Archive for the ‘nuclear weapons’ Category

Book reviews: A hawk, a dove and the missile man of America

January 23, 2010

Two books on the Cold War

1. The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War – Nicholas Thompson

In this book, Nicholas Thompson provides a fascinating account of the life, times and work of probably the two most important American diplomats of the Cold War. George Kennan and Paul Nitze were starkly opposite in many respects, yet both provided immensely important direction to American geopolitics through their advice to many Presidents and shaped the Cold War more than any other two American policy makers.

Of the two Kennan is the more famous and is regarded by many as the most important American diplomat of the twentieth century (he passed away in 2005 at the ripe age of 101 and was known for the resplendent prose in his many books which I could strongly recommend). Kennan is mainly known for a famous 1946 telegram that he sent from the Soviet Union. At this time Americans were still trying to understand the looming Soviet menace and Kennan was probably the most knowledgeable Soviet expert in the country. He rightly understood Stalin’s bluster and sent a telegram describing the intentions and nature of the Soviet state. The telegram instantly catapulted him to recognition and set in place the official policy of “containment” which Kennan’s name became synonymous with. In the telegram Kennan indicated that the Soviets would respond to only strength and not reconciliation and weakness. In his book on the hydrogen bomb, Richard Rhodes says that it was this telegram along with Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech and Stalin’s rousing speech in Moscow that inaugurated the Cold War.

However Kennan did not advocate necessarily employing military strength. This was advocated by Paul Nitze, a man who may not be as famous as Kennan but who was no less important. Nitze is regarded by many as the “father of threat inflation”. As a measure of his influence as a hawk, it suffices to realize that many of the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration were either Nitze acolytes or acolytes of Nitze’s proteges. Just like Kennan Nitze also became famous for a secret 1950 document called NSC-68 that advocated the use of preemptive force against the Soviets and exaggerated their military might. This was a pattern that Nitze and his growing band of followers (among them in various ways were Albert Wohlstetter, Richard Pipes, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld) would consistently pursue; whenever they thought that liberals were trying to be too reconciliatory toward the Soviet Union, they would prepare documents and advocate polices exaggerating Soviet military potential and intentions. Their policies frequently worked and became especially influential during the Reagan administration (formerly they did a good job of portraying Carter as being weak on the Soviets). To some extent they were responsible for the dangerous arms race between the two nations.

Needless to say, such hawkish views radically differed from those of Kennan the dove whose more measured opinions fell somewhat out of favor in later years. Yet the book does an outstanding job of showing that the agendas of both men were more subtle and complicated. Occasionally when it was necessary Nitze would take a softer approach, and during the later Reagan years he joined the President in pressing for open disarmament and reconciliation when many of his followers continued to take a hard line. In his later life Nitze mellowed down, and in 1999 went so far as to write a New York Times op-ed recommending unilateral nuclear disarmament for the US. Although Nitze rightly perceived the work that he had done to be very important in dictating Cold War policy, it is tragic that unlike him, others did not have the sense to see the shortcomings and detrimental effects of these policies in a post Cold War world (Nitze and the accompanying rise of the neo-cons are very well-documented in J. Peter Scoblic’s
“Us vs Them: How a Half-Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America’s Security”).

With such differing perspectives one would think that Nitze and Kennan would have been mortal enemies. But remarkably, through several decades of acute differences and disagreements, the two men remained close personal friends. As Thompson who is Nitze’s grandson shows, it is a mark of the character of both men that they managed to rise above their political differences no matter how severe these were. Thompson shows in this highly readable volume, the tremendous impact on US foreign policy that the work of Nitze and Kennan had. He bring both of them to life and sensitively and wisely dissects their personalities, thoughts and lives. Very strongly recommended for foreign policy/Cold War enthusiasts.

