Four Bizarre Prototypes of Cold War Weapons4 min read

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union took place at the same time as the so-called “Space Age” or “Atomic Age,” a time of massive innovation and excitement about the possibilities of science in the wake of World War II. It was during this era that human spaceflight was first achieved, and that the foundations of modern computer technology were laid down. Both great powers, the Americans and the Soviets, tried out many ideas in their efforts to indirectly thwart one another. Some of them were quite wacky and fanciful, and thus look rather like something out of science fiction. These four inventions were the strangest things used to fight the Cold War.

The CIA Anti-Castro Arsenal

As the Communist leader who was closest to home for the Americans, and one who was incredibly hard to get rid of, Fidel Castro posed at best a major annoyance and at worst an imminent threat in the mind of intelligence officers in the United States (particularly the paranoid FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover). Many elite CIA agents were dispatched with gadgetry that was more Austin Powers than James Bond to either kill or discredit the Cuban dictator. Most of the weapons they used were based on his personal routine and thus could unobtrusively be used to take him out – an idea that would have been clever if it weren’t so ridiculous. For example, Castro was an avid skin-diver (as many people in the sunny Caribbean are) and the CIA thought that they might disguise a high-explosive device as a particularly interesting piece of coral and put it in Castro’s favorite diving cove. Castro was also famously a cigar-chomping smoker, so they specially designed explosive cigars to present to him as a fake gift. They also attempted to put thallium salts in his soap so that washing up would make his beard fall out and cause him to look silly and unmasculine. Perhaps most strangely of all, they schemed to set up secret gas pumps in his radio studio, so that they could fill the room with LSD and make him hallucinate, rant, and rave before a national audience during a broadcast.

The M-28 “Davy Crockett”

When we think of nuclear weapons, we think of a huge bomb, dropped from very high in the sky from a plane, that devastates a huge area and that would kill anything within a wide range. And, most of the time, that’s what they are. But the M-28 tactical rifle, developed in the 1950s by the United States military, offered a more… personal touch. It was essentially a nuclear mortar, designed to be fired by a soldier on the ground, and if that sounds like a terrible idea, well, it basically was. Not only was the nuclear shell very inaccurate to fire, the passive radiation it produced while just loaded in the gun was dangerous enough, and just being within a quarter-mile of where the shell exploded was a definite death sentence. In other words, using a Davy Crockett gun would be a suicide mission. Still, the West German defense minister Franz Josef Strauss was a zealous advocate of the personal nuclear weapon, thanks to his fears of a huge ground invasion by the Soviets. No wonder it seems unrealistic even when you use it in the Fallout video games.

The Strategic Defense Initiative

The Strategic Defense Initiative was the brainchild of President Ronald Reagan, and it was a stew of ridiculous plans in a grand unified bad idea melting pot that came to be nicknamed “Star Wars.” The main thrust of Reagan’s scheme was to use both ground and space-based missile defense systems to stop a potential Soviet attack before it could get anywhere near the United States or NATO nations, so that the mutually assured destruction doctrine would no longer be necessary. Theoretically it was sound, but – wait, space-based defenses? Yes, that’s right; the components of the outer space weaponry included satellite modules that shot not only interceptor missiles but melon-sized spheres of tungsten used for kinetic bombardment (a la the infamous “Rods from God” of Mass Effect and other sci-fi media). The ground-based defenses, meanwhile, were to consist of high-powered lasers as well as mirrors designed to confound targeting. Needless to say, this was the cause for much ridicule of Reagan and his administration and still remains in the realm of science fiction.

The Soviet Weather Control Dam

The Americans certainly weren’t the only ones with poorly-thought-out weapons during the Cold War. Both sides had the idea to adapt the old pulp science fiction-slash-real-world crackpot idea of controlling the weather by means of blasting the atmosphere with energy or seeding it with special chemicals. The Soviets, however, came up with a blunter, more direct, and altogether more Russian weather control weapon: A military engineer named Arkady Borisovich Markin drew up plans for a giant semi-mobile dam floating in the Bering Strait, between Russia and Alaska. Massive nuclear-powered pumps in the dam would manipulate the various currents of the oceans, redirecting warm and cold water as the operators chose, and the Americans were concerned that this would be used to melt the polar ice caps and flood North America. The US military, for its part, had plans to do something similar to Russia!


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