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You You Report from Santa Fe is made possible in part by grants from the members of the National Education Association of New Mexico, an organization of professionals who believe that investing in public education is an investment in our state's economic future. And by a grant from the
Healy Foundation, Tau's New Mexico. Hello, I'm Lorraine Mills and welcome to report from Santa Fe. Our guest today is Richard Rhodes, one of the most award-winning and prolific writers I've ever known. Thank you. Well, you're here to talk with the Santa Fe Council under new national relations and you have written 23 books, but everything you've written, biography you've written, memoirs, novels, you've written all this stuff. You have received the Pulitzer Prize of the National Book Award, the National Critics Circle Book Award for this magnificent book the Making of the Atomic Bomb, an extraordinary book. And before it's also the first of a quartet, and we're going to talk about all of them, but I just want to take a moment. You have introduced New genre of called Verity. Talk to me about it shouldn't be nonfiction, it shouldn't be defined by a negative. I tried to track the word nonfiction down in the Oxford English dictionary and it was
invented around 1906 by a librarian who was trying to think what to call all the other books besides the fiction, so nonfiction, but it's kind of an insult to know, to be identified by a negative. We don't call a mother a nonfather, and so forth. So I thought what could we call this genre, and which has a long and fine tradition. And Verity is the English word for truth, so truth, fiction. And there's a subtle implication that novelists are really liars, which I like to do. Yes, I like that too. So you started this book, and you said this is 900 pages, and it took you as long to write this book as it took for them to build the bond. And you learned all the science. You know, I was very lucky. A physicist came up to me once and said, if you tried to do particle physics, or some of the other branches of physics that are heavily mathematical, because I don't have any math beyond high school, I wouldn't have been able to do it. But because nuclear science is
a experimental science, you can read the papers and follow the physical operation of the apparatus that they were manipulating. And that's no problem. Everyone knows how to deal with things on a workbench, and that's basically what it was. Well, you know how books have blurbs on the cover. You have six Nobel laureates saying wonderful book this is, and it is. And I should say for this book, two of them noticed some errors in the physics, and wrote to my editor and said, can we fix it up? So I'm quite sure the physics is okay. Nobel laureate approved. You followed this book, and even some of it viewed it as the grand tragedy, the tragic epic of 20th century life, is the whole story of the atomic bomb. Your first book, the making of the atomic bomb, the second book of the quartet, dark sun, the making of the hydrogen bond, and all the espionage, and Dr. Teller, and all these things. The panic that hit Washington in 49 when the
Soviets tested their first bomb and the decision that the only thing we could do would be to build a bigger bomb, which wasn't a very smart decision, because then the Soviets built a bigger bomb, and we have more cities to be destroyed than they do. So we put ourselves in a worse position. And the third book, which I do not have to show, but has my favorite topic, title of all books, Arsenal's of Folly, about the Cold War. Tell us about that. I wanted to cover the later part of the Cold War. It seemed to me the middle was kind of routine in a way, but I really focused a lot on the end, and particularly the summit meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik, Iceland, when they came within an inch of agreeing to begin the process of eliminating all nuclear weapons. And in your writing, you've written everything, and you've written a play about this meeting in Reykjavik. It was so obviously dramatic. Two days, these two larger than life-size characters,
a kind of Iago figure in the form of Richard Pearl, who advised President Reagan that he lose his dream of the Strategic Defense Initiative Star Wars, if he agreed with what Gorbachev was proposing. So it was just, obviously, a drama. And I read a couple hundred modern plays to kind of get used to how you do those things, and then wrote this one. It's had readings all over the country, stage reading. I saw it read here, and it was really compelling. You do dedicate it to a person who helped you with the screenwriting. Tell me who that was. I had to know Paul Newman when he played General Groves in the film Fat Man and Little Boy in the early 90s. He called up and wanted to talk about the making of the atomic bomb, my book. And we got we were friends then. And when I thought about doing this play, it actually evolved because I mentioned it to him over dinner. And he said in his lovely way, I'll help you with that.
