Sixty Years of Trying to Control the Bomb Over six decades, the world has struggled to develop atomic power and control nuclear weapons -- with mixed results on both counts. Neal Conan hosts a special broadcast on the history of the atomic age, live from the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C.
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Sixty Years of Trying to Control the Bomb

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Sixty Years of Trying to Control the Bomb

Sixty Years of Trying to Control the Bomb

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan broadcasting live today from the Amphitheater at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, DC.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: This week the Carnegie Endowment's International Non-Proliferation Conference focuses on the history of efforts to control the bomb. Sixty years ago this month the man who ordered the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki called for an international regime to ensure that no more cities would be incinerated. President Harry Truman proposed a United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, quote, "to attain the most effective means of entirely eliminating the use of atomic energy for destructive purposes."

Thirty-five years ago the UN established the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Five countries--the US, USSR, Britain, France and China--became declared nuclear states and obligated themselves to reduce their nuclear arsenals. All other treaty members pledged to renounce nuclear weapons altogether.

There have been important successes. Sweden, Argentina, Brazil and most recently Libya are among the countries that voluntarily renounced nuclear weapons. South Africa actually dismantled atomic bombs it built in secret. Now independent states that were once part of the Soviet Union turned weapons over to Russia. But at least three countries pressed ahead outside of the NPT: Israel, Indian and Pakistan. There's deep concern about North Korea and Iran and about the possibility that terrorists could buy or steal a nuclear device.

Later this hour former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara joins us to offer his unique perspective on the history and future of arms control.

But first, 60 years of trying to control the bomb. How did we get to where we are today? Were the decisions made over the last 60 years the right ones? Were there other choices we could've made? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is We're also going to be taking questions from the audience here in the Amphitheater.

Let me introduce our guests: Richard Rhodes, author of 20 books, including a Pulitzer Prize winner, "The Making of the Atomic Bomb"; Siegfried Hecker, who's been a nuclear scientist at Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory since 1965. He became its director in 1986 and remained until 1997. And General Eugene Habiger, commander in chief of the United States Strategic Command in the late 1990s, where he was responsible for all US strategic nuclear forces.

Gentlemen, thank you all for joining us today.

Unidentified Panelist #1: Thank you.

Unidentified Panelist #2: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Richard Rhodes, let me begin with you and begin at the beginning. Sixty years ago there was only one nuclear weapons state. Was the United States ever serious about proposals for international controls?

Mr. RICHARD RHODES (Author, "The Making of the Atomic Bomb"): You know, we were serious to the point where we prepared what was then and probably is now the best single plan for dealing with this new force of nature that had changed the relationship between states. But I think even Robert Oppenheimer, the former director of Los Alamos who really kind of chaired the committee that wrote the Acheson-Lilienthal report, felt later that, as he said to a friend, `If we were really serious about this, it wouldn't have been dealt with at the level of the United Nations.' So it's a question. But at least when President Truman offered Bernard Baruch, a conservative financier, the responsibility for presenting the plan, and Baruch altered it so that it included the notion that everybody else would basically disarm first and when they were through, then the United States would give up its nuclear arsenal, it was like a foregone conclusion that the Soviet Union wasn't going to accept this.

CONAN: So that the proposals put forward were: `Well, if they take it, good, but in the meantime, we're going to keep building bombs.'

Mr. RHODES: We had a unique capability at that point. The Soviet Union had four million men on the ground in Europe. Our men had all come home. But because we were the only nuclear power, we felt safe.

CONAN: Let me bring Siegfried Hecker into this conversation at this point. And we know that nuclear scientists--and this conference, in part, celebrates the 60th anniversary of the publication of the Bulletin of Atomic Science. But we know that atomic scientists were a strong part of the effort to control nuclear weapons, well, even before they were used in Japan. Nevertheless, they saw that the United States government went ahead. Tell us a little bit more about what happened with atomic scientists after the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and efforts to, again, convince the administrations that these weapons needed to be controlled.

Mr. SIEGFRIED HECKER (Former Director, Los Alamos National Laboratory): Well, it was J. Robert Oppenheimer who, during the Manhattan Project, indeed, stayed on track with the job that he had, and that is that he actually said to the government that we're prepared to use these nuclear weapons. Right after the use of nuclear weapons, he's the one who led the movement that actually turned out to be the Baruch plan.

So at the University of Chicago, whose job was actually done early on in the Manhattan Project, there was considerable concern before the bomb was used. At Los Alamos, most of that concern happened after the bomb. And so there was significant activity after the bomb was used to now. Now that we've demonstrated that by tapping the energy of the nucleus, we gain a factor of millions that we must control that. And the scientists played a significant role.

