An End to Nuclear Fairytales


For the past five presidential administrations, the United States has been wrestling with the growing threat of North Korea’s rapidly expanding nuclear weapons capability. The issue has lately gained urgency due to two factors. One is the unexpectedly rapid leap forward in those capabilities (to include viable nuclear warheads and missiles capable of delivering them within range of US allies and perhaps even the United States itself). The other is the reckless incoherence of the current US president in responding to those developments.

For many many Americans, the notion of a maliciously ignorant, shockingly unqualified bozo (I’m using the technical term here) like Donald Trump in possession of the nuclear codes and responsible for managing a crisis like this was the fundamental terror surrounding his run for the White House. Now that he is inexplicably in power, it was all but inevitable that a nuclear showdown with the DPRK would emerge and test him on that front. And so it has.

Is anyone surprised that Trump’s approach to North Korea is like his approach to everything else—which is to say, ad hoc, impulsive, and transactional, heavily reliant on bluster and bullying and woefully short on reason, forethought, and attention to expert advice? Hawks may cheer his allegedly “tough” talk toward Pyongyang; more sentient beings have expressed a little more concern. But Trump’s nutjob loose cannonism is only a crasser expression of the fundamental fallacies at the heart of the United States’ historic approach to nuclear proliferation full stop.


From the very dawn of the Atomic Age, American chauvinists—giddy at the idea of our possession of an all-powerful “Doomsday Weapon”—fantasized that somehow the US could maintain its nuclear monopoly forever. Drunk on the notion of this god-like power, they imagined that the Bomb was, in the scathing critique of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, like a pistol the United States could wave at the rest of the world and get whatever we wanted. The absurd conviction that no other nation had any right to such a weapon was twinned with the delusion that the United States could somehow prevent other nations from acquiring it. The appeal of this ”‘Doomsday Weapon” was so alluring that it overwhelmed reason.

For his temerity in stating otherwise, Oppenheimer himself—the reluctant father of that very weapon—would be hounded, defamed, and ultimately destroyed in a McCarthyite auto-da-fé. Very specifically, it was Oppenheimer’s refusal to endorse the development of the hydrogen bomb that led to his Shakespearean downfall (his own character flaws notwithstanding). For the definitive account, see Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book American-Prometheus.

It was Oppenheimer’s contention that the sheer destructive power of the Super—as the H-bomb was known among nuclear scientists of that time—made an utter fiction of the idea that it could be used on purely military targets, rendering it by definition a “genocidal” weapon, both strategically unnecessary and morally indefensible. But in the broader sense, Oppenheimer was persecuted for the greater, unforgivable sin of simply opposing the bellicose orthodoxy of American exceptionalism. Yet his excommunication from the nuclear priesthood and public life did not change the inconvenient but undeniable facts that he had been so ungracious as to point out.

Even today it is an irrational article of faith in much of America—to say nothing of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue—that no other country has any right to nuclear weapons except those that already have it. Setting aside the issue of “rights,” this attitude is sometimes cogently framed as a moral or practical point about the dangers of nuclear proliferation. But more often it is presented in Biblical tones of outrage and sanctimony, flowing from the belief that Almighty God entrusted America and America alone with the stewardship of this terrifying weapon. (Exceptions are made for our British, French, and Israeli allies; Russian and Chinese possession of the Bomb is still viewed as a travesty we are forced to live with, while the Indian and Pakistani arsenals are treated as a regional problem at best.) Countries with nuclear ambitions are branded “rogue states” simply by virtue of those ambitions, raising the question: rogue by whose measure? To the citizens of Iran or North Korea, or Brazil or Costa Rica for that matter, why shouldn’t they too have the Bomb? For ambitious tyrants like Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong-un, the strategic value of a nuclear arsenal is self-evident, both for regional leverage against their enemies and for self-preservation against Western intervention. Indeed, it would almost be foolish not to seek it.

The present rending of garments and gnashing of teeth that the DPRK and Iran must never be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons echoes the same panicky cries that were leveled at the USSR and People’s Republic of China in the late 1940s. Yet for all our outrage, we could not stop the Soviets or Chinese from acquiring nuclear technology, and we cannot stop the Koreans or the Iranians either, at least not by sheer apoplexy. The notion of nuclear capability in the hands of Moscow or Beijing was once unthinkable, but we eventually learned to live with it, however uneasily, because we had no choice. And we will be forced to do the same with Pyongyang and possibly Tehran.

This is not defeatism. It is a simple acknowledgment of reality and a refusal to pursue pointless and even counter-productive policies out of magical thinking and self-delusion.

