Sunday, May 15, 2011

Nuclear Weapons: Living on the Edge

Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers

Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons (Vintage)


R.W. Johnson has presented in the London Review of Books a lively summary of some lesser known aspects of the history of nuclear weapons: Living on the Edge. He does this under the guise of a review of three recent books.

Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-49 by Jim Baggot
Icon, 576 pp, £10.99, November 2009, ISBN 978 1 84831 082 7

The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers and the Prospects for a World without Nuclear Weapons by Richard Rhodes
Knopf, 366 pp, $27.95, August 2010, ISBN 978 0 307 26754 2

Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers by Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi
ICNND, 294 pp, November 2009, ISBN 978 1 921612 14 5

Johnson doesn’t really review the three books. He chooses to extract bits and pieces from each book to combine with his own knowledge to create a narrative that is consistent with his title. While this may not do justice to the efforts of these authors, it does make for an interesting read.

What Johnson has assembled is a collection of insights and factoids. We will organize the most interesting into the categories of the good, the bad, the ugly, and the silly.

The Good: Johnson reports several incidents that contribute to a sense of well-being—a sense that while nuclear weapons have an aura of madness about them, there are still reasoning adults out there who will do the right thing when necessary.

“In 1954, Eisenhower resisted considerable pressure from the military to mount a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the USSR before it managed to acquire a competitive nuclear force. He said that pre-emptive strikes were un-American, pointing to the bitter American resentment of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Later, Rhodes says in his new book, The Twilight of the Bombs, Kissinger prevented the South Koreans from developing nuclear weapons only by threatening the complete withdrawal of US forces from the peninsula.”

“One of the unheralded heroes of the end of the Cold War was General Y.P. Maksimov, the commander in chief of the Soviet strategic rocket forces during the hardliners’ coup against Gorbachev in August 1991. He made a pact with the heads of the navy and air force to disobey any order by the coup plotters to launch nuclear weapons. There was extreme concern in the West that the coup leader, Gennady Yanayev, had stolen Gorbachev’s Cheget (the case containing the nuclear button) and the launch codes, and that the coup leaders might initiate a nuclear exchange. Maksimov ordered his mobile SS-25 ICBMs to be withdrawn from their forest emplacements and shut up in their sheds – knowing that American satellites would relay this information immediately to Washington. In the event, the NSA let President Bush know that the rockets were being stored away in real time.”

After the fall of the Soviet Union the Russians were confused and disorganized and were not able to exercise absolute control over the nuclear arsenal or its production complex. There was a fear that unpaid nuclear scientists and engineers might be willing to sell their expertise, and even nuclear assets “for bread.”

“The heroes of this part of Rhodes’s story are two US senators, Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, who put together the Co-operative Threat Reduction Programme. George Bush helped the process along with his unilateral decision to abandon all battlefield nuclear weapons. All cruise missiles would be removed from ships and submarines, all nuclear artillery shells retired, the Strategic Air Command would stand down its B-52 nuclear bombers and the mobile version of the new Peacekeeper missile would be cancelled. It was perhaps Bush’s finest moment....”

And then there is this reminder which should make us feel a little better about humanity and its prospects for the future.

“Rhodes points out that both the US (in Vietnam) and the USSR (in Afghanistan) have accepted military defeat rather than deploy nuclear weapons.”

The Bad: While we seemed to generally have adults in charge at critical times, sometimes the children would wander off in strange and frightening directions.

“We have been living on the edge for a long time. In 1948, during the Berlin airlift, the US drew up Plan Trojan, targeting 30 Soviet cities for nuclear attack; at the time the USSR had no means to reply. In March 1949 Curtis LeMay, the head of Strategic Air Command, drew up his first war plan. LeMay had been responsible for killing some two million civilians in his fire raids of 1945 on 63 Japanese cities: in his view nuclear weapons were just another means of doing the same job. His War Plan 1-49 envisaged B-29 and B-50 bombers dropping 133 nuclear bombs on 70 Soviet cities, killing three million civilians and injuring four million more. LeMay found he could fly reconnaissance missions right over Vladivostok without meeting the slightest resistance. ‘We could have delivered the stockpile … with practically no losses,’ he reported.”