CONAN: And let me ask you also, Richard Rhodes, at that point was--almost every country in the world must have wanted to develop nuclear weapons of their own.

Mr. RHODES: There was a really wide-ranging effort by various countries, as far of the normal purview as Norway and Sweden and Switzerland and Belgium, to look into this new phenomenon. When you have introduced into the world the weapon that's capable of destroying a city and, in clusters, destroying a nation, of course every nation's leaders have a responsibility to the security of their populations to at least look into it. What's exciting and different is that so many nations finally decided not to go that way.

CONAN: At the same time, General Habiger, the military, presented with this device, had to--it wasn't a symbol to them. It was something you had to devise doctrine to figure out how to use it. And, in part, one of the advantages of nuclear weapons was, it was thought, you would get more bang for the buck and didn't have to spend quite so much money.

General EUGENE HABIGER (Former Commander in Chief, United States Strategic Command): Well, that's an excellent point. But let me make very, very clear that the policies involving nuclear weapons come from the civilian leadership of this country. The president of the United States is the one that dictates the overall policy in regards to the use of nuclear weapons. By the time it gets down to the operating command--today it would be United States Strategic Command--it's gone through several layers of civilian and higher military review. So they had utility during the Cold War, they were a deterrent the Cold War, but their value today as a military tool has greatly diminished.

CONAN: By the way, if you'd like to join the conversation, again, give us a phone call: (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. We'd especially like to hear from those of you who were involved in the development of nuclear weapons over the years here in this country. And you can also send us e-mail,

Let's take a question from the Amphitheater here, to my right.

Mr. STEPHEN SCHWARTZ (Audience Member): Yes, thank you. I'm Stephen Schwartz, a writer and consultant and a former executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. A question for all three of the distinguished panelists: In your opinion, how much of a role did luck play in avoiding the accidental or deliberate use of nuclear weapons over the last 60 years, if you care to quantify it in percentage terms and if you could provide an example of one instance? Thank you.

CONAN: Luck, General Habiger?

Gen. HABIGER: Some luck. I'll be the first to admit that. But I have to caveat that by saying that the tens of thousands of professional airmen, seamen and soldiers involved with nuclear weapons, their sense of professionalism, the training they received ensured that a very, very high probability--and I can't give you a percentage--that we didn't have to be concerned about those sorts of things. But there were instances that are fully documented which we--luck played a role.

CONAN: And, Siegfried Hecker, want to--from your perspective.

Mr. HECKER: From a standpoint of accident, I think the most important reason we haven't had accidents is because the scientists and engineers realized the importance of designing safety into the nuclear weapons, and the military had the right handling procedures to do that.

CONAN: On both sides of the Cold War?

Mr. HECKER: And actually on both sides of that. I've had much opportunity to deal with the Russians over the past 15 years, and they have cared every bit as much about the safety of their nuclear weapons--and that is not to have a mushroom cloud accidentally--as we have.

But from a standpoint of deterrence, there I would say that luck has played some role. And I would put it in the following fashion. The main reason that weapons haven't been used is just--one is that horrific, destructive nature of the weapons itself; the second, the deterrence during the Cold War, there were only two fingers on the trigger; and then third is that at times we were lucky. And I think the Cuban Missile Crisis is probably one of those.

CONAN: Richard Rhodes, what do you think?

Mr. RHODES: Well, I was going to say I hope Secretary McNamara might have a chance to talk about the belated discovery by all of us that there were, indeed, nuclear warheads in Cuba. And had we invaded that country during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it would have been certainly Armageddon. But there were other moments during the course of the Cold War when often a chain of, seemingly, almost random events led to very near misses. The one that I spoke to this group about yesterday occurred in 1983 when the Soviet government began to be concerned because of President Reagan's rather saber-rattling rhetoric that we were planning a first strike. There was then an exercise of NATO forces in Europe around that time that led the Soviets again to think that that might be a cover for a first strike. The Soviets actually scrambled aircraft and loaded tactical nuclear missiles on those--nulcear bombs on those aircraft. All this happened in the space of a few months and may have helped lead to the great breakthrough between Reagan and Gorbachev. But certainly there have been near misses along the way.

CONAN: And let me ask you--and I think this is a question for all of you, but let me ask you, beginning with Siegfried Hecker, to what degree--I mean, there's been this sort of dual push. At the same time we want to control nuclear weapons through international regimes, at the same time we also want to develop new kinds of nuclear weapons and make your system robust, so that it could present a credible deterrent to the Soviet Union. To what degree did technology prompt proliferation?

