The President and the bomb

I’m in the process of writing up something more substantial about nuclear weapons and the 2016 Presidential election, but I keep getting asked one thing repeatedly both in person, over e-mail, and online: “Are there any checks in place to keep the US President from starting a nuclear war?”  

What’s amazing about this question, really, is how seriously it misunderstands the logic of the US command and control system. It gets it exactly backwards.

Recent (November 17, 2016) Tweet by the USAF expresses US nuclear doctrine in a nutshell: "Always on the ready is an understatement when you are providing #POTUS with the ability to launch ICBMs." Hat tip to Alexandra Levy (Atomic Heritage Foundation) for bringing this one to my attention.

A recent Tweet by the USAF expresses US nuclear doctrine in a nutshell: “Always on the ready is an understatement when you are providing #POTUS with the ability to launch ICBMs.” (November 17, 2016) Hat tip to Alexandra Levy of the Atomic Heritage Foundation for bringing this one to my attention.

The entire point of the US command and control system is to guarantee that the President and only the President is capable of authorizing nuclear war whenever he needs to. It is about enabling the President’s power, not checking or restricting him. As former Vice President Dick Cheney put it in 2008:

The president of the United States now for 50 years is followed at all times, 24 hours a day, by a military aide carrying a football that contains the nuclear codes that he would use and be authorized to use in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States.

He could launch the kind of devastating attack the world has never seen. He doesn’t have to check with anybody, he doesn’t have to call Congress, he doesn’t have to check with the courts.
1

This isn’t new; it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. This has been discussed since the 1940s. And yet, people today seem rather shocked to hear it, even very educated people.

To be sure, the official doctrine that I have seen on the Nuclear Command Authority implies that the President should be given as much advice as possible from the military, the Department of Defense, and so on. But nothing I have seen suggests that this is any more than advisory — and the entire system is set up so that once the President’s order is verified and authenticated, there are meant to be only minutes until launch.2

Diagram of the various US Nuclear Command, Control, and Communication (NC3) Systems, as of 2016. From Nuclear Matters Handbook (2016).

Diagram of the various US Nuclear Command, Control, and Communication (NC3) Systems, as of 2016. From Nuclear Matters Handbook (2016).

It isn’t entirely intuitive — why the President, and not someone else, or some combination of people? Why not have some kind of “two-man rule,” whereby two top political figures were required to sign off on the use before it happened? The two-man rule is required for commanders to authorize nuclear launches, so why not the Commander in Chief?

To understand why this is, you have to go back and look at the history of how this doctrine came about. Today we tend to discuss this in terms of the speed in which a retaliation would be necessary in the event of a crisis, but the debate wasn’t originally about expediency at all, but about an understanding of Constitutional power and the inherently political nature of the bomb. I see the debate about the (un-)targeting of Kyoto, in mid-1945, as the first place where some of these questions started to get worked out. Presidents generally do not pick targets in war. That’s a general’s job. (Like all things in history, there have, of course, been exceptions.) But when it came to the atomic bomb, the civilian branch of the executive government (personified here by the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson), demanded veto power over the targets. The military (here, General Leslie Groves) pushed back, asserting that this was a military matter. Stimson insisted, and eventually got the President’s personal ear on the matter, and that was that. Truman, for his part, while he did not authorize the actual bombing in any explicit way (he was shown the bombing order, but he did not issue it nor was his approval required, though he could have vetoed it), did, on August 10th, re-assert nuclear authority by prohibiting future bombing activity without his explicit permission.

General Groves (left) and David Lilienthal (right) share a moment. Photo by Ed Westcott.

One can tell that the relationship between General Groves (left) and David Lilienthal (right) was not exactly the smoothest. Photo by Ed Westcott.

From that point forward, the President made very explicit that his office was in charge of the atomic bomb and its uses, not the military. It was not a “military weapon,” which is to say, it was an inherently political weapon, one that needed to be handled by that most inherently political office, the Presidency. This became the framework for talking about domestic control over nuclear weapons in the 1940s, the civilian vs. military split. It was believed that only an elected civilian could make the call for this of all weapons. Truman himself put it to David Lilienthal in 1948:

I don’t think we ought to use this thing unless we absolutely have to. It is a terrible thing to order the use of something that, that is so terribly destructive, destructive beyond anything we have ever had. You have got to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses. So we have got to treat this thing differently from rifles and cannons and ordinary things like that.3

In the early days, this civilian-military split was actually enforced at a physical level, with the non-nuclear parts of the weapons kept by the military, and the nuclear parts (the pits) kept by the civilian Atomic Energy Commission. By the end of the Eisenhower administration, changes in doctrine, technology (sealed-pit weapons), and fears (e.g., a Soviet “sneak attack”) had led to 90% of the nuclear weapons transferred into the hands of the military, making the civilian-military distinction a somewhat theoretical one. Eisenhower also “pre-delegated” the authority to start nuclear war to several military commanders on the front lines, on the idea that they would not have time to call back to Washington should Soviet tanks start pouring into Western Europe. (So while the President is the only person who can authorize a nuclear attack, he can also extend that authority to others if he deems it necessary.)

The Kennedy administration, looking to assert more positive control over the beginning of a nuclear conflict (especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which raised the real possibility of a low-level misunderstanding “escalating” in times of uncertainty), requiring the weapons themselves to have sophisticated electronic controls (Permissive Action Links) that would prevent anyone without a coded authorization to use them. There is more to these stories,4 but I just want to illustrate a bit of what the “control” debate was really about: making sure the President, and only the President, was ultimately the one making decisions about the bomb.

A retired "nuclear football" suitcase, from which the President can authorize a nuclear attack. Photo credit: Smithsonian Institute/Jamie Chung, via Wikimedia Commons.

A retired “nuclear football” suitcase, from which the President can authorize a nuclear attack. Photo credit: Smithsonian Institute/Jamie Chung, via Wikimedia Commons.

I have been asked: would the officer carrying the “football” actually go forward with a nuclear attack, especially if it seems heedless or uncalled for? (The “nuclear football” is the special computer that, once the nuclear “codes” are inputted into it, somehow electronically starts the sequence of events that leads to the weapons being used.) Which I find lovably optimistic. The entire job of the person carrying the football is to enable the President to launch a nuclear attack. They would not presume to know the “big picture” of why the President was doing it — they are not a high-level military or policymaker. They are going to do their job; it is what they were chosen to do.

Would the military second-guess the President, and override the order? I mean, anything is possible — this has just never happened before, so who knows. But I am dubious. In 1973, Major Harold Hering was fired for asking, “How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?” Not because it is a fireable offensive to imply that the President might not, at all times, be entirely capable of making such an order, but because to start to question that order would mean to put the entire credibility of the nuclear deterrent at risk. The entire logic of the system is that the President’s will on this point must be authoritative. If people start second-guessing orders, the entire strategic artifice breaks down.5

So is there any check on the President’s power to use nuclear weapons? Well, technically the US election process is meant to be that check — don’t elect people you don’t trust with the unilateral authority to use nuclear weapons. And this, indeed, has been a theme in numerous US elections, including the most recent one. It is one issue among many, of course.

The problem with a big red button is that someone might actually press it. Like a cat. Source: Ren and Stimpy, Space Madness.

There is, of course, no big red button. There are lots of other, smaller buttons, though. Source: Ren and Stimpy, Space Madness.

Do I personally worry about an unhinged, unthoughtful President using nuclear weapons heedlessly? Sure, to some degree. But not as much as I worry about other damage that such a President will do to the country and the world (the environment, economy, social fabric, international order, and human rights are higher on my list of concerns at the moment). Which is to say, it’s on the list of things one might worry about (for any President, but certainly the next one), but it’s not my top worry. Ultimately I do have some faith, perhaps unearned, that even someone who is woefully under-educated about world affairs, strategic logic, and so on, will come to understand rather rapidly that it is in the United States’ best interests not to break the nuclear taboo.

