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Richard Rhodes: 2010 National Book Festival

Richard Rhodes: 2010 National Book Festival


>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington DC.>>A man I have the honor of introducing today
needs little introduction to a literary crowd such as this. With 23 books to his name Richard
Rhodes is among the most prolific authors here today. His best known work maybe
the making of the atomic bomb for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in
non fiction, a National Book Award, a National Book Critics Circle
Award, and it was the first volume in a series about the
makings of the nuclear age, a project that has absorbed
him for more than 20 years. His new book for which
he is on a book tour at the moment is the
fourth and final volume in that epic series The
Twilight of the Bombs. It examines the civilization’s
changes brought about by nuclear technology
in the post cold war years, the securing of the former Soviet
nuclear arsenal, the first Iraq war and the lead up to the second, the
prospects for nuclear abolition and an issue that I think
preoccupies us all here today the risk of nuclear terrorism but when
I mentioned to one of my colleagues that I’d be introducing
Richard Rhodes he said, “Aha! The nuclear bomb guy.” Many of you probably think of him
that way but take a quick spin through a list of his published
works and you’ll see what a diverse and accomplished author he is. He has written about dogs
and of course of horses, two of my favorite subjects, about
greeting cards and cannibalism, about sex and soy beans, and
he’s done it in the Rolling Stone and the Journal of Chemical
Education, in Playboy and of course in the pages of the Washington Post. Among his 23 published books
are 4 works of fiction, a personal memoir and a biography. He’s been host and correspondent
for public TV’s Frontline and he’s written at least
one play Reykjavik based on the historic 1986
summit in Iceland between Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. Most of what he’s written is
what I would call nonfiction and what he I think has another
term for and I’m going to ask him to elucidate that for
us a little bit. Let me invite him to explain it
and tell us more about the Twilight of the Bombs and also for
anybody who would like hear more from him he will be speaking
and signing books at Politics and Prose tonight at 6 o’clock so please invite your
friends along to that too. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Thank you very much. It seems really appropriate to
follow Henry because he was talking about Leo Szilard and of course the
making of the atomic bomb begins with the day Leo in 1933 walked
across the street in London and thought of the idea of a
nuclear chain reaction that kind of started this whole
story moving forward. This last volume that
I’ve just published– let’s see, here is
at least the front, there’s a wonderful bomb
test winding around the back and I think it will be the last,
picks up the story at the end of the Cold War just before the
collapse of the Soviet Union and it’s metastases into
four nuclear powers instead of one nuclear power which was a
great challenge to our government and our diplomats and
carries it forward to approximately the present. Perhaps the turning point or the ending point being President
Obama’s historic speech at Prague in the spring of 2009
when he announced it as official US Government policy to move toward the complete
elimination of all nuclear weapons. A dream that had– yeah. [ Applause ]>>A dream that had
also been a theme of President Ronald Reagan’s life
who he had indeed since the end of the second world war have
been puzzling over the question of how you could get rid of
nuclear weapons but he turned to a technological
solution to the problem. So in my play where Robert
Oppenheimer comes back to life from the dead to– because
they needed a character who could stand outside
the story and comment on it and of course Robert Oppenheimer
being Robert Oppenheimer as it is he steps on stage he takes
over the play but be that as it may, at some point Oppenheimer says
to Reagan well, but you know, you are trying to solve a
problem that’s a political problem with a technological solution and
then Reagan says to him well isn’t that what your bombs were anyway? And he was right, he is right. We got into this business
during the war because we feared that the Germans had a
considerable lead, we continued it because we were frightened of
the Soviet Union’s capabilities and we continue it after
the end of the cold war with considerable difficulty in
rationalizing why we still need so many nuclear weapons
in our arsenal. So I picked up the story
at that point and deal with the serious problems we had
in trying to put the nuclear genie that had– was now spread across
4 countries not only Russia but also Belarus and Kazakhstan
and Ukraine, how we convince over the next 5 years those
countries other than Russia to send their arsenals
back to Russia to sign a nuclear nonproliferation
treaty and become non-nuclear states and that’s quite a story in itself. But there was so much more going
on, the image that I opened the book with is the sentence, when the
ice broke on the river of history at the end of the Cold War
and because the world had been so polarized for the previous
40 or 50 years it’s true that in a sense everything
