The problem that did not go away
Franco Cozzani
Date de publication: 


Chers Amis,

Nous avons l'honneur de publier le deuxième des quatre articles du physicien Franco COZZANI, Chef du Département de Stratégie et Innovation auprès du Secrétariat de l'initiative EUREKA à la Commission européenne, qui sera suivi de deux autres (aux titres « Multi-megaton world » et « Fission, fusion and staging ») selon un agenda régulier et que vous aurez l'occasion de lire dans la section « IERI News » du site officiel de l'IERI.



With nuclear weapons,

we are in a completely new situation,

one that cannot be resolved by war.


Niels Bohr


During the month of May, 1998, India and Pakistan underwent a nuclear testing tit-for-tat during which the two countries detonated a number of devices, most of them pretty simple fission weapon designs, albeit rumours hit the press at the time that India had also tested a staged thermonuclear. President Bill Clinton, a savvy politician if ever there was one, was utterly clueless at those totally unforeseen developments; reportedly, he sank in his armchair in the Oval Office at the news and, holding his head in his hands, was only able to mutter: "Why?"


Why, precisely. Why countries like India, Pakistan and now Iran still doggedly pursue the acquisition of nuclear weapons? Why the "Big Five" (The United States, the Russian Federation, the Republic of France, the United Kingdom, the People's Republic of China), which first developed and deployed these weapons, do not just get rid of them, the United States in their lead, as Art. 6 of the Non Proliferation Treaty so clearly prescribes? And, in particular, why on Earth should we, as modern and democratic societies, still think about and discuss nuclear weapons, while the attitude of so many intellectuals and highly influential people is one of oscillating between their utter demonisation and the cultural hopeful cancellation of their existence from our policy frame of reference? Could we not simply hope that, if we just leave them alone, nuclear weapons will not harm us and will quietly disappear from both our arsenals as well as from our daytime nightmares?


When President Clinton asked himself that question, the world was quite a different place from today's; a world all charmed by, and transfixed on, a booming information technologies-driven economy. Led by the United States, the entire planet was awash with the New Economy, and wide-rising expectations of future untrammelled development fuelled by the much anticipated "peace dividend" arose from the twilight of the Cold War. The United States-led war on terror was still over a decade away and the absolute mess of global warming not yet on our radar screens. One thing was quite similar to today's situation, though: the world did not much think and care about nuclear weapons, nor was very much inclined to ever again want to do so.


In reality, the cultural and intellectual interaction of society with the nature and existence of nuclear weapons has varied to a considerable extent over the years, in both intensity and nature, and this is something that should always be borne in mind when attempting a sensible assessment of their legacy. During the early years of the atomic age, when the United States enjoyed a total nuclear monopoly, atomic bombs were credited - a bit simplistically, it turns outi - with having won the War against Japan and saved the lives of millions because the planned invasion of the main Japanese islands had become no longer necessary. One should also recall how, in keeping with the widespread optimism towards science and technology lasting well into the mid-to-late 1950’s, much of the public opinion - also outside of the United States - was in absolute awe of atomic energy, the terrifyingly destructive power of nuclear weapons notwithstanding.


This started to change, giving way progressively to ever-increasing anxiety, after the Soviets acquired nuclear explosives of their own, and immediately later with the invention of the so-called Hydrogen Bomb. The latter development notoriously split the community of scientists which had more or less monolithically supported the development of fission weapons in the United States in the first place, setting up a trend which would characterise much of the debate over nuclear weapons in the decades to come. And then sheer collective terror struck during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the world came a hair close to unprecedented and utter annihilation, as never before, and - so we all do hope - never again in the history of Mankind.


Tensions and nuclear fears ebbed away and returned to an extent over the years, with American Armed Forces again going to alert status during the pinnacle of the Arab-Israeli war of the Yom Kippur in 1973ii, followed by détente alternated with delusion and mutual distrust between the two superpowers of a then simpler bipolar world. Perhaps not many realise, as they tend to see nuclear weapons as constantly unthinkable harbingers of total destruction, that a new, quite scary phase occurred in the mid-1980's, when a combination of geopolitical psychology and real and supposed technological advances concurred to raise the actual spectre of nuclear war all over again. On the one hand, years of talks about limitation of nuclear armaments had left many in the United States fatigued with talking to the Russians; on the other hand, the conventional military build-up during the first Reagan Administration had left the Soviet Union very nervous, in the same period in which it was starting already to reckon internally with the economic reality that Yuri Andropov had grasped better than anybody else. But especially a vague of technology changes in those years had precipitated a sudden change in the status quo of the time-tested doctrine of mutual assured destruction. Chiefly among those: the increased precision of land-based intercontinental ballistic missile on both sides, enhancing the risk of starting a war deliberately because a first strike could make technically sense; the common sense-defying theory of close-packing launchers added further complication – and instability – to military planning and crisis evolution modelling, after the previous development of multiple independent re-targetable warheads (MIRV's) had increased even further the danger of delivery systems, despite the reduction of individual warhead yield already occurring in those years. Last but hardly not least, the entire mind game of the Strategic Defence Initiative, popularised as the spectrum of technologies around the concept of President Reagan's "Star Wars", would have faced obviously a very dangerous window of risk of a preemptive strike by the Russians before its envisaged first deployment, foreseen around the American land-based ICBM bases, would have made the entire Soviet Rocket Forces pretty much uselessiii.

