Bruce Blair

Man wearing blazer jacket over a striped shirt in front of a blue background
Bruce Blair

NPS Photograph

Quick Facts

Bruce Blair was born in Creston, Iowa, on Nov. 16, 1947. His father, Donald Blair, and mother, Betty Anne Bruce, were also born in Iowa. Donald Blair served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II, flying 17 missions in a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress over Germany.

Blair graduated from the University of Illinois in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in communications and served in the U.S. Air Force from 1972 to 1974. This included serving as a launch control officer in an underground bunker for a group of 10 Minuteman II nuclear missiles with backup responsibility for 40 more missiles. The 24-hour shifts underground gave Blair ample time to wonder about the possible circumstances under which he might be ordered to launch missiles that could kill millions of Russians, Chinese or East Europeans, and whether that order might be issued by mistake. His missiles were put on higher alert by the Nixon Administration during the October 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel, Egypt and Syria as a signal to the Soviet Union not to intervene on Egypt’s side.

Later in his service, Blair served as a support officer for the Operation Looking Glass command posts based out of Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. During the Cold War, one of these aircraft were in the air at all times and could launch missiles if one of the launch control facilities were destroyed by a Soviet-first strike or failed.

From 1982 to 1985, Blair was project director of a review of U.S. nuclear command and control for U.S. Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment. After doing a classification review of Blair’s draft, the U.S. Department of Defense decided that this assessment of the vulnerabilities of U.S. nuclear command and control was too sensitive for Congressional consideration. They seized and shredded all copies of the manuscript.

In 1985, Blair published his Ph.D. thesis as the book “Strategic Command and Control: Redefining the Nuclear Threat.” This was the first of a series of studies, including “The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War” (1993) and “Global Zero Alert for Nuclear Forces” (1995).

In 1999, Blair received a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as a “Genius Grant,” for his work demonstrating the dangers of Cold War and post-Cold War nuclear command and control, which highlighted the role of human and technical error. Blair also received the award for his work on devising credible policy alternatives, including “de-alerting” nuclear weapons and changing nuclear decision-making processes to allow for careful and collective deliberation before any decision to launch could be made.

Blair used the funds from his MacArthur grant to create the World Security Institute, which he used as an umbrella for a number of organizations, including Global Zero and a news services publishing on security issues in Arabic, Chinese, Farsi and Russian. In 2011, Blair was appointed to the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Security Advisory Board, a small group of experts providing advice on nuclear arms control, disarmament, nonproliferation and international security. More recently, Blair focused his attention on the need to strengthen checks and balances on the president’s unilateral power to order the use of nuclear weapons. 

Bruce Blair was interviewed for the park's film project in 2015 and again for our oral history program in 2018. Below are excerpts from his interviews.

Tell us about what life was like inside the control center. [2015]

Well, you know, actually the geopolitics of the time were pretty calm. This was an era of détente. In the [coughs] in the late 1960s and into the early '70s, the United States and the Soviet Union actually had a pretty good relationship based on détente. It was the Cold War and things could go downhill very quickly, and
did. And so, in 1973, I was on alert in an underground launch control center in Montana when I received an order to increase the alert level of my unit.
This was in the context of the Arab-Israeli war in October of 1973, and the United States was trying to send a message to Brezhnev, the head of the Soviet Union, not to intervene to support Egypt against Israel. And so, to send that message, we were ordered to go to higher level of nuclear alert. And that was a very exciting evening when that order came through around, just before midnight.

I received it. I decoded it. I realized it was a valid order. You don't see them very often. It begins a kind of Pavlovian process of excitement, because you're trained to expect the next level of alert in all of the simulations, of work that you conduct in a mock simulator. And so, that evening it was very exciting when that, that alert order came through. It was a very exciting evening. It involved taking, opening the safe that was locked up. My crewmate and I pulled out the launch codes that would be used to authenticate an actual launch order. We pulled out the launch keys that have to be turned in order to fire our missiles. And as part of the preparation, we strapped into our chair, with like seatbelts, to brace for a possible incoming nuclear explosion that would rock and roll our capsule.

And so, we were kind of worried that we may be at the early stages of a nuclear exchange.

. . . the level of alert normally is so high that we could fire all of these weapons in 60 seconds. I mean, they weren't called minutemen for nothing. We could get an order, decode it, go to the safe, pull out the launch keys and the launch codes and then go through the process of arming and targeting and firing the missiles in a grand total of 60 seconds.

So with Minuteman, there wasn't a lot to do. Sure, you can open the safe and get the keys out and it'll save you a few seconds, but you're constantly at, really at a peak level of launch alert. Even back in the 1960s.

So, you know, we're just huge—we were highly vigilant, and the force remains so. Part of the reason for that is because—and this was little known to the public; in fact, it was really little known outside of the sort of inner precincts of the strategic air command, SAC—we were really poised to launch on warning. You know, the public perception, the general belief was that the United States' nuclear policy was to retaliate to an attack after absorbing an attack; that our policy required that we be capable of absorbing the worst attack that the Soviets could throw at us, ride it out, and then fire back with such devastating force that we'd wipe them off the map.