I am not arguing that it is desirable or wise for more nations to acquire the Bomb, let alone those two. Very much the contrary. The DPRK is particularly terrifying, for obvious reasons. But the self-righteous claim that no developing country has any “right” to the Bomb is patently irrational and hypocritical, and the fantasy that the US can permanently prevent such efforts by force is precisely that.


As early as July 1945, with the successful test of the world’s first atomic bomb at the Trinity test site in New Mexico, Robert Oppenheimer knew that there was no keeping the nuclear genie in its bottle. Having led the Manhattan Project, he understood better than anyone that any industrialized nation willing to devote the necessary time, energy, and resources could eventually get the Bomb. Much as it galls American exceptionaliststs and other xenophobes, that was indisputable in 1945 and it is even more indisputable today. The success of India and Pakistan on that front attests to the truth of Oppenheimer’s claim, proving that even impoverished countries could join the nuclear club so long as they were willing to sacrifice other urgent national priorities—like feeding their people—in order to do so. (See Jon Else’s Oscar nominated 1980 documentary, The Day After Trinity.)

Sometimes the ambitions of an aspiring nuclear power can be delayed or disrupted by the use of enough sticks, and sometimes they can be deterred by the deployment of enough carrots. But in the end, if a state is sufficiently determined and tenacious, it simply can not be denied—and certainly not by force. Despite the fervent wishes of flag-waving jingoists, military power may be able to prevent or set back a rival’s nuclear ambitions temporarily, but not always and not forever. Israel’s surgical airstrike on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 comes to mind, though it only delayed the Iraqi effort and drove it underground. (According to defectors from Saddam’s nuclear weapons program, by the time Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990 it was within two months of enriching uranium to weapons grade.)

Indeed, military action sometimes has the opposite effect on proliferation. It hardly bears repeating that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was justified in large part on the specious grounds of preventing Saddam from obtaining nuclear weapons, when in reality his nuclear program had been defunct since 1991. Ironically, the invasion forced many of Iraq’s nuclear scientists to flee and/or seek employment elsewhere. Is it a coincidence that the uranium enrichment technology they pioneered is now the very same technology Tehran is using? In short, the Bush administration’s war in Iraq may well have hastened exactly what it had been sold to as a cure for: it spread WMD throughout the Middle East.

Similarly, the resort to force in order to stop foreign powers from getting nuclear weapons has itself created an undeniable rationale for those powers to obtain them. Saddam Hussein had no Bomb and got invaded; Kim Jong Il and his descendants managed to get one and are still in power—and indeed get cut a tremendous amount of slack by the West as a result. For an aspiring potentate, the lesson is clear. Until we shift to a strategy that recognizes that dynamic, we will continue to be on a hamster wheel where the threat of military force brings about the precise outcome it is intended to forestall.


The only way to prevent a sovereign state from getting nuclear weapons is by creating conditions—via economic and diplomatic means, backed up by (but not solely reliant upon) military might—that convince, cajole, or otherwise incentivize that state to abandon those ambitions. That can mean leveraging them as part of the community of nations, or conversely, ostracizing and isolating them from that same community and starving them into compliance. In other words, measures precisely like the diplomatic deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program which remains so hysterically opposed by the hawkish right in the United States. True, a loaded gun is rather handy in the negotiators’ toolkit, but it is not sufficient on its own, despite the macho fantasies that are rife in the GOP primaries, for example.

In the shameless traveling snake oil road show that passed for his presidential campaign, Donald Trump predictably parroted the sneering contempt of the American right for the Iran deal. Atop the usual Neanderthal belief that we can somehow bully Tehran into abandoning its atomic ambitions, our con artist-in-chief added his own special dusting of bullshit, suggesting that he and he alone somehow had the “dealmaking” skills to negotiate a better arrangement. (He has subsequently shown that he can’t even broker a deal for his own party to repeal Obamacare.)

But even if we were inclined to pursue one, the feasibility of a military solution to the Iranian Bomb is highly questionable. With its uranium enrichment program and missile silos literally underground, buried in hardened sites and built into caves, Iran’s nuclear effort is largely impervious to airstrikes. So let’s rule out that otherwise alluring magic bullet. No one has consulted me, but I am not aware of a sufficiently robust clandestine program to overthrow the Iranian regime and replace it with a Jeffersonian democracy either. Which leaves conventional war, the least desirable military option. Does the US have the stomach for yet another invasion of a Muslim-majority Middle Eastern country and a brutal ground war in which the best case scenario is generations of painful occupation and counter-insurgency with no promise of success? Put in those terms, a diplomatic solution starts to sound more and more appealing, to say nothing of more likely to succeed.

