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A Historian’s Assessment of Atomic Audit

This project was completed in August 1998 and resulted in the book Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 edited by Stephen I. Schwartz. These project pages are only occasionally updated and should be considered historical.


The Hidden Costs of Our Nuclear Arsenal

“A Historian’s Assessment of Atomic Audit” by David Alan Rosenberg—June 30, 1998

David Alan Rosenberg, a prominent military and diplomatic historian, is Associate Professor of History at Temple University. His teaching and research interests include twentieth century military, naval and national security history, international security affairs, and the nuclear age. Dr. Rosenberg serves as a pro bono consultant to the Office of the Secretary of the Navy and Office of the Chief of Naval Operations on various strategic and force planning issues, and as a Commander, (Special Duty, Intelligence), in the Selected Reserve of the U.S. Naval Reserve, where he runs a lessons-learned project for the Director of Naval Intelligence. He has also served as a senior fellow at the Strategic Concepts Development Center, National Defense University (1983-1985), professor of strategy and operations at the U.S. Naval War College (1985-1990) and professor of maritime strategy at the National War College (1996-1998).

Dr. Rosenberg was awarded the 1980 Binkley-Stephanson Prize from the Organization of American Historians for the best article published in the Journal of American History in 1979, and the 1980 Bernath Article Prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. He has received scholar grants for research from the Harry S Truman Library Institute (1974, 1975, 1983), the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation (1983, 1992), the Ford Foundation (1985, 1986), and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Grant for Individual Research and Writing in International Peace and Security (1987-1988). In 1988, he became the first military historian to be awarded a five year John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. He received the Department of the Navy Meritorious Public Service Citation from the Chief of Naval Operations for his civilian consulting work for the Navy on current policy and strategy in 1995. That same year, he was appointed to and was subsequently elected Chair of the Secretary of the Navy’s Advisory Subcommittee on Naval History. In 1996, he was appointed the first incumbent of the Admiral Harry W. Hill Chair of Maritime Strategy at the National War College. Rosenberg earned a Ph.D., with Distinction, from the University of Chicago.

Dr. Rosenberg has written extensively on security and military issues. Some of his publications include: Sailor: Arleigh Burke and the United States Navy (in progress); “Arleigh Burke: The Last CNO,” in James C. Bradford, ed., Quarterdeck and Bridge: Two Centuries of American Naval Leaders (1996); “American Naval Strategy in the Era of the Third World War: An Inquiry into the Structure and Process of General War at Sea, 1945-1990,” in Nicholas A.M. Rodger, ed., Naval Power in the Twentieth Century (1996); “The History of World War Three: A Conceptual Framework,” in Robert David Johnson, ed., On Cultural Ground: Essays in International History in Honor of Akira Iriye (1994); “Nuclear War Planning,” in Michael Howard, George Andreopoulos, and Mark Russell Shulman, eds., The Laws of War: Constraints on Warfare in the Western World (1994); “Process: The Realities of Formulating Modern Naval Strategy,” in James Goldrick and John B. Hattendorf, eds., Mahan is Not Enough: The Proceedings of the Corbett-Richmond Conference, U.S. Naval War College(1993); “Arleigh Albert Burke,” in Stephen Howarth, ed., Men of War: Great Naval Captains of World War II (1993); Co-editor (with Steven Ross) of America’s Plans for War against the Soviet Union, 1945-1950 (1990); “The Origins of Overkill: Nuclear Weapons and American Strategy, 1945-1960,” International Security (1983); and “American Atomic Strategy and the Hydrogen Bomb Decision,” Journal of American History (1979).


You may note I am the only outside speaker today. I had nothing to do with this book. This is not stating that I had no responsibility since they used a number of my studies, but I thought it would be important to note that I am here because I think this is a worthwhile effort and should be commented on. I am going to comment on it in terms of the question of the value of this book as history and the utility that it would have for people studying the problem of the nuclear age both in terms of the development of the Cold War and also in terms of future issues. And I will be brief, even though I am a professor.

