FROM the files of the Cold War comes this strange but true tale of Pacific mayhem. The current tension between China and the United States is not the first time Pacific nations felt squeezed between giants. Not so long ago, the U.S., facing a different adversary, contemplated its Pacific friends, and plotted their futures amid the larger superpower rivalry. This is one such contemplation.
At the end of the Second World War in 1945, atomic weapons were used for the first time. During the late Forties and during the next forty-five years, the United States and its allies, joined together in the NATO alliance, faced the prospect of a war against the Soviet Union (Russia) and its allies. On paper, the Russians appeared overwhelming. In every major category of arms: tanks, planes, artillery, and infantry, the Americans saw a superior foe. Facing sure defeat in a conflict of conventional arms, the Americans put their hopes in atomic and nuclear weapons, the one category in which they had a clear advantage. If massive Russian armies swept over Europe and Asia, they would meet with nuclear annihilation. The stockpile of nuclear weapons began.
Nuclear weapons take many forms. First, there was the nuclear triad of ground-based missiles, bombs dropped from airplanes, and submarine-launched missiles. This variety gave strategists options and ensured that not all of the arsenal could be destroyed by the enemy. A nuclear response to aggression was guaranteed, and the inevitability of a nuclear counterattack is one of the reasons there has never been a World War Three.
But nuclear weapons took other forms. The ones mentioned above are known as strategic weapons, with ranges measured in thousands of miles and whose targets were typically enemy cities. But there was a class of tactical nuclear weapons, those intended for use on the battlefield or on smaller stages. For example, the army wielded nuclear artillery, small bombs launched from artillery pieces whose range was only ten or twenty miles and were intended to destroy enemy forces in the field. There was even a small nuclear weapon launched from a shoulder tube, like a bazooka. The problem with that little monster was that the blast radius was greater than the range of the weapon, which meant that the user would also be killed by the explosion. Talk about a weapon of last resort.
Which brings us to the “other” classification of nuclear weapons, those whose mission was very specific or whose use was not very well defined. Some of those were more appropriately called “Can we build it?” weapons, since their purpose seems to be finding out if something was possible. But the weapons known as MADM and SADM had very specific purposes. Medium Atomic Demolition Munition and Special Atomic Demolition Munition were nuclear landmines. Yes, nuclear landmines. If enemy forces drove over a MADM it would result in a nuclear fireball that would destroy the invader and create a radioactive wasteland that could not be traversed.
That was on paper. The real purpose of the MADM and SADM was to destroy areas about to be taken by the enemy. If the Russians threatened to overrun France, for example, SADM mines would blow the country into oblivion, rendering it useless to the enemy. For obvious reasons, this was not discussed in public. Most people do not want to think about sitting on top of a buried nuclear weapon, waiting for the enemy to get close enough to use it, and destroying them and their homes in the process. This kind of thinking is very bad for public opinion and winning elections. During the Cold War, MADM and SADM mines were deployed in Guam and South Korea. They were considered too important to be lost to the enemy. So, the people of Guam sat on top of nuclear mines and never knew it.
With superpower tension heating up in the Pacific between China and the United States, will MADM and SADM be deployed once again? For that matter, were the old ones ever removed?
BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.