And he did. He helped me find some grant money for starters, to support myself while I read the play. But I would send him drafts. And he would call, he at that point, sadly, had leukemia, which is what he died of in 2008. He would call me and say in his charming way, Rhodes, Newman here, one word for you, colloquialize, colloquialize. Because when you're translating history into drama, you kind of get rid of all the documents. It has to be the people. And that's what he was urging me toward. Well, the people, I think it's so important for people to understand where Ronald Reagan stood about nuclear weapons. And because it's common in brushing over history, the lack of history that America has now, that liberals have one position and conservatives have another, but as a matter of fact, Reagan was very much anti-nook. He had been since 1945, since the bombings in Japan. And had spent all those years pondering the question of how you can get rid of
these things. He always came up short on the question of what if someone cheated? What if someone secretly started rebuilding a nuclear arsenal? And for him, the great breakthrough came when Edward Teller, the scientist, took him to Norrad and Colorado under a mountain out there and showed him the satellite tracking that we were able to do and said, you know, we could shoot down all those Soviet warheads by putting lasers in space. And for President Reagan, who really didn't care about the technicalities, he figured we could do it. What was important to him was here was the key piece of his puzzle, a technological solution to the arms race. It wasn't, of course, a realistic solution. But for him, that was enough. And he took that to Reykjavik with Gorbachev. Gorbachev came from a totally different position. His position was the only way to resolve the disputes
among nations is by negotiation. In a world with nuclear weapons, you can no longer have big wars, which is something the physicist Niels Bohr had worked out even before the end of the Second World War. So Gorbachev came with what he called common security. That was his idea. We should have the least amount of threatening weaponry facing each other and the maximum amount of talking to each other and working through our problems. Reagan came with a technological solution and the two were basically budding heads. So they couldn't come to a resolution of that dispute. And many times, it's been thrown in the face of people, you can't have a technological solution to a political problem. Right. The political problem will remain. Exactly. And that's been the central dilemma, I think, of the whole nuclear story since 1945. We turn very quickly because we prematurely concluded that the Soviets were so implacably hostile that they were not people
you could negotiate with, despite a considerable record of negotiating with them. And therefore, the only solution we concluded was military and specifically nuclear weapons as a threat, as a so-called deterrent. And the Soviets, despite their picture over the years as people who were implacably evil, were in fact rather terrified of us. They saw us as menacing them much as Germany had menaced them at the beginning of the Second World War. That threat, Germany's invasion that almost destroyed the Soviet Union, was for them the gut feeling about where they were in the world. So we were just at loggerheads for a long time and lots of near misses along the way. Most people who talk about deterrents say that it was a great success. Look, nuclear weapons kept the peace. But in fact, again and again, not simply during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but again in 1983 and other times I'm told that haven't been made public. We came within an inch
of having a nuclear exchange. And that is what is in this book, The Fourth of the Quartet, Twilight of the Bombs. And what's the subtitle? Oh, the subtitle is my editor's subtitle. Okay. Very long and complicated. Okay, we don't need that. But I will tell you the first sentence, when the ice broke on the river of history at the end of the Cold War. So Twilight of the Bombs goes from the end of the Cold War to present time. Yeah, it does. To a bomb was 2009 speech and Prague. Right. But you reveal so many amazing things like how many times we did come to the brink with the Koreans in 1994. And then the whole background of the anthrax scare. That was a revelation. There is such new news in your book. Yes. And then of course, Iraq and the first Gulf War, which was, you know, in this book, there are some of the most dramatic and almost comical stories that I got from people like David Kay and Robert Galucci, who were Americans,
who were involved in the post-First Gulf War inspections of Iraq. They went in there, I mean, it was Cowboys and Indians. It really was. They were determined to track down whatever the Iraqis had in the way of a nuclear weapons program. And as they uncovered more and more stuff, we realized that they had indeed been working hard toward making the huge plants and equipment that would allow them to enrich uranium. You remember back in 81, the Israelis had bombed the reactor that the Iraqis had been building to make plutonium, which is one way to make an atomic bomb. The other way is to enrich uranium until it's almost pure U-235. And for that, you need vast machinery. And they were building that machinery, indeed, redundantly. And as our people founded and progressively destroyed it, the Iraqis finally reached the point. Saddam Hussein reached the point where all he wanted to do was get the damned inspectors out of his country. And he had his
people destroying stuff too. But they made the mistake of not keeping good records. This was after all a secret thing. They didn't want us to know what they had, even though they were destroying it. So later, when the time came to say, did they still have weapons of mass destruction or the machinery with which to make the materials? They said, no, of course we don't. We destroyed it all. And we said, prove it. And they didn't have any way to prove it, which left them in a very vulnerable position when George W. Bush came to power. Well, you described some almost trans-economic events, for example, in the parking lot outside the Department of Agriculture with the 1991 cell phone. Yes. And satellite phone. And the operator sang, wait a minute, after 23 hours, I need a credit card. Who's paying for this? And then when they explained, I think Mr. K explained that this was a standoff in the parking lot. Right. And they were getting spotty reception. They actually moved this satellite. Yes. Yes. I think that's an extraordinary story.