Mr. HECKER: Certainly technology had a lot to do with the new capabilities. Technology not only--I would say the greatest single technological accomplishment of the nuclear weapons program as such is being able to miniaturize, so that you can put the nuclear weapons on missiles.

CONAN: And put many of them on missiles.

Mr. HECKER: And actually then put many of them on missiles. However, the technological capabilities outside the nuclear weapons program itself also played a role--in other words, the accuracy of the missiles themselves, the ability to put multiple warheads on. Actually our ability to do surveillance from space had a significant role in eventually--in nuclear weapons force structures and doctrine and such. So, of course, technology played an important role in making policy options possible.

CONAN: It also played an important role in arms control verification later on.

Mr. HECKER: That is correct.

CONAN: We're going to have to take a short break. Again, if you'd like to join the conversation, our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail is We're at the Carnegie International Non-Proliferation Conference broadcasting about the history of nuclear proliferation.

I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're broadcasting live today from the Amphitheater at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, DC.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: This is the site of the Carnegie International Non-Proliferation Conference. Many of the people gathered here today helped shape the last 60 years of our history with the bomb and may help shape its future as well. Our guests are Richard Rhodes, a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Making of the Atomic Bomb"; Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory; and General Eugene Habiger, former commander in chief of the United States Strategic Command. And of course we want to hear from you. If you or someone you know played a part in this history, give us a call, tell us your story: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK.

And let's get a caller on the line. This is Bill. Bill's calling us from Jacksonville, Florida.

BILL (Caller): Yeah, how are you?

CONAN: Very well.

BILL: When I was a young kid growing up in the '50s and '60s, there was always this talk about the hydrogen bomb and then eventually the neutron bomb, which is supposed to be the next level up in both technology and disastercations. Whatever happened to them?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Siegfried Hecker, I think they're both alive and well.

Mr. HECKER: I wouldn't quite put it that way. But, yes, the hydrogen bomb--that is, a two-stage thermonuclear device, as we refer to it--is indeed the principal part of the US arsenal, as it is of the Russian arsenal. And the destructive power of the hydrogen bomb is, indeed, many times--sometimes thousands of times--that that was demonstrated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The neutron bomb was one of those technical diversions along the way. It was actually the next best--not the next best greatest thing. It was a way to limit, let's say, property damage while inflicting other--it went by the way of the graveyard.

CONAN: And thanks very much for the call, Bill, by the way. And I guess that gets us back to the question of technology and proliferation. Richard Rhodes, at the same time there was an impulse to try to control nuclear weapons, the force structure had to be broadened and made more robust and technological developments, not just in thermonuclear weapons but, as Siegfried Hecker was talking also, MIRV weapons, multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles, as many as 10 or 12 weapons on one missile.

Mr. HECKER: There was great effort, particularly after the Cuban Missile Crisis but starting with President Eisenhower. President Eisenhower was hoping to get a nuclear weapons test ban before he left office. Unfortunately, the shooting down of the U-2 spy plane broke up all those hopes.

(Soundbite of coughing)

Mr. HECKER: Excuse me. What followed was that President Kennedy was able to negotiated a limited test ban treaty and then, really, the crown jewel of all the efforts, the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, which, as you have discussed, by trading off an agreement of the five nuclear powers to make their best efforts to disarm, something I don't think we've really kept our part of the bargain about. Many other countries--I think 168, 170 at this point--agreed not to go nuclear. And with very few exceptions, that has been the reigning arms control agreement since then. And it's the reason why President Kennedy, speaking before the NPT, talked about 20 or 30 nuclear powers by now. But it's the reason why, in fact, we only have eight or nine.

CONAN: General Habiger?

Gen. HABIGER: I want to just make sure we understand that in addition to the technology involved in nuclear weapons, there were significant technological advances with things like stealth technology. The fact that we had a stealth fighter, a stealth bomber, a stealth cruise missile all helped in providing, during the Cold War, robust weapons systems. In addition to that, during the height of the Cold War, our accuracy standards for our bombers were a few thousand feet. Now the accuracy standards for our precision-guided munitions is down to a few feet. And that in itself devalues the value of nuclear weapons.

CONAN: Yeah, there's a trade-off between...

Gen. HABIGER: Yes.

CONAN: ...accuracy and how much explosive you've got to have.

CONAN: You bet.

CONAN: Yeah. Let's get another question from the audience, over here to my right.

Mr. BERHANAN DEMECAL(ph) (Audience Member): Yeah.

