Living on the Edge

R.W. Johnson

  • Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-49 by Jim Baggott
    Icon, 576 pp, £10.99, November 2009, ISBN 978 1 84831 082 7
  • The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers and the Prospects for a World without Nuclear Weapons by Richard Rhodes
    Knopf, 366 pp, $27.95, August 2010, ISBN 978 0 307 26754 2
  • Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers by Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi
    ICNND, 294 pp, November 2009, ISBN 978 1 921612 14 5

One of the unheralded heroes of the end of the Cold War was General Y.P. Maksimov, the commander in chief of the Soviet strategic rocket forces during the hardliners’ coup against Gorbachev in August 1991. He made a pact with the heads of the navy and air force to disobey any order by the coup plotters to launch nuclear weapons. There was extreme concern in the West that the coup leader, Gennady Yanayev, had stolen Gorbachev’s Cheget (the case containing the nuclear button) and the launch codes, and that the coup leaders might initiate a nuclear exchange. Maksimov ordered his mobile SS-25 ICBMs to be withdrawn from their forest emplacements and shut up in their sheds – knowing that American satellites would relay this information immediately to Washington. In the event, the NSA let President Bush know that the rockets were being stored away in real time.

In trying to understand how we got to the fantastical position where lorries trundling around in Siberian forests could be so nervously followed from space, a good place to start is Jim Baggott’s Atomic. The story of the making of the atomic bomb has been told countless times before, most notably by Richard Rhodes, but Baggott’s book is rare in giving details not just of the successful Anglo-Canadian-American effort at Los Alamos, but the competing efforts in Germany, Japan and the USSR, culminating with the explosion of Joe-1 (the first Soviet bomb) in 1949, together with the complex web of espionage which connected them all.

We have been living on the edge for a long time. In 1948, during the Berlin airlift, the US drew up Plan Trojan, targeting 30 Soviet cities for nuclear attack; at the time the USSR had no means to reply. In March 1949 Curtis LeMay, the head of Strategic Air Command, drew up his first war plan. LeMay had been responsible for killing some two million civilians in his fire raids of 1945 on 63 Japanese cities: in his view nuclear weapons were just another means of doing the same job. His War Plan 1-49 envisaged B-29 and B-50 bombers dropping 133 nuclear bombs on 70 Soviet cities, killing three million civilians and injuring four million more. LeMay found he could fly reconnaissance missions right over Vladivostok without meeting the slightest resistance. ‘We could have delivered the stockpile … with practically no losses,’ he reported. The temptation was strong for America to use its nuclear advantage to achieve an immediate victory over the Soviets. In 1954, Eisenhower resisted considerable pressure from the military to mount a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the USSR before it managed to acquire a competitive nuclear force. He said that pre-emptive strikes were un-American, pointing to the bitter American resentment of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Later, Rhodes says in his new book, The Twilight of the Bombs, Kissinger prevented the South Koreans from developing nuclear weapons only by threatening the complete withdrawal of US forces from the peninsula. But for that, the recent angry artillery exchanges between North and South Korea might have led to a nuclear war.

According to Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi, in a report for the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, in 2009 the US possessed between 9400 and 10,400 nuclear warheads, Russia between 12,950 and 13,950, China between 184 and 240, France around 300, the UK 160, Israel between 60 and 200, India 60 or 70, Pakistan about 60 and North Korea five or six. Rhodes says that the most likely future exchange would be between India and Pakistan. If they were to throw all their nuclear weapons at one another, with a total yield of around 1.5 megatonnes – less than that of many individual thermonuclear weapons in the American and Russian arsenals – the smoke from the fires would rise into the atmosphere and take ten years to dissipate. The earth would be returned to the conditions of the ‘little Ice Age’ in Europe between the 16th and mid-19th centuries, resulting in crop failures and other unpredictable phenomena. So even a modest exchange between third-tier powers would be a global disaster.

