Posts Tagged ‘Atomic culture’


The Heart of Deterrence

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Deterrence theory is one of those ideas that seems pretty easy at first glance but gets more deeply muddled on closer inspection. I have a bomb, you have a bomb, thus we won't bomb each other, right? If only it were so easy.

Panels from How to Live with Atom, a cartoon printed by the Washington Post in 1947, trying to illustrate "what the atomic scientists have been telling us."

The historian Spencer Weart has a great passage on what he calls the "insoluble paradox in deterrence theory" in his book, Nuclear Fear, which doesn't seem to have been included in its recent reissue, The Rise of Nuclear FearIt's one of my favorite little bits of the book, though:

From the 1950s on the sharpest analysts left ambiguities, internal contradictions, and blind leaps of logic in their writings. Most writers changed their position from one year to the next and sometimes, it seemed, from one page to the next.

An example of the muddle was the failure of most writers to define clearly even the key term "deterrence." Sometimes it meant, as the French translated the term, "dissuasion." That meant arranging things so that enemies would deduce, like chess players, that they should not launch an attack because it was clear they would not win the game. Other times deterrence meant what the Russian translation frankly called "terrorization," which did not address the intellect at all. Of course, military logic on the one hand or an appeal to raw fear on the other might well require different strategies and even different hardware. But most thinkers mixed the two approaches, evading refutation in one mode of thought by shifting indiscriminately to the other.

Ever since I read that, I was taken with the idea that the French and the Russians translated this supposedly simple English word — "deterrence" — quite differently. For the French, it is dissuasion nucléaire, a high-minded, philosophe-style expression of modern rationality. For the Russians, they often used ustrasheniye (устрашение), a word which invokes terror and horror and dread.1

Where Weart sees a muddle of expression, though, I see an ambivalence of concept. Deterrence fully understood requires both of these meanings. Is about rational actors, game theory, and logical persuasion — but the method of persuasion is threatening to burn everybody alive. It's about nations being rationally terrified of each other's capabilities.

This fundamental ambivalence of concept shoots through all of our cultural depictions of deterrence, as well. It's not a surprise that most of the defense intellectuals depicted in books and films are simultaneously both of these things. Dr. Strangelove is of course the canonical, genre-defining case: coldly rational, but also completely psychotic.

There are lots of idealized representations of deterrence. Often it is talked about it as if it were a "standoff" situation, with two pistoleros holding guns to one another's heads. Visually these make sense: we're talking about two superpowers, each ideally with a second-strike capability, so that if one attacks the other, the other has time to counter-attack. Ergo, nobody will attack — out of self-interest.

But when we transpose the metaphor to reality, things get complicated. There's not just two people with guns. Each "person" is really an entire nation. The decision-making capabilities are not located in one brain or one set of sensory organs, but distributed over thousands of miles and thousands of human beings, each looking at the situation through quite different lenses (literally and figuratively). The guns may not themselves be evenly matched — one side may have the ability to strike faster, or deadlier, than the other. One side may be convinced they can "ride out" an attack better than the other. One side may have higher or lower confidence in their own capabilities, or the capabilities of the opposite. And so on.

Self-interest itself may not be evenly distributed. Was the U.S. President, or the Soviet Premier, personally threatened by nuclear war at all times in the Cold War? Do the people with their hands on the button have a personal stake in it? Do they have a bunker under a mountain to hide in, with their families? What is really being threatened in such a situation is an entire nation, but not necessarily the individual who has their hand on "the button." In financial terms this potentially runs the risk of being a "moral hazard" — the equivalent gambling with someone else's money. Of course, these people have loved ones, too, and not everyone can fit under that mountain.

"Gently..." — still of the ICBM launch switch from the 1983 ficitional film, The Day After. Via this site.

The physicist and Nobel Prize winner Owen Chamberlain once proposed an improvement to deterrence based largely on reducing the possibility of a moral hazard, though he didn't put it in these terms. He wrote to the president of the Federation of American Scientists in the mid-1980s with the following suggestion:2

The idea I want to have looked over is this:

The 200 most important political and military persons in each superpower should be required to provide one family member who could act as a hostage by living inside the other superpower. Thus, every powerful politician or general would have one family member.

