How I Learned to Stop Worrying

Article excerpt

[The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor, William i.angewiesene, Forrar, Straus and Giroux, 192 pages] How I Learned to Stop Worrying...

By Justin Logan

IN 1963, President John F. Kennedy described his alarm over one possible course of world politics. "I am haunted," Kennedy admitted, "by the feeling that by 1970, unless we are successful, there may be 10 nuclear powers instead of four, and by 1975, 15 or 20."

To the relief of many, Kennedy was overly pessimistic. By 1970, only China had joined the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France as the fifth member of the nuclear club, and by 1975, there were only six nuclear states, India having tested in 1974. Even today the nuclear club has only nine members. Still, nuclear technology is more than 60 years old, and its proliferation is governed by an agreement that will turn 40 next year. It is unlikely that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty will constrain the spread of nuclear weapons indefinitely, and with North Korea having attained nuclear status and Iran apparently trying determinedly to do the same, the stresses on the NPT are severe and growing.

The accepted view on all of this is that the NPT will hold because it must. The uncertain world that lies beyond its reach is so frightening to many, including much of the arms-control community, that we dare not countenance it.

Not so for William Langewiesche. In his new book, The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor, Langewiesche concludes starkly, "Diplomacy may help to slow the spread [of nuclear weapons] , but it can no more stop the process than it can reverse the progression of time. The nuclearization of the world has become the human condition, and it cannot be changed."

This revelation comes early on, and it sums up the sense of fatalism that pervades the book Langewiesche opens with an icy discussion of the American use of nuclear weapons against civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed by a similarly antiseptic description of the physics of nuclear weapons. A national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, Langewiesche is a skillful writer, and both treatments induce awe and queasiness, reflecting our deep ambivalence about our nation's relationship with nuclear technology. Langewiesche cannot resist pointing out that by any fair definition of the word "terrorism," the American attacks on Hiroshima-and certainly on Nagasaki - constituted the gravest acts of terrorism the world has ever seen.

This discussion sets up an explanation of how revulsion over Hiroshima led the founding fathers of the nuclear bomb to create the Federation of American Scientists, a group that to this day attempts to educate policymakers and the American public on the implications and dangers of nuclear weapons. The book also offers a brief explanation of the logic of the NPT-it was intended not to constrain, let alone reduce, the number of nuclear weapons in the world but rather to limit membership in the club of nuclear nations-before moving swiftly on to Langewiesche's bread and butter, investigative reporting.

He frames this section by putting the reader in the position of the head of a non-state group attempting to acquire nuclear weapons for first-use against the United States. Recounting the many obstacles to achieving this goal, Langewiesche takes readers on a tour of the southern Caucasus, Kurdistan, and other locales in which he has investigated the nuclear trade. Langewiesche has a deepseated cynicism about the U.S. government's efforts to constrain the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and he highlights numerous instances of American fecklessness and lack of seriousness.

One particularly galling example is the case of the formerly closed Russian town of Ozersk, a place that now houses tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium in shakily secured facilities. The Russians-paranoid but not without real enemies-only reluctantly agreed to cooperate with the U. …