Richard Rhodes: 2010 National Book Festival

Uploaded by LibraryOfCongress on 12.10.2010

>> From the Library of Congress in Washington DC.
>> A man I have the honor
of introducing today needs little introduction
to a literary crowd such as this.
With 23 books to his name Richard Rhodes is among the most prolific
authors here today.
His best known work maybe the making of the atomic bomb
for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in non fiction, a National Book Award,
a National Book Critics Circle Award, and it was the first volume
in a series about the makings of the nuclear age,
a project that has absorbed him for more than 20 years.
His new book for which he is on a book tour
at the moment is the fourth and final volume
in that epic series The Twilight of the Bombs.
It examines the civilization's changes brought
about by nuclear technology in the post cold war years,
the securing of the former Soviet nuclear arsenal, the first Iraq war
and the lead up to the second, the prospects for nuclear abolition
and an issue that I think preoccupies us all here today the
risk of nuclear terrorism but when I mentioned to one of my colleagues
that I'd be introducing Richard Rhodes he said, "Aha!
The nuclear bomb guy."
Many of you probably think of him that way but take a quick spin
through a list of his published works and you'll see what a diverse
and accomplished author he is.
He has written about dogs and of course of horses,
two of my favorite subjects, about greeting cards and cannibalism,
about sex and soy beans, and he's done it in the Rolling Stone
and the Journal of Chemical Education, in Playboy and of course
in the pages of the Washington Post.
Among his 23 published books are 4 works of fiction,
a personal memoir and a biography.
He's been host and correspondent for public TV's Frontline
and he's written at least one play Reykjavik based
on the historic 1986 summit in Iceland
between Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan.
Most of what he's written is what I would call nonfiction
and what he I think has another term for and I'm going to ask him
to elucidate that for us a little bit.
Let me invite him to explain it and tell us more about the Twilight
of the Bombs and also for anybody who would like hear more
from him he will be speaking and signing books at Politics
and Prose tonight at 6 o'clock
so please invite your friends along to that too.
Thank you.
[ Applause ]
>> Thank you very much.
It seems really appropriate to follow Henry because he was talking
about Leo Szilard and of course the making of the atomic bomb begins
with the day Leo in 1933 walked across the street in London
and thought of the idea of a nuclear chain reaction that kind
of started this whole story moving forward.

This last volume that I've just published--
let's see, here is at least the front,
there's a wonderful bomb test winding around the back
and I think it will be the last, picks up the story at the end
of the Cold War just before the collapse of the Soviet Union
and it's metastases into four nuclear powers instead
of one nuclear power which was a great challenge to our government
and our diplomats and carries it forward
to approximately the present.
Perhaps the turning point
or the ending point being President Obama's historic speech at Prague
in the spring of 2009 when he announced it
as official US Government policy
to move toward the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons.
A dream that had-- yeah.
[ Applause ]
>> A dream that had also been a theme
of President Ronald Reagan's life who he had indeed since the end
of the second world war have been puzzling over the question
of how you could get rid of nuclear weapons but he turned
to a technological solution to the problem.
So in my play where Robert Oppenheimer comes back to life
from the dead to-- because they needed a character
who could stand outside the story and comment on it
and of course Robert Oppenheimer being Robert Oppenheimer
as it is he steps on stage he takes over the play but be that as it may,
at some point Oppenheimer says to Reagan well, but you know,
you are trying to solve a problem that's a political problem
with a technological solution and then Reagan says to him well isn't
that what your bombs were anyway?
And he was right, he is right.
We got into this business during the war because we feared
that the Germans had a considerable lead, we continued it
because we were frightened of the Soviet Union's capabilities
and we continue it after the end of the cold war
with considerable difficulty in rationalizing why we still need
so many nuclear weapons in our arsenal.
So I picked up the story at that point and deal
with the serious problems we had in trying to put the nuclear genie
that had-- was now spread across 4 countries not only Russia
but also Belarus and Kazakhstan and Ukraine, how we convince
over the next 5 years those countries other than Russia
to send their arsenals back to Russia
to sign a nuclear nonproliferation treaty and become non-nuclear states
and that's quite a story in itself.
But there was so much more going on, the image that I opened the book
with is the sentence, when the ice broke on the river of history
at the end of the Cold War and because the world had been
so polarized for the previous 40 or 50 years it's true
that in a sense everything came loose
and each individual nation state had to think about finding
or adjusting it's relationship to the rest of the world.
