75 Years: Living With the “Device” *

By Doug Garnar

I was born on June 6, 1945 (D-Day plus one year). 40 days later, on July 16th, the world changed with the first successful test of a nuclear device. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the civilian leader of the Manhattan Project tasked to beat the Germans to developing a nuclear weapon, mused about his success using a quote from the Hindu scripture (Bhagavad-Gita), “Now I become death, the destroyer of worlds”. 21 days later a three day nuclear war began with the obliteration of Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. One side, having two nuclear weapons, used both while the other side had none and no defense. A week after the second bombing Japan sued for peace.

Less than a year later, a young intelligence officer, Bernard Brodie wrote an essay in a slender volume entitled, THE ABSOLUTE WEAPON: ATOMIC POWER AND WORLD ORDER. He made the following points:

  • The nuclear bomb was a weapon of unprecedent power
  • How to make such a device could not remain a secret
  • Once the secret is learned production of such a weapon would increase dramatically (Since 1945 over 125,000 bombs have been produced with the US accounting for 53%; the Soviets 44% and the remaining 3$ among a handful of other nations)
  • No defense could render such a weapon useless, citing an example of 101 German V-1 buzz bombs launched against London in late 1944—97 were destroyed but four reached their target causing Brodie to say what would London have looked like if they carried Hiroshima type bombs?
  • Brodie concluded that in the past the military establishment of all countries had been developed to wage war when called upon by the political leadership. But from now on the role the military will play is to DETER a war from breaking out

Atomic Cloud Over Hiroshima
George R. Caron / Public domain

Brodie’s ideas were not embraced by either of the Soviet Union or the US for decades. Meanwhile John Hersey’s 1946 book, HIROSHIMA, chronicling the lives of 6 Hiroshima survivors left quite a mark on anyone reading it. Two years late, a young medical naval officer, observing the 1946 Operation Crossroads nuclear tests at the Bikini atoll, wrote a book, NO PLACE TO HIDE. The lethal power of radiation was something the military had not counted on. And the Japanese film, “Hiroshima”, produced after American occupation ended, portrayed a very devastating view of the impact of the bombing on civilians.

Much of the subsequent history of how American political and military leaders responded to the bomb through the end of the Cold War in 1989 focused on how to make use of it. President Eisenhower who had opposed the use of the Hiroshima bomb decided in 1954 to adopt the policy of “massive retaliation” if an enemy elected to attack the US or its allies. While never mentioning the use of nuclear weapons, it was clear that they would be used and very quickly. Gen. Curtis Lemay, who also opposed use of the Hiroshima bomb, created war plans in the 1950s which would use ALL American nuclear weapons early on in any conflict even if the enemy did not make first use, hinting that he might not even wait to get the order from the president. Since 1945 the US has never publicly declared a “no first use policy”. President Barrack Obama came close but backed off late in his second term. Four decades of US nuclear strategy emphasized either “Counter force (military) or “Counter Value (people/industries) targeting.

Terms like MAD (mutual assured destruction) or NUTS (nuclear utilization target select) were firmly embedded in the language of nuclear strategy well into the mid 1980s.

Delivery systems of nuclear weapons focused initially on using bombers, then land based rockets and finally submarine launched missiles—taken together, known as the TRIAD. Competition between the three major branches of the armed services (Army, Navy and Airforce ) broke out in the 1950s over who would get the lion’s share of defense $s for nuclear weapons. Compounding this intra service rivalry, competition was a constant in American domestic politics so that the party out of power would charge the party in power with being soft on defense. The concepts of bomber and missile gaps became standard fare. When Kennedy ran against Nixon, he charged the Eisenhower administration with having allowed a missile gap to open up. Once in power Kennedy found that there was a gap of 25 vs 4 missiles but in favor of the US. The Airforce wished to build a missile force in excess of 10,000. Kennedy realized this was too costly and would trigger a Soviet response. His defense Whiz kids dusted of a study done in the mid 1950s calling for a theoretical 1000 missile force. While it was thought than only 200 would really be needed, 1000 was a nice round number so this became his stated policy. This meant that the Soviets had to play catch up. Until the end of the Cold War the Soviets would continue to build newer and larger numbers of weapons and missiles. Their “metal eaters” composed of scientists/technologists along with military leaders and directed by political “hardliners” in the Kremlin would be a perfect match to the “military Industrial complex (Eisenhower warned of this in his Farewell Address) in the US who were committed to an endless arms race.

