November 26, 2021

Creston native remembered for his work on preventing nuclear war

Spilled milk can be cleaned up with a paper towel.

A fender-bender with the car in the grocery store parking lot can be repaired at a body shop.

But the efforts of one late Creston native were to prevent an accident that would have irreversible damage; an action he was part of at one time.

Bruce Blair, 72, was laid to rest Aug. 14 in Afton, a year after suffering a fatal stroke. His work was to prevent the use of nuclear weapons going so far to claim a nuclear war could have been an accident.

“Bruce was obsessed with the danger he saw of a civilization-destroying nuclear war and worked creatively to try to put up obstacles in the path to that danger,” said Frank von Hippel, professor of public and international affairs emeritus, Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University.

Blair was born Nov. 16, 1947, to Donald and Betty Blair in Creston. Bruce received a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Illinois in 1970 before serving in the Air Force. He received a doctorate in operations research from Yale University in 1984.

During his time in the Air Force, he was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska. He was also assigned for two years as a Minuteman missile launch officer at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. He served in an underground bunker where, if ordered, would begin the process of beginning a nuclear war.

The timing of his Montana location was right as the United States and former Soviet Union were well into the Cold War and the consistent of threat of nuclear war that accompanied. The president was the person who made the decision to use nuclear weapons. Blair’s observations were the high risk of an accidental nuclear war. If the United States is threatened with incoming nuclear weapons, the president has only minutes to decide. Missiles can be launched in 12 minutes after a president’s order. But once they are launched, there is no way to abort.

“We did not discuss his time in the Air Force systematically, not because of secrecy concerns but because he only was interested in sharing stories relating to the dangers he saw of accidental nuclear war,” von Hippel said. “For example, he talked about the Air Force short-circuiting the missile launch codes by setting them to zero, something he got changed after he left the Air Force.”

An accidental war was only theoretical as during the 1973 Yom Kippur war between Israel and Arabian neighbors. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ordered a higher alert for America’s missiles system as a signal to the Soviets not to get involved through Egypt. President Nixon was allegedly incapacitated at the time.

The day Nixon left the presidency because of his resignation, was the same day Blair’s military service ended.

In 2018, Blair told another tense story for the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota. In 1979, evidence showed the United States was under attack and President Jimmy Carter was to be notified at 3 a.m. to make a decision on retaliation.

“We had faulty indications of a full-scale Soviet attack against the United States,” Blair said. “It was a computer and human mistake within our system.” Blair said the indications were confusing, although it looked legitimate. Blair said early warning teams in Colorado were calling ground radar sites for confirmation of an attack, but, “there’s nothing on their radar screens,” Blair said.

“There was confusion in the beginning, and within eight minutes, the decision was made to cancel the alarm,” he said. “We were at a point where the president was going to be asked to make a decision very quickly. This was eight minutes into the scenario. So, there were several of those on the U.S. side, several on the Soviet side, and so we were pretty lucky. Frankly, this is still a danger, in fact some ways more so. Why more so? Because there was never a false alarm that actually reached the president during the Cold War. They were always called off before it reached that stage,” he said.

Blair said in the previous 10 years there were multiple times presidents were notified of vague, nuclear missile threats by the commander of the strategic forces near Omaha. The reason is the growth in missiles by additional countries including India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran and China.

“And they’re also now missiles that are maneuverable. So, when they fire, we don’t know where they’re going to land. In the middle of their flight, they could take a hard right and not just follow a normal trajectory and maneuver to a location you weren’t expecting,” he said.

But it was not just the American president Blair included his work.

“His focus was not the president’s authority, but rather primarily the launch-on-warning posture of U.S. nuclear weapons,” von Hippel said. “He also worked tirelessly to get the same concerns in the Soviet/Russian leadership, including working with former Soviet General Vladimir Dvorkin and Col. Vlaery Yarynich, one of the designers of the Soviet ‘dead hand’ system.”

von Hippel called it a realization of the doomsday machine in the 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove” which poked fun at nuclear war fears between the United Sates and Soviet Union. The dead hand system would launch Soviet weapons automatically if the Kremlin was destroyed by a nuclear attack.

“In some ways, Yarynich was Bruce’s Russian counterpart,” von Hippel said.

In 2008, the organization Global Zero was established. Blair was one of the founders of the international group working for the elimination of all nuclear weapons from proliferation, nuclear terrorism and humanitarian catastrophe. Global Zero also wanted to secure all nuclear-weapon related material.

“It’s in our interest to continue to negotiate reductions in nuclear weapons. I just believe that it is. And if we don’t do that, our old agreements are going to expire and disappear, and we will find ourselves back into kind of an early Cold War era situation in which we have no access any longer for on-site inspections to each other’s nuclear forces. We have less and less knowledge and more and more uncertainty about the nuclear programs on each side and so we will begin to find ourselves hedging and arms racing again if we don’t have any mechanisms to regulate our nuclear relationship,” Blair said. “So, we need - the most important thing is transparency and predictability, and without agreements you don’t have that.”

John Van Nostrand


An Iowa native, John's newspaper career has mostly been in small-town weeklies from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. He first stint in Creston was from 2002 to 2005.