Called Buran (Russian for blizzard or snowstorm), the program was launched by the Kremlin as a reaction to NASA's space shuttle and an attempt to gain an edge in space against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative. It was also an attempt to fulfill the Soviet Union's dream of reusable spacecraft and payloads, ideas that predated the American space program.
A massive effort began. Over a million and a half people worked on the multi-billion dollar project, while researchers developed new, elaborate schemes for Russian space exploration. Among other tasks, Russian scientists hoped that the Buran would be able to carry the space station back to Earth, and -- the reported reason for its inception -- to allow the USSR to carry out military attacks from space.
The Soviet Shuttle, the Buran (snowstorm) was an aerodynamic clone of the American orbiter, but incorporated many original features that had been considered and rejected for the American program, such as all-liquid rocket boosters, jet engines, ejection seats and an unmanned flight capability. You know you're in trouble when the Russians are adding safety features to your design.
The decision to include culture and art in the US Cold War arsenal was taken as soon as the CIA was founded in 1947. Dismayed at the appeal communism still had for many intellectuals and artists in the West, the new agency set up a division, the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which at its peak could influence more than 800 newspapers, magazines and public information organisations. They joked that it was like a Wurlitzer jukebox: when the CIA pushed a button it could hear whatever tune it wanted playing across the world.
The next key step came in 1950, when the International Organisations Division (IOD) was set up under Tom Braden. It was this office which subsidised the animated version of George Orwell's Animal Farm, which sponsored American jazz artists, opera recitals, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's international touring programme. Its agents were placed in the film industry, in publishing houses, even as travel writers for the celebrated Fodor guides. And, we now know, it promoted America's anarchic avant-garde movement, Abstract Expressionism.
In the event of an invasion, the entire country of Switzerland is rigged to destroy all of its road, bridges, railroads, and other infrastructure. Or at least it was during the Cold War. Geoff Manaugh reports on a John McPhee book about the country's defenses.
In any case, the book's vision of the Alps as a massively constructed-or, at least, geotechnically augmented and militarily amplified-terrain is quite heady, including the very idea that, in seeking to protect itself from outside invaders, Switzerland is prepared to dynamite, shell, bulldoze, and seal itself into a kind of self-protective oblivion, hiding out in artificially expanded rocky passes and concrete super-basements as all roads and bridges into and out of the country are instantly transformed into landslides and dust.
The first reader comment is more than a little eye-popping:
I have seen this with my own eyes as a foreign student in Switzerland in 1981, when a MOUNTAIN "opened" up and four jets flew out of it, near the quiet town, Martigny.
Update: About a minute into this clip from Rick Steves' Europe, Steves takes a tour of some of the hidden defenses of Switzerland.
Richard Rhodes recently gave a Long Now talk called The Twilight of the Bombs about the future obsolescence of nuclear weaponry. From Stewart Brand's summary of the talk:
How much did the Cold War cost everyone from 1948 to 1991, and how much of that was for nuclear weapons? The total cost has been estimated at $18.5 trillion, with $7.8 trillion for nuclear. At the peak the Soviet Union had 95,000 weapons and the US had 20 to 40,000. America's current seriously degraded infrastructure would cost about $2.2 trillion to fix -- all the gas lines and water lines and schools and bridges. We spent that money on bombs we never intended to use -- all of the Cold War players, major and minor, told Rhodes that everyone knew that the bombs must not and could not be used. Much of the nuclear expansion was for domestic consumption: one must appear "ahead," even though numbers past a couple dozen warheads were functionally meaningless.
Jeffrey Goldberg visited with Fidel Castro recently and has two posts on his Atlantic blog about his meetings with the former Cuban head of state: part one and part two.
After this first meeting, I asked Julia to explain the meaning of Castro's invitation to me, and of his message to Ahmadinejad. "Fidel is at an early stage of reinventing himself as a senior statesman, not as head of state, on the domestic stage, but primarily on the international stage, which has always been a priority for him," she said. "Matters of war, peace and international security are a central focus: Nuclear proliferation climate change, these are the major issues for him, and he's really just getting started, using any potential media platform to communicate his views. He has time on his hands now that he didn't expect to have. And he's revisiting history, and revisiting his own history."
This is substantial reporting but I'll admit my favorite line was:
I've never seen someone enjoy a dolphin show as much as Fidel Castro enjoyed the dolphin show.
Because of Goldberg's reportage on Castro's remarks regarding anti-Semitism, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (and strong critic of Israel) announced yesterday that he would meet with Venezuela's Jewish leaders. Someone get Errol Morris down to Cuba to make a sequel to his film about Robert McNamara. The Fog of Cold War perhaps? (via @kbanderson)
Earlier this year I realized we would celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I went back into my archive and discovered that I had boxes full of negatives that I had never seen before, taken in East Germany over the past 50 years. It was a treasure which had to be unearthed.
