After the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb in 1949, the United States embarked on a crash program to build a far more powerful nuclear weapon. Having been decommissioned after World War II, the Pantex plant was reactivated and has been the main source of American nukes ever since.
The atomic bomb is a fission weapon, meaning the nuclei of atoms are split into parts whose sum total weighs less than the original atoms, the difference having been transformed into energy. A hydrogen bomb uses the intense heat generated by that "fission" (hence thermo nuclear) as a trigger for a vastly more powerful "fusion," or combining, of elements, which results in an even larger loss of mass being transformed into explosive energy of a previously unimagined sort. One H-bomb generates explosive force 100 to 1,000 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb.
Given a kind of power that humans once only imagined in the hands of the gods, key former Manhattan Project scientists, including Enrico Fermi, James Conant, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, firmly opposed the development of such a new weapon as a potential threat to the human species. The Super Bomb would be, in Conant's word, "genocidal." Following the lead of those scientists, members of the Atomic Energy Commission recommended -- by a vote of three to two -- against developing such a fusion weapon, but President Truman ordered it done anyway.
In 1952, as the first H-bomb test approached, still-concerned atomic scientists proposed that the test be indefinitely postponed to avert a catastrophic "super" competition with the Soviets. They suggested that an approach be made to Moscow to mutually limit thermonuclear development only to research on, not actual testing of, such weaponry, especially since none of this could truly be done in secret. A fusion bomb's test explosion would be readily detectable by the other side, which could then proceed with its own testing program. The scientists urged Moscow and Washington to draw just the sort of arms control line that the two nations would indeed agree to many years later.- Advertisement -
At the time, the United States had the initiative. An out-of-control arms race with the potential accumulation of thousands of such weapons on both sides had not yet really begun. In 1952, the United States numbered its atomic arsenal in the low hundreds; the Soviet Union in the dozens. (Even those numbers, of course, already offered a vision of an Armageddon-like global war.) President Truman considered the proposal to indefinitely postpone the test. It was then backed by figures like Vannevar Bush, who headed the Office of Scientific Research and Development, which had overseen the wartime Manhattan Protect. Scientists like him already grasped the lesson that would only slowly dawn on policymakers -- that every advance in the atomic capability of one of the superpowers would inexorably lead the other to match it, ad infinitum. The title of the bestselling James Jones novel of that moment caught the feeling perfectly: From Here to Eternity.
In the last days of his presidency, however, Truman decided against such an indefinite postponement of the test -- against, that is, a break in the nuke-accumulation momentum that might well have changed history. On November 1, 1952, the first H-bomb -- "Mike" -- was detonated on an island in the Pacific. It had 500 times more lethal force than the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima. With a fireball more than three miles wide, not only did it destroy the three-story structure built to house it but also the entire island of Elugelab, as well as parts of several nearby islands.
In this way, the thermonuclear age began and the assembly line at that same Pantex plant really started to purr. Less than 10 years later, the United States had 20,000 nukes, mostly H-bombs; Moscow, fewer than 2,000. And three months after that first test, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved that hand on its still new clock to two minutes before midnight.- Advertisement -
A Madman-Theory Version of the World
It may seem counterintuitive to compare the manufacture of what's called a "mini-nuke" to the creation of the "super" almost six decades ago, but honestly, what meaning can "mini" really have when we're talking about nuclear war? The point is that, as in 1952, so in 2019 another era-shaping threshold is being crossed at the very same weapons plant in the high plains country of the Texas Panhandle, where so many instruments of mayhem have been created. Ironically, because the H-bomb was eventually understood to be precisely what the dissenting scientists had claimed it was -- a genocidal weapon -- pressures against its use proved insurmountable during almost four decades of savage East-West hostility. Today, the Trident-mounted W76-2 could well have quite a different effect -- its first act of destruction potentially being the obliteration of the long-standing, post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki taboo against nuclear use. In other words, so many years after the island of Elugelab was wiped from the face of the Earth, the "absolute weapon" is finally being normalized.
With President Trump expunging the theoretical from Richard Nixon's "madman theory" -- that former president's conviction that an opponent should fear an American leader was so unstable he might actually push the nuclear button -- what is to be done? Once again, nuke-skeptical scientists, who have grasped the essential problems in the nuclear conundrum with crystal clarity for three quarters of a century, are pointing the way. In 2017, the Union of Concerned Scientists, together with Physicians for Social Responsibility, launched Back from the Brink: The Call to Prevent Nuclear War, "a national grassroots initiative seeking to fundamentally change U.S. nuclear weapons policy and lead us away from the dangerous path we are on."
Engaging a broad coalition of civic organizations, municipalities, religious groups, educators, and scientists, it aims to lobby government bodies at every level, to raise the nuclear issue in every forum, and to engage an ever-wider group of citizens in pressing for change in American nuclear policy. Back From the Brink makes five demands, much needed in a world in which the U.S. and Russia are withdrawing from a key Cold-War-era nuclear treaty with more potentially to come, including the New START pact that expires two years from now. The five demands are:
- No to first use of nukes. (Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Adam Smith only recently introduced a No First Use Act in both houses of Congress to stop Trump and future presidents from launching a nuclear war.)
- End the unchecked launch-authority of the president. (Last month, Senator Edward Markey and Representative Ted Lieu reintroduced a bill that would do just that.)
- No to nuclear hair-triggers.
- No to endlessly renewing and replacing the arsenal (as the U.S. is now doing to the tune of perhaps $1.6 trillion over three decades).
- Yes to an abolition agreement among nuclear-armed states.
These demands range from the near-term achievable to the long-term hoped for, but as a group they define what clear-eyed realism should be in Donald Trump's new version of our never-ending nuclear age.
In the upcoming season of presidential politics, the nuclear question belongs at the top of every candidate's agenda. It belongs at the center of every forum and at the heart of every voter's decision. Action is needed before the W76-2 and its successors teach a post-Hiroshima planet what nuclear war is truly all about.- Advertisement -
James Carroll, TomDispatch regular and former Boston Globe columnist, is the author of 20 books, most recently the novel The Cloister (Doubleday). His history of the Pentagon, House of War, won the PEN-Galbraith Award. His memoir, An American Requiem , won the National Book Award. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Copyright 2019 James Carroll