Bringing Oppenheimer Back To Life: An Interview With Richard Rhodes

Originally published here.

Way back when I was in college, someone gave me a book that they thought I should read. “You’ve been working with plutonium, and you have an interest in nuclear weapons. You really ought to read this book.” The book was The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes. He was awarded the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction for that book, and it is well deserved. It’s my belief that anyone who wants to truly understand the American legacy of the first two nuclear bombs, and the consequences of their use, should read that book, as well as Rhodes two subsequent books on nuclear weapons: Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, and Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race.

Since I’ve been writing quite a bit about current-day nuclear weapons issues, I thought it would be good to step back and take a look at the big picture again. What better way to do that than to talk to Richard Rhodes, nuclear weapons historian and journalist extraordinaire?

Here is our rather wide-ranging discussion. The parts in bold are my questions; his replies follow.

A New Book

Tell me a little bit about what you’ve been working on lately. I know you’re writing a book that’s going to be published next year. So just tell me a little bit about that.

I’ve just finished a book called The Twilight of the Bombs, with a tip of the Hatlo hat to Richard Wagner. It’s the last of four volumes. It picks up the story at the end of the Cold War, and goes through the 1990s, and the first and second George Bush administrations. It more or less culminates with Obama’s Prague speech last spring.

So, it’s an interesting time, and it was in a way a lot more lively than the last book, Arsenals of Folly, which was about the Cold War and more about diplomacy than weapons. This time around, I’ve got moments like Bob Gallucci and his gang of inspectors chasing a giant Iraqi tank transporter, loaded with calutron parts, out the back of an army base in the middle of Iraq, taking pictures while the Iraqis fire into the air to scare them off. Real cowboys and Indians stuff.

And, of course, the Bush administration and the whole question of why they decided to go to war with Iraq on which I think I’ve found some fresh information, so it’s a wide range, and it explores the CTBT [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty] and how that happened, and how Clinton managed not to get it ratified; the permanent extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, all those things that were happening in the 90s; the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the scurry afterward to deal with the question of where their nukes were, this fascinating break-up of one nuclear power into four nuclear powers, so that we suddenly were faced with having to deal with four countries that had significant quantities of strategic nuclear weapons, rather than just one. The solution was basically to convince three of them — Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan — to send them all to Russia, so that there would only be one nuclear power again.

These events make for a lively story, and I think it moves toward the obvious dénouement that’s going on today, which is, it seems to me, the beginning of a very serious movement toward figuring out how to eliminate nuclear weapons.

This is something that you and I had talked about previously, about how people seem to have lost sight of what nuclear weapons really are. In the context of your upcoming book and its discussion of the George W. Bush administration and Britain’s justifications for going to war in Iraq, do you think that the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, and the claims that they were there, has influenced peoples’ perception of nuclear weapons as something almost fictitious?

You know, I think so, but really, it started a lot earlier. Almost as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, the polls that people had been running for years that showed fear of nuclear war up at one or two on the list of fears, maybe right after fear of street crime, suddenly bumped it down to twenty-five, which was near the bottom of the list. So, evidently, people associated the fear of nuclear war with our long-standing Cold War with the Soviet Union.

When the Soviet Union dissolved, then I guess everyone put that away — There are plenty of people who think that we no longer have nuclear weapons, that somehow they were magically disappeared or were dismantled as a result of the end of the conflict with the Soviet Union. That’s very interesting, because, in a way, the reason why it has become possible since 1991 to think about eliminating nuclear weapons, really is the end of the Cold War. As long as people felt that there was a vast, implacable enemy on the other side, armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons and prepared to attack us, should we ever so much as nod off, it wasn’t even possible to think about that. And interestingly, during all those years, the people who were pursuing the end of — the elimination of nuclear weapons — were private citizens, basically, and NGOs, who lacked credibility because government insiders could claim they lacked access to the secret — the secrets that would convince them that a nuclear arsenal was necessary to defend the realm.

