The Nature of Nuclear Warfare

Jan. 1, 1957

All of us have become accustomed to the idea that nuclear weapons, which are so powerful, are also very scarce—that we, or anyone else, can only have a few of them. This idea has already undergone some modification. Certainly, if there is a scarcity of nuclear weapons, the scarcity is not based on lack of materials.

In this connection I would like to mention two points, both of which are matters of public record. The first is that the government makes available, for industrial use, nuclear material, Uranium 235. The price has recently been reduced to about $7,000 a pound.

My other point is this: If you take the figure of $7,000 a pound and ask yourself, “Is it cheaper to make a given size of explosion with this $7,000-a-pound nuclear material, or is it cheaper to make it with conventional means, such as TNT?”, the answer may surprise you. But before we get to the answer I want to make it clear that we are considering only the price of the nuclear material on the one hand and the price of the TNT on the other. We are not considering that fact that, when you want to deliver a TNT weapon, you pay much more, very much more, for the means of delivery than you do for the TNT itself.

But even without considering the wide disparity in delivery costs, TNT turns out to be considerably more expensive. Exactly how much more expensive I won’t attempt to say beyond saying it is several hundred times so.

With this disparity in what we might call the effective cost of nuclear materials and TNT, it is obviously nonsense to think about nuclear materials as scarce. If they should become scarce it will be our own fault, through lack of foresight and lack of planning. If we convince ourselves that really these nuclear materials cannot, or should not, or must not be used in the future, we can behave in such a way that, at some future date, there will not be a sufficient amount. But if we plan properly, on the basis of foreseen needs, then in the long run all reasonable needs certainly can be covered.

Having, I hope, to some extent disposed of the idea of scarcity, I would like to talk about a much more difficult issue, much more difficult because it is much more elusive, and also much more charged with emotion. This is the question, “Is it proper now, or in the future, to use atomic weapons in warfare?” And no matter on which side of the issue you argue, and must certainly be aware of the other side of the issue, whether you admit it or not. Here are my own ideas.

I will start with a commonplace observation, but one to which I nevertheless will wish to return. There is no question that war itself is something which we have to try to avoid in the greatest seriousness, and with the greatest skill.

But if war comes, some people will draw a distinction between conventional weapons and nuclear weapons. They will say that the one, however dreadful, can be justified—and that the other cannot. In reply I would like to draw another kind of distinction. To my mind the distinction between a nuclear weapon and a conventional weapon is the distinction between an effective weapon and an outmoded weapon. Still another distinction can be drawn, but not between nuclear weapons on the one hand and conventional weapons on the other. This second distinction should be drawn between weapons used against a civilian population.

This is an older distinction, a more logical distinction, a better-justified distinction.

Unfortunately, the only times nuclear weapons have been used in war so far—at Hiroshima and Nagasaki—they were used against civilian populations, and people have thereby been led to identify them with such use. Russian propaganda has exploited this theme and has made it difficult, perhaps for the time being impossible, to make use of nuclear weapons, even in situations where such use would be logical and justified.

This is a very shrewd position for the Russians to take. For it so happens that we are still ahead of them in this field, and actually ahead by quite a bit. Therefore, it is to the Russians’ advantage to raise psychological objections to the use of the one weapon in which we do hold a lead, certainly a greater lead than in other weapons. As a result, I think it would be a considerable mistake for us to accept the idea that nuclear weapons are, on a moral plane, of a different nature from conventional weapons.

Against this background, I would like to discuss the nature of possible actual warfare, along the broadest possible lines, in terms of weapon systems, military services, types of actions, and types of people which may come into play in the future nuclear war. We must look the problem—this very dreadful problem—straight in the face, with the idea that a situation fully understood will be easier to handle and also easier to avoid.

Among our armed services, there is one which has taken full advantage of the possibilities of nuclear weapons. That service is the United States Air Force and, in particular, its Strategic Air Command. There appear to be three principal reasons:

First, nuclear weapons have already been used for strategic bombing purposes, at the end of World War II.

Second, nuclear weapons can produce, particularly if there are only a few of them, a most spectacular effect if used in this way. I’m not denying that this may also be the most effective use, but neither am I saying that it is necessarily the most effective use. But it is certainly the most spectacular use.

