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Post The Irreality of Nuclear Weapons Blogs: Response from Prof. Anthony D'Amato
Created by John Eipper on 05/22/12 8:28 AM

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The Irreality of Nuclear Weapons Blogs: Response from Prof. Anthony D'Amato (John Eipper, USA, 05/22/12 8:28 am)

JE: I received this essay from Anthony D'Amato, Leighton Professor of Law at Northwestern University, which I post in its entirety:

The Irreality of Nuclear Weapons Blogs

Hi. This is my first time here on WAIS. I've been reading your blogs on arms control, nuclear proliferation, and Iran and Israel, and thought how appropriate it would be to bring Fred Iklé's profound idea to your attention.

We go back six decades, when newspapers, magazines and television were full of dire warnings that a thermonuclear war would blow up the planet, I was in a seminar called the Joint Harvard-MIT Arms Control Seminar. Everyone except me (a kid fresh out of law school, or a fresh kid out of law school, depending on your point of view) was a luminary: Tom Schelling, Henry Kissinger, Roger Fisher, Fred Iklé, Bernie Feld, Morty Halperin, a few generals and admirals, the CEO of Cray Computer, and various CIA types. It was fascinating to hear Tom explain that we should teach the Soviets how to hide their missiles from us (put them on trains, drill them into mountainsides). His reason: the "harder" the Soviet nuclear silos, the less itchy their trigger-fingers (my notes-he didn't quite put it that way).

But there was one insight that made an indelible impression on me, an idea more profound today than it was when Fred Iklé (pronounced like Freddie Clay) introduced it. He started by pointing out the long cognitive distance--17 years--since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Besides, images of mushroom clouds moved quickly from photos to cartoons, and in any event seemed less horrible than images people were then seeing of the carnal pits of Auschwitz. We simply can't imagine what our deadlier nuclear bombs could do today, he said. Then he went on to his startling hypothesis--a terrible hypothesis, he apologized. "The best, and maybe the only, way to save this planet from thermonuclear exchanges that would kill every living thing is to have a city blown up."

No one in the seminar took issue with Fred's hypothesis. It remained a sobering note throughout my two years' attendance.

Let's apply the Iklé Hypothesis to today, to this moment in time. No populated areas have been destroyed by nuclear weapons since 1945. People are hardly aware of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963 has by now been revealed to be just a bargaining dispute between Khrushchev and Kennedy: the Russians will withdraw their missiles from Cuba (as they did) if we dismantled our missiles in Turkey that were pointed directly at Moscow (which we did quietly a few weeks later so that it didn't look like part of a deal.)

The missiles that would have been erected in Cuba in 1963 had a flight time to New York or Washington DC of about an hour and a half. Does anyone today worry about Russian nuclear submarines in the Atlantic Ocean that have a flight time to the same cities of about six minutes?

If a medium-size city were destroyed today by nuclear weapons, the event would be covered by the media (satellite photos, for example), by the Internet, by person-to-person phone calls (back in 1962 if you wanted to make a phone call you had to find an unoccupied phone booth), and by everybody talking to the person nearest them. There would be a sea change in our thinking about nuclear weapons. Even before the media had any clue about who fired missiles at that city, the public would be informed that there is a total of approximately 23,335 nuclear warheads stockpiled today in various nations.

From that moment on, as Fred Iklé guessed, everyone's attitude toward nuclear proliferation would change. The public will demand that nuclear warheads be destroyed. A recent posting in WAIS talked about the "hypocrisy" of the non-proliferation treaty--that the nations that have WMD capability are going to keep them while the have-not nations will be blocked from ever getting them. But if a city blows up, you won't hear any more talk about hypocrisy. In fact, all moralizing talk, all normative expressions, all notions of fairness, will look supremely foolish.

Preventing proliferation will simply be the necessary first step; dismantling existing stockpiles the necessary second step, and so on. People will not argue the way they argue today about arms control and nuclear proliferation. Weighed against the utter disaster of a city reduced to rubble by nuclear weapons, argumentation may seem like the chatter of a bygone era.

This brings me finally to the title of this little essay. The people who participate in this Forum are clearly, to my mind, would-be realists. They have ferreted out information that serves to support their claim as people who can see beyond idealistic theorizing. No one here can be called an un-realist, a pure idealist. A sort of middle ground is the notion of surrealism. But that isn't appropriate, so I use the word irrealist.