After 9/11, in particular, with the realization that there could well be sub-national groups that could beg, borrow, or steal a nuclear weapon, groups that would not be  deterrable because they lacked a base that our weapons could put at risk, lacked a home address, we suddenly had the phenomenon, twenty years after Reykjavik, of people like George Shultz and Sam Nunn and Bill Perry and eventually kind of jumping in because he didn’t want to be left out, Henry Kissinger, talking about “it’s time to get rid of these things, they’re dangerous to us now.”

And they weren’t people who could be dismissed by the Richard Perles of the world, as naive or ill-informed. They had security clearances, they knew what the arsenal was, they knew what the risks were, and they were coming at it with a different perspective now as a result of the end of the Cold War and of 9/11. So that group is quietly talking all this over with government leaders around the world. Which is, I think, the most obvious example of the fact that the terms have changed. At first it was the elimination of our seemingly, supposedly, implacable enemy, and then later it was the risk of these things escaping from their box into the hands of people who would be happy to be martyred while blowing up half of New York City.

I actually wrote something up recently explaining why Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, and I quoted the “four statesmen” of course. A lot of people didn’t even realize that they were out there, saying these things.

They haven’t done as much publicity as perhaps they might have. Their approach has been diplomacy, quiet diplomacy behind the scenes. It’s significant that they were in the front row when Obama spoke to the United Nations this last September, last month. They were there to reinforce their link to him. He signed onto their program, as it were, and that to me is one of their great achievements. They’ve gotten probably the key person in the world to stand up for universal nuclear disarmament, and the next step, clearly, is the administration’s talks with the Russians. I think within the next few months we’re going to see a decision out of the White House to reduce the US arsenal to about 1,800 warheads.

Right, very deep cuts with the START follow-on treaty.

And that’s going to mean — it has to mean, I think–a change in the whole program of launch-on-warning and preemption. Because with a much smaller number of warheads, it’s just simply not possible to follow the same system that we had before. I’ll be interested to see how many are going to be held in reserve.


One thing I like to remind people of is the Reagan-Gorbachev summit at Reykjavik. I think it’s useful to remind everyone of Reagan’s interest in eliminating nuclear weapons, and that’s why I’m fascinated by your play, which I’m very sorry that I missed [in Santa Fe]. I read the excerpt that was published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Why don’t you tell me a little bit about the play and why it’s relevant today, especially what you think people could learn from how you bring Oppenheimer in as a character.

When I was writing Arsenals of Folly, I went through both the English and the Russian — I had the Russian translated for me — transcripts of the Reykjavik summit. People had said that Gorbachev and Reagan came very close to agreeing to begin the process of leading the world to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

So, as I was going through the transcripts, I was struck by how inherently dramatic those two days were. These were two really larger-than-life-sized characters, both of them, as it turns out, having a very strong interest in getting rid of nuclear weapons, and standing down the Cold War, and moving beyond standing down the Cold War, to a really enduring peace built on the elimination of nuclear weapons.

So, I was having dinner one evening with Paul Newman, who was a long-time friend of mine, and I was telling him about the summit. I said “I’d love to write a play about it,” and he immediately said “I’ll help you with that.”

And I thought, okay, that makes it possible, because I had never written a play before. So I started out by buying about 150 plays. You can get individual scripts of almost any play in the last fifty years from a company in New York City. So I just ordered about 500 bucks worth of plays, and just read through them and studied them and refreshed my sense of how modern theater works. And then I sat down and started working with the transcript, writing and rewriting and arranging it into a play. I’m still in the midst of that process, because of course the language of diplomatic documents isn’t the language of the stage. Newman — I would send him a draft, and he would call up and he’d say — he was a very funny man — “Rhodes, Newman here. One word for you: colloquialize.” And I would work through another draft, and he’d call me up again, and say the same thing. There’s more of that to do. It isn’t finished by any means. It’s at the point now where it’s getting stage readings around the country. There’s going to be one in Monterey on the fifth of December, at the Monterey Institute, at the end of a conference. The Monterey Institute of International Studies  is celebrating its twentieth anniversary, and the staged reading will be part of the program.

