Meditations

The President and the bomb

by Alex Wellerstein, published November 18th, 2016

I’m in the process of writing up something more substantial about nuclear weapons and the 2016 Presidential election, but I keep getting asked one thing repeatedly both in person, over e-mail, and online: “Are there any checks in place to keep the US President from starting a nuclear war?”  

What’s amazing about this question, really, is how seriously it misunderstands the logic of the US command and control system. It gets it exactly backwards.

Recent (November 17, 2016) Tweet by the USAF expresses US nuclear doctrine in a nutshell: "Always on the ready is an understatement when you are providing #POTUS with the ability to launch ICBMs." Hat tip to Alexandra Levy (Atomic Heritage Foundation) for bringing this one to my attention.

A recent Tweet by the USAF expresses US nuclear doctrine in a nutshell: “Always on the ready is an understatement when you are providing #POTUS with the ability to launch ICBMs.” (November 17, 2016) Hat tip to Alexandra Levy of the Atomic Heritage Foundation for bringing this one to my attention.

The entire point of the US command and control system is to guarantee that the President and only the President is capable of authorizing nuclear war whenever he needs to. It is about enabling the President’s power, not checking or restricting him. As former Vice President Dick Cheney put it in 2008:

The president of the United States now for 50 years is followed at all times, 24 hours a day, by a military aide carrying a football that contains the nuclear codes that he would use and be authorized to use in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States.

He could launch the kind of devastating attack the world has never seen. He doesn’t have to check with anybody, he doesn’t have to call Congress, he doesn’t have to check with the courts.

This isn’t new; it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. This has been discussed since the 1940s. And yet, people today seem rather shocked to hear it, even very educated people.

To be sure, the official doctrine that I have seen on the Nuclear Command Authority implies that the President should be given as much advice as possible from the military, the Department of Defense, and so on. But nothing I have seen suggests that this is any more than advisory — and the entire system is set up so that once the President’s order is verified and authenticated, there are meant to be only minutes until launch.

Diagram of the various US Nuclear Command, Control, and Communication (NC3) Systems, as of 2016. From Nuclear Matters Handbook (2016).

Diagram of the various US Nuclear Command, Control, and Communication (NC3) Systems, as of 2016. From Nuclear Matters Handbook (2016).

It isn’t entirely intuitive — why the President, and not someone else, or some combination of people? Why not have some kind of “two-man rule,” whereby two top political figures were required to sign off on the use before it happened? The two-man rule is required for commanders to authorize nuclear launches, so why not the Commander in Chief?

To understand why this is, you have to go back and look at the history of how this doctrine came about. Today we tend to discuss this in terms of the speed in which a retaliation would be necessary in the event of a crisis, but the debate wasn’t originally about expediency at all, but about an understanding of Constitutional power and the inherently political nature of the bomb. I see the debate about the (un-)targeting of Kyoto, in mid-1945, as the first place where some of these questions started to get worked out. Presidents generally do not pick targets in war. That’s a general’s job. (Like all things in history, there have, of course, been exceptions.) But when it came to the atomic bomb, the civilian branch of the executive government (personified here by the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson), demanded veto power over the targets. The military (here, General Leslie Groves) pushed back, asserting that this was a military matter. Stimson insisted, and eventually got the President’s personal ear on the matter, and that was that. Truman, for his part, while he did not authorize the actual bombing in any explicit way (he was shown the bombing order, but he did not issue it nor was his approval required, though he could have vetoed it), did, on August 10th, re-assert nuclear authority by prohibiting future bombing activity without his explicit permission.

General Groves (left) and David Lilienthal (right) share a moment. Photo by Ed Westcott.

One can tell that the relationship between General Groves (left) and David Lilienthal (right) was not exactly the smoothest. Photo by Ed Westcott.

From that point forward, the President made very explicit that his office was in charge of the atomic bomb and its uses, not the military. It was not a “military weapon,” which is to say, it was an inherently political weapon, one that needed to be handled by that most inherently political office, the Presidency. This became the framework for talking about domestic control over nuclear weapons in the 1940s, the civilian vs. military split. It was believed that only an elected civilian could make the call for this of all weapons. Truman himself put it to David Lilienthal in 1948:

I don’t think we ought to use this thing unless we absolutely have to. It is a terrible thing to order the use of something that, that is so terribly destructive, destructive beyond anything we have ever had. You have got to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses. So we have got to treat this thing differently from rifles and cannons and ordinary things like that.

In the early days, this civilian-military split was actually enforced at a physical level, with the non-nuclear parts of the weapons kept by the military, and the nuclear parts (the pits) kept by the civilian Atomic Energy Commission. By the end of the Eisenhower administration, changes in doctrine, technology (sealed-pit weapons), and fears (e.g., a Soviet “sneak attack”) had led to 90% of the nuclear weapons transferred into the hands of the military, making the civilian-military distinction a somewhat theoretical one. Eisenhower also “pre-delegated” the authority to start nuclear war to several military commanders on the front lines, on the idea that they would not have time to call back to Washington should Soviet tanks start pouring into Western Europe. (So while the President is the only person who can authorize a nuclear attack, he can also extend that authority to others if he deems it necessary.)

The Kennedy administration, looking to assert more positive control over the beginning of a nuclear conflict (especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which raised the real possibility of a low-level misunderstanding “escalating” in times of uncertainty), requiring the weapons themselves to have sophisticated electronic controls (Permissive Action Links) that would prevent anyone without a coded authorization to use them. There is more to these stories, but I just want to illustrate a bit of what the “control” debate was really about: making sure the President, and only the President, was ultimately the one making decisions about the bomb.

A retired "nuclear football" suitcase, from which the President can authorize a nuclear attack. Photo credit: Smithsonian Institute/Jamie Chung, via Wikimedia Commons.

A retired “nuclear football” suitcase, from which the President can authorize a nuclear attack. Photo credit: Smithsonian Institute/Jamie Chung, via Wikimedia Commons.

I have been asked: would the officer carrying the “football” actually go forward with a nuclear attack, especially if it seems heedless or uncalled for? (The “nuclear football” is the special computer that, once the nuclear “codes” are inputted into it, somehow electronically starts the sequence of events that leads to the weapons being used.) Which I find lovably optimistic. The entire job of the person carrying the football is to enable the President to launch a nuclear attack. They would not presume to know the “big picture” of why the President was doing it — they are not a high-level military or policymaker. They are going to do their job; it is what they were chosen to do.

Would the military second-guess the President, and override the order? I mean, anything is possible — this has just never happened before, so who knows. But I am dubious. In 1973, Major Harold Hering was fired for asking, “How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?” Not because it is a fireable offensive to imply that the President might not, at all times, be entirely capable of making such an order, but because to start to question that order would mean to put the entire credibility of the nuclear deterrent at risk. The entire logic of the system is that the President’s will on this point must be authoritative. If people start second-guessing orders, the entire strategic artifice breaks down.

So is there any check on the President’s power to use nuclear weapons? Well, technically the US election process is meant to be that check — don’t elect people you don’t trust with the unilateral authority to use nuclear weapons. And this, indeed, has been a theme in numerous US elections, including the most recent one. It is one issue among many, of course.

The problem with a big red button is that someone might actually press it. Like a cat. Source: Ren and Stimpy, Space Madness.

There is, of course, no big red button. There are lots of other, smaller buttons, though. Source: Ren and Stimpy, Space Madness.

Do I personally worry about an unhinged, unthoughtful President using nuclear weapons heedlessly? Sure, to some degree. But not as much as I worry about other damage that such a President will do to the country and the world (the environment, economy, social fabric, international order, and human rights are higher on my list of concerns at the moment). Which is to say, it’s on the list of things one might worry about (for any President, but certainly the next one), but it’s not my top worry. Ultimately I do have some faith, perhaps unearned, that even someone who is woefully under-educated about world affairs, strategic logic, and so on, will come to understand rather rapidly that it is in the United States’ best interests not to break the nuclear taboo.

The United States benefits from the taboo disproportionately: should the threshold for nuclear use be lowered, we would be the ones who would suffer the most for it, because we tend to put our cities and military forces and everything else in centralized, easy-to-take-out-with-a-nuke sorts of arrangements, and because we enjoy a powerful conventional military power as well. We have the luxury of a nuclear taboo, in other words: we don’t have to use nukes to get what we want, and indeed in many situations nukes are just not as useful as they might at first appear.

So only a true idiot would think that using nukes foolishly would actually be a useful thing, aside from the collateral damage, moral issues, and so on. Take from that what you will.

I am not interested in having political arguments (one way or the other) in the comments of this blog post — I am burned out on online political debates for the moment. If you want to have a political debate, have it elsewhere. I will only approve constructive, interesting, non-obvious comments. Trolls will be banned and blocked. We will be coming back to this topic again, don’t worry. (Or do.)

