The Seventh Decade

The New Shape of Nuclear Danger

by Jonathan Schell


The Seventh Decade

The New Shape of Nuclear Danger

by Jonathan Schell

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Chapter 1
The Seventh Decade

“He said with great seriousness that the existence of nuclear arms made a secure and rational world impossible.”
—David Ormsby-Gore,
British ambassador to the United States, reporting to London on a conversation with his friend President John F. Kennedy at the height of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.1

The nuclear age has entered its seventh decade. If it were a person, it would be thinking about retirement—reckoning up its pension funds, weighing different medical plans. But historical periods, unlike human lives, have no fixed limit, and the nuclear age is in fact displaying youthful vigor. The birth of nuclear weapons in 1945 opened a wide, unobstructed pathway to the end of the world. Along that route was an end to cities, an end to countries, an end to continents, an end to human life itself. Sometimes one of these perils has moved to the fore, sometimes another, but all have continuously cast their shadows over the earth. After the end of the Cold War, the world’s nuclear arsenals seemed to have been tamed to a certain extent, but now they are growling and baring their teeth again. Indeed, the bomb is staging a revival, as if to declare: the twenty-first century, like the one before it, belongs to me.*

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union made every preparation for annihilation but held back from the final step—launching their globe-wrecking arsenals. With the Cold War’s end, those stockpiles were reduced, and the threat of apocalypse receded. But even as the number of warheads was declining the number of nations that possessed such weapons was growing. Nuclear danger, it seemed, did not so much wane as change shape. There were fewer bombs but they were in more hands. The bomb’s potential, recognized by all informed observers from the first days of the nuclear age, not only to threaten life on Earth but also, as the deadly know-how spread, to spring up at any point of the compass, was advancing toward realization. In that respect, the bomb is only now truly coming into its own. Having outgrown its parochial Cold War breeding ground, it is moving to take up residence in every part of the globe. India, Pakistan, and North Korea have acquired nuclear arsenals. China, a nuclear power since 1964, is doing likewise. Pakistan now targets India, while India targets Pakistan and, perhaps, China, in a new three-way nuclear arms race. Soon after North Korea’s first nuclear test, on October 9, 2006, the prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, called for his country to open a new discussion regarding his country’s decision to do without nuclear weapons. Iran has embarked on a program to create nuclear power fuels that would carry it most of the distance to having the bomb, and Iran’s neighbors in the Middle East are showing fresh interest in nuclear energy and weapon programs. Israel, which has possessed nuclear weapons since the late 1960s, continues to improve its delivery systems.

Unfortunately, the new sources of nuclear danger have by no means replaced the old ones. The Cold War antagonists, rather than dispatching their gigantic arsenals into the historical dustbin that swallowed their geopolitical struggle, have held on to them. What is more, they have begun to refurbish their warheads and delivery systems, build new generations of nuclear weapons, and redeploy and retarget them. The seminal event was the attack of September 11, 2001, which set in motion one of the few true revolutions in American nuclear policy since 1945. In a radical reversal of former practice, which had been to seek to stop the spread of nuclear weapons through diplomacy and treaties, the United States now turned to military means, including overthrow of the offending governments—“regime change.” This policy was a corollary of a far more ambitious one, rightly called imperial by supporters and detractors alike, of asserting “unchallengeable” American military dominance over the entire globe. One result was the Iraq war, launched in the name of dismantling weapons of mass destruction and programs for building of them, of which the most dangerous was said to be an active nuclear program. Confusingly, Iraq, which of course had no such weapons or programs, turned out not to be an example of the evil in question; yet the idea of stopping proliferation by force, though as yet practiced nowhere else, has continued to enjoy wide acceptance and continues to inform policy.

Far less visible but no less important has been an equally radical change in American nuclear strategic policy—that is, the guidance given the United States’ nuclear forces. To the old Cold War targets have been added new ones in the third world. The Nuclear Posture Review of late 2002 specifically assigned nuclear weapons a counterproliferation role, soon rendered operational in a new Pentagon command called Global Strike, whose mission is to deliver “conventional or nuclear” strikes on any target anywhere on the planet at a moment’s notice. Other Western nations have followed suit, declaring that state supporters of terrorist groups around the world are fitting targets for attack by their nuclear forces. France opposed the Iraq war, but it is building a new, nuclear-capable bomber, the Rafale, and a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, and its former president, Jacques Chirac, has declared that terrorist threats to France may be met with a nuclear response. The British government has similarly announced that Britain will replace its fleet of aging nuclear-armed submarines with a new, improved model, whose Trident missiles are to be purchased, like the last ones, from the United States. Britain, too, cited the dangers of proliferation and terrorism as reasons for remaining nuclear armed deep into the twenty-first century.