As I got into the play, I realized that I needed a character who was outside the action, who could comment on the action, because everybody inside wouldn’t know what lay in the future, wouldn’t know what the significance of much of it was, and typically of diplomats and national leaders, nobody had the faintest idea of the science. This is so universally true of diplomacy that it’s really appalling when you look through the record. I mean, if anyone had any serious knowledge of the science, I think the whole issue of the significance of SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative] would have been far less confining than it was, for both sides. Gorbachev did later understand that he didn’t have to worry about SDI, and he seems to have allayed the fears of his military about it. At the time, unfortunately, it constrained how far he could go.

So, thinking about how to inject some outside perspective I immediately thought of Robert Oppenheimer as a possible character, although he’d been dead since 1967– but the theater allows the resurrection of the dead, fortunately. Actually, I first thought of Niels Bohr, who’s always been a hero of mine, and who probably thought more deeply, earlier, about the whole question of the introduction of nuclear energy into the world, and how that changed everything, than anyone else at the time or since. But Bohr was notoriously inarticulate. He sort of mumbled and would repeat himself, and generally was difficult to hear. I wanted someone articulate, and there was no one more fiercely articulate than Robert Oppenheimer. And Bohr had been his mentor in nuclear matters, so he could serve that purpose as well.

So, using the wonderful business of the theater, I resurrected him. He emerges from a hole in the stage with steam escaping, and takes off his porkpie hat, and introduces himself, and interacts with the characters. He’s able to look forward and back, just exactly what I needed him for. He, like some of the characters in my novels, immediately came to life. You know, when you’re writing fiction or drama, you struggle to squeeze the lines out of some characters, while others appear on stage or in your novel complete, entire, you can hear their voice, you can almost take it down as dictation, it’s really a very curious phenomenon.

I realized, years ago, that writing fiction is something like improvisational acting, except you write it down and then you have a chance to edit it and shape it. Evidently, writing for the theater, in a sense, is that too. Sometimes the characters are just there for you, there in your sensibility in a way that surprises you when they come along, and Oppenheimer was that. I really had to do very little work on him, what he said or how he said it, or where he appeared and reappeared in the play. The dialogue he has with Reagan, which is all made up, of course, and certainly isn’t in any of the transcripts, just really worked on both sides without much trouble. Reagan’s was a clear voice too, but that was because he had played himself as a character when he was president–played “the President,” which made him easy to write and apparently easy to act.

Reagan was fascinated with the notion that nuclear war was the Battle of Armageddon predicted in the Book of Revelations, and although Oppenheimer pokes a little fun at him about that later on in that exchange between the two, the fact is, it’s as good a reason to get rid of nuclear weapons as any.

But, you know, ultimately I realized in working through these characters and what they meant, that Reagan really is a tragic figure in the classic sense of the word. That is, he had this idée fixe that the one missing piece of the puzzle of how to get rid of nuclear weapons was to have a shield. He wasn’t able to trust enough — perhaps because his father was an alcoholic — he wasn’t able to trust enough, as he believed people have to do, in the possibility of a diplomatic solution to the problem, even though that’s the only solution to the problem, was then, is now, ever shall be. There is no technological fix to the nuclear threat, and Oppenheimer tries to make that clear to him. Oppenheimer, in the process, points out that nuclear weapons themselves were elaborated to be a technological fix to the threat of a nuclear-armed enemy–to be a deterrent.  But that technological fix didn’t work either, because it put everything at total risk if it failed, it encouraged more nuclear weapons and more nuclear powers rather than fewer, and sooner or later it was going to fail, as all mechanical systems do, and therefore sooner or later it was going to lead to catastrophe.