I claim this might be arranged easily, is really quite inexpensive, and I believe it has the potential of putting the world in a different frame of mind. It might make nuclear war seem out-of-the-question to all.

The hostages—maybe one can find better word—could be children or grandchildren or perhaps nephews and nieces. We could afford to have excellent schooling for the hostages, for the number involved would be very moderate.

I admit is a gimmick. However, it seems to me to be a gimmick with more than the usual protection for the dollar.

In essence, moral hazard is avoided if everyone has some skin in the game — especially the people who have their fingers on the metaphorical buttons.

It's a gimmick, as Chamberlain admitted. But it's a fairly profound one: the idea of "hostages" sounds abhorrent (even he dislikes the word) until you realize that in the "normal" deterrence situation, we — members of the non-button-pusher classes — are already hostagesThat's the real beauty of Chamberlain's idea: he's taking the existing situation, where all of the children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews are already threatened by nuclear war, and proposing to make it explicit and unignorable for those in positions of influence.

On a similar vein, Stephen Schwartz passed on this amazing suggestion that the late Roger Fisher made in the March 1981 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, again attempting to bring the personal back into the often coldly "rational" logic of nuclear warfare:

 There is a young man, probably a Navy officer, who accompanies the President. This young man has a black attaché case which contains the codes that are needed to fire nuclear weapons. I could see the President at a staff meeting considering nuclear war as an abstract question. He might conclude: "On SIOP Plan One, the decision is affirmative, Communicate the Alpha line XYZ." Such jargon holds what is involved at a distance.

My suggestion was quite simple: Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, "George, I'm sorry but tens of millions must die." He has to look at someone and realize what death is—what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It's reality brought home.

When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said, "My God, that's terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President's judgment. He might never push the button."

And that's truly the heart of the deterrence, isn't it? That mixture of the the coldly logical and the deeply emotional — the fact that in some essentially way, both of these valences are essential for the concept to work, and yet, they are also both deeply incompatible in some way. For how many people can remain coldly logical if they have to engage the truly personal head-on, as human beings? 

One parting anecdote: J. Robert Oppenheimer, in 1953, famously compared the nuclear situation to "two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life." Sometime later, a newsman attempted to replicate the visual metaphor on television, and got himself stung by one of the scorpions in the process. I.I. Rabi wrote to Oppenheimer that the physicist's many enemies would probably blame that on him, too.

December 2014 update: the Fisher story was featured in a Radiolab episode, "Buttons without Buttons," that I participated in.

  1. If Wikipedia is any indication, the concepts of "deterrence" and "containment" are much more closely linked in Russian discussions than they are in American discussions. My sense is that in the US, "containment" means a specific policy that included but extends beyond nuclear threats — the nuclear threat is taken as a given, and containment means all of the other stuff you do beyond that. In Russian "containment theory" appears to be used more or less synonymously with "deterrence theory," which I am somewhat surprised to see. Perhaps someone more versed in the Russian strategic literature can elaborate on whether this is true or not. []
  2. For what it's worth, I'm the one who dug this letter up from his archives a long time back and selected it to be part of an exhibit at the Bancroft Library related to the celebrations of Oppenheimer's 2004 Centennial conference. I cannot recall if I or someone else labeled this as "somewhat tongue in cheek" — there were a number of people involved in writing the captions, and also there was a separate person who later transferred all of this to the web. []

Atomic Editorial Cartoons (August 1945)

Friday, June 29th, 2012

The American public reaction to the first atomic bombs was a mixture of exaltation and ambivalence — a relief that science appeared to be a possible deus ex machina that would end the terrible war, an ambivalence about the question as to the morality of the weapon and its implications for what wars in the future would look like. Spencer Weart's Rise of Nuclear Fear does a great job of talking about that ambivalence, as does the work of the late Paul S. Boyer, By the Bomb's Early Light.