The United States benefits from the taboo disproportionately: should the threshold for nuclear use be lowered, we would be the ones who would suffer the most for it, because we tend to put our cities and military forces and everything else in centralized, easy-to-take-out-with-a-nuke sorts of arrangements, and because we enjoy a powerful conventional military power as well. We have the luxury of a nuclear taboo, in other words: we don’t have to use nukes to get what we want, and indeed in many situations nukes are just not as useful as they might at first appear.

So only a true idiot would think that using nukes foolishly would actually be a useful thing, aside from the collateral damage, moral issues, and so on. Take from that what you will.

I am not interested in having political arguments (one way or the other) in the comments of this blog post — I am burned out on online political debates for the moment. If you want to have a political debate, have it elsewhere. I will only approve constructive, interesting, non-obvious comments. Trolls will be banned and blocked. We will be coming back to this topic again, don’t worry. (Or do.)

Notes
  1. “Transcript: Vice President Cheney on ‘FOX News Sunday’,” FoxNews.com (22 December 2008).
  2. Actual doctrine is understandably hard to get one’s hands on. The Nuclear Matters Handbook 2016, created by the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters, is an extremely useful resource in this respect. Chapter 6 is about the Nuclear Command and Control System, and describes the many procedures, organizations, and technologies used to provide “the President with the means to authorize the use of nuclear weapons in a crisis and to prevent unauthorized or accidental use.”
  3. The context of this snippet, recorded in Lilienthal’s journals, is a meeting between the President, Lilienthal (Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission), and several military men and his cabinet. Lilienthal noted parenthetically that in the gap between the two “thats” in the second sentence, Truman looked “down at his desk, rather reflectively,” and that he (Lilienthal) “shall never forget this particular expression” when Truman said was not a “military weapon.” The military men, in Lilienthal’s account, then immediately began to talk about how important it was to get used to handling the bombs. General Kenneth Royall asked, “We have been spending 98% of all money for atomic energy for weapons. Now if we aren’t going to use them, that doesn’t make any sense.” Lilienthal’s commentary: “If what worried the President, in part, was whether he could trust these terrible forces in the hands of the military establishment, the performance these men gave certainly could not have been reassuring on that score.” Account of a conversation with Harry Truman and others on July 21, 1948, in David E. Lilienthal, The Journals of David E. Lilienthal, Vol. 2: The Atomic Energy Years, 1945-1950 (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), 391.
  4. I gave a talk at the History of Science Society’s Annual Meeting in Atlanta a few weeks ago, on the topic of Command and Control systems and the ways they encode different visions of Constitutional authority and responsibility, and I am working to turn that into some kind of publishable paper.
  5. There is an anecdote that is often repeated that states that Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger supposedly altered, on some level, the nuclear command authority during Watergate — telling his staff that he had veto power over any nuclear commands by Nixon. It is not something that has been historically substantiated, and, even if true, would technically have been un-Constitutional. It doesn’t mean it isn’t possible — but I find the whole thing, again, fairly dubious, and it certainly was not in line with the official regulations. There are instances (Stanislav Petrov, for example) of officers in nuclear situations not following regulations in an effort to avoid escalation. But they are by definition ad hoc, not to be relied upon.

A brief history of the nuclear triad

Summers for me are paradoxically the time I can get work done, and the time in which I feel I have the most work. I’m not teaching, which in theory means I have much more unstructured time. The consequence, though, is that I have about a million projects I am trying to get done in what is still a limited amount of time, and I’m also trying to see family, friends, and get a little rest. I sort of took June off from blogging (which I felt was my due after the amount of exposure I got in April and May), but I have several posts “in the hopper,” and several other things coming out soon. Yesterday I gave a talk at the US Department of State as part of their Timbie Forum (what used to be called their Generation Prague conference). I was tasked with providing the historical background on the US nuclear “triad,” as part of a panel discussion of the future of the triad. This is subject-matter I’ve taught before, so I felt pretty comfortable with it, but I thought I would return to a few of my favorite sources and refresh my understanding. This post is something of a write-up of my notes — more than I could say in a 20-minute talk.

There is a lot of buzzing about lately about the future of the United States’ “nuclear triad.” The triad is the strategic reliance on three specific delivery “platforms” for deterrence: manned-bombers (the B-2 and the B-52), long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs; specifically the Minuteman III), and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs; specifically the Trident II missile carried by Ohio class submarines). Do we need all three “legs” of the triad? I don’t know — that’s a question for another day, and depends on how you balance the specific benefits and risks of each “leg” with the costs of maintaining or upgrading them. But as we think about the future of the US arsenal, looking at how the triad situation came about, and how people started talking about it as a “triad,” offers some interesting food for thought.

The modern nuclear triad. Source: Nuclear Posture Review, 2010.

The modern nuclear triad. Source: Nuclear Posture Review, 2010.

The stated logic of the triad has long as such: 1) bombers are flexible in terms of their armaments and deployments (and have non-nuclear roles); 2) ICBM forces are kept far from the enemy, are highly-accurate, and thus make a first-strike attack require a huge amount of “investment” to contemplate; 3) SLBM forces are, for the near term, capable of being kept completely hidden from attack, and thus are a guaranteed “second strike” capability. The combination of these three factors, the logic goes, keeps anyone from thinking they could get away with a nuclear attack.

That’s the rationale. It’s not the history of it, though. Like so many things, the history is rather wooly, full of stops-and-starts, and a spaghetti graph of different organizations, initiatives, committees, industrial contractors, and ideas. I have tried to summarize a lot of material below — with an idea to pointing out how each “leg” of the triad got (or did not get, depending on when) the support it needed to become a reality. I only take these histories up through about 1960, after which each of the three “legs” were deployed (and to try and go much further would result in an even-longer post).

LEG 1: MANNED BOMBERS

The United States’ first approach to the “delivery” question was manned, long-range bombers. Starting with the B-29, which delivered the first atomic bombs, and some 80 million pounds of incendiaries, over Japanese cities during World War II, the US was deeply committed to the use of aircraft as the means of getting the weapons from “here” to “there.” Arguably, this commitment was a bit overextended. Bureaucratic and human factors led to what might be called a US obsession with the bomber. The officers who rose through the ranks of the US Army Air Forces, and the newly-created (in 1947) US Air Force, were primarily bomber men. They came out of a culture that saw pilots as the ultimate embodiment of military prowess. There were some exceptions, but they were rare.

The B-29's power was more than military — it became a symbol of a new form of warfare for the generals of the newly-constituted US Air Force. Source.

The B-29’s power was more than military — it became a symbol of a new form of warfare for the generals of the newly-constituted US Air Force. Source.

In their defense, the US had two major advantages over the Soviet Union with respect to bombers. The first is that the US had a lot more experience building them: the B-29 “Superfortress” was an impressive piece of machinery, capable of flying further, faster, and with a higher load of armaments than anything else in the world at the time, and it was just the beginning.

The second was geography. The B-29 had a lot of range, but it wasn’t intercontinental. With a range of some 3,250 miles, it could go pretty far: from the Marianas to anywhere in Japan and back, for example. But it couldn’t fly a bomb-load to Moscow from the United States (not even from Alaska, which was only in range of the eastern half of Russia). This might not look like an advantage, but consider that this same isolation made it very hard for the Soviet Union to use bombers to threaten the United States in the near-term, and that the US had something that the USSR did not: lots of friends near its enemy’s borders.

As early as late August 1945, the United States military planners were contemplating how they could use friendly airfields — some already under US control, some not — to put a ring around the Soviet Union, and to knock it out of commission if need be. In practice, it took several years for this to happen. Deployments of non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons abroad waited until 1948, during the Berlin Blockade, and the early stages of the Korean War.

US nuclear bomber deployments, 1945-1958. One of my favorite slides that I use when teaching — it shows what "containment" comes to mean, and amply demonstrates the geopolitics of Cold War bomber bases.

US nuclear bomber deployments, 1945-1958. One of my favorite slides that I use when teaching — it shows what “containment” comes to mean, and amply demonstrates the geopolitics of Cold War bomber bases. Shadings indicate allies/blocs circa 1958.

