Suddenly Applicable History: Major Harold Hering Asks The Wrong/Right Question

Since I’m finally feeling somewhat conscious after 3 days of flu, let’s have another dive into Suddenly Applicable History!

Today we’re focusing on one man: Major Harold Hering, USAF. He served six tours of duty, some of them in combat in Vietnam as an air rescue officer (flying helicopters into enemy territory to recover pilots that were shot down) for which he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross among other decorations, and then, after that war ended, serving as an officer within one of the many Minuteman launch control centers (LCCs) dotting the Great Plains.

Each Minuteman LCC was responsible for the care and feeding of 10 missiles. A Minuteman-III missile typically had a light, 340 kiloton warhead and was designed to be a counterforce weapon – aimed at Soviet missile silos much like the Minuteman counterparts instead of larger targets such as cities (those typically were reserved for submarines that could carry larger missiles with shorter ranges).

Paradoxically, this made them the most dangerous missiles in America’s arsenal for one simple, terrifying reason – a missile aimed at other missile silos isn’t very useful if the silo it’s aimed at has already launched its missiles. These Minuteman missiles were “first-strike” weapons. They were designed for use in case America decided, in its infinite wisdom, to start a nuclear war.

In the 1970s, computer networks were in their infancy when they existed at all. Command over the Minuteman LCCs happened over phone lines. The officers, such as Major Hering, were trained repeatedly in what to do when such an order came over the phone – quickly confirm it, then in cooperation with the other on-duty officer (to ensure one didn’t go insane and decide to start a war on his own) launch the missiles towards pre-calculated targets. The entire exercise was designed to happen within minutes – far quicker than it would take to consider the consequences of one’s actions.

Minuteman LCC officers were not paid to consider the consequences.

To ensure this, officers went into regular training sessions which were carefully supervised. Movies like “Dr. Strangelove” to the contrary, it was very much in the US military’s interests to ensure that the people responsible for the most terrifyingly powerful weapons in the arsenal were most emphatically NOT crazy. So during the drills and explanations over the intricacies of the “Single Integrated Operations Plan” (SIOP), the pre-network master plan for how a nuclear war would be fought, every reaction of those attending was monitored for any sign of the officer being out of place.

Which meant that when Major Hering asked the following question, things happened very quickly:

“When carrying out the SIOP, how can I know that the order to launch my missiles came from a sane President?”

Minuteman LCC officers were not paid to consider the consequences.

Major Hering was IMMEDIATELY pulled out of the training exercise and isolated. He insisted he was not insane, and not insubordinate. If the order came, he would turn the key and launch his missiles. He would be conflicted, not knowing if the command authority (i.e. the President) was in his right mind. But he would act.

That was not good enough. Minuteman LCC officers were not paid to consider the consequences.

Major Hering requested reassignment to another duty. His request was denied.

A decorated combat veteran, he was immediately thrown out of the Air Force with an administrative discharge (one step below honorable) for “failure to demonstrate acceptable qualities of leadership”.

His failure was in asking the question – is it sane to follow the orders of an insane man, and in so doing, pull the entire world to its doom?

Major Hering eventually became first a long-haul trucker, which presumably gave him a great deal of time to consider possible answers to that question, and then a counselor on a suicide crisis line, which his experience with mortality certainly gave him a unique perspective for.

Later, when his question was finally given the serious consideration it deserved, long after the insanity of the SIOP (which, among other cruelties, assumed China would be a target in a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the US merely because it would be inconvenient to plan for a scenario where they were not) was phased out and the Cold War finally splintered into fragments, when a reporter uncovered his story and tracked him down, 40 years after his simple question, he had the following to say.

“I still miss/regret the loss of promotion to lieutenant colonel and believe I had the potential to advance further. And I have certainly missed flying. But in the final analysis, I definitely would ask the question if I had it to do over. The Officer’s Oath of Office demands it, I think.

In looking back over my life, most of my working career has been saving lives and helping people. I have thought about the issue of Nuclear Warfare a lot and still do not have a definitive, fit-all, answer. But the concept seems generally insane to me and begs for very stringent checks and balances at all levels, especially pre-emptive strike considerations.

I think it’s an affront to play the game of “you don’t have the ‘need to know'” for someone who’s doing one of the most serious, grave jobs that there is in the armed forces. I have to say, I feel I do have a need to know, because I am a human being.

It is inherent in an officer’s commission that he has to do what is right in terms of the needs of the nation despite any orders to the contrary. You really don’t know at the time of key turning, whether you are complying with your oath of office.

I am left with a deep and growing hunger for peace among people at every level. It seems urgent to me that we find ways to become a more tolerant and forgiving people.

Perhaps, I was not a good match for duty as a missile launch officer.”

Perhaps, Major Hering was the most sane missile launch officer who ever served.