Redactions

FDR and the bomb

by Alex Wellerstein, published September 30th, 2016

Franklin D. Roosevelt is one of the most enigmatic figures of the early American atomic bomb program. The four-term US president always features briefly in any story of the Manhattan Project: first, for his creation of the Advisory Committee on Uranium, an exploratory research effort in response to a letter urging government action that was sent by Albert Einstein in August 1939; second, for his approval of a broader expansion of that research into a “pilot” program in late 1941, just before the US entry into World War II, which resulted in more intensive investment into uranium enrichment and reactor design; and third, in mid-1942, Roosevelt approved bringing in the US Army Corps of Engineers to manage a full-scale bomb-production project. This latter action is often subsumed by the attention given the first two, but it is the production program decision that actually resulted in the US getting an atomic bomb by 1945, and is the decision that makes the United States unique among powers in the Second World War, as while several powers had research programs, only the US turned it into a production program. It was the beginning of the Manhattan Project as we tend to characterize it, the kind of program that produces weapons and not just data.

A little history trick I always tell my students: if you see Truman and FDR in the same photograph, that means Truman doesn't know about the atomic bomb. Photo source: History.com

A little history trick I always tell my students: if you see Truman and FDR in the same photograph, that means Truman doesn’t know about the atomic bomb. Photo source: History.com

So Roosevelt looms large, as he ought to. Without Roosevelt’s actions, there would have been no atomic bomb in World War II. And yet… What did FDR really think about the atomic bomb? Did he see it as a true end-the-war weapon? Did he think it was meant to be used in war (as a first-strike weapon) or did he think of it primarily as a deterrent (i.e., against the Germans)? The question isn’t just an idle one, because Roosevelt’s sudden death, on April 12, 1945, left his successor, Harry Truman, with major decisions to make about the future of the war, and Truman, in part, thought he was acting in accordance with FDR’s wishes on this matter. But, as is well known, FDR never told Truman about the atomic bomb work, and never set out his wishes on this matter — so there was a tremendous amount of assumption involved.

I get asked about FDR’s views on a fairly regular basis, and it’s one of those wonderful questions that seems simple but is really quite complex, and quickly gets you into what I think of as “epistemological territory”: How do we know what someone’s views were, in the past? How do we get inside the head of someone dead? Well, you might say, obviously we can’t completely get inside someone’s head (we can barely get inside the heads of people who are alive and in front of us, and a Freudian might argue that we barely have conscious access to our own motivations and thoughts), but we can look at what evidence there is that was written down that might reveal some of their inner thoughts.

But with FDR, this is very tricky: he didn’t write that much down. He didn’t keep a diary or journal. He didn’t send that many letters. He didn’t record phone calls, conversations, write “memos to self,” or any of the other documenting habits that are common to major political figures. He was notoriously secretive and private. He didn’t explain himself. If Truman was comparatively straightforward in his thinking and action, Roosevelt was a grand schemer, trying to out-wit and out-charm the world (sometimes successfully, sometimes not). He could be downright gnomic. At one point, Vannevar Bush (FDR’s top science advisor) asked Roosevelt whether the Secretary of the Navy ought to be included in discussions on the bomb project. He later recalled that FDR “looked at me with one of his strange smiles and said, ‘No, I guess not, not now.'” End of anecdote, no real indication as to what FDR was thinking, other than a “strange smile” that no doubt concealed much.

What approval of a nuclear weapons program looked like under Roosevelt: "VB OK FDR." Report by Vannevar Bush of June 16, 1942, asking to expand the fission work into an all-out effort.

What approval of a nuclear weapons program looked like under Roosevelt: “VB OK FDR.” Report by Vannevar Bush of June 16, 1942, asking to expand the fission work into an all-out effort.

As this example indicates, we do sometimes have accounts, including contemporary ones, by people who met with Roosevelt and talked with him. But even these can be quite tricky, because FDR did not, again, generally explain his full thinking. So people like Bush were left with half-versions of the story, knowing what FDR said but not what he thought, and while this is, to be sure, a common-enough human experience, with FDR the gap between thought and expression was exceptionally large.

Separately, there is another, related issue that complicates our understanding: people who met with FDR would often use tales of his agreement as a form of authority. Vannevar Bush did this repeatedly, and this is no doubt a pretty standard mode of operation regarding advisors and presidents. Bush would go to FDR with an idea, convince FDR to sign off on Bush’s idea, and then claim it was FDR’s idea, because while people might feel free to disagree with Bush, they couldn’t really disagree with FDR. One of the most famous examples of this is Bush’s report on postwar American science policy, Science—The Endless Frontier, which is constructed to look like it is a reply to a letter by FDR for guidance, but was entirely engineered by Bush as a means of pushing his own agenda, with FDR being a complicit as opposed to a driving force.

So what do we know? The number of documents that give insight into FDR’s personal thoughts about the atomic bomb — what it was, what it could be used for, what his plans were — are very slim. Some of this is a function of timing: FDR died right around when they were getting concrete estimates for when the atomic bomb would be ready to use, and had he lived until, say, May 1945, he might have been faced with more direct questions about his plans for it. (The first Target Committee meeting was on April 27, and the Interim Committee was created in early May, just to give an indication of how things rapidly started to come together right after FDR died.) So he wasn’t part of the conversations that directly led to the use of the atomic bombs on Japanese cities.

But there are a few other documents that are useful in assessing FDR’s views. It seems fairly clear that FDR’s approval of the Uranium Committee in 1939 was initially because he was interested in the deterrent quality of the bomb. Alexander Sachs, who had the meeting with Roosevelt, related that FDR had confirmed that the goal was “to see that the Nazis don’t blow us up.” Again, this wasn’t yet a bomb-making program, it was just a “see if bombs are worth worrying about” program, but that’s still a little insight: it shows, perhaps, that the initial, explicit attraction was not in making a new wonder-weapon, but deterring against another one.

Roosevelt, Truman, and FDR's previous VP, Henry Wallace. Truman is the only one here who doesn't know about the bomb program. Image source: Truman Library via Wikimedia Commons

Roosevelt, Truman, and FDR’s previous VP, Henry Wallace. Truman is the only one here who doesn’t know about the bomb program. Image source: Truman Library via Wikimedia Commons

Between 1939 and 1941 there are big gaps in anything that would indicate FDR’s views on the bomb. This is not surprising, because this was a period of relative lack of movement in the US fission program, which was not yet a bomb program. FDR was occasionally involved in discussions about the program, but there was no “bomb” yet to worry about one way or the other. In late 1941, FDR approved accelerating and expanding the research, at the urging of Bush, James Conant, Ernest Lawrence, and Arthur Compton, and in mid-1942 he approved of a full bomb production program, as previously noted. None of these documents indicate intent for use, however. The June 1942 report by Vannevar Bush and James Conant, whose approval by Roosevelt is indicated only by a scrawled “VB OK FDR” on its cover letter, indicates that a weapon made with 5-10 kilograms of U-235 or Pu-239 (then just called “Element 94”) would have an explosive power of “several thousand tons of TNT.” It goes into great detail on the types of plants to be constructed and the organization of the research. It predicts a “bomb” would be ready by early 1944. But at no point does it indicate what the point of such a weapon was: as a deterrent, as a first-strike weapon, as a demonstration device, etc. There is only point, towards the end, which suggests that a committee be eventually formed to consider “the military uses of the material,” but even this is primarily concerned with research and development for the plants. This is not to say that Bush, Conant, et al. did not have their views on whether it would be a weapon to use or not — but the report does not indicate any such views, and so FDR’s endorsement of it doesn’t tell us much.

Bush met with Roosevelt many times during the war, and sometimes would write down, afterwards, what they talked about. Clearly this is FDR-as-filtered-through-Bush, but we’ll take what we can get. In late June 1943, Bush wrote to Conant with an account of a recent meeting he had with FDR on “S-1,” their code for the bomb work. In it, Bush related that FDR was curious about the progress of the work and the schedule for having a bomb. Bush told him things were going well but still tentative, and that the date of a bomb had been pushed back to early January 1945, but that this could shift in either direction. FDR also wanted to know how the Germans were doing. Bush explained that they didn’t really know, that they were trying to find ways to slow down any German work, and that they were still worried about being behind the Germans. (They would eventually come to understand they had surpassed them.) Then there is this really interesting passage which is worth quoting from the original:

He [FDR] then himself discussed what the enemy attitude of mind would be if they felt they had this coming along, and were inclined to remain on the defensive until it could eventuate. We then spoke briefly of the possible use against Japan, or the Japanese fleet, and I brought out, or I tried to, that because at this point I do not think I was really successful in getting the idea across, that our point of view or our emphasis on the program would shift if we had in mind use against Japan as compared with use against Germany.

After which the conversation then shifted to other matters. Such a tantalizing snippet of discussion, but not as fleshed out as one might want! What did Bush and FDR understand the difference to be between the Japanese versus the Germans? Who initially brought up the possibility of use against the Japanese? What did FDR think about the German “attitude of mind”? This snippet hints at exactly the topics one might care about but doesn’t actually reveal anything about FDR’s views on them! Impressively frustrating!

