At the height of the Cold War in 1964, then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara coined the term “mutual assured destruction” to describe what would happen if either the U.S. or the Soviet Union attacked the other with nuclear weapons.
He wasn’t exaggerating. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, in 1964 America’s nuclear arsenal totaled 15,800 megatons — equivalent to the explosive power of 1.3 million pounds of TNT. The Russians had another 3,000 megatons, and the world was just 18 months removed from the Cuban missile crisis that very nearly degenerated into World War III.
That was also the year that the movie Doctor Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, was released. It’s the story of a whacked-out Air Force base commander who sends his bombers to attack Russia. The film ends with a sequence of nuclear explosions played to the soundtrack of the ’40s pop song We’ll Meet Again.
Shadowing President Lyndon Johnson everywhere he went that tense year was a 43-year-old Army lieutenant colonel carrying “the nuclear football” handcuffed to his wrist. That’s a black briefcase, the contents of which are used by the president to authorize a nuclear attack. President John Kennedy began in the practice in the aftermath of the missile crisis because he feared Soviet commanders in Cuba might launch their weapons without authorization from Moscow.
That colonel’s name was Chuck McDowell, a Twin Falls native.
President Obama is still trailed by a military officer packing a “football,” but U.S. missile launch detection systems today are far more advanced than they were 47 years ago. Back then, a missile launched from Cuba — 1,100 miles from Washington, D.C. — couldn’t be detected until less than 10 minutes before it struck its target.
So the colonel stayed very close to Johnson, and fittingly so. McDowell probably spoke better Russian than Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev did.
Chuck McDowell, who died in 2007, was a Renaissance man. Born in Twin Falls in 1921, he grew up in the Gulf Coast Texas town of San Saba and went to Texas A&M University, where he joined the ROTC. Earning an Army commission in 1943, he became an officer in the 82nd Airborne Division and fought in the Battle of Arnhem in the Netherlands in 1944.
After the war, the Army sent McDowell to Tokyo to help train the peacetime Japanese army, and McDowell befriended the American commander of occupied Japan, Gen. Douglas McArthur. Later, McDowell was assigned to the Army’s foreign language school at Monterey, Calif., where he became fluent in Russian. Then he was promoted to a Germany-based outfit called Detachment R, which honed the skills of the best U.S. Russian analysts.
While posted at the U.S. embassy in Budapest in 1956, McDowell got to know Yuri Andropov, the Soviet ambassador to Hungary and the man who orchestrated the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Hungary that year. Andropov later became director of the KGB and, in 1982, leader of the Soviet Union.
McDowell taught military science at the University of Texas-Arlington from 1959-64, and after he retired from the Army became a professor of Russian at the Texas school and later director of its Soviet and East European Center.
His Russian was so good, according to a colleague, that on a visit to the Soviet city of Yalta in 1980 McDowell talked an official at a polling station into letting him vote, posing as a factory worker from Minsk who had lost his identity papers.
Steve Crump is the Times-News Opinion editor.