On the Eve of Destruction

Breaking the double bind of the nuclear arms race

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Ever since the development of the atomic bomb in the mid-1940s, the governing consensus among American liberals and conservatives alike has been that nuclear weapons are an essential part of military preparedness. Whether the Republican or the Democratic Party held power in Washington, the underlying assumption remained the same: a “balance of terror” was the only way to ensure peace. From Presidents Truman and Eisenhower through Reagan and Obama, there was always a bipartisan Congressional majority in support of billions of dollars for nuclear weaponry, without the usual “how are you going to pay for it?” posturing.

Yet the physicists who built or supported the building of the first nuclear weapons believed that the bomb changed everything, including the very nature of war. The great Danish physicist Niels Bohr put it most succinctly: “We are in a completely new situation,” he told a friend in 1948, “that cannot be resolved by war.” Bohr tried to convince President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill of that millennial change in 1944, a year before the bombs were ready, hoping the two leaders would share the secret of its ongoing development with Joseph Stalin and negotiate together for its postwar control. Churchill was under the strain at that time of preparing for the Normandy invasion and was aware that the bomb would be a fundamental measure of national prestige, something he believed his nearly bankrupt nation would need. He dismissed Bohr impatiently: “After all,” he quarreled, “this new bomb is just going to be bigger than our present bombs; it involves no difference in the principles of war.”

The destructive change of scale was not obvious at the outset. The first bombs were small—mere tactical weapons, battlefield weapons—by today’s standards: fifteen thousand tons of TNT equivalent, or fifteen kilotons, for Hiroshima; around twenty-two kilotons for Nagasaki. The American physicist Philip Morrison, assigned as part of a Red Cross team to assess the damage of those first atomic bombings, hitched a ride out of Tokyo in a general’s plane in September 1945 and saw that the firebombed cities of Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe “looked checkered,” with patches of destruction intermingled with undamaged areas, according to an account in The New Yorker in 1946. When they flew down the green length of that narrow mountainous archipelago to Hiroshima they saw “one enormous, flat, red-rust scar” with no roofs or vegetation left. High-explosive firebombing by hundreds of B-29s, or one B-29 carrying one atomic bomb—all the bombed cities were full of rubble and ashes. Morrison left Hiroshima believing that because the atomic bomb exploded high in the air there “had been a minimum of radioactivity in the city.” The U.S. diplomat Paul Nitze, part of the team preparing the postwar United States Strategic Bombing Survey, viewed the same damage Morrison saw and concluded that atomic bombs were not the decisive weapons the scientists had claimed. “After all, this new bomb is just going to be bigger than our present bombs.” But not so much bigger as to change everything—not yet.

Going Thermonuclear

After the war, the scientists went one way, the government another. The scientists campaigned for international control, the government for international control premised on an implicit U.S. nuclear monopoly with a UN military force as added insurance. And for a few short years there was something like a strategic balance in the world. The Soviet Union had several million troops on the ground in Eastern Europe and chose to keep them there; the United States had atomic bombs. But the Soviets were unwilling to accept a world where only the United States knew how to make nuclear weapons, and in August 1949, they tested their first bomb. Now they had several million troops on the ground in Europe and the atomic bomb.

Washington panicked. Almost immediately, the debate among government, scientific, and military leaders and advisers concentrated on one question: whether the United States should rush to build a hydrogen bomb, a weapon that would be several orders of magnitude more powerful and more destructive than the U.S. stockpile at that time of around 170 atomic bombs. The scientific advisers, led by the charismatic American theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer, recommended against chasing after a weapon they did not yet know how to make, one requiring for its fuel a rare form of hydrogen—tritium—that would have to be bred in a nuclear reactor, with each kilogram of tritium precursor taking up space in the reactor that could otherwise breed enough plutonium for seventy-five atomic bombs. And of course, in the words of the advisory committee’s majority report, there was the brutal indiscretion of the hydrogen bomb, the use of which “carries much further than the atomic bomb itself the policy of exterminating civilian populations.” In a minority report annex, two members of the committee, Nobel laureate physicists Isidor Rabi and Enrico Fermi, went further:

Necessarily such a weapon goes far beyond any military objective and enters the range of very great natural catastrophes. By its very nature it cannot be confined to a military objective but becomes a weapon which in practical effect is almost one of genocide. . . . It is necessarily an evil thing considered in any light.

