Walter Pincus discusses nuclear security, the testing history of nuclear weapons, and the potential fallout of using nuclear weapons in war.
The Paul C. Warnke Lecture on International Security was established in 2002 and is endowed by a number of Council members and the family and friends of Paul C. Warnke. The lecture commemorates his legacy of courageous service to the nation and international peace.
ROHLFING: Good evening and welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations Paul C. Warnke Lecture on International Security.
I’m Joan Rohlfing, president and chief operating officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
I’m joined today in person by Walter Pincus, author of Blown to Hell: America’s Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders and contributing senior national security columnist at the Cipher Brief.
The Paul C. Warnke Lecture on International Security was established in 2002 and is dedicated to the memory of Paul Warnke, member and former director of the Council on Foreign Relations. The lecture commemorates his legacy of courageous service to the nation and to international peace. I would like to thank the members of the Warnke family joining us today, as well as all the donors to this lectureship who have made today’s event possible.
The audience today consists of Council members across the country who are joining us online as well as members here in person in D.C.
So, Walter, let’s jump right in. I think this hour is going to fly. I want to start by thanking you for this terrific contribution to our understanding of the history surrounding nuclear weapons. I was fascinated as I read this book. This is, as the title suggests, a book that talks about the history around the atmospheric tests in the Marshall Islands from 1946 through the late ’50s. And it’s fascinating, in-depth research looking at original historical documents about the nature of the tests, the reason for them, the resulting harms to the Marshall Islanders and beyond.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t also note that this book is about so much more than just the tests or the Marshall Islanders. And we were talking earlier before coming in here about how much this still tells the story of the present and the challenges we have around nuclear weapons. I’ll just note for those of you who haven’t read the book yet that the title was based on a quip by Bob Hope. As soon as the war ended—this is the comedian Bob Hope—as soon as the war ended, he noted, we located the one spot on Earth that hadn’t been touched by war and blew it to hell, referring to the Marshall Islands. It’s a—it’s a dark humor, but that’s what the title comes from.
I’ll also just note—and then I am going to ask you a question—this is also a book about understanding the true effects of nuclear weapons. We’re still grappling with that after seventy-six years, about the true effects and what that means for humanity. It’s about inter-service rivalry between the Army and the Navy at the time. It’s about colonialism and racism. And I think with today’s social justice movement, many people will read this story in a new light. It’s about competition with Russia. It’s about, to some degree, human hubris—our thought that we can control these weapons even if we don’t really understand them.
So that’s a little bit of context kind of from my perspective, but I really want to start by asking the question: Why did you write the book, Walter? What was the message you hoped to get across with this—with this book?
PINCUS: Well, the basic message was trying to make people understand that nuclear weapons are deadly. They are terror weapons. They’ve never been warfighting weapons. They were built originally to end a war, not to fight a war.
But I go back many years being interested in it because it’s one of the early stories I wrote covering Congress. Congress passed a bill in 1966 paying eighty-two Marshallese who’d been dosed with radiation from fallout from the Bravo bomb in 1954. And in 1966, they passed a law giving each one of the eighty-two men, women, and children $11,000 if they agreed they would never come back to the United States again for more money. I found that unbelievable. It made me look into what happened. And ever since, I’ve kept track both of nuclear weapons on the one side and the Marshallese on the other. Their lives were totally ruined.
And what you see in nuclear weapons is the damage they do not just to the environment—the atoll of Rongelap, where the eighty-two people lived, it’s not—they don’t live there anymore. They can’t live there anymore. Bikini, the island—the atoll that the Bravo bomb was used on and used for twenty-some-odd other experiments, can’t be lived on for another twenty-some-odd years. Even though in the main island they scraped it down six inches and allowed people to come back, and five years later it had to leave because the food and the environment were still radioactive. And it’s radioactive today.
We see nuclear weapons as numbers. We saw them that way before and we see them even more now. And I wanted people to see them as dangerous as they really are were they ever to be used again.
ROHLFING: So thank you for that. One of the things that I’m really curious about is over this decadal period of time it seems that our understanding of nuclear weapons, we’ve gotten further and further away from that. And I want to just share with the audience, especially for those who have not read the book yet, you know, part of the fascinating history.