The end of the Cold War got many by surprise, and left nuclear weapons and nuclear warriors alike without a war to prepare for. Our civilisation did manage to squeeze through the historical period of major nuclear confrontation, but it has not yet evolved to the point of actually dealing with the problem posed by nuclear weapons. Aside from the recurring scare of nukes on the two sides of the green valleys of the Punjab, the main focus of world anxiety focuses nowadays on the possibility that Teheran might develop a likely low yield fission bomb by its own means and that an organisation like Al Qaeda might acquire anything nuclear at all. But for a few experts, however, the real consequences of this scenario are often not grasped: a Jihad nuke would make the mother of all mess in down-town Manhattan, but it would not wipe out half of New Jersey.


As it will be discussed in more detail in a later article in this series, a sort of reality distortion field hovers upon all nuclear weapons and devices, very probably the result of a psychological projection of yield levels typical of the 1960's across the entire history of nuclear weapons, from August of 1945 until the present day.


Robert Oppenheimer famously remarked that, through the development of nuclear weapons, physicists had known sin. In his recent biography of Edward Teller, Peter Goodchild aptly observes that, in reality, physicists came to know power. One can only add that, in both perspectives, physicists have only come late to the party, as Mankind had known sin quite well since the Garden of Eden, and had not stopped before any atrocity to exercise power since right afterwards. Nuclear weapons are individually uniquely destructive and unprecedented in the scale of havoc they are capable of inflicting upon any living community. But they are hardly unique in their horror and amorality, as the conventional firebombing of German and Japanese cities by the Allies during the last months of World War II, or the bacterial warfare testing on prisoners of war by the Japanese Imperial Army in Manchuria during that same war, or the Holocaust, or the killing fields of Cambodia and the machete-wielding genocidal war between the Hutu and Tutsi of Rwanda during the "peaceful" second half of the XX century, stand only too ready to remember us.


In its blissful ignorance about the design and nature of nuclear weapons, much of the public opinion sorely lacks the intellectual firepower to steer its democratic governance institutions towards tackling the real issues posed by the undoable discovery of nuclear energy and the consequent invention of nuclear weapons. The ab initio denial of the potential role of nuclear weapons in continuously shaping human history is hardly productive to a healthy and useful social debate on how to cope with the legacy and reality of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons know-how.


One certainly should not be fairer to nuclear weapons for their own sake and, by a sort of analytical extension, to the community of physicists who developed them in the first place. The point here is that nuclear weapons cannot simply be cancelled out of existence, and that the world might not necessarily be ipso facto a better place if they could. On the contrary, as unpleasant as this perspective might be, we should be prepared to deal with a world in which the number of internationally recognised nuclear states, if not necessarily terrorist organisations, might actually increase in the near to medium future.


By over-demonising any weapon which resort to "nuclear" reactions in its inner workings, without much an understanding of differences in yield levels, society over-worries about the positively ghastly, but hardly Mankind extinction-capable, prospect of a low-yield nuclear 9/11, while it nurtures the seeds of further proliferation by precisely negating even the thought of an atomic Iranian Bomb, even at the cost of contemplating the possibility of launching a preventive attack on that Country’s nuclear facilities, with obvious and easy to perceive negative consequences, should diplomacy and negotiations fail.


Still, we under-worry about nukes at the same time. Very few people realise for instance that, even though current arms limitation treaties limit the maximum number of warheads its missiles can carry, a single U.S. Navy Ohio-class submarine is technically capable of delivering an explosive payload equivalent to well over thirty World War Two's. And it is precisely this class of weapons that remain a key element in the military doctrine of the major nuclear powers. Sleep-depriving as it might sound, there is at present hardly any law of Nature that makes the former bitter enemies of the West, Russia and China, its perennial smiling partners. Otherwise, why would the United States keep such boats at sea? To threaten Talibans hiding in the thousands hills of Afghanistan? And why does Russia maintain a first-class nuclear force and very recently announcediv that it will withdraw from the International Science and Technology Centre? Just to send a signal to Dagestan that it still means business?