Most of FDR’s interactions with Bush, Groves, and others during this period concerned diplomatic issues, specifically cooperation with the British (a rather long, drawn-out saga), and even a meeting with Niels Bohr (from which FDR mostly took away a fear that Bohr might alert the Soviets, or others, to the US work). FDR helped, for example, in helping to shut down unionization activities at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, and was kept abreast of efforts made to monopolize global uranium ore resources. He was not “checked out” in any respect; he was dramatically more concerned with the ins-and-outs of the fission work than, say, Truman would later be. But again, very little of this left any record about what he thought they were going to do with the bomb.

Atomic diplomacy: Roosevelt and Churchill at Quebec, in September 1944. Source: NARA via Wikimedia Commons

Atomic diplomacy: Roosevelt and Churchill at Quebec, in September 1944. Source: NARA via Wikimedia Commons

Two of the only documents that reveal any FDR-specific thoughts about the use of the bomb were agreements he made with Winston Churchill. In August 1943, Churchill and Roosevelt met in Quebec, Canada, and hammered out the secret “Quebec Agreement.” It said, among other matters, that the US and UK would pool their efforts at both making the bomb and securing global uranium reserves, that they would never nuke each other, that they would never nuke anyone else without mutual agreement, and they would not reveal the secrets of the bombs without mutual agreement. So this at least provides a framework for using the bomb, but it is a limited one — FDR was willing to deliberately tie the US’s hands with regards to dropping of the atomic bomb to the approval of a foreign power, quite an amazing concession!

Another meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill, in Hyde Park, New York, produced yet another fascinating agreement. The Hyde Park Aide-Mémoire of September 1944 contained the following clause:

The suggestion that the world should be informed regarding tube alloys, with a view to an international agreement regarding its control and use, is not accepted. The matter should continue to be regarded as of the utmost secrecy; but when a “bomb” is finally available, it might perhaps, after mature consideration, be used against the Japanese, who should be warned that this bombardment will be repeated until they surrender.

Here they were explicitly rejecting the appeal by Niels Bohr (which he was able to make personally to both FDR and Churchill, on separate occasions) to alert the world about the atomic bomb. But it is of interest that they were, at this point, specifically thinking about using the bomb against the Japanese (not Germany), but that they thought it would require “mature consideration” before use, and that they were putting “bomb” in scare-quotes. This is one of the few indications we have of FDR’s awareness and acceptance of the idea that the bomb might be used as a first-strike weapon, and against the Japanese in particular.

Lastly, there is one other significant FDR-specific datapoint, which I have written about at length before. In late December 1944, with Yalta looming, Roosevelt and Groves met in the Oval Office (along with Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War). In Groves’ much later recollection (so we can make of that what we will), Roosevelt asked if the atomic bomb might be ready to use against Germany very soon. Groves explained that for a variety of reasons, the most important one being that their schedule had pushed the bomb back to the summer of 1945, this would not be possible. It is an interesting piece, one that simultaneously reveals Roosevelt’s potential willingness to use the atomic bomb as a first-strike weapon, his willingness to use it against Germany specifically, and the fact that FDR was sufficiently out of the loop on planning discussions to not know that this would both be impossible and very difficult. In other words, it reveals that FDR wasn’t aware that by that point, it was expected that the bomb could only be used against Japan, and that is a rather large thing for him not to know — further evidence, perhaps, that he was not completely abreast of these kinds of discussions. At the meeting, Groves gave FDR a report that predicted a weapon ready for use in early August 1945, and specified that it was time to begin military planning, which Groves annotated as having been “approved” by the Secretary of War and the President. But there doesn’t seem to have been any specifics of targets, or even targeting philosophy, agreed upon at this point.

What can we make of all this? Frequently I have seen people take the position that Truman himself took: assuming that Roosevelt would have used the bomb in the way that Truman did, because what else might he have been planning? I would only caution that there were more “options” on the table even for Truman than we tend to talk about, which is just another way to say that dropping two atomic bombs in rapid succession on cities is not the only way to use an atomic bomb even militarily. That is, even if one thinks it was inevitable that the bombs would be used in a military fashion (which I think is probably true), it is unclear what position FDR might have taken on the question of specific targets (e.g., the Kyoto question), the question of timing (e.g., before or after the Soviet invasion; how many days between each strike?), and diplomatic matters (e.g., would Roosevelt be more open to modifying the Potsdam Declaration terms than Truman was?). So there is room for considerable variability in the “what if Roosevelt hadn’t died when he did?” question, especially given that Roosevelt, unlike Truman, had been following the bomb work from the start, and was as a result much less reliant on his advisors’ views than Truman was (he frequently bucked Bush, for example, when it came to matters relating to the British).

Would Roosevelt have dropped the bomb on Japan, had he not died? I suspect the answer is yes. One can see, in these brief data points, a mind warming up to the idea of the atomic bomb as not just a deterrent, but a weapon, one that might be deployed as a first-strike attack. In some ways, FDR’s query to Groves about Germany is the most interesting piece: this was a step further than anyone else at the time was really making, since Germany’s defeat seemed inevitable at that point. But, again, the strict answer is, of course, that we can’t really know for sure. Perhaps if FDR had confided his inner thoughts on the bomb to more people, perhaps if he had written them down, perhaps if he had been more involved in the early targeting questions, then we would be able to say something with more confidence. Unless some new source emerges, I suspect Roosevelt’s thoughts on the bomb will always have something of an enigma to them. It is not too far-fetched to suggest that this may have always been his intention.

Visions

Secrecy, verification, and purposeful ignorance

by Alex Wellerstein, published September 23rd, 2016

The history of nuclear secrecy is an interesting topic for a lot of reasons, but one of the more wonky ones is that it is an inversion of the typical studies that traditionally are done in the history of science. The history of science is usually a study of how knowledge is made and then circulates; a history of secrecy is about how knowledge is made and then is not circulated. Or, at least, its non-circulation is attempted, to various degrees of success. These kinds of studies are still not the “norm” amongst historians of science, but in recent years have become more common, both because historians have come to understand that secrecy is often used by scientists for various “legitimate” reasons (i.e., preserving priority), and because historians have come to understand that the study of deliberately-created ignorance has been a major theme as well (e.g., Robert Proctor has coined the term agnotology to describe the deliberate actions of the tobacco industry to foster ignorance and uncertainty regarding the link between lung cancer and cigarettes).

The USS Nautilus with a nice blob of redaction. No reactor core for you!

The USS Nautilus with a nice blob of redaction. No reactor for you! From a 1951 hearing of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy — apparently the reactor design is still secret even today?

What I find particularly interesting about secrecy, as a scholar, is that it is like a sap or a glue that starts to stick to everything once you introduce a little bit of it. Try to add a little secrecy to your system and pretty soon more secrecy is necessary — it spreads. I’ve remarked on this some time back, in the context of Los Alamos designating all spheres as a priori classified: once you start down the rabbit-hole, it becomes easier and easier for the secrecy system to become more entrenched, even if your intentions are completely pure (and, of course, more so if they are not).

In this vein, I’ve for awhile been struck by the work of some friends of mine in the area of arms control work known as “zero-knowledge proofs” (and the name alone is an attention-grabber). A zero-knowledge proof is a concept derived from cryptography (e.g., one computer proves to another that it knows a secret, but doesn’t give the secret away in the process), but as applied to nuclear weapons, it is roughly as follows: Imagine a hypothetical future where the United States and Russia have agreed to have very low numbers of nuclear warheads, say in the hundreds rather than the current thousands. They want mutually verify each other’s stockpiles are as they say they are. So they send over an inspector to count each other’s warheads.

Already this involves some hypotheticals, but the real wrench is this: the US doesn’t want to give its nuclear design secrets away to the Russian inspectors. And the Russians don’t want to give theirs to the US inspectors. So how can they verify that what they are looking at are actually warheads, and not, say, steel cans made to look like warheads, if you can’t take them apart?

Let's imagine you had a long line of purported warheads, like the W80, shown here. How can you prove there's an actual nuke in each can, without knowing or learning what's in the can? The remarkable W80s-in-a-bunker image is from a blog post by Hans Kristensen at Federation of American Scientists.

Let’s imagine you had a long line of purported warheads, like the W80, shown here. How can you prove there’s an actual nuke in each can, without knowing or learning what’s in the can? The remarkable W80s-in-a-bunker image is from a blog post by Hans Kristensen at Federation of American Scientists.

Now you might ask why people would fake having warheads (because that would make their total number of warheads seem higher than it was, not lower), and the answer is usually about verifying warheads put into a queue for dismantlement. So your inspector would show up to a site and see a bunch of barrels and would be told, “all of these are nuclear warheads we are getting rid of.” So if those are not actually warheads then you are being fooled about how many nukes they still have.