In 1951, President Truman authorized small numbers of nuclear weapons (with fissile cores) to be deployed to Guam. But starting in 1954, American nuclear weapons began to be dispersed all-around the Soviet perimeter: French Morocco, Okinawa, and the United Kingdom in 1954; West Germany in 1955; Iwo Jima, Italy, and the Philippines in 1957; and France, Greenland, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan, and Tunisia in 1958. This was “containment” made real, all the more so as the USSR had no similar options in the Western Hemisphere until the Cuban Revolution. (And as my students always remark, this map puts the Cuban Missile Crisis into perspective.)1

And if the B-29 had been impressive, later bombers were even more so. The B-36 held even more promise. Its development had started during World War II, and its ability to extend the United States’ nuclear reach was anticipated as early as 1945. It didn’t end up being deployed until 1948, but added over 700 miles to the range of US strategic forces, and could carry some 50,000 lbs more fuel and armament. The B-52 bomber, still in service, was ready for service by 1955, and extended the range of bombers by another several hundred miles, increased the maximum flight speed by more than 200 miles per hour.2

Plane First flight Introduced in service Combat range (mi) Maximum speed (mph) Service ceiling (ft) Bomb weight (lbs)
B-17 1935 1938 2,000 287 35,600 4,500
B-29 1942 1944  3,250 357  31,850  20,000
B-36 1946 1948  3,985 435  43,000  72,000
B-52 1952 1955  4,480 650  50,000  70,000
B-2 1989 1997  6,000 630  50,000  40,000

So you can see, in a sense, why the US Air Force was so focused on bombers. They worked, they held uniquely American advantages, and you could see how incremental improvement would make them fly faster, farther, and with more weight than before. But there were more than just technical considerations in mind: fascination with the bomber was also cultural. It was also about the implied role of skill and value of control in a human-driven weapon, and it was also about the idea of “brave men” who fly into the face of danger. The bomber pilot was still a “warrior” in the traditional sense, even if his steed was a complicated metal tube flying several miles above the Earth.

LEG 2: LAND-BASED INTERCONTINENTAL BALLISTIC MISSILES (ICBMs)

But it wasn’t just that the USAF was pro-bomber. They were distinctly anti-missile for a long time. Why? The late Thomas Hughes, in his history of Project Atlas, attributes a distinct “conservative momentum, or inertia” to the USAF’s approach to missiles. Long-range missiles would be disruptive to the hierarchy: engineers and scientists would be on top, with no role for pilots in sight. Officers would, in a sense, become de-skilled. And perhaps there was just something not very sporting about lobbing nukes at another country from the other side of the Earth.3

But, to be fair, it wasn’t just the Air Force generals. The scientists of the mid-1940s were not enthusiastic, either. Vannevar Bush told Congress in 1945 that:

There has been a great deal said about a 3,000 mile high-angle rocket. In my opinion such a thing is impossible and will be impossible for many years. The people who have been writing these things that annoy me have been talking about a 3,000 mile high-angle rocket shot from one continent to another carrying an atomic bomb, and so directed as to be a precise weapon which would land on a certain target such as this city. I say technically I don’t think anybody in the world knows how to do such a thing, and I feel confident it will not be done for a very long time to come.

Small amounts of money had been doled out to long-range rocket research as early as 1946. The Germans, of course, had done a lot of pioneering work on medium-range missiles, and their experts were duly acquired and re-purposed as part of Operation Paperclip. The Air Force had some interest in missiles, though initially the ones they were more enthusiastic about were what we would call cruise missiles today: planes without pilots. Long-range ballistic missiles were very low on the priority list. As late as 1949 the National Security Council gave ballistic missiles no research priority going forward — bombers got all of it.

Soviet testing of an R-1 (V-2 derivative) rocket at Kapustin Yar. Soviet rocket tests were detected by American radars — and spurred US interest in rockets. Source.

Soviet testing of an R-1 (V-2 derivative) rocket at Kapustin Yar. Soviet rocket tests were detected by American radars — and spurred US interest in rockets. Source.

Real interest in ballistic missiles did not begin until 1950, when intelligence reports gave indication of Soviet interest in the area. Even then, the US Air Force was slow to move — they wanted big results with small investment. And the thing is, rocket science is (still) “rocket science”: it’s very hard, all the more so when it’s never been really done before.

As for the Soviets: while the Soviet Union did not entirely forego research into bombers, the same geographic factors as before encouraged them to look into long-range rockets much earlier than the United States. For the USSR to threaten the USA with bombers would require developing very long-range bombers (because they lacked the ability to put bases on the US perimeter), and contending with the possibility of US early-warning systems and interceptor aircraft. If they could “skip” that phase of things, and jump right to ICBMs, all the better for them. Consequently, Stalin had made missile development a top priority as early as 1946.

It wasn’t until the development of the hydrogen bomb that things started to really change in the United States. With yields in the megaton range, suddenly it didn’t seem to matter as much if you couldn’t get the accuracy that high. You can miss by a lot with a megaton and still destroy a given target. Two American scientists played a big role here in shifting the Air Force’s attitude: Edward Teller and John von Neumann. Both were hawks, both were H-bomb aficionados, and both commanded immense respect from the top Air Force brass. (Unlike, say, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was pushing instead for tactical weapons that could be wielded by the — gasp — Army.)

Ivy Mike, November 1952. Accuracy becomes less of a problem.

Ivy Mike, November 1952. Accuracy becomes less of a problem.

Teller and von Neumann told the Air Force science board that the time had come to start thinking about long-range missiles — that in the near term, you could fit a 1-2 megatons of explosive power into a 1-ton warhead. This was still pretty ambitious. The US had only just tested its first warhead prototype, Ivy Mike, which was an 80-ton experiment. They had some other designs on the books, but even the smaller weapons tested as part of Operation Castle in 1954 were multi-ton. But it was now very imaginable that further warhead progress would make up that difference. (And, indeed, by 1958 the W49 warhead managed to squeeze 1.44 Mt of blast power into under 1-ton of weight — a yield-to-weight ratio of 1.9 kt/kg.)

The USAF set up an advisory board, headed by von Neumann, with Teller, Hans Bethe, Norris Bradbury, and Herbert York on it. The von Neumann committee concluded that long-range missile development needed to be given higher priority in 1953. Finally, the Department of Defense initiated a full-scale ICBM program — Project Atlas — in 1954.

Even this apparent breakthrough of bureaucratic inertia took some time to really get under way. You can’t just call up a new weapons system from nothing by sheer will alone. As Hughes explains, there were severe doubts about how one might organize such a work. The first instinct of the military was to just order it up the way they would order up a new plane model. But the amount of revolutionary work was too great, and the scientists and advisors running the effort really feared that if you went to a big airplane company like Convair and said, “make me a rocket,” the odds that they’d actually be able to make it work were low. They also didn’t want to assign it to some new laboratory run by the government, which they felt would be unlikely to be able to handle the large-scale production issues. Instead, they sought a different approach: contract out individual “systems” of the missile (guidance, fuel, etc.), and have an overall contractor manage all of the systems. This took some serious effort to get the DOD and Air Force to accept, but in the end they went with it.

Launch sequence of an Atlas-D ICBM, 1960. Source.

Launch sequence of an Atlas-D ICBM, 1960. Source.

Even then things were pretty slow until mid-1954, when Congressional prodding (after they were told that there were serious indications the Soviets were ahead in this area) finally resulted in Atlas given total overriding defense priority. Even then the people in charge of it had to find ways to shortcut around the massive bureaucracy that had grown up around the USAF and DOD contracting policies. In Hughes’ telling of Atlas, it is kind of amazing that it gone done at rapidly as it did — it seems that there were near-endless internal obstacles to get past.  The main problem, one Air Force historian opined, was not technical: “The hurdle which had to be annihilated in correcting this misunderstanding was not a sound barrier, or a thermal barrier, but rather a mental barrier, which is really the only type that man is ever confronted with anyway.” According to one estimate, the various long-term cultural foot-dragging about ballistic missiles in the United States delayed the country from acquiring the technology for six years. Which puts Sputnik into perspective.