Berliners! Artist Martin Butler is trying to find 33,000 people to recreate the Berlin Wall for the 20th anniversary of the Wall's fall.
The idea is to form on the 9th of november 2009 -- the night the Wall fell 20 years ago -- a line of people that will recreate the Berlin Wall with their physical presence, marking the path where the wall once stood. Thousands of people will form a human chain that will make its way on the 9th of november around 8.15pm. This action will last for approximately 15 minutes.
Update: A U2 concert at the Brandenburg Gate has run into some trouble after -- and I swear I am not making this up -- a huge wall has been constructed to keep non-ticket holders out of the concert. (thx, john)
Gorbachev tried to switch the subject. Perhaps the United States and the Soviet Union might open the way for greater cooperation in space, he told the president. But the president wasn't to be diverted. According to the transcript, Reagan told Gorbachev that space was in the direction of heaven, but not as close to heaven as some other things that they had been discussing.
As the meeting ended, Reagan became even more direct and personal. He noted that his own son Ron did not believe in God either. "The President concluded that there was one thing he had long yearned to do for his atheist son. He wanted to serve his son the perfect gourmet dinner, to have him enjoy the meal, and then to ask him if he believed there was a cook."
In Arsenals of Folly, Richard Rhodes details the making of the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, with a particular focus on the roles of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. The book is fantastic and a full review is forthcoming, but I wanted to share a couple of passages that would be worthy of cinematic adaptation.
A pivotal event in the book is the 1986 summit meeting between the two leaders in Reykjavik, Iceland. For two full days, Gorbachev and Reagan discussed drastically reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the two countries' arsenals with the eventual goal of eliminating nuclear weapons altogether. Gorbachev proposed meeting in Iceland because it was halfway between the US and the Soviet Union, but the tiny country was unprepared in some ways for the number of people participating in the negotiations.
Back at the American Embassy, Shultz assembled Donald Regan, John Poindexter, Paul Nitze, Richard Perle, Max Kampelman, Kenneth Adelman, and Poindexter's military assistant, Robert Linhard, inside what Adelman calls "the smallest bubble ever built" -- the Plexiglas security chamber, specially coated to repel electromagnetic radiation and mounted on blocks to limit acoustic transmissions, that is a feature of every U.S. Embassy in the world. Since the State Department had seen no need for extensive security arrangements for negotiating U.S. relations with little Iceland, the Reykjavik Embassy bubble was designed to hold only eight people. When Reagan arrived, the air-lock-like door swooshed and everyone stood up, bumping into each other and knocking over chairs in the confusion. Reagan put people at ease with a joke. "We could fill this thing up with water," he said, gesturing, "and use it as a fish tank." Adelman gave up his chair to the president and sat on the floor leaning against the tailored presidential legs, a compass rose of shoes touching his at the center of the circle.
And later, the US team deliberated in an even tinier space:
Gorbachev and Reagan returned. The leaders retreated upstairs with their teams. Reagan's advisors briefed him in the only place where they could meet in private, Rowny recalled, "a little ten by twelve bathroom where about ten of us crowded in. Several stood in the bathtub, Reagan was on the throne. I was agitated, I was worried about the idea of giving up all nuclear weapons."
The metaphorical possibilities of these two scenes are endless. I hope someone working with a good cinematographer makes a movie out of the book.
In a narrative that reads like a thriller, Rhodes reveals how the Reagan administration's unprecedented arms buildup in the early 1980s led ailing Soviet leader Yuri Andropov to conclude that Reagan must be preparing for a nuclear war. In the fall of 1983, when NATO staged a larger than usual series of field exercises that included, uniquely, a practice run-up to a nuclear attack, the Soviet military came very close to launching a defensive first strike on Europe and North America. With Soviet aircraft loaded with nuclear bombs warming up on East German runways, U.S. intelligence organizations finally realized the danger.
Random House has posted a portion of the first chapter from which I won't quote because Rhodes' storytelling style is nigh impossible to excerpt; he starts the story on page one and doesn't relent until the final paragraphs. Like the above quote says, his nonfiction reads like a novel...reminds me of Tom Clancy's books but meticulously researched and true.
Rhodes' followup to The Making of the Atomic Bomb (for which he won a Pulitzer), while not as tight a narrative as its predecessor, was more interesting to me because I was less familiar with the story. In particular, the Soviet espionage effort during WWII was fascinating.