SOME LIGHT READING WHILE `ON THE BEACH’ THIS SUMMER THE WINNING WEAPON: THE ATOMIC BOMB IN THE COLD WAR 1945-1950 By Gregg Herken Vintage Books, 1982 NUCLEAR WAR: WHAT’S IN IT FOR YOU? By Ground Zero Pocket Books. 1982 FREEZE! HOW YOU CAN HELP PREVENT NUCLEAR WAR By Edward M. Kennedy and Mark 0. Hatfield Bantam Books, 1982 NUCLEAR NIGHTMARES By Nigel Calder Penguin Books, 1981 NUCLEAR ILLUSION AND REALITY By Solly Zuckerman The Viking Press, 1982 THE FATE OF THE EARTH By Jonathan Schell Alfred A. Knopf, 1982 By Patrick Bishop Houston Where does one go from a world of insanity? Somewhere on the other side of despair. T. S. Eliot IN JANUARY 1947, SOON after he became chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, David Lilien thal paid a visit to Los Alamos to inspect America’s nuclear arsenal. He was shocked at what he found: a few bombs only one of which was “probably” operable sitting forlornly inside a chicken-wire enclosure. What was worse, all the people who knew how to build more of the things had returned to civilian life. “We were really almost without bombs,” Lilienthal recalls in an interview with Gregg Herken, “and not only that, we were without people; that was the really significant thing. . . . You can hardly exaggerate the unreadiness of U.S. military men at this time.” Not that it really mattered. As Herken explains in The Winning Weapon, an often engrossing account of America’s bumbling attempts to use its nuclear monopoly as a military and diplomatic tool during the first years of our postnuclear world, General Leslie Groves, chief of the Manhattan Project, had assured President Truman and his aides that the Soviets were at least 20 years away from building their own bomb. Why? Not because of some mythical “atomic secret” known only to American science \(once it had been demonstrated that an atomic bomb actually worked, the theoretical knowledge of how to build one was accessible to any Soviets would not have the bomb for at least a generation was more mundane: they lacked the industrial capacity and the raw materials necessary to build one. As Secretary of State Byrnes told atomic scientist Leo Szilard when the physicist pleaded for an endorsement of international control of atomic energy because otherwise the Soviets would soon have their own bomb, “General Groves tells me there is no uranium in Russia.” The accuracy of this statement was put into some doubt in September 1949, when the AEC’s radiation-monitoring program picked up evidence that the Soviets had exploded an atomic bomb somewhere in Asiatic Russia during the previous month. And it was not a primitive device it was an advanced type of plutonium bomb, bigger and more sophisticated than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Not only had America’s nuclear monopoly been broken, it had been broken in such a way as to make us fear that the Soviets could leapfrog ahead of us in weapons technology and produce the super-bomb: the hydrogen bomb. Driven by this fear of what the Soviets might do, we pressed . on, they followed, and the arms race was underway in earnest. It was a race fueled by the notion \(enthusiastically promulgated by the military and technical class that controls nuclear weapons producbigger bombs would make us safer than we were in that quaint time when the chairman of the AEC could press his nose against the chicken-wire and stare disconsolately at the rusting hulks upon which a generation of Americanenforced peace was supposed to depend. So much, in short, for how we got here. Where, you ask, are we going? Inexorably to our doom, if the message contained in the current wave of nuclear holocaust literature is to be believed. Now, nuclear anxiety is hardly a new phenomenon. I was born in 1942, and I find it difficult to remember a time when nuclear nightmares were not hovering somewhere in my consciousness. Contemplating one’s incineration in a nuclear fireball, however, is not a pleasant way to spend one’s waking moments, so like everyone else I manage to think about other things most of the time. Besides, we’ve lived with the nightmare for 37 years and nothing has happened yet, so why get worried now? Because as all these books point out the system that has maintained the precarious balance of terror is soon going to break down. The system has deterred nuclear war so far \(say the massive blow and still retaliate with such force that the attacker will be destroyed. This is the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” under the protection of which we have all prospered for the last 20 years or so. As missile delivery systems become more accurate, however, the possibility begins to loom that one side could disable most of the other side’s strategic forces in a Surprise attack, thereby greatly weakening the force of any reprisal. The perception that one side could gain a significant advantage in “damage control” by a surprise first strike against. its opponent’s strategic weapons \(known leads the nuclear theorists in a new direction, away from outmoded ideas of deterrence and on to the new world of fighting and “winning” a nuclear war. As THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19
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