Update (Aug. 30, 2012) – Thanks to an alert reader (see Yale S. in comments) I now know the Army actually did deploy the weapons mentioned in this post. Known as the Davey Crockett, the low-yield, sub-kiloton nuclear devices were deployed in Europe from 1961 to 1971. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Davy_Crockett_%28nuclear_device%29 for more detailed information.
If you check the Internet, you will find some discussion on the possibility of developing a handheld or shoulder-holstered nuclear weapon launcher. More recently, the discussion has centered on a so-called briefcase bomb that terrorists might be able to deliver undetected to a major U.S. city.
But I was amused recently to come across a very matter-of-fact discussion about the imminent development of a handheld nuclear launcher on a “Meet the Press” program broadcast Jan. 4, 1959.
The guest that day was Gen. James M. Gavin, who had just resigned as chief of the Army Division of Research and Development. The questioner is John W. Finney of the New York Times. (Thanks to otrcat.com, where I purchased an archive of these shows.)
Gen. Gavin was no crackpot. He was a highly respected military man who had served with distinction during World War II and was a leading advocate for racially integrating the armed forces.
More than anything, what this clip illustrates to me is the incredible naivety the military had about nuclear bombs in the 1950s. Remember, this was the period during which above-ground tests were contaminating wide swaths of the American West and sickening its people — something the government has belatedly, and reluctantly, admitted.
Click the link below to listen to the clip, then feel thankful the general’s predictions didn’t come true. Otherwise, U.S. troops may be training Afghan soldiers today in the use of such weapons, while hoping they don’t end up in the hands of terrorists or, in any case, that soldiers could run away faster than the fallout from such a bomb could come back to get them.