The very first test that you describe in the book from 1946—and this was in—they began planning for this within months of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which is pretty breathtaking—the scope and the scale of that first test in the Marshall Islands—Able was the name of the test—and just a few statistics that kind of give you a sense of that. This was a massive event that was planned. Months of planning, not a lot by today’s standards; it’s breathtaking how quickly they pulled it together. And they—they being our government—wanted to really demonstrate the power of the weapon to media and other governments. They also were using this to test what the weapon would do to surface navy vessels. This was a big experiment to figure out. There was a debate whether nuclear weapons had made the surface navy obsolete.
So, with several months of planning, they put this major test together. They invite 187 members of the media who commit to several months to travel in for this event and to be present not just for the first test, Able, but also some of them for Baker. There’s fourteen members of Congress who fly in. There are—I thought this was interesting—representatives from fourteen different countries, including the Soviet Union and China, to watch this demonstration. Secretary of the Navy Forrestal, various admirals and generals. An assembly of ninety ships, targets for this nuclear test to see how many of them would be damaged, which I—you know, imagine assembling ninety vessels. Various transport and lodging ships to house this big audience who’s going to be observing this. This is really pretty remarkable.
And then it turns out the test falls pretty far off of its target, and it’s not as cataclysmic as people are expecting, and they take away the wrong lessons from this test. Now, that changes pretty quickly with the very next test and with several tests after that. I wonder if you can say a little bit—because I think, for me, the fact that this widely-attended event was not as cataclysmic as people were expecting is maybe one of the reasons we still don’t think about or fully appreciate the destructive power of nuclear weapons. But I wonder if you could share your perspective on that.
PINCUS: The original Crossroads test, as you described it, was both an interesting thing to study from a perspective of what happened technically, but also journalistically. And the thing to know is that the target was missed by almost a mile, but the media were thirty miles away. And because the runup to the test people were worried about the ocean cracking, they were worried about really dynamic results, and it didn’t look that way. And after the first test was over, there were not that many boats sunk. The second test was—that was an air drop.
The second test was ninety feet—exploding ninety feet underwater. That test wasn’t covered by as many press people because the first test didn’t work out that well. What happened, though, was that the water—the bomb picked up not just water and made it radioactive, but picked up the sand, the mud, and the material that was below the water, and so it sent up a huge geyser and sort of rainfall of radioactive material that covered most of the ships.
It took five days before the non-covering people could get back into the lagoon because the ships were so radioactive. The Navy was totally unprepared and they tried all sorts of things to wash down, to get rid of the radiation, and they couldn’t do it. In the end, months later, every target ship had to be sunk. And what was even worse is the ships that were outside the lagoon that came in to then have the troops that could work on the ships, the algae that was radioactive in the water attached to the outside of the ships and the radiation became so great that the people living on those previously untouched ships had to move to the center of the ship because the radiation was coming in through the outer side of it.
We should have learned from that, but we didn’t. And what I should have said earlier—because it also fits into how little we knew then and really how little we know now—is that Hiroshima and Nagasaki is the way people think of what a nuclear weapon can do, even thought today’s are twice to two-thirds more powerful. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the scientists, including Dr. Oppenheimer, didn’t know what would happen if the fireball—the detonation of the bomb itself—hit the ground. And so the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs by design were detonated fifteen hundred or two thousand feet above ground. The only radioactive fallout was the radioactive material left of the bomb themselves. So although people got radiation sickness, it was just the people directly below the explosion.
When you get to the Bravo bomb in ’54, which was detonated a hundred feet above ground and was a megaton bomb—literally a thousand times bigger than the Hiroshima bomb—but the radioactive fallout reached Rongelap, which was 120 miles away. It came down like snow for ten hours. And those people that were exposed were exposed not just what fell on them, but it went into their water supply, it went into their food, and it was two days before the U.S. picked them up. And they became—what the—people called them, in effect, a living laboratory. And every year since then, including currently, they’re examined by American doctors, and we have learned more from what’s happened to the Marshallese than we’ve learned from any other group, including the Japanese from Hiroshima/Nagasaki.
ROHLFING: So you’ve anticipated part of my next question. I wanted to talk about this Bravo test because it’s so extraordinary—extraordinarily powerful and destructive. You mentioned a megaton. These are big numbers. But this is one of the largest bombs we ever tested, and this was a test in 1954: fifteen megatons, so fifteen million tons of TNT equivalent, and as Walter said about a thousand times the power of the Hiroshima bomb.