You might know how much a nuclear weapon ought to weigh, so you could weigh the cans. You might do some radiation readings to figure out if they are giving off more or less what you expect a warhead might be giving you. But remember that yours inspector doesn’t actually know the configuration inside the can: they aren’t allowed to know how much plutonium or uranium is in the device, or what shapes it is in, or what configuration it is in. So this will put limitations both on what you’re allowed to know beforehand, and what you’re allowed to measure.

Now, amusingly, I had written all of the above a few weeks ago, with a plan to publish this issue as its own blog post, when one of the groups came out with a new paper and I was asked whether I would write about it for The New Yorker‘s science/tech blog, Elements. So you can go read the final result, to learn about some of the people (Alexander Glaser, Sébastien Philippe, and R. Scott Kemp) who are doing work on this: “The Virtues of Nuclear Ignorance.” It was a fun article to write, in part because I have known two of the people for several years (Glaser and Kemp) and they are curious, intelligent people doing really unusual work at the intersection of technology and policy.

Virtues of Nuclear Ignorance

I won’t re-describe their various methods of doing it here; read the article. If you want to read their original papers (I have simplified their protocols a bit in my description), you can read them here: the original Princeton group paper (2014), the MIT paper from earlier this year (2016), and the most recent paper from the Princeton group with Philippe’s experiment (2016).

In the article, I use a pine tree analogy to explain the zero-knowledge proof. Kemp provided that. There are other “primers” on zero-knowledge proofs on the web, but most of them are, like many cryptographic proofs, not exactly intuitive, everyday scenarios. One of the ones I considered using in the article was a famous one regarding a game of Where’s Waldo:

Imagine that you and I are looking at a page in one book of Where’s Waldo. After several minutes, you become frustrated and declare that Waldo can’t possibly be on the page. “Oh, but he is,” I respond. “I can prove it to you, but I don’t want to take away the fun of you finding him for yourself.” So I get a large piece of paper and cut out a tiny hole in exactly the shape of Waldo. While you are looking away, I position it so that it obscures the page but reveals the striped wanderer through the hole. That is the essence of a zero-knowledge proof — I prove I’m not bluffing without revealing anything new to you.

I found Waldo on the map of Troy. How can I prove it without giving his location away? A digital version of the described "proof": I found his little head and cut it out with Photoshop. But how do you know that's his head from this image? (Waldo from Where's Waldo)

I found Waldo in the Battle of Troy. How can I prove it without giving his location away? A digital version of the described “proof”: I found his little head and cut it out with Photoshop. In principle, you now know I really found him, without knowing where he is… but might that face be from a different Waldo page? (Image from Where’s Waldo)

But a true zero-knowledge proof, though, would also avoid the possibility of faking a positive result, which the Waldo example fails: I might not know where Waldo is on the page we are mutually looking at, but while you are not looking, I could set up the Waldo-mask on another page where I do know he is hiding. Worse yet, I could carry with me a tiny Waldo printed on a tiny piece of paper, just for this purpose. This might sound silly, but if there were stakes attached to my identification of Waldo, cheating would become expected. In the cryptologic jargon, any actual proof need to be both “complete” (proving positive knowledge) and “sound” (indicating false knowledge). Waldo doesn’t satisfy both.

Nuclear weapons issues have been particularly fraught by verification problems. The first attempt to reign in nuclear proliferation, the United States’ Baruch Plan of 1946, failed in the United Nations in part because it was clear that any meaningful plan to prevent the Soviet Union from developing nuclear weapons would involve a freedom of movement and inspection that was fundamentally incompatible with Stalinist society. The Soviet counter-proposal, the Gromyko Plan, was essentially a verification-free system, not much more than a pledge not to build nukes, and was subsequently rejected by the United States.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has binding force, in part, because of the inspection systems set up by the International Atomic Energy Agency, who physically monitor civilian nuclear facilities in signatory nations to make sure that sensitive materials are not being illegally diverted to military use. Even this regime has been controversial: much of the issues regarding Iran revolve around the limits of inspection, as the Iranians argue that many of the facilities the IAEA would like to inspect are militarily secret, though non-nuclear, and thus off-limits.

From the Nature Communications paper — showing (at top) the principle of what a 2D example would look like (with Glaser's faux Space Invader) — the complement is the "preload" setting mentioned in my New Yorker article, so that when combined with the new reading, ought to result in a virtually null reading. At bottom, the setup of the proof-of-concept version, with seven detectors.

From the Nature Communications paper — showing (at top) the principle of what a 2D example would look like (with Glaser’s faux Space Invader) — the complement is the “preload” setting mentioned in my New Yorker article, so that when combined with the new reading, ought to result in a virtually null reading. At bottom, the setup of the proof-of-concept version, with seven detectors.

One historical example about the importance of verification comes from the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972. It contained no verification measures at all: the USA and USSR just pledged not to develop biological weapons (and the Soviets denied having a program at all, a flat-out lie). The United States had already unilaterally destroyed its offensive weapons prior to signing the treaty, though the Soviets long expressed doubt that all possible facilities had been removed. The US lack of interest in verification was partially because it suspected that the Soviets would object to any measures to monitor their work within their territory, but also because US intelligence agencies didn’t really fear a Soviet biological attack.

Privately, President Nixon referred to the BWC as a “jackass treaty… that doesn’t mean anything.” And as he put it to an aide: “If somebody uses germs on us, we’ll nuke ‘em.”

But immediately after signing the treaty, the Soviet Union launched a massive expansion of their secret biological weapon work. Over the years, they applied the newest genetic-engineering techniques to the effort of making whole new varieties of pathogens. Years later, after all of this had come to light and the Cold War had ended, researchers asked the former Soviet biologists why the USSR had violated the treaty. Some had indicated that they had gotten indications from intelligence officers that the US was probably doing the same thing, since if they weren’t, what was the point of a treaty without verification?

A bad verification regime, however, can also produce false positives, which can be just as dangerous. Consider Iraq, where the United States set up a context in which it was very hard for the Iraqi government to prove that it was not developing weapons of mass destruction. It was easy to imagine ways in which they might be cheating, and this, among other factors, drove the push for the disastrous Iraq War.

In between these extremes is the more political considerations: the possibility of cheating at treaties invites criticism and strife. It gives ammunition to those who would oppose treaties and diplomacy in general. Questions about verification have plagued American political discourse about the US-Iranian nuclear deal, including the false notion that Iran would be allowed to inspect itself. If one could eliminate any technical bases for objections, it has been argued, then at least those who opposed such things on principle would not be able to find refuge in them.

The setup from Kemp, et al. The TAI is the Treaty Accountable Item, i.e. the warhead you are testing.

The setup from Kemp, et al. The TAI is the Treaty Accountable Item, i.e. the warhead you are testing.

This is where the zero-knowledge protocols could come in. What’s interesting to me, as someone who studies secrecy, is if the problem of weapon design secrecy were removed, then this whole system would be unnecessary. It is, on some level, a contortion: an elaborate work-around to avoid sharing, or learning, any classified information. Do American scientists really think the Russians have any warhead secrets that we don’t know, or vice versa? It’s possible. A stronger argument for continued secrecy is that there are ways that an enemy’s weapons could be rendered ineffective if their exact compositions were known (neutrons, in the right quantity, can “kill” a warhead, causing its plutonium to heat and expand, and causing its chemical high-explosives to degrade; if you knew exactly what level of neutrons would kill a nuke, it would play into strategies of trying to defend against a nuclear attack).

And, of course, that hypothetical future would include actors other than the United States and Russia: the other nuclear powers of the world are less likely to want to share nuclear warhead schematics with each other, and an ideal system could be used by non-nuclear states involved in inspections as well. But even if everyone did share their secrets, such verification systems might still be useful, because they would eliminate the need for trust altogether, and trust is never perfect.

A little postscript on the article: I want to make sure to thank Alex Glaser, Sébastien Philippe, and R. Scott Kemp for devoting a lot of their weekends to making sure I actually understood the underlying science of their work to write about it. Milton Leitenberg gave me a lot of valuable feedback on the Biological Weapons Convention, and even though none of that made it into the final article, it was extremely useful. Areg Danagoulian, a colleague of Kemp’s at MIT who has been working on their system (and who first proposed using nuclear resonance fluorescence as a means of approaching this question), didn’t make it into the article, but anyone seriously interested in these protocols should check out his work as well. And of course the editor I work with at New Yorker, Anthony Lydgate, should really get more credit than he does for these articles, and on this one in particular managed to take the unwieldy 5,000 word draft I sent him and chop it down to 2,000 words very elegantly. And, lastly, something amusing — I noticed that Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory released a film of Sébastien talking about the experiment. Next to him is something heavily pixellated out… what could it be? It looks an awful lot like a copy of Unmaking the Bomb, a book created by Glaser and other Princeton faculty (and I made the cover), next to him…

Visions

Operation Crossroads at 70

by Alex Wellerstein, published July 25th, 2016

This summer is the 70th anniversary of Operation Crossroads, the first postwar nuclear test series. Crossroads is so strange and unusual. 1946 in general ought to get more credit as an interesting year, as I’ve written about before. It was a year in flux, where a great number of possible futures seemed possible, before the apparently iron-clad dynamics of the Cold War fell into place. Crossroads happens right in the middle of the year, and arguably made a pretty big contribution to the direction that we ended up going. Such is the subject of my latest article for the New Yorker‘s Elements blog, “America at the Atomic Crossroads.” Today is the anniversary of the Baker shot, which Glenn Seaborg dubbed “the world’s first nuclear disaster.”

