The end of World War II until the end of the century was a time of innovation, change, and prosperity for Americans. Yet looming over that period of history is the war-that-never-was between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It was a time of nuclear proliferation and air-raid drills where students cowered under useless wooden desks, waiting for a man-made apocalypse that would not only kill millions, but leave the planet poisoned.
A new report from Foreign Policy highlights a special program from that time that is the stuff of fiction-writers’ dreams. Fearing the large-scale destruction of a nuclear conflict and the conventional might of the U.S.S.R. President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the creation of an elite team of Soldiers, Navy SEALs, and Marines who would deploy behind enemy lines carrying with them the B-54 Special Atomic Demolition Munition, also called “backpack nukes.”
For up to 12 hours a day, these servicemembers would train—jumping out of planes, diving below the water, and even skiing down a mountain—with the 58-pound devices, deploying them in varied scenarios at varied targets, even at the risk of their own lives. President Eisenhower thought that limited nuclear strikes might be a way to reduce casualties if the Cold War ever turned hot.
A former Army engineer quoted in the piece describes a training exercise that shows how these weapons might have been used for “nuclear landscaping.” The mission was to set the SADM up in a forest. “The idea,” the engineer said, “was to blow these trees across a valley to create a radioactive physical obstacle for vehicles and troops to get by.” They even would have used the devices to prevent advancing Soviet forces from availing themselves of allied infrastructure such as bridges, tunnels, and railroads.
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Frankly, in light of the end of the Cold War and the “defeat” of the Communist threat, this story seems almost quaint. Had the SADMs ever been deployed, this would not be the case. Thus, the image of a soldier skiing down the mountain with a nuke strapped to his back feels more “James Bond” than desperation in the face of a seemingly unbeatable enemy.