CONAN: Go ahead, sir.

Mr. DEMECAL: Oh, my name is Berhanan Demecal. The Baruch plan of the 1940s for putting nuclear weapons under an international authority was way ahead of its time. After the Cold War, is it more timely now to revive the idea?

CONAN: Richard Rhodes, I think we'll put that to you.

Mr. RHODES: You know, the Baruch plan embodied the basic and fundamental dilemma of the development of nuclear weapons. Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist, once summed it up in a single sentence. He said, `We are in an entirely new situation that cannot be resolved by war.' Under those circumstances, what this plan basically did was say this is a common problem to every nation and individual in the world, just as avian flu may soon become a common problem to everyone. Since it's a risk to us all, we have practical reason to sit down and negotiate agreements that will prevent an arms race. Those basic and fundamental arguments are just as valid today, will be valid 200 years from now. So I think the Baruch plan is something people should indeed take another look at. I wave it about whenever I'm in public.

CONAN: There have been charges raised in question with that. Anyway, let's get another caller on the line--I'm sorry, did you want to add something?

Mr. HECKER: Yes, actually I did...

CONAN: Go ahead. I'm sorry.

Mr. HECKER: ...want to contribute something to that discussion. I agree with Richard Rhodes that one should not the quest towards lowering the number of nuclear weapons and perhaps sometime in the future do exactly what was said. However, the part that I'm most concerned about is that the world has changed so immensely since 1946. When we had a few kilograms of plutonium, a few kilograms, so to speak, of highly enriched uranium, it takes a few tens of these to make a bomb. Today we have 1.9 million kilograms of highly enriched uranium in the world. We have 1.9 million kilograms approximately of plutonium in the world; much of it is in spent reactor fuel. My concern is today that regardless of whatever international arrangement we have, the greatest danger is how do we make sure, as Senator Nunn has pointed out a number of times, that we protect, control, and account for the fissile materials that could be the material from which terrorists could make a bomb. That's an immediate job. It's not one that I want to wait for many years to hand over to the United Nations.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. And this is Jay. Jay calling from Bend, Oregon.

JAY (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Jay. Go ahead.

JAY: Yes. My question has to do with the dropping of the bomb on Japan. To what extent was that a deterrent for future use of the bomb?

CONAN: General Habiger, did the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki act as a deterrent?

JAY: I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Jake.

Gen. HABIGER: I don't think so. I think the immediate focus--and I will defer to Dick on a more definitive historical answer, but from a military perspective, the sole reason for dropping those two bombs was to end World War II. I mean, this is a war in which almost 4 percent of the world's population died, civilians and military, and it was time for it to come to an end and come to an end quickly.

CONAN: But I think the question was after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, did the evidence of that kind of destruction and this new force on the globe--did what we see deter the future use of nuclear weapons?

Gen. HABIGER: I don't think initially, but there was such a tremendous race by the four powers that eventually came up with the nuclear weapons, especially the Russians. The Russians, Soviets pulled out all the stops. If you go to Kazakhstan today where they tested many of those earlier nuclear weapons and you see the devastation and the results of radiation sickness, you can see the devastation that was incurred in that particular country. But I think it was during the late '40s is when--early '50s--when the deterrent value of nuclear weapons really took its place.

CONAN: Richard Rhodes?

Mr. RHODES: You know, you don't really have a deterrent situation until you have another enemy that is putting you at risk. I think the best way to answer that question is the day after Hiroshima, Stalin called in the head of his nuclear weapons program, Lavrenti Beria, also the head of the KGB, and said, `Comrade, give us the bomb. Use all the resources of the state. We must have this.' And by '49, the Soviets did have a bomb, and then there was indeed a deterrent stand-off between the two powers ever after.

CONAN: Let me ask you--this might seem an odd question, but did deterrence work? Once there was mutually assured destruction, was that the mechanism that kept us out of nuclear war? General?

Gen. HABIGER: By all means. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind the deterrent worked. Now during the course of our history, going back to about 1600, about 1 to 2 percent of the population died a result of violent conflict, wars, that sort of thing. Almost 4 percent, World War II. After World War II, during this period of the Cold War, which lasted 46 years, the percentage of people on this planet who died as a result of war was less than 1/10th of 1 percent. So deterrence worked. Now having said that, I will also tell you that if deterrence had failed and we'd used nuclear weapons, there would've been many, many millions of people that would die. But it worked.

CONAN: Siegfried Hecker.

