A few years ago I walked into a room where there were forty-two hydrogen bombs lying around on the floor, not even chained down, each of them ten times as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. This experience was a sharp reminder of the precariousness of the human condition. It encouraged me to think hard about ways to improve the chances of survival of my grandchildren. Nuclear weapons remain, as George Kennan has said, the most serious danger to mankind and the most serious insult to God.
The disappearance of nuclear weapons from our thinking about the future is a historic change for which we must be profoundly grateful. Fifty years ago and for many years thereafter, nuclear weapons dominated the landscape of our fears. The nuclear arms race was the central ethical problem of our age. Discussion of the ethical dilemmas of scientists centered around bombs and long-range missiles. The evil face of science was personified by the nuclear bomb designer. Now, quietly and unexpectedly, the bombs have faded from our view. But they have not ceased to exist. The danger to humanity of huge stockpiles in the hands of unreliable people is as real as ever. Yet the bombs are not mentioned in our vision of the future. How could this have happened?
In the summer of 1995 I took part in a technical study of the future of the United States’ nuclear stockpile. The study was done by a group of academic scientists together with a group of professional bomb designers from the weapons laboratories. The purpose of the study was to answer a question. Would it be technically feasible to maintain forever a stockpile of reliable nuclear weapons of existing designs without further nuclear tests? The study did not address the underlying political questions, whether reliable nuclear weapons would always be needed and whether further nuclear tests would always be undesirable. Each of us had private opinions about the political questions, but politics was not the business of our study. We assumed as the ground rule for the study that the weapons in the permanent stockpile must be repaired and remanufactured without change in design as their components deteriorate and decay. We assumed that the new components would differ from the old ones when replacements were made, because the factories making the old components would no longer exist. We looked in detail at each type of weapon and checked that its functioning was sufficiently robust so that minor changes in the components would not cause it to fail. We concluded our study with a unanimous report, saying that a permanently reliable nuclear stockpile without nuclear testing is feasible. Unanimity was essential.
Unanimity was made possible by the objectivity and the personal integrity of the four weapons designers who worked side-by-side with us for seven weeks, John Richter and John Kammerdiener from Los Alamos, Seymour Sack from Livermore, and Robert Peurifoy from Sandia. They are impressive people, master craftsmen of a demanding technology. They have spent…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.
Copyright © 1997 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.