There are five ways you can use history in public policy. You can use it to impress, you can use it to inform, you can use it to inspire, you can use it to admonish, and you can use history to empower. In each case, Atomic Audit in fact fulfills those requirements. It is a book that can be used, repeatedly, to impress. As you go through it, you will find little tidbits of data that can be used endlessly at receptions and Washington cocktail parties (laughter) to, in fact, amaze and appall your friends and adversaries with respect to the amount of money that was spent on megatonnage. And the concern I have is that, that is often the way that history gets used. “Did you know that?” Well there are other issues to worry about.

The second way of using history is to inform. To, in fact, raise questions and to educate folks and this is a book that, while difficult, it is not an easy book to sit down and simply read straight through, it is a work of reference that, in fact, will be used forever or until something comes along in the form of a second or third edition to replace it. It is immensely valuable that way and I expect that it is going to be used that way.

History can be used to inspire. There is not a lot of positive inspiration that comes out of this book. It may be inspiring to individuals in proliferating states who will argue, “I can do better than the Americans,” and, in fact, find ways of doing this cheaper with less economic and environmental cost, but I doubt it. However, the book does have, shall we say, the value of negative inspiration in terms of discouraging people, in terms of taking on the problem of nuclear weapons and finding a way to, shall we say, do it better, do it cheaper, do it more efficiently, while still enhancing security.

Fourth, you can use this book to admonish. And this is one of the problems, and one of the key problems, that I think folks need to watch out for. This book is critical of the evolution of the American nuclear weapons complex and it does raise some interesting, and important, and debatable conclusions, that I am not going to engage today, but it gets into questions about and can be used by one side or another, about the issue of strategic defense for example, the question of how much money you are going to spend and so forth. The book is written in a tone that is not, in fact, designed to be so critical as to turn people off about the conclusions. You can debate them, you can argue with them. But the argument that I would make is, if you’re going to get into this, do not on the standard Washington approach to the problem, yes or no, falling between the two schools of Washington public policy that used to exist in the Cold War, the spectrums of evil that used to exist.

There was a spectrum of evil that used to believe that on one end the greatest evil was the atomic bomb and on the other it was the Soviet Union. And those who believed in arms control believed the evil of the atomic bomb was greater than the evil of the Soviet Union and those who, in effect, were very strongly cold warriors, in effect, moved toward the other side. We need not get into this in dealing with this book because the issue that is at stake here, and this is a critical point that can often be missed, is that if you are going to criticize this book, if you’re going to deal with it, and I have got some points that I would work on myself, with respect to some of these issues about sources, about taking some journalistic reports on face value, which may be the only way to go, but the critical point is engage not solely the conclusions. Engage the methodology, engage the evidence, ask questions and work this through. Do not just simply use this for debate and admonishment.

Finally, history can be used to empower. And that is, I think, the greatest value of this book because it can show you how public servants have both succeeded and failed to in fact make use of the vast resources at their disposal in terms of doing the public good, in defending the United States. And that is a critical aspect of what this book offers to people. It offers the means of understanding how government truly works in some of its most secret aspects and I think that is very, very important.

A couple of points to make about what the book tells you that as you work through you may miss this because as you are inundated with information. The first is the fact that, what you will often miss in going through this, or will be so aware of that you can kind of tune out, is the complexity that is involved in the nuclear weapons process. It is critically important that this be recognized and understood. This was never a simple problem, this was never an easy solution and the critical aspect of so much of this stuff was the fact that even the most responsible individuals inside the federal government nevertheless were not necessarily able to tell what the consequences of their decisions would be.