The US would start several different ballistic missile programs in the 1950s:

Rocket family Design started Role Military patron Prime industrial contractor Warhead yield
Redstone 1950 IRBM US Army Chrysler 0.5-3.5 Mt
Atlas 1953 ICBM USAF Convair 1.44 Mt
Thor 1954 IRBM USAF Douglas 1.4 Mt
Titan 1955 ICBM USAF Glenn Martin 3.75 Mt
Polaris 1956 SLBM USN Lockheed 0.6 Mt
Minuteman 1957 ICBM USAF Boeing 1.2 Mt

As you can see, there’s some redundancy there. It was deliberate: Titan, for example, was a backup to Atlas in case it didn’t work out. There’s also some interesting stuff going on with regards to other services (Army, Navy) not wanting to be “left out.” More on that in a moment. Minuteman, notably, was based on solid fuel, not liquid, giving it different strategic characteristics, and a late addition. The Thor and Redstone projects were for intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), not ICBMs — they were missiles you’d have to station closer to the enemy than the continental United States (e.g., the famous Jupiter missiles kept in Turkey).

The redundancy was a hedge: the goal was to pick the top two of the programs and cancel the rest. Instead, Sputnik happened. In the resulting political environment, Eisenhower felt he had to put into production and deployment all six of them — even though some were demonstrably not as technically sound as others (Thor and Polaris, in their first incarnations, were fraught with major technical problems). This feeling that he was pushed by the times (and by Congress, and the services, and so on) towards an increasingly foolish level of weapons production is part of what is reflected in Eisenhower’s famous 1961 warning about the powerful force of the “military-industrial complex.”4

LEG 3: SUBMARINE-LAUNCHED BALLISTIC MISSILES (SLBMs)

Polaris is a special and interesting case, because it’s the only one in that list that is legitimately a different form of delivery. Shooting a ballistic missile is hard enough; shooting one from a submarine platform was understandably more so. Today the rationale of the SLBM seems rather obvious: submarines have great mobility, can remain hidden underwater even at time of launch, and in principle seem practically “invulnerable” — the ultimate “second strike” guarantee. At the time they were proposed, though, they were anything but an obvious approach: the technical capabilities just weren’t there. As already discussed at length, even ICBMs were seen with a jaundiced eye by the Air Force in the 1950s. Putting what was essentially an ICBM on a boat wasn’t going to be something the Air force was going to get behind. Graham Spinardi’s From Polaris to Trident is an excellent, balanced discussion the technical and social forces that led to the SLBM becoming a key leg of the “triad.”5

The USS Tunny launches a cruise missile (Regulus) circa 1956. Source.

The USS Tunny launches a cruise missile (Regulus) circa 1956. Source.

The Navy had in fact been interested in missile technology since the end of World War II, getting involved in the exploitation of German V-2 technology by launching one from an aircraft carrier in 1947. But they were also shy of spending huge funds on untested, unproven technology. Like the Air Force, they were initially more interested in cruise than ballistic missiles. Pilotless aircraft didn’t seem too different from piloted aircraft, and the idea of carrying highly-volatile liquid fueled missiles made Navy captains squirm. The Regulus missile (research started in 1948, and fielded in 1955) was the sort of thing they were willing to look at: a nuclear-armed cruise missile that could be launched from a boat, with a range of 575 miles. They were also very interested in specifically-naval weapons, like nuclear-tipped torpedoes and depth charges.

What changed? As with the USAF, 1954 proved a pivotal year, after the development of the H-bomb, the von Neumann committee’s recommendations, and fears of Soviet work combined with a few other technical changes (e.g., improvements in solid-fueled missiles, which reduced the fear of onboard explosions and fires). The same committees that ended up accelerating American ICBM work similarly ended up promoting Naval SLBM work as well, as the few SLBM advocates in the Navy were able to use them to make a run-around of the traditional authority. At one point, a top admiral cancelled the entire program, but only after another part of the Navy had sent around solicitations to aerospace companies and laboratories for comment, and the comments proved enthusiastic-enough that they cancelled the cancellation.

As with the ICBM, there was continued opposition from top brass about developing this new weapon. The technological risks were high: it would take a lot of money and effort to see if it worked, and if it didn’t, you couldn’t get that investment back. What drove them to finally push for it was a perception of being left out. The Eisenhower administration decided in 1955 that only four major ballistic missile programs would be funded: Atlas, Titan, Thor, and Redstone. The Navy would require partnering up with either the USAF or US Army if it wanted any part of that pie. The USAF had no need of it (and rejected an idea for a ship-based Thor missile), but the Army was willing to play ball. The initial plan was to develop a ship-based Jupiter missile (part of the Redstone missile family), with the original schedule was to have one that could be fielded by 1965.

But the Navy quickly was dissatisfied with Jupiter’s adaptability to sea. It would have to be shrunk dramatically to fit onto a submarine, and the liquid-fuel raised huge safety concerns. They quickly started modifying the requirements, producing a smaller, solid-fueled intermediate-range missile. They were able to convince the Army that this was a “back-up” to the original Jupiter program, so it would technically not look like a new ballistic missile program. Even so, it was an awkward fit: even the modified Jupiter’s were too large and bulky for the Navy’s plans.

What led to an entirely new direction was a fortuitous meeting between a top naval scientist and Edward Teller (who else?), at a conference on anti-submarine warfare in the summer of 1956. At the conference, Teller suggested that trends in warhead technology meant that by the early 1960s the United States would be able to field megaton-range weapons inside a physics package that could fit into small, ship-based missiles. Other weapons scientists regarded this as possibly dangerous over-hyping and over-selling of the technology, but the Navy was convinced that they could probably get within the right neighborhood of yield-to-weight ratios. By the fall of 1956, the Navy had approved a plan to create their own ballistic missile with an entirely different envelope and guidance system than Jupiter, and so Polaris was born.

Artist's conception of a Polaris missile launch. Source.

Artist’s conception of a Polaris missile launch. Source.

The first generation of Polaris (A-1) didn’t quite meet the goals articulated in 1956, but it got close. Instead of a megaton, it was 600 kilotons. Instead of 1,500 mile range, it was 1,200. These differences matter, strategically: there was really only one place it could be (off the coast of Norway) if it wanted to hit any of the big Soviet cities. And entirely separately, the first generation of Polaris warheads were, to put it mildly, a flop. They used an awful lot of fissile material, and there were fears of criticality accidents in the event of an accidental detonation. No problem, said the weapons designers: they’d put a neutron-absorbing strip of cadmium tape in the core of the warhead, so that if the high explosives were ever to detonate, no chain reaction would be possible. Right before any intended use, a motor would withdraw the tape. Sounds good, right? Except in 1963, it was discovered that the tape corroded while inside the cores. It was estimated that 75% of the warheads would not have detonated: the mechanism would have snapped the tape, which would then have been stuck inside the warhead. There was, as Eric Schlosser, in Command and Control, quotes a Navy officer concluding that they had “almost zero confidence that the warhead would work as intended.” They all had to be replaced.6

The first generation of Polaris missiles, fielded in 1960, were inaccurate and short-ranged (separate from the fact that the warheads wouldn’t have worked). This relegated them to a funny strategic position. They could only be used as a counter-value secondary-strike: they didn’t have the accuracy necessary to destroy hardened targets, and many of those were more centrally-located in the USSR.

WHEN AND WHY DO WE TALK ABOUT A TRIAD?

The “triad” was fielded starting in the 1960s. But there was little discussion of it as a “triad” per se: it was a collection of different weapon systems. Indeed, deciding that the US strategic forces were really concentrated into just three forces is a bit of an arbitrary notion, especially during the Cold War but even today. Where do foreign-based IRBMs fit into the “triad” concept? What about strategic weapons that can be carried on planes smaller than heavy bombers? What about the deterrence roles of tactical weapons, the nuclear artillery shells, torpedoes, and the itty-bitty bombs? And, importantly, what about the cruise missiles, which have developed into weapons that can be deployed from multiple platforms?

Nuclear Triad Google Ngram

Relative word frequency for “nuclear triad” as measured across the Google Books corpus. Source.

