Lovin’ that bomb

December 30, 2008


The New York Times has an article today under the headline, Soviets Stole Bomb Idea From U.S., Book Says. This follows on an earlier article in the Science Times that discussed two books on this topic, Hidden Travels of the Atomic Bomb. This latter article was an egregious example of the sloppy writing that so often graces the pages of the NYTimes’ Science section.

The historical and political context of the investigations is summarized in the second article this way:

In 1945, after the atomic destruction of two Japanese cities, J. Robert Oppenheimer expressed foreboding about the spread of nuclear arms.

They are not too hard to make,” he told his colleagues on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, N.M. “They will be universal if people wish to make them universal.”

That sensibility, born where the atomic bomb itself was born, grew into a theory of technological inevitability. Because the laws of physics are universal, the theory went, it was just a matter of time before other bright minds and determined states joined the club. A corollary was that trying to stop proliferation was quite difficult if not futile.

But nothing, it seems, could be further from the truth.

Oppenheimer concluded that international cooperation to reign in the awful power of atomic energy in weapons was the only sensible political course.  He opposed the development of new, stronger, and more plentiful nuclear weapons as a useless attempt to maintain the USA’s temporary nuclear monopoly.  Naturally, he was vigorously opposed, and eventually destroyed by people like Edward Teller, who always had a bigger and better bomb in mind, and were convinced that we had to build them to terrorize the Russians into obediance.  And if they wouldn’t obey, well, we would just nuke ’em, and win!

So, latter day claims that the Russians only got the bomb because of nasty spies tend to reinforce the anti-Oppenheimer camp.  “See, he was naive!  If it weren’t for the spies, we’d still be the only one with the bomb…” Preserving our nuclear monopoly was possible and sensible.  President Truman expressed this view rather simply – he predicted the Russians would never get the bomb.  These books are simply another neo-con effort to rewrite history.

Yes, the Russians had spies that gave them information.  This is indisputable.  Yes, this may have expedited their progress on the A- and H-bombs.  Notice, however, that Oppenheimer never said exactly when others would get the weapon, just that they would if they truly wanted to.  (Perhaps one reason not everyone has them is that they don’t want them, for good reasons!  Not to mention the cost!)  The fact that there were spies doesn’t mean at all that he was wrong.

As is often the case in the weird world of the NYTimes, a line in the second article totally undercuts the meaning of its lead:

Alarmingly, the authors say one of China’s bombs was created as an “export design” that nearly “anybody could build.” The blueprint for the simple plan has traveled from Pakistan to Libya and, the authors say, Iran.

Look, either the bombs are really hard to make, or they are not.  You can’t have it both ways.


A blast from the past

August 17, 2008

In utrumque paratus…That little bit of Latin means “prepared for either…”  In this case, the either refers to peaceful defense or war.  War, as in World War III, that is.  Nuclear annihilation by intercontinental ballistic missiles, aka ICBM.

We were vacationing up north in the Lake Champlain area of Vermont, riding our bikes through pleasant rural vistas, when we stopped at a visitors’ information site in Alburgh, a very small town.  There was a solid historical marker set on a post that identified the area as the site of the first US ICBM missile silo – set way up north near the border with Canada to minimize the flying time to the USSR.  I left without remembering to take a picture of the marker, but obviously others have had similar thoughts (see here).  I didn’t know there was so much touristical interest in Cold War armageddon.  Just seeing that marker was chilling to me.