North Korea is an even more difficult problem, as it already has the Bomb. The United States can no longer eliminate Pyongyang’s nuclear capability militarily—if indeed we ever could have—unless we are willing to trigger the deaths of upwards of 35 million people and turn the entire Korean peninsula and beyond into an sheet of radioactive glass. If that is your definition of victory, it’s all yours. Even if the US had pursued a military option earlier, before North Korea’s quest was complete, it likely would not have succeeded.

As with preventing nuclear proliferation, the only workable means of coping with it once it has happened is diplomatic. Only a handful of nations have ever willingly given up their nuclear arsenals, principally South Africa and various former Soviet satellites. All of them did so for reasons of pragmatic self-interest. None did so at gunpoint.


We as a species have become so accustomed to the nuclear balance of terror that we have come to treat it like an immutable law of nature. But it is not. Once upon a time there were other options available to us…..and there may yet be again, if we wise up. (A big if, to be fair.) But it’s worth looking back at the foolhardy stubbornness and near-suicidal myopia that got us into this mess in the first place.

Seventy years after the fact, it is hard to believe that in 1945, at the dawn of the Atomic Age, a consensus of US national security experts concurred that the best path forward for lasting global peace was for the United States to share its atomic secrets with the Soviet Union and put all nuclear technology under international control. That consensus included the greatly esteemed Secretary of War Henry Stimson and all of the four-star generals of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—not a group known for being dovish or stupid or wantonly giving away the store to our enemies.

I can already hear the nativists and America Firsters and anti-globalists howling with fury. (They did in 1945 and they would do so again today.) Give the Bomb to a genocidal monster like Joe Stalin? Willingly sacrifice America’s nuclear monopoly and surrender the most powerful weapon in human history and the unprecedented strategic advantage that went with it? A weapon that, after all, had been developed by American scientists in American laboratories with American know-how, determination, and taxpayer dollars? (A lot of those American scientists were immigrants and refugees, by the by, but whatever.)

Admittedly, it does give one pause. But consider the alternative, which of course is what happened instead.

Stalin got the Bomb anyway, as Oppenheimer and every other nuclear scientist and even the Pentagon knew he would. The War Department’s estimate was that it would take the Soviets somewhere between ten and thirty years to do so. They got the Bomb in four. (This tradition of overly rosy predictions continues today, as our habitual underestimation of the North Korean nuclear program shows.) In part Moscow was able to do so through espionage, which Oppenheimer and others also knew was inevitable, and therefore yet another reason that international control was desirable.

Even after the USSR got the Bomb in 1949, the hawks insisted that theirs had been the right course, since we still had a massive “headstart.” Their rationale immediately switched from the claim that the Soviets could be prevented from acquiring the Bomb to the delusion that we could always stay a step ahead. And from there we quickly descend into Strangelovian territory. The result was the arms race—the very crux of the Cold War—which for almost fifty years perched the world on the brink of Armageddon.

International control of nuclear weapons would not have cost the United States any strategic advantage at all, and would have saved humanity from the madness of that arms race. It also would have prevented any other nations from obtaining the Bomb, significantly reducing the risk of apocalypse both by accident and design. (It might not have worked, of course. Stalin might have balked at the inspection regimen required for such an arrangement. But we could have tried. The US had a lot more leverage in dictating terms in 1945 than it did in 1949. Instead the US pursued the disingenuous Baruch Plan, a ruse designed to sabotage the very notion of international atomic control and blame its failure on Moscow.) But that wise and thoughtful approach did not come to pass, because the American nuclear monopolists and their ignorant, demagogic argument prevailed. Once again, American indignation at the idea of anyone else getting the Bomb resulted in precisely that outcome.


The fact of the matter is, the entire history of nuclear warfare is riddled with lies and willful self-deception, from the myth of a sustainable monopoly on nuclear weapons, to the idea that there could ever be any winners in a thermonuclear war, to the notion that the Bomb won the Second World War in the first place.

In the United States, it has always been an almost-universally accepted fiction that the dropping of the atomic bombs precluded the need for a bloody Allied invasion of the Japanese home islands, thus saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of US servicemen (and, incidentally, lots of Japanese as well). But subsequent scholarship and the emergence of declassified documents—including diplomatic cables from the Imperial Japanese government intercepted by the US—revealed that Tokyo had been willing to surrender before Hiroshima on one condition: that the Allies allowed Emperor Hirohito to remain on the Chrysanthemum Throne. Belying the myth that the Bomb won the war, Japan remained unwilling to waive that demand even after having not just one but two atomic bombs dropped on it.