 

It’s become a bit cliché in history circles to pull up Google Ngrams whenever we want to talk about a concept, the professorial equivalent of the undergraduate’s introductory paragraph quoting from the dictionary. But it’s a useful tool for thinking about when various concepts “took hold” and their relative “currency” over time. What is interesting in the above graph is that the “triad” language seems to surface primarily in the 1970s, gets huge boosts in the late Cold War, and then slowly dips after the end of the Cold War, into the 21st century.

Which is to say: the language of the “triad” comes well after the various weapon systems have been deployed. It is not the “logic” of why they made the weapons systems in the first place, but a retrospective understanding of their strategic roles. Which is no scandal: it can take time to see the value of various technologies, to understand how they affect things like strategic stability.

But what’s the context of this talk about the triad? If you go into the Google Books entries that power the graph, they are language along the lines of: “we rely on the triad,” “we need the triad,” “we are kept safe by the triad,” and so on. This sort of assertive language is a defense: you don’t need to sing the praises of your weapons unless someone is doubting their utility. The invocation of the “triad” as a unitary strategic concept seems to have come about when people started to wonder whether we actually needed three major delivery systems for strategic weapons.

A strange elaboration of the triad notion from the Defense Logistics Agency, in which the "new triad" includes the "old triad" squished into one "leg," with the other "legs" being even less tangible notions joined by a web of command and control. At this point, I'd argue it might be worth ditching the triad metaphor. Source.

A strange elaboration of the triad notion from the Defense Logistics Agency, in which the “new triad” includes the “old triad” squished into one “leg,” with the other “legs” being even less tangible notions joined by a web of command and control. At this point, I’d argue it might be worth ditching the triad metaphor. Source.

When you give something abstract a name, you aid in the process of reification, making it seem tangible, real, un-abstract. The notion of the “triad” is a concept, a unifying logic of three different technologies, one that asserts quite explicitly that you need all three of them. This isn’t to say that this is done in bad faith, but it’s a rhetorical move nonetheless. What I find interesting about the “triad” concept — and what it leaves out — is that it is ostensibly focused on technologies and strategies, but it seems non-coincidentally to be primarily concerning itself with infrastructure. The triad technologies each require heavy investments in bases, in personnel, in jobs. They aren’t weapons so much as they they are organizations that maintain weapons. Which is probably why you have to defend them: they are expensive.

I don’t personally take a strong stance on whether we need to have ICBMs and bombers and SLBMs — there are very intricate arguments about how these function with regards to the strategic logic of deterrence, whether they provide the value relative to their costs and risks, and so on, that I’m not that interested in getting into the weeds over. But the history interests me for a lot of reasons: it is about how we mobilize concepts (imposing a “self-evident” rationality well after the fact), and it is also about how something that in retrospect seems so obvious to many (the development of missiles, etc.) can seem so un-obvious at the time.

Notes
  1. The list of these deployments comes from the appendices in History of the Custody and Deployment of Nuclear Weapons, July 1945 through September 1977 (8MB PDF here), prepared by the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Atomic Energy), in February 1978, and Robert S. Norris, William Arkin, and William Burr, “Where They Were,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (November/December 1999), 27-35, with a follow-up post on the National Security Archive’s website.
  2. All of the quantitative data on these bombers was taken from their Wikipedia pages. In places where there were ranges, I tried to pick the most representative/likely numbers. I am not an airplane buff, but I am aware this is the sort of thing that gets debated endlessly on the Internet!
  3. Thomas Hughes, Rescuing Prometheus: Four Monumental Projects That Changed the Modern World (New York : Pantheon Books, 1998), chapter 3, “Managing a Military Industrial Complex: Atlas,” 69-139.
  4. Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control has an excellent discussion of the politics of developing the early missile forces.
  5. Graham Spinardi, From Polaris to Trident: The Development of US Fleet Ballistic Missile Technology (Cambridge University Press, 1994).
  6. Spinardi, as an aside, gives a nice account of how they eventually achieved the desired yield-to-weight ratio in the W-47: the big “innovation” was to just use high-enriched uranium as the casing of the secondary, instead of unenriched uranium. As he notes, this was the kind of thing that was obvious in retrospect, but wasn’t obvious at the time — it required a different mindset (one much more willing to “expend” fissile material!) than the weapons designers of the early 1950s were used to.

Obama visits Hiroshima

The big nuclear news this week was President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima. Obama is the first sitting-President to visit the city (Carter and Nixon visited it after their terms were up). The speech he gave is more or less what I thought he was going to say: a short discussion (with heavy reliance on passive voice) on the bombings (they just sort of happened, right?), a vague call to make a world without nuclear weapons and war, a invocation of a lot of standard nuclear age stereotypes (humanity destroying itself, needing to be smart in ways that are not just about making weapons, etc.).

I’m not criticizing the speech — it’s fine, for what it is. There is nothing that the President could really say that would be enormously satisfying, no matter what your position on nuclear weapons is, or what your position is on him as a President. He wasn’t going to apologize for the bombings, he wasn’t going to justify the bombings, he isn’t going to make nuclear weapons (or war) disappear overnight. Such are the realities of our present political discourse and state of the world. I think it’s a good thing that he went. The speech is an exercise in compassion and empathy. That’s never a bad thing. The one thing I would press him on, if I got to do so: he uses the word “we” a lot (e.g., “How easily we learn to justify violence in the name of some higher cause“). Who is this “we”? Is it a narrow “we,” a national “we,” a human “we”? I think the latter — but the danger of using that inclusive a “we” is that it assigns no real responsibility. If he wants the things that he says he does, he needs to narrow down the “we” a bit, to start talking about who, specifically, is going to accomplish those things.

What Presidents Talk About When the Talk About Hiroshima - Screenshot

I was asked if I would write something with a historical slant on it about his visit. It is now up at the New Yorker’s website: “What Presidents Talk about When the Talk About Hiroshima.” I went over every public discussion of Hiroshima or Nagasaki that I could find from US Presidents. By and large, they don’t talk about them much, or if they do, it’s in a very brief and often vague context. Ronald Reagan actually gave an address on its anniversary in 1985 but managed to say really nothing about it; a year later he invoked Hiroshima in defense of the Strategic Defense Initiative. In his farewell address, Jimmy Carter invoked Hiroshima in a rather generic way to talk about the specter of nuclear war. And so on.1

The only two Presidents who spilled much ink on the topic of the history, perhaps not surprisingly, were the two who had the most proximity to the event (aside from Roosevelt, of course, who died before the atomic bomb was non-secret, and left very little record as to his thoughts about its possible use before his death), Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. It’s an interesting pairing in that Truman was, as one would expect, very much interested in making sure the historical record saw his work as justified. He, along with Henry Stimson and Leslie Groves took part in an active campaign to push a specific version of the story, namely the “decision to use the bomb” narrative (in which Truman deliberated and weighed the decision and decided to order the bombing). This version of things is pretty universally rejected by historians today — it just isn’t what happened. There was no single decision to use the bomb, there was no real debate over whether it should be used, and Truman wasn’t that central to any of it. It’s a retrospective narrative made to streamline the issues (e.g. “bomb or invade,” which makes bombing look like the only acceptable answer and obscures any possibility of alternatives), and reinforce a postwar notion about the responsibility of the President (e.g. the bombing as a political decision, not a military one). One can still support the use of the bombs without subscribing to this particular version of the story.

The "Atomic Bomb Dome," before and after the bombing of Hiroshima. I find this particular picture very striking, because without the "before," the extent of the "after" is hard to make sense of. More of these on-the-ground before-and-after photos here, along with the source.

The “Atomic Bomb Dome,” before and after the bombing of Hiroshima. I find this particular picture very striking, because without the “before,” the extent of the “after” is hard to make sense of. More of these on-the-ground before-and-after photos can be found here, along with the source information.

