Authors: David Milne
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For Emma, Benedict, and Anna
There is a spirit that rules usÂ â¦ that we are chosen and prominently chosen to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.
All plans of government, which suppose great reformation in the manners of mankind, are plainly imaginary.
Politics is an art and not a science, and what is required for its mastery is not the rationality of an engineer but the wisdom and the moral strength of a statesman.
âHANS J. MORGENTHAU
History is just littered with problems that were solved that were supposed to be impossible.
In September 1949, a WB-29 took off from Okinawa, Japan, and flew north toward the Kamchatka peninsula, which hangs from northeastern Russia like a mastiff's tail. The bomber had been refitted to conduct surveillance and carried filters to detect anomalies in the atmosphere. As the plane flirted with Soviet airspace, radiation was detected at unnaturally high levels. Navy scientists at sea level confirmed that radioactive sludge was also present in the rainwater. There was only one plausible explanation: the Soviet Union had detonated its first atomic bomb.
It fell to David Lilienthal, the chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, to inform the president. Truman found the news so surprisingâsurely it was too soon for Moscow to have tested an atomic deviceâthat he scarcely lent it credence. He asked Lilienthal if he was sure that the radiation stemmed from a nuclear weapon and not a reactor malfunction. When Truman finally accepted Lilienthal's word that the atomic source was weaponized, the president was confronted with a major decision: whether to respond by ordering the development of the hydrogen bomb, a fusion rather than a fission device with a destructive potential that was theoretically boundless.
Winston Churchill captured the H-bomb's epochal nature in observing that the device was as far from the A-bomb as the “atomic bomb itself from the bow and arrow.”
Whether to proceed was not simply a military decision; it was a philosophical one too. To facilitate a robust decision-making process, Truman established a three-man committee to present him with a majority recommendation, composed of Lilienthal, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, and Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Johnson was certain to recommend its development and Lilienthal was opposed. So Acheson would likely have the deciding vote. The secretary asked his two best strategic thinkers, George Kennan, the director of the Policy Planning Staff (PPS), and his deputy, Paul Nitze, to advise on whether America's military future should be thermonuclear.
Reclusive and deliberative, Kennan set about his task in the usual way. He retreated to his office with books on history, philosophy, and literature and settled down to think and to write. Addressing a question of vast moral and strategic dimensions, confronting hypothetical worst-case scenarios that included the end of human life on earth, Kennan soon found himself physically and emotionally exhausted. His wife, Annelise, had recently given birth to their third child, and after completing his first draft Kennan joked to Acheson that he “was tempted, day before yesterday, to go into the baby's room and say: âGo on, get up. You're going to work today. I'll get in the crib.'”
He crafted a seventy-nine-page paper, rich in history and philosophy, which counseled against building this fearsome weapon. A fusion device was morally repugnant and the whole idea of honing an “atomic strategy” was diabolicalâleading as it could to a war in which everyone losesâso an international organization, in this unique instance, offered the best way forward. Kennan sought to display this through the elegance of his prose and breadth of literary allusion, including a quotation from Shakespeare's
Troilus and Cressida
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.
Where a war with conventional weapons offered the possibility of conventional outcomesâ“the possibility of surrender and submission”âKennan believed that “weapons of mass destruction do not have this quality. They reach backward beyond the frontiers of western civilization, to the concepts of warfare which were once familiar to the Asiatic hordesÂ â¦ They imply the admission that man not only can be but is his own worst and most terrible enemy.” Summing up, Kennan quoted St. Paul, “We know in part and we prophesy in part,” before appealing to American values to guide the decision-making process: “In such a time there is only one thing a nation can do which can have any really solid and dependable value: and that is to see that the initial lines of its policy are as close as possible to the principles dictated by its traditions and its nature.”
Paul Nitze's operating style was very different. He was a former Wall Street banker adept in mathematics and deductive logic, a bureaucratic infighter who knew when to reach for the jugular, a Harvard postgraduate with a sophisticated understanding of international economic affairs. These qualitiesâhis facility with quantitative analysis in particularâled Kennan to ask permission from Acheson in 1947 to add Nitze to his Policy Planning Staff. Acheson declined, observing that Kennan should be looking to hire a “deep thinker,” not a “Wall Street operator”âa typically pointed Achesonian put-down.
