The front flap of John Mueller’s book begins with, “Ever since the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the prospect of nuclear annihilation has haunted the modern world. And since September 11, 2001 the view that nuclear terrorism is the most serious threat to security of the United State or, for that matter, of the world has been virtually universal.” The author then goes to great lengths to say the risks have been exaggerated… Chapter 5 begins with “Although nuclear weapons seem to have had at most a quite limited substantive impact on actual historical evens…they had a tremendous influence on our agonies and obsessions.” The antinuclear movement is mentioned as an example of the agonies and obsessions.
The author says in the Preface he wanted the book to be a remedy for insomnia and that the purpose is to put to rest “…excessive anxiety about nuclear weapons.” Many others have created anxiety with warnings about al Qaeda acquiring nuclear bombs and the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran. There were similar warnings about China, India, and Pakistan, but no calamity has yet resulted by those nations joining the “nuclear club.”
Part 1 is about the effects of nuclear weapons. “Beyond doubt, nuclear weapons are the most effective devices ever fabricated for killing vast numbers of people…” However, Part 2 discusses why nuclear weapons have had an exaggerated role in international politics. The author repeatedly mentions the enormous financial and resource costs in development of massive arsenals in the United States, the former Soviet Union, and other countries that would have been better spent on other ventures.
Risks from radiation that would be released by a “dirty bomb” are exaggerated because “…ghoulish copy sells.” The greatest risk would be caused by the panic by people who have been inculcated that even traces of radioactive materials are deadly. About 20 percent of the general population will develop cancer, and people in the area where a “dirty bomb” is exploded will have a barely measurable increase in risk. Chernobyl raised the risk of thyroid cancer, but the risk of other cancers was increased by less than one percentage point with no increase in birth defects. (I expect some readers will object to this statement and many others from the book.)
There is interesting information postulating that the Soviets never wanted to see World War III; the memories of the horrors and massive losses of World War II told them another world war was to be avoided. “Indeed, three central rules for Soviet leaders were ‘avoid adventures, do not yield to provocation, and know when to stop’.” They did know when to stop during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Khrushchev said there was not a single person among the Communist leaders who believed that the Soviets “…could defeat the United States, or that we were seriously preparing for a nuclear war with the United States. No one, as far as I know, had this absurd notion.” The United States demonstrated its manufacturing might to the Soviets during World War II by supplying them with hundreds of thousands of military vehicles, millions of boots, and “…over one-half pound of food for every Soviet soldier for every day of the war (much of it Spam).”
Some countries that had nuclear weapons decided to not keep them. South Africa dismantled theirs after deciding they were more trouble than they were worth. Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan sent the weapons in their countries back to Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed. The Ukraine in particular wanted no part of nuclear weapons with the memories of Chernobyl. Libya terminated its nuclear weapons development program when it noticed the ease with which Iraqi military was defeated.
I bogged down because of the redundancies in the book, but became reenergized by Chapter 10 titled “Costs of the Proliferation Fixation,” and Iraq takes center stage. Economic sanctions imposed against Iraq over many years did little to weaken Saddam Hussein. However they did result in “…hundreds of thousands of deaths in the country, most of them children under the age of five…” Madeleine Albright, the Ambassador to the United Nations, was asked on a 60 Minute show whether it was worth it to have a million children die as the result of sanctions. Albright did not dispute the number and answered, “We think the price is worth it.” She later said she regretted her answer. The comments “…went completely unremarked upon by the country’s media. Osama bin Laden did use the sanctions as a centerpiece of his diatribes against Americans. Several hundred thousand Iraqis would then die in the war that began in 2003 with the premise that an invasion was justified because Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. (See the blog posting titled “Which President Lied About Weapons of Mass Destruction?” for more information.)
The policy of punishing countries wanting to build nuclear weapons continues. Sanctions are in place against North Korea where millions of people are now underfed or starving. North Korea was called “the world’s first nuclear-armed, missile-wielding beggar.” They have been able to “…hit the Pacific Ocean several times…” with their missiles. Their policy seems to be more extortion than aggression. Sanctions are increasing against Iran where citizens are also suffering.
Part III titled “The Atomic Terrorist” analyzes whether it is likely al Qaeda or some other terrorist group will be able to acquire and use nuclear weapons. The short answer is that it is quite unlikely. Terrorist wouldn’t be able to arm and use a stolen weapon because of all the safeguards all countries build into their weapons. It is also unlikely that a country would sell weapons to terrorists, since forensics after a blast would easily trace the weapon back to its source. No country would be willing to face the certain response to such an act.
The author gave me pause to be skeptical about the views presented in the book by writing that 85 foreign policy experts were polled on whether there would be a nuclear explosion in the world in the next ten years. They “…concluded on average that there was a 29 percent likelihood…” That doesn’t sound sufficiently unlikely to make me comfortable. The author disagrees. Referring back to his goal of curing insomnia by putting fears to rest, he closes the book by saying most states do not want nuclear weapons and they are out of reach of terrorists. “Sleep well.
There are positions taken by the author which disagree with other sources. He trivializes the effect of Soviet espionage against the U.S. during World War II. I’m guessing he never read about the results of the Venona project, which identified hundreds of Soviet agents in the U.S. government and military. Soviet agents were able to steal information and material that allowed the successful recreation of the Trinity nuclear device. He also writes that North Korea had to convince Stalin about their plans to invade the south. Other books report Stalin demanded the invasion as the North Koreans insisted their forces weren’t ready. All of this reinforces the thoughts of the brilliant person who said “History is interpretive.”