CRF Blog

The Littlest Boy

by Bill Hayes

In The Littlest Boy for Foreign Policy magazine, Adam Rawnsley and David Brown report on how elite American troops were trained to stop a Soviet invasion of Europe.

For 25 years, during the latter half of the Cold War, the United States actually did deploy man-portable nuclear destruction in the form of the B-54 Special Atomic Demolition Munition (SADM).

Soldiers from elite Army engineer and Special Forces units, as well as Navy SEALs and select Marines, trained to use the bombs, known as “backpack nukes,” on battlefronts from Eastern Europe to Korea to Iran — part of the U.S. military’s effort to ensure the containment and, if necessary, defeat of communist forces.

Throughout the standoff with the Soviet Union, the West had to wrestle with the fact that, in terms of sheer manpower and conventional armaments, Warsaw Pact forces had their NATO counterparts woefully outnumbered. For the United States, nuclear weapons were the great equalizer. In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower went a step further, unveiling the “New Look,” which sought to deter Soviet aggression on the cheap by threatening to respond to any attack with a nuclear onslaught of apocalyptic proportions — a doctrine known as “massive retaliation.” In this way, Ike thought he could hold back communism abroad and the military-industrial complex at home.

The strategy had a major flaw, however. Though massive retaliation was economical, it allowed the United States almost no flexibility in how it responded to enemy aggression. In the event that communist forces launched a limited, non-nuclear attack, the president would have to choose between defeat at the hands of a superior conventional force or a staggeringly disproportionate (and potentially suicidal) strategic nuclear exchange that would kill hundreds of millions of people.

To provide options between “red” and “dead,” the United States soon embraced the concept of limited nuclear war, championing tactical atomic weapons designed for use in combat. If Warsaw Pact forces ever bolted from East Germany and Czechoslovakia toward Western Europe, the United States could resort to nukes to at least delay the communist advance long enough for reinforcements to arrive. These “small” weapons, many of them more powerful than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, would have obliterated any battlefield and irradiated much of the surrounding area. But they provided options.

Cold War strategy was filled with oxymorons like “limited nuclear war,” but the backpack nuke was perhaps the most darkly comic manifestation of an age struggling to deal with the all-too-real prospect of Armageddon. The SADM was a case of life imitating satire. After all, much like Slim Pickens1 in the iconic finale of Dr. Strangelove, American soldiers would strap on atomic bombs and jump out of airplanes as part of the opening act of World War III. [more]