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Jason Epstein on the Nuclear Threat
Posted on Oct 18, 2007
On the eve of the Iraq war, Richard Perle, expounding the revolutionary essence of the Bush Doctrine, wrote: “Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror is about to end. He will go quickly but not alone ... he will take the UN down with him. ... What will die is the fantasy of the UN as the foundation of a new world order ... the liberal conceit of safety through international law administered by international institutions,” echoing perhaps inadvertently the disdain for the liberal conceit of the League of Nations by the would-be empires of the 1930s: Japan over its conquest of Manchuria, Germany over its occupation of the Ruhr, and Italy over its invasion of Ethiopia. What Perle saw instead of the liberal conceit of international law was an American new world order sustained not by treaty but by power: the fantasy of an American empire which for the moment lies smoldering in the wreckage of the Bush administration.
The United States and Russia hold nearly all the 27,000 nuclear weapons that currently exist, the larger part belonging to Russia while the American holdings are being modernized as a smaller but more powerful and flexible force. Further reductions are promised. But this démarche reflects more efficient packaging, not a significant reduction of overkill. A redesigned weapon the size of an artillery shell can now vaporize a major city: A few of them would obliterate New York or Los Angeles. A hundred or so would destroy life on Earth. With the Cold War ended, however, the purpose of these weapons has become obscure. With Talmudic intensity, Schell examines the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review of 2001 to learn the strategic policy by which these thousands of refurbished weapons are to be disposed. But “when it came to describing what mission the still immense arsenal would serve, the document [withdraws] into extreme generalities.” Nevertheless, from the “verbal mist of the NPR the ... purpose of the American nuclear arsenal in the post Cold War era emerged: to dissuade, deter, defeat or annihilate—preventively, preemptively or in retaliation—any nation or other grouping of people ... that militarily opposed or dreamed of opposing the United States.”
The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger
By Jonathan Schell
Metropolitan Books, 272 pages
Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race
By Richard Rhodes
Knopf, 400 pages
But for all his effort Schell still cannot say how an arsenal of 10,000 or so nuclear weapons, equal to several million Hiroshimas, can implement such a policy, nor can Linton Brooks, who served until January 2007 as director of the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons infrastructure. Before he took this post, Brooks helped produce the January 2001 National Institute of Public Policy study “Rationale and Requirements for Nuclear Forces and Arms Control,” which was regarded by many observers as a blueprint for George W. Bush’s 2002 Nuclear Posture Review. He was nevertheless dismissed by the Department of Energy in January 2007, not because he was unable to answer Schell’s question of how these weapons may be used in any future war, but because he was held responsible for security lapses at the country’s nuclear labs. Otherwise he seems to have been an industrious administrator who ordered his staff to “examine advanced [thermonuclear] concepts that could contribute to our nation’s security. ...” He went on to say: “We must ... ensure that we close any gaps that may have opened in the past decade in our understanding of the possible military applications of atomic energy. No novel nuclear weapons concept developed by any other nation should ever come as a technical surprise to us.” For Frank von Hippel, a physicist and arms control specialist at Princeton, these orders were “really very distressing. They’re saying, ‘Go after it guys. We’re back in the fifties. Come up with all the crazy ideas you can, if there are any left out there.’ This is fossil Cold War mentality surfacing again.”
Yet Linton Brooks for all his insider’s knowledge confesses in a speech he gave in January 2007 at a Lawrence Livermore-Los Alamos Conference that he too doesn’t know what these militarily useless weapons are for. “The biggest question in the area of doctrine and operations—indeed arguably the most important question facing us in any nuclear area—is the fundamental purpose or purposes of nuclear weapons in the 21st Century. I’m not thinking of the assure, dissuade, deter and defeat typology. It is fine at the conceptual level. Rather I think we lack consensus on the concrete types of situations (other than the residual role in deterring large scale attack from Russia) in which nuclear weapons are relevant.”
Since even Brooks himself doesn’t know what to do with these infinitely destructive weapons, the obvious answer is multilateral nuclear disarmament under strict international control. From a technological point of view, abolition is simply a matter of dismantling the warheads and sequestering the fissile material, far simpler for example than preventing AIDS or preserving what is left of the atmosphere. The real problem is dismantling the multilateral nuclear bureaucracy, for, as Schell admits, “now as then [when Truman decided to drop the bomb] the easier thing is to go with the momentum.” Brooks ends his talk to the nuclear establishment by telling it not to worry. We may not know what we’re doing but your jobs are safe: “The political conditions for abolition are unlikely and the technology to verify abolition does not exist.” Mr. Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency might dispute the latter point, and political conditions do change and soon will. Perhaps in Richard Rhodes’ fourth and final volume we can all share the optimism that proved premature in his present book, or perhaps not.
Jason Epstein is former editorial director of Random House and the first recipient of the National Book Award for Distinguished Service to American Letters. He has edited many well-known writers, including Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov, E.L. Doctorow, Philip Roth, and Gore Vidal. He also edited McGeorge Bundy’s “Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years” and Robert Scheer’s “With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War.”
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