The hydrogen bomb’s arbitrary destructiveness follows from its harnessing of light-element fusion. A fission weapon requires a certain critical mass of fissile material for its chain reaction to continue, limiting its yield as the heating mass expands and blows itself apart: the largest fission weapon the United States ever tested yielded about half a megaton. In contrast, a thermonuclear weapon, as its name implies, can be made arbitrarily large simply by adding more hydrogen fuel, like building a fire. The largest hydrogen bomb the United States ever tested yielded about fifteen megatons, or about one thousand Hiroshimas. The Soviet Union tested a weapon with a design yield of one hundred megatons that was modified to constrain its yield to only fifty-eight megatons so that it could be dropped by air over northern Siberia without presumably destroying the plane. The Hungarian émigré physicist Edward Teller once sketched out a weapon of a ten thousand megaton yield but realized that at around one hundred megatons the fireball from the explosion would be ten miles in diameter, which is approximately the thickness of the Earth’s troposphere. More than a hundred megatons and the blast would likely blow out into space rather than extending destruction on the ground.

In October 1949, Oppenheimer’s committee proposed that the United States forego accelerating work on a hydrogen bomb and instead increase its production of atomic bombs, as President Truman had already authorized. Isador Rabi, on Oppenheimer’s committee, proposed the United States take the opportunity of temporary nuclear parity with the Soviet Union to renew negotiations to limit the nuclear arms race. We would agree, Rabi proposed, not to pursue the hydrogen bomb if the Soviets did likewise. Ultimately, however, Truman listened to his military advisers. When they heard of the possibility of a bigger bomb, they wanted it. They believed, or claimed to believe, it would rebalance the balance of forces, even if it eliminated the possibility of renewed arms reduction talks. Truman agreed, announcing to the world on January 31, 1950, that the United States would accelerate work on a destructive new weapon it didn’t yet know how to build.

Meanwhile, Truman had also prudently requested a report from his National Security Council about the state of U.S. national security—another opportunity to slow or halt the burgeoning nuclear arms race. But the committee’s chair, Paul Nitze, was a hawk who put little faith in deterrence and doubted the atomic bomb’s genocidal decisiveness. He rejected what the Soviets would soon call “peaceful coexistence” and what fellow committee members called “containment.” He wanted rollback of Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe, full stop. Nitze suppressed dissent within the committee, and the report, NSC 68, reflected his belligerence.

The Soviet Union had lost some twenty million people during World War II and fully half its industrial plant. Nevertheless, Nitze depicted the still-recovering country as an implacable enemy hellbent on “the complete subversion or forcible destruction of the machinery of government and structure of society in the countries of the non-Soviet world and their replacement by an apparatus and structure subservient to and controlled from the Kremlin.” Given such a conclusion, NSC 68 recommended, among other things, that “we should produce and stockpile thermonuclear weapons in the event they prove feasible and would add significantly to our net capability.” In November 1952, with the explosion in the South Pacific of a 10.4 megaton thermonuclear test device, Ivy Mike, they did prove feasible. Truman liked what Nitze’s report had to say, and it became the fundamental guide to U.S. policy in relation to the Soviet Union until its dissolution in December 1991, clearing the way for a massive buildup of nuclear forces that would extract trillions of dollars from the domestic purse.

World on Fire

Unaware of the potential for worldwide climatic effects of nuclear-explosion-induced mass fires, both world powers pushed for nuclear dominance. At the height of the contest, in 1986, the United States and Soviet Union possessed between them a total of about seventy thousand nuclear weapons, divided roughly between strategic weapons of large yield—hundreds of kilotons up into megatons—and tactical weapons of Hiroshima scale or less for battlefield use. In the United States, we produced not only warheads for intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles but also such unlikely war-fighting weapons as nuclear torpedoes, nuclear artillery shells, and nuclear air-to-air antiaircraft rockets. Since 1945, all nine nuclear powers have produced a total of about one hundred twenty-five thousand nuclear weapons—many of which, of course, have been retired and dismantled. The estimated world stockpile today holds around four thousand active warheads and thirteen thousand total warheads.

