The Wise Men and The Bomb

Some of the leading figures of the atomic age argue for a dramatic reduction in nuclear weapons — ultimately down to zero. Why?

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

In his resignation speech as director of Los Alamos National Laboratory in October, 1945, after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the physicist Robert Oppenheimer expressed doubts about a world living in the shadow of the bomb. The scene is nicely described in the 2005 biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. As thousands listened, Oppenheimer, speaking in a low, quiet voice, said he hoped in the years ahead everyone would take pride in their wartime accomplishments. Then he declared:

"Today that pride must be tempered with a profound concern. If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenal of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima."

After the war, Oppenheimer, who led the team that built and tested the first atomic bomb, warned of a nuclear arms race, the impossibility of defense against the bomb in war, and the need for international control of the atom. His concerns, and those of fellow scientists, were shared in a slim but potent volume which became a bestseller in 1946, One World or None: A Report to the Public on the Full Meaning of the Atomic Bomb, republished in 2007.

There’s something about the bomb, something so mighty and mysterious, that many who have known of its immense destructive power and worked to restrain it have come away profoundly affected by the experience. At the dawn of the atomic age, it was the Oppenheimer generation of physicists.

In his introduction to the new edition of One World or None, the nuclear historian Richard Rhodes asks the question of why the scientists grasped so well the "radically new nuclear future" when others did not. The answer: "The scientists had done the numbers." They understood that the energy released in the fission of one uranium atom was on the order of 200 million electron volts. In contrast, ordinary chemical burning-the process in fire, for example-releases about one electron volt per atom. The physicists realized this huge difference in scale could forever change the nature of nations and war.

Many others came to share their fears. At a time of deep tensions with Moscow in 1983, Ronald Reagan watched a made-for-television movie, The Day After, while at Camp David. In his diary, Reagan wrote of the film:  "It has Lawrence, Kansas wiped out in a nuclear war with Russia. It is powerfully done… very effective & left me greatly depressed…"

At the end of the Cold War, Gen. George Lee Butler, who retired in 1994 as commander of U.S. nuclear forces, called for abolition of nuclear weapons. In a speech at the National Press Club in 1996, Butler said, "We’re not condemned to repeat the lessons of 40 years at the nuclear brink." He added: "Standing down nuclear arsenals requires only a fraction of the ingenuity and resources as were devoted to their creation."

Now come four prominent wise men of the American defense and foreign policy establishment with a new film, Nuclear Tipping Point, warning about the still-present threat of nuclear weapons and the fissile materials that go into them. They are George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former secretaries of state, William Perry, former secretary of defense, and Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who served 24 years in the Senate and was chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

The film is narrated by actor Michael Douglas, written and directed by Ben Goddard, and was produced by the Nuclear Security Project. The project is coordinated by the Nuclear Threat Initiative based in Washington, a group working to reduce the risks of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, in cooperation with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. NTI is co-chaired by Nunn and Ted Turner, the CNN founder turned philanthroper-activist.

This is an advocacy film, intended to galvanize the public. Perhaps with that in mind, it presents the threat more in terms of nuclear terrorism than proliferation of weapons to states like Iran and North Korea. The four men share Barack Obama’s vision for a world without nukes, but, like the president, they see it as a long way off. Their detailed recommendations, which they have spelled out in a series of op-eds in the Wall Street Journal, include deeper reductions in arsenals of all nuclear states, taking some missiles off launch-ready alert, eliminating the short-range or tactical nuclear weapons, and locking up stocks of nuclear materials.

Their message, as Nunn puts it in the film, is that "if you view the goal of getting to zero as the top of the mountain in terms of nuclear weapons, then we can’t even see the top of the mountain today. We’re heading down. We’re not heading up. It’s going to take a long time to see the top of the mountain. But I think we have an obligation to our children and to our grandchildren to build paths up the mountain, to get other people to go up the mountain with us…"

In an effort to connect with viewers, the film is sprinkled with stock footage of bombs exploding, rockets being launched, missiles on parade, and a scene that looks like terrorists stealing nuclear materials. But the most effective part of the film, and its purpose, are a series of simple interviews against a black backdrop in front of the camera with the four men, all deeply involved in nuclear-weapons policy and arms control.