Just a few statistics from the book to make this vivid for people. Upon detonation, approximately three hundred million tons of vaporized sand, coral, and water shot into the air. So this is a near-surface burst. A hundred mile-per-hour winds pulled additional debris up into the fireball. The mushroom cloud was seventy-five miles across and pushing up into the stratosphere. Within minutes, in fact, they recorded the cloud pushed up to about 130,000 feet, which is just extraordinary. It created a crater one mile wide in diameter and two hundred feet into the sea, and fallout turned out to be from a hundred-mile-wide cloud, so where debris was carried up and then dispersed downwind for quite a large area. And there is this incident involving not only the Marshall Islanders you referred to, but also some Japanese fishermen, which really, you know, put a huge spotlight on this. So just, you know, quite an extraordinary thing. But the U.S. then rushes—because we’re in a Cold War and this is being tested as part of the development of the hydrogen bomb, they’re trying to keep this strictly secret and under wraps.
I wonder, you know, you observe in the book, Walter, that almost no one today has witnessed the devastating effects of atomic bombs. What impact has that had on our nuclear planning and policymaking, that we’re now several generations removed from, you know, actual personal experience?
PINCUS: One of—one of the ironies of what’s happened really goes back to the early period. If you can remember in the ’50s and ’60s when we first had the bomb ourselves and then the Russians got it, the policy was MAD—mutual assured destruction—and the implication of that was essentially following on what happened in Japan. And that is they picked Hiroshima as the target because you could say it was a military target. Hiroshima had a very small military unit that handled transportation, but the reason they picked it was because it was close in to a large civilian population. And the notes of the meetings of the target committee of Hiroshima was that they wanted to kill as many people as possible to end the war. They didn’t want to fight with the bomb; they wanted to end the war.
The idea carried on into the ’50s and ’60s. And when Robert McNamara became defense secretary, he was uneasy about the MAD doctrine. He didn’t want it to be seen that the U.S. would aim its nuclear weapons at cities to kill people, and so he developed this policy that we aim our nuclear weapons at the Russian nuclear weapons. Well, when you decide to do that and the Russian number of ICBMs went up, the number of nuclear weapons you needed went up. And with the military being the military, they wanted to have two warheads on each silo. And that’s how you suddenly went from having nine, ten, fifty nuclear weapons to thousands of them. And suddenly nuclear weapons became numbers, and they still are today.
I mean, we’re now worried that the Chinese are building a hypersonic nuclear-warheaded weapon that you could put in orbit. I wrote about it the other day. Both we and the Russians looked at that in the 1960s and decided an ICBM was much better and didn’t do it. And so suddenly we’re worried that the Chinese are doing it. Why? Because it’s a different category and it adds to the numbers. That’s why, again, the reason I wrote the book, because you don’t need these numbers these weapons are so deadly.
I’ll use one more piece of data. In the ’60s and ’70s we decided, for example, we wanted to let people go back to Enewetak, another atoll where we had set off weapons. We set off forty-three of them there. It took a thousand people working almost four years spending $300 (million), $400 million to clean off two-and-a-half acres. Now, start thinking about what would happen if two or three nuclear weapons were aimed at silos in—that we have in North Dakota where there’s agriculture. In Enewetak, they scraped off six inches of the surface. It’s something that couldn’t be done.
When you think of use of nuclear weapons, you shouldn’t think of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which was rebuilt. You think of the current thing. Think of Chernobyl, where nobody’s going to live for forty years. I mean, it is an unbelievable thing to think about.
And second thing is what it does to people. And we haven’t talked about it, but the—there were twenty Rongelap people under twenty who were dosed with fallout. Beginning nine years after their exposure, the doctors suddenly started finding nodules on their thyroids. Your thyroid draws radioactive iodine. And they decided that if they didn’t remove the nodules and the thyroids, they would be open to cancer. And over the—from nine years later through eighteen years later, nineteen of the twenty children who were under twenty had to have their thyroids removed. And that’s just one of the things that occurred in this very narrow group of people.
ROHLFING: And there were deaths along the way as well, sadly, from the Bravo test, one of the fishermen as well as, ultimately, one of the children.
