Take Nukes Off the Table

Way back in August of 2007, Barack Obama having declared he was a candidate for the Presidency of the United States, some “reporter” asked him whether he would be willing to use nuclear weapons, either in the War on Terror or to prevent "nuclear proliferation" by those dirty Mullahs.

To the absolute delight of (a) Dubya the Dimwit, (b) Bomb-Bomb-Iran McCain and (c) Hillary the Chicken-Hawk, candidate Obama replied;

"I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance – involving civilians. Let me scratch that. There’s been no discussion of [using] nuclear weapons. That’s not on the table."

Actually, the use of nuclear weapons against civilians has long been "on the table," going back to 1945, when President Truman deliberately murdered many hundreds of thousands of Japanese, apparently as a warning to Joseph Stalin to halt further Soviet occupation of territories in both Europe and Asia. Or Else!

And, according to Adm. Mike Mullen, the holdover Bush-Cheney Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when asked by the Jerusalem Post last week whether the potential for military action against Iran had changed, Mullen replied "I don’t think the new administration has taken any options off the table, including military force."

Leaving aside the propriety of the Chairman of our Joint Chiefs of Staff even responding to questions put to him about Obama-Biden policy by journalists – particularly Israeli journalists – how did President Obama’s press-secretary respond when asked for clarification of Mullen’s remarks?

"In tackling Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, alleged support for terrorism and threats against Israel," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said "we must use all elements of our national power [including, apparently, our use of nukes against those who don’t have nukes] to protect our interests as it relates to Iran."

Hey, why not? If nuking hundreds of thousands of totally innocent women and children enabled Truman to protect our interests as it related to Joe Stalin, maybe it’ll work for Obama.

If you’re wondering how Truman came to nuke all those helpless civilians in August, 1945, barely three months after he discovered – upon succeeding FDR as President – that we were close to developing such a thing, you might check out a truly remarkable American Experience documentary, entitled The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, originally broadcast just last week.

Of course, the documentary is only tangentially about Truman and his fatally flawed understandings of what nukes (to say nothing of thermo-nukes) were, how they worked and what – if anything – they were good for.

As the documentary makes clear, Oppenheimer served as the indispensable Director of the Los Alamos team, which, as a result of about a year’s intensive effort, designed and successfully tested the first implosion fission device, which utilized a near-critical mass of almost pure Plutonium-239.

Truman and others believed (falsely) that if only we kept secret what Oppenheimer and his extraordinary team had done, Russian scientists would never be able to duplicate it.

What the documentary does not make clear – perhaps deliberately – was that there were two very different nukes developed. "Little Boy," the nuke Truman dropped on Hiroshima, was not all that difficult to develop. In fact, they never even bothered to test it.

Simplicity, itself, a 60 pound projectile of almost-pure Uranium-235 was propelled down a gun-barrel at another 60 pound target of almost-pure Uranium-235. The principal difficulty in producing such a nuke was in producing hundreds of pounds of almost-pure Uranium-235, and Oppenheimer had almost nothing to do with that production.

(It is interesting to note that metallurgist A.Q. Khan – sometimes referred to incorrectly as the Father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb – had everything to do with the production of hundreds of pounds of almost-pure Uranium-235, and almost nothing to do with the design and testing of the bomb, itself.)

Now, for various reasons, no one who can make an implosion-type nuke, requiring only a few pounds of almost-pure Plutonium-239, ever bothers to design, test, produce and stockpile Uranium-235 gun-type nukes.

And when the Russians did test their first nuke, in 1949, it was a Plutonium-239 implosion-type nuke, apparently very similar to the one we first tested in 1945.

So, Truman and others concluded (falsely) that the Russians must have stolen the design from us. Consequently, the reasoning went, if we improved our security and then went ahead – as Edward Teller and others urged – to develop the so-called "Super," which was to use a Plutonium-239 implosion-nuke as a trigger, to ignite a thermonuclear explosion, then the stupid Russians would disappear, permanently, from our rearview mirror.

How to improve security? Well, get rid of all those Commie spies, in every closet and under every bed. And above all, get rid of Oppenheimer.

Robert Oppenheimer had openly consorted with known members of the Communist Party in the 1930s, his mistress was a member, his brother Frank was a member and Frank’s wife was also a member.

Now, Robert Oppenheimer had always opposed Teller’s "Super," primarily on the grounds that it would not be – could not be – militarily useful. There were no targets for such a doomsday device.

(Oppenheimer has basically been vindicated for having this view. Although we could easily have 100-Megaton yield nukes in our stockpile, most of them are less than a thousandth of that.)

Anyway, in October 1952, we tested a two stage thermonuclear device (sited on a small island in the Pacific, which ceased to exist), reportedly weighing a total of 82 tons, and having a yield of about 10 megatons.

But wouldn’t you just know it. Just 3 years later those pesky Russians tested their first thermonuclear device, having a yield of 1.6 Megatons. However, here’s the kicker – they dropped theirs from an aircraft!

Obviously, their TN-weapon didn’t weigh 82 tons, and you can bet your sweet bippy they didn’t steal the secret on how to make it deliverable by aircraft from us. In fact, it was only after we studied the rad-chem fallout that we figured out what their secret was.

Okay, so Truman was about as wrong about nukes as any President could possibly be. The option of nuking civilians should never have been on the table then, and if Obama really wants "change we can believe in," he should take it off the table. And the sooner the better.

Author: Gordon Prather

Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.