Gorbachev — and this really is what’s interesting, I think, about his role at Reykjavik — came to the table with an idea that had originated with Niels Bohr, the idea of what Bohr called “common security”: that you can’t be safe and secure unless your enemy is safe and secure.

… Gorbachev’s idea of “common security”, and Reagan’s idea of “security guaranteed by technology” were finally irreconcilable, and that fact led totheir failure to reach agreement at Reykjavik, to begin the process of eliminating nuclear weapons. Which was a personal tragedy for Reagan. In the play he’s a tragic figure even though I give him a good deal of comic characterization consistent with his actual statements and performance at Reykjavik. At one point he tells Gorbachev he imagines he might have been, in a previous life, the inventor of the shield. Oppenheimer in an aside to the audience says, “Yes, he really did say that.” And he did.

That’s what I took away from Arsenals of Folly… It was because of your book that I gained an appreciation for what Reagan believed, and what he wanted, and how he feels to me to be sort of a tragic figure, too. That why I liked what I read in the Santa Fe New Mexican. They quoted you saying that Richard Perle was kind of the “Iago” of the play.

That’s just the perfect description, because he ultimately seemed to derail things.

Yes. Perle, first of all, of course, did not believe that we should get rid of our nuclear weapons. He still doesn’t.

His whole goal at Reykjavik was to sabotage it. That’s why he did his “zero-zero” thing, zero medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe and zero in Asia, but to his heartbreak and amazement, Gorbachev agreed. And then of course he went around bragging that he pulled it off. But it was not his intention. His intention was to get US medium-range missiles installed in Europe, to scare the hell out of the Russians forever. As if any sovereign nation would sit still for that kind of deadly blackmail.

One of the reasons Reagan signed on to SDI, besides his personal interest in abolition,  was to counteract the whole nuclear freeze movement. Here was a supposed solution–strategic defense–that was more Republican and “manly”, “tough”, than (as the Republican Right imagined it) wimpishly laying down your arms and freezing nuclear weapons. That was the Republican game throughout the Cold War–contrasting Republican “toughness” in the form of new weapons systems to the supposed wishy-washy, Democratic point of view that negotiation was the only long-term solution to the problem of nuclear weapons.

What Perle and others have made clear is that if either one of those men had brought home an agreement to eliminate their nuclear arsenals, there was very little likelihood that their bureaucracies would have allowed it to happen. Obama is already seeing pushback from the U.S. nuclear establishment today, and he’ll see more as he moves forward.

Reagan’s aides, even at Reykjavik, didn’t believe he was serious. With the exception of George Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state, they thought he was a simpleton. All this stuff about getting rid of nuclear weapons was okay, but it wasn’t serious. So at Reykjavik, his staff went ahead and did their negotiations, and basically just pretended they hadn’t heard that part.

So it was a tragedy on a lot of levels. Anyway, the two men inherently are interesting. How they both came to power had a lot to do with the fact that they were both outsiders. Gorbachev was from a collective farm down in the Caucasus. The slickers in Moscow used to laugh at his accent and his rather poor grammar, because he was a country boy, and Reagan was a small-town Midwesterner, not someone that the Washington insiders really took very seriously, except as a spokesperson for their point of view. So the idea that they could actually be serious about what they were discussing simply blew right past everybody, and if they’d brought their program for the elimination of nuclear weapons home, God knows what would have happened. It would have been repudiated on both sides.

Nevertheless, and here’s where I connect the Reykjavik summit with today, it was when George Shultz and Sid Drell and a few other people out here at Stanford were thinking about what to do on the twentieth anniversary of Reykjavik, that they came up with the idea that now was the time to begin a serious movement toward eliminating the nuclear arsenals of the world, as a consequence of, as a follow-upto, the Reykjavik summit. So there’s a direct link between what happened back in 1986 and what’s going on today with the “four horsemen” and their group, which is a nice continuity.

