New York Review of Books on Nuclear Weapons: No IQ

New York Review of Books on Nuclear Weapons: No IQ

One reads Joseph Cirincione’s The Greatest Threat to Us All  which appeared in The New York Review and there is no reference to I.Q., no reference to certain ethnic realities that were largely introduced into the world by democratic blonds, and no reference to the spectacular engineering achievements that were accomplished in just two generations by populations that a few decades ago were widely regarded by the American Establishment as inferior. These are long term dangerous omissions.
Mr. Cirincione begins the piece with a nod to this election year obsession with terrorism, and its ultimate expression, nuclear terrorism. He recounts the geographic specifics: Iraq, Iran, other contenders in the Middle East, North Korea, several specific locales in the rest of the world where peaceful nuclear power could morph into some version of nuclear terror. He puts some numbers into the problem: In the 1980’s 65,000 nuclear weapons were held by the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The total in 2007 was down to 26,000 with Russia and America accounting for the vast majority, and about one thousand divided among seven other countries.

How did the world get to this place, where a weapon system has become THE PROBLEM; the problem that has overtaken the strategic issues that, presumably, created the felt need for the weapon system in the first place? Mr. Cirincione draws on Richard Rhodes  Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race  to suggest a major influence was the actions of a handful of Cold War Warriors in critical government positions. The focus consistently remains on the president and a handful of political advisers, acting from appointed positions within the government, with assistance from connected outside intellectuals. Truman, of course, is the first important figure: He quadrupled the defense budget and assumed that an emphasis on more nuclear weapons would enhance the security of the U.S.

The first President Bush and “Team B”; Carter and Committee on the Present Danger, the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States and President George W. Bush continue the central theme through decades. Sometimes the outside forces reinforce the then administration’s nuclear positions, sometimes they seek to  present the American people with the dish of fear in order to harden and expand the nuclear effort. But the emphasis in the review of Mr. Rhodes work is on people, the “People in Charge”, and their willingness to practice “threat inflation,” America’s vulnerability to unfriendly foreign states.

After presenting History as Rhodes sees it, Cirincione addresses a fundamental question: What are nuclear weapons for? He appears to think that they are completely irrational. The work that he reviews, The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger, by Jonathan Schell, gives the review an opportunity to  criticize the present day Men in Charge. He quotes Schell’s book, “The mission of nuclear weapons is no longer to produce stalemate with a peer.” Their purpose under Bush is to win wars against non-nuclear powers.  The policy operates in favor of the status quo; neither the U.S. its allies or its foes question, deep down, the reality of a continuing and expanding nuclear universe.

Proliferation, in this view,  is built into what the People in Charge in America believe. Pakistan, which is the focus of two of the books included in the review; America and the Islamic Bomb: The Deadly Compromise by David Armstrong and Joseph Trento, and Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons by Adrien Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark. Again, the focus is American Men in Charge and, again, the blame spreads through the decades because “successive US administrations looked the other way,” as their Pakistan ally developed and sold the material and information that encapsulate proliferation.

The operational assumptions that grip Cirincione are revealed in his assertion that the “greatest” threat to American national security is the possibility that al-Qaeda might acquire a nuclear weapon, or the material to make one. The focus is on “material;” equipment and technology, loose on the planet. Pakistan is by no means the sole nuclear threat; with fifty countries holding stockpiles of material that could be used for nuclear weapons, the terror going forward, seems limitless.

At the end however, we know what to expect of the review, we expect hope: and for over a half century the intellectuals performing the review have not disappointed. Cirincione is no exception. He quotes, approvingly, a Harvard based authority who tells us that nuclear terrorism is the “preventable catastrophe.” All that is required is the proper focus by The Men in Charge, and, of course, more money.

Now, it is a curious matter to me that there have been so many similar, intelligent and literate commentaries on the nuclear conundrum for a half century, and the at end of a half century of optimistic endings, and assurances that this is really a simple matter, there is no doubt of the central conclusion of the half century nuclear dance: the United States is orders of magnitude more vulnerable to nuclear annihilation than it was in the middle of the 20th century.

Liberals share, with right wing conservatives, certain specific dangerous fantasies about the new trinity, the blast, the delivery, the instrumentation. The threat, they think,  is about material and technique

But there is one hopeful sign. The thread is not followed, but the first wisp, hanging off the spool, is there. The review contains one precise, economic, insightful gem: “The system itself was, Rhodes says, ‘a dream, a fantasy, an uninformed winner-take-all bet that American technology could make miracles happen.” Perfect. Miracles did not happen between 1950 and 2000. Instead, a poor, backward, ignorant, illiterate, dirty peasant society, China, can now blow the United States to Kingdom Come.

Now, of course, of course; this destruction would come at the expense of a China turned into a Hiroshima inferno. But if one sees the world when President Truman was in power; China could not have destroyed the U.S.; but the U.S., with its bomber fleet and handful of nuclear weapons, could have destroyed China.

The change relative to Russia is not as dramatic, but remember these numbers: During the Truman Administration the USSR had about two hundred nuclear weapons when the United States had 1,400. Truman greatly increased the defense budget and the U.S. had 20,000 nuclear bombs by 1960, and 32,000 by 1966. (It is worth noting that when Kennedy and Khrushchev stared at each other over Cuba, estimates were made that the Soviet Union only had 4 to 6 missiles capable of hitting the American land mass with a nuclear weapon. Had the United States been willing to run the risk, it is all but certain that the U.S.retaliation, could, in fact, have bombed Russia into oblivion.) The American loss of security facing Russia may not have been as perfect as the loss facing China, because even in the 1950’s a lucky Russian bomber might have found its way to the North American continent. But it is incontestable that America was orders of magnitude more vulnerable in 2006 than in 1956.

Now Mr. Cirincione, and the authors he reviews seem not to be aware of this expanding balloon of vulnerability that has become not a  problem, but a condition for the population on the North American continent. The bitter reality that is being forced upon the American population is this: America cannot have a world where the American three year old is infinitely safe, and the Russian and the Chinese three year old is infinitely vulnerable. New York Review of Books on Nuclear Weapons: No IQ,


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