And I think that accounts for the diminished fifth
of new third world nuclear powers, a very few of them
but certainly North Korea and Iraq-- I'm sorry, and Pakistan that emerged
after the end of the Cold War as those countries tried to figure
out where they were and what their relationship would be
with the new world that was no longer bipolar
but was now multi polar, multi lateral.
One of the things that I write about and that I think you will enjoy
in this new book was the inspections in Iraq after the first Gulf War.
You remember that President Bush the first elicited an argument
about an Iraqi Nuclear Weapons Program as one reason for that war.
It turns out that the reason he did so was that he was concerned
that after we cleared the Iraqis out of Kuwait it might not be possible
in terms of international politics to justify continuing into Iraq
and reducing the scale of Iraq's military forces which was the plan.
Therefore, he had to invent, which he did, an Iraqi Nuclear Program,
we did not know there was such a thing at the time.
There were hints but no real evidence
so imagine everyone's surprise after that very brief war when it turned
out there were in deed Iraqi nuclear facilities under development all
over the country, a very large scale program
that in some ways corresponded to the Manhattan Project here
in this country and that they were trying different methods
for enriching uranium and so forth.
The stories that I heard from David Kay and Bob Gallucci
who were the two Americans who led those inspections for the IAEA
and for the United Nations were wonderful cops
and robber stories among other things because our guys
with some kind of broken down UN land rovers were chasing the Iraqis
around their own country.
In particular we had hints that they were using an old World War II
technology to enrich uranium which is called Cyclotron
or electromagnetic isotope separation
that involved magnet cores that weighed 60 tons and were
about 15 feet in diameter.
They were big discuss-shaped soft iron cores for the big magnets
that would separate the different isotopes
of uranium and enrich it thereby.
The Iraqis were loading these huge magnet cores onto tank transporters
which are huge flatbed trucks and as we came in the front door
in our land rovers we, the inspectors, they were driving
out the back door of the base with these magnet cores on big trucks.
So Bob and David talked about chasing around,
being fired into the air by the Iraqis, because they were trying
to get television footage of this equipment
to prove that they had seen it.
>> And of course eventually tracking down the materials
and either removing them from their country
or destroying them by blowing them up.
You remember the days when the team was stuck
in a parking lot outside the Department of Agriculture
in downtown Baghdad because as they--
Kay told me they had found down in a basement room of the Department
of Agriculture the actual plans for an Iraqi bomb.
And they were determined to get those documents out of that building
and in fact by the time the parking lots standoff occurred the documents
were already gone.
I asked David Kay how they snuck them out and he said,
well we had these great Kiwi medics who were helping us out.
He said, I had a guy on my team who had the worst case
of diarrhea I'd ever seen and he had to be taken out
and the Iraqis agreed to let him go, he said so we gave the documents
to the Kiwis they stuffed them in their shirt
and carried the stretcher out the door and the documents were safe
but they didn't want to tell the Iraqis that,
the Iraqis weren't prepared to let them go until they gave
up the documents and so for 4 days they stood
in that parking lot unsure of their fate.
This has its comic side but it was very serious business.
Their lifeline to the outside world was a 1991 type satellite telephone
and they were on that phone the first of the four days nonstop
for 23 hours to CNN and any other news media that as the satellite
or as the earth turned they were able to hit different time zones
and they continued their radio broadcasting.
But at 23rd hour approximately there was a break and they hung
up the phone Kay said and it immediately rang and Kay picked it
up and it was the operator in London who said you've been
on the phone now for 23 hours we don't know what you're doing
but we need a credit card [laughter].
And Kay said I told them, well,
you're not getting my damn credit card but--
he said but let me tell you what's happening here.
So he explained to the operator among other things that their--
the reception on the satellite was kind of weak
and the signal varied a lot and the operator said well let me get back
to you, I'll call you back,
and about 30 minutes later the phone rang and the operator came on
and he said now that we understand what this is about we're going
to move the satellite for you.
[Laughter] And they could maintain that link
until the Iraqis finally gave up and they were allowed to leave.
[ Pause ]
>> The book also deals with the crisis with North Korea in 1994.
I think it's not generally known how very close
to a second Korean War we came at that time.