“The break-up of the USSR in 1991 created three new nuclear states, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine. Rhodes reports that Yasir Arafat went to Alma-Ata to tell President Nazarbayev that as the first ‘nuclear Muslim country’, Kazakhstan could be the main arbiter in the Middle East. Arafat hoped that Nazarbayev would aim his nuclear weapons at the targets Arafat told him to, though he would naturally have to put up with Israel’s missiles being aimed at him in return. There were, Nazarbayev has claimed, various offers from the Middle East to buy Kazakhstan’s 1040 nuclear warheads and 104 ICBMs. He turned them all down; but the weapons weren’t his to dispose of in any case – Russia still retained control of them.”

“....the Russians were no longer sure just how many missiles or how much enriched uranium they had, or where everything was. One leading scientist, Yuri Trutnev, suggested that a deep underground explosion be carried out to destroy 20,000 nuclear weapon cores all at once, creating 62 tonnes of vitrified plutonium. But further analysis showed that the plutonium might solidify in supercritical configurations, which would lead to a chain reaction of explosions, blowing the underground shelter open with the force of a thousand Chernobyls.”

The Ugly: There were too many instances where responsible people were guilty of unwise or reprehensible acts.

Scientists like to believe that they operate at a moral level higher than that of generals and politicians. One troubling example to the contrary involves Nobel Laureate physicist Werner Heisenberg who was a central figure in the Nazi effort to build a nuclear weapon. Johnson states that scientists have tried to exonerate Heisenberg by claiming that he only participated in an attempt to slow down progress.

“Nothing in Baggott’s exhaustive scrutiny supports such a conclusion. It seems more likely that Heisenberg was so thoroughly part of German society that he could not imagine becoming an outcast: he would be a patriot, would go with the flow, even if that meant Nazism. Perhaps the most telling detail is that, to get his letter to Himmler, instead of going through the normal bureaucratic channels he gave it to his mother to pass on. When your mum’s a friend of Himmler’s mum, you really are embedded.”

A naive trust in your fellow man is always a good way to cause trouble.

“Iraq had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and denied it had been developing nukes. But after the Gulf War ceasefire in 1991 an IAEA inspection team at Tuwaitha, Iraq’s main nuclear research facility, found that a great deal of equipment and documentation had been removed to undisclosed destinations. Despite this, Blix was willing to authorise a report that said: ‘We’ve looked, there’s nothing there.’ Two Americans on the team refused to sign it, and US satellites found evidence of weapons production. The IAEA team then carried out an inspection without notice....In the end the Iraqis had to admit they’d lied. According to one of the inspectors, Blix ‘looked thunderstruck. It was absolutely a new concept to him that a nation-state would lie to a UN official. He had a religious experience.’ At which point, two things happened. Saddam ordered the destruction of his WMD, irrespective of their state of development, and that the work be carried out in secret; and the Americans resolved never to trust Blix again. The eventual result was the second Gulf War.”

The first President Bush cancelled weapon systems, retired warheads and scaled back nuclear war readiness.

“It was perhaps Bush’s finest moment, though it’s only fair to add that his secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, did everything he could to block such moves towards nuclear peace....Cheney found himself in a far more sympathetic environment in the administration of George W. Bush, which was bent on taking a large step backwards in arms control.”

The Silly: A world without nuclear weapons is a desirable goal, but after sixty-five years of demonstrations that possessing nuclear weapons provides influence and power to nations, it is clear that any path to elimination will be long and arduous.

“Rhodes is a true believer in non-proliferation and, indeed, in the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. Possessing them, he says, is soon likely to be made a crime against humanity. The same spirit informs the Evans and Kawaguchi report, which lists the steps that can and should be taken towards that end.”

“I do not dissent from the desirability of that aim, but I suspect it is wrong-headed to believe that designating the possession of nuclear arms a crime against humanity would make the slightest difference. Mankind does not uninvent things. It is true that the US and USSR refused to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam and Afghanistan, but these were only colonial wars. Does anyone doubt that they (or Israel or North Korea) would use such weapons if their own survival was at stake?”

“The truth is that there is an enormous appetite for nuclear weapons in the developing world. Moreover, it’s no coincidence that all the permanent members of the UN Security Council are nuclear powers.”

Johnson leaves us with a rather optimistic thought relevant to the continuing existence of nuclear weapons.

“There are at least a few shreds of evidence to suggest that the responsibility of having the bomb may even have taught us a little wisdom.”

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