Having survived into the 21st Century with planet mostly intact, modern Americans can recall with a laugh some of the more absurd attempts to deal with the mad reality of the Cold War – the farce of Dr. Strangelove or the newsreel footage of students hiding from a blast underneath their school desks. But in the early 1950s, the awesome power of atomic weapons was fairly new – only a few years had passed since their first display at the end of World War II, and the H-bomb was working through its blinding birth pangs.
National security aside, it was a matter of business for former MIT President James Killian. After his 1949 inauguration, Killian took on what the Air Force called Project LINCOLN, the heart and soul of their attempt to create a defense against Soviet planes trying to bring atomic weapons over America. It was an undertaking to say the least; according to Air Force Magazine’s May 1953 article “The Truth About Air Defense,” the project’s expenses doubled that of MIT’s entire undergraduate teaching program.
Following the Air Force Magazine piece, Killian and A.G. Hill, an MIT professor working on Project LINCOLN, decided that a scared population was better than an ignorant one, particularly with “the continuity of the United States” at stake. So in November 1953’s Atlantic Monthly, they published “For a Continental Defense,” an attempt to take MIT science to educate the public and be realistic about air defense in an atomic age.
To 21st-century readers it’s a peculiar issue; our leaders can push a button on the desk and deploy nuclear weapons over breakfast. But eight years before Killian and Hill’s article, the United States had dropped atomic bombs on Japan the old-fashioned way, from bomber jets. By 1949 the Soviet Union had atomic weapons; in 1953 it test-detonated its first H-bomb, forcing Americans to confront the fact that Russia had the bomb, and nothing stopped them from flying it over here but developing a long-distance jet, and then whatever air defense the United States could muster. Killian called the matter one of “awful urgency.”
But even at best it was a crapshoot. He and Hill dismissed scientists who claimed the possibility of total success –shooting down an entire squadron of Soviet bombers. The best kill ratio was about 60 percent, they said, which would spare just enough of the United States to allow for a massive counter-attack. The term “mutual assured destruction” hadn’t yet come into vogue, but the principle shown through. Killian and Hill cited the accurate prediction of Gordon Dean, Atomic Energy Commission chairman, that the Cold War would reach a plane where each nation could destroy the other multiple times over.
The Atlantic article certainly reached the halls the power. In his letters, between requests to speak at this function or that sits a gleaming note of thanks from David A Shepard, director of the Standard Oil Company. “I continue to be very proud to know you,” he wrote, perhaps with gushing dreams of the project’s petroleum necessity. Massachusetts Rep. John McCormack found in his constituents’ argument something he could champion. McCormack, then the Democratic whip, forwarded the article to Representatives, Senators, the secretaries of the Army, Air Force and Defense, and probably others who didn’t take the time to reply. In May 1954 he bundled their reply letters and mailed them to Killian, with the note, “I enclose additional letters received in relation to your fine article, which I thought you might like to receive.”
But Killian’s stated his aim as informing the public. How many read the piece we of course can’t say, and fewer letters from ordinary Americans filled his stack. Either he didn’t keep them, which seems unlikely given the number cataloged, or a lot of people found themselves too overcome to compose a critical response to their own mortal dread. There were rants, like that from Frederick Hehr of Santa Monica, Calif., crowing to Killian, “many of your premises are cock-eyed and false.” There were the heavily involved responders like John Tucker of Oxnard, Calif., who filled two claustrophobic typewritten pages with technical questions. There was one that actually wondered aloud whether a person could truly come to grips with such apocalyptic logic.
It was from George C.H. Bladworth, a name befitting someone of Old Greenwich, Conn. Scrawled in blue ink on yellow legal paper, some of Bladworth’s words were penned in too much haste or holy furor to be legible. And then some of them sear to the core.
“At your last word, in severe accord with everything you say – and fully aware of the necessary … steps to be taken and practical work to be done – I found myself staring as if numb ... Out of the silence – as distinctly as spoken direction – something said: “Ninety-First Psalm!”
“You will not fear the terror of the night,” the psalmist wrote, “or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand my fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.”
To make sure Killian read it, Bladworth tore Psalm 91 out of his Bible and enclosed it with the letter, writing in his final paragraph that Killian could simply return his “old Bible leaf” in lieu of writing. Killian underlined that sentence in pencil, saved the letter, and returned the Psalm.