Those who worked on the Allied bomb – it really was supposed to be that, though it became just the American bomb – were driven by the fear that the Germans, led by Werner Heisenberg, might get there ahead of them. As Baggott points out, the crucial moment for Heisenberg came in 1937 when he was attacked by a jealous rival as being a ‘Jew-lover’, enslaved to ‘Jewish physics’, because he had praised and used the work of Einstein. Heisenberg had to do something: if he simply disdained the attack, that would lead him into the shadows and, at best, into exile from Germany. Instead he wrote to Himmler demanding that he either back him or join his accusers. After a thorough investigation Himmler pronounced him to be a good and valuable German. He shocked Niels Bohr, at their famous meeting in Copenhagen in 1941, by arguing that civilisation would be best served by German victory. By that time Heisenberg was deeply involved in bomb research and knew that Bohr had links to the Allied scientists who were doubtless pursuing the same goal. The notion that the two rival efforts could meet in the midst of war is quite extraordinary. Baggott wonders if in seeking the meeting Heisenberg wasn’t partly motivated by the demands of espionage.

Later, those who could not bear the thought of a Nobel Laureate working to create a Nazi bomb tried to exonerate Heisenberg by arguing that he had never wanted the project to succeed and had deliberately stalled it. They pointed to his famous dictum that whereas the politicians wanted to use physics for warfare, he would use warfare for physics – i.e. use his large military budget to achieve scientific breakthroughs. Nothing in Baggott’s exhaustive scrutiny supports such a conclusion. It seems more likely that Heisenberg was so thoroughly part of German society that he could not imagine becoming an outcast: he would be a patriot, would go with the flow, even if that meant Nazism. Perhaps the most telling detail is that, to get his letter to Himmler, instead of going through the normal bureaucratic channels he gave it to his mother to pass on. When your mum’s a friend of Himmler’s mum, you really are embedded.

A key part of the Nazis’ nuclear programme was the heavy water production facility at the Norsk Hydro fertiliser plant near Rjukan in the wilds of Norway. The British did their utmost to destroy it. The first recourse was to get Norwegian Resistance sympathisers at the plant to sabotage it by pouring castor oil and cod liver oil into the electrolyte. The Special Operations Executive, however, had not told the several saboteurs of one another’s existence, with the result that they overdid it. The whole plant had to be shut down in April 1942 and the Germans discovered the sabotage, which made it harder to do again.

By this time Churchill and Roosevelt had designated the Norsk Hydro a top priority target. The Resistance strongly counselled against a bombing raid because it would lead to major civilian casualties. But a commando raid would be difficult: in winter it would be prohibitively cold and in summer there wouldn’t be enough hours of darkness. In November 1942, two British bombers towed in a 34-strong commando force in gliders. They were to be met by a Resistance group and would then attempt to demolish the plant. It was a complete disaster. One plane and both gliders crash-landed, with many casualties. The survivors were all caught, interrogated and executed by the Gestapo: some were shot; others were throttled with straps and had their chests crushed before being killed by having air injected into their bloodstreams.

In February 1943 a smaller team of specially trained Norwegian commandos was parachuted onto the desolate Hardanger Plateau in temperatures of -30 ºC. The Hydro plant had to be approached across a suspension bridge over an unclimbably steep ravine. If they attempted to storm the bridge the shoot-out with the guards would raise the alert. The answer, it was decided, was to climb the unclimbable – down into the ravine and up the other side – then set explosives all round the plant and escape via the same impossible route. The operation worked and they all got away safely. The German commander, surveying the damage, said it was ‘the finest coup I have seen in this war’. But the plant limped back into production a few months later.

General Leslie Groves, directing the Allied bomb effort at Los Alamos, insisted on a bombing raid. In November 1943, 300 bombers attacked Hydro, scoring only two hits but killing 22 civilians. It was just as the Resistance had feared. But the Germans got the point: the Allies would keep targeting the plant until it was destroyed. So they shut it down and arranged to move its functions to Germany – a move which cost precious time. By this stage the Nazi leadership had lost confidence in the atomic bomb project (Heisenberg himself was always uncertain about whether it would ultimately be successful) and had decided instead to give top priority to the new V-weapons and jet fighters.

The German nuclear bomb project was in a cul-de-sac. Unlike the USSR, Germany had no worthwhile intelligence of the Allied bomb effort. Had the Nazis only known what vast material and human resources were being put into the Manhattan Project, they would have concluded that a bomb really was possible. Heisenberg would never have had the confidence to demand the 120,000 men and billions of dollars that had gone into the American effort; though of course if Hitler had known about it, Heisenberg wouldn’t have needed to ask. The Allies had no idea what was going on in Heisenberg’s programme either. After the war, to establish how far he had got, the British put him and most of his nuclear co-workers together at Farm Hall, a country house near Godmanchester, and bugged their conversations as the news of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs came through.