PINCUS: One of the most bothersome stories of the whole book—and it hit me when it happened—the mayor of Rongelap, this atoll, had a wife and four children. Every one of the children had their thyroids removed. The youngest child was called—L-E— Lekoj Anjain. Lekoj was one year old. He played in the fallout. He drank the water of the fallout. When he was sixteen, he had his nodule removed. When he was eighteen, they saw the beginnings of leukemia.
Back in 1954, Stewart and Joseph Alsop, the columnists, were one of the few columnists who recognized the implication of the Bravo bomb and what would happen. Eighteen years later, Lekoj was brought to the—to NIH in the cancer area and of all people shared a room with Stewart Alsop, who also had cancer. And Stewart wrote two columns that are just breathtaking about this young man who didn’t understand what was happening to him, didn’t understand why he had this terrible disease, and in the end he died. He is the one person—although his mother also died of cancer, Lekoj is the one person whose type of cancer is tied directly to radiation.
ROHLFING: Walter, we’re going to need to open up for audience questions in just a moment, but I do have one other question for you before that. You know, one of the things that becomes clear as you read this really riveting story is that it doesn’t seem we took the right lessons away from this test series, right? We’ve moved to an arsenal that, as you observed, seems well in excess of what we need for deterrence purposes and military purposes, and puts us at great risk of harm to humans and the environment. And yet, we’ve seen awareness about nuclear risks plummet, particularly I would say since the end of the Cold War. What do you think we should be doing to raise awareness of these weapons? What is the role of the media?
PINCUS: Well, I’ve been writing about it for fifty years. I think the lesson is that it’s hard to learn the lesson because nobody sees the weapon being blown up. I was working for Senator Fulbright at the time of the atmospheric test ban. Prior to that treaty, anytime a weapons test took place—Soviet Union, America—it was a frontpage story. People followed the radioactive cloud wherever it went. People were worried about radiation. The atmospheric test ended that, and the tests after that never made the frontpage, never made the newsreels. They became two paragraphs in the back of the paper that nobody saw. We had more tests underground than we ever had above, and I think that lack of seeing a test is partly the way—the reason people went to numbers being the important part.
When I really get angry, I say what they’ve become—essentially, what nuclear weapons have become are not terror weapons, which they are; they have become foreign policy tools which make you stronger with other countries. And even as much—and in this country, too—they’ve become political tools where you use against your political enemies. Who’s the better person to be in the White House? And the one who builds weapons is the one.
I don’t know how you overcome that. And the book is the reason why I’m trying to bring forward a realization among people that these really aren’t military weapons. I just discovered the other day, in a(n) interview that General Powell gave at the University of Virginia Miller Center, General Powell publicly said the Army hates nuclear weapons. He doesn’t want them around. He doesn’t want them used because the Army doesn’t know what would happen to the battlefield if you ever used one. The wind’s blowing the wrong way and a fireball hits the ground, your own troops could be in as much danger as the enemy. Plus, you can’t go through that territory. So they’re not—you’ve got to forget about them as warfighting tools, and the military knows it better than anybody else.
I guess one other factoid I’ll put out. The military does play games with nuclear weapons. The only president who has sat in on a military nuclear wargame where he would have to make a decision was Jimmy Carter, who was a nuclear engineer, served on nuclear submarines. No other president to date—I don’t know whether Biden’s done it—has agreed to accept an invitation to sit through one of these wargames where that person is going to have to make a decision. Nobody wants to face it. And I must admit in all the time I’ve talked to scientists, and I know several STRATCOM commanders, they never want to see a nuclear weapon ever used and don’t believe an American president would ever order it.
ROHLFING: Indeed. So thank you for that.
At this time I’d like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. As a reminder, today’s meeting is on the record. And let’s take our first question from the virtual audience.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the first question from Rose Gottemoeller.
Q: Hello, Walter, and thank you for writing this very important book. I had to tackle some of these issues myself while I was undersecretary for arms control in the Department of State and went to the Marshall Islands for the commemoration of the test a few years ago, so I know some of the difficulties still that people are facing there.
