Thursday, September 27, 2007


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Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons
By Joseph Cirincione
Columbia University Press, 2007

As of this time, the United States has 10,000 nuclear weapons and has roughly half of them on a 15 minute alert. Russia has more than 15,000. Other countries around the world have thousands. Together, this destructive force can destroy our planet many hundred times over. Those who lived through the Cold War would find this scenario all too familiar and at the same time surreal. At a time when nuclear terrorism is causing paranoia in the world, this situation sounds nothing less than fantastic and unbelievable. If we pass this age with the preservation of our sanity, future generations will no doubt look back and wonder and ask; how did we get to this stage? What happened?

In this smart, succint and well-informed book, Joseph Cirincione, one of America's foremost WMD experts gives us a peek into the past, present and future of nuclear weapons. He tells us how a race against the Nazis- later proven to be non-existent- gave rise to the great power unleashed from within the atom by brilliant scientists. He briefly but thoughtfully captures the spirit of those times, and gives understandable and simple descriptions of the basic science behind the two main designs of atomic weapons. He also pays due attention to a lesser-known fact- the petitions that were unsuccessfully circulated by some scientists to try to stop the bombs from being used in Japan, efforts that failed in the face of political ambitions.

After this exposition, Cirincione launches into an account of the arms race during the Cold War. From reading this description, we realise that atomic bombs are much more a product of political paranoia and strategizing than sound science and policy decisions. While it is legitimate to understand the urgency that gripped the US during the Cold War in the face of a frightening foe, it is now quite certain that hawks in the US government urged the development of more atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs under the guise of having a ready arsenal for instant annihilation, while at least in the earlier stages of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was never interested in and indeed cowered away from fighting the US. In Khrushchev's words, Stalin "trembled and quivered" at the thought of a war with the US. All those fears of World War 3 were unjustified. Unfortunately, those fears gave rise to a burgeoning fleet of ever more deadly and efficient nuclear weapons in the US. This served as the perfect excuse for the Soviets, who then were given carte blanche to develop their own weapons.

Some numbers are instructive, and almost heartbreakingly convey how close the US was to negotiating arms treaties and stopping the growth of the nuclear monster that spwned all future problems and generations. The Soviets conducted their first test in the middle of 1949. At this point, the US had a couple of hundred atomic bombs, while the Russians essentially had none. This would have been a perfect time to try to bring about a test-ban treaty, that would have made any further development of nuclear weapons very difficult in the USSR, while guaranteeing the US a fleet of bombs adequate for deterrence. This belief is cemented by looking at the current arsenals of Britain and France; both of them have around 200-400 weapons, and they have always considered them sufficient for deterrence. In fact, right at the end of World War 2, General Leslie Groves who was the head of the Manhattan Project had drawn up a list of major Soviet cities that could be targets for atomic weapons, and concluded that about 200 bombs of the crude Hiroshima/Nagasaki type would be sufficient to destroy them. In 1950, the US had bombs with much improved efficiency, and even fewer would have been sufficient for deterrence. Unfortunately, hawks in the US such as Edward Teller pressed for more weapons. The anti-Communist McCarthy period convinced political leaders including Truman that more bombs must be developed to deter Russia. A great chance for securing peace was lost.

The rest is history; the US launched into H-bomb development and eschewed early possible test bans, thus giving the Russians the perfect chance and excuse to develop both fission bombs and hydrogen bombs. The strategic edge that the US had was rapidly lost and the Soviets caught up, because the law of diminishing marginal utility applies perfectly to nuclear weapons, and further testing and development helped the Soviets who were behind much more than the US who was already ahead. During the 1950s, as test ban treaties were constantly forestalled, the Russians made up for the atomic deficiency that they had in 1949. By the end of the 50s, they not only had many atomic bombs, but a delivery system (exemplified by Sputnik) that could potentially launch a missile carrying a thermonuclear warhead. The advantage that the US had was lost forever, and after this, Russia always would have thousands of nuclear weapons that would compete with the US for mutually assured destruction. However, it was only in the 1980s that the Russian stockpile exceeded that of the US. The stockpile of both powers reached grotesque proportions with tens of thousands of weapons, a number that went way beyond deterrence or any other rational doctrine, factually sufficient to destroy the whole earth thousands of times over. This was nothing short of insanity, whose fruits will be far reaching indeed.

Cirincione expertly gives accounts of these developments. He also gives an account of the various treaties that far-sighted members of the scientific community and government managed to implement, including most importantly the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, that prohibited nuclear testing underwater, on ground, and in the atmosphere. Probably the most important weapons treaty was the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signed by Lyndon Johnson. It is probably the one that promises the most hope for general weapons reductions around the globe. The one good thing that Richard Nixon did was the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the SALT treaty of the 1970s. After this, various US presidents and Russian premiers did their part in trying to implement treaties.
Probably the biggest failure in this regard was Ronald Reagan, who with his espousal of "Star Wars" and arms growth, aggravated the arms race more than any other president in history, but also financially bled the Russian economy. A new book on the arms race by that most authoritative nuclear historian Richard Rhodes is coming out in October, in which he describes how the young neo-conservatives Rumsefeld, Perle, and Wolfowitz convinced Reagan to not accept negotiations for arms reductions. The evil in the Bush administration has deep and insidious roots.