If I was going to give you the single greatest villain, if I was going to try to identify a villain, and, listen, I do not believe this as a historian in all of this, the man I would identify would be Harry S Truman. Why? If you go back to that huge spike of the building of nuclear weapons infrastructure, in terms of vastly increasing the ability to produce nuclear weapons, it was Truman, in 1952, who made that decision for fiscal 1953 that in fact expanded the nuclear weapons infrastructure in such a way that it could, in fact, build up to some thirty some odd thousand nuclear weapons in the 1960s without ever having to build another nuclear production plant. But did Truman in fact know what he was doing? In terms of what, ultimately, was going to happen? No, he did not know how nuclear weapons were, in fact, going to become more efficient, how they were going to become miniaturized, how the numbers would proliferate, how the thermonuclear revolution would work, and so he could not predict what, in turn, would happen. And it is critically important to think about the problems of the long-term implications of decisions made today on public policy that relate.

The second point within this context is the problem of looking at individuals. It has been a favorite effort through the history of the nuclear era to try to identify heroes and villains. And the people who often get identified as heroes and villains are either (a) the physicists, who knew original sin with the Trinity test or (b) the strategists, those academic types: the Kissingers and the Brodys and the Kahns and Wohlstetters and others about which books and articles have been written, who in effect were the brilliant nuclear strategists, a lovely term that implies that one has a profession in this area and the fact is that what we are dealing with here, you do not see these people at work, you do not see the ideas at work, you do not see the individual decisions of strategists or individual recommendations or studies of strategists and you do not see the actual acts of physicists.What you see is a large-scale government bureaucracy, a huge one going about its business on a day-to-day basis, and the problem is, who is tracking it, who is following it, who is understanding it, who is paying attention to it in a way that means that responsible people in the government know what finally is going on. It is important to understand that policy decisions do not necessarily get implemented by a process that exists that deals with this kind of complexity.

Final point: Getting back to the issue of methodology, we have to deal with what made this book possible and that was the declassification of large amounts of information by the federal government. In the old days, there used to be an argument as to whether arms control was a favor we did for ourselves or for the Soviet Union. Right now, there is that interesting question is declassification a favor that is done for journalists and left-wing scholars so they can go out and embarrass the United States government. Well, I am not a left-wing scholar, at least I have never been accused of being one, but I will argue that declassification by the federal government is not, in fact, something that has to be seen as a favor for adversaries. It is something, that this book shows, can, in fact, do public service to assist the government itself that does not have the process in place to ensure that you can track this kind of information and this kind of data. And the reason why is that you need a cross the park mental effort that goes on to study all the costs and all the efforts that have gone into the nuclear era.

Let me make one last point and give you a little quote. The last point is to note that for those who are interested in the question of the methodology, I would like to point out to you many of the arguments that are made here as represented by the material and the organization and so forth, in fact, was something that was being taught for years by a gentleman who used to be long associated with this organization a guy named William W. Kaufmann. I took Bill Kaufmann’s class on force planning back in 1983, given here, sat in on it, it was being offered free, there were some interested government employees, and what you will find is that Bill Kaufmann’s methodology is inherent in this study. This is not some wild-eyed effort by a bunch of anti-government radicals, but, instead by building on the approaches that have been advanced by one of the senior social scientists working on the subject.

Finally, let me give you a quote. Basil Liddell Hart, the British military analyst and historian, in January 1930, wrote a comment about the uses of history, and it went: “The historian’s rightful task is to distill experience as a medicinal warning for future generations, not to distill a drug. Having fulfilled his task to the best of his ability, he has fulfilled his purpose. He would be a rash optimist if he believed the next generation would trouble to observe the warning. History, at least, teaches the historian a lesson.” Well, if we allow books like this to simply fall off and become ignored medicinal warnings we will, in fact, continue to have these problems. I, myself, prefer to be a rash optimist that works like this and things that will come after them by public policy institutions will play a criticial role in improving the way that government performs.

Thank you.

Note: The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and should not be attributed to the staff, officers or trustees of the Brookings Institution.

Copyright © 1998 The Brookings Institution

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