I wanted to ask you about what your thoughts are on the compensation that the United States has provided over the years. And I understand there is an effort afoot to pursue some further compensation now, with a commission looking into it. And I just wondered if that came up in your research or you—I’m sure you had some conversations about it with the Marshallese, but I’d be interested in your views on this question. Thank you.
PINCUS: Thank you, Rose. It’s a kind of up-and-down situation. We paid them very little initially and then we started putting money into different atolls. The Marshallese themselves have not handled it well, to put it mildly. It is a tribal society. When they were paid $11,000, the chief of the tribe that occupied Rongelap took 10 percent of the money. There are Marshallese who today are paid twenty million a year—landowners—for the use of Kwajalein, which we used for our testing. The Marshallese themselves who were exposed and their heirs have spread far and wide. And although in 1974 there was an agreement and a tribunal to pass money out to those who were affected by radiation, instead of just focusing on the people who were dosed with radiation they decided to spread the money among all the people living at that time. And so the 150 million that was supposed to go to those exposed was divided among fifteen thousand, and so people never got the kind of money they should have gotten.
The agreement is up in 2023, and at that point the U.S. is going to stop paying the Marshallese anything. Part of the agreement is Marshallese are allowed to come to the United States and work with no need for a visa, no need for a time limit, and so there are tens of thousands of Marshallese—there’s something like twenty thousand who live in Arkansas and another fifteen (thousand) or twenty thousand on the West Coast. But the Marshallese government will be doing the negotiating, and it’s a question of how you have the money reach the right people. It’s very much like—(laughs)—the United States.
ROHLFING: Always a challenge.
Let’s go to our audience in the room, and we’ll start right here. Thank you.
Q: Thank you, Walter. This is a marvelous book, I must say.
I was Jimmy Carter’s deputy national security adviser. And when he got on the line to discuss this issue, after it was over he said: Who were these people? There were twenty-two people on the line. I had no idea who they were. Can I take their advice but I know what to say? I mean, it was just extraordinary.
I mean, I’d also say that the idea of counting what radiation does was never a part of our calculations as to what was assured destruction. In fact, radiation was just never considered. And indeed, by the time I left the White House, we had—people were talking about a target gap because we had so many nuclear weapons.
Finally, I might just say that we did, indeed, end up looking at cities. And for sure, we were targeting both—politically targeting the Communist Party sites. And we had a—what was known as the Moscow missile package. And I can’t go further than that, but I can tell you that I doubt it doesn’t—that it still exists today.
PINCUS: Let me just add to what David was saying. It was during the George H.W. Bush period, and in good part thanks to Brent Scowcroft, that we had the really first major reduction of nuclear weapons. And it was because, of all people, Dick Cheney, who was then secretary of defense, did a study and found that we had forty warheads targeted on Kyiv—forty warheads—and I’ve been told it’s between fifty and seventy-five targeted on Moscow. It was totally out of sight. And it was in that administration that they not only did away with numbers of nuclear weapons, but they also did away with tactical weapons.
You mentioned briefly that there was a contest among the services, which there always is. At the end of World War II, the Army, the Navy, and then the Air Force after 1947 all wanted to have nuclear weapons. And so, as we rose from ten thousand to close to thirty thousand weapons, we had at one time not just nuclear artillery shells; we had nuclear torpedoes. We had nuclear demolition bombs. We had nuclear antiaircraft weapons, supposedly to hit massive bombers coming from the Soviet Union. Every service had every kind of nuclear weapon. And it was all done with very little notice, again because the tests were all done underground and the fact that we were doing it was secret. The only thing that was public was the number of nuclear weapons.
ROHLFING: I can attest to much of what you just said, too, about the Cheney Pentagon since I was there in OSD Policy working on nuclear issues at the time, a fascinating period.
We have a lot of questions here in the audience. Let’s go back. Thank you. And if you would please state your name. Thank you.
Q: Avis Bohlen, retired State Department.
Walter, I wonder—I’ve been trying to formulate this question, but I—well, I mean, I can’t wait to read the book. And what we did in those years seems absolutely incredibly irresponsible. I wonder if you could comment on what has always seemed to me a huge discrepancy between the way American presidents and leaders of nuclear states generally have felt about nuclear weapons, which is almost universally determined never to use it—you say Carter was the only one who sat through the briefing. When Eisenhower was shown the first SIOP, which was totally insane—we went to war and we let go every bomb in all directions. Reagan was so depressed after he was given his SIOP briefing that he really—he became a nuclear abolitionist, as you know. The discrepancy between the awe with which leaders have regarded nuclear weapons—and generally I think were determined never to use it—and this insanity of military establishments—and not just in the United States; in the Soviet Union as well—creating abstract theories and increasing the number of weapons, as you—as you have described, it just seems to me that these—why were these leaders—(comes on mic)—sorry—why were these leaders never able to control this machine?
