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Talking Policy: Dan Zak on Nuclear Weapons

On a calm summer night in July 2012, three peace activists—a house painter, a Vietnam war veteran, and an 82-year-old Catholic nun—infiltrated one of the most secure nuclear weapons facilities in the world, the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (the "Fort Knox of Uranium"). World Policy Journal sat down with Washington Post reporter Dan Zak, who for the last four years, chronicled the shockwave of the Oak Ridge break-in, from its political epicenter at an aging nuclear weapons program to its juridical reverberations for the activists and workers involved. The result, his upcoming book Almighty, follows the footsteps of the three activists, tracing a more than 70-year relationship between the United States and the atomic bomb. 

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Let’s start with the opening scene, which acts also as a kind of narativistic spine for the book: a nun, a painter, and a Vietnam veteran penetrating what was ostensibly the most secure nuclear weapons facility in the world (the Y-12 National Security Complex at Oak Ridge, Tennessee) with only some bolt cutters and hammers. What made this scene so important in telling the story of the U.S. nuclear weapons program?

DAN ZAK: I think that nuclear weapons and the "nuclear security enterprise," as it's called, is a very complicated and rarified realm. And I think for myself and for the average citizen you need some kind of a humanistic window into this highly technical and complex world, both to get someone's attention and then to hold it. That's the reason I've began to look into this as a story, because these three people did this very risky and unlikely and crazy thing, and I would not have paid attention to why they were doing it or what they were breaking into and why without them and their stories being in it. This incident and these people seemed to be the appropriate and compelling conduit into something that not a lot of people think about or can think about because of the highly technical and complex nature of the subject.

WPJ: Right away in the book there is a strong theme of religious imagery, rhetoric, and allusion. As the book project developed, what became the incitement for such theological focus? How did this theme work its way into the pages, and what lead you to place so much attention on it?

DZ: You have to start with who these activists are. At their core, they are motivated by belief. They're all Christian; two are Catholic. They are motivated by the Bible. [...] These are activists who take inspiration from the book of Isaiah (the prophet Isaiah—talking about studying war no more and turning "swords into plowshares" and "spears into pruning hooks") and who wanted to enflesh those words with actual civil resistance. [...] I found it both natural and necessary to use theology—and especially faith—throughout the book. 

When you think about it the belief in the effectiveness of nuclear weapons is a faith, too. The U.S. government believes that nuclear weapons protect us—that merely possessing them protects us—and reduces the chance, if not eliminates the chance, for war between great powers. You can't prove a negative, so really what it comes down to is a faith that these weapons are effective. And so I saw a through-line from what motivate these activists (a belief in the Bible, and the faith that they were doing the right thing) through the reason why we have these weapons in the first place and continue to have them, which is a faith in their ability to keep relative peace. 

WPJ: The book’s other titular theme is science and the development of nuclear technologies. Many scientists working on the Manhattan Project saw the fruits of their labor—the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—akin to (as you say) a kind of original sin, a Rubicon crossing, or Pandora box being opened. What do you think was motivating scientists at the early stages, back when it was just these “men of science” roaming Morningside Heights, working in secret? They had to have known how their research would be used. 

DZ: Scientists are always interested in discovery and acquiring more knowledge. It was apparent to all scientists working on nuclear fission (both in Germany and the U.S.) that what they had discovered, in terms of unlocking the power of the atom, had a dual use: It could be used for great destruction or it could be used positively as a source of [nuclear] power. From the earliest time of the discovery of fission, scientists were aware of the magnitude of what they had discovered. Then it became a matter of how we (Americans) need to harness the power of the atom—in a military sensebefore Adolf Hitler and his scientists. If the world had discovered nuclear fission in peacetime, this might have progressed differently. But because World War II had begun and the U.S. would eventually be drawn into it, this discovery plays in the context of competition, where fission brought an existential element into what was becoming a world war. [...]

WPJ: There was a sense in which, as you mention, the detonation of the bomb would validate its own existence (the expense of its production). How much was the decision to detonate financial justification, how much of it was strategic deterrence—was any of it (as the technological cynic might claim) some kind of vague, insidious scientific curiosity?

DZ: I think that the Manhattan Project had such momentumboth bureaucratically and financiallythat the use of these weapons was inevitable. The popular justification is that they were used in combat to preclude a land invasion by the U.S. on Japan, which would have cost many lives at a point six years into the war where so much blood had already been shed in multiple theaters of combat. In a more cynical justification, the U.S. dropped the bomb as a show of force to the Soviet Union (the "deterrent," as you mention) to send a message that there would only be one superpower in the 21st century. But after learning a lot about the hows and the whys, the reason that makes the most sense is that the project had a momentum of its own that could not be stopped; it had cost a couple billion dollars to design, manufacture, test, and deploy these weapons; it had involved tens of thousands of people working all across the country and secret cities and secret plants. And so, at this point, there was no way the product of this effort wasn't going to be used. I think that there's a telling quotation from Henry Stinson, who was the secretary of war. He said, "I have been responsible for spending billions of dollars on this atomic venture; now that it is successful, I shall not be sent to prison." 