Strategic nuclear weapons—because of their power and because most were designed to explode on ground impact, with consequent high levels of induced radioactive fallout—were always and inevitably weapons of mass destruction. Planning for nuclear war required assessing the extent of that damage, primarily the tally of expected casualties, most of them civilian. Daniel Ellsberg, in his revealing memoir The Doomsday Machine, describes a shocking change that came to those casualty estimates between 1955 and 1956 due to the replacement of fission bombs and warheads with hydrogen bombs and warheads:

In the course of reviewing Top Secret documents . . . under the Kennedy administration, I had seen successive estimates for Soviet casualties in general war that in the early years of the decade seemed surprisingly “low” for the nuclear era: a few million deaths, then ten million, then up to thirteen million or so by 1955. But from that year to the next, 1956, there was a sudden tenfold jump in the estimates—an order-of-magnitude increase . . . to a hundred and fifty million Soviet dead. By 1961 . . . [the] forecast was for more than two hundred million [deaths] in the Soviet bloc alone.

The reason for that jump in projected casualties to a scale unparalleled in human history was simple: war planners merely assumed, correctly, that the Strategic Air Command (SAC) meant to replace many of their atomic weapons with the new hydrogen bombs. “That entailed SAC’s preparedness to kill ten times or more the number of people as before. Not tens but hundreds of millions of dead, perhaps a billion, largely from radioactive fallout from hydrogen bombs,” Ellsberg writes. “This change was introduced not because it was judged by anyone to be necessary, but because it was simply what the new, more efficient nuclear bombs—cheaper but vastly larger in yield than the old ones—could and would accomplish when launched against the same targets.”

From 1940 to 1996, the United States spent at least $5.5 trillion on its nuclear weapons program.

One of the unintended consequences of this order-of-magnitude shift in the destructive yield of U.S. nuclear weapons was a reduction in the number of weapons needed to destroy the designated list of targets. SAC had long ago realized that controlling the target list was key to the Air Force’s expansion: the number of targets determined the number of bombs; the number of bombs determined the number of bombers; and the number of bombers and their support systems determined the Air Force’s share of the defense budget. This bootstrapping strategy had, by 1953 and throughout the rest of the decade, rewarded the Air Force with more than 45 percent of the federal defense budget—much to the frustration of the Army and the Navy. Not surprisingly, and arguably as a result of the Air Force’s budget strategy, the other two services quickly discovered an urgent need for nuclear weapons shaped to their missions as well. Thus was born the nuclear triad—submarine-launched strategic missiles for the Navy, land-based strategic missiles for the Air Force, and battlefield weapons for the Army—ostensibly needed for robust redundancy, but at least in part a repercussion of interservice rivalry.

The Air Force had no desire to see its arsenal (or its budget) shrink as a result of the greater destructive force of thermonuclear weapons. But its “ever-expanding target system,” as Ellsberg calls it, was not expanding fast enough to pick up the slack. To forestall any cuts, the Air Force incorporated only one of the three main destructive effects of its weapons into its plans.

The primary destructive effect of nuclear weapons is most often fire. Not blast, not radiation: fire. That’s what Philip Morrison could see when flying out of Tokyo and over Hiroshima: both cities had been burned out, Tokyo with thousands of napalm bombs, Hiroshima with the fire-starting effect of a million-degree nuclear fireball. “Under most circumstances,” confirms scholar Lynn Eden in her book Whole World on Fire, “damage from mass fire would extend two to five times farther than blast damage.” A three-hundred-kiloton nuclear weapon exploded over the Pentagon would destroy central Washington with blast—but the fury of its fireball would start an instant mass fire that would engulf the city all the way out to the beltway.

