Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Richard Rhodes's The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World without Nuclear Weapons

Richard Rhode's latest book, The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World without Nuclear Weapons, was published today.

In time to provide hopeful background to the latest nuclear news: The UN is asking Israel for openness about its secretive nuclear weapons program. Iran began loading fuel in its first nuclear power plant (under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an arm of the UN). Sudan has announced plans to build four nuclear power plants. The Obama administration is working to persuade reluctant Republican senators to ratify the US-Russia New START treaty. Japan admonished India over possible future nuclear test bombings, as the former competes with the U.S. France, and Russia for Indian nuclear plant contracts. The U.S. renamed the Nevada Test Site (the Rhode Island (or Okinawa-sized) tract of land where it detonated over 1,000 nuclear bombs) the Nevada National Security Site.

The Twilight of the Bombs is the last volume in Rhodes's quartet of histories about nuclear bombs:
The book examines the post-Cold War years after 1991, securing the former Soviet nuclear arsenal, the first Iraq War, nuclear proliferation, North Korea, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the run-up to the second Iraq War and the prospects for nuclear abolition. With the completion of this last volume, my quartet of nuclear histories, The Making of the Nuclear Age, will comprehend the story of the introduction of a historic new technology across more than one hundred years.

Arsenals of Folly, a third volume of nuclear history that follows my The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986) and Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (1995), was published by Alfred A. Knopf in October 2007. It carries the story of the superpower nuclear arms race and the dangers and challenges of the Cold War from 1949 up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, focusing especially on the Reagan-Gorbachev decade of the 1980s.
The Twilight of the Bombs charts the roller coaster movement towards nuclear weapons disarmament from the collapse of the Soviet Union to Obama's Prague speech on April 5, 2010 in which he promised U.S. commitment to a "world without nuclear weapons." His words energized nuclear abolitionists preparing for the NPT Review Conference held in New York in May.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is the center of international efforts to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Ireland and Finland first proposed the treaty which came into force in 1970. The treaty allows the use of nuclear production of energy in return for controls of the importation/exportation of nuclear technologies and materials and imposes a legal obligation upon member states to eliminate their nuclear weapons arsenals through negotiations. 189 nations are party to the treaty, including the five major nuclear weapon states: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council). Four nations that possess nuclear weapons are not NPT members: India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. The last joined the treaty, but withdrew in 2003.

Related to the NPT are treaties prohibiting nuclear weapons testing. The Partial Test Ban Treaty (1963) outlaws atmospheric, space, and underwating testing. The Threshold Test Ban Treaty (1974) outlaws underground tests over 150 kilotans. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) bans all nuclear explosions in all environments, for both military or civilian purposes. The U.N. General Assembly endorsed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996. The U.S. and China have signed, but not ratified the CTBT. After these countries ratify, and North Korea, India, and Pakistan sign and ratify the CTBT—it will go into force.

George Bush, who spoke of "World War III," seemed determined to destroy decades of movement towards nuclear weapons nonproliferation. The militaristic president withdrew the U.S. from the U.S.-Russia Anti-Ballistic Missle (ABM) treaty, the NPT (the 2005 Review Conference ended without an agreement), and the CTBT. The neocon's 2006 deal with India initiating nuclear energy cooperation overlooked its nuclear weapons proliferation and damaged the NPT regime. The Bush administration also championed the "nuclear renaissance," resurrected Cold War threats, revived the idea of tactical nuclear weapons, and continued to use the same depleted uranium weapons deployed during his father's and Clinton's administrations, by which time the adverse health effects of depleted uranium on U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians were well known.

Despite initial promise, President Obama's nuclear weapons policies have turned out to be a mixed bag. He proposed massive spending ($80 billion) to "modernize" the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but is also working to reverse Bush's legacy by reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal and supporting the U.S.-Russia New START treaty which the Senate will vote upon in September. While disappointing nuclear abolitionists when his policies failed to match his flights of rhetoric, Obama did participate in the 2010 NPT Review Conference.

Historian Lawrence Wittner, author of Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Disarmament Movement covered the ups and downs of this event in "What's Next for the Nuclear Disarmament Movement," posted at Foreign Policy in Focus:
Reflecting on the contrast between the Obama administration's nuclear abolition rhetoric and its record, Kevin Martin, executive director of America's largest peace organization, Peace Action, concluded that supporters of a nuclear-free world needed to wake up to the reality that the administration's nuclear disarmament activities were going to be quite limited without very substantial movement pressure.

