OVERRIDE

15 Minutes

General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation

L. Douglas Keeney

St. Martin's Press

Packed with startling revelations, this inside look at the secret side of the Cold War exposes just how close America came to total annihilation

During the Cold War, a flight crew had 15 minutes to get their nuke-laden plane in the air from the moment Soviet bombers were detected—15 minutes between the earliest warning of an incoming nuclear strike and the first flash of an enemy warhead. This is the chilling true story of the incredibly risky steps our military took to protect us from that scenario, including:

• Over two thousand loaded bombers that crossed American skies. They sometimes crashed and at least nine times resulted in nuclear weapons being accidentally dropped

• A system that would use timers and rockets to launch missiles even after everyone was dead

• Disastrous atmospheric nuclear testing including the horrific runaway bomb—that fooled scientists and put thousands of men in uniform in the center of a cloud of hot fallout

• A plan to use dry lake beds to rebuild and launch a fighting force in the aftermath of nuclear war

Based on formerly classified documents, military records, press accounts, interviews and over 10 years of research, 15 Minutes is one of the most important works on the atom bomb ever written.

BOOK EXCERPTS

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1945
 
NECESSITIES

IN 1945, A special committee of the Manhattan Project headed by Nobel Prize–winning physicist James Franck was asked to examine the political consequences of atomic bombs. In their final report they reduced to one sentence the essence of combat for those armed with atomic weapons. Wrote Franck: “In no other type of warfare does the advantage lie so heavily with the aggressor.”
The committee, which had no military training whatsoever, thus summed up what would come to be known as the Cold War.
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REVIEWS

Praise for 15 Minutes

"A chilling and unsettling account of accidents, oversights, errors in planning, and other mistakes and misjudgments by the military and its civilian masters...sobering and recommended." --Library Journal

"Keeney, a military historian and co-founder of cable television’s Military Channel, has utilized great amounts of recently declassified documents to tell a fascinating, often chilling story of the policies, technologies, and men responsible for maintaining our nuclear defense posture in that period." --Booklist 

"With access to newly declassified documents, Keeney delivers a jolting year-by-year history of SAC’s transformation into a massive worldwide force primed to launch bombers within 15 minutes of the order. He also reveals alarming numbers of lost nuclear bombs, disastrous atmospheric tests, and nuclear war near-misses." --Publishers Weekly

"15 Minutes is brilliantly written, and engrossing...[It] shows us the world beyond the press releases of American propaganda, into the imperfect, human world of missing nukes, air-mishaps and the oh-so-close, two minutes to midnight of Nuclear Armageddon. It is a must-read for anybody interested in the Cold War, or anyone with an interest in the 20th century." --Portland Book Review

"A history of United States nuclear warfare based heavily on declassified documents. Military Channel cofounder Keeney explains the evolution of U.S. mass-destruction weaponry from 1945 through 1968. The primary perspective is that of the Strategic Air Command, the high-powered organization developed by Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay. The author focuses on the first two possessors of nuclear weapons: the United States and the Soviet Union. In that sense, the book is also a history of the Cold War as defined by two superpower nations...The author's information-gathering skills, especially his unearthing and decoding of previously classified documents, make the book worthwhile..." --Kirkus Reviews

"In the midst of a new era of nuclear worry (Iran, North Korea, suitcase bombs), the Cold War appears ever more surreal in memory, its vast weaponry (enough nukes to kill all humankind many times over) and Dr. Strangelove vocabulary (“mutually assured destruction” a.k.a. MAD) making it seem like a lunatic’s nightmare. And therein lies the virtue of Keeney’s marvellous chronological account: it gives the Cold War a real history, a step-by-step sequence of events caused by human decisions. The logic of the Cold War was cold indeed, but irrational it was not. " --Macleans.ca

"At the peak of the Cold War, L. Douglas Keeney informs us, the U.S. had some 34,000 American nuclear weapons aimed at no less than 4,000 targets, most of them large industrial centers inside the Soviet Union. In terms of megatonnage, that's roughly 13 Hiroshimas per target. The Soviet nuclear-attack plan against America was only slightly less lethal.

It all sounds a bit crazy. At the time the strategy was called MAD, for Mutually Assured Destruction. Movies like "Dr. Strangelove" and "Fail-Safe" conveyed the notion that we had indeed put our fate in the hands of madmen.

Mr. Keeney's "15 Minutes" offers a very different picture of what was going on in those early days of the Cold War. Far from being a wild and irrational idea, America's nuclear doctrine grew out of a careful attempt to address real-life problems—both strategic and technological—and to manage a constantly shifting political landscape. The 15 minutes of the title was the time that the big bombers of Strategic Air Command needed to get aloft in the event of a nuclear attack—but also the 15 minutes that an American president had to decide, once Soviet bombers or missiles were detected entering U.S. air space, whether to launch a full nuclear exchange.

That no president ever did so was a tribute to the concept of nuclear deterrence and to the men who flew the B-47s and B-52s that ultimately kept America safe during 40 years of international tension—and always within a hair's trigger of mutual annihilation....

On Jan. 29, 1968, the Strategic Air Command stopped carrying nuclear weapons during airborne alert missions. Nearly 25 years later, when the Soviet Union was no more, SAC itself ceased to exist. The men who flew its planes hadn't won the Cold War, but they had kept us from losing it. "Those were long sorties, over 24 hours, and you could come down pretty tired," recalled one pilot, "but I think having the weapons was an attention getter and there was always the possibility you might be needed." Such dedication to dangerous work—on the part of everyone involved in the Strategic Air Command, not least LeMay himself—deserves to be recognized and honored. Thanks to Mr. Keeney, it now is."—The Wall Street Journal

"Based on formerly classified documents, military records, press accounts, interviews and more than 10 years of research, “15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation” is one of the most revealing works about the atom bomb. This period of Cold War danger and madness has been well documented by L. Douglas Keeney, a military historian and researcher and cofounder of The Military Channel....Keeney is an excellent researcher and has uncovered numerous startling and revealing aspects of the period of mankind’s most perilous era to date. “15 Minutes” is one of the most revealing works on the atom bomb ever written." --The Herald-Tribune

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • L. Douglas Keeney

  • L. DOUGLAS KEENEY is a military historian and researcher. He is the cofounder of The Military Channel on which he hosted a series called On Target. He has since appeared on The Discovery Channel, CBS, and The Learning Channel and is the author of ten books of military history.
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    15 Minutes

    General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation

    L. Douglas Keeney

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    FROM THE PUBLISHER

    St. Martin's Press

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