For a brief moment after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, both Premier Khrushchev and President Kennedy recognized the need to find an alternative to the nuclear arms race. In less than two months both agreed to a “Partial Test Ban Treaty” and the creation of a telephone hot line between the two capitals. But Kennedy’s assassination and Khrushchev’s ouster by Kremlin hardliners nipped this effort in the bud.

In the 1964 Presidential election President Johnson ran only once a political ad showing a flower and in the background a nuclear explosion. The question the ad posed, would you trust Barry Goldwater (running against Johnson) with his finger on the button? Johnson, preoccupied with the Vietnam would resist Gen Westmoreland’s request to use “tactical nuclear weapons to relieve the siege of Khe Sanh concluding nuclear war would be “the death of all our hopes.”

The remainder of the 60s/early 70s saw Henry Kissinger and President Nixon juggle the threat to use nuclear weapons to end the war in Vietnam (Kissinger would suggest informally Nixon was mad enough to use them against North Vietnam/its allies—they rejected this proposition). Kissinger authored the The Anti-Ballistic Missile and the SALT 1 treaties to create a roadmap to a continued a nuclear weapon buildup but with no surprises which the Soviets accepted. With Nixon’s resignation and the short Ford interim Presidency, little changed. Jimmy Carter, upon becoming President, was interested in foreign policy initiatives leading to peace between the Israelis and Egypt; an international human rights campaign and an end to the issue of the Panama Canal. But the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian hostage crisis and the charge he was soft on defense led to his defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan. The irony is that Carter proposed a 5 year trillion dollar defense budget including new nuclear weapons/delivery systems. The only new weapon system (MX Peace Keeper) offered up by President Reagan) was never implemented because of debates over how to site it.

President Reagan initially viewed the Soviets as an “evil empire” and there were some consultants advising him (“Victory is Possible”, Colin Gray/Stanley Payne) that the US could win a nuclear war. By the end of his first term three Soviet hardliner premiers had died to be replaced by a reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev who wanted to reform the Soviet Union and end the Cold War. President Reagan had been convinced by Edward Teller (father of the H-bomb) that a fool proof anti- missile defense system) could be produced which would make nuclear weapons obsolete. Gorbachev and Reagan negotiated a dramatic reduction of nuclear weapons in Europe and at a summit in Reykjaik the two leaders flirted with the idea of putting an end to all nuclear weapons. But Reagan’s unwillingness to also end the Strategic Defense Initiative program doomed this moment. American military strategists, who since the dawn of the nuclear age had constantly strategized about American nuclear warfighting options, were relieved that the summit failed.

In the post-Cold War period which witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union the US worked with the new Russian Federation to better secure nuclear weapons from theft and to remove such weapons from three of the new independent states. Efforts were begun to develop a new treaty approach, START 1 designed to significantly reduce the nuclear inventories of both the United States and the Russian Federation. Other nuclear problems emerged around the increasing number of states who developed nuclear weapons (India, Pakistan) and would be nuclear states such as Iraq, Libya and N. Korea. In addition there was the concern that sub-state terrorist groups would seek to get nuclear weapons/or materials. The defeat of Saddam Hussein and the overthrow of Libyan dictator, Muamma Gaddafi, eliminated their perceived threats to go nuclear (note: neither were anywhere close and the resulting political instability and economic cost of waging war to eliminate them still need to be reckoned with.

President Clinton appeared to have bought time with N. Korea by a series of economic carrots. But the succeeding Bush administration vowed not to deal with “evil” so the N. Koreans resumed their march to developing a nuclear weapon and a credible delivery system. President Obama did negotiate nuclear deals with both Russia and Iran. He also played with the idea of a no first use declaration but was forced to make concessions on a large nuclear weapons project ($1.2 trillion)to replace all our nuclear weapons with new ones as the quid pro quo. But he did not achieve his goal of a declared “no first use” policy.