I do too. But for David Kay and his people, that was a lifeline. He felt very strongly that if they didn't have that satellite link, the Iraqis would be free too. The world would be blind to what was happening. Yeah. Yeah. Another amazing story in this book, Twilight of the Bombs, is the million and a trillion about North Korea. Can you, you've got a whole chapter on that. Just give us the heart of it. Well, by 1994, the Clinton administration was imposing such big sanctions on North Korea for its building a nuclear reactor, making plutonium from it, that the North Koreans were ready to go to war. Nobody quite believed that though. They threatened a lot, as you know. But Robert Galucci had been negotiating with them. And he told me he said, people don't believe we were ready to go to war. But he said, we were within a day or two of evacuating the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, which would have started a general exodus of people in that city and would have signaled to the North Koreans that it was time for them to attack.
Jimmy Carter, former president Jimmy Carter, got word of this and decided he had to intervene that the Clinton administration was going in the wrong direction, and they were. They were muscling up. But at one point, General Luck, who ran the forces, came to see President Clinton and said, we can defeat North Korea. But it'll cost us a million and a trillion. And he said, by that, I mean, a million South Korean lives and a trillion dollars out of the South Korean economy. So the price was very high. But the Clinton administration didn't seem to know how to get out of the corner, it painted itself into. Jimmy Carter stepped in, went to North Korea, sat down with Kim Il-Soon in the last months of his life as it turned out. And they negotiated a kind of truth. Then Galu Chi came back to Washington to report to the president. He was in a meeting with the president and his advisors when President Carter called from North Korea. The call came through
to the White House. The secretary stepped in and said, it's President Carter in North Korea. President Clinton started to stand up because he assumed it was for him. And the operator said, no, it's for Bob Galu Chi. And Galu Chi said, he said, I didn't exactly crawl out of the office on all fours. But he said, I slunk out. But at least we diffused what was almost a real disaster. Well, I'm glad that you reminded us of Carter's interaction with North Korea back then because recently there was a problem with North Korea. And our governor has worked a lot, Bill Richardson has worked a lot with the North Koreans. And we thought certainly he would be the natural person to send. Instead, they did send Carter. And now that you reminded me of his earlier work with the North Koreans, it makes sense now. He had a good relation with them. And his op-ed in the New York Times a couple of days ago said, basically, they're ready to deal. And they have been for a long time. We were so close at the end of the Clinton administration
that the president sent Madeline Albright, the secretary of state, to North Korea to pay the way for a visit by Bill Clinton. But then the election of 2000 was mooted. He felt he couldn't leave the country when there was a kind of constitutional crisis. And the whole thing fell by the wayside. And the George W. Bush administration, as far as I can tell, its foreign policy was whatever Clinton did, do the opposite. So they kind of trumped up a case against the North Koreans and the whole business fell apart. And what was the result? The North Koreans now have five or ten nuclear weapons. Pretty sad. Well, you outline all the times that we were at the brink, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Abel Archer situation with the Soviet Union. And when you read that, and like you say, there are ones that we will never know about. That's what I've been told. Yeah. Well, this is enough to scare me. And so you look for solutions to this dilemma. And when I think this is an overarching thing, your book's cover, the grand tragedy, the tragic epic of our
time, and to think that there might be solutions. And at the end of this marvelous book, you talk about your friend, Gil Elliott, as having perhaps a paradigm that we could use to resolve this conflict. Would you speak about that? Sure. This wonderful Scotsman Gil Elliott wrote a book some years ago, which was pretty rare. There weren't many copies published. But I came across it almost by accident in a library. It was called the 20th Century Book of the Dead. He was simply trying to count how many people were killed in war and war's attendant privation in the 20th Century. But at the same time, he was thinking about the very large question of how have we found ways to eliminate things that cause the mass death of human beings? Well, what's the obvious model disease? Yes. And how do we, how do we reach a point where, for example, in the United States, half of the population of the US wouldn't be alive today if it hadn't been for improvements
