Friday, May 05, 2006

The View From 1944

One of the great questions of 20th-century history is that of how greatly the post-WWII world was shaped by the existence of atomic weapons. In many circles, the conventional wisdom is that the existence of nuclear weapons forestalled an otherwise near-inevitable WWIII between the US and USSR. The importance and impact of US atomic diplomacy is one dimension of this debate. For instance, John Lewis Gaddis first made his name as a scholar by attacking the idea that atomic diplomacy was critically important in the late 1940s. I have to admit that I think that this position is completely demolished by now-available Soviet sources, and that it didn't make sense even in the 1970s, but at the time it was a sexy and provacative thesis, the kind that need to be put forward to keep scholars from lapsing into intellectual ruts. However, a review of 1940s strategic analyses demonstrates just how critical the bomb was to the postwar strategic balance.

As an example, I'm going to present a quote from Walter Lippman's July 1944 book US War Aims. Lippman was arguably a proto-neocon, and he wrote extensively about US foreign policy during the first half of the twentieth century. In the book's chapter on US-Soviet relations, he used an interesting simile to describe how he imagined the postwar strategic balance:
A Russian-American war is, as such, a virtual impossibility. In the West the two countries cannot get at each other except by crossing Europe. They might wage border war where Siberia and Alaska meet. But American could not invade and occupy the Urals by way of Alaska, nor Russians the Mississippi Valley by way of Siberia. No competent soldier would contemplate seriously either project.
Aerial bombing accross the arctic will no doubt become technically feasible in the near future. But only uncritical speculation can suppose that air forces based on Russian and American soil could in the foreseeable future be capable of deciding a Russian-American conflict. The notion is quite contrary to all technological experience: it assumes that the while offensive power of the bomber will grow without limits, the anti-aircraft defense will not grow accordingly. In the foreseeable future, which is all that statesmen can deal with, a war waged directly between Russian and the United States is nearly as impossible as a battle between an elephant and a whale.
Ironically, the Trinity test took place 12 months after Lippman's book was published, transforming the strategic balance irrevocably. In his ignorance, Lippman made an excellent case for why a general Soviet-American war was unlikely in a non-nuclear world- it was a military near-impossibility. Without the bomb, the Soviets would have been far more secure in their position on the Eurasian continent. How this might have reshaped the postwar world is something we can never know for certain, but the strategic importance of the bomb is undeniable. By enabling the superpowers to threaten one another directly, it was the most important fact in the postwar strategic balance.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Can We Deter the Insane?

In recent weeks assertions have been made in various media forums that the Iranian regime is irrational, and that therefore we cannot expect them to be deterred from using nuclear weapons against the US and its allies. I find these assertions highly dubious, in part because similar claims have been made regarding every new nuclear power since the 1940s, which all proved false, and in part because the Iranian regime strikes me as extremely crafty. However, it still provides an excuse to revisit the old question of how useful deterrence is against irrational actors.

In order to avoid bringing politics into the mix, I am going to posit a scenario involving a non-political irrational actor. This actor is someone you may or may not be familiar with- homeless mentally ill exhibitionist man. Fifty years ago he would have lived in the state mental hospital, but thanks to deinstitutionalization we get to see him every day on the way to work. Although I'm not offended by nudity myself and think he's in terrible need of help, apparently our societal priorities are elsewhere. The important thing is that we protect our young people from seeing a grown man's penis at any cost.

Now, in the real world, we would expect that HMIEM would be regularly arrested by the police, and perhaps incarcerated for an extended period of time depending on state and local statues. But that implies a power disparity that is not useful for this discussion, so I'm going to assume that HMIEM has diplomatic immunity. Therefore, the "community" has to enforce its "standards" by non-legal means. (Jurisprudence is such a boring cop-out, after all!)

Because HMIEM is legally untouchable, we need to find our own way to deter him from exposing his genitals to passerby. For fun, let's try to develop a means of deterrence based on the lessons of the Cold War nuclear arms race. For instance, I could attemp to expose HMIEM to the same threat he poses us. Can MAE (Mutually Assured Exposure) deter homeless mentally ill exhibitionist man?

We don't know. Just as we can't be absolutely sure that a mentally unstable dictator doesn't have a death wish, we cannot be sure that homeless mentally ill exhibitionist man doesn't enjoy the sight of another man's member. He likes to show his off, after all. It's possible that despite his exhibitionist tendencies, HMIEM will be so offended by the prospect that he will be deterred, but this seems unlikely. We cannot project our own fears and motivations unto him. We cannot assume that he feels shame or fear of death. Instead, we must come to understand his motivations. This might prove problematic, seeing as he is seriously disturbed, but we are obligated to try as a means to manage the situation. If we're lucky, we'll find a cheap, easy solution to the problem. But in the end, there is no guarantee that we can dissuade homeless mentally ill exhibitionist man from exposing himself to us.

Fortunately, the world's nuclear arsenals aren't managed by HMIEM. For the past 60 years, leaders charged with setting nuclear policies have been rational, generally well-meaning men. But this is no guarantee that this will always be the case. There is always a distant possibility that a genuine lunatic will gain control of one or more nukes. But this is not likely. We need to worry less about "deterring the insane" and more about deterring the "rational."

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Colbert and the Bomb

Anyone doubting that atomic culture is still alive and well should consider what Stephen Colbert did last week. And no, I'm not talking about how he compared the Bush administration to the Hindenburg. No, I'm referring to how he announced the "Colbert Nation's" nuclear weapons program, as a response to a segment that was apparently broadcast on Hannity and Colmes. (Click on "Armed and Ready.") In this segment, a group lobbying for greater awareness of nuclear terrorism brought in a transparent plastic mockup of a gun-type fission bomb (the type of weapon dropped on Hiroshima), which they demonstrated on air as evidence of how easily terrorists could build an A-bomb with stolen U-235.

This was ironic in itself, but Colbert's response was hilarious. In character as always, he expressed dismay that Colmes had the bomb, although he also noted that he felt that Hannity was definitely trustworthy enough to be trusted with nukes. In any case, the response was clear- for Colbert to trump Colmes' A-bomb with an H-bomb. Then assistants carried a thoroughly preposterous plastic mockup of an "H-bomb" onto the set and placed it on Colbert's C-shaped news desk. I'm not sure how much of the audience realized it, but this "H-bomb" bore no resemblence to the actual device- in fact, its opertating principle seemed more in line with a Skee-Ball machine than anything else. It basically consisted of a long tube in which "uranium" spheres rolled into one another. The "thermonuclear" portion consisted of a small nondescript box tacked onto the end of the whole affair.

What is Colbert going to do with the bomb? That was left unclear. Apparently, possesing nukes is an end unto itself. Colbert's performance speaks volumes about atomic culture in contemporary America. Unfortunately, Colbert's theater of the absurd bears a considerable resemblence to reality- and that's the point. Although it's certainly nothing new, people in all levels of society engage in magical thinking about nuclear weapons. Much of the current debate about nuclear weapons seems determined to ignore the considerable scholarship developed over the past sixty years on the topic. Recently, the topic of nuclear war has once again been brought to the forefront again by Iran's nuclear program. Seymour Hersh has reported that planning for a potential nuclear strike on Iran, and President Bush has refused to explicitly repudiate Hersh's claims. Is Hersh right? I pray to God that he's not, but I think there are good reasons to believe he is. In future posts, I will explore the implications of nuclear weapons past, present, and future.