Eisenhower’s views for many will be the more surprising of the two. At various points both before and after (but not during) his Presidency he published some very strongly-worded statements implying that the bombings were morally wrong, unnecessary, and that he had objected to them. These are often marshaled by historians today who want to argue that the bombings weren’t necessary. The thing is, this narrative is really flawed as well. Barton Bernstein did a compelling job (decades ago) in demonstrating that there is no real evidence for Eisenhower’s later accounts of his dissent, and that it is pretty unlikely that things happened the way Eisenhower said they did.2

Today I think we can read Eisenhower’s feelings on the bomb through the lens of how the postwar military viewed the public perception of the atomic bomb having “ended the war” — they were being robbed of the credit for all of the difficult (and destructive) work the conventional forces did. Eisenhower himself is a wonderfully complex figure, with lots of paradoxical positions on nuclear weapons. The nuclear arsenal grew to astounding heights under his watch, the weapons moved into military custody, and the raw megatonnage became frankly incredible (in 1960, the US arsenal had nearly 20,500 megatons worth of weapons in it — some 1.3 million Hiroshima equivalents). Yet he also acutely understood that nuclear war would be disastrous and terrible, and he sought ways out of the nuclear bind (Atoms for Peace being his most notable program in this respect, whatever one thinks of its success). Eisenhower at times felt hemmed-in by his times and context, as his famous farewell address makes quite clear.

The fact that both Truman and Eisenhower had stakes in making their arguments doesn’t mean that their views of history should just be discounted, but neither does their proximity to the event mean their views should get elevated epistemic status (they aren’t necessarily true — and we don’t have to get into whether they were misremembered, were being misleading, etc.). Everyone involved in the end of war had some stakes in thinking one way or another about the role and necessity of the atomic bombs.

I like using Eisenhower’s views (and the other views I mention in the New Yorker piece, like the US Strategic Bombing Survey) not because I think they are correct (my views on the bombings are more complicated than can be described with with “for” or “against” arguments), but because they illustrate that the idea that the bombings weren’t the be-all and end-all of the war is not just a late-Cold War lefty “revisionist” notion. They also point (as I indicate at the end of the New Yorker piece) to the fact that our present-day American political mapping of opinions about the atomic bombings (conservatives in favor, liberals opposed) is not how they were viewed at the time. This helps, I think, to get us out of the trap of thinking that our opinions about these historical events necessarily have to be derived from our present-day politics. The politics of the late 1940s are not the politics of today. If we are serious about the study of history (and I am), we should not expect everything about the past to line up with what we think about the world in the 21st century.

Notes
  1. Side-note: In 1983, Reagan visited Japan and said he wished he had time to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, among other cities. This was remarked-upon by the reporters attending, but there was no follow-up.
  2. Barton Bernstein, “Ike and Hiroshima: Did he oppose it?,” Journal of Strategic Studies 10, no. 3 (1987), 377-389.

Maintaining the bomb

We hear a lot about the benefits of “innovation” and “innovators.” It’s no small wonder: most of the stories we tell about social and technological “progress” are about a few dedicated people coming up with a new approach and changing the world. Historians, being the prickly and un-fun group that we are, tend to cast a jaundiced eye at these kinds of stories. Often these kinds of cases ignore the broader contextual circumstances that were required for the “innovation” to appear or take root, and often the way these are told tend to make the “innovator” seem more “out of their time” than they really were.

The "logo" of the Maintainers conference, which graces its T-shirts (!) and promotional material. I modeled the manhole design off of an actual manhole cover here in Hoboken (photograph taken by me).

The “logo” of the Maintainers conference, which graces its T-shirts (!) and promotional material. I modeled the manhole design off of an actual manhole cover here in Hoboken (photograph taken by me).

Two of my colleagues (Andy Russell and Lee Vinsel) at the Science and Technology Studies program here at the Stevens Institute of Technology (official tagline: “The Innovation University“) have been working on an antidote to these “innovation studies.” This week they are hosting a conference called “The Maintainers,” which focuses on an alternative view of the history of technology. The core idea (you can read more on the website) is that the bulk of the life and importance of a technology is not in its moment of “innovation,” but in the “long tail” of its existence: the ways in which it gets integrated into society, needs to be constantly repaired and upgraded, and can break down catastrophically if it loses its war against entropy. There is a lot of obvious resonance with infrastructure studies and stories in the news lately about what happens if you don’t repair your water systems, bridges, subway trains, and you-name-it.1

I’ve been thinking about how this approach applies to the history and politics of nuclear weapons. It’s pretty clear from even a mild familiarity with the history of the bomb that most of the stories about it are “innovation” narratives. The Manhattan Project is often taken as one of the canonical cases of scientific and technological innovation (in ways that I find extremely misleading and annoying). We hunger for those stories of innovation, the stories of scientists, industry, and the military coming together to make something unusual and exciting. When we don’t think the weapons-acquisition is a good idea (e.g., in the Soviet Union, North Korea, what have you), these innovation stories take on a more sinister tone or get diluted by allusions to espionage or other “help.” But the template is the same. Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb is of course one of the greatest works of the innovation narrative of the atomic bomb, starting, as it does, with a virtual lightning bolt going off in the mind of Leo Szilard.2

How do you service a Titan II? Very carefully. This is a RFHCO suit, required for being around the toxic fuel and oxidizer. Not the most comfortable of outfits. From Penson's Titan II Handbook.

How do you service a Titan II missile? Very carefully. This is a RFHCO suit, required for being around the toxic fuel and oxidizer. Not the most comfortable of outfits. From Penson’s Titan II Handbook.

What would a history of the bomb look like if we focused on the question of “maintenance”? We don’t have to guess, actually: one already exists. Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, which I reviewed on here and for Physics Today a few years ago, can be read in that light. Schlosser’s book is about the long-term work it takes to create a nuclear-weapons infrastructure, both in terms of producing the weapons and in terms of making sure they are ready to be used when you want them to be. And, of course, it’s about what can go wrong, either in the course of routine maintenance (the central case-study is that of a Titan II accident that starts when a “maintainer” accidentally drops a socket wrench) or just in the haphazard course of a technology’s life and interactions with the physical world (dropped bombs, crashed planes, things that catch on fire, etc.). (A documentary film based on Schlosser’s book premieres at the Tribeca Film festival this month, along with what sounds like a nuclear rave.)

There are other approaches we might fold into the “maintenance” of the bomb. Donald MacKenzie’s Inventing Accuracy uses the trope of invention, but the meat of the book is really about the way uncertainty about performance and reliability moved between the domains of engineering and policy. Hugh Gusterson’s anthropological study of the Livermore laboratory, Nuclear Rites, is particularly astute about the questions of the day-to-day work at a weapons laboratory and who does it. And the maintenance of infrastructure is a major sub-theme of Stephen Schwartz‘s classic edited volume on the costs of the nuclear complex, Atomic AuditBut these kinds of studies are, I think, rarer than they ought to be — we (and I include myself in this) tend to focus on the big names and big moments, as opposed to the slow-grind of the normal. 

There are two historical episodes that come to my mind when I think about the role of “maintenance” in the history of nuclear weapons. Non-coincidentally, both come at points in history where big changes were in the making: the first right after World War II ended, the second right after the Cold War ended.

Episode 1: The postwar slump

From the very beginning, the focus on the bomb was about its moment of creation. Not, in other words, on what it would take to sustain a nuclear complex. In our collective memory, a “Manhattan Project” is a story of intense innovation and creative invention against all odds. But there’s a lesser-known historical lesson in what happened right after the bombs went off, and it’s worth keeping in mind anytime someone invokes the need for another “Manhattan Project.”

The Manhattan Project, formally begun in late 1942, was consciously an effort to produce a usable atomic bomb in the shortest amount of time possible. It involved massive expenditure, redundant investigations, and involved difficult trade-offs between what would normally considered “research” and “development” phases. Plans for the first industrial-sized nuclear reactors, for example, were developed almost immediately after the first proof-of-concept was shown to work — normal stages of prototyping, scaling, and experimenting were highly compressed from normal industrial practices at the time, a fact noted by the engineers and planners who worked on the project. The rush towards realization of the new technology drove all other concerns. The nuclear waste generated by the plutonium production processes, for example, were stored in hastily-built, single-walled underground tanks that were not expected to be any more than short-term, wartime solutions.3 When people today refer to the Manhattan Project as a prototypical case of “throw a lot of money and expertise at a short-term problem,” they aren’t entirely wrong (even though such an association leaves much out).