And that’s what I saw as well. You had Oppenheimer say “These things exist as a physical reality, yes. They’re not merely poker chips.” Do you feel like people need to see nuclear weapons as a physical reality, and not just poker chips, in order to support disarmament?

Yes, I do. I think as long as people, and government leaders in particular, can just casually talk about “ten of these, a thousand of those, five hundred of those, we’ll trade this for that,” that kind of lack of reality and indifference to their destructiveness, which I presume is premised on the assumption that they will never be used, then we’re in trouble.

My understanding — my guess as to how the leaders of the world have moved into office since the beginning of the nuclear age is they get “the briefing”, they’re horrified, they can’t sleep. That’s what Gorbachev said: “For three nights I couldn’t sleep, and then I realized I’d never use them, and then I could sleep after that”. Well, that’s all very nice, but the Cuban Missile Crisis indicates just how close you can come to using them, with enormous potential for devastation to the world.

…. [T]here’s a group that did a follow-on recently from the earlier studies done in the 1980s of nuclear winter. The new studies use much more sophisticated atmospheric mixing models that have been developed over the last decade to deal with analysis of global warming. The first thing they found was that in a full-scale nuclear war, the mixing of atmosphere would be much deeper, in other words reach up much higher, than the earlier models, which were basically two-dimensional. They were able to predict not simply ten or twenty years of average annual temperatures fifty degrees below present day norms, but more like fifty to a hundred years, which would destroy all the world’s agriculture and starve everyone to death.

But then they looked, interestingly, at what a “little” nuclear war might be. They looked at the possibility of an exchange of maybe fifty Hiroshima-sized fifteen kiloton weapons from  India to Pakistan, and another fifty from Pakistan to India, and of course they would be targeted on cities, and cities are giant assemblies of kindling. The model is online, and you can actually run it and watch the pall of smoke spread slowly from India and Pakistan all around the world, dropping world temperatures by something like two degrees on the average, which sounds like not much, but it takes you back to the Little Ice Age of the 16th and 17th centuries that reduced crop production and led to widespread starvation.

Fifty weapons from each side is a total of one-and-a-half megatons, that’s all. We have individual nuclear weapons with larger yields than that. In my writing I try to remind people that nuclear weapons aren’t abstract, that they aren’t metaphysical, that nuclear war could happen under circumstances that we haven’t identified yet, or circumstances that would appear from the outside, like an India-Pakistan exchange, to be local, yet the result would be truly devastating environmental consequences for us all.

5 Tg of smoke from a regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

Please click the image to see an animation of the smoke distribution as it is spread around the world by the winds. The smoke is heated by absorbing sunlight, lofted into the upper stratosphere, and blown into the Southern Hemisphere. *

One response to a posting I made about the India-Pakistan scenario–and this is typical of the kind of mentality that hangs around nuclear weapons–some responded, “Well, we could reverse global warming that way, couldn’t we, and reduce the world’s population while we’re at it!” I think it was one of those “Let’s see, what would follow from that? There’s a silver lining to this cloud!”

On Nuclear Power

angentially to that, I wanted to ask you something pertaining to climate change. You took a trip down to the WIPP [government] nuclear waste disposal site. I was assuming that you took the trip as part of your interest in nuclear energy. Is that true? Tell me about your trip.

Yes, and it was a real voyage of discovery. WIPP, let’s explain, is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a curious name for a nuclear waste disposal site 3,000 feet down in a vast field of embedded salt, about a kilometer thick, the remains of a shallow Southwestern sea that dried up several hundred million years ago. I’d been offered the chance to tour it, but I couldn’t afford to make a special trip, but then a theater group in Santa Fe decided to do a staged reading of my play, and since I would be in the neighborhood I decided to fly down through El Paso and drive over to Carlsbad and take the WIPP tour.

Because, of course, the real solution  to America’s nuclear waste disposal needs is not going to be Yucca Mountain. Yucca Mountain is defunct, and has been for a long time. I was pretty sure, when Pete Domenici was still active in Congress, that that’s what he was slowly trying to lead the government toward, to store commercial nuclear waste at the WIPP site. Right now, it only stores military waste, and basically low and mid-level waste.

