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Fred Ikle: We Were Lucky After Hiroshima

Fred Ikle, in the WSJ (8-5-05):

[Mr. Iklé was undersecretary of defense for policy in the Reagan administration. His book, "Annihilation from Within," written at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, will be published by Columbia University Press next year.]

... The news about Hiroshima reached the White House on Aug. 5, 1945 -- precisely 60 years ago. President Truman's statement next morning informed the world of the "atomic bomb" and the Manhattan Project. Four days later, the A-bomb attack on Nagasaki prompted Japan's surrender and ended World War II. Since then, America has devoted immense effort to the nuclear problem -- an intellectual, political, and military endeavor that has no parallel. We know how we entered the Nuclear Age. We do not know how to exit from it.

First we tried arms control to kill the monster in its cradle. The U.S. advanced the Baruch Plan to confine nuclear technology entirely to peaceful uses. After Stalin rejected the plan, we began to build atomic bombs at a leisurely pace: Nine in 1946, 13 in 1947, and, by the time North Korea invaded South Korea, we had some 300 atomic bombs, the Soviet Union perhaps five. Barely 20 years later, each of the two superpowers had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. This did not come as a surprise. At the outset, our nuclear scientists had predicted that if the total ban on nuclear weapons failed, the superpower arsenals might grow a thousand-fold. They also warned that H-bombs could be built that were a thousand times more destructive than the A-bomb. And they left no doubt that other countries would be able to acquire nuclear weapons.

President Eisenhower became deeply concerned about these trends. Based on careful deliberations, he decided in December 1953 to launch the Atoms for Peace Program at the U.N. His address received more praise -- at home and abroad -- than any other presidential speech. The purpose of Atoms for Peace was to enlist international support against weapons proliferation by donating or selling nuclear technology labeled "peaceful." Spurred by this American multilateralism, a shopping mall opened, making U.S., Soviet, Canadian, French, British, and other reactors available for "peaceful" research and electric power. This "peaceful" technology was sold or donated to Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Vietnam, the Congo, Laos, India, Pakistan, etc. No other U.S. policy, no commercial initiative, no theft of technology has done more to accelerate and expand the global spread of nuclear bombs. There is an echo of Greek tragedy here: Arms control initiatives meant to avert a calamity morph into the agent that exacerbates the feared outcome....

Currently, we are against nuclear proliferation mainly because of rogue states: North Korea might sell bombs to anyone with cash, a nuclear-armed Iran might embolden Hamas terrorism. During the Cold War, we opposed proliferation because it might destabilize the fragile balance of terror between the superpowers. At that time, the scholastics of nuclear strategy invented enough "deterrence" concepts to fill a library, and many credited "mutual deterrence" for the fact that, since 1945, not a single nuclear attack occurred. The long holiday of non-use is indeed a stellar accomplishment. Yet deterrence does not deserve all the credit. The intervention of providence also helped.

Deterrence can ward off deliberate attacks; it cannot prevent an accident or dissuade a madman. But such perils must not be ignored. Until 1957, U.S. nuclear weapons had no safety locks, and sometimes just one person (say an airman) might have been given access to a weapon. One man alone could have triggered an unauthorized nuclear detonation. I recall this problem well because I analyzed it at RAND, then an Air Force think tank. My study recommended that two people always be in charge of critical controls and that coded locks be installed to safeguard nuclear weapons and missiles. RAND sent me to brief the Pentagon. Luckily, Gen. Curtis LeMay heard of it, and being a steely guy, he knew how to cut through bureaucratic molasses. He commanded a blizzard of actions to implement every one of the recommendations.

Other risks of an accidental nuclear cataclysm come to mind. In 1980, the Pentagon was alerted that a Soviet missile attack was on its way. That alert was due to computer error. Equally serious incidents might still be secret and dangerous flaws might not yet have been discovered. In light of such unfathomable risks, one has to be something of a wimp to root for Mutual Assured Destruction, the MAD doctrine which bans missile defense but tolerates a confrontation of offensive missiles forces, primed to execute mutual genocide. Failure to grasp the magnitude of this gamble betokens a lack of emotional strength. President Reagan saw through the MAD theorizing and had the courage to call for radical cuts in strategic forces, combined with missile defense. Two decades later, George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin realized that the confrontational nature of MAD would poison U.S.-Russia relations. Yet when President Bush decided to end the missile ban, benignant votaries of arms control became enraged and predicted Russia would respond with a huge expansion of its missile force. Perhaps they were disappointed when Mr. Putin did no such thing....