By 2017 a new President would wonder why the military did not build back up to 35,000 war heads the US had in the late 60s/early 70s. Then Sec. of State Rex Tillerson privately would refer to him as a “……. Moron”. He was fired shortly after. Secretary of Defense. James Mattis, told his staff there would be no new arms race. He resigned a year later over policy differences with the president.

President Trump threatened N. Korean with “fire and fury” if they continued their nuclear weapons program. He then stunned the world by exchanging a series of “love letters” with Kim Jong-un leading to several unprecedented meetings between the two leaders. But today no fruit has been born from these efforts.

In 2018 Congress held hearings for the first time in 43 years on the president’s sole authority to launch nuclear weapons. The hearings which included Republicans were premised over concern about the President Trump’s erratic behavior. Retired Gen. Robert Kehler thought that if Congress felt the president was erratic then the procedures for launching nuclear weapons should be changed. Nothing came out of the hearings.

In 1948 The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists included a “Doomsday Clock” in its publication. Over the past 70 plus years the clock has stood as close to 100 seconds (which is the case today) to 17 minutes with the end of the Cold War. Over this same period there have been some interesting citizen efforts to influence political leaders to end the nuclear arms race. The 1957 Campaign to End Nuclear Weapons was the first of such efforts. By the 1980s the Nuclear Freeze movement led to a referendum which passed in 9 out o ten states calling for the US to suspend the development, production and deployment of new nuclear weapons. Numerous Protestant churches and the American Catholic Bishops supported this effort on moral/humanitarian grounds much to the initial chagrin of the Reagan Administration. The Freeze enjoyed a 70% support rating in various polls The TV film, THE DAY AFTER, saw over 100 millions watch a picture depicting the outbreak of a nuclear war. Roger and Earl Molander, who were national security consultants, created the “sister city project—a classic effort to pair Soviet and American cities with each other to promote citizen diplomacy. Scores of American/Soviet sister cities were initiated.

A key question to ponder today: is humanity living on borrowed time? My students for many years have been concerned that either by accident, political blunder or the actions of a disturbed leader or sub- state terrorist group, the world will witness nuclear weapons used to kill people by their thermal pulse, explosive force or radiation. What would the global economy look like in such an event? And what of the next Olympics or World Cup? We worry about a global pandemic, as we should, but crossing the “nuclear threshold”, not seen since 1945, opens up a new world. Dystopian fiction like FAILSAFE, ON THE BEACH, and more recently, THE ROAD maybe a better guide than any defense think tank can conjure up.

In the coming election consider posing the following questions to those for Congressional seats and the Presidency:

  • Instead of spending $1.2 plus trillion dollars to replace all our nuclear warheads should the money be either saved or used for nonmilitary purposes including climate change?
  • Should the US finally declare it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in any conflict?
  • Should the decision to use nuclear weapons remain exclusively in the hands of the president?
  • Should the US work with other nations to aggressively pursue the goals the Nonnuclear
    Proliferation Treaty
  • In a 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece William Perry, Henry Kissinger, George Schultz and Sam Nunn (known as the 4 Horsemen) called for the abolition of all nuclear weapons—a reversal of their earlier positions while govt. officials—is their new position now a reasonable one?

Public debates/forums on these issues could well have a positive impact on those elected to serve the citizenry and bring this existential threat to all life out of the shadows.

I have been heavily influenced by Fred Kaplan’s two books, THE WIZARDS OF ARMAGEDDON (1983) and THE BOMB (2020). He is arguably the best versed investigative journalist writing on nuclear weapons and national security matters today I also taught a course on Global Security and Nuclear Weapons from 1984 to 1989 doing a great of reading and attending conferences that included the likes of Edward Teller, Carl Sagan, McGeorge Bundy and Freeman Dyson among others.

Questions or reactions to this column can be sent to Doug Garnar at garnardc@sunybroome.edu

* for security purposed the directors of the Manhattan Project used the term “device” rather than bomb and word continues to this day

For further reading: It’s Been 75 Years, and America Still Won’t Admit a Nuclear Disaster (New York Times, July 15, 2020)

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