PINCUS: I sort of talk about the fact that they have become political weapons, essentially, abstract political weapons, because people have forgotten what would happen if they were ever used. One story that I have in the book is that you’ve all heard about Chernobyl and you’ve all seen—maybe seen the Chernobyl documentary and the Chernobyl reenactment. Chernobyl had a devastating effect on Gorbachev. It’s the first time he understood what a nuclear weapon could do. The best estimate I’ve had is Chernobyl was, in effect, a six-kiloton weapon. It’s about half of what Hiroshima was. But in that little area, nobody can live—within a forty-mile radius, nobody can live for forty years. But Chernobyl had such an effect because Gorbachev denied it originally and many got briefed on it.
Ronald Reagan, for whatever reason, really wanted to get—was the one president who was totally prepared to get rid of all nuclear weapons. He scared the hell out of his own aides of the kind of agreement they felt he was prepared to make and that Gorbachev was looking for.
But I think—I mean, one answer is most presidents don’t want to face up to ordering it because they know what the damage may be. On the other hand, politically it’s a—it’s a third wire or a third rail because your enemies will say you’re weak. And so we just go along with what we’re doing. In my wildest days, I hope someday we get a general or an admiral as a president who people—who will tell the truth about them, nuclear weapons, and get away with cutting them. I hate to say it, but you’ll never get rid of them. They are here to stay. The only thing that will stop their being around is if cyber becomes a strategic weapon and you can get the same results without killing people.
ROHLFING: So we’re going to take another question from our virtual audience.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Frank Wisner.
Q: Walter, thank you for a superb, superb presentation.
I want to bring you into the recent news. All of us who follow the press are reading about concerns being expressed over Chinese developments of increasing numbers of nuclear warheads, Chinese developments of missile launch sites, Chinese hyper-missiles. Walter, is this—don’t we have enough weapons in our larder to offer deterrence? What is—what is this all about and how dangerous is it? And if it is exaggerated, which I have a horrible feeling it is, how do you slow it down?
PINCUS: I just wrote a column about the Pentagon’s new—newly released analysis of Chinese military activities. The idea that the—what the Chinese are doing is a direct threat to us has to be put in a context of, first of all, they have maybe a hundred or two hundred ICBMs or missiles now. They’re mainly shorter ranged and can’t reach us. And the Chinese mostly keep their weapons disarmed. They don’t have the warheads on top of the missiles; they have them in separate places. The irony to me is in the midst of this new document they say because the Chinese are building ICBMs and are putting them in silos, they look like they’re becoming a threat to do something that’s called launch on warning, which is—in which you would launch your nuclear weapons if you saw your enemy sending warheads your way.
What the Pentagon doesn’t mention is our four hundred ICBMs, which do have warheads on top of them and do have two people prepared to fire them on order within fifteen minutes of a presidential order—a confirmed presidential order—if that isn’t what the Pentagon called launch on warning, I don’t know what is. But we don’t say it—the Pentagon doesn’t say it in its documents.
They also say the Chinese might get to a thousand warheads by 2030. That’s nine years from now. We have 3,700. This is the numbers game. I mean, you don’t—we don’t need 3,700 and they don’t need a thousand. What they’re doing—and there’s a line in the report—is that President Xi, recognized as a world leader, wants to act like a world leader and have the power to say I’m a world leader militarily, and the number of warheads you have makes you powerful.
ROHLFING: Instead of us getting more like them, they’re becoming more like us.
ROHLFING: So let’s go back to our in-house audience. And I’m going to take the gentleman in the second row next.
Q: Thank you. Jonathan Weisgall is my name, Walter, as you well know. I spent forty-plus years representing the people of Bikini Atoll and many trips out to the Marshall Islands.