came loose and each individual nation
state had to think about finding or adjusting it’s relationship
to the rest of the world. And I think that accounts
for the diminished fifth of new third world nuclear
powers, a very few of them but certainly North Korea and Iraq–
I’m sorry, and Pakistan that emerged after the end of the Cold War as
those countries tried to figure out where they were and what
their relationship would be with the new world that
was no longer bipolar but was now multi polar,
multi lateral. One of the things that I write about
and that I think you will enjoy in this new book was the inspections
in Iraq after the first Gulf War. You remember that President Bush
the first elicited an argument about an Iraqi Nuclear Weapons
Program as one reason for that war. It turns out that the reason he
did so was that he was concerned that after we cleared the Iraqis out
of Kuwait it might not be possible in terms of international politics
to justify continuing into Iraq and reducing the scale of Iraq’s
military forces which was the plan. Therefore, he had to invent, which
he did, an Iraqi Nuclear Program, we did not know there was
such a thing at the time. There were hints but
no real evidence so imagine everyone’s surprise after
that very brief war when it turned out there were in deed Iraqi nuclear
facilities under development all over the country, a
very large scale program that in some ways corresponded
to the Manhattan Project here in this country and that they
were trying different methods for enriching uranium and so forth. The stories that I heard from
David Kay and Bob Gallucci who were the two Americans who
led those inspections for the IAEA and for the United
Nations were wonderful cops and robber stories among
other things because our guys with some kind of broken down UN
land rovers were chasing the Iraqis around their own country. In particular we had hints that
they were using an old World War II technology to enrich uranium
which is called Cyclotron or electromagnetic
isotope separation that involved magnet cores
that weighed 60 tons and were about 15 feet in diameter. They were big discuss-shaped soft
iron cores for the big magnets that would separate
the different isotopes of uranium and enrich it thereby. The Iraqis were loading these huge
magnet cores onto tank transporters which are huge flatbed trucks
and as we came in the front door in our land rovers we, the
inspectors, they were driving out the back door of the base with
these magnet cores on big trucks. So Bob and David talked
about chasing around, being fired into the air by the
Iraqis, because they were trying to get television footage
of this equipment to prove that they had seen it.>>And of course eventually
tracking down the materials and either removing
them from their country or destroying them
by blowing them up. You remember the days
when the team was stuck in a parking lot outside the
Department of Agriculture in downtown Baghdad
because as they– Kay told me they had found down in
a basement room of the Department of Agriculture the actual
plans for an Iraqi bomb. And they were determined to get
those documents out of that building and in fact by the time the parking
lots standoff occurred the documents were already gone. I asked David Kay how they
snuck them out and he said, well we had these great Kiwi
medics who were helping us out. He said, I had a guy on my
team who had the worst case of diarrhea I’d ever seen
and he had to be taken out and the Iraqis agreed to let him
go, he said so we gave the documents to the Kiwis they stuffed
them in their shirt and carried the stretcher out the
door and the documents were safe but they didn’t want to
tell the Iraqis that, the Iraqis weren’t prepared
to let them go until they gave up the documents and so
for 4 days they stood in that parking lot
unsure of their fate. This has its comic side but
it was very serious business. Their lifeline to the outside world
was a 1991 type satellite telephone and they were on that phone the
first of the four days nonstop for 23 hours to CNN and any other
news media that as the satellite or as the earth turned they were
able to hit different time zones and they continued their
radio broadcasting. But at 23rd hour approximately
there was a break and they hung up the phone Kay said and it
immediately rang and Kay picked it up and it was the operator in
London who said you’ve been on the phone now for 23 hours
we don’t know what you’re doing but we need a credit
card [laughter]. And Kay said I told them, well, you’re not getting my
damn credit card but– he said but let me tell
you what’s happening here. So he explained to the operator
among other things that their– the reception on the
satellite was kind of weak and the signal varied a lot and the
operator said well let me get back to you, I’ll call you back, and about 30 minutes later the
phone rang and the operator came on and he said now that we understand
what this is about we’re going to move the satellite for you. [Laughter] And they
could maintain that link until the Iraqis finally gave up
and they were allowed to leave. [ Pause ]>>The book also deals with the
crisis with North Korea in 1994. I think it’s not generally
known how very close to a second Korean War
we came at that time. You’ll recall that the North
Koreans had built a reactor at Yongbyon north of Seoul
