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The Day That President Nixon
Ordered Nukes On-The-Ready


From Ron Chiste in 2005:
6th Bn, 40th Field Artillery, 3AD

I frequently laugh to myself when I hear people talk about the Cold War as if it was some benign label in which threats to our country were nonexistent. Little do most people realize the level of threat that actually was inherent to the Cold War. Take, for example, the true events below of May, 1972, starting with some technical background.

In the early 70s those division units that were nuclear capable (8"SP Artillery, 155mm Artillery, Honest John, and Engineers) had their war reserve (the real stuff) stored in various Nato Sites around western Europe. If a situation arose whereby nuclear weapons were authorized to be used, those weapons had to be released to the appropriate units. Control of those weapons came to the respective units via an elaborate security and authentication system from higher headquarters. Everything about the nuclear weapons environment had at least a two-man control. No one person alone ever had all the information necessary to obtain and fire a nuclear round. And so the battalions were set up in a series of two-man teams, usually consisting of a junior grade officer and an enlisted man through the rank of Master Sergeant. There were exceptions to that general rule, but usually the team consisted of a LT and a SP/4 or E5. The members of the team were designated NRAS "A" member and NRAS "B" member, with NRAS meaning Nuclear Release Authentication System.

6/40 FA BN HQ in Hanau was staffed 24 hours a day by a staff duty officer who was trained to receive and break the secret nuclear release codes from higher HQ should a nuclear release be ordered. Every night after the regular duty day, the designated BN SDO for the day could count on getting a message from higher HQ which required that the safe holding nuclear release codes be opened, then the specific punch card codes had to be broken, then the subordinate units informed of the specific order of how many weapons were to be released, what combination was to be used to remove the permissive action links (PAL) from the rounds so they could be fired, and what yields were to be configured.

In the safe, which was kept in the battalion headquarters, were two sets of three-ringed binders. One was blue in color and contained all the nuclear codes for practice. The other was red and contained all the nuclear codes which were real. The first message that would come from higher headquarters would indicate which set of binders were to be used. I had been in the 6/40 FA BN for two years and had never known of any case during my time there or even before when the Blue practice binders were not used.

I was due to leave the battalion and be discharged on 12 May 1972, and was pulling my last staff duty assignment on the evening of 7 or 8 May. As expected in the wee hours of the morning the encoded message came from Divarty. I immediately contacted my B team member and we decoded the encrypted message together. To our shock and amazement we were being directed to proceed using the RED books. Thinking the message had been sent in error I requested the Divarty Duty Officer to resend the message. It was for real. The RED books were to be used. It was no practice. I was a couple days from going home and we were being ordered to release our nuclear weapons! Talk about pucker factor. We broke the codes, extracted the information and passed it down to the batteries. Apparently something in the world had happened and we were about to make sure it ended quickly. After a couple hours which actually seemed interminable, a message was received that downgraded the original message, then downgraded it further, then finally rescinded it completely.

It was not until the next day that we found out what had happened. Nixon had ordered that Haiphong Harbor in Viet Nam was now cleared as a target for American bombing. The White House was unsure as to what the Soviet response to the bombing would be. Should their response be to roll across Western Europe with their ten to one armor advantage, our tactical nuclear weapons would surely end their attack. Fortunately for the world that scenario was not played out, but the possibility certainly resulted in some anxious moments for all of us who were close to it.

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