Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don't Make Sense
Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense

Khalid Elhassan - September 30, 2021

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
The US military explored the possibility of stopping the Earth’s rotation. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

5. The Cold War Plan to Stop the Earth’s Rotation

Necessity is often said to be the mother of invention, and fear often triggers the necessity to stop whatever had caused it. The Cold War was one of the most fear-inducing stretches of human history – as in pants-soiling scary at times, with two jittery superpowers glaring at each other while armed with enough nukes to wipe out humanity many times over. So the era saw its fair share – and more – of inventions to address, combat, and foil the causes of that fear.

Thing though is that fear sometimes drives the fearful to not just think outside the box, but to get carried away with their outside-the-box thinking. As in way, way, away in the “creative” ideas department. As with most ideas, some of them turn out to be brilliant brainstorms, but many more turn out to be brain farts. Of the latter, few ideas were crazier than that hatched up to foil Soviet nukes by stopping the Earth’s rotation.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
Soviet nuclear missiles. Russia Beyond the Horizon

4. A Method to the Madness

Stopping the Earth’s rotation sounds crazy – and it was. However, there was actually a method to the madness and a kernel of logic involved. To launch an ICBM and get its warhead to accurately nuke a target thousands of miles away involves intricate calculations, not least among them planetary rotation. If one could tinker with Earth’s rotation, one could screw up those intricate calculations, and cause ballistic missiles to miss their targets. Thus was born PROJECT RETRO, an early 1960s research effort into what it would take to pause the planet’s spinning.

The project was worthy of Wile E. Coyote in that, like many of his schemes, the science actually works in theory. Once launched, the Cold War’s early ballistic missiles could not be redirected. Because of Earth’s rotation, to hit something with a ballistic missile is like shooting an arrow at a mobile target. In both cases, the shooter has to aim not at where the target is, but at where the target will be in the time it takes the missile or arrow to get there. PROJECT RETRO hoped to ensure that the ICBMs’ targets would not be there when their warheads detonated.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
What if instead of using 1 rocket to catch a bird, we used many rocket engines to stop the Earth from spinning? Imgur

3. A Cold War Plan Worthy of Looney Tunes

To illustrate the logic of PROJECT RETRO, picture an ICBM that takes 30 minutes to fly from the Soviet Union to New York City. The Soviets would their missile not at where NYC is at the time of launch, but at where the Big Apple will be, because of the Earth’s rotation, in 30 minutes. However, if a moving target ceases to move after a projectile such as a missile is launched, the result will be a miss. So the United States Air Force floated the idea of using rocket engines to stop the Earth from moving.

Specifically, planners contemplated the use of a “a huge rectangular array of one thousand first-stage Atlas engines” to stop the Earth from moving. In theory, such a crazy Looney Tunes plan could foil Soviet ICBMs. Accordingly, the Air Force set out to test the theory’s feasibility. In 1960, the RAND Corporation with asked to evaluate whether giant stationary rocket engines might be used to pause Earth’s rotation in case of nuclear attack. As seen below, while there was something to the theory, going from theory to practice was… problematic.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
How many rocket engines like these would it take to counteract the Earth’s rotation? A whole lot. NASA

2. Sound in Theory, Impossible in Practice

The US Air Force’s spitball guesstimate that a thousand rocket engines could pause the Earth’s rotation turned out to be too low. As Daniel Ellsberg, a RAND Corporation planner who crunched the numbers concluded, it required not a thousand Atlas rockets, but “one million billion” of them. The rocket fuel necessary would have been “500 times the mass of Earth’s atmosphere”. That was beyond even the Pentagon’s budget. And even if Pentagon could afford it, to pause the planet’s spin would have produced results far worse than if all the Soviet nukes had hit their targets.

Assume a 30 minute ICBM flight time from Russia to New York City, and a 20 minute warning. For the missile to miss by 10 miles, Earth’s rotation would have to be slowed by about 30 miles for 20 minutes. If that happened, every structure, grain of sand, drop of water, and living thing on the planet would experience that deceleration. The result would be shattering earthquakes, massive tsunamis, and super hurricanes – all beyond anything ever recorded in human history – wreaking havoc across the planet. A nuclear Armageddon would actually be mild compared to that.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Medium

1. An Extra-Terrestrial Attack Could Have Stopped the Cold War

President Ronald Reagan was the Happy Cold Warrior. A staunch conservative and anticommunist, he went about with a sunny disposition and demeanor that did little to mask his implacable detestation of communism and opposition of the Soviet Union. His single-minded focus on challenging what he termed “The Evil Empire”, and dragging the USSR into an arms buildup competition that its rickety economy could not sustain, contributed greatly to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. However, there was one field where he was more than happy to cooperate with the Soviets.

As Mikhail Gorbachev recounted, he was strolling around a garden with Reagan during the 1985 Geneva Summit, when the POTUS blurted out of the blue: “What would you do if the United States were suddenly attacked by someone from outer space? Would you help us?” Gorbachev replied that the Soviets would help us out against ET. That greatly pleased the American president – apparently, the threat of alien attack had been gnawing at Reagan, a lifelong sci-fi nerd, for years. So turns out that extraterrestrials might have united humanity to stop the Cold War in order to face a common enemy.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

American Rifleman – US M16: A Half Century of America’s Combat Rifle

Associated Press – Newspaper Reports Ex-Soviet KGB Defector Oleg Lyalin Dead

BBC – On This Day: 1971, I Arrested a KGB Super Spy

Boing Boing – US Air Force Proposal: Pause the Earth’s Rotation So Nukes Would Miss Targets

Cracked – 5 Cold War Stories That Reveal It Was a Total Clown Show

Defense Media Network – The Cuban Missile Crisis: Castro, Oplan 314/316, and Khrushchev’s Decision

Dormandy, Thomas – Opium: Reality’s Dark Dream (2012)

Ellsberg, Daniel – The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (2017)

Gaddis, John Lewis – The Cold War: A New History (2005)

Gunivore – History of the M16 Rifle

Halberstam, David – The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War (2008)

Hari, Johann – Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (2016)

History Collection – FRACTURE JAW: The Plan to Nuke North Vietnam

Los Angeles Times, November 7th, 1999 – The Rise and Fall of Joseph McCarthy

NPR, January 2nd, 2012 – What Vietnam Taught Us About Breaking Bad Habits

Pew Pew Tactical – A (Not So) Brief History of the M16

Small Arms Review – The M16 in Vietnam

Summers, Harry G. – On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (1995)

Time Magazine, August 28th, 2012 – Malcolm Browne: The Story Behind the Burning Monk

Vanity Fair, June 1st, 2008 – Lost in Enemy Airspace

We Are the Mighty – America Wanted to Stop Earth’s Rotation During Cold War

Wikipedia – M16 Rifle