There are lots of ways to probe that ambivalence. One interesting way is through the genre of editorial cartoons, which can boil down popular political opinions quite succinctly. I've used ProQuest to conjure up quite a few cartoons from August 1945, looking at the holdings of the Atlanta Constitution, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times.

There aren't as many as you might think — just a little over twenty total for those four papers. Here are a few of the most interesting ones, in order of date.

August 7

Los Angeles Times, August 7, 1945

This was the first one I found. Not a whole lot of content here other than the obvious excitement at the idea of a weapon of such tremendous power. Interesting that the clock motif dates from so early!

August 8

Atlanta Constitution, August 8, 1945

This one is fairly well-known — it makes quite a lot of light out of killing a lot of Japanese. Again, exhaultation and exuberance.

Chicago Tribune, August 8, 1945

The Chicago Tribune produced quite a number of these cartoons, and theirs were often pretty explicitly racist. This one also goes a bit beyond the other two so far in that it's actually making an argument: the bombs were justified because of Pearl Harbor. To consider the bombs in need of justification of this sort, even at this early stage, is a nice sign of the aforementioned ambivalence.

Chicago Tribune, August 8, 1945

Another from the Chicago Tribune, this one more explicitly ambivalent about what the bomb means for the future. Gotta love the depiction of the long-haired scientist...

August 9

Chicago Tribune, August 9, 1945

Hoo-boy — a lot of cultural baggage here! It's easy to mock the "magic electron" bit, but more reflectively, it's a sign at how brand-new the scientific terminology would have been to your average journalist, much less layperson. Some information on the science of the bomb had been released to the media this point in conjunction with the publicity efforts, but this is still well before the Smyth Report was released, so some scientific illiteracy isn't too surprising.

Los Angeles Times, August 9, 1945

The only cartoon I found which makes any reference to the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, which begun on August 9 (the same day as Nagasaki).

August 10

Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1945

Another exultant — and racist — cartoon.

August 11

Chicago Tribune, August 11, 1945

Another science-themed cartoon (from the same artist as the earlier one), but this time a lot less ambivalent.

August 12, 1945

Chicago Tribune, August 12, 1945

Ah, now here's some of the hard-core ambivalence setting in. Will the crater of the first atomic bomb be the grave of "warfare" or of "civilization"? Note this is the first one with any kind of mushroom cloud, as well. The Smyth Report had been made available to the press on the evening of August 11 (for release on August 12), so it's possible that the author here had access to slightly more detailed materials on the subject than those previously.

Newark Evening News, reprinted in the New York Times, August 12, 1945

New York Times, August 12, 1945

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, reprinted in the New York Times, August 12, 1945

On August 12, the New York Times print three comics on the subject of the bomb, at least two of which were originally printed elsewhere. The first is mostly positive — the atom will end war. The second is far ambivalent — humanity is but an infant preparing to play with life and death. And the third is, in my reading anyway, hard to parse. Is the new era a good thing? I'm not really sure how to interpret a giant hand jamming a lightning bolts into the planet — a good thing? A bad thing? A very awkward metaphor?

Chicago Tribune, August 12, 1945

This one is just... very odd. I guess it is supposed to be the Japanese Army using Hirohito as its face-saving surrender, because of the bomb? Hm. Not exactly a well-executed message in my view. But check out that dove with an atom bomb strapped to it:

That's wild.

August 13

Chicago Tribune, August 13, 1945

One thing to note with both this and the most recent comic is their confidence that the war would be ending soon. This was still a few days before the Japanese capitulation — which was not entirely expected. One wonders how the view of the bomb would have changed if Japan hadn't surrendered and the invasion had begun as planned.

August 14

Chicago Tribune, August 14, 1945

Another justifying cartoon from the Chicago Tribune. I've gotta say — I feel a little sorry for Japan in this one. I think the cartoon unintentionally makes them look like the underdogs.