Although the Pentagon studied incorporating fire effects into targeting plans at the end of the Cold War, the study was suspended in 1992 without action. Target calculations to this day ignore fire effects—which have always been difficult to predict. During World War II, mass fires from conventional incendiary bombing depended to some extent on weather conditions. The March 1945 fire raid on Tokyo that killed more than one hundred thousand people and burned out nearly sixteen square miles of central Tokyo was fanned by winds of at least thirty miles per hour. But nuclear weapons make their own weather. Heat from the conflagrations they create rises as if in a chimney, drawing in air from the circular periphery that sustains and spreads the flames, creating winds of hundreds of miles per hour—essentially a vast hurricane of fire.

Unknown then—and until the 1980s—were the global climatic consequences of nuclear war. While the production of dust had been examined in the context of radioactive fallout, no one had studied the effects of all the soot and smog funneled up into the atmosphere from those mass fires. In December 1983, however, the journal Science published the grim findings of scientists drawing on several different, unconnected studies of planetary-scale dust storms on Mars, early work on global warming, and the asteroid impact that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. What they reported was, or ought to have been, truly horrifying: a “nuclear winter” in both hemispheres, with years of subfreezing land temperatures, somewhere between -15 and -25 degrees Celsius; darkness darker than the darkest night; the essential cessation of agriculture; mass starvation of the human and animal populations of the world. One of the paper’s authors, the astrophysicist Carl Sagan, assessed the meaning of the discoveries in an essay that winter in the journal Foreign Affairs, writing ironically, “We have, by slow and imperceptible steps, been constructing a Doomsday Machine. Until recently—and then, only by accident—no one even noticed.”

The Science findings have been challenged furiously or otherwise ignored in the decades since. They were relatively easy to discount in the early 1980s—especially by national policymakers—because in those years of limited computer power they were necessarily derived from an extremely simplified, one-dimensional atmospheric model. In 2008, however, two of the same scientists who had worked on the original study examined the same questions using the much more sophisticated three-dimensional atmospheric model developed in recent years for studying global warming—another environmental catastrophe widely attacked as exaggerated.

The Cold War was officially over by then, of course: the United States and Russia had substantially reduced their nuclear arsenals; India, Pakistan, and North Korea had brought the number of nuclear powers to nine; and the world’s arsenals totaled 20,243 weapons of various yields, of which about 19,273 were U.S. or Russian. “Given such a large reduction,” the scientists wrote, “one might assume a concomitant large reduction in the number of potential fatalities from a nuclear war and in the likelihood of environmental consequences that threaten the bulk of humanity. Unfortunately, that assumption is incorrect. Indeed, we estimate that the direct effects of using [current] arsenals would lead to hundreds of millions of fatalities. The indirect effects would likely eliminate the majority of the human population.” In short, “The effects would be more long-lasting and therefore worse than thought in the 1980s.”

Pointedly, the authors note that theirs is the sole unclassified study to consider the environmental consequences of nuclear war with existing arsenals. No governmental agency in the world has an existing unclassified program on the question, and no scientific body has studied the issue in twenty years. “Nevertheless,” they write, “a misperception that the nuclear-winter idea has been discredited has permeated the nuclear policy community.” Governments and militaries apparently prefer not to know how destructive their nuclear arsenals are, so that they can continue to pretend to be defending their polities when in reality they have prepared their doom.

The Sky is the Limit

Another parameter of building and maintaining a nuclear arsenal is cost, not only the expense itself but also the opportunity foregone to invest the tax dollars elsewhere—the old Economics 101 problem of guns and butter. Money spent on armies and armaments is money sequestered from social welfare, which those who have no need of them call “entitlements.” Those who disapprove of handouts from the “makers” to the “takers,” to use Mitt Romney’s infamous categories, would rather spend federal tax dollars on contractors and corporations.

