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Atomic Escapism?

Hugh Gusterson

ATOMIC OBSESSION: Nuclear Alarmism From Hiroshima to al-Qaeda. John Mueller. xvi + 319 pp. Oxford University Press, 2010. $27.95.

Reading John Mueller’s Atomic Obsession is like going through the looking glass with Alice. Examining the conventional wisdom about nuclear weapons from the other side of the looking glass, Mueller tells us that their destructiveness has been exaggerated; that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were of marginal importance in ending World War II; that “nuclear weapons have been of little historic consequence,” and that the United States and the Soviet Union would not have gone to war even in the absence of nuclear deterrence; that arms-control treaties are usually a waste of time and effort; that the dangers of nuclear proliferation are greatly exaggerated; that sanctions aimed at stopping countries from seeking nuclear weapons make it more likely that they will pursue them; and, finally, that “the likelihood a terrorist group will come up with an atomic bomb seems to be vanishingly small.”

In arguing against atomic “alarmism” and the inclination “to wallow in a false sense of insecurity,” Mueller has something to annoy everyone. Conservatives can take umbrage at his arguments that the bombing of Hiroshima was unnecessary to end World War II and that the Cold War nuclear buildup was not needed to deter the Soviets. Liberals can be upset by the claim that arms-control treaties are pointless and sometimes even counterproductive.

The challenge in reading Mueller’s book is to separate insights that are deviant but useful (some of his deconstructions of the conventional wisdom are genuinely insightful) from arguments that are deviant because they are exaggerated, misshapen or just plain wrong. Many of Mueller’s sharp-edged points about the hyping of the dangers of nuclear proliferation and terrorism fall into the first (insightful) category, but his critiques of arms control and his apparent smugness about all nuclear dangers belong in the latter.

Mueller argues that liberals and conservatives have joined in exaggerating the danger and importance of nuclear weapons; they have used our fears over the years to justify unnecessary weapons programs and arms-control negotiations, a counterproductive invasion of Iraq, and now bloated counterterrorism initiatives. He builds his argument atop an exercise in counterfactual history, maintaining that nuclear weapons were unnecessary to keep the peace during the Cold War, because both superpowers would have been deterred from war anyway by memories of the carnage of World War II, and because the Soviet Union was too risk-averse to chance an invasion of Europe. (He does not ask whether Soviet nuclear weapons might have deterred the United States from starting a war with the Soviets.) Those who know Cold War history in its rich complexity will be infuriated by the simplifications, omissions and blithe assumptions in this exercise in intellectual casuistry, which brings to mind not the work of a scholar seriously weighing evidence, but the efforts of a high-school debate team to push a contrived point of view as far as possible.

The most original, incisive and interesting part of the book is the last third, in which Mueller slashes through the hype that guides much public discourse and policymaking about the risk of nuclear terrorism. He points out that a foreign government is unlikely to give a nuclear weapon to a terrorist group because of the danger that, as supplier, that country would invite retaliation against itself. He also uses the writings of several nuclear scientists, including the former Los Alamos division leaders Carson Mark and Steve Younger, to argue that it would be prohibitively difficult for a small terrorist group that lacked state sponsorship to acquire the subtle engineering knowledge needed to overcome the technical challenges involved in turning black-market nuclear material into a workable nuclear weapon. Many scientific experts not cited here by Mueller would take issue with that argument. And having read one of the articles that Mueller does cite—“Can Terrorists Build Nuclear Weapons?,” by J. Carson Mark and others (1987)—I am of the opinion that it does not, in fact, support Mueller’s argument. Furthermore, in dismissing the case for a terrorist nuclear threat, Mueller does not adequately address the possibility that a terrorist group seeking a bomb might have access to a scientist with nuclear-weapons experience from another state as an adviser or team member. Still, by pointing out the importance of tacit and esoteric knowledge to the success of such an endeavor, Mueller is making an important challenge to glib assumptions about the ease with which a terrorist group, even if it had access to uranium and plutonium, might be able to make a bomb.

Mueller fails to discuss another possibility: that a rogue element within a state, not the state leadership itself, might sell an intact nuclear weapon to which it has access. This scenario is far from speculative: After the fall of the Berlin wall, a Soviet soldier guarding nuclear weapons in East Germany offered to sell an atomic warhead to the antinuclear organization Greenpeace; Greenpeace wanted to buy the weapon and display it to show the dangers of nuclear proliferation. They were arranging payment and transportation when the warhead in question was abruptly removed from East Germany by the Soviets. It is, sadly, all too typical of Mueller’s style of argument that he makes his case with copious references to any literature that supplies evidence supporting his point of view, but he ignores inconvenient facts and arguments.