There are a few more in here that I'm skipping, just for space and because they weren't that interesting. The next one sums up the message of quite a few of them:

Atlanta Constitution, August 20, 1945

Now we've really entered into the hand-wringing, what-about-the-UN, can-we-have-atomic-peace stage of things. Clichés abound.

And thus we slide — from the exultation of the bomb towards the "what next?" phase of things. The connection between the explicit racism and the heavy exultation isn't one that I'd really noticed quite so vividly before — it's the sort of thing that might be read between the lines of written articles or editorials, but becomes quite obvious when it is being illustrated.

I want to add just one more cartoon here — one which is only tangentially related to the bomb:

Chicago Tribune, August 24, 1945

One could make the argument that this connection between pesticides and WMDs is non-coincidental (the connection between chemical warfare and pesticides is pretty clear-cut), but what I find striking about this particular cartoon is the fact that in many ways it is deeper than it intended to be. Just like the atomic bomb, DDT was initially celebrated by many (most?) — but we've now replaced that excitation with at the very least ambivalence, if not abhorrence.


The DIXIE Showgirl (1953)

Friday, May 18th, 2012

There are a lot of photographs of nuclear weapons tests, and there's a pretty standard visual vocabulary for how those look. (Something I've touched on before.) Personally I find it a little easy to get desensitized to mushroom clouds after awhile. They all look more or less the same, though some are a little more sinister looking than others. It's easy to lose a sense of scale, it's easy to start seeing them all as a blur. Perhaps it's one of the consequences of being in a country that conducted over 300 atmospheric nuclear tests, and has circulated photographs of many of them for quite a long time?

But every once in awhile I find one that stumps me.

Shot DIXIE of Operation Upshot-Knothole was set off on April 6, 1953. It was a "weapons-related" test; it was done for reasons relating to weapons design (as opposed to testing the effects of the weapon). Carey Sublette says it was also an experiment using LiD as a boosting agent, for those who are curious.

It wasn't a terribly large explosion by the standards of the day — "only" 11 kilotons, so smaller even than the Hiroshima bomb (though still large enough to, say, take out downtown Boston). It was dropped from a plane and detonated some 6,000 feet above the ground, which is some three to four times higher in the air than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs had been set off. As a result, its cloud was a mushroom "cap" without a stem — it was too high off the ground to suck up the debris and dirt necessary to form a vertical column.

Already that makes for somewhat unusual nuclear test photographs, as you can see above. A lonely little cloud. It almost could be just any old cloud hanging out there — I'm just a little black raincloud, pay no attention to little me. But it's almost totally composed of highly-radioactive fission products, so don't start feeling too sorry for it.

I occasionally go through the photo library of the DOE's Nevada Site Office, which has a rather large collection of scanned photos of atmospheric tests online. The Upshot-Knothole series is quite a large one, and there is a numbing effect looking at so many of them. So when I saw this one of the DIXIE event, I was initially just totally bamboozled:

What. Is. Going. On. Here? A few things to take note of:

1. This is an official government photo in an official government archive. This isn't the same as those "Miss Atomic Bomb" photos in the later 1950s, which were created by casinos and otherwise private individuals.

2. That little cloud under the dancer's right foot is, of course, the DIXIE cloud, seen from a lower angle than in the first photo posted here. There's some definite posing going on. It's also definitely taken on the premises of the Nevada Test Site with foreknowledge of the test itself. I don't know if reporters were allowed to visit the site for the DIXIE test; they were allowed to view a few other tests in the Upshot-Knothole series, but I don't see any mention of them being at DIXIE.

3. This isn't purposefully frivolous and campy like the "Miss Atomic Bomb" photos. Zoom in on her face. She's trying to do something, well, artsy here. She's trying to express something. The power of science? The futility of progress? The existential angst of deterrence? I don't really know. But it's something.