You'll recall that the North Koreans had built a reactor
at Yongbyon north of Seoul and had been negotiating back
and forth again with Bob Gallucci.
Bob Gallucci seems to have been the indispensable man in the '90s.
He's now the president of the McArthur Foundation so,
in some ways he's still indispensable
but some glitches had come up and the Iraqis basically pulled out
and were talking about going ahead and taking the plutonium
from their one reactor, taking the uranium, the fuel,
and extracting the plutonium and making their first bombs.
This became very close to a war scale crisis
within the Clinton administration because we were threatening
to impose increasing sanctions on the North Koreans as you may recall,
we were threatening to turn Seoul into a sea of fire.
In fact, Gallucci told me that we were within a day or two of war
and that we were just about to evacuate the American Embassy
and all the other embassies in Seoul
which as he understood it would have been a signal to the North Koreans
that war was about to come and that they probably would have moved
preemptively to attack Seoul had that happened.
General Locke who was in charge of our forces in Korea
around this time told President Clinton that we could win the war
with North Korea but that the cost would be a million and a trillion
and the president said what does that mean?
And General Locke said a million South Korean lives
and a trillion dollars extracted from the South Korean economy
because of the destruction of that war.
So those were the stakes.
And you'll recall that Jimmy Carter much
to President Clinton's disgust stepped forward and went
as a private citizen to North Korea
and settled things down with Kim Il-sung.
Then Bob Gallucci went back to his business
of negotiating with the North Koreans.
Kim Il-sung died almost immediately and his son came to power.
Negotiations went forward very successfully
but didn't quite finish the job by the end
of the Clinton administration.
Madeleine Albright went to North Korea, I believe, in December even
after the election and President Clinton was prepared to go himself
but because that election
of the year 2000 was mooted he didn't feel he should leave
the country.
And then when the Bush administration came
in they had a very different attitude toward North Korea
and things kind of fell apart after that.
But that million and a trillion just reminds you, reminds me certainly
of how many times since the beginning of the Cold War and even
since the end of the cold war we have come very close
to at least a large scale conventional war,
if not indeed some kind of nuclear exchange in the world.

So I looked later in the book at the question
of how can we resolve this dilemma if we feel nuclear weapons
in some sense are important to our security
but if we feel we'd be more secure if there were none
in the world and indeed we would.
In fact one of the problems with getting rid of nuclear weapons is
that the United States would be relatively speaking even more
powerful with conventional forces only given our enormous capacity
compared to other countries than it is now when even small states
such as North Korea can effectively stand us off
with a small nuclear capability.
If there's any reason why Iran might be moving toward a nuclear
capability that and Israel's capability are certainly two
of the reasons.
There is a commission in 1996 called
by the Australian Prime Minister called the Canberra Commission.
Richard Butler the Ambassador from Australia for Nuclear Issues
and Nuclear Disarmament told me
that the most important thing he felt came out of that commission
of international leaders
on this subject was what he calls the axiom of proliferation.
For him this is the bottom line of the whole question
of who has nuclear weapons.
Who should have them or how we should get rid of them.
And it goes like this.
So long as any state has nuclear weapons other states will seek
to acquire them.
That means that ultimately if you want a world safe
from nuclear weapons everyone has to give them up.
That's an immensely complicated problem obviously,
sometimes I think saying we have to all disarm our nuclear weapons is
like saying we have to settle world peace then we won't need
them anymore.
It's almost that complicated.
But it is there as a fundamental fact
which President Obama paraphrased in his Prague speech by saying
which is really kind of the next step in this series of axioms,
if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable then
in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use
of nuclear weapons is inevitable.
We've dodged that bullet now since 1949,
since the Soviet Union became the second state
to acquire a nuclear arsenal.
But how much longer will we be so lucky?
How many times since those first days have we been
within a hairs breadth of a nuclear exchange?
I have cited in my works the Cuban Missile Crisis
and the Able Archer event in Europe in 1983
when the Soviets thought we might be preparing to attack them
and seriously considered striking us first.
But I've talked to people who should be in a position to know
in our government who have said oh yeah those too, but you know,
there were a lot more that haven't' come to light yet.
So we really have been quite lucky.
Getting rid of nuclear weapons is going to mean ultimately dealing
with conflicts situations that are thorny indeed.