Mr. HECKER: I'd like to weigh in on that. to just put numbers on what General Habiger just said. Roughly in the first half of the 20th century, 100 million people died in war. During the second half of the 20th century, roughly 20 million people died in war. There was a discontinuity in the affairs of mankind. And as I look back at least, those bombs having been used and their power demonstrated resulted in that discontinuity. And if that brought us for some time some global peace or the absence of global war, I think they did. However, during that time, since that was the time of my life and my professional life, if that was global peace, it was an uneasy peace.

CONAN: General Habiger, let me ask you another point. Do you think that deterrence--deterrence was built not just on the existence of nuclear stockpiles but on certain beliefs on both sides about technological capabilities, certain abilities to detect incoming attacks, certain abilities to communicate and a belief in the willingness to strike back. Does deterrence work on a regional level? Does deterrence work between India and Pakistan?

Gen. HABIGER: I think so. And I would add one more element to the issues that you brought up, and that's the professionalism of the operators in the field. You know, we tested on a regular basis our capability to respond with alert exercises, and we made no secret of that to the Soviets. They knew exactly what we were doing. And the Soviets did similar kinds of things to make sure we understood. But regional issues--that, in my view, is the next big challenge in the future.

CONAN: We're talking today--Richard Rhodes, did you want to weigh in?

Mr. RHODES: Just about deterrence because there's certainly no question that existential deterrence worked. The fact that the other side had weapons made both sides stand down. I've never understood why we built so many weapons and why the Soviets built so many weapons, tens of thousands, why, for example, we had air-to-air anti-aircraft rockets with nuclear warheads to shoot down a plane. The arms race cost us at least 5 and perhaps $10 trillion. So every broken down bridge and every school with the ceiling falling out in the United States is in some sense a part of all of that.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. RHODES: We lost something of our democratic society in the national security state that we built as a result of this conflict. It could perhaps have been done with much less loss of money and values in both societies, if you will, even though of course they were an implacable enemy.

CONAN: We're talking about the nuclear threat and the history of it and where we stand today, and our guests are Richard Rhodes, Siegfried Hecker and General Eugene Habiger, retired General Habiger.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's get a question from our left.

Mr. DAVE THATCHER(ph): Yes. My name is Dave Thatcher, and I'm currently a student at the University of Utah. My question is over the last few decades, how well has the United States complied to all of the regulations and commitments required of them by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And how has their compliance shaped today's current global situation as--in dealing with countries like Iran, Korea, North Korea?

CONAN: Richard Rhodes, you were talking about this a little bit earlier?

Mr. RHODES: I think there's a real problem with our willingness to participate in the Non-Proliferation Treaty in terms of our good efforts to reduce armaments. There have, of course, been enormous reductions. Those clearly were the result of the end of the Cold War. We seem now to be in a period of stagnation, if I may call it that, where not much is being done, where indeed it's kind of off the table, whether we should have the number of weapons we have or reduce them further.

It looks to me--I was at the non-proliferation conference a few months ago in New York at the UN. It looks to me as if the other members who do not have nuclear weapons are beginning to be restive about the whole issue, and that's speaks directly as to whether we can make further agreements, whether other reductions are possible, how we can justify asking states not to proliferate their numbers of nuclear weapons when we keep such a large arsenal ourselves.

CONAN: General Habiger.

Gen. HABIGER: We're not doing enough quickly enough to lower the levels of nuclear weapons. We need to get on a stable glide path, a little more steep than we have today. The Cold War ended in 1991. The Moscow Treaty, which gets us down to 1,700 to 2,200 weapons, doesn't come into force until the end of December 2012. That's 21 years after the Cold War. That's too long. And we need to move out aggressively between the United States and Russia to get down to lower levels more rapidly, and it's because, I think, it's not on anybody's radar screen right now. And it needs to get on somebody's radar screen. It...

(Soundbite of applause)

Gen. HABIGER: And having said that, let me just make one more point. We cannot deinvent nuclear weapons. We'll never get down to zero nuclear weapons unfortunately. What's the level we're going to get to eventually? If you were to ask me right now, I'd say in maybe 10, 20 years a goal of 600 nuclear weapons on behalf of the United States.

CONAN: Siegfried Hecker?

Mr. HECKER: My colleagues have addressed the issue of what's called Article 6 in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and that is the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. And from a legal standpoint, I think that will be up to question for a long, long time.

