In his interviews and writings over the past decade, Osama bin Laden has repeatedly talked about America’s atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He believes (incorrectly) that it was the atomic bombings that shocked the Japanese imperial government into an early surrender–and, he says, he is planning an atomic attack on America that will shock us into retreating from the Middle East.
For an Administration that believes that the only thing it has to fear is the absence of fear, Osama’s threat is a helpful reminder that we live in a dangerous world. “It may only be a matter of time,” President Bush’s recently installed CIA director, Porter Goss, told the Senate Intelligence Committee, “before Al Qaeda or another group attempts to use chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons.”
While such threats cannot be ignored, it is important to historicize and contextualize them if we are to understand how we have contributed to undermining our own security. There were alternative policies at the beginning of the nuclear age that our government could have followed–and could still promote–that would have mitigated the dangers we face today. There were people then, as now, who recognized that the knowledge of how to construct and deploy atomic bombs could not be kept secret for long. And there were people then, as now, who recognized that such bombs could be smuggled into major urban areas–meaning there is no defense against nuclear terrorism. Chief among those who clearly saw the nuclear future–as we have lived and are living it–was the “father of the atomic bomb,” J. Robert Oppenheimer, who developed a plan for a nuclear-free world and did his best to promote this alternative path.
The history of Oppenheimer’s failure to contain the nuclear genie makes clear that unilateralism and hubris are hardly unique to the Bush Administration; they have been a recurrent characteristic of US decision-making ever since the latter years of World War II. America’s nuclear monopoly was “the great equalizer,” Secretary of War Henry Stimson triumphantly declared in July 1945 at the Potsdam conference upon learning of the success of the atomic bomb test at Alamogordo, New Mexico. The bomb was our “trump card,” our “ace in the hole,” President Truman and his closest advisers believed. But others, more informed and more thoughtful, like Oppenheimer, realized that the bomb was a Trojan horse that would soon threaten our own security as much as it threatened the security of others. Oppenheimer’s efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons at the beginning of the atomic age are as applicable today as they were then.
On October 25, 1945, Oppenheimer was ushered into the Oval Office to meet Truman to discuss his plans to eliminate nuclear weapons. By one account, Truman opened the conversation by stating, “The first thing is to define the national problem, then the international.” Oppenheimer disagreed. “Perhaps it would be best first to define the international problem,” he cautiously replied. He meant, of course, that the first imperative was to stop the spread of atomic weapons by placing international controls over all atomic technology. At one point in their conversation, Truman suddenly asked him to guess when the Russians would develop their own atomic bomb. When he replied that he did not know, Truman confidently said he knew the answer: “Never.” For Oppenheimer, such foolishness was proof of Truman’s limitations. The “incomprehension it showed just knocked the heart out of him,” recalled the Los Alamos scientist Willy Higinbotham.