WPJ: The first “man of science” we meet is Selig Hecht, who later introduces us to what he calls the modern paradox: “the more we know of nature, the more easily we wreck our lives with the knowledge.” Could you speak to the idea of paradox that figures so frequently into the book? 

DZ: Atomic history is rife with paradox. There's a broad paradox of nuclear faith—the belief that we save the world by threatening its extinction every second of every day. To me that's a paradox (or pseudo paradox). There's a political paradox in our policy toward possession of nuclear weapons. Official policy written by Obama administration says that as long as nuclear weapons exist we will have them. Now, the White House sees that as prudent, not as paradoxical. An outsider like me looks at that and says, then they'll never not exist. [...] Now, while the science may be common knowledge, the bureaucracy that maintained the arsenal up until today and the strategy for their use and deployment is something that is removed from the average citizenry. I think that's another kind of paradox.

WPJ: You hit on exactly what I wanted to get to next, which is the idea that you have this policy of mutually assured destruction where you need to privately prepare for war so that you can publicly assure peace—and this kind of duality that comes with it. 

DZ: I should add that when you talk about the "modern paradox" that Selig Hecht brought up many decades ago, and you look at President Obama's speech in Hiroshima last month, he's talking about the same thing. Every technological revolution requires a moral revolution because we are capable of creating things that can destroy us and have been doing so for the past 70 years. 

WPJ: There's also a sense in which Obama is more or less complicit in this political duplicity—his policy may not be living up to rhetoric on the campaign trail.

DZ: It’s funny. Every U.S. president since the development of the atomic bomb has wanted to get rid of them. And yet, every president has taken action to either build them up or to maintain them. [...] 

Fast forward to Obama, who has had nuclear weapons on the brain since at least college when he wrote a paper about them saying we need to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. But he was careful to hedge that vision by saying it might not happen in his lifetime, and of course the following year he voted and helped secure the votes to ratify the New START treaty with Russia that promised billions to modernize the arsenals that presidents have wanted to eliminate for generations. Call it "duplicity," call it "hypocrisy," but there is this captivating tension in the executive office where we have these commanders in chief who recognize how awful these weapons are and aspire to get rid of them, but end up maintaining them, or (in earlier cases) increasing them. [...] I can only imagine that these are the compromises an individual has to make with him or herself when they reach the highest office in the land and feel responsible for the safety and security of 300 million people. I can't pretend to know what that's like. 

WPJ: There are two settings that stand out in the book. One is the town of Oak Ridge, where the Y-12 facility is located. The town, built for the very purpose of housing the plant’s workers, seems to exemplify a kind of “bomb culture”—you describe the function of Y-12 there as the “muscle to Columbia University’s Brain.” Can you describe the culture and social landscape that developed at Oak Ridge alongside the weapons program?  

DZ: Oak Ridge was created overnight form scratch. Tens of thousands of people moved there to do work and most of those people didn't know what they were doing [...] until they heard on the radio and picked up the newspaper after Hiroshima and realized that the gram by gram enrichment in these giant plants of uranium went into the bomb that then exploded over Japan. That's how Oak Ridge was born, and over the years (it used to be a gated community), the gates of what was called the "secret city" have opened. [...] While you might take a drive through Oak Ridge today and not be able to distinguish it from any other small city, it's still very much an important part of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.        

WPJ: The other notable location is the Marshall Islands, where for decades the U.S. military conducted nuclear weapons tests. To put such destruction in perspective you noted that, “if the combined explosive power of the tests at Bikini and Enewetak were parceled evenly over the 12-year period of testing, it would equal 1.6 Hiroshima-size detonations per day.” Needless to say, the islands still bear the scars of such experimentation. What was your experience like at RMI—both in researching and speaking with citizens? 

