AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 32/2005

Remembering Hiroshima The Cold War Heats Up

By Erich Follath and Georg Mascolo

Part 2: Next Page: The world learns to fear the bomb.




At the time, the many horrible long-term effects of dangerous radiation were unknown to science. Nevertheless, it was inhuman how American authorities dealt with a threat that was at least partially a known entity. The Soviets were similarly criminal when they neglected to evacuate residents within the immediate circle of radiation from their test site in Semipalatinsk (in what is today Kazakhstan) -- probably with the direct intention of testing the effects. Many of these people, essentially downgraded to the status of human guinea pigs, died an agonizing death. Some are still wasting away today or have passed on birth defects to the next generation.

A North Korean military poster.
AP

A North Korean military poster.

In the Korean War, from 1950 to 1953, the first critical boiling point of the nuclear age, Washington and Moscow resisted the temptation to use nuclear weapons. The nuclear option was also absent in the proxy wars in Africa as it was during the construction of the Berlin Wall. But the hottest phase of the Cold War was yet to come -- in 1962.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had ordered nuclear warheads stationed on Cuba, both to protect Fidel Castro against the threat of US invasion and to provoke Washington and the young US president. President John F. Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of the island, and for days, the world stood on the brink of a nuclear war. But when the situation threatened to escalate, it became clear that the ultimate weapon could turn mediocre or inexperienced politicians into statesmen. The bomb imposed its own discipline. The head of the Soviet communist party and the US Democratic president found ways to ease the situation, while at the same time allowing one another to save face.

US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, later a hawk during the Vietnam War, advised JFK not to be the first to use nuclear weapons. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon continued to upheld this principle in Indochina, even though 58,000 GIs lost their lives there and the conflict, escalated by Washington, ended in bitter defeat for the United States. No one was willing to be held responsible for triggering a nuclear apocalypse.

The "mother of all conventions"

The world didn't learn to love the bomb, but it did understand that it was to be feared. But the tighter the major powers wound their nuclear protective shield for their allies, the less credible the deterrent became. Military officials in Moscow and Washington began considering the possibility of a limited nuclear strike, in part by expanding their arsenals to include more and more "tactical," that is, useable nuclear weapons.

The Americans moved forward with production and new development and, by 1960, the United States had twelve times as many nuclear weapons as the Soviet Union. Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev retaliated by doing his part to ramp up the mad nuclear arms race. In the mid-1980s, the zenith of Soviet nuclear armament, the Russian arsenal boasted 45,000 warheads to the Americans' 23,000 -- enough nuclear dynamite to eradicate planet Earth dozens of times over. American and German politicians, including Helmut Schmidt, believed it was time for the West to "re-arm," thereby unintentionally launching an all too naïve "peace movement."

If the bomb were truly a living being, that was when it would have been experiencing its midlife crisis.

Peaceful disarmament, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the "mother of all conventions" -- these were the magic words that created great expectations in the early 1970s. The treaty, ratified in 1968, came into force in 1970. It stipulates that the club of nuclear powers is to remain limited to five members, that none of these states is permitted to proliferate nuclear weapons to others and that none of the non-nuclear states may seek to acquire nuclear capabilities. Under the treaty, the nuclear states agreed to provide the "have-nots" with technical assistance in the civilian use of nuclear energy, as well as to reduce the size of their own arsenals.

Germany's renunciation of nuclear weapons was long a hotly disputed topic in Bonn, with some members of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) dreaming, in the liturgy of the Cold War, of having their own finger on the nuclear button. Former Chancellor Konrad Adenauer spoke of a "second Yalta," while Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauß reviled the treaty as a "Versailles of cosmic dimensions." Germany did not sign the NPT until 1969, under Chancellor Willy Brandt, and it was gradually ratified by 189 nations. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), headquartered in Vienna, was entrusted with the task of monitoring compliance with the treaty.

The treaty was helpful in achieving the voluntary disarmament of nuclear threshold countries like South Africa and Brazil, and later in facilitating "disposal" in former Soviet states like Kazakhstan and Ukraine. But it was ineffective when it came to the "lepers" -- Israel, India and Pakistan -- which had good reasons not to sign the treaty. Although Israel never officially acknowledged its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, experts believe it became a nuclear power in 1967. It took another 30 years for India and Pakistan to detonate their own nuclear weapons, both in rapid succession. But by then Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had long since made the world a completely different place. As a result of cooperation between the Americans and the Russians, it became possible to set back the "doomsday clock," established by nuclear opponents in 1947, farther back than ever before.

Gorbachev broke apart the Gordian nuclear knot when, in Reykjavik in October 1986, he offered breathtakingly drastic cuts in the Soviet weapons arsenal, including the complete elimination of mid-range missiles in Europe. Reagan pushed the gigantic Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, which was intended to erect a protective shield against nuclear warheads in space. But he also shared a fundamental longing for a world without nuclear weapons, which he wanted to render "impotent and obsolete." Perhaps these statesmen were also encouraged in their efforts to disarm by two catastrophes, which, in the months leading up to the Reykjavik agreement, had dealt a fatal blow to man's confidence in the perfection of technological progress. In January, an explosion pulverized the Space Shuttle "Challenger," killing six astronauts. In April, a nuclear reactor exploded in Chernobyl, killing dozens immediately and dispatching a toxic radioactive cloud over large sections of Europe.