The old and new arsenals have thus begun to hone in on one another, as nuclear weapons always do, missile targeting missile, bomb countering bomb. A highly volatile and violent contest—no longer bipolar but global—between some of the existing possessors of the bomb and new entrants or petitioners to the club, who hope to “deter” the great ones with tiny but potent arsenals, has begun to churn international affairs. Already, it has helped to produce the misbegotten American invasion of Iraq, launched in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that weren’t there, and could in time produce other wars—with Iran, North Korea, or countries as yet unknown. As in the Cold War, the nuclear danger has become an axle around which the wheel of geopolitical events is turning.

In an inseparably related and long-predicted development, the world is also awash in nuclear-weapon technology, adding a new dimension to the dangers of proliferation, and raising the terrifying specter of a terrorist group that acquires and uses a nuclear weapon, or perhaps several of them, to lash out against a great city somewhere in the world. Tens of thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands of people might die. The city would be rendered uninhabitable by radiation for decades. If it were a national capital, the nation’s government could be destroyed. Beyond these direct consequences lie indirect ones that are no less real for being veiled in great uncertainty. For example, if the country were the United States, would the government survive? What emergency measures might it adopt, and for how long? Would the Constitution remain in effect, and, if it were suspended, would it ever be restored? Would liberty around the globe be taken away by governments straining every nerve to prevent new attacks? Would terror-stricken populations of other cities flee to the countryside? Might the global economy collapse? Although such an attack, involving only one or a few of the world’s twenty-seven thousand or so existing nuclear warheads, would be the merest fraction of the kind of global holocaust that seemed so near at hand during the Cold War, its consequences bring us to a verge beyond which the imagination falters.

Talking Our Extinction to Death

Yet while the bomb has been showing fresh energy, the people have grown tired. Even as the bomb was setting forth on new, worldwide adventures, the issue of the bomb was acquiring a stale, anachronistic air in the public mind, a sort of 1960s feeling, as if a youth entering his prime were forced to go abroad in antique clothing. One reason for the waning attention has been the peculiar structure of the nuclear dilemma, which tends to circumvent ordinary mechanisms of response to danger. Consider the ways in which it differs from global warming—the only other catastrophe on the horizon whose consequences are in the same league with a nuclear holocaust. The two perils have a great deal in common. Both are the fruit of swollen human power—in the one case, the destructive power of war; in the other, the productive power of fossil-fuel energy. Both put stakes on the table of a magnitude never present before in human decision making. Both threaten life on a planetary scale. Both require a fully global response. Anyone concerned by the one should be concerned with the other. It would be a shame to save the Earth from slowly warming only to burn it up in an instant in a nuclear war.

Yet the two menaces obtrude in life in very different ways. Global warming has conformed to a pattern that is familiar from other gathering dangers, such as the AIDS epidemic or the threat to the ozone layer from man-made chemicals. First, the peril appears and is disclosed to the world in specialized journals and to a certain extent in the press but is largely ignored by politicians and the public. Then the evidence grows, and alarm increases. As the predictions begin to come true, frightening reading material is supplemented by disturbing concrete experiences. In the case of global warming, these have included hotter summers, more frequent and powerful hurricanes, rising sea levels, more flooding in low-lying areas and more drought elsewhere, vanishing species, disintegrating coral reefs, melting glaciers and polar ice. Photographic evidence becomes available, and the problem can be shown on television—or made into a film, such as former vice president Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Apathy and denial now have a potent competitor in the pressure of events. The question, complex in practice but simple in principle, becomes whether the unpleasant initial consequences can inspire political action fast enough to head off utter calamity later on.

No such sequence has been exhibited in the evolution of the nuclear danger. The most important reason is that the transition from warning to experience has not—most fortunately—occurred. No nuclear weapon has been exploded in anger since the destruction of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Instead, a welcome if tenuous “tradition of nonuse” has developed. To be sure, the worldwide buildup of the machinery of nuclear power and nuclear war has exacted a significant medical and environmental price. The fallout from nuclear tests has caused a worldwide increase in deaths from cancer. The Chernobyl disaster of 1986, in which a nuclear power plant exploded in Ukraine, contaminated several hundred square miles of the surrounding territory with radiation. Nuclear wastes from both nuclear weapon production and nuclear plants, some of which will remain radioactive for as long as a million years, are heaping up around the world, and no one is certain what to do with them over the long run. However, grave as these costs may be, they obviously have not had the overwhelming impact on the public mind that would be produced by the sudden, colossal devastation of a nuclear war, which continues to hide its face.