and had been negotiating back and forth again with Bob Gallucci. Bob Gallucci seems to have been
the indispensable man in the ’90s. He’s now the president of
the McArthur Foundation so, in some ways he’s still
indispensable but some glitches had come up and
the Iraqis basically pulled out and were talking about going
ahead and taking the plutonium from their one reactor,
taking the uranium, the fuel, and extracting the plutonium
and making their first bombs. This became very close
to a war scale crisis within the Clinton administration
because we were threatening to impose increasing sanctions on
the North Koreans as you may recall, we were threatening to turn
Seoul into a sea of fire. In fact, Gallucci told me that we
were within a day or two of war and that we were just about to
evacuate the American Embassy and all the other embassies in Seoul which as he understood it would have
been a signal to the North Koreans that war was about to come and
that they probably would have moved preemptively to attack
Seoul had that happened. General Locke who was in
charge of our forces in Korea around this time told President
Clinton that we could win the war with North Korea but that the cost
would be a million and a trillion and the president said
what does that mean? And General Locke said a
million South Korean lives and a trillion dollars extracted
from the South Korean economy because of the destruction
of that war. So those were the stakes. And you’ll recall that
Jimmy Carter much to President Clinton’s disgust
stepped forward and went as a private citizen to North Korea and settled things
down with Kim Il-sung. Then Bob Gallucci went
back to his business of negotiating with
the North Koreans. Kim Il-sung died almost immediately
and his son came to power. Negotiations went forward
very successfully but didn’t quite finish
the job by the end of the Clinton administration. Madeleine Albright went to North
Korea, I believe, in December even after the election and President
Clinton was prepared to go himself but because that election of the year 2000 was mooted
he didn’t feel he should leave the country. And then when the Bush
administration came in they had a very different
attitude toward North Korea and things kind of
fell apart after that. But that million and a trillion just
reminds you, reminds me certainly of how many times since the
beginning of the Cold War and even since the end of the cold
war we have come very close to at least a large
scale conventional war, if not indeed some kind of
nuclear exchange in the world. So I looked later in
the book at the question of how can we resolve this
dilemma if we feel nuclear weapons in some sense are important
to our security but if we feel we’d be more
secure if there were none in the world and indeed we would. In fact one of the problems with
getting rid of nuclear weapons is that the United States would be
relatively speaking even more powerful with conventional forces
only given our enormous capacity compared to other countries than
it is now when even small states such as North Korea can
effectively stand us off with a small nuclear capability. If there’s any reason why Iran
might be moving toward a nuclear capability that and Israel’s
capability are certainly two of the reasons. There is a commission in 1996 called by the Australian Prime Minister
called the Canberra Commission. Richard Butler the Ambassador
from Australia for Nuclear Issues and Nuclear Disarmament told me that the most important thing he
felt came out of that commission of international leaders on this subject was what he
calls the axiom of proliferation. For him this is the bottom
line of the whole question of who has nuclear weapons. Who should have them or how
we should get rid of them. And it goes like this. So long as any state has nuclear
weapons other states will seek to acquire them. That means that ultimately
if you want a world safe from nuclear weapons
everyone has to give them up. That’s an immensely
complicated problem obviously, sometimes I think saying we have to
all disarm our nuclear weapons is like saying we have to settle
world peace then we won’t need them anymore. It’s almost that complicated. But it is there as
a fundamental fact which President Obama paraphrased
in his Prague speech by saying which is really kind of the next
step in this series of axioms, if we believe that the spread of
nuclear weapons is inevitable then in some way we are admitting
to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable. We’ve dodged that bullet
now since 1949, since the Soviet Union
became the second state to acquire a nuclear arsenal. But how much longer
will we be so lucky? How many times since those
first days have we been within a hairs breadth
of a nuclear exchange? I have cited in my works
the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Able Archer
event in Europe in 1983 when the Soviets thought we
might be preparing to attack them and seriously considered
striking us first. But I’ve talked to people who
should be in a position to know in our government who have said
oh yeah those too, but you know, there were a lot more that
haven’t’ come to light yet. So we really have been quite lucky. Getting rid of nuclear weapons is
going to mean ultimately dealing with conflicts situations
that are thorny indeed.>>Most of all Israel, North Korea,
Iran, and in my mind the country that is going to be the hardest