Let me address a different issue, and that is there are other articles associated with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and then there's the overall attention and priority that a country puts on the issue of non-proliferation. And there I have some concerns as to what we have done as a country for years, and I have concerns as to what Russia is doing. And that is we have allowed our non-proliferation focus to be subverted by other national security concerns. You know, for example, if we look at Pakistan for all those years, it was clear that Pakistan was developing a nuclear weapons program, yet we did not come down on them hard enough because we needed Pakistan as an ally against the Soviet Union. Today we hear of Russia working with Iran, and of course, there are many justifications that Russia can use, why it should help Iran with a reactor. However, it's clear that Iran has violated the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and with that violation must come a consequence for violating. And if Russia would join with the United states, with China, we would have a much greater ability to stop proliferation. We have let proliferation be secondary; it should be primary.

CONAN: We're going to...

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: ...have to take another short break. When we come back we're going to continue this conversation, plus we'll talk with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara about his relationship to the bomb. If you'd like to join us, (800) 989-8255.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

We're broadcasting today from the amphitheater of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, DC.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Let me reintroduce our guests. Richard Rhodes is a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winner for "The Making of the Atomic Bomb"; Siegfried Hecker is a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory; and General Eugene Habiger, former commander in chief of the United States strategic command, is also with us on the panel. In a few minutes, we'll be talking with Secretary Robert McNamara.

CONAN: Are there lessons to learn for the future? What were the roads not taken over the past 60 years? (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail: Just before the break we were talking about--it's said so often as to be almost a cliche, that we can't disinvent nuclear weapons. Richard Rhodes, you wanted to weight in on that.

Mr. RHODES: Of course we can't disinvent the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons, but we can dismantle nuclear weapons, as the South Africans dismantled nuclear weapons, and indeed some to a stable regime in the world where the knowledge itself in the form of perhaps three months from factory to target gives us the space of time we don't presently have to find some alternative to using it.

CONAN: Let's get another question from the audience, and we'll go to my left.

Mr. BEN HERMAN(ph): My name is Ben Herman. I'm with the Threat Reduction Support Center. The atomic scientists, as it was stated earlier, took an early and proactive role in warning the government about the implications of nuclear weapons. As concerns regarding biological weapons come into the forefront of the discussion on non-proliferation, are biological scientists playing a similar or, in your view, a sufficient view in this discussion?

CONAN: I'm not sure, Siegfried Hecker, if you wanted to address that or not.

Mr. HECKER: That one is very difficult to address. I would say that scientists in general are currently trying to deal with the issues that are brought by biological terrorism. The issues are so different because the technologies are so necessary for us to be able to deal with health-related issues. However, there are people that are weighing in in a significant way as to what could and could not be done, so I think that's beginning--it's certainly not as dramatic because there hasn't been as dramatic a demonstration of the threat as there was for nuclear weapons. But others would know that better than I do.

CONAN: OK. Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Ray. Ray's calling us from San Francisco.

RAY (Caller): Thanks. One of the results of the face-off in 1962 between the Soviets and the Americans over the deployment of nuclear weapons by the Soviets and Cuba was the installation of a hot line between the United States and the Soviets in an effort to head off misunderstandings. The question is what is the status of that hot line now, and do we see it being deployed between other prospective adversaries?

CONAN: General Habiger is the person who may have been closest to it?

Gen. HABIGER: You bet. The hot line initially was no more than a teletype. Now it is a digital phone link that you don't have to wait for typing to take place. As I understand it, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has been talking to his Chinese counterparts about a hot line between the Pentagon and the counterpart in Beijing.

CONAN: Do we know if there's any kind of an equivalent between Pakistan and India?

Gen. HABIGER: They are discussing that, from the sources that I've seen. So there is progress. I think responsible nation-states that have nuclear weapons understand that communication is absolutely vital--real-time communication being vital.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call. And let's get another question from the audience--to my right.

Mr. CHRISTIN ARENTIFAW(ph): Thank you. My name is Christin Arentifaw of the University of Vienna in Austria. Mr. McNamara said something very interesting in the documentary film "The Fog of War." He said a very interesting sentence. `In order to do good, sometimes you must engage in evil,' which is what he maybe did during the Cold War. Do the panelists believe that the Bush administration or all nuclear weapons states nowadays find themselves in the same situation: In order to good, in order to protect themselves, they have to engage in those things we want to eliminate? Thank you.

CONAN: Well, Secretary McNamara is with us here on the panel. Maybe this question is best put you to, Secretary McNamara.