"Obama is in a way being held accountable to expectations he himself raised," Martin remarked, "when in fact it appears all he ever had in mind was a return to the modest, incremental arms reduction treaties of the 1980s and 1990s, not a serious push toward eliminating nuclear weapons."

In this context, peace and disarmament groups would have to take a more proactive role, endorsing incremental measures while, at the same time, keeping the idea of nuclear abolition at the forefront of public discussion...

In specific terms, this approach will probably mean that the nuclear disarmament movement will back U.S. Senate ratification of the New START Treaty and of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and oppose congressional funding of the administration's nuclear "modernization" plan, while steadfastly championing the opening of negotiations for a nuclear abolition treaty. If the conference on a Middle East nuclear-free zone gets off the ground — and it might not, given strong Israeli government resistance — the movement will almost certainly support that venture as well.

Can this mixture of somewhat mundane incremental steps and a dazzling long-range vision — the vision of a nuclear-free world — be sustained?  It will require activists willing to put significant efforts into securing immediate gains on the road to their long-term goal, and vigorously champion their long-term goal as they engage in immediate struggles. Over the course of history, this has always been a tricky balancing act for social change movements. But with wise leadership and a committed following, there is no reason that the nuclear disarmament movement — which, after all, has campaigned against the bomb, with some effectiveness, for 65 years — cannot manage it in the future.
Rhodes shares Wittner's measured optimism and explores successes in nuclear abolition in Twilight of the Bombs: The collapse of the Soviet Union transformed one single nuclear state into four: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan; however effective diplomacy resulted in the new nations surrendering their nuclear weapons to Russia. South Africa voluntarily gave up its nuclear arsenal.

Rhodes also examines failures, such as the Clinton's administration's inability to secure Senate ratification for the CTBT. The historian details the Clinton's and Bush's negotiations with North Korea that resulted in the isolated nation's withdrawal from the NPT in 2003, followed by its first nuclear test in 2006. (North Korea subsequently shut down plutonium production in 2007 and destroyed the cooling tower at its nuclear weapons plant in 2008.)

Rhodes explores how Iraq, initially a nonproliferation success story after U.N. inspectors and Saddam Hussein himself dismantled Iraq's uranium enrichment program, was followed by Bush's 2003 invasion based on false claims of Iraqi WMD.

Despite the glacial pace towards nuclear weapons disarmament; the gap between U.S. rhetoric and policies; the proliferation of nuclear power as a source of energy; and the stubborn refusal of several nations (including volatile Israel, Pakistan, North Korea) to join the NPT, Rhodes believes that the world is moving in the right direction.

In a recent interview, Rhodes explains the universal scale of his soul-searching:
I've always felt that these four books that I've written are kind of a tragic epic of the 20th century. In the epigraph of my book it says, "Mankind invents the means of its own destruction."

And where does the human race go from that? We're still mixed in with all of that…Nuclear weapons are vast destructive forces encompassed in this small, portable mechanism. They have no earthly use that I can see except to destroy whole cities full of human beings.
The chronicler of this macabre history points to the U.S., the creator of nuclear weapons and apocalyptic policies such as MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) that fueled the nuclear arms race, as the only nation able to change the tragic direction of history it unleashed:
We’ve led the way in nuclear weapons, and now we have to figure out a way to lead in the other direction.


Martin J Frid said...

It is very difficult to comment on a post like this. You present the facts very clearly. Others have tried to do that through art or films, such as On the Beach.

Link to the Australian TV series:

We need some serious Glasnost to get the change we think we deserve.

TenThousandThings said...

Thanks Martin.

I don't think most people (even those who originally created them, until it was too late) really realized/realize how insane nuclear weapons are.

That is why we must listen to witnesses (Hibakusha, Downwinders, atomic veterans, recanting scientists like Einstein and Szilard, thoughtful military leaders like Dwight Eisenhower), as well as force ourselves to look at the devastation these weapons of mass destruction unleash, on all levels.

I think the billions of ordinary people around the world who crave peace and genuine security deserve this. It's a natural birthright stolenfrom humanity by what Steve Leeper called a very small group of very powerful, very rich people who profit in some way from the continued used of nuclear weapons. What a horrific way to make a living, through the creation of massive forms of suffering. Nuclear weapons are the opposite of a pro-life ethos.