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Weathering Nuclear War

Sean L. Malloy

A NUCLEAR WINTER’S TALE: Science and Politics in the 1980s. Lawrence Badash. xvi + 403 pp. The MIT Press, 2009. $40.

A Nuclear Winter’s Tale, by Lawrence Badash, is an intricately detailed history of a subject that, by the author’s own admission, never managed to capture the sustained attention of the media, the public or policy makers—even at the height of its visibility in the early to mid-1980s. Thus it is not the sort of book the average educated reader, even one interested in nuclear weapons or the history of science, is likely to pick up. Scientists and historians of science, meanwhile, will likely be wary of the amount of space that Badash devotes to the bureaucratic and organizational wrangling over the subject of nuclear winter. Any book that contains chapters titled “Report after Report” and “Bureaucracy and Bickering” is going to be a tough sell to most potential readers.

That’s a shame, because A Nuclear Winter’s Tale deserves a large audience, both for what it has to say about the specific subject of nuclear winter and for the larger questions it raises with respect to science, policy and society. The book would have benefited from greater concision—it sometimes feels as though Badash is attempting an almost 1:1 scale recreation of the debate over nuclear winter that took place in the 1980s. Nevertheless, the volume is a valuable contribution to the history of nuclear weapons and the history of science more generally.

Atmospheric scientist Richard Turco coined the term nuclear winter in 1983 to refer to the dramatic decrease in world temperatures (perhaps by as much as 30 to 40 degrees Celsius on continents in the Northern Hemisphere) that he believed would result from sunlight being blocked by smoke lofted into the atmosphere following a nuclear war. In such a scenario, mass human extinction would result worldwide—in belligerent and noncombatant nations alike.

Turco was one of a five-member team of pioneering researchers who investigated nuclear winter in the 1980s; the others were atmospheric scientist Thomas Ackerman, planetary scientist Carl Sagan and two of Sagan’s former students—James Pollack and Owen Brian Toon. Although Sagan would become the public face of the ensuing debate over nuclear winter, the science was the joint product of this team, collectively referred to as TTAPS (an amalgam of the initials of their last names). Somewhat unusually, the first public announcement of their findings (in October 1983) came not in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, but rather in the pages of Parade magazine, a popular Sunday newspaper supplement for which Sagan was a contributing science editor. The Parade article was quickly followed by a conference in Washington, D.C., and then a December 1983 article in Science in which TTAPS laid out the scientific case for nuclear winter. In A Nuclear Winter’s Tale, Badash examines both the scientific history of nuclear winter as a concept and the debate over its relevance to nuclear policy and the Cold War arms race.

By far the most stimulating parts of this book are the early chapters in which Badash recounts the scientific origins of the concept, which he traces to developments in a cluster of seemingly unrelated scientific disciplines. “No credible scientist in the 1970s,” Badash writes, “would have linked the effects of nuclear weapons, particle microphysics, atmospheric chemistry, fire and smoke research, volcanic eruptions, ozone depletion, planetary studies, and dinosaur extinction.” After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the effects of nuclear weapons were studied extensively by scientists at the major nuclear-weapons laboratories in the United States. But the outsiders who made up the TTAPS team were the first to seriously investigate the potentially dramatic climatic effects of smoke produced by nuclear explosions. It took seemingly serendipitous developments in fields not normally associated with nuclear weapons—most notably, studies of fire and climate—combined with the advent of digital computers to lay the groundwork for their research. “In an area well plowed with federal funding and with a near monopoly by the federal government,” Badash notes, “a few competent civilian scientists were able to make a major discovery.”

At the outset, Badash disclaims any effort to judge “the validity of the [nuclear winter] prediction,” declaring that “as a historian of science, it is not my task to solve scientific controversies but to report and analyze them.” Nevertheless, he is clearly sympathetic to the work of the TTAPS team. He exonerates them of charges that they allowed politics to skew their findings and concludes that “based on the capabilities of the computer models and on the various quantitative data that went into [nuclear winter], the TTAPS conclusion was valid.” He is somewhat less kind to the scientific critics of nuclear winter: He accuses them of engaging in “hand waving” and notes that “they condemned the concept, but they failed to provide models and data that could be used to generate alternative climatic results.”

In general, however, Badash judges the scientific debate over nuclear winter in the 1980s to have been rigorous, healthy and productive. The same could be said of Badash’s treatment of the underlying science. Although he is clearly persuaded by the main thrust of the TTAPS research on nuclear winter, he gives equal time to critics, following the scientific back-and-forth on the subject in great detail.

Badash weaves the public and policy debates over nuclear winter into his treatment of the science, declaring that by the second half of the 20th century, “science, popularization, and politics” had become closely tied together in the United States. The policy part of this story is less interesting than the science simply because it is more predictable. Ronald Reagan had come into office proclaiming the need for a massive nuclear-arms buildup to counter the perceived threat from the Soviet Union. Unsurprisingly, the Reagan administration did not rush to embrace scientific findings that threatened to turn nuclear weapons into, in Sagan’s words, “an elaborate way of committing suicide.” Badash is careful to note that the administration sought neither to censor research regarding nuclear winter nor to punish those who undertook it. Rather, the Department of Defense and other relevant agencies acknowledged the possibility of nuclear winter, stressed the uncertainties surrounding the phenomenon, and then claimed that if it did exist, it merely reinforced the administration’s existing policy preferences (such as the Strategic Defense Initiative). “Suppressing [nuclear winter] in this fashion,” concludes Badash, “was politically effective; it took the wind out of the sails that Sagan tried to inflate.”

A somewhat more interesting question is why Sagan—a witty, telegenic master of making science interesting and accessible—was unable to rally more public interest in the topic. It was certainly not for lack of effort; Badash describes Sagan as “a one-man whirlwind of nuclear winter promotion.” Nuclear winter made a big splash following its initial unveiling in October 1983, but after that it quickly faded from public view and failed to make any lasting impression on the popular consciousness.

In the introduction to the book Badash downplays the impact of structural forces on the nuclear-winter story, but such forces do appear to have played an important role. As he notes, four decades of living under the shadow of the bomb had led the public to become “blasé about nuclear destruction.” Moreover, the two most powerful interest groups that might have mobilized public opinion on nuclear winter—the peace movement and the federal government—remained largely uninterested in the phenomenon. Antinuclear activists had long ago concluded that nuclear war was unthinkable and unwinnable; they thus found little that was new or interesting in the concept of nuclear winter. Politicians, military leaders and defense analysts in Washington, meanwhile, had long been wedded to ideas about nuclear war that had only the most tenuous of connections to reality. The irrational policy of nuclear overkill that characterized U.S. Cold War military policy was deeply rooted and bipartisan, having originated long before Reagan took office. Thus it is not surprising that, arrayed against this structural background, even Sagan’s seemingly boundless powers of persuasion came up short.

Badash characterizes the debate over nuclear winter as “a muddled, chaotic, controversial, and very human story of a scientific idea moving through the scientific community and the government bureaucracy.” At times, A Nuclear Winter’s Tale reflects the muddled nature of the debate all too well. A more concise approach might have resulted in a more accessible (and thus more influential) book. Nevertheless, this is an important volume. Badash’s work does justice to both the science and the history of a phenomenon that has implications for the very survival of the human species.

Sean L. Malloy is an assistant professor of history and member of the founding faculty at the University of California, Merced. He is the author of Atomic Tragedy: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb Against Japan (Cornell University Press, 2008) and of articles dealing with nuclear targeting in World War II and American pre-Hiroshima knowledge of the radiation effects produced by nuclear weapons.

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