Former Secretary ROBERT McNAMARA (US Department of Defense): It was Reinhold Niebuhr, one of our greatest theologians of the last century of this country, who used--or coined that term: Sometimes it's necessary to do evil to do good. I think he's right, but today that does not justify at all what we're doing with nuclear weapons. Sometimes I'm asked to characterize US and NATO nuclear policies, weapons deployments and policies in one sentence, and this is the reply I give: Their policies--US and NATO--are immoral, illegal, military unnecessary, very, very dangerous in terms of the risk of accidental use, as somebody mentioned; it's even greater risk in Russia than it is here. And they're destructive to the non-proliferation regime. They make no sense whatsoever. And it's time to change it.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Well, with that perhaps we ought to introduce Robert McNamara...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: ...who was secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, later served as president of the World Bank, and he's been kind enough to join us here today.

Mr. McNAMARA: Thank you very much. Good to be here.

CONAN: Appreciate it. I did--one more question for Siegfried Hecker before we move on to talk to you. This is an e-mail question from Rob Cohen in Cleveland, Ohio. `How much of our nuclear deterrent strategy was informed by input from game theory--that seems like the two fields that grew up together.' Did they have any effects cross-currents with each other, to your knowledge?

Mr. HECKER: Actually, I think General Habiger might be better positioned to answer about the nuclear strategy. Certainly game theory did not come into play in designing the nuclear weapons themselves.

CONAN: And a good thing too. General?

Gen. HABIGER: We used a wide range of tools to ensure that we minimized the forces necessary to achieve deterrence. And game theory was one, among many others.

CONAN: (Laughs) That's a cautious statement, sir.

Gen. HABIGER: Yes.

CONAN: We appreciate it. Secretary McNamara, let me ask you, going back to some of your early days in office, one of the big issues in the 1960 election was the so-called missile gap between the United States and the Soviet Union. How long after you took office did you learn that there was no missile gap?

Mr. McNAMARA: About three weeks. And I had a public relations officer said, `Bob, you haven't met with the Pentagon press. They're just great. You've gotta meet with them.' I said, `Hell, I came from Detroit; I don't know anything about the press. I can't meet with 'em.' He said, `You gotta. Do it.' We did it that afternoon. The first question was, `Mr. Secretary, you've been here three weeks. What'd you learn about the missile gap?' I said, `Well, I learned there wasn't one, or if there was one it was in our favor.' They broke the door down. And that afternoon, the Evening Star said no missile gap, and the next morning, the leading Republican at the Senate urged President Kennedy to resign and fire McNamara.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McNAMARA: But there wasn't. And I don't mean that anybody lied. Don't misunderstand me. Our intelligence then regarding Soviet missiles was much less than it is today. Obviously the general would agree. And there was honest difference of opinion. But those who saw hay barrels as missiles--they, in a sense, won the day. And the mis--it wasn't games theory that led to our strategy at that time. It was fear that the Soviets would develop capabilities to attack our strike forces.

CONAN: Yet early in the Kennedy administration, the Minuteman program was authorized and this greatly expanded the US arsenal.

Mr. McNAMARA: That's correct. And I think somebody said yesterday that--they implied we had a thousand Minute Men, but that it had been recommended we get 10,000, and that was correct. It was a recommendation we get 10,000, and the recommendation was based on the urge that we develop a first-strike capability. First-strike capability means we could launch against the Soviets, destroy so much of their force they would not be able to respond with force that would put unacceptable damage on us.

Number one, I didn't believe we could ever do that--develop that capability. Number two, I didn't believe we should try. We didn't. But the Air Force did recommend that we get 10,000 Minute Men; we got a thousand.

CONAN: Remarkable reduction, but nevertheless, it was a spur to the arms race at that time.

Mr. McNAMARA: Oh, there's no question. The US spurred the arms race. I spurred the arms race. And the reason was...

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

Mr. McNAMARA: ...the reason was--and you have to remember how difficult it was then, and to some degree how difficult it is today, to deal in some of these proliferation issues. The problem then was our intelligence was poor; the lead time of our procurement process--if we wanted to substantially increase our nuclear weapons in the future, perhaps develop a new weapon, put it in production, deploy it--was somewhere on the order of five to seven years. And we had to look out and say what would the Soviets have five to seven years from now. And of course, we took a worst-case scenario, which was not unreasonable. But that's what led to the arms race, both on our part and on the Soviets' part. And it's very unfortunate, and it's time to stop it. And I want to urge you to remember what General Habiger said in part today and what he added yesterday that related to it. He said that today he thought we should reduce US and Soviet nuclear weapons. Yesterday he said--somebody asked him how far could we go. He said he thought we could get down to 600. Now that's from our current level.

We have--as we talk--15 years after the Cold War--we have 6,000 strategic warheads deployed, each one with roughly 20 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb. Of the 6,000, 2,000 are on alert to be launched in 15 minutes. It's insane. It needs to be changed. And if we were...