It’s rated for remote-handled waste, isn’t it?

It is, for everything up through weapons-grade.

I started out back in the 70s doing a lot of writing — I was making my living as a magazine writer in those days, trying to write some novels that would sell more than five thousand copies, which really never happened, except my one about the Donner party. Anyway, I was doing a lot of magazine writing, and since those were the years when we were all talking about the environment, I went down and wrote a piece for Playboy, actually, about the WIPP facility. (Playboy actually ran occasional serious articles in those days. I don’t know if anybody every read them, but it was a good way to earn your living.)

I was a knee-jerk anti-nuclear in those days and very skeptical. That particular bed of salt reaches all the way up into southwestern Kansas, and since I lived in western Missouri at that time, one of the things I had done was go over to the Kansas legislature in Topeka  the day they were going to vote on whether they would let WIPP’s predecessor open in Kansas. They were going to build a waste disposal site in a salt dome in southeastern Kansas, which was actually the farthest northern extension of the salt bed of which WIPP is a part.

I was a knee-jerk anti-nuclear in those days and very skeptical. That particular bed of salt reaches all the way up into southwestern Kansas, and since I lived in western Missouri at that time, one of the things I had done was go over to the Kansas legislature in Topeka  the day they were going to vote on whether they would let WIPP’s predecessor open in Kansas. They were going to build a waste disposal site in a salt dome in southeastern Kansas, which was actually the farthest northern extension of the salt bed of which WIPP is a part.

So I had already had a little glimpse of one edge of the WIPP operation. Then I wrote the Playboy piece, which was dismissive and anti-nuclear.

Well, I’ve spent enough time in the years since then around people whose science I take seriously, people whose judgment I trust, to have come completely around about nuclear power. I think it’s one of the most important intermediate-term, for the next fifty years, next seventy-five years, ways we’re going to get enough energy to run our society without doing further serious damage to the environment.

WIPP was just beginning construction when I wrote about it in the 1970s. They hadn’t even done much digging yet. And now it was up and running. Gwyneth Cravens turned me on to it. She had visited it as part of the research for her book. She wrote a marvelous book on the whole nuclear power question, Power to Save the World. Like me, she started as a skeptic, but guided by “Dr. Rip” [Richard "Rip" Anderson], a theoretical chemist at Sandia who’s a specialist in risk assessment and has been involved with WIPP for years, she visited everything from uranium mines to nuclear power plants to waste disposal sites, and came away with basically the same attitude toward nuclear power that I have.

It was exciting to see WIPP in physical form after I had heard about in the abstract, years before, and realize that as a place to put waste, it was probably the best we could have short of the abyssal plain under the ocean, which is off-limits because of international treaties.

I think it’s unfortunate, though, that we’re still disposing of uranium that’s been once-through our reactors. We might do better to do some reprocessing. But I know that’s not of any particular urgency, because we have enough uranium to last about five hundred years even once-through. Still, in all, it would be nice to see us not wasting all that energy by burying it permanently underground.

The WIPP arrangement is permanent. Once the crystalline salt has annealed around the barrels, it would be nearly impossible to retrieve them.

WIPP gives the lie to anybody who says “we haven’t solved the waste disposal problem”. Yes, we have. What’s left is the NIMBY political problem—not in my back yard.

The WIPP salt bed extends across sixteen thousand square miles—from southern New Mexico all the way up into Kansas. We could store all the world’s nuclear waste there for the next thousand years. It’s absolutely huge, and obviously dry and stable, or the salt would have dissolved away a long time ago.

So, it’s hard to argue with the reality of the place. The question then becomes really where do we want to go with all of this, and what do we want to do.

* You can read more about Dr. Robock’s work at his website. (Animation drawn by Luke Oman.)

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