In this singular situation, in which nuclear war has yet to happen, and so sheer foresight is asked to play the role usually played by punishing experience, the awful facts of nuclear life have repeatedly been taught and learned, only to be forgotten again, in a pattern of boom and bust. In 1945, many of the scientists in the United States who created the bomb in the wartime Manhattan Project tried to make use of their authority to wage a campaign to educate the public about nuclear arms and to call for their elimination. From them, the world learned that an aspirin-size quantity of mass, when released as energy in a nuclear explosion, can, in obedience to Einstein’s law that the energy released from a split atom equals mass times the speed of light squared (E=mc2), level a city. It learned that any city on Earth could be destroyed, together with its population, by a nuclear weapon of the appropriate size. It learned that although the United States was the first to acquire an atomic bomb, other nations would be able to do the same before long, and that the bomb could be mass produced. However, with the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s, fear of the Soviet Union eclipsed fear of the bomb in Western opinion, and awareness of the nuclear danger faded.

It revived after the explosion of the first H-bomb by the United States, on November 1, 1952, on Eniwetok atoll, in the South Pacific, followed by the first Soviet H-bomb test, called “Joe 1,” after the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, less than a year later. The moral issues raised by weapons that could kill tens of millions of people in an instant weighed on the public mind. Using a newly current word, a majority of the General Advisory Committee created by President Harry S. Truman to counsel him on whether or not to build the H-bomb—a weapon that could release hundreds of times the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb—warned that it “might become a weapon of genocide.”2 A lively antinuclear movement developed on both sides of the Atlantic. Statesmen, too, spoke in a new tone of awed horror. Winston Churchill, who had embraced the A-bomb, now found that “there is an immense gulf between the atomic and the hydrogen bomb.” For “the atomic bomb, with all its terrors, did not carry us outside the scope of human control or manageable events in thought or in action, in peace or war. But [with the H-bomb], the entire foundation of human affairs was revolutionized, and mankind placed in a situation both measureless and laden with doom.”3

Yet even this somber awareness faded, and, after the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis in the autumn of 1962 and the signing in 1963 of a treaty banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere, once again died away. Widespread public concern about the nuclear danger did not revive until the early 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan’s nuclear buildup and the breakdown of arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union inspired a “nuclear freeze” movement. Teams of physicians toured the country with slide shows depicting how just a few hundred such weapons targeted on American cities could wipe out two-thirds of the population of the United States; how a single Ohio-class submarine, with its twenty-four Trident ballistic missiles capable of carrying almost two hundred warheads, was a nation- or continent-smashing boat; how a “nuclear winter,” in which dust and smoke would be hurled into the atmosphere by nuclear explosions, would bring on a catastrophic cooling of the earth; and how the other global ecological effects of nuclear war would put the world’s ecosphere, including its human component, at risk. But when, in the mid-1980s, arms control negotiations resumed and Cold War tensions began to wane, the awareness yet again died away, in obedience to the familiar pattern.

With the Cold War’s end, consciousness of the dilemma sank to its lowest ebb yet, apparently in the mistaken belief that the Cold War and the nuclear predicament had been one and the same, and that the end of the first must mean the end of the second. Liquidation of the global quarrel did indeed increase the world’s safety as well as permit a continued reduction of nuclear arsenals. But at the same time it left immense arsenals in place. The issue of nuclear arms had died but the nuclear arms themselves remained, now curiously untethered from political justifications for their existence. Meanwhile, a new, post–Cold War generation, largely innocent of nuclear knowledge, was growing up. Its elders, having dropped the issue themselves, also forgot to impart even the most basic information regarding nuclear matters to their children. The press neglected the issue, as did schools at every level. And so to elderly amnesia was added an ocean of fresh, young, pure ignorance. The moment of greatest opportunity for disarmament since 1945 thus became the moment of least action.

