Framing nuclear as a military-first technology has been disastrous for mankind
Can't wait to read your counterfactual history of Barbie.
Having the bomb hasn’t been useful in the military conflicts we’ve chosen to engage in. But those choices are profoundly shaped by having the bomb. No state will try to force the US or any other nuclear armed powers into an existential fight. This deterrence is an enormously important military “use” of the bomb.
One reason for the anti-nuclear position of many "peace activists" in the 50s and 60s was that many of those activists were communist sympathizers. They believed in the utopian vision of a socialist world while ignoring the reality of socialist governments. They wanted the US to lose the cold war and our lead in nuclear technology was a problem.
McCarthy's tactics went way overboard. But his thesis was correct.
The existence of the bomb has prevented direct major power conflict since it was first used. One could argue that it’s saved tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of lives. The existence of nuclear weapons has been a tremendous boon to world peace.
This piece is too focused on America. Germany, France, and Japan all entered the post-war era with their institutions and physical infrastructure in ruins. All three were free to pursue better regulatory choices than the US, and all three came to depend more upon nuclear energy than we did. Yet none of the three rode nuclear power to Yglesian-style energy abundance, despite the obvious commercial incentives for doing so. The NRC may explain American malaise, but it couldn’t keep Japan or Germany from getting the cost of nuclear down to 2.5 cents/kWH.
This is one component of my favorite sci-fi trope, where humans are monstrous creatures with a thirst for blood who evolved on a hell planet.
They like to jump off cliffs and hit each other in the head for fun, they recreationally poison themselves, they went to their planet's moon on deadly chemical rocket ships for no reason, and they discovered nuclear bombs before nuclear power plants.
A few stray thoughts:
- I think you are being very naive to think that if nuclear power hadn’t been developed in a peaceful capacity first that governments wouldn’t have turned around and try to more militaristic ends. And given in your counterfactual Germany still likely (eventually) rebuilds its military and Soviet Union isn’t utterly devastated by war (just merely devastated by Stalin’s purges and collectivization). Just a lot of markers to me that a nuclear bomb would be both developed and used. In fact likely used more than twice
- I’m increasingly under the belief that pop culture impacts popular imagination and beliefs about history and the world more than we want to admit. In this case, I think we underrate how much The Simpsons has likely been a pretty big headwind against acceptance of nuclear power. Other examples. Perhaps most impactful, Americans view of antebellum south is likely shaped by Gone With The Wind as much as history textbooks. Bend it Like Beckham being a hit is a huge part of why Beckham became a star in America and why soccer finally took off in popularity in America. Will and Grace being a successful tv show being a big factor in gay rights movements. And currently, War Games and even more acutely Terminator franchise being a huge background part of all conversations regarding AI. I’m sure I’m missing many other examples but these are the ones that just pop to mind first.
Another point is that without having established technological and economic dominance amid the postwar devastation, the US college system doesn’t necessarily become one of our major exports, nor one of the top systems in the world.
Ironically the medical studies done on the survivors of the Atomic bombs in Japan have shown that radioactivity is a lot less harmful than previously suspected. There is a barely detectable increase in mortality in survivors which requires a dose of at least 100 fold higher than the level set as safe by regulators.
Sadly this information has not been used to modify the regulations.
The ‘safe’ level set for air pollution by fossil fuels increases mortality more than radioactivity from the atomic weapons blasts!!
The levels of radioactivity in the Fukushima and Chernobyl exclusion zones are less harmful than the levels of air pollution in a typical large city.
People were harmed by forcing them to evacuate, especially if they were moved to cities.
I'm assuming this is one of those posts written by ChatGPT because it spiraled off in a hallucinatory direction. That because the Manhattan Project had a military focus (and unnecessary because Germany didn't pursue the bomb and we beat them without it) we lost the chance to build a solid civilian energy program?
Had there been no WWII Manhattan Project, there would have been a Cold War Manhattan Project. Hitler didn't build the bomb, but the Soviet Union was going to with or without spies. And so we would have. Or we would have done so alone to reduce the Soviet threat to Europe. And given the Cold War, the military focus on nuclear power would have dominated its civilian uses in any case.
And even if we had had a more robust civilian program, what reason is there to think nuclear power would have triumphed over super cheap oil and coal back in the 1950s?
This does seem to underrate the huge peace dividend that MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) has delivered.
Overall, I think that you’re underrating the likelihood that somebody goes in pretty hard on bomb development relatively early in the nuclear reactor development cycle even in the “No World War II” scenario. Nuclear fission’s weapons potential was pretty immediately obvious to much of the global physics community, and even the no-Nazi Germany world would have a lot of great power rivalry and mutual suspicion— especially because tensions between the Western European imperial powers and the USSR would be more salient in that timeline.
Stalin certainly would have wanted the sort of security guarantee the bomb would offer, and if he started a bomb development project, the British and French would want to avoid falling behind.
Any idea why France’s nuclear trajectory has turned out differently, with the bulk of their electricity generated via nuclear?
Really good point. The war and Hiroshima "toxified" the public view of nuclear energy, while directing nuclear power technology in a direction optimized for plutonium production, rather than for intrinsic safety. A case can be made that the introduction of nuclear weapons has actually prevented subsequent global war by raising its cost, but that's a different question.
Ordnance is weapons. Ordinance is a law.
>> ...the causal importance of the Manhattan Project for the world was all about its influence on the postwar era.
The article is interesting as far as it goes, but this really does understate the fact that the bombs, and specifically the dropping of the bombs, shortened the war and saved a lot of lives, both American and Japanese. Even without the message that sent to the rest of the world about US power, it would have been worth doing. The movie makes it clear that this is an important motivation for many of those at the top.