International Security Studies


Controlling the Bomb: The First Failure … and Iran

May 05, 2006 // 12:00am

This meeting, jointly sponsored by the Center's Division of International Security Studies and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was another in the ongoing Nonproliferation Forum series.

Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird, two of the country's preeminent nuclear historians, discussed Robert Oppenheimer's proposal for the elimination of nuclear weapons after World War II and its continuing resonance in the contemporary era as the international community seeks to prevent Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Sherwin characterized the attitude of Oppenheimer, who headed the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico to construct the atomic bomb during World War II, as "build it, use it, eliminate it." When Danish physicist Niels Bohr escaped Nazi-occupied Denmark and eventually reached Los Alamos, his first question to Oppenheimer was, "Is it big enough?" Would nuclear weapons be of such a magnitude of destructive capability that they would transform international relations? After World War II, Oppenheimer focused on the challenge of eliminating nuclear weapons. He believed that nuclear weapons constituted a global threat that necessitated a global solution. The positive promise of nuclear energy was offset by the specter of weapons proliferation, which Oppenheimer believed would result in the use of such weapons in warfare.

Oppenheimer was the architect of the 1946 Acheson-Lilienthal report, which called for the creation of a UN agency that would control the whole field of atomic energy, from mining through manufacturing. The Baruch Plan, presented to the United Nations that same year, constituted a significant modification of the Acheson-Lilienthal report. The Baruch Plan contained a U.S. offer to relinquish its nuclear monopoly if all other countries pledged to not produce them and agreed to a system of inspections. The proposal was rejected by the Soviet Union, which claimed that it ceded too much power to the U.S.-dominated United Nations.

Jumping from 1946 to 2006, Sherwin and Bird called for the reconsideration of Oppenheimer's proposal in today's transformed international environment. With the Iranian nuclear challenge, we are facing a crossroad: Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons could precipitate a cascade of nuclear proliferation as other countries follow suit. Given the odds against a diplomatic resolution of the crisis, and the serious constraints on military action, the authors recommended that the nuclear powers attempt to realize Reagan's vision of a non-nuclear world. They argued that the non-discriminatory nature of such an agreement might convince Iran to forego its nuclear aspirations. During the discussion period, Sherwin and Bird were pressed on the feasibility of such a sweeping proposal. A major concern about the elimination option is that some states may covertly maintain a weapons capability, and that large-scale nuclear energy programs would provide a plethora of states a rapid breakout capability for the construction or reconstitution of nuclear arsenals.


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