America at the Atomic Crossroads

There are a lot of things that make Crossroads interesting to me. The bomb was still in the hands of the Manhattan Project. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 had not yet been signed into law (Truman would sign it in August, and it would go into effect in January 1947), so the Atomic Energy Commission did not yet exist.

There were these amazing interservice rivalry aspects: the whole backdrop is a Navy vs. Army tension. The Manhattan Project, and the Army Air Forces, had gotten all the glory for the bomb. The Navy didn’t want to be left out, or seen as irrelevant. Hence them hosting a big test, and glorying in the fact that a Nagasaki-sized atomic bomb doesn’t completely destroy a full naval squadron. (Which was no surprise to anybody on the scientific or military side of things.)

The US had only about 10 atomic bombs at the time. So they expended about 20% of their entire nuclear arsenal on these tests, for relatively little military knowledge gained. The Los Alamos scientists were pretty lukewarm on the whole operation — it just didn’t seem like it was getting them much. One wonders, if the bomb had not still be under military control, whether it would have happened.

Photograph of the early mushroom cloud by LIFE photographer Frank Scherschel, with a darkened filter to compensate for the brightness of the flash. Source.

Photograph of the early mushroom cloud of Crossroads Able by LIFE photographer Frank Scherschel, with a darkened filter to compensate for the brightness of the flash. Source.

The first shot, Able, was something of a flub. The fact that it missed its target meant that for public relations purposes it was seen as very ineffective, but it also means that their scientific observations were largely pretty useless. In fact, it missed its target and blew up over one of the main instrumentation ships.

If you read most sources about Crossroads they will say that the source of the Able miss was undetermined, but if you dig down a little deeper you find some pretty plausible solutions (and the reason why the official verdict was “undetermined”). Paul Tibbets, the captain of the Enola Gay and overall head of the atomic delivery group, was pretty clear that it was human error. He said that even before the shot they realized that the crew of the B-29 which dropped it, Dave’s Dream, had gotten bad information about the weather conditions, but that they ignored attempts at correction. Tibbets would re-run (with a dummy bomb) the drop with the correct information (and got very close to the target), and also re-ran it with the wrong information (which missed by nearly the same amount as the Able shot). But the USAAF really didn’t want to throw their bombardier and plane crew under the bus. So they hinted it might be a problem with the ballistics of the weapon (which were indeed a bit tricky), which infuriated the Manhattan Project officials. Anyway, everyone seems to have been satisfied by just saying they couldn’t figure out where the error was. But Tibbets’ account seems most plausible to me.

Crossroads was not secret operation, though there was much classified about it. There were full-spread articles about its purpose in national news publications both before and after its tests. There was probably no test series so publicly conducted by any nuclear power — announced well in advance, covered by the press in real-time, and then heavily publicized afterwards. The fact that the Soviets were invited to a US nuclear test operation (something that would not happen again until the late-1980s) opens up whole other dimensions.

Mikhail Meshcheryakov ("Mike"?) in 1946. At right he is on the USS Panamint, at the Crossroads test. Source: Mikhail Grigorivich Meshcheryakov, on the 100th-anniversary of his birth (Dubna, 2010).

Mikhail Meshcheryakov  in 1946. At right he is on the USS Panamint, at the Crossroads test. Source: Mikhail Grigorivich Meshcheryakov, on the 100th-anniversary of his birth (Dubna, 2010).

The Soviets had three observers at the test: Professor Semyon P. Aleksandrov, a geologist who had worked on the prospecting of uranium; Mikhail G. Meshcheryakov, an experimental physicist; and Captain Abram M. Khokhlov, who attended as a member of the international press corps (he wrote for the Soviet periodical Red Fleet). I found a really amusing little anecdote about the Soviet observers from one of the men who worked the Manhattan Project security detail on Crossroads: Aleksandrov was someone they knew already (he was a “dear old geologist”), but Meshcheryakov was someone “whose name was known, but no one had met personally leading some of us to support he was really an NKVD agent watching Aleksandrov.”

I found nothing in the Russian source materials (mentioned below) that would indicate that Meshcheryakov was NKVD, though he was definitely the one who wrote up the big report on Crossroads that was given to Beria, who summarized it for Stalin. Meshcheryakov’s report is not among the declassified documents released by the Russians, so who knows if it has any political commentary on Aleksandrov in it. Meshcheryakov ended up having a rather long and distinguished physics career in the USSR, though there is almost no English-language discussion of him on the Internet. Aleksandrov, the “dear old geologist,” was actually a major Soviet big-wig in charge of mining operations, which at that time meant he was high in the Gulag system, which was run by the NKVD. For what it’s worth.

Radiation from the Crossroads Baker shot — the radiation went up with the cloud, and then collapsed right back down again with it, resulting in a very limited extent of radiation (the entire chart represents only 4.5 miles on each axis), but very high intensities. Chart source: DNA 1251-2-EX. Collapsed cloud picture source: Library of Congress.

Radiation from the Crossroads Baker shot — the radiation went up with the cloud, and then collapsed right back down again with it, resulting in a very limited extent of radiation (the entire chart represents only 4.5 miles on each axis), but very high intensities. Chart source: DNA 1251-2-EX. Collapsed cloud picture source: Library of Congress.

It was also something of the real birth of “atomic kitsch.” There are some examples from before Crossroads, but there is just a real flourishing afterwards. It seems to have taken a year or so after Hiroshima and Nagasaki for enough time to have passed for Americans to start to regard nuclear weapons entirely frivolously. With Crossroads in particular, a deep connection between sex and death (Freud’s favorites) circled around the bomb. This is where we start to see the sorts of activities that would later result in the “Miss Atomic Bomb” contests, the release of the really kitchy songs, and, of course, the Bikini swimsuit, named after the “atomic bomb island,” as LIFE put it.

The key fulcrum of my article is a meditation on the “crossroads” metaphor, and I should probably note that it was, to some degree, intentional. Vice Admiral William Blandy was reported by the New York Times to have told Congress, that the name was chosen for its “possible significance,” which the Times writer interpreted to mean “that seapower, airpower, and perhaps humanity itself — were at the crossroads.”

An unusual color (but not colorized!) photograph of the Crossroads Baker detonation, from LIFE magazine. Source.

An unusual color (but not colorized!) photograph of the Crossroads Baker detonation, from LIFE magazine. Source.

What’s interesting to me is that Blandy clearly saw some aspects of the “crossroads,” but there was much he couldn’t have seen — the atomic culture, the arms race, the contamination, the nuclear fears. He knew that “crossroads” was a good name for what they were doing, but it was an even better name than he could have known, for both better and worst.


As before, I wanted to take a moment to give some credit/citation information that wasn’t workable into the New Yorker blog post (where space, and thus academic nicety, is constrained).

The best overall source on Crossroads, which I found invaluable, is Jonathan Weisgall’s Operation Crossroads: The Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll (Naval Institute Press, 1994). Weisgall has been a legal counsel on behalf of the Marshallese, and his book is just a wealth of information. I was pleased to find a few things that he didn’t have in his book, because it’s a really tough challenge given how much work he put into it. If you find Crossroads interesting, you have to read Weisgall.

Rita Hayworth on the Crossroads Able bomb, "Gilda." Photo by Los Alamos National Laboratory, via Peter Kuran and Bill Geerhart.

Rita Hayworth on the Crossroads Able bomb, “Gilda.” Photo courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory, via Peter Kuran and Bill Geerhart.

Bill Geerhart, who writes the excellent blog CONELRAD Adjacent (and is the one behind the Atomic Platters series of Cold War songs), has done some really wonderful work on the cultural aspects of Crossroads over the years. His posts on the mushroom cloud cake, and his sleuthing regarding the Rita Hayworth connection, are amazing and worth reading in their entirety. Peter Kuran, the visual effects wizard who made the documentary Trinity and Beyond, among other films and works, was very helpful in providing recently-declassified imagery of the Crossroads bombs, including photos (which I first saw on Geerhart’s blog) of the Rita Hayworth image on the side of the bomb themselves. (I will be writing more about Kuran and his work in the near future…)

Holly Barker’s Bravo for the Marshallese (Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004), is immensely useful as an anthropologist’s view of the Marshallese people and their experiences after the test. My invocation of the Marshallese language for birth defects comes directly from Barker’s book, pages 81 and 106-107. It is a powerful, disturbing section of the book.

