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This was a short story I read sometime in the 1970s or so.

The United States suffers a limited nuclear strike. The protagonist is an Air Force officer flying a plane who witnesses the incoming weapons. The Pentagon is upset with the protagonist.

It seems that the Pentagon is trying to figure out which nation launched the attack. Nobody is claiming responsibility, and all the nations are denying that they did it. If the protagonist had seen the missiles flying at an angle, this would reveal the aggressor nation. Unfortunately missiles dropping vertically reveal no agressor, indeed it makes no sense.

SPOILERS

Eventually it is discovered that the weapons came from a secret Lunar base. The punch line is the aggressor nation is the U.S.. They catch the leader, who says "We really showed you {racial slur on African Americans} lovers, didn't we? So the first nuclear war was a civil war.

Does this sound familiar?

  • The officer is pressed to commit to what direction the (presumably ballistic) missile came from, and he repeats that he saw it coming straight down. "We have been surpassed" is the comment I recall. – Whit3rd Apr 1 '17 at 9:04
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I believe you are thinking of "The Earth Killers," by A.E. van Vogt. First published in Super Science Stories, April 1949, and it turns out that there's a copy of that issue of the magazine on Internet Archive. (Click on the "Super Science Stories" link and you'll find it.)

The original version does not seem particularly racist. The evil mastermind was a U.S. Senator who made sure he was delayed in Florida with "food poisoning" on the day that a bomb wiped out everybody in Washington, D.C (and many other American cities -- but no other nation was targeted, apparently). Then the Senator and a couple of Congressmen (implicitly they may be the sole survivors in terms of "elected officials of the Federal government") form a caretaker government and declare a six-month period of martial law. This seems to be widely accepted by U.S. citizens, because losing forty million people in a surprise nuclear strike obviously means that extreme measures are called for, temporarily, until the enemy has been found and dealt with.

Which is where our hero comes in -- Captain Morlake. (Probably United States Air Force, but I'm not sure if anyone ever says, in so many words, that he wears the uniform of an Air Force officer.) He happened to be test-flying a special aircraft when the rocket headed for Chicago went zipping down past him (this was when he was about 75 miles above the ground). He was unable to stop the rocket before it destroyed the city (although he certainly wanted to). But his careful description of its trajectory fails to correspond with what his superiors desperately want to hear, so he finds himself in a court-martial!

Here's an excerpt to show why I feel certain that this is the same tale you are remembering.

"Captain Morlake, you have heard witnesses testify that any bomb accurately aimed from any point on the Earth's surface would have been describing a parabolic curve of some kind at that height?"

"I have heard the witnesses."

"And what do you conclude from their testimony?"

Morlake was firm. "A short time ago I was convinced that our rocket science was superior to that of any other country. Now, I know that we've been surpassed."

"That is your sole comment on the deaths of forty million Americans. We have been surpassed."

Morlake swallowed hard, but he controlled himself. "I did not say that. The bomb was coming straight down."

"Hadn't you better think that over, Captain?"

Insinuating words. He knew what they wanted. In the short time since the trial had been scheduled, the prosecution had had several bright ideas. The previous night they had come to him with drawings of hypothetical trajectories of bombs. Every drawing was on a map of the world, and there were three different points of origin illustrated. If he would agree that the bomb had been slanting slightly in any one of the three directions, he would be a hero.

When he fails to cooperate by pointing the accusing finger at an unfriendly nation, he is convicted and sentenced to thirty years in prison. (The two charges in the court martial were that either a) he had made the whole thing up about seeing the bomb, giving a false report just to make himself seem important, or else b) he had given false testimony about the trajectory of the bomb, assuming he actually had seen it pass his vessel on its way down.)

As you say, it eventually turns out that a rogue group of Americans bombarded their own country from a secret base on the Moon, meaning that those rockets essentially came "straight down" to reach designated targets in North America. In the original version, the Senator, when cornered, doesn't make any racially-charged speeches about his motives as he dies (after being shot in the chest).

I know I first read this story in a much later paperback collection of many of the author's shorter pieces: The Worlds of A.E. van Vogt (first published in 1974). But I'm not sure where my copy is, so I can't check on what the Senator's exact motive was revealed to be in that version. A little Googling, however, brings up an anecdote, told in an interview with Charles Nuetzel, regarding some changes made to "The Earth Killers" for reprint publication in an anthology he was editing. The anthology was called If This Goes On, and here's what he says about the van Vogt story he included in it.

Another interesting sidebar concerned van Vogt's "The Earth Killers." I wanted the van Vogt name, but the story didn't quite fit my rigid rules of acceptance. I asked Forry if van Vogt could fix it to fit the anthology's theme. The result was my getting a tear sheet copy into which had been cut and pasted the revisions that gave the story the social impact to fit my book. Only a true professional would handle matters this way. Van Vogt was one of the Big Five in Sci-Fi. Yet, he was willing to make the changes. And he was doing me more of a favor than the other way around; quite obviously.

I don't believe I've ever read If This Goes On, but the ISFDB entry tells me it was first published in paperback in 1965. After reading that Nuetzel quote, and your recollection of the motivation in the version you once read, I strongly suspect that van Vogt elaborated upon the evil Senator's motives in revisions he made at Nuetzel's request, complete with making the Senator extremely racist so readers could cluck disapprovingly and feel morally superior. (As opposed to the original magazine version, where it simply seems to have been that the Senator was just plain power-hungry, rather than being bigoted against any particular group.)

Update. Here are some relevant excerpts from the last page (p. 110) of "The Earth Killers" as reprinted in this 1968 Ace edition of The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. Van Vogt. The expression [n-word] replaces a six-letter racial slur in the quoted text.

General Clark dropped down beside Morlake. "Senator," he said, "for God's sake, the name of the country, the enemy?"

The dying man looked at him with the beginning of a sneer on his lips.

"We got even with you [n-word]-lovers, didn't we?" he said. He laughed a satanic laughter, that ended hideously in a gush of blood. Slowly, the big head grew limp, the eyes though still open took on a sightless glare. A dead man lay on the floor.

The two men, Clark and Morlake, climbed to their feet. Morlake said in a low voice, "Gentlemen, you have your answer." He saw that they still did not comprehend what he had suspected for long now.

[. . . .]

The first atomic war had been, not an international, but a civil war. And now that Tormey was dead, the gang would scatter. A gang of race-prejudiced Americans.

The war was over. Irrevocably.

  • This must be it. I read the Super Science Stories version and found most of it familiar. Except for the missing N-word. You make a compelling case, and I am positive I read the version in the collection The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. van Vogt, not the magazine version. So I am marking this one "solved" – Winchell Chung Apr 3 '17 at 2:40
  • I added some excerpts from my copy of The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. Van Vogt. Please modify or roll back as you see fit. – user14111 Apr 3 '17 at 6:26
  • @WinchellChung I edited Lorendiac's answer, adding some excerpts from the version of "The Earth Killers" appearing in The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. Van Vogt. – user14111 Apr 3 '17 at 6:30
  • @User 14 11 that is the story! You have confirmed the proper identification – Winchell Chung Apr 3 '17 at 11:32
  • @user14111 -- Last night, I suspected that someone might do just what you did: Find a later reprint of the story and quote from it. I'm glad you did. I think this supports the idea that after van Vogt made a few modifications in the mid-1960s, it became customary for other editors to always used the revised version if they were planning to reprint the story themselves. – Lorendiac Apr 3 '17 at 22:38

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