THE BLOG
12/30/2006 03:46 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Threat Worse Than Global Warming

I hate to start off the new year on a downbeat note, but I'm having nightmares about nuclear terrorism.

That's because I've just finished reading a remarkable book called "Pandora's Keepers: Nine Men and the Atomic Bomb," by Brian VanDeMark. As the title indicates, it's the story of the brilliant scientists who helped create the atomic bomb, and how they dealt with the political and moral issues posed by the terrible weapon they thought would save the world from Hitler and Hirohito, but ended up convinced they'd created a Frankenstein's monster that could destroy it.

The book was originally published in 2003 but I found the 2005 paperback version in a Santa Fe bookstore after covering New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's meeting with two North Korean officials shortly before Christmas (see my Dec. 18 post, "The Pyongyang Primary"). The officials were on their way to Beijing for the six-power talks aimed at resolving the crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Ironically, the atomic bomb was built at Los Alamos, less than an hour from Santa Fe. Richardson hoped to play the role of a behind-the-scenes mediator but failed, as the meetings got nowhere and were suspended until further notice.

Anyway, I was intrigued by the story of these scientific giants -- Robert Oppenheimer, Neils Bohr, Hans Bethe, Enrico Fermi, Isidor Rabi, Leo Szilard, Ernest Lawrence, Arthur Compton and Edward Teller -- especially after a friend showed me the place where Oppenheimer lived under an assumed name after arriving in Santa Fe in March, 1943, to take charge of the secret facility at Los Alamos where the Manhattan Project was carried out.

VanDeMark, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy -- and, further irony, coauthor of Robert MacNamara's confessional memoir admitting that he was wrong about Vietnam -- does a masterful job of chronicling the personal and professional lives of his subjects. But the real story of the book is how, in the author's words, the atomic scientists' "struggle to come to terms with what they had done is emblematic of the larger and continuing human struggle created by the opening of the Pandora's box of nuclear weapons."

VanDeMark cites the petition that the Hungarian-born Szilard -- five of the nine scientists were foreign-born, including two who fled from Nazi Germany -- wrote to President Truman in July, 1945, urging him not to use the atomic bomb against Japanese cities but to demonstrate its awesome power and threaten to use it if unless Japan surrendered.

In his petition, signed by 67 fellow scientists, Szilard warned that the development of atomic weapons and their use in warfare would open "the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale and would eventually place America's cities and the cities of other nations "in continuous danger of sudden annihilation."

But Truman never saw Szilard's petition. Oppenheimer, under intense pressure from Gen. Leslie Groves, the czar of the Manhattan Project, and Teller, who later led the way to developing the hydrogen bomb, blocked the memorandum, and the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few weeks later. Both Oppenheimer and Teller later said they were mistaken in not giving the petition to Truman.

There's much more in this fascinating and troubling book about the events leading up to the birth of the nuclear age, but the scariest part comes in VanDeMark's summing up chapter, where he writes that, although the strategy of deterrence has worked so far, there's little reason to believe that it will in the future. Indeed, he notes that a dozen years after the end of the Cold War, America still possesses some 6,000 nuclear warheads and even with plans to reduce that number by about two-thirds by 2012, will still have a nuclear stockpile with an explosive force equivalent to 40,000 Hiroshima bombs. And Russia has a similar force.

He wonders how long the precarious balance that has prevented the use of nuclear weapons for half a century will last. His concerns are worth repeating in their entirety:

"There are at least eight nuclear powers in the world today, and many more nations -- such as Iran and North Korea, and transnational movements such as al Qaeda -- seem intent on joining them. ... The spread of nuclear weapons is now not only a global fact but also an intention for some of the Third World's most belligerent and angry regimes. This aggressive proliferation threatens to lead to nuclear anarchy, as regional arms races fed by national and religous rivalries -- such as India versus Pakistan, Iran versus Israel, and North Korea versus Japan versus China -- gain dangerous momentum and become intertwined with terrorism. Rather than a taboo, nuclear weapons could become symbols of identity, power and status. All of this threatens the stability of deterrence. And the consequences of deterrence's failure are simply awful: the use of only a fraction of the world's nuclear stockpiles would shred the delicate fabric of human civilization and leave the survivors so miserable that they might envy the dead, outdoing the death and destruction of World Wars I and II in just hours."

Now you know why I'm not sleeping well. Happy New Year anyway.