Selection from Life magazine's coverage of Crossroads — two visions of the animal testing. Source.

Selection from Life magazine’s coverage of Crossroads — two visions of the animal testing. Source.

Most of the information I got about the Soviet view of Crossroads comes from the multi-volume Atomniy Proekt SSSR document series released by the Russian Federation. I had the full set of these before it was cool, but now Rosatom has put them all online. Scholars have been picking over these for awhile (I have written on them once before), I haven’t seen anybody use the particular documents relating to Crossroads before, but you in Tom (Volume) 2, Kniga (Book) 6, the documents I found most useful were 44 (pp. 130-132), 48 (135-136), 50 (137), 76 (184-188), and 106 (246-248). They show the picking of the delegation of observers, brief biographies of the observers, a summary of Meshcheryakov’s report (his full 110-page report on Crossroads is not included), and some later aspects of Meshcheryakov’s involvement with the planning of the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949 (in which his Bikini experience was offered up as his bonafides).

The other really unusual little source I used for my article is the letter from Percy Bridgman. The letter was sent from Bridgman to Hans Bethe, who relayed it to Norris Bradbury at Los Alamos, who sent it to General Groves. You can read it here. I have been sitting on it for a long time — I almost wrote a blog post about it in 2012, but decided not to for whatever reason. When I worked at the American Institute of Physics I had an opportunity to poke around Bridgman’s life and writings a bit, and he’s really an interesting character. He was the one at Harvard who served as J. Robert Oppenheimer’s physics advisor, and his own work on high-pressure physics not only won him the Nobel Prize of 1946 (which is a nice coincidence for the Crossroads article), but also was used (and is still classified, as far as I can tell) on the Manhattan Project (they seem to have sent him plutonium samples, so you can imagine the kind of work he was doing and why it might still be classified — almost everything on plutonium under high pressures is classified in the United States).

Percy W. Bridgman (L) talking with Harvard colleague (and future Trinity test director) Kenneth Bainbridge, 1934. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics

Percy W. Bridgman (L) talking with Harvard colleague (and future Trinity test director) Kenneth Bainbridge on a Massachusetts beach, 1934. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics.

Bridgman gave a number of talks associated with his Nobel Prize that really tried to get at the heart of what the effects of World War II would be for physics as a discipline. He was very much afraid that Big Science (which hadn’t yet been given that name) would really destroy work like his own, which he saw as small-scale, individual, and not focused on particular applications. He was also very interested in topics related to the philosophy of science, something that a lot of modern-day practicing physicists openly disdain. His Wikipedia page gives a nice, brief overview of his life, and even touches on the poignant circumstances of his death..

Meditations

A brief history of the nuclear triad

by Alex Wellerstein, published July 15th, 2016

Summers for me are paradoxically the time I can get work done, and the time in which I feel I have the most work. I’m not teaching, which in theory means I have much more unstructured time. The consequence, though, is that I have about a million projects I am trying to get done in what is still a limited amount of time, and I’m also trying to see family, friends, and get a little rest. I sort of took June off from blogging (which I felt was my due after the amount of exposure I got in April and May), but I have several posts “in the hopper,” and several other things coming out soon. Yesterday I gave a talk at the US Department of State as part of their Timbie Forum (what used to be called their Generation Prague conference). I was tasked with providing the historical background on the US nuclear “triad,” as part of a panel discussion of the future of the triad. This is subject-matter I’ve taught before, so I felt pretty comfortable with it, but I thought I would return to a few of my favorite sources and refresh my understanding. This post is something of a write-up of my notes — more than I could say in a 20-minute talk.

There is a lot of buzzing about lately about the future of the United States’ “nuclear triad.” The triad is the strategic reliance on three specific delivery “platforms” for deterrence: manned-bombers (the B-2 and the B-52), long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs; specifically the Minuteman III), and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs; specifically the Trident II missile carried by Ohio class submarines). Do we need all three “legs” of the triad? I don’t know — that’s a question for another day, and depends on how you balance the specific benefits and risks of each “leg” with the costs of maintaining or upgrading them. But as we think about the future of the US arsenal, looking at how the triad situation came about, and how people started talking about it as a “triad,” offers some interesting food for thought.

The modern nuclear triad. Source: Nuclear Posture Review, 2010.

The modern nuclear triad. Source: Nuclear Posture Review, 2010.

The stated logic of the triad has long as such: 1) bombers are flexible in terms of their armaments and deployments (and have non-nuclear roles); 2) ICBM forces are kept far from the enemy, are highly-accurate, and thus make a first-strike attack require a huge amount of “investment” to contemplate; 3) SLBM forces are, for the near term, capable of being kept completely hidden from attack, and thus are a guaranteed “second strike” capability. The combination of these three factors, the logic goes, keeps anyone from thinking they could get away with a nuclear attack.

That’s the rationale. It’s not the history of it, though. Like so many things, the history is rather wooly, full of stops-and-starts, and a spaghetti graph of different organizations, initiatives, committees, industrial contractors, and ideas. I have tried to summarize a lot of material below — with an idea to pointing out how each “leg” of the triad got (or did not get, depending on when) the support it needed to become a reality. I only take these histories up through about 1960, after which each of the three “legs” were deployed (and to try and go much further would result in an even-longer post).

LEG 1: MANNED BOMBERS

The United States’ first approach to the “delivery” question was manned, long-range bombers. Starting with the B-29, which delivered the first atomic bombs, and some 80 million pounds of incendiaries, over Japanese cities during World War II, the US was deeply committed to the use of aircraft as the means of getting the weapons from “here” to “there.” Arguably, this commitment was a bit overextended. Bureaucratic and human factors led to what might be called a US obsession with the bomber. The officers who rose through the ranks of the US Army Air Forces, and the newly-created (in 1947) US Air Force, were primarily bomber men. They came out of a culture that saw pilots as the ultimate embodiment of military prowess. There were some exceptions, but they were rare.

The B-29's power was more than military — it became a symbol of a new form of warfare for the generals of the newly-constituted US Air Force. Source.

The B-29’s power was more than military — it became a symbol of a new form of warfare for the generals of the newly-constituted US Air Force. Source.

In their defense, the US had two major advantages over the Soviet Union with respect to bombers. The first is that the US had a lot more experience building them: the B-29 “Superfortress” was an impressive piece of machinery, capable of flying further, faster, and with a higher load of armaments than anything else in the world at the time, and it was just the beginning.

The second was geography. The B-29 had a lot of range, but it wasn’t intercontinental. With a range of some 3,250 miles, it could go pretty far: from the Marianas to anywhere in Japan and back, for example. But it couldn’t fly a bomb-load to Moscow from the United States (not even from Alaska, which was only in range of the eastern half of Russia). This might not look like an advantage, but consider that this same isolation made it very hard for the Soviet Union to use bombers to threaten the United States in the near-term, and that the US had something that the USSR did not: lots of friends near its enemy’s borders.

As early as late August 1945, the United States military planners were contemplating how they could use friendly airfields — some already under US control, some not — to put a ring around the Soviet Union, and to knock it out of commission if need be. In practice, it took several years for this to happen. Deployments of non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons abroad waited until 1948, during the Berlin Blockade, and the early stages of the Korean War.

US nuclear bomber deployments, 1945-1958. One of my favorite slides that I use when teaching — it shows what "containment" comes to mean, and amply demonstrates the geopolitics of Cold War bomber bases.

US nuclear bomber deployments, 1945-1958. One of my favorite slides that I use when teaching — it shows what “containment” comes to mean, and amply demonstrates the geopolitics of Cold War bomber bases. Shadings indicate allies/blocs circa 1958.

In 1951, President Truman authorized small numbers of nuclear weapons (with fissile cores) to be deployed to Guam. But starting in 1954, American nuclear weapons began to be dispersed all-around the Soviet perimeter: French Morocco, Okinawa, and the United Kingdom in 1954; West Germany in 1955; Iwo Jima, Italy, and the Philippines in 1957; and France, Greenland, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan, and Tunisia in 1958. This was “containment” made real, all the more so as the USSR had no similar options in the Western Hemisphere until the Cuban Revolution. (And as my students always remark, this map puts the Cuban Missile Crisis into perspective.)

And if the B-29 had been impressive, later bombers were even more so. The B-36 held even more promise. Its development had started during World War II, and its ability to extend the United States’ nuclear reach was anticipated as early as 1945. It didn’t end up being deployed until 1948, but added over 700 miles to the range of US strategic forces, and could carry some 50,000 lbs more fuel and armament. The B-52 bomber, still in service, was ready for service by 1955, and extended the range of bombers by another several hundred miles, increased the maximum flight speed by more than 200 miles per hour.