Looking at this record, which contrasts so sharply with the responses to other dangers of global consequence, it seems as if Robert Lowell’s line from his poem “Fall, 1961,” written at the height of the Berlin crisis, had finally come true: “We have talked our extinction to death.” He meant, of course, that the talking, not the threat of extinction, had died. Like a bone stuck in the world’s throat, nuclear weapons, neither detonated nor discarded, by the 1990s appeared to have installed themselves in a kind of limbo. Known to all yet somehow forgotten, lying in plain sight yet unseen, feared and yet deeply accepted, the bomb—evidently an even more inconvenient truth than global warming—seemed to have gravitated, as if guided by a genius all its own, to some location in the human order to which neither the mind nor heart nor will could follow. Worse, in addition to its destructive physical effects, from the thermal pulse to the shock wave to radiation sickness to ozone depletion to nuclear winter, it seemed to possess a capacity to disable every effort to come to grips with it—to blur the vision that tried to see it, to fog the minds that tried to grasp it, to numb the feelings that might register its human significance. To the nuclear dilemma, then, must be added what might be called the dilemma of the nuclear dilemma—the unique riddle of the vacillating, intermittent, and currently stalled human encounter, now more than sixty years old, with what is still the only technology that can put an end to all human beings.

A New Wave of Concern?

Today, however, as nuclear danger continues to mount, there are signs that another bout of public concern may be in the offing. For one thing, the recent rise in awareness of global warming may indirectly call attention to its forgotten elder nuclear sibling in the family of planetary threats. For another, the revolution in nuclear policy inaugurated by the Bush administration after September 11 has taken a severe beating at the hands of events. Proliferation and terrorism, including the nuclear variety, were and remain growing dangers, but the measures the administration chose to deal with them turn out to have been based on misconceptions. One was the apparent assumption, by no means restricted to this administration, that nuclear danger arose only from the spread of nuclear weapons, not from existing arsenals. A second was the conviction that proliferation could be stopped on a global basis by the application of overwhelming force. A third was the belief that the deed could be accomplished by an international community whose leading nations were themselves nuclear powers and were determined to remain so. And all three of these misconceptions were entangled in the more comprehensive misconception that the world of the twenty-first century could be managed by the unilateral decisions of a single power, the United States.

The miscarriage of the Iraq war, North Korea’s nuclear test, and the persistence of Iran’s nuclear program, among many other developments, have pulled the rug out from under each of these propositions, and there is a palpable need for rethinking across the board and for new nuclear policies. Many recent studies have been devoted to ideas for addressing the proliferation threat, but most of them seem to share the assumption that the nuclear danger consists wholly of the acquisition of nuclear arms by new parties. Few address the problem of existing arsenals. Fewer still address the connections between proliferation and possession. This book will do so. It will consider the nuclear dilemma as an indivisible whole as it enters its seventh decade. I shall argue that proliferation and possession cannot be considered in isolation from each other; that a solution to the former requires dealing with the latter; and that this can only mean a commitment to the elimination of all nuclear arms.

That vision—as old as the nuclear age itself—has recently won fresh support in a surprising quarter. In an article in the Wall Street Journal in January 2007, former secretary of state George P. Shultz, former secretary of defense William J. Perry, former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, and former senator Sam Nunn—about as impressive a chunk of the nuclear establishment in the United States as could be represented by four authors—called for “a world free of nuclear weapons.”4 The article, which was also endorsed by dozens of other former officials, also reminded readers that the most ardent defender of nuclear abolition ever to occupy the White House was a conservative Republican, President Ronald Reagan. Breaking with nuclear orthodoxy, which has held that a large nuclear arsenal is a necessity for the indefinite future, the authors endorsed the goal of eliminating nuclear arms. A recent poll has shown that 66 percent of the American public agree.5 The article noted that when this idea had been championed by President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the Reykjavik summit in 1986, it had “shocked many officials.” Since some of the signers and supporters of the article had been among the shocked (Shultz, who as secretary of state was present at the summit, is a notable exception), the shift in mainstream official opinion seems significant.

However that may be, any fresh effort to seriously tackle the nuclear dilemma will face a formidable array of new obstacles and puzzles along with many of the old ones. The bomb, always a Pandora’s box of deceptions and self-deceptions, has added new disguises, mask upon mask. It is obvious that nuclear dangers are real and again growing, but the policies that have generated them have become more convoluted and obscure. It is not easy to determine why Britain is about to spend £20 billion to rebuild its nuclear forces from the ground up by renewing its Trident submarine system, its only nuclear weapon platform. Why does France need to improve its arsenal? In order to attack whom? It is perhaps even more difficult to explain why, almost twenty years after the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia still insist on holding each other’s populations hostage to nuclear annihilation. It is scarcely less tricky to fathom the relationship of nuclear policy to antiterror policy, two things that seem to have fused in the minds of the administration of President George W. Bush. Are nuclear arsenals truly an appropriate instrument for stopping nuclear proliferation or nuclear terrorism? Or, on the contrary, do they encourage these dangers? No less riddlesome is the relationship of America’s nuclear arsenal to its global power. Does the bomb, once called “the absolute weapon,” enhance American power or is its existence on the contrary now a source of weakness, as Shultz and his coauthors intimate in their article?

