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Under The Spreading Mushroom Cloud
‘Who’s next?” sang Tom Lehrer in his darkly funny Cold War ballad about nuclear proliferation. We’re still asking.
November 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 7
The anti-Communist fervor of the early fifties was partly a legacy of the 1949 Soviet explosion.
Eight years elapsed before France entered the game on February 13, 1960, through an airborne test (of which there had by then been more than two hundred in the world) of a plutonium bomb in the Sahara. It was described as having a power “approximately” that of the twentykiloton bomb that had razed Hiroshima, a weapon that by this time seemed almost too primitive to inspire awe. Nonetheless, there was truth to the single-column subhead’s declaration, “Successful Shot Puts Paris With U.S., Soviet and Britain as Nuclear Power.” That was exactly what General de Gaulle, the President of France, wished: to prove that his country was again a major power that did not need the support of any alliance. His official announcement unveiled further developments in the emerging and sometimes perplexing philosophy of war prevention. The French Republic was now “better placed to make its actions felt for the conclusion of agreements among the atomic powers with a view toward realizing nuclear disarmament.” The argument was that having bigger and better bombs gave a nation the security and influence to consider having fewer; one had to arm to disarm.
Cold War tensions eased sufficiently to allow a huge breakthrough in mid-1963. when Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States, equally concerned about the cumulative effects of radioactive fallout that descended on the righteous and the wicked alike, signed a treaty agreeing to conduct no further tests in space, the sea, or the atmosphere. But then, on October 16, 1964. China exploded—in the air—its first atomic bomb.
This time official responses reflected changes in the world picture. China was still a Communist nation, publicly hailing its bomb as a “major achievement of the Chinese people in their struggle to … oppose the United States imperialist policy of nuclear blackmail. …” But China was no longer a Soviet ally: quite the contrary in fact, and one consequence of the test was to draw Moscow and Washington closer together. Experts expressed relief that the explosion had a yield of “only” ten to twenty kilotons. It was the editorial page of the Times that drew attention to a longerrange cause of alarm. An Asian Abomb opened new doors. If “industrially underdeveloped China” could make an atomic bomb, other nations could follow “down the same dangerous road.”
Further spread of bomb-making technology had become a clear and present danger, and an international nonproliferation treaty was drawn up in 1967-68 and signed by a growing number of countries. The United States ratified it in 1970. India was not a signatory, and its 1974 underground test simply ignored the protests of the nations that already possessed nuclear arsenals. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called it a peaceful move, “nothing to get excited about.” But Zulfikar AIi Bhutto, Pakistan’s leader, decidedly disagreed. “If India builds the bomb,” he declared, “we will eat grass or leaves, we go hungry. But we will get one of our own.” After twenty-four years, that prediction is fulfilled.
Pakistan is the seventh acknowledged bomb possessor, the third Asian and the first Muslim nation to join the ranks. It is taken as a given among expert sources that Israel has some “nukes” or the capacity to produce them immediately, though the Israeli government has never acknowledged as much. South Africa was at one point thought to be in a similar position. It is a hard time for the pursuit of nonproliferation, given the ease of transferring technology, the ineffectiveness of economic sanctions, and the general uncertainties of control in a multipolar world. Perhaps some new form of peace initiative—abolition?—will be added to the list that already has included mutual assured destruction, test bans and moratoriums, arms limitation and nonproliferation, even as the weapons themselves have grown in quantity, power, and number of possessors. The fifty-three-year record shows that we devise strategies and priorities in accordance with how we see the problem through the ever-changing lens of the present moment.