In 2008 the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit founded by former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn and media titan Ted Turner, released a study indicating that from 1940 to 1996, the United States spent at least $5.5 trillion (or $6.9 trillion in today’s dollars) on its nuclear weapons program. If you include the costs of cleaning up production wastes and disposing of surplus materials, that number increases to $5.8 trillion ($7.3 trillion). The bombs and warheads themselves cost only about 7 percent of that number; the remainder comprised the costs of delivery, command, control, communications and intelligence systems, as well as defense systems including air defense, missile defense, anti-submarine warfare, and civil defense. These expenditures constituted 29 percent of all U.S. military spending and almost 11 percent of all government spending from 1940 through 1996, exceeding all other categories of government spending except non-nuclear national defense and Social Security.

Divided equally among the entire U.S. population, $5.8 trillion equals slightly more than $17,000 per person. That’s one way to visualize the cost of building and maintaining our nuclear arsenal. Another way is to ask what that $5.8 trillion might have bought instead. Since the dollars come out of different baskets, the comparison is somewhat one of apples and oranges. But it’s a comparison President Dwight D. Eisenhower made in one of his first presidential addresses, twelve weeks into his presidency:

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than thirty cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of sixty thousand population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than eight thousand people.

Every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers issues a comprehensive assessment of the condition of the nation’s infrastructure, grading it from A to F and estimating the cost of its repair and future maintenance. This year the ASCE’s report card found America’s cumulative infrastructure grade to be a middling C-. Broken down by category, though, a bleaker portrait emerges: aviation, dams, levees, public parks, schools, transit, among other categories, all got D’s or D+’s, while drinking water, energy, and bridges eked out C-’s or C’s. Only our ports and railroads managed to hit at least a B. Taken together, the ASCE estimates that the United States needs to invest nearly $2.59 trillion over the next ten years to restore its infrastructure to B-level quality. President Joe Biden’s compromise infrastructure plan, at $1.2 trillion, falls well short of that already limited goal. And military and civilian dollars are not strictly comparable. Investment in civilian infrastructure supports industrial and consumer growth. In another study, the ASCE predicts, in the absence of restorative investment, a loss of $10 trillion in GDP by 2039, $2.4 trillion in exports, and three million American jobs.

Meanwhile, the total cost of defense from October 2020 through September 2021, counting hidden costs, is set to come in at $934 billion—the largest single budget category other than Social Security. The defense budget covers many appropriate costs, from our VA hospitals to FBI cybersecurity teams to fighting ISIS. Yet it is far larger than defense budgets in the immediate post-Cold War years and almost as large in adjusted dollars as the defense budget for 1945, the final year of World War II. It’s larger than the defense budgets of the next eleven nations combined. As for the nuclear triad’s share, no breakdown is available of the projected costs of its maintenance, but a May 2021 estimate by the Congressional Budget Office puts nuclear arsenal maintenance and “modernization” (including a whole new fleet of land-based ICBMs to replace the Air Force’s four hundred Minutemen IIIs) from 2021 to 2030 at $634 billion, a staggering sum for a farrago of weapons no nation has figured out how to use.

But what enemy or enemies are we defending ourselves against? Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, back in 1991 when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, famously remarked, “I’m running out of demons. I’m running out of villains. I’m down to Castro and Kim Il Sung.” What are we down to today? An Iran with only a conventional military, increasingly crippled by sanctions and unwilling to engage? North Korea now protected by an arsenal of nuclear weapons—twenty or more, including its first hydrogen bomb—and holding Japan and South Korea hostage, to be sacrificed if we were so foolish as to attack? China, which has limited its nuclear arsenal to a posture of minimum deterrence since it first acquired a nuclear capability in 1964? What in heaven’s name is a trillion dollars in defense spending for?

If the claim is that it’s all for deterrence, why is it scaled to first-strike nuclear war? Why not the minimum deterrent that China has maintained, which Zhou Enlai described all the way back in 1957 as “to oppose nuclear threat, not to engage in a nuclear arms race with the nuclear states.” With a land mass of approximately the same size as the United States but a population more than four times larger, China is estimated to have amassed only up to 350 nuclear warheads, of which roughly 270 are currently operational, and in any case are stored separately from their delivery systems to back up China’s announced policy of no-first-use—a policy the United States has long refused to adopt. If the price of self-defense is potentially killing billions of human beings, including ourselves, is it worth it? Isn’t there some other way?