in public health, clean water, better sewage treatment, vaccinations for children, obvious, straightforward, simple things that doubled the US population compared to what it would otherwise have been, and also the world. Many, many more lives saved and allowed to happen compared to the 120 million we killed in the 20th Century. So the public health model in many ways is a model for looking at problems such as disease or perhaps nuclear weapons as natural parts of the world rather than moral issues. And so the basic foundation of this is that people can need to accept is that it works with man-made death as well as biological agents like disease. We didn't even notice man-made death until the beginning of the 20th Century because there were so many deaths from disease, biologic death, that it was just swamped by in terms of the numbers.
But then in the 20th Century, we began to apply technology to killing people. And we got immensely good at it. If you chart the deaths from war starting in the 18th Century, you can see an almost exponential increase, peaking in 1943 with about 13 million deaths that year. That's on the battlefield in the Holocaust and starvation related to war. In 1945, that exponential increase drops dramatically down to about one to two million a year. What made the change? The introduction of nuclear weapons made the change. It made it no longer possible to win a war. People were able to win a war in the past because they had more chemical explosives that they'd manufactured than the other side could make, basically. Now, with nuclear explosives, drawing on the incredible energies in the nucleus of atoms,
there's no limit to the amount of explosive power even a small country can accumulate. And under those circumstances, it kind of shorted out the whole system. That's why my hero in this story, the great Danish physicist and philosopher Niels Bohr, told President Roosevelt, even before the first bomb was dropped, we are in an entirely new situation that cannot be resolved by war. So how does this connect with public health? Public health looks for outbreaks of a disease. It tries to isolate them. It tries to make sure that they don't spread. It uses investigative techniques. And it also applies larger preventive measures to whole populations to prevent the outbreaks in the first place. That sounds a lot like how you'd have to run a world without any nuclear weapons, physical nuclear weapons in the world. You'd have to watch out for a cheating. You'd have to step in quickly. You'd have to either negotiate or force the cheater to
stop doing that, and so on. Or you'd have to kind of, at the ultimate case, in a world without nuclear weapons, where someone started rebuilding their arsenal. You'd have to sort of inoculate the rest of the world by other countries beginning to build an arsenal themselves, which would be the ultimate defense. And at worst, we'd only put us where we are now. But ideally, you wouldn't have to build very many. You could settle the issue and put them away again. There, I just need you remind me of that 1945 dip. Well, you say that you started in this when you were age eight. You saw the Cover of Life magazine with a picture of the Mushroom Cloud. And then all of us who grew up during the Cold War, we know we've been trained about. But there's a new documentary called Countdown to Zero. I hope you've seen it. And it addresses a whole new generation. It's got songs by Nirvana. And it lets the younger generation, people in their 20s, don't even know what a nuclear weapon can do. And so it's re-educating them. And then
also pointing out the threat from nuclear terrorism in the hands of just a small radical group. Any subnational group that got their hands on enough nuclear material, uranium in particular, and rich uranium, could make a bomb. And that would be a real horror show for the world. Absolutely. And so these young people don't know about nuclear winter and about the fire storms. And can you give the one-minute horror story of what would happen if a nuclear weapon were dropped on a city? Well, let me do something else because I think a lot of young people think that now that the Cold War is over, even though we have nuclear weapons, it's not really a problem anymore. But the same scientists who worked out the model for nuclear winter back in the 80s recently thought, I wonder what a small regional nuclear war would look like. The India Pakistan. India Pakistan. So they used the very much more sophisticated climate models that have been developed to deal with climate change, computer models, I mean, to model what would
