In an interview with CNN
, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that Iran is months away from developing a nuclear weapon, not the five to ten years that most experts estimate. He said that while Israel is not comtemplating unilateral military action, he "expressed confidence" that President Bush "will lead other nations in taking the necessary measures to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power." Olmert and Bush meet today.
Presumably, planners are anticipating possible military and geopolitical responses to bombing Iran. But is anyone thinking about the geopolitical consequences of one possible aspect of such an attack: the use of nuclear weapons?
Because this act is in itself highly consequential. If it were to happen, it could well mark the beginning of the end of the U.S. as a world power, and certainly change how this country is viewed in the world, forever.
In a previous essay
, I wrote about the realities of radiation, and the policy of secrecy and lies that masked these realities. Today the subject just isn't talked about. Nor is the subject of this essay: the moral and geopolitical dimensions of the specific act of using nukes, even the so-called bunker-busters of relatively small yield (though they may be far larger than the Hiroshima bomb.)
The atomic bomb was "invented" by the same person who invented the armored tank, trench warfare, the bombing of cities from the air, suburban sprawl, the Blitz, television news and the Time Machine. Though the first such Bomb would not be built and exploded until 1945, H.G. Wells foresaw---and named--the atomic bomb in 1913, in a novel called "The World Set Free."
This novel, written before World War I, was not just remarkably prescient. It actually affected the real development of the atomic bomb.
Physicist Leo Szilard read "The World Set Free" in Berlin in 1932. Its story--of the discovery of atomic power, of the ensuing atomic war that destroyed the world's major cities, and that war's outcome--deeply impressed him. About five years later, a number of puzzling experimental outcomes were beginning to suggest the reality of what Wells had proposed (based on his intuition of what Einstein's 1905 theory of relativity and Frederick Soddy's work on radiation implied): splitting the atom to release immense energy.
In 1938, when Szilard realized how to create a chain reaction, he remembered Wells' tale of a disastrous nuclear war. Until Hitler took over in Germany and even for awhile afterwards, discoveries in physics were freely shared internationally. But warned by Wells' novel to the danger of his discovery, Szilard decided to keep it secret.
Szilard left for America, where he worked with Enrico Fermi, who had emigrated from Italy with his Jewish wife when Mussolini began to adopt Hitler's persecution of Jews. When Szilard was sure an atomic bomb was theoretically possible, he discussed it with Einstein, who had also recently fled to America from Berlin. As a result of their discussion, they wrote the famous letter to FDR that Einstein signed, warning of the Bomb and the likelihood that Germany would pursue it, and urging the U.S. to develop it first.
Szilard eventually worked on the Manhattan Project, but when Germany was defeated and no German Bomb had been built, he got Einstein to write another letter to FDR, urging that the U.S. Bomb not be used in the war. After FDR's death, he also led 69 other Manhattan Project scientists to write and sign a similar letter. He argued that using the Bomb against people would undermine the moral authority of the U.S. after the war, especially its ability to bring "the unloosened forces of destruction under control."
Szilard realized two things that he might also have learned from Wells' novel: because it was so immensely destructive, the atomic bomb was going to be the center of the largest moral questions the world had ever faced, and the geopolitical reality of the world had changed, because warfare with atomic weapons could destroy civilization and perhaps humankind itself.
These two areas--the moral and the geopolitical--were fused together by the first atomic explosion. They are fused together still. But for the purposes of analysis, let's look at them separately.
Morality, War and the Bomb
When Islamic armies were the most powerful in the world, conquerors of Asia Minor and North Africa, and poised at the gates of Europe in the 8th century, Abu Hanifa, founder of a school of law in the city of Baghdad, proposed that the killing, maiming and raping of civilian noncombatants in war be forbidden. It was one of the first attempts to codify some kind of moral and legal restraints on civilized societies engaged in the dangerously uncivilized practice of warfare.
Though from its inception, the intent of bombing was to terrorize people rather than to destroy military targets, there was still widespread moral opposition to the bombing of civilians and cities, until World War II. The moral outrage expressed in probably the most famous work of art depicting warfare, Picasso's "Guernica," immortalized the horror of the first terror bombing of a civilian population in Europe, by German bombers aiding the Franco forces in Spain.
While Americans remember the bombing of Pearl Harbor (a sneak attack, but on a very military target) and the British remember the Blitz, Germans may be justified in recalling the years of nightly bombing by British planes, culminating in the firebombing of Dresden, and Japanese the incessant bombing of practically every city in Japan by Americans.
By the time of Hiroshima, bombing cities with the express purpose of destroying them and killing people was a regular feature of the war on all sides.
But people were still troubled by the morality of killing the innocent, even when they half-believed the half-truths of their governments about the purpose and necessity of the bombing. The atomic bomb was so destructive over so large an area, that any pretence that it was a strategic weapon was impossible to maintain. "In 1945, when we ceased worrying about what the Germans would do to us," said Leo Szilard, "we began to worry about what the United States might do to other countries."