Red Dawn States

One might argue that the United States has multiplied nuclear overkill—to the point of risking mass destruction and nuclear winter—out of fear. If the consequences of a threat are uncertain or open-ended, and especially if they’re perceived to be “existential,” meaning threatening the very existence of the nation, then the question of how much you are willing to pay for protection becomes open-ended as well. As President Kennedy said at his inaugural, “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” I don’t think he meant nuclear war, but then all of our leaders at one time or another have confessed in private that they would never start such a horror, even though many of them have bungled their way to the brink. So have the leaders of our adversaries. Which again raises the question of why we expend so much of our national treasure on these world-destroying arsenals.

If the price of self-defense is potentially killing billions of human beings, including ourselves, is it worth it?

It isn’t true that nuclear weapons are useless. We have used them repeatedly across the years to threaten and to dominate, though not always successfully. The Korean War came to truce not long after President Eisenhower took office in 1953 because he passed a threat to use nuclear weapons through India to Kim Il Sung, and Kim believed him. On the other hand, North Vietnam’s Lê Đúc Thọ told Henry Kissinger at the Paris peace talks that North Vietnam knew it would win, as it did, because it knew that the United States would not dare use nuclear weapons against it for fear of involving its sponsor, the Soviet Union. In fact, as the political scientist Jacek Kugler has shown, of some forty crises since the end of World War II involving the nuclear powers, “the risk of nuclear war did not inhibit the escalation of crisis”; that is, the presence of nuclear weapons failed precisely in accomplishing what their enthusiasts claimed they would do, which is to deter. Conventional military forces, according to Kugler, proved far more decisive in the outcome of extreme conflicts than any nuclear warhead. And despite shoveling trillions toward their development, the over-nuked United States has not won a conclusive military victory in seventy-six years.

Exorbitant cost and relative inefficacy notwithstanding, the obstacles preventing a sustained reduction in nuclear spending appear structural and intractable. Though a largely bipartisan consensus on maintaining or increasing defense spending has persisted for the last seventy-five years, the divide is deep between those of our political leaders who favor military coercion and those who favor diplomacy, as we’ve seen most recently in the context of our relations with Iran. It’s a divide roughly between Republican hawks and Democratic doves, more so now than in the past. Hawks attack proposed diplomatic agreements, claiming they’re unenforceable and easily subverted by cheating. President Reagan was fond of recommending a Hollywood lawyer friend’s book called The Treaty Trap. “No nation which put its faith in treaties but let its military hardware deteriorate stayed around very long,” he said in a 1978 radio address. It was that conviction, at his Reykjavik summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986, that prevented the two leaders from agreeing to begin the march toward the complete elimination of all the world’s nuclear weapons.

Hawks exact a price in increased defense spending for cooperating in ratifying treaties. Former Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl led the fight in 2010 against ratifying the New START treaty between the United States and Russia; in exchange for Republican support, he exacted a total of $85 billion for so-called “nuclear modernization.” Eighty-five billion dollars would have fixed a lot of roads and bridges. It would have been a nice down payment on the repair program of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Beneath these political differences there’s also a structural difference in power. Politicians from rural districts and less-populated states support big defense budgets because they send government money home; in Montana, for example, defense spending constitutes a third or more of the regional economy. It’s one of the ironies of U.S. politics that many of the red states that decry “government spending” receive more in government spending than they pay to Washington in taxes. And due to the distribution of power in Congress, senators from the “nuclear sponge,” or the states where the land-based missiles of our nuclear triad are primarily siloed—Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, and Missouri—have 28 percent of the votes in the Senate despite representing only some 5 percent of the U.S. population. It’s all but certain they will continue voting to maintain or increase spending on the weapons that subsidize their local economies, effectively chaining us to one leg of the unwarranted triad indefinitely.

The United States would be safe from nuclear threat with a deterrent of no more than two or three ballistic missile submarines. Instead we maintain the vaunted triad—land-based missiles, submarine-based missiles and nuclear-armed intercontinental bombers. The triad does not make us safer—indeed, fixed silos across the aforementioned “nuclear sponge” invite devastating counterforce attacks—but it does divide the spoils among rural states as well as several branches of the armed forces.