J. Robert Oppenheimer (at right) was proud face of the successful "innovation" of the Manhattan Project. It is telling, though, that he left Los Alamos soon after the war ended. Source: Google LIFE image archive.

J. Robert Oppenheimer (at right) was proud face of the successful “innovation” of the Manhattan Project. It is telling, though, that he left Los Alamos soon after the war ended. Source: Google LIFE image archive.

After the end of World War II, though, the future of the American nuclear complex was uncertain. In my mind this liminal period is as interesting as the wartime period, though it doesn’t get as much cultural screen time. Would the US continue to make nuclear weapons? Would there be an agreement in place to limit worldwide production of nuclear arms (international control)? Would the atomic bomb significantly change US expenditures on military matters, or would it become simply another weapon in the arsenal? What kind of postwar organization would manage the wartime-creations of the Manhattan Project? No one knew the answers to these questions — there was a swirl of contradictory hopes and fears held by lots of different stakeholders.

We know, in the end, what eventually worked out. The US created the civilian Atomic Energy Commission with the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, signed by President Truman in August 1946 (much later than the military had hoped). Efforts towards the “international control” of the atomic bomb fizzled out in the United Nations. The Cold War began, the arms race intensified, and so on.

But what’s interesting to me, here, is that period between the end of the war and things “working out.” Between August 1945 and August 1946, the US nuclear weapons infrastructure went into precipitous decline. Why? Because maintaining it was harder than building it in the first place. What needed to be maintained? First and foremost, there were issues in maintaining the human capital. The Manhattan Project was a wartime organization that dislocated hundreds of thousands of people. The working conditions were pretty rough and tumble — even during the war they had problems with people quitting as a result of them. When the war ended, a lot of people went home. How many? Exact numbers are hard to come by, but my rough estimate based on the personnel statistics in the Manhattan District History is that between August 1945 and October 1946, some 80% of the construction labor left the project, and some 30% of the operations and research labor left. Overall there was a shedding of some 60% of the entire Manhattan Project labor force.

Declines in Manhattan Project personnel from July 1945 through December 1946. Note the dramatic decrease between August and September 1945, and the slow decrease until October 1946, after the Atomic Energy Act was passed and when things started to get on a postwar footing (but before the Atomic Energy Commission fully took over in January 1947).

Declines in Manhattan Project personnel from July 1945 through December 1946. Note the dramatic decrease between August and September 1945, and the slow decrease until October 1946, after the Atomic Energy Act was passed and when things started to get on a postwar footing (but before the Atomic Energy Commission fully took over in January 1947). Reconstructed from this graph in the Manhattan District History.

Now, some of that can be explained as the difference between a “building” project and a “producing” project. Construction labor was already on a downward slope, but the trend did accelerate after August 1945. The dip in operations and research, though, is more troublesome — a steep decline in the number of people actually running the atomic bomb infrastructure, much less working to improve it.

Why did these people leave? In part, because the requirements of a “crash” program and a “long-term” program were very different in terms of labor. It’s more than just the geographical aspect of people going home. It also included things like pay, benefits, and work conditions in general. During the war, organized labor had mostly left the Manhattan Project alone, at the request of President Roosevelt and the Secretary of War. Once peace was declared, they got back into the game, and were not afraid to strike. Separately, there was a prestige issue. You can get Nobel Prize-quality scientists to work on your weapons program when you tell them that Hitler was threatening civilization, that they were going to open up a new chapter in world history, etc. It’s exciting to be part of something new, in any case. But if the job seems like it is just about maintaining an existing complex — one that many of the scientists were having second-thoughts on anyway — it’s not as glamorous. Back to the universities, back to the “real” work.4

And, of course, it’s a serious morale problem if you don’t think you laboratory is going to exist in a year or two. When the Atomic Energy Act got held up in Congress for over a year, it introduced serious uncertainty as to the future of Los Alamos. Was Los Alamos solely a wartime production or a long-term institution? It wasn’t clear.

Hanford reactor energy output, detail. Note that it went down after late 1945, and they did not recover their wartime capacity until late 1948. Source: detail from this chart which I got from the Hanford Declassified Document System.

Hanford reactor energy output, detail. Note that it went down after late 1945, and they did not recover their wartime capacity until late 1948. Source: detail from this chart which I got from the Hanford Declassified Document System.

There were also technical dimensions to the postwar slump. The industrial-sized nuclear reactors at Hanford had been built, as noted, without much prototyping. The result is that there was still much to know about how to run them. B Reactor, the first to go online, started to show problems in the immediate postwar. Some of the neutrons being generated from the chain reaction were being absorbed by the graphite lattice that served as the moderator. The graphite, as a result, was starting to undergo small chemical changed: it was swelling. This was a big problem. Swelling graphite could mean that the channels that stored fuel or let the control rods in could get warped. If that happened, the operator would no longer be in full control of the reactor. That’s bad. For the next few years, B Reactor was run on low power as a result, and the other reactors were prevented from achieving their full output until solutions to the problem were found. The result is that the Hanford reactors had around half the total energy output in the immediate postwar as they did during the wartime period — so they weren’t generating as much plutonium.

To what degree were the technical and the social problems intertwined? In the case of Los Alamos we have a lot of documentation from the period which describes the “crisis” of the immediate postwar, when they were hemorrhaging manpower and expertise. We also have some interesting documentation that implies the military was worried about what a postwar management situation might look like, if it was out of the picture — if the nuclear complex was to be run by civilians (as the Atomic Energy Act specified), they wanted to make sure that the key aspects of the military production of nuclear weapons were in “reliable” hands. In any case, the infrastructure, as it was, was in a state of severe decay for about a year as these things got worked out.

I haven't even touched on the issues of "maintaining" security culture — what goes under the term "OPSEC." There is so much that could be said about that, too! Image source: (Hanford DDRS #N1D0023596)

I haven’t even touched on the issues of “maintaining” security culture — what goes under the term “OPSEC.” There is so much that could be said about that, too! Image source: (Hanford DDRS #N1D0023596)

The result of all of this was the greatest secret of the early postwar: the United States had only a small amount of fissile material, a few parts of other bomb components, and no ready-to-use nuclear weapons. AEC head David Lilienthal recalled talking with President Truman in April 1947:

We walked into the President’s office at a few moments after 5:00 p.m. I told him we came to report what we had found after three months, and that the quickest way would be to ask him to read a brief document. When he came to a space I had left blank, I gave him the number; it was quite a shock. We turned the pages as he did, all of us sitting there solemnly going through this very important and momentous statement. We knew just how important it was to get these facts to him; we were not sure how he would take it. He turned to me, a grim, gray look on his face, the lines from his nose to his mouth visibly deepened. What do we propose to do about it?5

The “number” in question was the quantity of atomic bombs ready to use in an emergency. And it was essentially zero.6 Thus the early work of the AEC was re-building a postwar nuclear infrastructure. It was expensive and slow-going, but by 1950 the US could once again produce atomic bombs in quantity, and was in a position to suddenly start producing many types of nuclear weapons again. Thus the tedious work of “maintenance” was actually necessary for the future work of “innovation” that they wanted to happen.

Episode 2: The post-Cold War question

Fast-forward to the early 1990s, and we’re once again in at a key juncture in questions about the weapons complex. The Soviet Union is no more. The Cold War is over. What is the future of the American nuclear program? Does the United States still need two nuclear weapon design laboratories? Does it still need a diverse mix of warheads and launchers? Does it still need the “nuclear triad”? All of these questions were on the table.

What shook out was an interesting situation. The labs would be maintained, shifting their efforts away from the activities we might normally associate with innovation and invention, and towards activities we might instead associate with maintenance. So environmental remediation was a major thrust, as was the work towards “Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship,” which is a fancy term for maintaining the nuclear stockpile in a state of readiness. The plants that used to assemble nuclear weapons have converted into places where weapons are disassembled, and I’ve found it interesting that the imagery associated with these has been quite different than the typical “innovation” imagery — the people shown in the pictures are “technicians” more than “scientists,” and the prevalence of women seems (in my anecdotal estimation) much higher.