2. A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon- Neil Sheehan

Neil Sheehan apparently spent 15 years writing this account of a little known Air Force General, Bernard Schriever, and the time he spent on the man shows in this comprehensive account. He has performed a very valuable service in bringing this rather obscure character to life and driving home the importance of his accomplishments. Schriever was one of the individuals most responsible for jump starting the US’s missile program, especially shepherding the development of the ICBM. Sheehan does a great job bringing to life all the characters that Schriever was associated with, from his mentors in flight school (including General “Hap” Arnold) to his bete noir, the notorious Curtis LeMay, to his contact with brilliant scientists John von Neumann and Edward Teller whose contributions were critical for America’s missile and atomic bomb programs.

Sheehan provides ample background and little known tidbits of Schriever’s life and times. For instance I was not aware that the US Air Force was a rather inefficient backwater organization till the mid-1930s, easily outclassed by its European counterparts. Apparently at one point, pilots were asked to deliver the mail in the wake of a post office scandal. Their inexperience in flying and the loss of life that resulted galvanized FDR and others to issue directives for a modern Air Force that would become among the best in the world.

The main problem I have is that while Sheehan’s digressions (for instance on the atomic bomb project and Soviet espionage) are fascinating and reflect the most up-to-date information, they are too many and too frequent. An editor who could have shaved off a few pages and encouraged a tighter narrative would have definitely helped. The digressions draw your attention from direct information about General Schriever. To be fair the book is not supposed to be just about him, but a little less meandering would have been a boon.

In spite of this deficiency, the book will be fascinating for Cold War enthusiasts who want to know about the development of the US Air Force and its atomic and missile arsenals during the early Cold War. There is also a fair amount of technical detail about missiles explained in relatively plain and accurate language. After JFK came to power Schriever’s influence waned and the latter part of the book is not as interesting. Nevertheless, Sheehan has done a valuable and outstanding job in bringing a little known individual to life and telling us about his enormous contributions during a critical period of American history.

The H-Bomb Fuchs?

December 30, 2008

And a very brief history of the US hydrogen bomb effort

How the Soviets got the H-bomb by 1955 has always been something of a mystery. Although they had top-notch scientists like Andrei Sakharov working for them, they still got almost exactly the same design as the Americans in just 4 years. Nobody denies Sakharov’s tremendous contributions to the H-bomb effort. And yet the question lingers whether espionage helped H-bomb design just as it had helped Soviet A-bomb design, most famously through Klaus Fuchs’s efforts.

Now a new book due to be released in January claims that the authors have uncovered a spy who gave details about the H-bomb design to the Soviets. ‘The Nuclear Express’ is co-authored by Thomas Reed, a former weapons designer who worked at Los Alamos for many years. The authors would not name the spy since he is now purportedly dead. Historians who have weighed in don’t find the idea entirely implausible; after all it is hard to believe that security would have been so tight so as to completely preclude espionage. In addition even after Fuchs was apprehended, the Soviets still had a web of spies and sympathizers spread throughout the US that even as of now is not completely deciphered.

It is worthwhile at this point to recapitulate some of the US H-bomb history:

1942: Edward Teller, the ‘father of the hydrogen bomb’, builds upon a suggestion by Enrico Fermi and proposes the first design for a thermonuclear weapon. This is during a secret conference at Berkeley organized by Robert Oppenheimer that’s supposed to explore the feasibility of a fission weapon, not a fusion device. Teller’s basic idea is to use the extreme temperatures arising from an atomic bomb to ignite a cylinder of deuterium or tritium at one end, with the unproven assumption that the fusion fuel will ignite and continue to burn, thus producing a tremendous explosion equivalent to millions of tons of TNT. The H-bomb distracts the participants enough for them to speculate on its workings, but atomic bomb design (necessary for initiating a fusion reaction anyway) is wisely given priority. The as yet speculative thermonuclear weapon is christened “The Super”. The Manhattan Project is kicked off. Throughout the war Teller goes off on his own H-bomb trajectory, often contributing to flared tempers and inadequate expertise at Los Alamos.