happen if India and Pakistan exchanged 100 Hiroshima-sized, relatively small, 15,000 tons of TNT equivalent nuclear weapons. But necessarily because of the kind of weapons they were using, bomb each other's cities. And 1,515 kiloton weapons is only one and a half megatons. We used to have single bombs that were bigger than that. So we're not talking about a lot of explosive force, but we're talking about nuclear weapons caused mass fires. And cities are full of kindling, if you will. So the smoke from such a nuclear exchange, which you would think wouldn't bother us, would be happening on the other side of the world, would slowly spread a pall of smoke around the entire globe over about a three-month period that would reduce the average annual temperature worldwide by two to three degrees. This doesn't sound like much, but is actually enough to cause hard freezes in July
in temperate climates around the world. So they estimated based on their modeling that this small regional nuclear war would kill, promptly, kill 20 million people from the firestorms that occurred, but would also kill by starvation another two, one billion people around the world. So anywhere where they were weathered, depended on crop success, though nuclear wind would cause those crops to fail, and a billion people would starve. And people would starve in those countries where they live on the margin already. Yeah. Yeah. So it's not something that's off the table. It's immensely real. You know, when the so-called Four Horsemen, George Schultz, Bill Perry, Sam Nunn, and Henry Kissinger got together at Stanford in 2006, and I attended those meetings. I'm affiliated at Stanford to begin a renewed program, what they called Rechivic II, to move on toward eliminating nuclear weapons. The reason they did so was because
they realized that if sub-national groups like Al-Qaeda got a nuclear weapon, they couldn't be deterred. They don't have anything that's held at risk. They didn't matter whether nuclear weapons exploded over the case of Toribor. They don't live anywhere. Right. So the whole premise of deterrence, which is that you have assets that you don't want destroyed, your homeland, your capital doesn't apply anymore. And that means we're still very much in this dilemma. Well, people who want to find solutions and ways that people can work together to solve this dilemma can look at your new book, Twilight of the Bombs, a wonderful, wonderful read. And this is the end for four books. Yes. Hundreds of pages. I think you know more about this than anyone else on the planet. Again, I want people to know about your first really seminal book, the Making of the Atomic Bomb. We are so lucky to have you with us today. Our guest today is Richard Rhodes. Thank you so much. Thank you very much. And I'm Levine Mills. I'd like to thank you
our audience for being with us today on report from Santa Fe. We'll see you next week. Past archival programs of report from Santa Fe are available at the website If you have questions or comments, please email info at Report from Santa Fe is made possible in part by grants from the members of the National Education Association of New Mexico, an organization of professionals who believe that investing in public education is an investment in our state's economic future. And by a grant from the Healey Foundation, tell us New Mexico.
Report from Santa Fe
Richard Rhodes
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KENW-TV, Eastern New Mexico University, Portales, New Mexico
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KENW-TV (Portales, New Mexico)
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This week's guest on "Report from Santa Fe" is Richard Rhodes, author of twenty-three books including The Making of the Atomic Bomb, which won a Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race and Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons. Rhodes discusses his writing and research process for the series.
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Hosted by veteran journalist and interviewer, Lorene Mills, Report from Santa Fe brings the very best of the esteemed, beloved, controversial, famous, and emergent minds and voices of the day to a weekly audience that spans the state of New Mexico. During nearly 40 years on the air, Lorene Mills and Report from Santa Fe have given viewers a unique opportunity to become part of a series of remarkable conversations – always thoughtful and engaging, often surprising – held in a warm and civil atmosphere. Gifted with a quiet intelligence and genuine grace, Lorene Mills draws guests as diverse as Valerie Plame, Alan Arkin, and Stewart Udall into easy and open exchange, with plenty of room and welcome for wit, authenticity, and candor.
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Guest: Rhodes, Richard
Host: Mills, Lorene
Producer: Ryan, Duane W.
Producing Organization: KENW-TV, Eastern New Mexico University, Portales, New Mexico
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