The world, on its way to coexist with nuclear weapons for almost seventy years now, is in a real danger of finding itself still in their company when some pretty naughty international crisis over water, energy resources and/or environmental degradation will finally come our way. Then, the war on terror of the previous United States Administration and the nukes-in-the-hands of terrorists scare of the present one will pale in the face of the merging of all nightmares: a confrontation around vital resource shortage between sovereign powers fielding nuclear weapons and modern delivery systems.


A less emotional, more historically-fair and scientifically-based, new assessment of nuclear weapons is hardly overdue, and the moment of a better-informed reckoning about their legacy and possible future could not come anytime too soon.


Still, we have hardly come to grips with the basic truth so masterly framed by Niels Bohr at the dawn of the Nuclear Age. Accepting a better-grounded debate about nuclear weapons, their nature, functioning principles and inherent political and strategic dynamics, we might have to part company with many of society's cherished, morally well-inspired, and equally ineffective mind frames. Still, pushing ourselves beyond the usual comfort zone of the politically correct of the day might not be too high a price to pay, when one considers what is at stake for our civilisation.


It is perhaps fitting to mould together the timeless words of Bohr with those of a statesman, perhaps as different in character, culture and attitudes from the Danish physicist as one could imagine: Ronald Reagan. That President got sold on the idea that, through advanced technology, a true defence against nuclear warheads could be developed. In his landmark "Star Wars" television address to the Nation on March 23, 1983, Reagan called upon: "... the community of scientists, that community that gave us nuclear weapons... to come together again... to finally make these weapons... truly impotent and obsolete."


Star Wars, as we all know now, did not work out technically, and it never was probably anything more than a sophisticated mind game. The jury of historians is out as to how much it contributed, however, to the true demise of the Soviet economy, collapsing that Country much more effectively than the people's movements in the Eastern European Countries, despite its role so much cherished by European political commentators of all colours.


But that dream, at first falsely pursued by the Strategic Defence Initiative, might perhaps be morphed into a simpler one, albeit not merely based on diplomacy alone: that what technology could not achieve, perhaps knowledge will. Knowledge spread more widely across the different intellectual levels of society, with due consideration to the potentially sensitive nature of some information, but - as noted above - without paying too much homage to well-meaning but equally ill-posed conventional wisdom. Niels Bohr was spot-on in observing how the invention of nuclear weapons has led to a totally new situation, one that cannot be resolved by war. Democratic societies must now come to grips with the unpleasant truth that it might be an illusion to dream of a world simply devoid of nuclear weapons. It is instead high time to commit our resolve, more strongly than ever, to work and fight together for a world utterly devoid of war.


Only then, war itself, as conceivable mean of conflict resolution among nations, will finally become, together with and precisely because of nuclear weapons, truly impotent and obsolete.


*About the author

Franco Cozzani is an official of the European Commission, temporarily seconded to the Secretariat of the EUREKA Initiative, where he heads the Strategy and Evaluation Department. He is the author of “Mal d’America” and lives in Brussels with his wife Nilla and daughter Linda Margherita.


The opinions and the statements contained in this paper, either explicit or inferred, are solely the author's and should not be taken to reflect the views, nor involve the responsibility, of any person whose name appears in the present paper, of the European Commission or its Services and of the EUREKA Secretariat.

The distribution and possible publication of this article, as the sole cultural endeavour of the author, has been kindly authorised by the European Commission, according to provisions of Art. 17 of the Statutes of the Officials and other Agents of the European Communities.

Copyright 2010, 2011 © Franco Cozzani



i This will be discussed in a specific article of this series and has been argued much more extensively by modern professional historians: see for instance: Michael Gordin, “Five days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War”, Princeton University Press, 2007.

iiSee Henry Kissinger, “Diplomacy”, Simon & Schuster, London, 1994, pages 593 and 713.

iiiThe sinister saying of the day, “Use them or lose them” characterised the hair-trigger rationale of keeping land-based ICBMs, on both sides, on a state of launch on warning, for fear that a first strike would obliterate one's own return strike capability. The danger with “Star Wars” was that the Soviets might have opted for a “Use them before those guys at Livermore make them impotent and obsolete” philosophy for their Strategic Rocket Forces.

ivPresident Medvenev's announcement of 17 August 2010.