Most of the arguments heard today are irrealistic. Blowing up a city would change their minds, but that alternative seems a bit expensive. What we have to do, in my opinion, is to imagine that a city has been obliterated by nuclear weapons. Not superficial imagination, but deep thought. That is very hard to do. But it's the only way, I say as a self-appointed proxy of the late Fred Iklé, that by doing so a person can shake off the charge of irreality and become instead what they thought they already were, namely, realists.

Anthony D'Amato
Leighton Professor of Law
Northwestern University
May 21, 2012

JE comments: Many on the Forum will recognize Anthony D'Amato as a world authority on International Law. I thank him for this note and his interest in WAIS. I hope, in the coming days, to have the pleasure of welcoming Anthony as a WAIS Fellow.

The Iklé Hypothesis puts the nuclear "deterrence or elimination" discussion in brutal perspective. Dr. Iklé, who passed away last November (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Iklé ), is probably best known as one of the proponents of arming the Afghan rebels during the Soviet occupation.  Some will say that this action hastened the end of the Cold War; others will say that it led, directly or indirectly, to 9-11 and our troubles to this day.


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  • The "Ikle Hypothesis"; Response to Anthony D'Amato (David Krieger, USA 05/23/12 4:03 AM)
    On occasion, I have heard the view expressed, here attributed to Fred Iklé, that another city will need to be destroyed before people will awaken to the dangers nuclear weapons pose to humanity. Were this to be true, it strikes me, as it does Anthony D'Amato (22 May), as a significant failure of human imagination.

    A question I struggle with is how to awaken the human imagination to the threat posed by nuclear weapons. If one is seeking to awaken imagination, the destruction of one city is only a beginning. We now know that the indirect consequences of using nuclear weapons would be even greater than the direct consequences, and could lead to nuclear famine and the extinction of most or all complex life on the planet.


    That the US continues to drag its feet on seeking to abolish nuclear weapons shows that, in their hubris or complacency, US political leaders are failing to imagine and to protect the people of the world, including the American people, from nuclear omnicide by accident, miscalculation or intent. Nuclear deterrence is simply a theory of human communications and behavior that has not been and cannot be proven. It is a theory subject to failure. We rely upon it at our extreme peril, and it demonstrates quite clearly the limits of the collective imaginations of so-called "security professionals," such as Fred Iklé.

    JE comments:  I always welcome these wake-up calls from David Krieger, whose Nuclear Age Peace Foundation leads the fight against the world's nuclear folly.
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    • The "Ikle Hypothesis" (Michael Delong, Qatar 05/23/12 4:51 PM)

      I find David Krieger's "wake up call" (23 May) interesting, as well as his statement, "[nuclear deterrence"] is a theory subject to failure."  Of course all theories are.



      What's the alternative? This did not happen overnight. What would David seriously suggest to fix this dangerous dilemma we are in, since we are where we are?  Unilaterally disarm?


      JE comments:  Unilateral disarmament does have some precedents.  The Ukraine and South Africa come to mind.  But would we ever see such an action from the major powers (China, Russia, the US)?  I know I wouldn't want my country to take the first step.

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    • The "Ikle Hypothesis" (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 05/24/12 4:17 AM)
      David Krieger wrote on 23 May: "Nuclear deterrence is simply a theory of human communications and behavior that has not been and cannot be proven. It is a theory subject to failure."



      This is a profound and important truth, and a rebuke to those who say, "Why bother with non-proliferation? Let everyone have nukes and simply deter each other." This approach will lead inevitably to nuclear holocaust.



      I don't agree with David's second paragraph, about nuclear famine and extinction. I would be happy to hear David's views on it, which would stimulate discussion and further reading on the subject, but according to what I have read it would take a very widespread nuclear war to cause any "secondary effects," and I think that it does a disservice to the cause of nuclear disarmament to exaggerate the effects of nuclear explosions. For one thing, if people exaggerate in their mind the effects of nuclear explosions, they will overestimate the effect of deterrence. They might think: "No one will ever launch these things, because it will cause nuclear extinction--no one is that crazy." But the later generations of nuclear weapons developed by the main nuclear powers have smaller and smaller yields, have more and more precise delivery systems, and require less and less fissionable material to cause the main thermonuclear reaction--thus causing less radioactive fallout and fewer and fewer "secondary effects." This is frightening, because such weapons are more likely to be used--we can imagine some governments willing to sacrifice a few cities in order to defeat some deeply hated enemy.



      So in my opinion, it is counterproductive to spread fairy tales about a single nuclear attack causing nuclear winter and the end of the world. In fact, the horror of nuclear weapons is not their effect on the environment--it is that they are designed for the mass destruction of human lives. They are a logical extension of the idea of strategic bombing developed during WWII. As long as we fail to see the fundamental evil of what we did to German cities in WWII--making war on civilian populations--we will never fully grasp the evil of nuclear weapons, and we will never be able to muster the political will for nuclear disarmament.



