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Reflections on a time when Cold War fears and strange characters they spawned stirred nation

(Editor's Note: The following reflections of secret nuclear-strategy meetings in Seattle in the 1970s at a time when "Dr. Strangelove" characters held a respected behind-the-scenes prominence as a collective Cold War fear beset this nation seem appropriate to share as a hostile Russia seems to be re-emerging. The shared recollections were prompted by last week's Harp about the days of Seattle's growing ties with Russia two decades-plus ago).


Earl Sedlik detected early on that he was likely out of place as a Boeing-assigned member of a team of long-range planners who, in the mid-1970s, were assisting the CIA and Defense Department in strategic planning for future military hardware and nuclear-related strategies.

Sedlik had been hired in 1974 as Director of New Product Development at Boeing's Aerospace Division in Seattle, but a year later as Boeing disassembled the unit he found himself as the assigned macroeconomics expert from Boeing on a 10-member secret-team think tank for military armament planning.

It was there that he learned what it meant to plan for a future by strategizing to destroy it. And it was there that he was introduced to his new boss, whom we'll call TK, who was returning to Boeing after a stint as part of the SALT talks, his second tour at SALT and he had also spent time with the CIA after a Washington, DC - based Boeing assignment.

"TK became my new boss without much fanfare - but it was a revelation to work with him," Sedlik said. "He wore a full length black leather winter coat that nearly swept the floor. He hung a picture of an explosion on his wall which caught my eye.  It was, he said, a photo of a lab experiment to show a controlled dispersal of a nuclear reaction so that the power could be focused and not wasted on a spherical blast."

"He was an advocate for the Neutron bomb which would only kill people and not destroy property,' Sedlik remembered. 

"TK was Dr. Strangelove in real life," Sedlik said. "I learned later that his passion in the SALT talks was best describes as: 'what will we do after the nuclear exchange when we have 20 million people left and they have 10?'"

Dr. Strangelove was a reference to the key character in the movie "Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."

Peter Sellers' mad-scientist character in the Stanley Kubrick movie has become an almost archetypal figure of the death-and-destruction focus of the Cold War planning and the film, released 50 years ago this year, became an icon of the genre of movies themed to nuclear fear.

Sedlik described the scene when his group was called to meet with "a hjghly respected climatologist" to discuss the possibility that a Russian drought and resulting food shortages could prompt the Russians to strike first.

The team had gathered for that meeting because of what Sedlik describes as a need to develop a narrative for the Department of Defense to use to convince Congress to support development of an Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) system, replacing the existing Strategic Air Command with "the world's first flying instant-response nuclear attack capability."

Sedlik remembers TK suggesting that if the drought hit the Soviets hard enough, the Communist leaders would order a first strike against the U.S. to quell possible revolt "by diverting everyone's attention toward fighting against the Americans."

Thus the logic in favor of the ALCM's capacity to strike back "even before the first bombs land."

Sedlik said he then questioned the climatologist on whether "we would know about the drought as it developed and before it got too severe and was assured that secret satellite data would keep us aware of how serious the drought was.

That prompted what Sedlik recalls as his rebuttal that day: "if they are hungry, we will feed them. It's a biblical reality that you want your enemy to be healthy so that they make logical decisions and if we know that they might strike first because they are hungry, we will send them food."

"The response was quick and clear," Sedlik said. "TK looked directly at me and sternly said, 'Sedlik, you Eastern Liberal Bastard, you can leave the room!'"

Sedlik, whose Jewish heritage traces to small towns in Moldovia and Belarus, told me he compiled this report of what he referred to as "my oft-repeated story" after a summer trip with his family to Russia a year ago.

He explained that he finally compiled details of the story because "when recast through the reflection of time and direct Russian heritage experience, I wanted Molly and Adam (his children) to share a record of those days and my direct experience with the vagaries of the cold war."

It's Sedlik's reflections on "the vagaries" of the cold war in the context of some of pressures toward a new nuclear arms initiative in this country that prompt me to share his recollections here.

His story brought to mind an op-ed piece in the Washington Post last winter by former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz and former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, now co-chairman and CEO of the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative, on the question of whether the re-emergence of full-fledged Cold War psychology could be avoided. Return to such a state of mind, they wrote, might be encouraged by Russia developing an "I can get away with it" mentality.

Their key point in the piece was that "Although current circumstances make it difficult, we should not lose sight of areas of common interest where cooperation remains crucial to the security of Russia, Europe and the United States."

And it might also be important to keep in mind philosopher George Santayana's admonition: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

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