But Acheson formed a more positive view of Nitze in the intervening years. In mid-1949, Kennan decided to take a leave of absence from State, asking Acheson if he could appoint Nitze as his deputy with a view to his succeeding him after his departure. This time the secretary of state said yes, and with real enthusiasm. Nitze was implacably anti-Soviet and did not share Kennan's view that agreement might be reached with Moscow over German reunification. Nitze was also a firm believer in maintaining the strongest possible military, that peace was primarily secured through strength. Nitze's approach was data driven and scientifically oriented. Kennan and Nitze's responses to the H-bomb dilemma revealed different worldviews and priorities.
Nitze first sought to comprehend the science of nuclear fusion. On consecutive days he met with J. Robert Oppenheimer (later a friend to Kennan) and Edward Teller, the first a skeptic of the wisdom of developing thermonuclear weapons, the second a strong proponent. Having played a key role in fathering the atomic bombâa role that he viewed as justifiable in those wartime circumstancesâOppenheimer wanted to play no part in siring a more terrible progeny. His personal view was that the United States should refuse to develop the weapon on moral grounds and hope that the Soviet Union would follow its example. But he understood that Nitze was unlikely to be swayed by wishful thinking and instead sought to convince him that the science of the hydrogen bomb was actually science fiction. While it was technically possible to construct and detonate a hydrogen bomb, Oppenheimer observed, moving such a necessarily massive device was another thing entirely. He told Nitze that a plane could not carry the cumbersome weaponârather, it would require an oxcart. This meant the fusion bomb was tactically impotent. “All in all,” Nitze recalled, “[Oppenheimer] concluded the world would be much better off if no one had such weapons.”
Nitze found his performance unconvincing, writing later that “we had no scrupleÂ â¦ in ignoring those of his recommendations which seemed to be based on political rather than scientific considerations.”
Oppenheimer misrepresented the science as he feared the unleashing of a great evil.
Edward Teller was more successful with his sales pitch, mainly because he believed in the necessity of the product. Nitze said, “Teller had a clear and powerful mind and could make his ideas understandable even to one who was not a professional physicist. He went to the blackboard and showed me two different approaches to solving the problem.”
Warming to the subject, and to his interlocutor, Nitze ended up talking physics with Teller for more than two hours. By the end of their conversation, Nitze was convinced that the fusion bomb was feasible and that Oppenheimer's warnings about its immobility were unfounded. Nitze surmised, correctly, that Oppenheimer's politics had clouded his advice. Teller was focused and compelling in argument, and he had no moral qualms about the enterprise at hand. A Jewish Hungarian Ã©migrÃ©, Teller despised the Soviet Union and the pernicious ideology that sustained it. There should be no question of America restraining itself in competition with such a regime. Of course, politics had also shaped Teller's advice, and he continued moving rightward through the remainder of his career. In 1954, for example, Teller testified before Congress that Oppenheimer's pacific leanings made him a “security risk.”
While Kennan remained isolated in his office, identifying the appropriate Shakespeare quotation to support his cause, Nitze joined the Atomic Working Group within the State Department. To skeptics of the hydrogen bomb, concerned that money spent on its development would be siphoned from the service budgets, Nitze suggested ways to sweeten the pill, such as connecting the development of thermonuclear weapons with a larger strategic review, designed to redress and fund conventional military deficiencies. When Nitze received a draft of Kennan's paper, he scribbled dissenting notes on the margin: “no!,” “Misreading of what we are
,” “prohibition.” In his formal response to Kennan, Nitze observed that declining to develop a fusion weapon, and thus allowing the Soviets to gain a tactical advantage, would be foolish and reckless.
Nitze advised that the United States develop the hydrogen bomb with all due haste. Moral qualms were otiose if the antagonist did not share them. Stalin's Soviet Union was no place to vest an act of faith.