When the world began to find out what really had happened in Hiroshima, moral revulsion became attached to the Bomb and its future. After "Hiroshima," John Hershey's account of the aftermath was published, this revulsion was particularly acute. Even American military leaders, including General Dwight Eisenhower, Admiral William Halsey and General Curtis LeMay condemned the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. General Omar Bradley referred to "nuclear giants and ethical infants."
Leo Szilard asked people to imagine what the feeling would be if Germany had dropped an atomic bomb on an Allied city, but still lost the war. Would not that act be added to other war crimes at Nuremberg?
Though some of these figures became nuclear weapons supporters, moral revulsion became a widely and deeply felt reason for why the Bomb had to be controlled, and why it must never again be used.
The Geopolitics of Apocalypse
In Wells' 1913 novel, "The World Set Free", the atomic war leads to the inevitable conclusion that the world must unite in a single World State, or destroy itself forever. In the novel, the world does unite---something else that Leo Szilard may have learned from it.
After Hiroshima, many others quickly came to a similar conclusion. Not only scientists like Szilard and Einstein, but writers like Norman Cousins' whose essay published immediately after Hiroshima, expanded into a best-selling book, suggested that humankind now faced extinction in an atomic war, and only a new world order could prevent it. The main test humanity faced, Cousins wrote, is the "will to change rather than [the] ability to change...That is why the power of total destruction as potentially represented by modern science must be dramatized and kept in the forefront of public opinion."
Cousins supported world federalism, and a United World Federalist movement arose in 1947. Though many people considered world government as too idealistic, there was widespread support for the United Nations as it was being formed, and something amounting to almost a consensus that nuclear weapons must be brought under international control. Even President Truman, who never regretted using the Bomb, believed that international control of atomic weapons was the correct goal.
But nothing close to world government or even international control of nuclear weapons ever materialized. Instead there was an arms race, principally between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. As nuclear weapons grew in power and number, the basic sanity of humanity was called into question. But as close as the world was to total assured destruction, it did not happen.
How the World Saved Itself
What did happen was something few could have imagined, because it seemed so contrary to human nature and human history. Without the restraint of world government, the nations possessing nuclear weapons engaged in warfare and the undercover violence called the Cold War. But for sixty years and counting, no nation ever used a nuclear weapon against another.
Why they didn't is not as important right now than the fact that they didn't. The world was saved by forbearance. It was saved by the common knowledge that if one nation used a nuclear weapon, the restraint on their use by other nations would be broken. It was saved by a combination of moral revulsion and geopolitical realities.
Despite such pipedreams as fallout shelters and Star Wars, it was commonly known that there is no defense against nuclear weapons, and immense destruction was assured. Eventually there were international agreements that limited the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and allowed the major nuclear powers to limit and then reduce their weapons. But forbearance was the key to it all.
The U.S. under Bush has largely repudiated or violated many international nuclear weapons agreements. It has attempted to aid another nation (India) in expanding its nuclear capabilities. It has planned to add to its nuclear arsenal. And now, under Bush, the first and only nation to use a nuclear weapon against an enemy population of men, women and children, is said to be contemplating the first use of such a weapon since Nagasaki in 1945.
The consequences of thermonuclear war between the US and the USSR were studied repeatedly, and in outline were well known: basically the annihilation of civilization. The consequences are not widely known of nuclear devices becoming acceptable weapons in warfare at a time when many nations have some. But it can hardly be doubted that this is an avenue to widespread catastrophe that may have the same eventual result.
If the U.S. uses even one "small" nuclear device, the forbearance will be broken. The moral revulsion and geopolitical realism could be cast aside, and nuclear warfare of an unpredictable kind could begin, with no way to end it.
But what if moral revulsion and geopolitical realism holds? What if the only nukes that are used turn out to be the ones the U.S. uses on Iran, at least in the immediate aftermath? The consequences for the U.S. could well be severe and lasting. Much of the world is already troubled if not disgusted with recent U.S. international behavior. (See for example the dKos diary by NBBooks that outlines several growing alliances that don't include the U.S.) The use of any nuke could unleash a tide of sentiment and action that could devastate the U.S. politically and economically. Nuclear weapons still have potent symbolic as well as physical power.
The U.S. could become an outcast giant overnight, drummed out of the international community, treated with contempt. Real penalties could be exacted through the UN and other international bodies. Now that other nations are economically strong and America makes little of what the world needs, there is less incentive for allowing this violation--this most violent single act since World War II-- to be forgiven and forgotten. As our debts are called in, America may find that its two chief exports--Hollywood, weapons and garbage--are no longer sufficient to balance its offenses.
Even if nations are cowed into silence by the U.S. willingness to use its greatest remaining source of world power--its nuclear arsenal--terrorism against the U.S. would undoubtedly increase, but the rest of the world will turn a blind eye.
To break the nuclear peace is potentially the most consequential single act possible. For it is only the remarkable shared forbearance on the use of nuclear weapons, a forbearance unique in human history, that has allowed civilization to continue. No matter how I look at it, it's hard to see this any other way: the day that America uses a nuclear weapon against Iran will be the darkest day in American history.