Shultz was at Reagan’s side during the Reykjavik summit, where Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev came close to agreement on eliminating nuclear weapons altogether. Perry was under secretary of defense under Jimmy Carter, and defense secretary for Bill Clinton. In the Senate, Nunn pushed to reduce the risks of accidental nuclear war, and later authored legislation to secure nuclear weapons and materials after the Soviet collapse.

Now, like Oppenheimer, they want us to wake up to new risks and dangers.

Is this a case of remorse, like Robert McNamara on Vietnam? Not really. These are cold warriors reminding us that circumstances have changed, and the war is over. The Soviet Union is gone. They don’t address the wisdom of the superpower arms race, nor re-examine their own roles and decisions. They simply argue it is time to get on with cleaning up the legacy.

Consider Kissinger. For many years he was concerned with how a nuclear war would be fought. He authored a book in 1957, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, at a time Americans were worried about falling behind the Soviets. Sputnik was launched that October. In the book, Kissinger outlined possible strategies for national security in the atomic era. He saw a world in which there would not be a single massive nuclear retaliatory strike, as was the doctrine of the Eisenhower years, but rather local wars, in which nuclear weapons might be used.

"War between nuclear powers," Kissinger wrote at the time, "has to be planned on the assumption that it is likely to be a nuclear war. Nuclear war should be fought as something less than an all-out war. Limited nuclear war represents our most effective strategy against nuclear powers or against a major power which is capable of substituting manpower for technology." He added, "Such a strategy is not simple or easy to contemplate."

Kissinger went on to help Nixon build détente and sign the first major treaties to restrain nuclear weapons with the Soviets. Behind the scenes, in keeping with his earlier work, Kissinger also pushed for procedures and plans that would give the president more flexible options for limited nuclear strikes in the event of a conflict.

In the film, Kissinger talks not of waging nuclear war, but of the consequences.

"I have been writing about nuclear weapons for over 50 years now. I tried to apply traditional diplomatic principles to a world with nuclear weapons and I found it almost imp — I would say impossible to do. So the consequences have to be looked at on two levels. One is, technically, what happens if, say, a 20-kiloton weapon hits downtown New York? And that’s a very small weapon. Most of the hospitals, most of the medical facilities, most of the power, most of the bridges, most of the communications would be gone."

"There’s a second level, namely, what do people think happened that permitted such casualties to occur, and what will they demand of their government, they will probably say, globally, if this can’t be prevented, what’s the use of any government?"

In the film, Nunn returns to a topic that has concerned him for years — the danger of accidental launch or miscalculation. At the peak of the Cold War, a president would have only minutes to decide on a course of action after receiving a warning of a nuclear attack. In the 1980s, Nunn and John Warner, the outgoing Virginia Republican senator, proposed creating risk-reduction centers in the United States and Soviet Union to share information in a crisis. In 1987, the United States and the Soviet Union signed an agreement establishing Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers in Washington and Moscow. Nunn and Warner had also suggested a more ambitious effort, but it was not adopted.

In his recently-published Nuclear Posture Review, setting down nuclear weapons policy for the next five to 10 years, Obama decided not to take intercontinental ballistic missiles off alert. But in the film, Nunn makes a strong appeal for doing so, giving a president more time to make a decision and avoid a mistake. The land-based missiles are generally on four-minute alert and submarines 12 minutes.

"Now, people would assume that cannot be, the Cold War is over," Nunn says in the film. "Are we still in that posture? The answer is, we are. The number of weapons on quick launch on both sides is something to me that is absolutely ridiculous, bordering on insanity… And if we have, let’s say, four, five minutes’ warning now, we ought to double it, and once we get to 10 minutes, we ought to go to 20, and then to 40, and then to 60, and then to hours, and then days, and nuclear weapons become less relevant."

Nunn adds, "It’s awful hard to cooperate in the true sense of the word, to be partners in the true sense of the word, it’s hard to do that when you’re still pointing thousands of weapons at each other with very little warning time and when both sides fear a first strike from the other. Those things simply don’t go together. So we’ve got to change the psychology. We’ve got to back off some of the concepts we had during the Cold War. We’ve got to understand that the threat has changed."

These are the words of men who lived with the Cold War that began in Oppenheimer’s day. Today, they are all in the twilight of their careers, no longer in public office. Surely they will have more to say, someday, about the events they witnessed, and their own choices. For now, they are sober and realistic in talking about the future, and we ought to listen to them carefully.

 Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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