The third reason is the personality of a most excellent soldier—the Commander-in-Chief of the. Strategic Air Command—who takes his duties very seriously and fulfills them very effectively. He knew how to take advantage of an important means of fulfilling the function of his command.

Following the lead of the Strategic Air Command, other branches of the Air Force have also taken up the matter. [By other branches of the Air Force, Dr. Teller is referring to Tactical Air Command and Air Defense Command, and it must be admitted that a nuclear capability for these commands was slow in coming.—The Editors.] As a result, it now begins to seem to some people that the Air Force is becoming so important that perhaps the best thing for the defense of this country would be to retain and expand our Air Force, and to discontinue-gently or otherwise-the services of the Army and the Navy. This may be the right solution. But I believe that a better and more practical solution would be for the other services to take advantage of the possibilities of nuclear weapons as the Air Force has done.

To begin with I will try to outline what some of these possibilities might be in the case of the Navy. I’m not talking about today, or even 1960. I’m talking about ten years from now, so we can be reasonably free in our imagination. At the same time, we cannot afford to pass up any good bets because there may be others who won’t pass up those bets.

A certain proportion of the planning, building, and money-spending in the Navy is directed toward the construction of those superb machines, the aircraft carrier. I had the opportunity, a few months ago, to be taken around one of them in a little speedboat, and to look at it from all angles. It costs some money-quite a few million dollars, I understand. There are a few thousand people in it. Looking at it, at least from a speedboat, it looked to me like quite a good target. In fact, if I project my mind into a time when not only we, but also a potential enemy, have plenty of atomic bombs, I would not put so many dollars and so many people into so good a target. Come to think of it, I would not put anything on the surface of the ocean—it’s too good a target.

This does not mean that I want to sink the Navy! Because the Navy has some nice little machines called submarines. I understand the Russians have a few—I suspect that they have more than we do.

[Vice Adm. W. V. Davis, Deputy .Chief of Naval Operation for Air, recently said that the USSR is building more submarines a year than we expect to have in total.—The Editors.]

We have a nuclear-powered submarine, which is a wonderful thing because it can go fast under water. It is the crew. A submarine Navy—a nuclear-submarine Navy—is an extremely powerful weapon.

Today strategic action would have to be carried out by manned airplanes. But we are developing in a direction where strategic bombing may be performed, to a great extent at least, by missiles. It is not easy to launch a plane from a submarine. It is easier to launch a missile from a submarine.

Assume now, for the sake of argument, a conflict in which one side has gained superiority in the air. He certainly can keep his opponent’s navy off the surface of the sea. But he cannot, with any similar assurance, keep his opponent’s submarine navy from doing almost whatever that submarine navy wants to do. A submarine navy can not only take action to the enemy, it can also haul supplies.

In the bulk of these supplies the submarine has the potential capability of exceeding .the airplane.

[It should be pointed out here that at present air-cargo. development is proceeding much faster than the development of cargo-carrying submarines. However, the feasibility of undersea logistic carriers should be explored at a faster pace, at least so the two methods can be compared.—The Editors.]

These considerations are likely to obtain whether one is involved in an all-out conflict or in a local outburst of the Korea type. To my mind, there is no essential difference between the effectiveness of operating in the air or under the water. But it appears there is an essential difference whether you choose to confine yourself to two dimensions in a time when we are fully equipped for three-dimensional operations. It seems to me that, so far as planning our future Navy is concerned, the conclusion is inescapable—we should build a submarine Navy.

In the case of the Army, I am sure that ninety-nine out of a hundred people continue to think about some sort of a front-line approach. A few talk about defense in depth. But most people continue to think about some territory belonging to the other army there. I believe that the concept of a surface Navy.

World War II was fought by armies on a really massive scale. Hundreds of thousands of people were concentrated into one offensive operation. Logistic preparations were made with a rapidity and engineering skill which I am sure surprised even the people who had made the plans. Such a thing had never been seen before, and I think I will never be seen again. At a time when we will have plenty of atomic weapons, both big and small, it will be suicide to put so many people into such a small bit of territory. It will be impractical to channel so many supplies through such narrow passages. The supplies will be interrupted. The people will be killed.

