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Cold War History

At the height of the Cold War, we kept nuclear weapons in the sky. One alum flew with them.

Story by Doug McInnis

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Air Force Captain George “Sam” Sevier | Photo by Steve Smith

In late 1967, just three years after graduating from Western, Air Force Capt. George “Sam” Sevier was assigned to fly missions under Operation Chrome Dome, the airborne alert program that kept B-52 bombers armed with nuclear weapons in the air around the clock. If a surprise Soviet nuclear strike destroyed U.S. jets and missile silos on the ground, the U.S. could still unleash a counterattack with its airborne nuclear weapons fleet.

"The concept was to make a surprise attack just as costly for the Soviets as it would be for the U.S," Sevier says.

Sevier was his crew's electronics warfare officer. If war broke out, he was to jam enemy radar, allowing the big bomber to penetrate enemy defenses and drop its nuclear weapons on predesignated targets.

Fortunately, there was never a call to execute a retaliatory strike. Any call to action could have meant the unthinkable - nuclear war. Even if the airborne crews were able to carry out their missions, they would probably have had a heavily damaged, radioactive country to return to. "Nuclear missiles would have devastated our nation," Sevier says.

This was life in the Cold War, a 46-year standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during which both sides maintained the weaponry to blast each other and much of the rest of the world back to the Stone Age.

The standoff began in 1945 when Sevier was 9 years old. As World War II ended, Soviet troops forced the nations of Eastern Europe under its control, triggering the Cold War's beginning.

On August 29, 1949, four years after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan, the Soviets exploded their first nuclear weapon at a test site in Kazakhstan. From that day until the Cold War ended in 1991, the threat of nuclear annihilation was ever present.

But Sevier knew little of this history as he grew up in rural Deming, in Whatcom County. "I wasn't up on the Cold War any more than any other 18 year old," he recalls. "I was more interested in cars and getting a job."

That changed with his Air Force enlistment in 1956 - suddenly he was a tiny cog in the Cold War machine. When his hitch was up, he worked his way through Western, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1964 with concentrations in mathematics, electronics and economics. He then reenlisted and went through officer training, along with navigator and electronic warfare instruction.

Eventually Sevier found himself aboard a B-52 fully armed for war.

Of course, neither side wanted war, so they took numerous measures to avoid one. The U.S., for example, required both the pilot and co-pilot of airborne alert flights to separately receive the "go" code before launching an attack, Sevier recalls. "It was the same with everything else in the nuclear weapons program. Everybody followed a failsafe approach." No single rogue service member could launch Armageddon. In addition, nuclear weapons were constructed to prevent a nuclear blast if one of the bombers accidentally dropped its payload or crashed, as a B-52 did over Greenland on a 1968 flight.

The arming sequence for nuclear weapons had to take place before a nuclear explosion would occur, says Sevier. "If the arming sequence wasn't activated, a crash wouldn't start the chain reaction. You might get radiation leakage, but no mushroom cloud."

Sevier also flew on more than 100 Peacetime Air Reconnaissance missions designed to minimize the chance of war. These were conducted under provisions of the SALT II National Scientific Inspection/Verification agreement between the U.S. and the Soviets. The provisions allowed each side to monitor the other's ballistic missile tests. On air reconnaissance missions, Sevier operated sophisticated optical equipment that collected data used to evaluate Soviet missile capabilities.

The theory behind this agreement was ingenious. If each side knew what the other was capable of, it would prevent their imaginations from running wild with unsubstantiated fears that might spur them to launch a preemptive strike.

"Those SALT II missions were the most important missions I had," says Sevier, who also flew bombing runs in Vietnam. "Those missions kept each side from being spooked."

Sevier retired with the rank of colonel in 1990. The next year, the Soviet Union broke up and the Cold War was over. Neither side had fired a shot at the other, much less used their vast nuclear arsenals.

Sevier's career in defense work continued as a civilian. He served as a high-level executive in the defense industry and as Deputy Director of the Defense Technology Security Administration, which collects information on and reviews all proposed exports of arms and technology that may have military applications. One goal of the review process is to keep weapons out of the wrong hands. Sevier still works as a consultant on defense work and leads the U.S. State Department's Defense Trade Advisory Group.

Had nuclear conflict occurred, Sevier believes, the U.S. as we know it would have vanished, its economy, infrastructure and government wiped away. "The survivors would have been reduced to hunter-gatherers. They would have been out there trying to kill something in order to eat."

Doug McInnis is a freelance journalist who has written for the New York Times, Popular Science and many university magazines. His most recent story for Window was about Seattle attorney James Pirtle (’01) and his human rights work in Uganda.