>> Most of all Israel, North Korea, Iran, and in my mind the country
that is going to be the hardest nut to crack, the hardest
and most difficult place to convince to give up it's nuclear arsenals,
our country, the United States.
We started all these, we maintained all these for whatever reasons,
good or bad or indifferent, a lot of I think the Cold War had to do
with domestic politics not with relations with the Soviet Union,
you can read about that in this book as well.
But the fact is we're the ones
who I think will have the greatest difficulty.
And one of the reasons is a simple practical fact.
We spend about 50 billion dollars a year maintaining a nuclear arsenal
that is basically utterly useless except
as a display of potential force.
That's a lot of money, it supports a lot of people and industries
and I think it's going
to be difficult indeed to wind all that down.
Yes? Thank you.
So let me just quickly end.
There's much more in the book including
and I won't give you the details you'll have to read it,
including the real reason we went to war with Iraq the second time.
Which I will just say had to do with anthrax not with nuclear weapons.
At the end, I come back to the question how do we do this?
And I look at a model that I've written about before
that I'm sure you've read in my books before but it seems to me
as a fundamental model for how you live in a world
without nuclear weapons and that is the model
of the public health system.
We lived once with a kind of universal scourge
which was epidemic disease and the--
a few reformers and then later medical doctors
and researchers found fairly straightforward ways
to identify the source of a disease, to isolate the carriers of a disease
and in a few cases in this--
in the 20th century even to begin the process of eliminating disease,
small pox, most of all which most of us don't even think anymore.
Polio, the elimination is almost complete today.
There has been no polio in the western hemisphere since 1991.
And the states that still have polio cases are not surprisingly the ones
that have the least infrastructure and the least support.
So I discussed at some length that analogy
and I think you might find it interesting to look at and think
about because we have a success story where millions upon millions
of lives were saved and are still safe
because of some fairly straight forward ways of thinking about--
of relating to the natural world differently
from the way we related before.
I think the same thing is possible with manmade death
as with biologic death but manmade debt is actually a harder problem
because people and their motives and their needs, their expectation
and their fears are all involved.
So let me stop there and take any questions or comments you have.
Thank you.

[ Applause ]
>> Yes?
>> At the dawn of the atomic age some people thought the genie could
be stopped and others thought it was inevitable, just a matter of time.
Do you think it could have been stopped
and what do you think people will think another 100 years out?
How do you think this will evolve that thinking over time?
>> Could they have kept the genie pushed down in the bottle
or was the development of nuclear weapons inevitable?
You know, I always quote something Robert Oppenheimer once said
that I think speaks exactly to this question.
He said the deep things in science are not found
because they are useful.
They were found because it was possible to find them.
Nuclear fission was an inevitable outcome of the studies
of the nucleus of the atom of the atom that began
in the early years of the 20th century.
You reach a certain point and you inevitably find nuclear fission.
Once nuclear fission was found--
and I say inevitable because scientists all over the world
when they got the word that 2 German radio chemists
that identified this amazing new reaction scientists all
over the world kicked themselves.
They understood that they've been seeing it in their labs
but because they hadn't thought through what was going
on they hadn't identified what it was.
And I mean really, I've talked to a number of them who were just sick
for a couple of days after this huge discovery was made
that they missed just because they didn't think it through.
So, it inevitably came along and the idea that this was some sort
of falsity and bargain on the part of the scientist
that they all could have gone off in a room somewhere
up in a mountain top and said, oh let's not do this, is simply absurd.
There it was and the reaction was so fiercely exothermic, so much energy
out for so little energy in.
And in the context of the discovery having been made nine months before
the beginning of the Second World War
in Europe inevitably people would think of the possibility of a bomb.
Now what followed from that
and the nuclear arms raise those inevitably were political decisions
made for many different kinds of reasons.
I think fundamentally, at least at the beginning, from deep fears
that the only defense against these weapons
which the scientists recognized as early
as 1939 would be similar arsenal and the threat of retaliation.
That kept it going for a long time.
So I think that's a full answer to that question.
>> Yes. A lot of people don't know there was this genius--
genius, genius in Meredith Gardner
and he broke the indecipherable ciphers that the Soviet's used
and this is called the VENONA messages.
>> Oh yes, right.