It would be convenient if the nuclear dilemma consisted simply of a definite, concrete set of dangers posed by certain states, but it is not so. Nuclear policy has always been a scene of rampant illusion and obfuscation, and just recently the maze’s trap doors, dead ends, false bottoms, illusory exits, mirages, and misleading appearances have multiplied. By comparison, the Cold War order, for all its doom-laden contradictions and icy paradoxes, now seems almost a model of clarity and rationality. Certainly, no understanding of the current moment in the nuclear story is possible without first unraveling the new snarl of confusion added by the evasions, misunderstandings, distortions, factual errors, and missteps of the Bush administration as well as other governments in recent years. In sum, the policies of the the United States and the other nuclear powers have become less intelligible, less feasible, more self-contradictory, more liable to self-defeat, more drastically at odds with the basic realities of the nuclear age, and more prone to catastrophe than at any time since 1945. In consequence, the world as a whole drifts toward what some have termed “nuclear anarchy.” Not since the world’s second nuclear bomb was dropped on Nagasaki has history’s third use of a nuclear weapon seemed more likely.

The Limits of Theory

How did we arrive at this point more than six decades into the nuclear age? Even as the protean flexibility and remarkable staying power of the bomb seem to have worn out its opponents, the long historical record thereby created does offer new advantages for understanding. The most important of these may be that in broad areas historical guidance can now take over from the prescriptions of abstract thought. The fortunate absence of actual nuclear conflict during the Cold War created a vacuum of direct experience, which for decades was filled chiefly by a profusion of war gaming and strategic theories composed in academia and in think tanks. At their core was the doctrine of deterrence, whose central teaching was that a nation could defend itself against nuclear arms only by possessing nuclear arms or allying itself with a nation that did. Any power contemplating nuclear attack, the doctrine taught, would be confronted with its own annihilation and hold back.

The answers to many important questions still remain hidden behind the veil created by the tradition of nonuse. For example, no one knows how a nuclear war would actually develop, since none has ever occurred. (The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nuclear attacks, but Japan, of course, was unable to respond in kind.) Could such a war, once under way, be restrained, or would it run to its limit? Theory can offer its answers, but they are only speculation. The consequences of a large-scale nuclear attack are even more imponderable than those of a terrorist use of a single weapon. Would it disable electrical equipment all over the world through the creation of an electromagnetic pulse, devastate the ozone layer, bring on nuclear winter, or otherwise impair or ruin the global ecosphere?* Judgments can be hazarded on each of these perils, but they will be misleading unless accompanied by a confession of vast uncertainties. What would the extent of the devastation be? Would the injured or devastated nation retaliate if it could? How would the world respond to the event or to the retaliation? Might the conflagration become general?

On the other hand, an abundance of historical experience bears on an array of other essential questions that press on us with new urgency today. Perhaps the most obvious of them—though the hardest to answer—is why states want nuclear weapons. What advantages, if any, do they confer on their possessors? What are the liabilities of possession? Why do many states that are fully capable of producing the bomb nevertheless reject it? What accounts for the remarkable immunity of nuclear arsenals, once established, to political changes and reversals, including even globally revolutionary ones, such as the end of the Cold War? What relationship do existing arsenals have to proliferation? Which characteristics of the nuclear dilemma are unchangeable—written into what we might call its genetic code—and which are subject to historical change and so can bend to human will? Which policies, therefore, butt our heads against immovable realities and which might open the way to deliverance from nuclear danger? Which measures are likely to be successful in stopping proliferation? What role can diplomacy and treaties play in this effort? What can force accomplish? Above all, where should we look for the pathways that will provide what Mohammed ElBaradei, the chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has termed an “exit strategy from the nuclear age?” The six-decade record since Nagasaki is a rich storehouse of events, near events, terrors, opportunities, and missed opportunities that shed light on all of these critical questions.

In the foreground of our attention must be the bold nuclear policies of the Bush administration, but behind them lies a broader governing philosophy, or doctrine, behind which, in turn, lie important decisions made—as well as ones left unmade—during the post–Cold War era. And behind them lies the long experience of the Cold War and the much shorter period, a mere historical instant but full of consequence for the future, that lies between the first atomic bomb test, in Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, and the end of the Second World War, on September 2 of that same year. Let us start with that beginning and then, making use of the extended historical record now open to view, proceed forward to examine the self-made nuclear labyrinth in which we now wander lost.

Copyright © 2007 by Jonathan Schell