Plane First flight Introduced in service Combat range (mi) Maximum speed (mph) Service ceiling (ft) Bomb weight (lbs)
B-17 1935 1938 2,000 287 35,600 4,500
B-29 1942 1944  3,250 357  31,850  20,000
B-36 1946 1948  3,985 435  43,000  72,000
B-52 1952 1955  4,480 650  50,000  70,000
B-2 1989 1997  6,000 630  50,000  40,000

So you can see, in a sense, why the US Air Force was so focused on bombers. They worked, they held uniquely American advantages, and you could see how incremental improvement would make them fly faster, farther, and with more weight than before. But there were more than just technical considerations in mind: fascination with the bomber was also cultural. It was also about the implied role of skill and value of control in a human-driven weapon, and it was also about the idea of “brave men” who fly into the face of danger. The bomber pilot was still a “warrior” in the traditional sense, even if his steed was a complicated metal tube flying several miles above the Earth.

LEG 2: LAND-BASED INTERCONTINENTAL BALLISTIC MISSILES (ICBMs)

But it wasn’t just that the USAF was pro-bomber. They were distinctly anti-missile for a long time. Why? The late Thomas Hughes, in his history of Project Atlas, attributes a distinct “conservative momentum, or inertia” to the USAF’s approach to missiles. Long-range missiles would be disruptive to the hierarchy: engineers and scientists would be on top, with no role for pilots in sight. Officers would, in a sense, become de-skilled. And perhaps there was just something not very sporting about lobbing nukes at another country from the other side of the Earth.

But, to be fair, it wasn’t just the Air Force generals. The scientists of the mid-1940s were not enthusiastic, either. Vannevar Bush told Congress in 1945 that:

There has been a great deal said about a 3,000 mile high-angle rocket. In my opinion such a thing is impossible and will be impossible for many years. The people who have been writing these things that annoy me have been talking about a 3,000 mile high-angle rocket shot from one continent to another carrying an atomic bomb, and so directed as to be a precise weapon which would land on a certain target such as this city. I say technically I don’t think anybody in the world knows how to do such a thing, and I feel confident it will not be done for a very long time to come.

Small amounts of money had been doled out to long-range rocket research as early as 1946. The Germans, of course, had done a lot of pioneering work on medium-range missiles, and their experts were duly acquired and re-purposed as part of Operation Paperclip. The Air Force had some interest in missiles, though initially the ones they were more enthusiastic about were what we would call cruise missiles today: planes without pilots. Long-range ballistic missiles were very low on the priority list. As late as 1949 the National Security Council gave ballistic missiles no research priority going forward — bombers got all of it.

Soviet testing of an R-1 (V-2 derivative) rocket at Kapustin Yar. Soviet rocket tests were detected by American radars — and spurred US interest in rockets. Source.

Soviet testing of an R-1 (V-2 derivative) rocket at Kapustin Yar. Soviet rocket tests were detected by American radars — and spurred US interest in rockets. Source.

Real interest in ballistic missiles did not begin until 1950, when intelligence reports gave indication of Soviet interest in the area. Even then, the US Air Force was slow to move — they wanted big results with small investment. And the thing is, rocket science is (still) “rocket science”: it’s very hard, all the more so when it’s never been really done before.

As for the Soviets: while the Soviet Union did not entirely forego research into bombers, the same geographic factors as before encouraged them to look into long-range rockets much earlier than the United States. For the USSR to threaten the USA with bombers would require developing very long-range bombers (because they lacked the ability to put bases on the US perimeter), and contending with the possibility of US early-warning systems and interceptor aircraft. If they could “skip” that phase of things, and jump right to ICBMs, all the better for them. Consequently, Stalin had made missile development a top priority as early as 1946.

It wasn’t until the development of the hydrogen bomb that things started to really change in the United States. With yields in the megaton range, suddenly it didn’t seem to matter as much if you couldn’t get the accuracy that high. You can miss by a lot with a megaton and still destroy a given target. Two American scientists played a big role here in shifting the Air Force’s attitude: Edward Teller and John von Neumann. Both were hawks, both were H-bomb aficionados, and both commanded immense respect from the top Air Force brass. (Unlike, say, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was pushing instead for tactical weapons that could be wielded by the — gasp — Army.)

Ivy Mike, November 1952. Accuracy becomes less of a problem.

Ivy Mike, November 1952. Accuracy becomes less of a problem.

Teller and von Neumann told the Air Force science board that the time had come to start thinking about long-range missiles — that in the near term, you could fit a 1-2 megatons of explosive power into a 1-ton warhead. This was still pretty ambitious. The US had only just tested its first warhead prototype, Ivy Mike, which was an 80-ton experiment. They had some other designs on the books, but even the smaller weapons tested as part of Operation Castle in 1954 were multi-ton. But it was now very imaginable that further warhead progress would make up that difference. (And, indeed, by 1958 the W49 warhead managed to squeeze 1.44 Mt of blast power into under 1-ton of weight — a yield-to-weight ratio of 1.9 kt/kg.)

The USAF set up an advisory board, headed by von Neumann, with Teller, Hans Bethe, Norris Bradbury, and Herbert York on it. The von Neumann committee concluded that long-range missile development needed to be given higher priority in 1953. Finally, the Department of Defense initiated a full-scale ICBM program — Project Atlas — in 1954.

Even this apparent breakthrough of bureaucratic inertia took some time to really get under way. You can’t just call up a new weapons system from nothing by sheer will alone. As Hughes explains, there were severe doubts about how one might organize such a work. The first instinct of the military was to just order it up the way they would order up a new plane model. But the amount of revolutionary work was too great, and the scientists and advisors running the effort really feared that if you went to a big airplane company like Convair and said, “make me a rocket,” the odds that they’d actually be able to make it work were low. They also didn’t want to assign it to some new laboratory run by the government, which they felt would be unlikely to be able to handle the large-scale production issues. Instead, they sought a different approach: contract out individual “systems” of the missile (guidance, fuel, etc.), and have an overall contractor manage all of the systems. This took some serious effort to get the DOD and Air Force to accept, but in the end they went with it.

Launch sequence of an Atlas-D ICBM, 1960. Source.

Launch sequence of an Atlas-D ICBM, 1960. Source.

Even then things were pretty slow until mid-1954, when Congressional prodding (after they were told that there were serious indications the Soviets were ahead in this area) finally resulted in Atlas given total overriding defense priority. Even then the people in charge of it had to find ways to shortcut around the massive bureaucracy that had grown up around the USAF and DOD contracting policies. In Hughes’ telling of Atlas, it is kind of amazing that it gone done at rapidly as it did — it seems that there were near-endless internal obstacles to get past.  The main problem, one Air Force historian opined, was not technical: “The hurdle which had to be annihilated in correcting this misunderstanding was not a sound barrier, or a thermal barrier, but rather a mental barrier, which is really the only type that man is ever confronted with anyway.” According to one estimate, the various long-term cultural foot-dragging about ballistic missiles in the United States delayed the country from acquiring the technology for six years. Which puts Sputnik into perspective.

The US would start several different ballistic missile programs in the 1950s:

Rocket family Design started Role Military patron Prime industrial contractor Warhead yield
Redstone 1950 IRBM US Army Chrysler 0.5-3.5 Mt
Atlas 1953 ICBM USAF Convair 1.44 Mt
Thor 1954 IRBM USAF Douglas 1.4 Mt
Titan 1955 ICBM USAF Glenn Martin 3.75 Mt
Polaris 1956 SLBM USN Lockheed 0.6 Mt
Minuteman 1957 ICBM USAF Boeing 1.2 Mt

As you can see, there’s some redundancy there. It was deliberate: Titan, for example, was a backup to Atlas in case it didn’t work out. There’s also some interesting stuff going on with regards to other services (Army, Navy) not wanting to be “left out.” More on that in a moment. Minuteman, notably, was based on solid fuel, not liquid, giving it different strategic characteristics, and a late addition. The Thor and Redstone projects were for intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), not ICBMs — they were missiles you’d have to station closer to the enemy than the continental United States (e.g., the famous Jupiter missiles kept in Turkey).

The redundancy was a hedge: the goal was to pick the top two of the programs and cancel the rest. Instead, Sputnik happened. In the resulting political environment, Eisenhower felt he had to put into production and deployment all six of them — even though some were demonstrably not as technically sound as others (Thor and Polaris, in their first incarnations, were fraught with major technical problems). This feeling that he was pushed by the times (and by Congress, and the services, and so on) towards an increasingly foolish level of weapons production is part of what is reflected in Eisenhower’s famous 1961 warning about the powerful force of the “military-industrial complex.”