nut to crack, the hardest and most difficult place to convince
to give up it’s nuclear arsenals, our country, the United States. We started all these, we maintained
all these for whatever reasons, good or bad or indifferent, a lot
of I think the Cold War had to do with domestic politics not with
relations with the Soviet Union, you can read about that
in this book as well. But the fact is we’re the ones who I think will have
the greatest difficulty. And one of the reasons is
a simple practical fact. We spend about 50 billion dollars a
year maintaining a nuclear arsenal that is basically utterly
useless except as a display of potential force. That’s a lot of money, it supports
a lot of people and industries and I think it’s going to be difficult indeed
to wind all that down. Yes? Thank you. So let me just quickly end. There’s much more in
the book including and I won’t give you the
details you’ll have to read it, including the real reason we went
to war with Iraq the second time. Which I will just say had to do with
anthrax not with nuclear weapons. At the end, I come back to the
question how do we do this? And I look at a model that
I’ve written about before that I’m sure you’ve read in my
books before but it seems to me as a fundamental model for
how you live in a world without nuclear weapons
and that is the model of the public health system. We lived once with a
kind of universal scourge which was epidemic disease and the– a few reformers and then
later medical doctors and researchers found
fairly straightforward ways to identify the source of a disease,
to isolate the carriers of a disease and in a few cases in this– in the 20th century even to begin
the process of eliminating disease, small pox, most of all which most
of us don’t even think anymore. Polio, the elimination
is almost complete today. There has been no polio in the
western hemisphere since 1991. And the states that still have polio
cases are not surprisingly the ones that have the least infrastructure
and the least support. So I discussed at some
length that analogy and I think you might find it
interesting to look at and think about because we have a success
story where millions upon millions of lives were saved
and are still safe because of some fairly straight
forward ways of thinking about– of relating to the
natural world differently from the way we related before. I think the same thing is
possible with manmade death as with biologic death but manmade
debt is actually a harder problem because people and their motives
and their needs, their expectation and their fears are all involved. So let me stop there and take any
questions or comments you have. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Yes?>>At the dawn of the atomic age
some people thought the genie could be stopped and others thought it was
inevitable, just a matter of time. Do you think it could
have been stopped and what do you think people
will think another 100 years out? How do you think this will
evolve that thinking over time?>>Could they have kept the
genie pushed down in the bottle or was the development of
nuclear weapons inevitable? You know, I always quote something
Robert Oppenheimer once said that I think speaks
exactly to this question. He said the deep things
in science are not found because they are useful. They were found because it
was possible to find them. Nuclear fission was an
inevitable outcome of the studies of the nucleus of the atom
of the atom that began in the early years
of the 20th century. You reach a certain point and you
inevitably find nuclear fission. Once nuclear fission was found– and I say inevitable because
scientists all over the world when they got the word that
2 German radio chemists that identified this amazing
new reaction scientists all over the world kicked themselves. They understood that they’ve
been seeing it in their labs but because they hadn’t
thought through what was going on they hadn’t identified
what it was. And I mean really, I’ve talked to
a number of them who were just sick for a couple of days after
this huge discovery was made that they missed just because
they didn’t think it through. So, it inevitably came along and
the idea that this was some sort of falsity and bargain on
the part of the scientist that they all could have
gone off in a room somewhere up in a mountain top and said, oh
let’s not do this, is simply absurd. There it was and the reaction was so
fiercely exothermic, so much energy out for so little energy in. And in the context of the discovery
having been made nine months before the beginning of the
Second World War in Europe inevitably people would
think of the possibility of a bomb. Now what followed from that and the nuclear arms raise those
inevitably were political decisions made for many different
kinds of reasons. I think fundamentally, at least
at the beginning, from deep fears that the only defense
against these weapons which the scientists
recognized as early as 1939 would be similar arsenal
and the threat of retaliation. That kept it going for a long time. So I think that’s a full
answer to that question. Yes?>>Yes. A lot of people don’t
know there was this genius– genius, genius in Meredith Gardner and he broke the indecipherable
ciphers that the Soviet’s used and this is called
the VENONA messages.>>Oh yes, right.>>Into 30s and to 40s and
he broke them in the 50s and if you read the VENONA