The Soviet nuclear effort, however, was helped at every stage by huge intelligence leaks from Los Alamos. Most of the spies were unaware of one another. We know what we do about them thanks to a cryptographic lucky break, the result of a Soviet cipher clerk lazily reusing a one-time pad. Even today it is by no means certain that we have a full record of everyone who spied on the Manhattan Project. It was hardly coincidental that Beria, the NKVD boss, was head of the Soviet bomb programme (Stalin was spying on him too, so when Beria rang to say Joe-1 had worked, Stalin already knew from his other source). Joe-1 was a nearly exact replica of the American bomb. Stalin had told the scientists that success would be greatly rewarded but failure proportionately punished. With that, any idea of improving on what they’d learned from Klaus Fuchs went out of the window.

Then there was France. When De Gaulle announced his plans for a force de frappe, his opponents asked how he imagined he could independently beat the USSR in a nuclear war. Of course France couldn’t win, he said, but ‘we can tear an arm and a leg off the bear’ – that is, destroy Moscow and Leningrad – and no one would go to war with someone who could do that. This logic has been shown to work. Even though America could overwhelm North Korea, it dare not risk a nuclear war in which Seoul, Incheon and perhaps the US 7th Fleet would be destroyed. But fear of the consequences of using the bomb causes its own strategic problems. Rhodes points out that both the US (in Vietnam) and the USSR (in Afghanistan) have accepted military defeat rather than deploy nuclear weapons. In 1979, Kissinger told Nato:

We must face the fact that it is absurd to base the strategy of the West on the credibility of the threat of mutual suicide … The European allies should not keep asking us to multiply strategic assurances that we cannot possibly mean, or, if we do mean, we should not want to execute, because if we execute we risk the destruction of civilisation.

Over the next ten years – under the direction of William Perry, who would eventually become Clinton’s secretary of defense – the US tried to create a new deterrent based on stealth aircraft, smart bombs and other hi-tech gizmos: shock and awe depended on being a generation ahead of anyone else. The results were seen in the first Gulf War: Iraq suffered 65,000 combat casualties and the US just 148; none of the stealth bombers took even a scratch and 81 per cent of their bombs reportedly landed within ten feet of their targets.

Iraq had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and denied it had been developing nukes. But after the Gulf War ceasefire in 1991 an IAEA inspection team at Tuwaitha, Iraq’s main nuclear research facility, found that a great deal of equipment and documentation had been removed to undisclosed destinations. Despite this, Blix was willing to authorise a report that said: ‘We’ve looked, there’s nothing there.’ Two Americans on the team refused to sign it, and US satellites found evidence of weapons production. The IAEA team then carried out an inspection without notice. A harassed Iraqi official denied them access to the site but, gesturing at a water tower, told them they could go up there and take a look. This was a fatal mistake: the water tower afforded an excellent view; Saddam had the official executed. In the end the Iraqis had to admit they’d lied. According to one of the inspectors, Blix ‘looked thunderstruck. It was absolutely a new concept to him that a nation-state would lie to a UN official. He had a religious experience.’ At which point, two things happened. Saddam ordered the destruction of his WMD, irrespective of their state of development, and that the work be carried out in secret; and the Americans resolved never to trust Blix again. The eventual result was the second Gulf War.

The break-up of the USSR in 1991 created three new nuclear states, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine. Rhodes reports that Yasir Arafat went to Alma-Ata to tell President Nazarbayev that as the first ‘nuclear Muslim country’, Kazakhstan could be the main arbiter in the Middle East. Arafat hoped that Nazarbayev would aim his nuclear weapons at the targets Arafat told him to, though he would naturally have to put up with Israel’s missiles being aimed at him in return. There were, Nazarbayev has claimed, various offers from the Middle East to buy Kazakhstan’s 1040 nuclear warheads and 104 ICBMs. He turned them all down; but the weapons weren’t his to dispose of in any case – Russia still retained control of them. That said, the situation in Russia was extremely uncertain: the Russians were no longer sure just how many missiles or how much enriched uranium they had, or where everything was. One leading scientist, Yuri Trutnev, suggested that a deep underground explosion be carried out to destroy 20,000 nuclear weapon cores all at once, creating 62 tonnes of vitrified plutonium. But further analysis showed that the plutonium might solidify in supercritical configurations, which would lead to a chain reaction of explosions, blowing the underground shelter open with the force of a thousand Chernobyls.