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. McNAMARA: One of the sad things about the nuclear proliferation treaty review was everybody said to the US we're not going to do what we're committed to under that because you're not committing--you're not doing what you're committed to by law. In Article 6 you're committed by law to negotiate in good faith a reduction to eliminate nuclear weapons. I don't believe any US president, secretary of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman ever intended to do that. But if we did what General Habiger said, we'd stop this talk and would greatly reduce the risk of nuclear danger to the world. Get down to 600 from our current level of perhaps 10,000.

CONAN: Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara; also with us retired General Eugene Habiger; Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear scientist at Los Alamos since 1965; and Richard Rhodes, author and historian.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another question--this one from the audience on my right.

Mr. HIROSHIKA MURA: My name is Hiroshika Mura(ph), and this a very simple question. Why didn't the US use nuclear bomb in the Korean War and the Vietnam War?

CONAN: Well, Secretary McNamara, maybe you can take the second half of that.

Mr. McNAMARA: Well, in Vietnam the last thing in the world we wanted to do was bring the Chinese into the war. And whatever other mistakes we made--we made lots of them--we didn't bring the Chinese in. If we had used a nuclear bomb, I am sure the Chinese would have come in with great forces--ground forces and aircraft. We avoided that. There were other reasons. It wasn't necessary. Genocide was something we would not accept at the time. I'm very glad we never used them. At times there were recommendations we do so; we didn't.

CONAN: On the Korea part, Richard Rhodes, let me ask you.

Mr. RHODES: There were atomic bombs that were staged to be ready to use during the Korean War--in particular, late in the war there were nine bombs, assemblies, on Guam. The reason seems to have been in part that it wasn't clear that they would be effective in the very mountainous terrain of North Korea, and we were greatly concerned that if we used them there and they were ineffective, they would be in a sense devalued for our defense in Europe, and that more than anything else, I think, although the introduction of the weapons themselves--it seems to have led rather quickly to a resolution of that conflict.

CONAN: Secretary McNamara, let me ask you a question that came up on this panel, in fact.

Mr. McNAMARA: Yes.

CONAN: We now know there were nuclear warheads on Cuba at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, and what would have been the effect if the United States had gone ahead with that--well, what some people said--we should invade?

Mr. McNAMARA: It would have been utter disaster. The critical decision--critical date, decision time with respect to the Cuban missile crisis was 4 PM on Saturday, October 27th, 1962. At that time, President Kennedy was meeting with his chiefs, his senior civilian security advisers; they'd met all day. At that point, the CIA was saying--of course, we had photographs of the missiles--but they said they didn't believe the nuclear warheads had been delivered. They thought the first batch of 20 were coming on a ship named the Potava(ph) that would land in three or four days. At 4:30 PM on Saturday, October 27, '62, the chiefs recommended we attack. We put in a--we had to get the missiles out--we could talk about that sometime--but we had to get them out. There was general agreement on that. We introduced in a sense a blockade. We called it a quarantine because blockade was...

CONAN: Act of war.

Mr. McNAMARA: act of war, exactly. And we didn't want to connote that. So we called it a quarantine. We introduced it on Wednesday. By Saturday it didn't have a damn bit of effect. We had to get it out. Only way to do it, so it was said, was to attack; the chiefs recommended attack. It wasn't until 29 years later that we learned at that 4:30 PM on Saturday, the 27th of October, the Soviets had about 1,700 nuclear warheads on this isle of Cuba, roughly 900 for their missiles, and roughly 700 for their tactical warheads. It would have been total disaster for us and the world had we gone. Had we done that, almost surely the Soviets would have attacked using their weapons from Russia. How it would have ended: in utter disaster.

CONAN: I guess it goes back to the question of the role of luck in avoiding nuclear conflict.

Mr. McNAMARA: I wanted to say I totally agree with General Habiger that I don't think luck plays a great part in the actual--I'm going to call it military operations with respect to nuclear weapons. But it plays a great part in the decision making, the political decision making. The general pointed out that our nuclear operations policies today stem from the president, and I can tell you--I could give you many instances if we had time...

CONAN: Could you give me one?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McNAMARA: President Kennedy lucked out. He said we won't attack, despite the recommendations of the chiefs. He was lucky--in one sense. He and I both thought the danger was greater than others, but we didn't believe the nuclear danger was anywhere close to what we learned 29 years later. We were lucky.

CONAN: Secretary McNamara, General Habiger, Siegfried Hecker and Richard Rhodes, thank you very much for being with us today.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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