messages I think you will find some justification as to why we
have atomic bombs [laughter] but the second thing is in the
VENONA messages I always knew, every one that knew that
[inaudible], green glass, definitely as the Rosenberg and Julia state they didn’t have
access to the atomic secrets. A man that did that was messaged–
a young American called Ted Hall, Theodore Hall and yet he immigrated
to the United States– England.>>In England, yeah.>>He was a Cambridge
professor and he died old age. He was never put to
death or anything.>>Right.>>And he gave the Soviets
most of the usable secrets.>>That’s correct.>>Can you comment on
both of those two things?>>Yeah, I think, you know, it’s always puzzled me why Ted Hall
was allowed to live out his life. I think that suggest that he had new
things or had documents or something that our government security
people didn’t want to see released, that’s usually why
people aren’t touched. But the larger question, I’ll
just speak to it with an anecdote, could the Soviets have build an
atomic bomb within the timeframe that they did about the same time
it took us without the secrets that were passed to
them by their spies? And I corresponded with this Soviet
Robert Oppenheimer a man named [inaudible] in the
last years of his life by the new thing e-mail
back in the early ’90s. And he pointed out that by 1947
they had worked out a bomb design that would be half as heavy,
half as big and twice as powerful as our first bomb as
our Nagasaki bomb. And I said why didn’t you do– build that one instead of
building a copy of ours? And he said because Lavrentiy
Beria who was the monster who ran the Gulag system
and was also in charge of their bomb program had said
to them with great contempt, I don’t give a damn what you
think is a workable design. Build me the American
bomb I know it works. He said it was worth our lives so we built the American bomb
that’s what my government wanted. But then I noticed in
looking at the list of their tests their second
bomb test was of a bomb that was about half the size and twice
the yield of our Nagasaki bomb. So they built theirs next after they’ve fulfilled
the political requirements that were there for
them to deal with. Sir?>>Do you believe that Iran has any
interest in a nuclear power program or is it just solely a
nuclear weapons program?>>You know I think
there’s– I think it’s– there’s ample of reason to believe that Iran is following basically
the path that Israel followed. The sort of bomb in the basement not
acknowledged that we are building such a thing or have
built such a thing. It was a very successful
path for Israel, still is in many ways to this day. It leaves an ambiguity there
about their relationship to being a nuclear power, even though everyone knows
they are a nuclear power. So that seems to me
what Iran is doing but it’s been progressing
very slowly which isn’t just the
technological problems, although there are plenty of those. Arguably what they are doing is
as North Korea has been doing in a much more blatant way
trying to use their capabilities as a negotiating tool
to find some settlement with the United Stats in particular. North Korea, without question,
and you will read this in the books several chapters
may surprise you amazingly about North Korea’s reasons
for developing nuclear weapons.>>Primarily it was because during
the Korean War we systematically, strategically bombed North
Korea back to the Stone Age just as Curtis LeMay had
threatened to do. We particularly destroyed all of
their hydroelectric dams as well as a lot of dams that controlled the
flood control for their rice fields. I mean it’s a horrible story. We killed several million
North Korean civilians with strategic bombing
just as we had done against Japan during
the Second World War with perhaps more justification
in that case. Under those circumstances
the main goal of Kim Il-sung for many years thereafter was to get
an alliance with the United States that would allow North Korea to rebuild an electrical capacity
probably based on nuclear power. And it has been for that
purpose down through the years with other things thrown in
needless to say the presence of American nuclear weapons in South
Korea, the long standing conflict between North and South Korea
basically a long standing Civil War. All that’s been there,
but underneath it all, and you’ll hear it
every time you hear about what the North Koreans are
bringing to the negotiating table, they want an electrical supply. I mean, that’s kind
of where we still are. When Bob Gallucci negotiated
the deal with them for two nuclear power
reactors of western design that the South Koreans would supply,
I said why did you give them that? He said that’s what they wanted. And of course, they would be
under international control and all those things but– so
it’s not always what one reads in the papers that these are
crazy people and so forth. There really is a practical
reason why North Korea would like get a head start
on becoming a country like its cousins of the South. They were actually economically
better off than South Korea until the late 1970’s
and it was then that they decided they needed a
program of nuclear development which may or may not include a bomb. Eventually it did include a bomb. Do we have any time left?>>Time, it’s over time.>>Thanks so much. [ Applause ]

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