Exaggerating the alarm over a nuclear attack
How much should the prospect of a nuclear attack frighten us? In the view of John Meuller, a professor of political science at Ohio State University, our worries about nuclear weapons and their use by sovereign states and stateless terrorists border on obsession. Fact is, he points out in "Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda," published by Oxford University Press, nuclear weapons have not been used since World War II. In this controversial book, he argues that efforts to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction have themselves caused widespread suffering and violence.
GUEST BLOGGER: John Mueller
Beyond doubt, nuclear weapons are the most effective devices ever fabricated for killing vast numbers of people in a short period of time. However, the damage nuclear weapons can inflict has very often been rendered in hyperbolic, even apocalyptic, terms.
The likely impact of a single atomic explosion has often been exaggerated, and then the impact of a single, smaller explosion has often been casually equated (or conflated) with the impact of a series of larger ones. As historian Spencer Weart describes the process, "You say 'nuclear bomb' and everybody immediately thinks of the end of the world."
Exaggeration goes back to the dawn of the atomic age, and much of it has been intentional. As one atomic scientist put it early in the Cold War, "only one tactic is dependable -- the preaching of doom."
Thus, in 1946, A-bomb maker J. Robert Oppenheimer maintained that three or four men with smuggled atomic bomb units could "blow up New York." Although expanding fires and fallout might increase the effective destructive radius, a groundburst Hiroshima?size device would "blow up" about one percent of the city's area -- terrible, of course, but not the same as destruction 100 times greater.
It has also often been maintained that the mere existence of the weapons means they must necessarily explode -- and usually soon. It was in 1960 that novelist/scientist C.P. Snow proclaimed it a "certainty" that, unless new restrictions were put into place, "within, at the most, ten years, some of those bombs are going off."
Postured exaggeration has become particularly commonplace in the wake of 9/11. Commentators have routinely insisted that terrorists armed with atomic weapons present an "existential" threat to the United States, civilization, world security, the modern state, mankind.
Thus, former Central Intelligence Director George Tenet is confident that if terrorists "manage to set off a mushroom cloud," that would "destroy our economy," but never bothers to explain how the tragic destruction of three square miles somewhere in the United States would lead inexorably to the economic annihilation of the entire country.
Concern about nuclear weapons and about their awesome destructive capacity is certainly justified. But routine exaggerations and the obsessions so inspired have often led to policies that have been unwise, wasteful, and destructive -- sometimes even more destructive than the bombs themselves.
During the Cold War, the United States invested, by one calculation, enough money in the weapons to purchase everything in the country except for the land in order to deter the Soviet Union from committing direct aggression that it had no intention of undertaking in any circumstance. In addition, wars to prevent fully deterrable and containable countries from obtaining nuclear weapons have been fought and devastating economic sanctions have been inflicted -- at a cost of more lives than were lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
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