4. Awhile back, I showed this photo to a friend of mine, Dawn Davis Loring, who is also a dancer, dance instructor, and someone much better versed than I in the language of dancing. She suggested to me that the appearance and posture of the person in the photo suggested the dancer was competent but not an expert. Her balance is slightly wrong and so she's overcompensating a bit with her arm, or something along those lines. Which possibly suggests that she is a showgirl from nearby Las Vegas. But again, the dancer isn't done up in a campy, frivolous, or unusually sexualized style. (Obviously it is still sexualized to a large degree, but compare it to the "Miss Atomic Bomb" photos to see what I mean. It's far more "serious.")

But I don't know the backstory on this photo, and I've not been able to find anything on it. The DOE folks who host the archive don't have anything about it in their records either, apparently. But it's definitely not your run-of-the-mill nuclear testing photo. 

Update: A helpful Russian reader forwarded me another photograph from the same series!

It appears to be originally from this site, which tentatively identifies it as something called "Atomic Ballet," and identifies the dancer as one Sally McCloskey. The date they give is wrong, though, if it's DIXIE, which it looks like it is (the stemless cloud).1 I've been able to find very little on Ms. McCloskey, except that she was also a dancer in the 1956 film Anything Goes.2

Double-Update: The aforementioned Dawn Davis Loring tracked down an oral history with Donald English, a photographer for the a Las Vegas news bureau. Here's the relevant part:

Sometimes we would cover it from Angel’s Peak, take pictures of the mushroom cloud. Sometimes we’'d take dancers up to the top of the peak. I’'d have one girl, Sally McCloskey, we did a little series that was called Angel’'s Dance. And she was a ballet dancer, not a showgirl, and she did an interpretive dance to the mushroom cloud as it came up and we shot a series of pictures and sent it out on the wire and they called it Angel'’s Dance. We just did anything we could to make the picture a little bit different because the newspapers would run the mushroom cloud pictures, but they were always hungry for anything that had any kind of a different approach.

So that clears up quite a bit about where this was shot, and what it was meant to be! And apparently she was a ballet dancer after all. (Actually, see below...)

Update, the Third: Searching around a bit more, I found a citation for the Angel's Dance. The Oakland Tribune ran it on page 86 of their June 28, 1953, edition. It appears to have been a feature in the PARADE magazine that newspapers sometimes insert into their Sunday editions. There is a preview page available online:

Pretty cool! I managed to coax a higher resolution out of that archive site, too. Here's the caption:

High (6,000 feet) over the yawning canyons of the West, a young girl cavorted recently in what could be the Dance of the Century. Her name: Sally McCloskey, chorus girl from Las Vegas' plush Sands Hotel.
The place: the gravely summit of Angel's Peak.
Her task: to interpret the greatest drama of our time in dance rhythms. For high over her sinuous, leaping form rose a symbol no eye could miss: the pale, rising cloud of an atomic bomb just exploded 40 miles away.

The poses are, counter-clockwise from the top left: 1. 'Apprehension' starts dance, 2. which illustrates 'impact', 3.  goes on to symbol of 'awe', 4. Climax of dance (which took place at dawn in temperature little above freezing) in brisk pose Sally calls "Survival."

It's always a little apprehensive to announce, "I have looked into this and found not too much, and here are my guesses." This time, though, it paid off from some really helpful readers, and I think I've just about rounded out the whole story of this crazy photo. I was right about some things (showgirl, seriousness, ultimate goal), but wrong about it being an official government production (which raises the question of why it's in the archive, I guess). Anyway, thoroughly fascinating all around.

  1. The date they give on that site, June 4, would be for CLIMAX, which — all name-related jokes aside — was a very different looking test. The jet contrails in the second photo also help confirm it as being DIXIE. It just may be a numerical switcharoo, though— 6/4/1953 vs. 4/6/1953, the former being CLIMAX and the latter being DIXIE. []
  2. Doing searches on "Atomic Ballet" in ProQuest, however, did turn up one interesting little nugget: In December 1947, there was a Japanese ballet troupe from Hiroshima that performed "The Story of the Atomic Bomb and its Aftermath" for British occupation forces in Kure, Japan. []