1946: After the war, Teller who is still obsessed with the weapon convenes a short, top secret conference. Klaus Fuchs is one of the participants. The conference concludes, mostly based on Teller’s optimistic assessment, that The Super is feasible. At the end of the conference, Teller submits an overly optimistic report much to the chagrin of Robert Serber, an accomplished physicist who had been Oppenheimer’s principal assistant at Los Alamos. Fuchs transmits the information from this conference to the Soviets.

August 1949: The Soviets detonate their first atomic bomb. Everyone is shocked, perhaps unnecessarily so. A high-level committee headed by Oppenheimer convenes in October on Halloween and debates H-bomb development. The almost unanimous opinion is that the H-bomb is not a tactical weapon of war but a weapon of genocide and therefore its development should not be undertaken. Priority should be given instead to the development of better, tactical fission weapons.

December 1949-January 1950: Edward Teller, spurred on by the Soviet A-bomb, starts recruiting scientists to join him at Los Alamos to work on the Super. Hans Bethe initially agrees, then after a chat with Oppenheimer and Victor Weiskopf, declines. Teller blames his change of mind on Oppenheimer. Later Bethe decides to work at Los Alamos only as a consultant, mainly because he wants to prove that The Super won’t be feasible.

During this time, Stanislaw Ulam and Cornelius Everett at Los Alamos embark on a set of tedious calculations to investigate the feasibility of The Super. The result is decidedly pessimistic. The Super would need much more tritium, an extremely rare and expensive isotope, to initiate burning. Even if tritium is added the probability of successful propagation is extremely low. Teller’s dream is dead in the water. Fermi, one of Teller’s role models, confirms the bad news.

January-February 1950: Even as Ulam’s calculations give a fit to Teller, Klaus Fuchs confesses his espionage. The country gradually starts descending into a state of paranoia. Against the advice of many experts, President Harry Truman initiates a crash program to build the H-bomb. Incidentally his announcement comes before that about Fuchs. And it comes absurdly even as Ulam and others have proven that Teller’s Super would not work.

1950: Throughout 1950 the options for the Super keep on looking bleaker. In June the Korean War begins, fueling more feeling of paranoia. Teller’s mood blackens. At one point after Ulam reports his latest set of calculations, Teller is said to be “pale with fury”

December 1950-January 1951: Ulam makes a breakthrough. He realizes that separating the fission weapon and fusion fuel and using the extreme pressures generated by the fission weapon will cause compression of the fusion fuel, thus dramatically increasing the odds of thermonuclear burning. Ulam floats the idea to Teller who enthusiastically espouses it and also crucially realizes that radiation from the fission “primary” would do an efficient job of compressing and sparking off fusion in the fusion “secondary”. The idea is so elegant that Oppenheimer calls it ‘technically sweet’ and now supports the program. Bethe agrees to work on the device because suddenly everyone thinks that the Soviets will now not be long in discovering it. Later, Teller makes significant efforts to discredit Ulam’s role in the invention. But the Teller-Ulam design becomes the basis for almost every hydrogen bomb in the arsenals of the world’s nuclear powers.

1951-1952: Work proceeds on a thermonuclear weapon. In November 1952 the world’s first hydrogen bomb, Ivy Mike, explodes with a force equivalent to 650 Hiroshima type bombs. Mankind has finally invented a device that comes closest to being a weapon for complete annihilation of nations.

So that is where matters stood in 1952. That gives the spy a window of two years or so to transmit the information. It’s instructive to note that after Fuchs was outed, Oppenheimer actually hoped that he had told the Soviets about the H-bomb design from the 1946 conference, since that design had been shown to fail and would have led the Soviets on a wild goose chase. However the initial thoughts that Bethe, Oppenheimer and others had about the Soviets discovering the Teller-Ulam mechanism soon don’t look unfounded to me. There were experts who thought that the idea of using compression and radiation to ignite and burn the thermonuclear fuel would occur to anyone who had thought hard and long about these matters. Niels Bohr thought that a bright high-school student would have thought about it, but that’s probably going a little too far. The truth could well be in between, with both original thought and espionage playing a role. In any case the new book promises fresh fodder for atomic aficionados and I have pre-ordered it.