It so happened that atomic weapons, which make concentration impractical, also make it possible for us to fight without concentrating. Concentration has been needed in the past because of the very massive nature of the weapons and ammunition which people have had to use and handle. The moment you have light, easily transported but effective weapons; the moment you have modern methods of transportation on the ground, over water, under water, and in the air; the moment you have modern methods of communication, where units spread hundreds of miles apart can still keep in touch with each other, then it becomes possible for small battle groups, consisting of no more than a few hundred people, to operate independently or interdependently, and also effectively. Such operations will not only be effective, they will have, in their preparation and execution, a number of important general consequences. For instance, if we proceed on this basis, there will be no need for us, in order to help our friends and allies, to quarter our forces in their territory in peacetime. Our forces can appear at any endangered spot within a very short time and, in peacetime, they can stay at home.

The real difficulty in building such a force is not, I think, likely to be a technical one. The real difficulty will be human. For a few hundred people to be self-sufficient will require courage, endurance, determination—all the soldierly virtues. It will require specialists. It will require professionals who can keep in repair intricate pieces of equipment in the field. It will require people who can survive in a strange country under battle conditions. This may mean that our soldiers might also have to be linguists. They may also have to know a lot about local habits and history. All this points to spending much more money per soldier. We will need a truly professional Army of the highest standards.

Thus far the discussion has been confined to offensive warfare. What about the defense? What do we do about an all-out attack on this country? I do not believe in the Maginot Line philosophy but, I think that passive defense has much merit as compared to active defense. We can hope to prevent a considerable fraction of an attacking force from finding its targets. But we cannot stop them all. Furthermore, the weapons are becoming so effective that even a fraction of them may produce a devastating effect.

Is there any possible defense in a situation of this kind? I believe that there is a defense. I do not think that the defense is satisfactory, but at the same time it might turn out to be exceedingly effective. It may make the difference between victory and defeat. It may also make the difference between being able to avoid a war by being prepared, and provoking a war by not being prepared.

I have in mind three phases of the defense, and I will touch on them quite briefly. Precisely these things have been studied in this Laboratory [the US Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory] with the greatest care, and by the greatest experts. At least in our country, this Laboratory is the only place where this problem has been attacked in a consistent and reasonable manner. The Civil Defense effort outside this laboratory, as it stands today, does not measure up to the challenge of the task.

Civil Defense or Defense, which is essentially the same thing to me, has three phases. The first phase is to provide shelters. I have in mind deep, underground shelters which can accommodate at least a thousand persons per shelter. I have in mind such a number of shelters that in any densely populated area in this country, people can walk to a shelter within fifteen minutes. A plan of this, kind is costly, but not prohibitively so.

Such shelters should be so constructed that they will stand up under the impact of the biggest weapons that we can think about. Their entrances might be destroyed, but in a big shelter of this kind it will be a relatively easy matter to have available both mining equipment and some people who know how to use it. They can dig themselves out again. These shelters could provide protection, not only against the radiation hazard, but also against the biggest immediate hazard—the fire-storm.

The shelters should have supplies of food, air, medicine, and communications equipment so that people in the shelters can be informed when it is safe to come out. With such a system of shelters, there is no need to anticipate, even under the most serious attack, that the casualties in a future war will be much greater than the casualties that have been experienced in past wars. Casualties in past wars were exceedingly heavy, and I know that what I am saying is not ultimately reassuring—it cannot be reassuring. Nothing about war can be reassuring. But at the same time we do .not have to face a cataclysmic picture.

The second phase is one in which this Laboratory again concerned. This is the question of the equipment for the clean-up job which will allow us to decontaminate, in the least possible time, areas which have to be entered again. This is a big technical problem, and this Laboratory is one of the very few places where it receives serious attention.

Then there is a third phase, hardest to visualize and most expensive. In an all-out attack, we can save all but a relatively few unlucky people, but we cannot save our industrial plant. A vital portion of our industrial plant wiped out. Then you may raise the question: “If this is a real prospect, aren’t we licked even though we have survived for the moment? Won’t we starve to death? Won’t we perish from lack of organization—from trying to live in the kind of world to which we are not accustomed?”

The necessary reconstruction and rebuilding of the essentials of civilized living is likely to be an exceedingly costly enterprise. But here there is a glimmer of hope. It is an enterprise which I believe we can successfully undertake in this country. For the time being, the Russians are not able to undertake it. Let me try to explain.

