no mistake: these men and women stand ready to execute their mission, regardless of whether the American public realizes it.