LEG 3: SUBMARINE-LAUNCHED BALLISTIC MISSILES (SLBMs)

Polaris is a special and interesting case, because it’s the only one in that list that is legitimately a different form of delivery. Shooting a ballistic missile is hard enough; shooting one from a submarine platform was understandably more so. Today the rationale of the SLBM seems rather obvious: submarines have great mobility, can remain hidden underwater even at time of launch, and in principle seem practically “invulnerable” — the ultimate “second strike” guarantee. At the time they were proposed, though, they were anything but an obvious approach: the technical capabilities just weren’t there. As already discussed at length, even ICBMs were seen with a jaundiced eye by the Air Force in the 1950s. Putting what was essentially an ICBM on a boat wasn’t going to be something the Air force was going to get behind. Graham Spinardi’s From Polaris to Trident is an excellent, balanced discussion the technical and social forces that led to the SLBM becoming a key leg of the “triad.”

The USS Tunny launches a cruise missile (Regulus) circa 1956. Source.

The USS Tunny launches a cruise missile (Regulus) circa 1956. Source.

The Navy had in fact been interested in missile technology since the end of World War II, getting involved in the exploitation of German V-2 technology by launching one from an aircraft carrier in 1947. But they were also shy of spending huge funds on untested, unproven technology. Like the Air Force, they were initially more interested in cruise than ballistic missiles. Pilotless aircraft didn’t seem too different from piloted aircraft, and the idea of carrying highly-volatile liquid fueled missiles made Navy captains squirm. The Regulus missile (research started in 1948, and fielded in 1955) was the sort of thing they were willing to look at: a nuclear-armed cruise missile that could be launched from a boat, with a range of 575 miles. They were also very interested in specifically-naval weapons, like nuclear-tipped torpedoes and depth charges.

What changed? As with the USAF, 1954 proved a pivotal year, after the development of the H-bomb, the von Neumann committee’s recommendations, and fears of Soviet work combined with a few other technical changes (e.g., improvements in solid-fueled missiles, which reduced the fear of onboard explosions and fires). The same committees that ended up accelerating American ICBM work similarly ended up promoting Naval SLBM work as well, as the few SLBM advocates in the Navy were able to use them to make a run-around of the traditional authority. At one point, a top admiral cancelled the entire program, but only after another part of the Navy had sent around solicitations to aerospace companies and laboratories for comment, and the comments proved enthusiastic-enough that they cancelled the cancellation.

As with the ICBM, there was continued opposition from top brass about developing this new weapon. The technological risks were high: it would take a lot of money and effort to see if it worked, and if it didn’t, you couldn’t get that investment back. What drove them to finally push for it was a perception of being left out. The Eisenhower administration decided in 1955 that only four major ballistic missile programs would be funded: Atlas, Titan, Thor, and Redstone. The Navy would require partnering up with either the USAF or US Army if it wanted any part of that pie. The USAF had no need of it (and rejected an idea for a ship-based Thor missile), but the Army was willing to play ball. The initial plan was to develop a ship-based Jupiter missile (part of the Redstone missile family), with the original schedule was to have one that could be fielded by 1965.

But the Navy quickly was dissatisfied with Jupiter’s adaptability to sea. It would have to be shrunk dramatically to fit onto a submarine, and the liquid-fuel raised huge safety concerns. They quickly started modifying the requirements, producing a smaller, solid-fueled intermediate-range missile. They were able to convince the Army that this was a “back-up” to the original Jupiter program, so it would technically not look like a new ballistic missile program. Even so, it was an awkward fit: even the modified Jupiter’s were too large and bulky for the Navy’s plans.

What led to an entirely new direction was a fortuitous meeting between a top naval scientist and Edward Teller (who else?), at a conference on anti-submarine warfare in the summer of 1956. At the conference, Teller suggested that trends in warhead technology meant that by the early 1960s the United States would be able to field megaton-range weapons inside a physics package that could fit into small, ship-based missiles. Other weapons scientists regarded this as possibly dangerous over-hyping and over-selling of the technology, but the Navy was convinced that they could probably get within the right neighborhood of yield-to-weight ratios. By the fall of 1956, the Navy had approved a plan to create their own ballistic missile with an entirely different envelope and guidance system than Jupiter, and so Polaris was born.

Artist's conception of a Polaris missile launch. Source.

Artist’s conception of a Polaris missile launch. Source.

The first generation of Polaris (A-1) didn’t quite meet the goals articulated in 1956, but it got close. Instead of a megaton, it was 600 kilotons. Instead of 1,500 mile range, it was 1,200. These differences matter, strategically: there was really only one place it could be (off the coast of Norway) if it wanted to hit any of the big Soviet cities. And entirely separately, the first generation of Polaris warheads were, to put it mildly, a flop. They used an awful lot of fissile material, and there were fears of criticality accidents in the event of an accidental detonation. No problem, said the weapons designers: they’d put a neutron-absorbing strip of cadmium tape in the core of the warhead, so that if the high explosives were ever to detonate, no chain reaction would be possible. Right before any intended use, a motor would withdraw the tape. Sounds good, right? Except in 1963, it was discovered that the tape corroded while inside the cores. It was estimated that 75% of the warheads would not have detonated: the mechanism would have snapped the tape, which would then have been stuck inside the warhead. There was, as Eric Schlosser, in Command and Control, quotes a Navy officer concluding that they had “almost zero confidence that the warhead would work as intended.” They all had to be replaced.

The first generation of Polaris missiles, fielded in 1960, were inaccurate and short-ranged (separate from the fact that the warheads wouldn’t have worked). This relegated them to a funny strategic position. They could only be used as a counter-value secondary-strike: they didn’t have the accuracy necessary to destroy hardened targets, and many of those were more centrally-located in the USSR.

WHEN AND WHY DO WE TALK ABOUT A TRIAD?

The “triad” was fielded starting in the 1960s. But there was little discussion of it as a “triad” per se: it was a collection of different weapon systems. Indeed, deciding that the US strategic forces were really concentrated into just three forces is a bit of an arbitrary notion, especially during the Cold War but even today. Where do foreign-based IRBMs fit into the “triad” concept? What about strategic weapons that can be carried on planes smaller than heavy bombers? What about the deterrence roles of tactical weapons, the nuclear artillery shells, torpedoes, and the itty-bitty bombs? And, importantly, what about the cruise missiles, which have developed into weapons that can be deployed from multiple platforms?

Nuclear Triad Google Ngram

Relative word frequency for “nuclear triad” as measured across the Google Books corpus. Source.

 

It’s become a bit cliché in history circles to pull up Google Ngrams whenever we want to talk about a concept, the professorial equivalent of the undergraduate’s introductory paragraph quoting from the dictionary. But it’s a useful tool for thinking about when various concepts “took hold” and their relative “currency” over time. What is interesting in the above graph is that the “triad” language seems to surface primarily in the 1970s, gets huge boosts in the late Cold War, and then slowly dips after the end of the Cold War, into the 21st century.

Which is to say: the language of the “triad” comes well after the various weapon systems have been deployed. It is not the “logic” of why they made the weapons systems in the first place, but a retrospective understanding of their strategic roles. Which is no scandal: it can take time to see the value of various technologies, to understand how they affect things like strategic stability.

But what’s the context of this talk about the triad? If you go into the Google Books entries that power the graph, they are language along the lines of: “we rely on the triad,” “we need the triad,” “we are kept safe by the triad,” and so on. This sort of assertive language is a defense: you don’t need to sing the praises of your weapons unless someone is doubting their utility. The invocation of the “triad” as a unitary strategic concept seems to have come about when people started to wonder whether we actually needed three major delivery systems for strategic weapons.

A strange elaboration of the triad notion from the Defense Logistics Agency, in which the "new triad" includes the "old triad" squished into one "leg," with the other "legs" being even less tangible notions joined by a web of command and control. At this point, I'd argue it might be worth ditching the triad metaphor. Source.

A strange elaboration of the triad notion from the Defense Logistics Agency, in which the “new triad” includes the “old triad” squished into one “leg,” with the other “legs” being even less tangible notions joined by a web of command and control. At this point, I’d argue it might be worth ditching the triad metaphor. Source.

When you give something abstract a name, you aid in the process of reification, making it seem tangible, real, un-abstract. The notion of the “triad” is a concept, a unifying logic of three different technologies, one that asserts quite explicitly that you need all three of them. This isn’t to say that this is done in bad faith, but it’s a rhetorical move nonetheless. What I find interesting about the “triad” concept — and what it leaves out — is that it is ostensibly focused on technologies and strategies, but it seems non-coincidentally to be primarily concerning itself with infrastructure. The triad technologies each require heavy investments in bases, in personnel, in jobs. They aren’t weapons so much as they they are organizations that maintain weapons. Which is probably why you have to defend them: they are expensive.

I don’t personally take a strong stance on whether we need to have ICBMs and bombers and SLBMs — there are very intricate arguments about how these function with regards to the strategic logic of deterrence, whether they provide the value relative to their costs and risks, and so on, that I’m not that interested in getting into the weeds over. But the history interests me for a lot of reasons: it is about how we mobilize concepts (imposing a “self-evident” rationality well after the fact), and it is also about how something that in retrospect seems so obvious to many (the development of missiles, etc.) can seem so un-obvious at the time.