Today we have food surpluses. We are complaining that our food surpluses are too great. We could store these surpluses in such a way that in the case of an all-out attack, we still could feed our population for, let us say, two years. In two years we would have time enough to find out where food can be grown again, where contaminated areas can be cleaned up. We can be back in business so far as agriculture is concerned.

In many other ways we will have to look for the least venerable things to rely upon, and for ways to store the things with which we can rebuild. Our system of railroads is likely to be completely knocked out, at least for the moment. Our system of roads will stand up. It is probable that vital spots such as bridges will be out of commission. It is possible to store repair equipment near such vulnerable points in such a way that transportation throughout the country will not even lag. We can be back in business within a few hours of an attack. We could easily have an overproduction of cars. In fact, let’s have an overproduction of cars. But let’s put it mostly not into passenger cars, but mostly into trucks, and store them in safe places. At the same time, we should also have available spare gasoline supplies, so we would be able to carry our supplies for our military forces and essential supplies for civilian purposes from one place to another.

Our factories will be in ruins, but we can store power units in which energy can be produced. For that purpose, nuclear energy might be the best. We can store machine tools. We can store those parts that are hard to produce and are easily stored. These things will be extremely expensive—much more expensive than to make the underground shelters. I am not sure that it can be done. But I think there is at least a chance that it might be done, and we should at least investigate it.

Russia, which is struggling to build up an industrial civilization, cannot do the same thing. Its agricultural supplies are scarce. Its industry is working. In fact, it is a miracle that it is working at all. But it is certainly not working on a surplus. We can produce fat and store it. The Russians cannot.

Now, even if we would be so prepared, an attack would be terrible. But the main point is this: If we so prepared ourselves that a terrible attack could hurt us but cold not destroy us, then such an attack, I believe, will never come. We can make sure that we can have the forces to strike back, not only to hurt the enemy but to destroy him.

Should a nuclear war come, I think its duration is likely to be inversely proportional to its size. I do have the feeling that a big nuclear war will never come. But if it comes, the period in which such a war will be most devastating will be most devastating will be very short, indeed. It will be measured in hours, possibly in fractions of hours. The period in which the decision is made as to who wins the war, on the other hand, will be long, such as ten years preceding the time of the war. The actual fighting will be, I think, a matter of days or weeks.

In conclusion, it would be unnatural for me to talk about the possibility of a future nuclear war without coming to the question of war itself.

I am sure there is no doubt in anybody’s mind, that the purpose of all this preparedness is just one thing—to avoid a war. I believe that preparedness is absolutely necessary in order to avoid a war. In the long run, I believe preparedness is not sufficient to avoid a war. Something else is needed, and this something else is international law and order. How to establish international law and order is a question which is the business of the diplomats—which is the business of every citizen. It is the business of everybody who is thoroughly convinced that in some important matters he is, and must be, his brother’s keeper, because this world has become too small to allow the functioning of completely independent and irresponsible units. It is becoming absolutely necessary that we should find some way in which all nations can live together in peace and in freedom. In some way or other, this will be accomplished, perhaps not in ten years, but perhaps within the lifetime of some of us.

If one could look back at the present period a hundred years from now, this enterprise of establishing, in some difficult and unforeseeable way, a world order which excludes war, will appear as the one and most important accomplishment of our age.

All this cannot be accomplished in complete safety. We will have to continue to live, at least for some time, in a dangerous world. But, after all, the living world has been living for 500 million years, and each individual in this living world has so far died, or faces inevitable death sooner or later. For the past few thousand years we have not only been living with the necessity of death, but also with the knowledge that each of us must die and that anyone among us may be hurt—and fatally hurt—at any time.

This world is not secure, and for the individual, probably will never be secure. The fact that it has become insecure in other and additional ways must be considered as a great challenge, which, in my mind, cannot be resolved easily. It can be resolved eventually if we have intelligence and courage and understanding for people—not only for our own kind of people, but for other people as well.

This article is the outgrowth of an informal talk by Dr. Edward Teller at a Shielding Symposium of the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory in California in October. We heard about it, got hold of a transcript through the kind cooperation of the Laboratory, and asked Dr. Teller to turn it into an article. We were particularly interested because it antedated by several days an address Dr. Teller made before the Association of the US Army, which had been misinterpreted in some quarters–including such publications as American Aviation Daily and US News & World Report–as repudiation of the doctrine of strategic retaliation by the “father of the H-bomb.”