But it is really in analysing the reasons why states may or may not acquire nuclear weapons that Cirincione shines. Interestingly, the same reasons that may propel nations to possess nuclear weapons may convince them to give them up. In case of Britain and France for example, national prestige definitely played a role in weapons development; both proud nations wanted in some part to redeem the historic role that had played in the world over past centuries. Prestige and patriotism fuelled by the BJP was also a reason for India's nuclear tests in 1998. But the same reasons also encouraged South Africa and South Korea to give up weapons development; both throught they would set a model example in front of the world. The most common reason touted for possessing nuclear weapons, security, can also be a reason to not have them. Some states like South Korea and Brazil think that they appear much less antagonistic when they don't have these weapons. Countries certainly can also abandon such programs because they fear military aggression and political instability. In case of states like Iran, the situation clearly is different. In fact, promise of military assistance from the US can be important in convincing such countries to give up their own programs, like it did for Germany and South Korea. Security on the other hand clearly played a role in the Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons programs. Economic reasons constitute yet another major reason for weapons building. Countries may decide to abandon nuclear weapons in the face of fear of economic sanctions, as Libya did for example. One hopes that North Korea will be such a case. However, the case of India is also interesting in this context. It is now known that Homi Bhabha, the Indian nuclear architect, greatly downplayed the cost of building reactors and bombs, that encouraged the Indian government to provide funding and facilities for nuclear development.

The point that Cirincione makes on the basis of these myriad examples of countries that have either pursued or abandoned nuclear programs because of various reasons based on security, prestige, economics or politics, is that using sticks and carrots, nations can be induced to give up their nuclear ambitions. Clearly some nations need to give them up more than others, and this is something that needs to be understood.

Finally, Cirincione talks about the future; how the world can become a safe place in spite of there being nuclear weapons. In the matter of nuclear proliferation, there have been two camps and I have talked about them in detail in a past post; those who think that a little nuclear proliferation could actually increase security by deterrence, and those who think that only minimising nuclear arsenals and discouraging nations from obtaining them will make for a safe world. Cirincione makes it clear right at the beginning that he belongs to the second camp. For him, the goal is to reduce nuclear proliferation. He also importantly argues that, in the current scenarios of possible nuclear terrorism, stopping proliferation would be the most fruitful way forward.

Cirincione suggests cogent strategies to break through the pall of nuclear destruction. First and foremost, he has prescriptions for the US to lend credence to its suggestions to stop nuclear proliferation. It's simple. With 10,000 bombs, America clearly has a menace safely stashed in its backyard. In such a situation, any lesson denouncing nuclear proliferation that it tries to impart to the world is going to naturally sound hypocritical. On the other hand, I personally would be orders of magnitude more comfortable seeing nuclear weapons in the hands of the US rather than Pakistan or Brazil or many other countries. But it is at the same time completely disconcerting to have a country which along with Russia has been the biggest progenitor of the gargantuan killing power that straddles the world today trying to tell other countries to not have any nuclear weapons. Clearly, the US needs to still drastically scale down its nuclear stockpile. It then needs to let the UN and the IAEA decide nuclear policy. It needs to ratify the CTBT before it can set an example before other nations.

But the real repurcussions of measures needed to stop nuclear proliferation go deep, and remind us that individual problems cannot be divorced from general policy and especially foreign policy. Unfortunately, with George Bush's foreign policy, almost any recommendation that the US makes is likely to be pooh poohed. The US has to improve its image as a safeguarder of peace and also as a nation that truly desires peace. It and other countries will have to offer a healthy combination of carrots and sticks to other countries to relinquish their nuclear ambitions. The NPT should be modified and enforced and its tenets extended in whatever way possible to other countries. It is obvious that for any such action, wounds will have to be healed, to foster cooperation between the US and other nations.

At the same time, it is key to allow any country to adopt electricity from nuclear power if it so chooses, and nothing should come in the way of such development. Nuclear power promises to be a saviour in this era of declining fossil fuels, and only a system of international control can make nuclear material for peaceful applications available to all countries. No country should be able to have a unilateral say in such a system, and no special lobbies should be allowed to have a say in its workings. The crumbling and ineffectual structures of the UN and IAEA need to be revived and if necessary to be recast into a new organisation.

The most crucial issue of today's nuclear era is that of nuclear terrorism. Deterrence does not work for terrorist groups who clandestinely acquire nuclear material and then post a deadly package to another nation without a return address. While this problem is a particularly recalcitrant one and again goes much beyond its immediate features, its resolution crucially depends on securing nuclear material in states. Russia for example lost a considerable amount of nuclear material at the end of the Cold War that may be in terrorist hands. International cooperation advocated by Cirincione is necessary for working together to secure such material. Countries like Pakistan and Iran which are likely to funnel nuclear material into the hands of terrorists need to be marked and kept under constant watch. Every country needs to contribute funds to such an effort.

When I think about the problem of nuclear weapons, I am constantly fascinated, amused, as well as frustrated by how far its repurcussions go. The future of nuclear weapons seems to be intimately tied to the destiny of countries and to the vagaries of human nature. Their existence was conceived by collective human brilliance, and their future will depend on collective human wisdom. This future is deviously intertwined with the rise and fall of governments and civilizations. To secure such a future, we all have to work together. Perhaps a hundred years into the future, our descendents may think of nuclear weapons as a historical accident that passed. For that time, even the awareness that nuclear weapons are tied to national and human destiny will keep us alerted and go a long way.

Till then, we will be always standing on the shoulders of bombs, and gravestones of lost ideals and failed policies, but perhaps also under clouds of optimism and hope.



Blogger Patrix said...

I'll come back to read the post later but couldn't help commenting about this: the book cover looks like an ad for Target. If that book ever goes on 'Sale', the picture is complete.

7:54 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Haha...right on spot! I had not noticed that :))

8:40 AM  
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11:46 AM  

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