The question of what to do with the remaining stockpile is the most interesting. I pose the question like this to my undergraduate engineers: imagine you were given a 1960s Volkswagen Beetle and were told that once you were pretty sure it would run, but you never ran that particular car before. Now imagine you have to keep that Beetle in a garage for, say, 20 or 30 more years. You can remove any part from the car and replace it, if you want. You can run tests of any sort on any single component, but you can’t start the engine. You can build a computer model of the car, based on past experience with similar cars, too. How much confidence would you have in your ability to guarantee, with near 100% accuracy, that the car would be able to start at any particular time?

Their usual answer: not a whole lot. And that’s without telling them that the engine in this case is radioactive, too.

Graph of Livermore nuclear weapons designers with and without nuclear testing experience. The PR spin put on this is kind of interesting in and of itself: "Livermore physicists with nuclear test experience are reaching the end of their careers, and the first generation of stockpile stewards is in its professional prime." Source: Arnie Heller, "Extending the Life of an Aging Weapon," Science & Technology Review (March 2012).

Graph of Livermore nuclear weapons designers with and without nuclear testing experience. The PR spin put on this is kind of interesting in and of itself: “Livermore physicists with nuclear test experience are reaching the end of their careers, and the first generation of stockpile stewards is in its professional prime.” Source: Arnie Heller, “Extending the Life of an Aging Weapon,” Science & Technology Review (March 2012).

Like all analogies there are inexact aspects to it, but it sums up some of the issues with these warheads. Nuclear testing by the United States ceased in 1992. It might come back today (who knows?) but the weapons scientists don’t seem to be expecting that. The warheads themselves were not built to last indefinitely — during the Cold War they would be phased out every few decades. They contain all sorts of complex materials and substances, some of which are toxic and/or radioactive, some of which are explosive, some of which are fairly “exotic” as far as materials go. Plutonium, for example, is metallurgically one of the most complex elements on the periodic table and it self-irradiates, slowly changing its own chemical structure.

Along with these perhaps inherent technical issues is the social one, the loss of knowledge. The number of scientists and engineers at the labs that have had nuclear testing experience is at this point approaching zero, if it isn’t already there. There is evidence that some of the documentary procedures were less than adequate: take the case of the mysterious FOGBANK, some kind of exotic “interstage” material that is used in some warheads, which required a multi-million dollar effort to come up with a substitute when it was discovered that the United States no longer had the capability of producing it.

So all of this seems to have a pretty straightforward message, right? That maintenance of the bomb is hard work and continues to be so. But here’s the twist: not everybody agrees that the post-Cold War work is actually “maintenance.” That is, how much of the stockpile stewardship work is really just maintaining existing capability, and how much is expanding it?

Summary of the new features of the B-61 Mod 12, via the New York Times.

Old warheads in new bottles? Summary of the new features of the B-61 Mod 12, via the New York Times.

The B-61 Mod 12 has been in the news a bit lately for this reason. The B-61 is a very flexible warhead system that allows for a wide range of yield settings for a gravity bomb. The Mod 12 has involved, among other things, an upgraded targeting and fuzing capability for this bomb. This makes the weapon very accurate and allows it to penetrate some degree into the ground before detonating. The official position is that this upgrade is necessary for the maintenance of the US deterrence position (it allows it, for example, to credibly threaten underground bunkers with low-yield weapons that would reduce collateral damage). So now we’re in a funny position: we’re upgrading (innovating?) part of a weapon in the name of maintaining a policy (deterrence) and ideally with minimal modifications to the warhead itself (because officially we are not making “new nuclear weapons”). Some estimates put the total cost of this program at a trillion dollars — which would be a considerable fraction of the total money spent on the entire Cold War nuclear weapons complex.

There are other places where this “maintenance” narrative has been challenged as well. The labs in the post-Cold War argued that they could only guarantee the stockpile’s reliability if they got some new facilities. Los Alamos got DARHT, which lets them take 3-D pictures of implosion in realtime, Livermore got NIF, which lets them play with fusion micro-implosions using a giant laser. A lot of money has been put forward for this kind of “maintenance” activity, and as you can imagine there was a lot of resistance. With all of it has come the allegations that, again, this is not really necessary for “maintenance,” that this is just innovation under the guise of maintenance. And if that’s the case, then that might be a policy problem, because we are not supposed to be “innovating” nuclear weapons anymore — that’s the sort of thing associated with arms races. For this reason, one major effort to create a warhead design that was alleged to be easier to maintain, the Reliable Replacement Warhead, was killed by the Obama administration in 2009.

"But will it work?" With enough money thrown at the problem, the answer is yes, according to Los Alamos. Source: National Security Science (April 2013).

“But will it work?” With enough money thrown at the problem, the answer is yes, according to Los Alamos. Source: National Security Science (April 2013).

So there has been a lot of money in the politics of “maintenance” here. What I find interesting about the post-Cold War moment is that “maintenance,” rather than being the shabby category that we usually ignore, has been moved to the forefront in the case of nuclear weapons. It is relatively easy to argue, “yes, we need to maintain these weapons, because if we don’t, there will be terrible consequences.” Billions of dollars are being allocated, even while other infrastructures in the United States are allowed to crumble and decline. The labs in particular have to walk a funny line here. They have an interest in emphasizing the need for further maintenance — it’s part of their reason for existence at this point. But they also need to project confidence, because the second they start saying that our nukes don’t work, they are going to run into even bigger policy problems.

And yet, it has been strongly alleged that under this cloak of maintenance, a lot of other kinds of activities might be taking place as well. So here is a perhaps an unusual politics of maintenance — one of the few places I’ve seen where there is a substantial community arguing against it, or at least against using it as an excuse to “innovate” on the sly.

Notes
  1. Andy and Lee just published a great article outlining their argument on Aeon Magazine: “Hail the maintainers.”
  2. “In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilard waited irritably one gray Depression morning for the stoplight to change. A trace of rain had fallen during the night; Tuesday, September 12, 1933, dawned cool, humid and dull. … The stoplight changed to green. Szilard stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woe, the shape of things to come.” Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986), 13. For a critical view of Rhodes, looking at how Rhodes’ mobilizes the trope of invention in his narrative, see esp. Hugh Gusterson, “Death of the authors of death: Prestige and creativity among nuclear weapons scientists,” in Mario Biagioli and Peter Galison, eds., Scientific authorship: Credit and intellectual property in science (New York: Routledge, 2003), 281-307.
  3. J. Samuel Walker, The Road to Yucca Mountain: The Development of Radioactive Waste Policy in the United States (Los Angeles/Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 2-6.
  4. Hence Edward Teller’s attempt to convince the scientists go to “back to the labs” to solve the H-bomb problem a few years later.
  5. David E. Lilienthal, The Journals of David E. Lilienthal, Volume II: The Atomic Energy Years, 1945-1950 (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), p. 165. Side-note: As Lilienthal was leaving Truman’s office, Truman told him that, “You have the most important thing there is. You must making a blessing of it or,” — and then Truman pointed to a large globe in the corner of the office — “we’ll blow all that to smithereens.”
  6. They had bomb cores, they had non-nuclear bomb assemblies, but there is little to suggest that they had anything ready to go on a short term — it would take weeks to assemble the weapons and get them into a state of readiness. The total cores on hand at Los Alamos at the end of 1945 was 2; for 1946 it was 9; for 1947 it was 13. Senator Brien McMahon later said that “when the [AEC] took over [in 1947] there were exactly two bombs in the locker,” Lilienthal himself later said that “we had one [bomb] that was probably operable when I first went off to Los Alamos [January 1947]; one that had a good chance of being operable.” Quoted in Gregg Herken, Brotherhood of the Bomb (New York: Henry Holt, 2002), 137 fn. 84. Lilienthal told Herken: “The politically significant thing is that there really were no bombs in a military sense… We were really almost without bombs, and not only that, we were without people, that was the really significant thing… You can hardly exaggerate the unreadiness of the U.S. military men at this time.” Quoted in Gregg Herken, The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988 [1981]), 196-197 (in the unnumbered footnote).