Ping (zestyping) wrote,

Nuclear history and future.

The Berkeley Consortium for the Arts is organizing a series of events about the atomic bomb. Yesterday i went to a discussion with Martin Sherwin and Jonathan Schell about controlling nuclear weapons.

Martin Sherwin began by setting aside the tired old metaphor of "putting the nuclear genie back in a bottle" in favour of "finding our way out of the nuclear maze." Sherwin described his conversations with people who worked on the atomic bomb, who invariably mentioned the essentiality of Robert Oppenheimer's leadership. Without Oppenheimer, atomic weapons would probably not have been deployed in time to be used in World War II. But after the war ended, Oppenheimer learned that the war would likely have ended even without the atomic bombings, and began to work on the Atomic Energy Commission to develop policies for controlling nuclear weapons. He guided the development of the Acheson-Lilienthal Report, presented to President Truman in February 1946, which recommended that the U. S. give up its monopoly on nuclear weapons and establish an international agency to control fissile material. However, when Bernard Baruch presented it to the United Nations as the Baruch Plan, he made significant changes that made it unacceptable to the Soviet Union.

After the end of World War II, the United States continued to work on making more powerful nuclear weapons, including a new generation of thermonuclear weapons that could be hundreds of times more destructive. He pointed out that one of the most significant moments in nuclear history occurred in 1949, when the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission responded to news of the first Soviet nuclear tests by recommending that the United States commit to stop developing the fusion bomb on the grounds that it was immoral. It was the first time that morality officially entered the discussion.

Nuclear weapons seem to have a strange impermeability to political change. Although the original reason for developing and stockpiling nuclear weapons was political — to deter the Soviet Union during the Cold War — they have sailed right on, virtually unaffected by the end of the Cold War. Sherwin described the failure of the United States to disarm after the Cold War as an "act of epic negligence."

Jonathan Schell pointed out that the U. S. has a new doctrine that is open to using nuclear weapons not merely in retaliation to a nuclear attack, but even to punish countries that try to develop them. Established non-proliferation treaties allow other countries to develop nuclear power in exchange for being forbidden from having developing weapons, but now the U. S. wants to prevent other countries from obtaining nuclear fuel at all.

My big question through all of this was how to argue against deterrence. The argument for deterring enemies from attacking by the threat of overwhelming force is so compelling that i don't know how to meet it on its own terms. Jonathan Schell addressed this near the end of the session by explaining two main advantages of establishing an international nuclear abolition plan. First, it provides the participating countries a moral advantage: to be the sole developer on nuclear weapons in a world of nuclear abolition would be an untenable position, and would immediately lead to ostracization of the offending country. Second, having all nations united under a single agreement would form a more powerful force for international security than the current double standard, since everyone would be depending on nuclear disarmament.

Though mutual assured destruction is absurd, merely pointing out its absurdity isn't enough to effect political change. A truly compelling alternative is needed. I'd welcome your thoughts on how to construct the most convincing argument for an escape from the Prisoner's Dilemma of nuclear weapons.
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