Disarmament became a dynamic process that upended the world order and its previous certainties. The Cold War came to an end. A central document of this new beginning was the START treaty, an agreement on the reduction of strategic weapons signed in 1991. Almost in parallel to these disarmament negotiations, the Soviet Union disintegrated and became a footnote in world history, not with a Big Bang, but with a sigh. Suddenly, the monolithic blocs of the past had ceased to exist.

New threats arise

But the initial euphoria over newfound freedoms was quickly followed by the bitter realization that threats to world peace had not evaporated, but had simply been repositioned. Indeed, when it came to nuclear weapons, many believed that the situation had in fact worsened. Instead of a permanent but clearly understood rivalry, the age of a "wild" peace began, an age characterized by a single superpower that does not hesitate to violate international law, if necessary, a nation with a military budget bigger than the combined military budgets of the next 15 countries. But it is also an age characterized by the failed regimes of the Third World and Islamist underground organizations seeking to attract international attention with the spread of terror.

Suicide bombing has become the weapon of choice among radicals operating worldwide, and no nuclear rearmament can do anything about the perfidious concept of murdering "martyrs": deterrence based on the survival instinct. But in parallel to this asymmetrical war with religious overtones, the men behind the terror, in seats of government and secret training camps alike, have attempted -- and continue to attempt -- to acquire the greatest high-tech cudgel of all, to acquire the only weapon that would immediately place them on par with the major players on the global stage: the atom bomb.

Osama bin Laden has dreamt for a long time of acquiring the ultimate weapon for his terrorist organization. "Of course, we are also entitled to nuclear weapons," he said in a directive in 1999. "Our Muslim lands are occupied by American and Israeli troops. We have the right to liberate this holy ground. It is the obligation of Muslims to provide as many tools of violence as possible to terrorize the enemies of God."

The World Trade Center attack.
CHAO SOI CHEONG / AP

The World Trade Center attack.

In August 2001, the world's most dangerous man finally got to the point in a meeting in the Afghan capital, Kabul, then still under the control of the Taliban. In a nondescript building on the city's outskirts, bin Laden, together with Taliban leader Mullah Omar, met with Pakistani nuclear specialists Bashiruddin Mahmood and Abdul Majeed. Bin Laden wanted to know how nuclear weapons work, and mentioned that his organization has obtained radioactive material from Uzbekistan and wants to use it to build a bomb.

The Pakistanis listened to bin Laden explain the details, but told him that they can't help. The best they could recommend is a small "dirty" bomb that would spread deadly radiation, but only within a limited geographic radius. The men know what they're talking about. They've both had long and successful careers at the side of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the so-called "father of the Pakistani bomb." Indeed, Mahmood was considered an expert on centrifuges before Khan took over the project and, with his successful test of a nuclear weapon in 1998, transformed Pakistan into a nuclear power. Majeed, a plutonium expert, was involved in the secret procurement and processing of nuclear weapons grade material.

Both agreed with Khan's belief that Pakistan's nuclear weapons expertise should be made available to the entire Islamic world -- especially to those who are fighting the "godless" West with everything at their disposal.

Mahmood and Majeed expressed these views publicly and provocatively, and by the time of their meeting with bin Laden, they no longer worked for the Pakistani government. Nevertheless, Pakistani intelligence and parts of the military continued to sympathize with Al Qaeda, and were instrumental in bringing the Taliban ("Koran students") to power in neighboring Afghanistan. In 2001, the two nuclear scientists established the "Holy Land Foundation For Relief And Development," and, under the cover of providing humanitarian aid, began traveling back and forth regularly between Islamabad and Kabul.

The Kabul meeting happened not long before the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. No one knows whether bin Laden may have been toying with the idea of using a nuclear bomb instead of aircraft on September 11. "Why use an axe when there are bulldozers?" the al-Qaida leader said to another group during preparations for the 9/11 attacks. Bin Laden's idea of thinking big requires that acts of terror be committed with the goal of achieving the greatest possible impact. Experts believe it is unlikely that he and his followers have abandoned their efforts to acquire the most destructive of all weapons. The CIA has intercepted al-Qaida telephone communications in which an "American Hiroshima" was discussed.

Mahmood's son Asim has told Western intelligence services that bin Laden tried to contact Asim's father on several occasions. They also know that the meeting in Kabul ended after the Pakistani experts explained that a dirty bomb would perhaps kill a few hundred people. "Thank you very much," bin Laden purportedly said, "this is certainly of interest to us. But we were thinking of a truly serious blow. Allah is great. We will stay in touch."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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