And then there’s the broader military-industrial complex. The phrase comes from President Eisenhower’s farewell speech to the nation in 1961, three days before the inauguration of his successor, on what Eisenhower called his “last goodnight to you as your President.” At the center of the speech were two paired warnings, only one of which is usually remembered. Of the first, the old soldier spoke from long experience: “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Of the second, the president who had quietly increased the U.S. nuclear arsenal from approximately twelve hundred weapons in 1953 to nearly nineteen thousand weapons in 1960 under the rubric of “Atoms for Peace” cautioned: “In holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

Out of the Double Bind

If we build a nuclear arsenal in order to be safe from nuclear attack, we put ourselves at risk of nuclear attack. But if we don’t build a nuclear arsenal in order to be safe from nuclear attack, we put ourselves at risk of nuclear attack. The double-bind inherent in the nuclear dilemma is the reason why it feels so unstable: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Common security is the best way yet devised out of the double bind of arms races.

As it happens, however, there’s a way out. It’s not a way we’ve taken, though we’ve made progress from time to time in the right direction (as well as regress in the wrong direction). The way out of our double bind is implied in an additional observation: the double bind occurs when neither party can confront the inherent dilemma, and therefore can neither resolve it nor opt out of the situation. But how do you “confront the inherent dilemma” when your enemies have nuclear weapons and seem to show no interest in withdrawing them? How do you avoid being drawn into a nuclear arms race?

Niels Bohr’s answer had been to recognize that, as he said, we are in a completely new situation that cannot be resolved by war. The more specific answer formulated by a group of European social democrats in discussions at the beginning of the 1980s was what they called “common security.” Egon Bahr, a member of the West German Bundestag and an adviser to Willy Brandt, the West German chancellor, stated it most succinctly: “Security can now only be achieved in common,” Bahr said. “No longer against each other but only with each other shall we be secure.” Pronouncements by high-level commissions seldom travel beyond the commission report. This one had weight and wings. It allowed West Germany to work with the Soviet Union to negotiate what became in 1975 the Helsinki Final Act, signed by thirty-five countries including the United States, the USSR, and all the states of Europe, except Albania, acknowledging the existing borders of all the nations of Europe, both Eastern and Western, and renouncing the use of force in changing them. The Helsinki Final Act looked like a triumph for Soviet control of Eastern Europe, but in fact it was the beginning of the end of that control, a significant point along the way to the breakdown of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of Germany.

Mikhail Gorbachev learned about common security directly from Brandt and Bahr and in long discussions with his own scientific and political advisers. He read and studied the Common Security report the Europeans had prepared for the United Nations and saw in its approach a way out of the U.S.–Soviet nuclear arms race that had resumed under Reagan and that was bleeding his economy dry. He presented his ideas to his country’s 27th Party Congress in early 1986. “The task of insuring security,” he said, “is more and more taking the form of a political task, and can be resolved only by political means.” You can hear an echo of Niels Bohr in that statement. And, later in the same speech, “In our time, genuine equal security is guaranteed not by the highest possible, but by the lowest possible level of strategic balance, from which it is essential to exclude entirely nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction.” Gorbachev met with Reagan at Reykjavik in October 1986 with these commonsense ideas. And though Reagan’s fixation on his Strategic Defense Initiative to back up any treaty made agreement impossible there and then, the two leaders began a process that weekend which contributed to the end of the Cold War.

From nearly fifty years of studying and writing about nuclear history, almost my entire adult lifetime, I’m convinced that common security is fundamental, the best way yet devised—possibly the only nondestructive way—out of the double bind of arms races. Those who put their faith in deterrence, especially deterrence through so-called strategic parity, ignore the abundant evidence of near misses, during the Cold War and since. No mechanical system is foolproof. Accidents happen. Would-be tyrants can occupy seats of power, to the peril of all.

Richard Rhodes is the author of twenty-six works of history and fiction. Scientist, a biography of E.O. Wilson, will be published by Doubleday in October.

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