DZ: It was very sad. I don't think the Marshall Islands are a prominent part of U.S. history and how we tell our own story. The Marshall Islands is still an island nation of Micronesians, as it was when the United States took possession of it in 1944 from the Japanese, but we had a profound impact on them. First, of course, from the testing: both relocating islanders and then exposing islanders to the fallout from these megaton-caliber tests that could only be done in the middle of the Pacific because, if they happened on the mainland and close to American populations, there might have been some kind of outcry. The tests were one thing, but the economic and cultural impact the United States had on the Marshall Islands afterward is, in some ways, just as profound. We essentially made and unmade a people's existence. We moved them around, we sickened them, and then we tried to pay them off while continuing to have a military presence there because their position in the Pacific is advantageous for radar and testing missiles. It's a tortured 70-plus year history between the U.S. and this small island nation that has born the brunt of our desire to test the ultimate weapon, to first intimidate the Soviet Union and now to test Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles still. We still fire them from California toward the Marshall Islands to test them and as a show of strength to Russia and Putin. [...] They were two interesting locations to consider—the “secret city” of Oak Ridge, which provided the components of the nuclear weapons that were then tested across the ocean in the Marshall Islands. Both places are still intimately acquainted with the modern U.S. arsenal and our national security strategy. [...] It is a tragic relationship. It is this kind of shared heritage, this trauma, that while we can try and wipe it away from our own historical narrative, it's still something that is deeply part of the Marshallese narrative, and something that is unfortunately not widely known.  

WPJ: The epitome of that process was the 1954 "Castle Bravo" test, which produced the largest man-made explosion to date—an explosion so colossal its flash was observed from Japan, 2,600 miles away and its radioactive fallout was later detected in cattle in Tennessee. Do you think we forget the stakes of the Cold War, that there is a kind of historical myopia at play, where we fail to remember how destructive and how important these developments were?

DZ: The last time that the U.S. tested a nuclear weapon was 1992, and it was undergroundso it's not like you have photographs of mushroom clouds. The last time the U.S. tested a nuclear weapon above ground, where there would have been an explosion in the atmosphere, was 1963. And, of course, the last time the U.S. used it in combat was 1945. Over the past 71 years nuclear weapons have become more and more abstract, and there is less and less modern evidence of what they do, what they look like, and what they're capable of. [...] I was born in 1983; I don't remember the Cold War—my generation was probably the first to not remember any kind of air raid drills involving nuclear weapons, certainly not duck and covering. There is no salience in our day-to-day lives that nuclear weapons still exist or are a threat. And for that reason, it recedes from the popular consciousness [...]

WPJ: Do you think that this "abstraction," as you say, is a cause of concern? Should we be speaking more about these events? Should we be writing about them? Should there be more attention paid?   

DZ: I think there should be more attention paid to the fact that we still have a sizable arsenal, we are still spending an estimated 1 trillion dollars over the next 30 years to modernize it, and we're also not quite getting what we're paying for. That is what these activists illustrated when they intruded into Y-12 and essentially defeated a $150-million-a-year security system and made it to what they call the "skin" of the building that houses all of our enriched uranium. That's why we should be paying attention to it: because we're spending so much and because the mainframe that we've constructed to manage these security weapons is not perfect, and in some cases is egregiously imperfect. But also I think that if a country has the power to essentially end the world and that the foundation of American national security strategy remains nuclear weapons, I do think a discussion about what we're doing and what we plan to do is simply good form. [...] You can't consign military weaponry of this magnitude just to strategy and to policy; you have to talk about it like a human being because these are weapons that, by their nature, by their power, would affect civilians and cause enormous destruction.  

WPJ: Can you explain the choice of the book’s epigraph? [“The seed of our destruction will blossom in the desert, the alexin of our cure grows by a mountain rock, and our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern, because a London cutpurse went unhung. Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years. The minute-winning days, like flies, buzz home to death, and every moment is a window on all time.” (Thomas Wolfe)] 

DZ: I think that this communicates the interconnectedness of everything. What I was interested in, looking into the specific intrusion into Y-12 was: How did these three people get to this point and how did their action—their crime—reverberate? I learned that across the hall from Sister Megan Rice [(who lived on the fourth floor of a New York City apartment building at the time of the Manhattan project)] was this very eloquent biophysicist, Selig Hecht, who had this subtle impact on her that many decades later resulted in her actually [breaking into Y-12]. That was very beautiful and compelling to me, and I do think that small actions lead to other, bigger actions and that there's a ripple effect to everything. That Thomas Wolfe passage is one of my favorite quotes of literature. On the surface, it's very beautiful, but it also, for me, was a touchstone in reporting and writing this story, which was to treat every little thing as a window into something greater. That's why I chose it to open the book, and why I chose to then (in the first chapter) quote Selig Hecht in talking about how atomic physics is about the vast interplay of energy—that everything is connected by energy. You could say that literally and you could also say that symbolically. I think that kind of interconnectedness is born out in the lives of these three activists that I focus on.    

*****

*****

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Photo courtesy of Pixabay]

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