Two quick factoids and a question. Factoid number one, one of my rather enjoyable documents of my own research at the—of the testing—I’m halfway through your terrific book—was a letter Robert Oppenheimer wrote to President Truman declining to serve on the advisory committee on the 1946 test, and I think I can quote it directly. He said: “If you drop an atomic bomb on a ship, you will sink it.” And that was his view on this. Factoid number two, your comments about General Powell reminded me that one other group here are the forty thousand sailors who were in Bikini Atoll that summer of 1946 who also had a legacy of health issues.
My question really comes from your mentioning of Chernobyl, which after all was a nuclear power plant. Would you—I think there’s a certain part of the population that thinks a nuclear power plant is some sort of atomic bomb attached to a transmission line or something like that. Would you comment on the impact of the legacy of this nuclear testing program that you’ve written about so eloquently on public views on nuclear power? Obviously, an interest of climate change interest as well.
PINCUS: The question of nuclear power becomes more complex for two reasons. One is we need alternate power. If the alternate power creates other kinds of dangers, maybe that’s not the one you ought to choose.
So the two parts about going to nuclear power are, what do you do with the output of the process that nuclear provides? You have to get rid of the radioactive material, and we really haven’t found a satisfactory way. One way is to make—use it to build bombs. You don’t want that to happen. The other way, there are reactors that don’t produce nuclear-capable material for weapons but it’s still radioactive. And so we spent years and billions in Nevada trying to develop a place to store it, and politically it’s been—we haven’t been able to find a way to get Nevada to accept it now. So nuclear power has two problems to it: a source of nuclear weapon material, which you don’t want; but it’s also a source of nuclear waste, which you haven’t found a way to get rid of.
ROHLFING: OK. We have time for another question or two. And take—
Q: Thank you. Alton Frye from the Council.
Walter, the implication of your book is that leadership and the public at large remain too ignorant of the real effects of these devastating weapons. You probably remember the Russian philosopher who said history teaches no lessons and punishes those who fail to heed them. (Laughter.) That’s the circumstance I think we’re in. So I’ll ask directly: Do you believe that we should make an exception to the limits on nuclear testing to follow the idea proposed a number of times by a number of people that leaders should be brought together periodically for direct observation of an atmospheric nuclear weapons test?
PINCUS: Because of the way it affected me when I saw it, I think if you can find a safe place to do it, it should be done. I think people—there’s got to be a way to make people understand what a—what a terror weapon this is. And I think that’s—based on my own experience, that’s the only way to do it. I don’t know of any other way.
ROHLFING: OK. I think one more question. Well, all of the questions are on this side of the room tonight. (Laughs.) The gentleman—yeah, thank you.
Q: Thank you.
And Walter, congratulations on this amazing achievement of yours.
I wanted to ask you as—about the attitudes of the leaders who were planning the Bravo test and their attitudes toward the Marshallese. Did they see them as expendable? Did they see them—did they understand what was about to happen? And what does it tell us in large about the attitude of policymakers? Do they understand that these are terror weapons?
PINCUS: It’s a good question. At the time of the Crossroads test, when they were testing twenty-three-kiloton weapons but they hadn’t had tests before, they removed the Rongelap people from their atoll and put them five hundred miles away and brought them back after the tests were over. During the Eisenhower administration, when Eisenhower was trying to save money it was decided even though we were testing weapons that were multiples of Crossroads it would cost too much to find other atolls to move the Rongelap people to, and so they narrowed the danger zone so it didn’t include Rongelap. But they did it not just to save money; they did it because a—they had already tested a megaton weapon and couldn’t measure the fallout, what they planned to do. A lot of this is lack of knowledge, which is the frightening part.
And as Joan said, the Bravo test was originally supposed to be five megatons and it turned out to be fifteen. So it was not only a huge, bigger blast; they also didn’t know about the upper winds above the stratosphere. And so the winds that—they knew winds at different levels went different ways, but it was the highest winds they had never measured that this fallout reached that ended up getting Rongelap covered.
ROHLFING: Walter, thank you so much. This has been really illuminating.
I’m afraid we have given out of time this evening. We’re at the end of our time, so I want to thank you all for joining today’s meeting. Please note that the video and transcript of this meeting will be posted on CFR’s website. And we welcome members who are here with us in Washington to a reception right outside the meeting doors. Thank you so much. (Applause.)