We see something similar in Mueller’s discussion of arms-control treaties. He regards such treaties as bureaucratically unwieldy and argues that states often only agree to them when they involve no real sacrifice or merely codify what the state already intended to do. He bases this argument largely on a discussion of the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which forced nuclear testing underground but did nothing to curtail the nuclear arms race, and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Agreement (SALT I), which limited missiles but not the newly miniaturized warheads packed several to a missile, which were the real problem.

Mueller has cherry-picked his treaties here. Why not discuss the Outer Space Treaty, which preempted a nuclear arms race in space? And what about the 1988 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which eliminated an entire category of nuclear weapons from Europe, much to the chagrin of hardliners in both superpowers? Above all, why not discuss the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty (the existence of which, astonishingly, is never mentioned in Mueller’s book)? The ABM Treaty was widely seen by arms-control advocates as having headed off an expensive and destabilizing race between offensive and defensive weapons during the Cold War.

The strengths and weaknesses of Mueller’s argument collide most jarringly in his discussion of nuclear proliferation. He is entertaining when he catalogs decades of dire predictions from experts about a coming cascade of countries crossing the nuclear threshold—predictions that have failed to come true, although this has not deterred contemporary pundits from re-sounding the alarm. And we need to think seriously about his argument that sanctions intended to deter nuclear proliferation killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in Iraq and North Korea while increasing the attractiveness of nuclear weapons to the paranoid leaders of those countries; the remedy may be worse than the disease.

But surely Mueller goes too far, and his polemical casuistry becomes dangerous, when he argues that sanctions and treaties are largely unnecessary because most countries have freely eschewed proliferation, recognizing that nuclear weapons are “militarily useless, and a spectacular waste of money and scientific talent.” Although he is surely right that nuclear weapons are overrated and often fail to bring the bargaining power and military strength their owners seek, some countries (whether because they are in a bad neighborhood or have a bad regime) have spared no expense to seek them. And when a country acquires them, this puts pressure on rivals and neighbors to seek them too (as Pakistan did in response to India, for example). There can be a collective logic that forces individual countries to make choices they would rather not. The importance of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, for which Mueller shows so little respect, is that it releases countries from the prisoner’s dilemma here: The treaty and its inspection provisions give confidence to countries who want to eschew nuclear weapons as long as they can be sure that their rivals do so too. This is why Brazil and Argentina both joined the treaty regime in the 1990s, for instance.

In short, Mueller has a gimlet eye for hype about nuclear weapons but is blind to their very real dangers. His book, which should sport a “don’t-worry-be-happy” smiley face rather than a scrawled atom on the cover, counsels us in its final sentence that we are not in danger and should “sleep well.” Mueller seems to assume that, because there has not yet been an accidental nuclear war, because terrorists have not yet exploded a nuclear weapon, and because no country has used nuclear weapons since the United States bombed Nagasaki, we are safe. Presumably BP executives talked the same way about the safety of deep-water drilling before April 20, 2010; Soviet engineers talked the same way about the safety of their nuclear reactors before April 26, 1986; and NASA engineers talked the same way about the safety of shuttle launches at low temperatures before January 28, 1986. In regard to nuclear weapons, we have arguably been lucky. There have been several incidents in which U.S. planes carrying nuclear weapons have crashed or burned. In 1995 the Soviets mistook a Norwegian weather rocket for a U.S. nuclear attack, and Boris Yeltsin found himself staring into the nuclear briefcase as his aides told him he might only have a few minutes to launch Russian nuclear weapons. And we now know that in the early years of the Cold War, there were senior U.S. military officers who wanted to preemptively attack the Soviet Union.

Mueller mocks those who warn of events that are possible but have not happened. “There is a ‘genuine possibility,’” he says, “that Osama bin Laden could convert to Judaism, declare himself to be the Messiah, and fly in a gaggle of Mafioso hit men from Rome to have himself publicly crucified.”

If only nuclear disaster were that unlikely.

Hugh Gusterson is professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University. He is the author of People of the Bomb: Portraits of America’s Nuclear Complex (University of Minnesota Press, 2004).

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