One story sparked the global media's imagination this week. Newspapers, radio stations, television channels and, mainly, websites latched on to it with delight. Its hyped-up version appeared under the headline: "The United States planned to nuke the moon." A version closer to reality ran on CNN: The United States considered the possibility of detonating a nuclear device on the moon. There is now an official report online, dating from 1959, that summarizes the project.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first-ever artificial satellite into space - a hunk of metal 58 centimeters in diameter and weighing around 80 kilograms, named Sputnik 1. It made several revolutions in space and on January 4, 1958, returned to the atmosphere and went up in flames. It made a huge impression.
The U.S. went into a panic. It is customary to say that Sputnik gave birth to the American space program. But aside from the Space Race, the Soviet satellite also undermined America's deterrence power in the interbloc balance of terror. It was largely a psychological, almost childish, question: Powerful and deterrent is the one who looks powerful and deterrent, whether or not he has the capacity to blast the world to bits with the press of a button. In Washington, they sought a way to frighten the Russians. Later in 1958, the U.S. Air Force developed an action plan that was code-named Project A119.
No, Leonard Reiffel says in alarm, the intention was not to blow up the moon. The intention was to detonate a nuclear device on the moon. "It would have been, I think, essentially invisible from the Earth, even with a good telescope."
Reiffel is an American physicist, now 85, who headed the project. In a recent interview to CNN, he said the aim was to demonstrate that the U.S. was still ahead of the Soviet Union in terms of its technological ability. Beside the political goals, the project also had scientific and military objectives, Reiffel explained: Having a presence on the moon would enable the U.S. to take action if the Soviet Union attacked it and damaged its ability to launch a counterstrike.
The intention was to enable the U.S. to act from a base on the moon. It is unclear whether the idea of detonating a nuclear device on the moon reached the desk of then President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Either way, the plan was not promoted - among other reasons, because of concern that, instead of reaching the moon, the missile carrying the device would deviate from its trajectory. And so, countless people fantasized online this week about what might have happened.
Recycling the news
This story is worth contemplating also as a notable intersection between journalism and history. The media love historical revelations. In contrast to the skepticism that accompanies ongoing coverage of yesterday's news, for some reason news that is half a century old enjoys an aura of credibility, as though it is enough that its origin is a yellowing screen preserved in some archive.
Historical news also tends to recycle itself: Authors of books sometimes publicize "revelations" that were already made public in the past, and news editors - many of them young - have short memories. The story about the plan to "nuke the moon" was also previously published, possibly inadvertently.
When he headed the project, Reiffel employed a graduate student who would later launch himself as a science and philosophy celebrity - Carl Sagan, astronomer, author and creator of "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage," a popular television series in its day. Sagan apparently mentioned his role in the project on a curriculum vitae he attached to some scholarship application. Sagan died in 1996 and one of his biographers discovered the secret among his papers. It is not clear precisely what prompted CNN to reconstruct this scoop; perhaps it was the fact that the summary report on the project is now available for perusal on the Internet.
Whatever the case may be, as with nearly every story this one too brings to mind an Israeli dimension. This is an affair whose details have only partially been released for publication, based on reports abroad. In May 1967, MK Shimon Peres thought Israel should avoid war, because it would not be able to win it. He traced the roots of the crisis to the loss of Israel's power of deterrence. First Peres orchestrated talks that were designed to make David Ben-Gurion prime minister again. Ben-Gurion had resigned his post as prime minister in 1963 and was likewise opposed to a war.
When these efforts failed, Peres put forward a proposal which, had it been accepted, might have altered the course of Middle Eastern history. Peres himself wrote in his memoir: "After Moshe Dayan became defense minister, I raised a certain proposal to him that would have deterred the Arabs and prevented a war." These words were interpreted in the United States as a suggestion to conduct a demonstrative test of a nuclear device, which might have kept the war from breaking out and established Israel's nuclear status.
It is not inconceivable, of course, that when Peres was deputy defense minister, he learned of the American plan to detonate a nuclear device on the moon. In any event, the logic that guided the Americans also guided Peres: The Arabs would be scared, the Israelis calmed. And what if the Six-Day War had been averted? There is no more nerve-racking "what if" in the history of the state.