>> Into 30s and to 40s and he broke them in the 50s
and if you read the VENONA messages I think you will find some
justification as to why we have atomic bombs [laughter]
but the second thing is in the VENONA messages I always knew,
every one that knew that [inaudible], green glass,
definitely as the Rosenberg
and Julia state they didn't have access to the atomic secrets.
A man that did that was messaged-- a young American called Ted Hall,
Theodore Hall and yet he immigrated to the United States-- England.
>> In England, yeah.
>> He was a Cambridge professor and he died old age.
He was never put to death or anything.
>> Right.
>> And he gave the Soviets most of the usable secrets.
>> That's correct.
>> Can you comment on both of those two things?
>> Yeah, I think, you know,
it's always puzzled me why Ted Hall was allowed to live out his life.
I think that suggest that he had new things or had documents or something
that our government security people didn't want to see released,
that's usually why people aren't touched.
But the larger question, I'll just speak to it with an anecdote,
could the Soviets have build an atomic bomb within the timeframe
that they did about the same time it took us without the secrets
that were passed to them by their spies?
And I corresponded with this Soviet Robert Oppenheimer a man named
[inaudible] in the last years of his life
by the new thing e-mail back in the early '90s.
And he pointed out that by 1947 they had worked out a bomb design
that would be half as heavy, half as big and twice as powerful
as our first bomb as our Nagasaki bomb.
And I said why didn't you do--
build that one instead of building a copy of ours?
And he said because Lavrentiy Beria who was the monster
who ran the Gulag system and was also in charge
of their bomb program had said to them with great contempt,
I don't give a damn what you think is a workable design.
Build me the American bomb I know it works.
He said it was worth our lives
so we built the American bomb that's what my government wanted.
But then I noticed in looking at the list
of their tests their second bomb test was of a bomb that was
about half the size and twice the yield of our Nagasaki bomb.
So they built theirs next
after they've fulfilled the political requirements
that were there for them to deal with.
>> Do you believe that Iran has any interest in a nuclear power program
or is it just solely a nuclear weapons program?
>> You know I think there's-- I think it's--
there's ample of reason to believe
that Iran is following basically the path that Israel followed.
The sort of bomb in the basement not acknowledged that we are building
such a thing or have built such a thing.
It was a very successful path for Israel,
still is in many ways to this day.
It leaves an ambiguity there about their relationship
to being a nuclear power,
even though everyone knows they are a nuclear power.
So that seems to me what Iran is doing
but it's been progressing very slowly
which isn't just the technological problems,
although there are plenty of those.
Arguably what they are doing is as North Korea has been doing
in a much more blatant way trying to use their capabilities
as a negotiating tool to find some settlement
with the United Stats in particular.
North Korea, without question, and you will read this
in the books several chapters may surprise you amazingly
about North Korea's reasons for developing nuclear weapons.
>> Primarily it was because during the Korean War we systematically,
strategically bombed North Korea back to the Stone Age just
as Curtis LeMay had threatened to do.
We particularly destroyed all of their hydroelectric dams as well
as a lot of dams that controlled the flood control for their rice fields.
I mean it's a horrible story.
We killed several million North Korean civilians
with strategic bombing just as we had done
against Japan during the Second World War
with perhaps more justification in that case.
Under those circumstances the main goal of Kim Il-sung
for many years thereafter was to get an alliance with the United States
that would allow North Korea
to rebuild an electrical capacity probably based on nuclear power.
And it has been for that purpose down through the years
with other things thrown in needless to say the presence
of American nuclear weapons in South Korea, the long standing conflict
between North and South Korea basically a long standing Civil War.
All that's been there, but underneath it all,
and you'll hear it every time you hear
about what the North Koreans are bringing to the negotiating table,
they want an electrical supply.
I mean, that's kind of where we still are.
When Bob Gallucci negotiated the deal with them
for two nuclear power reactors of western design
that the South Koreans would supply, I said why did you give them that?
He said that's what they wanted.
And of course, they would be under international control
and all those things but-- so it's not always what one reads
in the papers that these are crazy people and so forth.
There really is a practical reason why North Korea would
like get a head start on becoming a country
like its cousins of the South.
They were actually economically better off than South Korea
until the late 1970's and it was then
that they decided they needed a program of nuclear development
which may or may not include a bomb.
Eventually it did include a bomb.
Do we have any time left?
>> Time, it's over time.
>> Thanks so much.

[ Applause ]