Tell us about the "Nuclear Football." [2015]

The football is a briefcase carried by the aide to the President of the United States that contains some codes and some cartoons, basically, that explain to the President what his options are in the event of a nuclear war.

President Jimmy Carter discovered that—President Jimmy Carter was sort of a nuclear weirdo [laughter], who was very interested in the war plans. And he actually took a look at the contents of the nuclear football one day and realized that the material in there was indecipherable. And he wanted to be able to understand what his options were very quickly, because he only had six to 12 minutes, in the event of an attack, to make a decision on how to retaliate with our nuclear forces.

So, he ordered the Defense Department to reduce all of that mumbo-jumbo in the football to a set of cartoons that showed graphically what his options were and what the consequences were. So, it might show, you know, Major Attack Option Number One shows missiles coming out of their silos, a bunch of them, and with trajectories hitting military targets in the Soviet Union. Major Attack Option Number Three in the cartoons would show them coming out of their silos and hitting Moscow and at the time Leningrad.

So, he wanted it all reduced to really fundamental information that he could digest in the event of a crisis. But the football doesn't—there's a misnomer. Many people believe that the President's football contains the codes that are sent to the crews, the Minuteman crews and others, to fire their missiles. He doesn't have those codes. Only the military has the codes to unlock the missiles and the codes authorizing the firing of the missiles. The President has a different set of codes that are pretty, actually pretty dispensable. They're not necessary, nor sufficient to start a nuclear war.

Explain the difference between a 1.2-megaton weapon and what we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Well, my weapon was about 50 times more powerful than the weapon dropped on Hiroshima, which was around 15 kilotons. So, actually it was more than 50 times. It was more like 100 times, maybe 80 times the power of the explosive yield of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. That was a fission bomb. And we had a thermonuclear warhead on our missiles, 1.2 megatons, 80 times the power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, and we had 50 of them that we could launch.

Well, 1.2 megaton was pretty large for the weapons deployed in the mid-1970s. There were some weapons, like the Titan missile, that were deployed that had a 9-megaton weapon, and also a 9-megaton bomb, gravity bomb, brought by B-52 bombers was also in our inventory. So, there are quite a few very, very high-yield weapons. The largest ever tested by anyone was when the Russians tested a 50-megaton bomb, which could’ve been dialed up to 100, but they decided that they weren’t sure that it would be safe, so they lowered it to 50. So, those were pretty high-yield weapons. And the fact that we could fire 50 of them, think of that. I mean, that’s like 60 megatons.

What would a nuclear bomb do to New York City or Manhattan? [2018]

A 1.2-megaton weapon dropped on Manhattan on New York City, it would be exploded at roughly one-half mile altitude to maximize the extent of the damage. The blast damage alone would destroy the whole city essentially, and it would ignite firestorms that would consume the city, if it hadn’t already been blown to smithereens. And those firestorms would be accompanied by winds up to 600 miles per hour. And on top of everything else, there would be huge exposure to the radiation from the gamma and x-rays that would be emitted at the moment of the explosion of the bomb in the air.

What is it that made you think about eliminating nuclear weapons? [2018]

Well, I continued to work in this field throughout my entire career. So, I did top secret studies for the U.S. Congress as a scientist there. For several months, I worked for the Defense Department after the Congress for a while. And then I made it my life’s work to study nuclear weapons and their command and control not only in the United States, but in the Soviet Union and Russia, spent a lot of time learning about the Russian system in Russia.

And then I watched as more countries acquired nuclear weapons, like North Korea and India and Pakistan. We discovered Israel had them. And a lot of these countries didn’t and don’t have the sophistication that we have in our command and control system. They don’t have the one-point safety features, for example, that we have on our weapons.
One-point safety means that if a weapon is dropped from a plane and hits the ground at one point on the weapon, it won’t go off. There has to be kind of a symmetrical implosion of the weapon for it to detonate. And so, there are all kinds of safety features on our weapons, which by the way took decades to master. And some of our weapons even today don’t have perfect safety features. But these other countries were really behind.

And so, a country like Pakistan today, for example, if its weapons are deployed in the field and dropped from an airplane, or if the Taliban lobs a conventional mortar onto a weapon in the field, that weapon could very possibly detonate. And when that weapon detonates, it could detonate other nuclear weapons.
You could have a chain reaction. They have poor early warning networks compared to us. We had these billion-dollar satellites in space that look down constantly at the Earth and every day pick up indications of missile launches, every day. It could be the Japanese putting a satellite into space. It could be Russia lobbing a Scud missile into Chechnya. All sorts of things are happening now every day. And so, we have a pretty sophisticated system to monitor the world. It ain’t perfect, but these other countries have worse systems.

And I just reached a point where I concluded that you couldn’t manage the risks, particularly when you imagine that there could be an irrational person at the top of the chain of command in some of these countries....

And even if people are rational most of the time, there are moments of panic and emotion or fatigue, exhaustion that sets in in the middle of a crisis, and people can make bad calls. So, I just concluded that we couldn’t manage these risks indefinitely, yeah, that these weapons will be used inevitably if they’re not eliminated.

Last updated: October 21, 2020