      I do agree with David that nuclear disarmament is an imperative, the most important strategic task the world has, with nuclear non-proliferation as a crucial intermediate task. Nuclear weapons are fundamentally evil, and threaten the mass destruction of civilian populations. The more they spread, the more likely that they will be used. The more likely that a mistake will be made which will lead to the mass destruction of innocent people.

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      • Direct and Indirect Effects of Nuclear Weapons (David Krieger, USA 05/25/12 4:20 AM)
        In response to Cameron Sawyer (24 May), the direct effects of nuclear weapons are blast, fire and radiation. These effects took some 140,000 lives in Hiroshima and some 70,000 lives in Nagasaki by the end of 1945. These effects cause the threat or use of nuclear weapons to be illegal under international humanitarian law, because the weapons fail to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants, cause unnecessary suffering, and would be disproportionate to a preceding attack. Such threat or use of nuclear weapons would also be immoral for the same reasons.



        In addition, highly reputable atmospheric scientists now tell us that a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, in which each side used 50 Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons (they have more than this number) on the other side's cities, would have the following consequences: fires from the burning cities would put enough soot into the upper stratosphere to reduce warming sunlight for a decade; temperatures would fall globally; growing seasons would be shortened; and crops would fail, resulting in widespread famine with hundreds of millions of people, and perhaps a billion, dying of starvation.

        Thus, the indirect effects of a nuclear war, even a small one by the standards of today's thermonuclear weapons, would be far greater than the direct effects, which are already bad enough. Also, the indirect effects of nuclear famine resulting from a regional nuclear war would be global. No corner of the globe would be immune from these effects. They would affect primarily those with already marginal food supplies. This strikes me as important information about nuclear arsenals that is not widely known. It is not a fairy tale.



        Since the nuclear explosive power used in the above study is less than .5 percent of existing nuclear arsenals, it can be projected that a major nuclear war between the US and Russia could trigger the extinction of complex life on the planet. This may not be probable, but it is certainly not impossible. I would describe the general complacency of the leaders of nuclear weapon states to such potential omnicide as a crime against the future. The nuclear famine scenarios may provide a means of stirring humanity from its complacency and demanding more of its political leaders in terms of negotiating a Nuclear Weapons Convention for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons. This would not be unilateral disarmament, and US leadership for this goal would certainly be helpful.



        The scientists who have led the way on this issue are Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon (see, for example, Robock and Toon, "Local Nuclear War, Global Suffering," Scientific American, January 2010). The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War also has a new study out, "Nuclear Famine: A Billion People at Risk, Global Impacts of Limited Nuclear War on Agriculture, Food Supplies, and Human Nutrition," by Ira Helfand, MD.



        I'm pleased that Cameron Sawyer joins me in viewing nuclear weapons abolition as an imperative. An interesting question to contemplate is whether the abolition of nuclear weapons, assuming the political will, would be possible in a world with widespread use of nuclear power.


        JE comments:  Calculating the indirect effects of an India-Pakistan nuclear war is an extremely valuable exercise, as many people outside South Asia have a "this wouldn't affect me" attitude.  As David Krieger illustrates, even a "limited" nuclear exchange would impact everyone on our small planet.




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  • The "Ikle Hypothesis" (John Heelan, -UK 05/23/12 4:21 AM)
    Anthony D'Amato (22 May) makes a valid point. However, the devastation caused by the Chernobyl accident, as well as the potential devastation that could have been caused by the Three Mile Island incident, does not seem to have delayed the greedy rush to nuclear power generation. One might ask why.

    One answer could be that those likely to benefit commercially from such investments are also likely to have substantial influence in government and the media, using it to block criticism. Today the technology of blogs, tweets and mobile phones can end-run those blocks.


    However, it is not a stretch of imagination to consider that should a city be destroyed by a nuclear bomb, the first things that would be closed down by governments are computer and telephone networks, using the all-purpose excuse of "national security." This was seen in the "Arab Spring," China's efforts to neutralise on-line criticism, and was seen last year in Syria. Thus the information and opinion-rallying mechanism would have a large government spanner jammed in it.


    JE comments: The 2011 Fukushima meltdown did have a significant impact on attitudes towards nuclear energy--at least in Japan and Germany.  The Japanese have recently shut down their last reactor, and Germany will complete the process by 2022.  As far as I'm aware, however, Fukushima has not changed any government policies on nuclear weapons.



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