How rational thinking led to insanity

October 25, 2007

Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race
By Richard Rhodes
Alfred A. Knopf, 2007

Richard Rhodes is perhaps the foremost nuclear historian of our time. His past two books (among many others on extremely varied subjects) on the making of the atomic and hydrogen bombs are landmark historical studies. But as readers of those books would know, they were much more than nuclear histories. They were riveting epic chronicles of war and peace, science and politics in the twentieth century and human nature. In both books, Rhodes discussed in detail other issues, such as the Soviet bomb effort and Soviet espionage in the US.

In this book which can be considered the third installment in his nuclear histories (a fourth and final one is also due), Rhodes takes a step further and covers the arms race from the 1950s onwards. He essentially proceeds where he left off, and discusses the maddening arms buildups of the 60s, 70s and 80s. One of the questions our future generations are going to ask is; why do we have such a monstrous legacy of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, enough to destroy the earth many times over? The answer cannot be deterrence because much fewer would have sufficed for that. How did we inherit this evil of our times?

Much of the book is devoted to answering this question, and the answer is complex. It involves a combination of paranoia generated by ignorance of what the other side was doing, but more importantly threat inflation engendered by hawks in government who used the Soviet threat as a political selling point in part to further their own aims and careers. It is also depressing to realise how in the 50s, when the Soviet atomic bomb programs were still relatively in their beginning stage and the US had already amassed an impressive fleet of weapons, opportunity was lost forever for negotiating peace and preventing the future nuclear arms debacle that we now are stuck with. Rhodes details a very interesting and disconcerting fact; every US president since Truman wanted to avoid nuclear war and was uncomfortable about nuclear weapons, yet every one of them had no qualms about increasing defense spending and encouraging the development of new and more powerful weapons. It was as if a perpetual motion wheel had been set in motion, oiled by paranoia and deep mistrust, not to mention the clever manipulation of ambitious Cold Warriors. In the 50s, hawks like Edward Teller influenced policy and exggerated the threat posed by the Soviets, when in fact Stalin never wanted any kind of war with the US.

Later, this role was taken up by people such as Paul Nitze who admittedly was the “father of threat inflation”. His job and that of others was to exploit the uncertainty and fear and turn it into a potent force for justifying the arms race. Into the 60s and 70s, Nitze gathered around him a cohort of like-minded people who included today’s neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld. They wrote reports that tried to argue against detente, and advocated further and more powerful arms buildups. In the middle of this politicking, it seems a wonder that presidents could negotiate treaties such as the anti-ballistic missile treaty and the NPT. Reading accounts of these people and their clever spin-doctoring and manipulation of the threat, one cannot help but feel a sense of deja vu, since it’s largely the same people who inflated the threat of WMDs in the Bush administration, as well as much else. What can we say but that public memory is unfortunately short-lived. Reading Rhodes’s accounts gives us a glimpse of the birth of today’s neocons, who have wrought so much destruction and led the country down the wrong path. Rhodes deftly recounts the workings of key officials in both governments, and how they influenced policy and reacted to that of the other side. He also has concurrent accounts of economic and military developments in the Soviet Union, and how channeling of funds towards defense spending created major problems for the country’s growth and development.

However, the major focus of Rhodes’s book concerns the two principal characters of the endgame of the Cold War and their lives and times; Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Rhodes paints a sensitive and insightful portrait of Gorbachev, as a man who was a reformist since the very beginning when he was a minister of agriculture. Rising to high positions from humble and trying beginnings, Gorbachev realised early on the looming menace of the arms race and its impact on his country’s development. He tried sensibly to negotiate with Reagan’s administration to cut back on nuclear arms. He could be compassionate and sympathetic, but also a very good politician. Rhodes’s portrait of Reagan is less favourable, and Reagan appears to be a complex man who harbored complex and sometimes puzzling ambitions. On one hand, he was a man who wanted to abolish nuclear weapons and end the threat of nuclear war. On the other hand, he was a naive idealist who sometimes thought of himself in messianic terms, thinking that God had a special role for him in the Cold War. Rhodes rightly compares some of Reagan’s thinking to religious thinking. Reagan quite bizarrely encouraged tremendous defense spending (more than the earlier three presidents combined) and massive and dangerous weapons developments and military exercises. Rhodes’s account of the NATO military exercise named Able Archer in 1983 which almost spurred the Soviets to ready a nuclear strike speaks volumes about Reagan’s belligerent policies, particularly strange given his “other side”, which eschewed nuclear conflict. An intelligent but not particularly intellectually sophisticated president, Reagan liked to hear about policy more in the form of stories than reports, and because of his relatively poor and unsophisticated background in issues of national security had to depend on his advisors for insight into these issues.