Whether they would have eventually thrown in the towel if atomic bombs continued to rain we will never know. At the time, the United States did not even have a third A-bomb to drop, let alone an entire arsenal of them, nor was there reason to believe such action would have changed the tune of a Japanese government that had made suicidal fanaticism a national fetish. As it was, Tokyo submitted only when the United States agreed to let the Emperor remain nominally in power, if only as a figurehead. In other words, the United States got the same terms of surrender from Japan after Hiroshima and Nagasaki that it had been offered before. The falsehood of V-J Day as an “unconditional surrender” is blatant: the surrender was not unconditional at all. Contrary to the dogma that had been so relentlessly drummed into the American psyche, even two atomic bombs had not been not enough to force Japan to surrender.

But from the very moment that Hiroshima was vaporized, the narrative that the Bomb saved untold lives and won the war has been an article of faith so ingrained in us as Americans that it is rarely challenged or even discussed, not even in the most left-leaning or progressive circles. That was, of course, the version of events that Washington knew it had to sell in order to justify the instant incineration of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians (on the heels of the months-long Allied firebombing of other Japanese cities). It simply must be so in order for the United States to maintain its image of itself as moral and good. Which is why even to this day, to question the idea that the Bomb “won” the war remains not only blasphemy, but almost never even raised.

But it simply isn’t true.

It hardly bears mentioning the auxiliary reasons that the Bomb was dropped. American possession of this Doomsday Weapon—and more importantly, our willingness to use it—had to be demonstrated to the Soviets ahead of the looming Cold War; more prosaically, the vast expense of building the Bomb had to be justified to American taxpayers; and last but by no means least, the sheer inertia of an endeavor like the Manhattan Project made it all but inevitable that the resulting weapon would be dropped on someone. The United States would hardly have invested such time, money, resources, and grim determination in creating this device and then not use it. The most compelling imperative of all might have been the simplest, the one most deeply embedded in our collective reptile brain: the urge to exact revenge for Pearl Harbor and the entire, terrible Pacific War. (For more, see James Carroll’s seminal history of the Cold War and the arms race, House of War.)


Would we have as readily dropped it on the already defeated white people of Germany as we did on the similarly defeated yellow people of Japan? That remains an open question.

In any event, the United States remains the only country to have ever actually used nuclear weapons on human beings.


So what does this history bode for our nuclear future regarding the DPRK, Iran, and others?

We have no choice but to come to terms with North Korea as a nuclear power. No amount of chest-thumping or wishful thinking will change that. That is the nature of the world that mankind’s shortsighted and arrogant decisions, beginning in 1945 and even earlier, created. Likewise, if we are able to deter Iran from fulfilling its nuclear ambitions, it will be through diplomacy, not force. The sooner we grow up and face these facts the better decisions we will be able to make in this realm.

For seventy-two years the world has avoided a nuclear war. But given the number of close calls, it would behoove us to see that pax atomica as extremely good fortune rather than destiny or the natural state of affairs. Let us hope that with the DPRK and other such crises, cooler heads prevail and a diplomatic approach takes precedence, as it did in October 1962 (as Martin Sherwin, co-author of American Prometheus, recently wrote). But in case you’re in danger of getting a good night’s sleep per Rex Tillerson, consider Evan Osnos’s words in the New Yorker, detailing his recent trip to Pyongyang:

The prospect of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the most hermetic power on the globe had entered a realm of psychological calculation reminiscent of the Cold War, and the two men making the existential strategic decisions were not John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev but a senescent real-estate mogul and reality-television star and a young third-generation dictator who has never met another head of state. Between them, they had less than seven years of experience in political leadership.

I can’t believe I’m writing this, but as numerous observers have noted, of the two heads of state in this current nuclear showdown, Kim Jong-un is actually the more rational and predictable. That is not to say that he isn’t a monstrous mass murderer and horrific tyrant. He most certainly is. (And there are good reasons to worry about his motivation to launch a first strike.) But he is at least driven by logical, recognizable goals. It’s hard to say the same of Trump, unless you count pure sociopathic narcissism as a goal.

It is beyond comprehension that the world is dependent on Kim’s relatively level head (operative word: relatively) to restrain the deranged toddler who is President of the United States from plunging the globe into nuclear holocaust.

But her emails…..

Photo: Robert Oppenheimer by Alfred Eisenstadt for Life magazine



6 thoughts on “An End to Nuclear Fairytales

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