The heroes of this part of Rhodes’s story are two US senators, Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, who put together the Co-operative Threat Reduction Programme. George Bush helped the process along with his unilateral decision to abandon all battlefield nuclear weapons. All cruise missiles would be removed from ships and submarines, all nuclear artillery shells retired, the Strategic Air Command would stand down its B-52 nuclear bombers and the mobile version of the new Peacekeeper missile would be cancelled. It was perhaps Bush’s finest moment, though it’s only fair to add that his secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, did everything he could to block such moves towards nuclear peace.

Cheney found himself in a far more sympathetic environment in the administration of George W. Bush, which was bent on taking a large step backwards in arms control. North Korea had been brought to the verge of giving up its nuclear programme, but Bush refused to negotiate with Pyongyang, and as a result, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and tested its first atomic weapons. Bush also tore up the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, allowed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to lie unratified on the Senate floor, and laid the ground for a resumption of nuclear testing. His administration sought to develop ‘mini-nukes’ and ‘bunker-buster’ bombs, suspended the sanctions on Pakistan imposed to penalise it for testing atomic weapons, and helped India build its nuclear forces outside the framework of the NPT, supplying it with 500 tonnes of uranium a year and allowing it to extract plutonium from its used nuclear fuel. Linton Brooks, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration from May 2003 to January 2007, told Rhodes that Paul Wolfowitz, then the deputy secretary for defense, had once explained to him why no one in the administration was interested in arms control. He said it was because arms control was the sort of thing you can’t get when it would help, and when you can get it, you don’t need it.

Rhodes is a true believer in non-proliferation and, indeed, in the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. Possessing them, he says, is soon likely to be made a crime against humanity. The same spirit informs the Evans and Kawaguchi report, which lists the steps that can and should be taken towards that end. In this, their commission seeks to build on the work of the earlier Canberra Commission, which Evans helped set up in 1995 when he was Australia’s foreign minister. That commission came to the conclusion that ‘as long as any state has nuclear weapons, there will be others … who will seek to acquire them’, which is why most people who examine the question tend to come out for complete abolition.

I do not dissent from the desirability of that aim, but I suspect it is wrong-headed to believe that designating the possession of nuclear arms a crime against humanity would make the slightest difference. Mankind does not uninvent things. It is true that the US and USSR refused to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam and Afghanistan, but these were only colonial wars. Does anyone doubt that they (or Israel or North Korea) would use such weapons if their own survival was at stake?

The truth is that there is an enormous appetite for nuclear weapons in the developing world. Moreover, it’s no coincidence that all the permanent members of the UN Security Council are nuclear powers. France, the most recent Western nuclear power, is acutely conscious of the status the bomb confers: the Canberra Commission’s French member, Michel Rocard, wanted some sort of special exception for the force de frappe. Rocard is a Socialist but the French left, even the PCF, was long ago converted to the bomb. Similarly, Britain has argued about its bomb for 60 years but all parties have kept it, and within the other nuclear powers there is very little debate over the issue.

The only real consolations are that to date no nuclear bomb has ever been stolen, and that they are extremely difficult to make. Which leaves us with the present nuclear club of nine members, out of some 200 countries. As with any exclusive club, it is very much in the interests of its members to keep it as exclusive as possible. Four unwanted members – South Africa, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan – were forced to disarm; Iraq and Libya were forced to give up on their attempts to join; and immense pressure is being exerted to prevent Iran from joining and, if possible, to get North Korea to disarm. It’s an untidy situation and extremely wasteful. Nuclear weapons require a lot of maintenance: they cost the US alone $50 billion a year. Yet there are far fewer nuclear weapons in the world today than there were in 1985 or 2000. In 1960 Kennedy said he expected to see as many as 20 nuclear states by the end of 1964, but nearly 50 years later there are fewer than half that number. There are at least a few shreds of evidence to suggest that the responsibility of having the bomb may even have taught us a little wisdom.