These advisors, especially Richard Perle and others, persuaded Reagan to stall negotiations with the Soviets, whose main insistence was that that he give up his dreams of SDI or “Star Wars”, a costly space-based weapons system that was clearly going to engender more animosity and arms buildups. This system was not just threatening and unnecessary, but would not have even been technically effective. Again, one cannot help but think of the Bush administration’s flawed insistence on missile defense systems. Reagan refused to back down on this central point in negotiations with the Soviets in Geneva and Iceland, mainly advised by Perle and others. Egged on by false hopes of security through SDI, he squandered important opportunities for arms reduction. In the pantheon of presidents trying to reduce Cold War nuclear threats and curtail weapons development, Reagan is surely the biggest offender. However, it is also not fair to blame him completely; clearly his hawkish advisors played a key role in policy making, even while his more moderate advisors struggled to find a way out of the madness. Ronald Reagan was a complex character, and a comment by Gorbachev, if perhaps a little too critical, accurately captures his personality; Gorbachev once said that he would love Reagan as a dacha neighbor, but not as president of the US.

In the end, it was largely inevitability that ended the Cold War. In this context, Rhodes also dispels some myths about it. One of them, cleverly used by conservatives these days, is that it was Reagan who was the principal instrument in ending the Cold War. Rhodes makes it clear that it was Gorbachev who was instrumental. Allied with this myth is another one, that the US drove the Soviet Union into the ground essentially by bankrupting them, as if that somehow almost points to a clever strategic decision by Reagan to increase his own arms spending to induce the Soviets to increase theirs. But this myth is also not true. The Soviet Union carried the seeds of its downfall inside itself since the beginning, and the fruits of those seeds were beginning to show since the 1970s. Gorbachev recognised this, and it was largely the economic situation in his country and his own actions and realisation of the inevitability of affairs that ended the Cold War. Reagan in fact may have slightly prolonged the Cold War, and he certainly made it more dangerous towards the end with his idealistic visions of more security through wondrous weapons building. He also made negotiations much more difficult by constantly casting Soviet-US relations under the rubric of good and evil, piety and godlessness, and by smooth talking rhetoric and debate. Robert McNamara has said that our immense nuclear legacy arose from actions, every one of which seemed rational at the time, but which ultimately led to an insane result. Ronald Reagan is perhaps the epitome of a US president who had his own remarkable but largely flawed internal rational logic for justifying enormous nuclear arms accumulation.

Throughout the book, Rhodes’s trademark style shines through; meticulous research that envelops the reader, remarkable attention to detail and internal logic, a novelist’s sense of character development and the retelling of key events,- such as his gripping account at the beginning of the book of the Chernobyl tragedy that exposed many of the Soviet Union’s weaknesses and contradictions- cautious and yet revealing speculation, and narration that instills in the reader a rousing sense of history and human nature. He gives sometimes minute-by-minute accounts of the deliberations and meetings between Reagan and Gorbachev. As in his other books, he liberally sprinkles all accounts with extended quotes and conversations between key participants, thus giving the reader a sense of being present at key moments in history. I have to say that this book, while very good, is not as engaging as his first two books, but it nonetheless is solid history and storytelling, and a chronicle of one of the important periods of the century, a period that influences the world to this day.