We have all heard of the terrifying scenario of a nuclear weapon being snuck into a city by a terrorist and detonated. This fear will be at the top of the agenda as President Obama hosts an international conference on preventing nuclear terrorism.
The idea of such a clandestine nuclear attack is something that has been discussed as far back as 1945. Secretary of War Henry Stimson recalled a meeting with President Harry Truman about the development of the atomic bomb, which would be tested and used that summer to end World War II.
Stimson’s meeting with Truman also looked ahead to the consequences of the atomic age, with which we now live. The meeting memorandum, printed in Stimson’s book, “On Active Service in Peace and War,” reads:
“…the future may see a time when such a weapon may be constructed in secret and used suddenly and effectively with devastating power by a willful nation or group against an unsuspecting nation or group of much greater size and material power.”
In 1953 the Net Evaluation Subcommittee set up by the Eisenhower administration studied the possible damage from a Soviet nuclear strike. As part of this assessment, they considered the “clandestine placement of portable atomic weapons” to cripple essential facilities within the U.S.
photo of a nuclear test during the 1950's (courtesy of the National Archives)
In the committee’s 1959 report, they discuss a war scenario with the Soviets which included “the destruction of New York and Washington by clandestine weapons.”
An excerpt from the report reads that the bombs “were detonated in the Soviet embassy in Washington and the offices of the Soviet delegation to the United Nations in New York…”
Of course, the threat of these attacks was part of the overall struggle with the Soviet Union. Diplomacy and deterrence, both nuclear and conventional, could effectively prevent such an attack from ever being attempted or considered.
At a press conference in 1955, Eisenhower responded to a reporter’s question about this type of secret attack with a smaller nuclear weapon. Ike said, “I think there would be some danger of that. But, on the other hand, there is also danger to both sides because the instant one would be found, it would be practically a declaration of war against you, wouldn't it? And so there is a great risk there also.”
Today, Al Qaida would not be restrained by deterrence and diplomacy. The good news, however, is that there is no evidence they have a bomb and the group may very well be incapable of ever getting one. But here's the thing: No one really knows what they or other terrorist groups are capable of at any given moment.
Just the very prospect of terrorism is enough to make nuclear security a vital issue that all nations should share, that is why the summit on securing loose nuclear material is so important. There must also be an effort to reduce the tactical nuclear weapons around the globe that can be potentially seized by terrorists. International cooperation is key.
Sharon Squassoni of the Center for Strategic and International Studies explains that this coordination among nations is desperately needed. She writes, “Not all countries view the risk of terrorism the way the United States does, and not all view the risk of nuclear terrorism in quite the same way. Yet risk assessments aside, the consequences could be drastic if there were a nuclear terrorist incident. We know what to do-it's just the political will to follow through that's been missing.”
Nuclear security is a front and center issue, not only because of this week’s summit, but also last week’s announcement by the U.S. of a new policy on the use of nuclear weapons. In addition, there is the new START Treaty in which Russia and the U.S. have agreed to reduce strategic nuclear weapons. Unfinished business also includes a treaty reducing the fissile material used to make nuclear weapons and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Managing this ultimate weapon of mass destruction has been on the minds of leaders since World War II. Here is an audio clip of President Eisenhower in 1955 having a discussion at a press conference about the use of nuclear weapons and the consequences of nuclear war.