Richard Rhodes qualifies easily as the world's pre-eminent scholar and researcher on the world's most terrifying creation nuclear weapons.
His 1986 book The Making of The Atomic Bomb traces the dawn of the nuclear age, from Hungarian theoretical physicist Leo Szilard to the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in such staggering detail and quality that it won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Since then, Rhodes' passion for the nuclear history narrative has drawn him to write three additional books, most recently The Twilight of The Bombs.
As good as these books are, they're interminably long. Realizing that only the stage can dramatize history in a way that holds people's attention on a vital topic, Rhodes decided to write a play about the iconic 1986 Reykjavik summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
"When you write nonfiction, there are final deadlines to editors for publication. With plays, there's always more work to do," Rhodes said from his home south of San Francisco. He will be in Salt Lake City this week for a staged reading of his 2010 play "Reykjavik," produced by Plan-B Theatre Company, and a post-show Q&A.
Some people are still old enough to remember the "nuclear freeze" movement of the 1980s. How has public perception of the nuclear threat changed since then?
When we talk about threats foremost in people's minds, nuclear weapons are most obviously off the table for most people. If you go to surveys about what people are worried about, today there are 25 greater concerns people have. People have a greater fear of being mugged than of nuclear annihilation. The evaluation of risk has just turned.
That's not irrational when you remember we had them to counter the threat of the Soviet Union. We've reduced that threat, but we haven't gotten rid of nuclear weapons at all. It's still a dangerous situation, though. There's still lots of nuclear weapons in the world, and lots of threats that could change circumstances.
What circumstances are most likely to increase that threat?
In 2007, using much better computer models developed for global warming, scientists decided to take a look at the original nuclear winter study and found that original estimates were, if anything, too mild. They postulated an exchange of 100 Hiroshima-size bombs between India and Pakistan exposed over cities in both nations, starting massive fires. They discovered, to their horror, that even a small regional nuclear war would have catastrophic climate effects on the entire world. They estimated 20 million immediate deaths, followed by hard freezes in the middle of the summer with 2 billion people dying after major crop failures.
I tell people that, because some nations feel a small regional nuclear war is winnable. It certainly should wake us up. But it would be too late. The concern over Iran is overblown. Right now it doesn't even have major nuclear weapons. North Korea has between eight and 10 and is not really a risk to the United States. It's an exchange between India and Pakistan that seems far more likely.
What's the best way to rid our planet of the nuclear threat?
The axiom of proliferation says that if any one nation has nuclear weapons, others will seek to have them. We seem to feel we have the right to these weapons, but bad guys shouldn't have them. But it doesn't work that way in international relations. Turning that axiom around, the only way to get rid of nuclear weapons is to get rid of them all. It's just a matter of fundamental equality that you can't ask people not to build things you feel are a fundamental need for your security. I'm not so worried about a terrorist attack using nuclear weapons. It would be notoriously difficult for a terrorist organization to control when one of these weapons goes off. There's always the possibility of a terrorist attack, but the real threat is the quiet proliferation of these weapons, with more nations knowing how to build them.
The answer to me is that we've got to get rid of them all. I'm not talking about "uninventing the bomb." That won't happen. I'm talking about delayed deterrence. Let's say we've got a missile with a warhead on instant launch. But if you take the warhead off the missile and store it 10 miles away, that delays the threat. You can see a condition where the world might not be without these weapons, but instead the possibility of delaying the threat by three months. During that delay nations can negotiate, or find time to discover another solution. At the end of that time, if nothing else works, all sides can remount their warheads.
The elimination of nuclear weapons doesn't mean we eliminate them, but that we create the situation where they're not sitting around for immediate use. To achieve that, we need intrusive inspection. That already exists under the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), based in Vienna. It presently has extensive worldwide sophisticated systems in place to identify and track any nuclear test, anywhere in the world. We already have a lot of systems in place to monitor the world to make sure no one's cheating. What we don't yet have is the will of nuclear powers.
Is this your first play? What did you find the greatest difference between writing nonfiction and drama?
It's my first play, and may be my last. I wrote about the Reykjavik summit while working on my book Arsenals of Folly. I acquired all of the American and Russian transcripts of that summit. Between these two leaders, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, they were so naturally dramatic I thought I really ought to write a play about this. Paul Newman was a friend of mine, whom I sent drafts to. He'd call me up and say, "Rhodes, Newman here. One word, 'Colloquialize.' " I was still staying too close to the diplomatic language.
Are you happy with how the script turned out?
Yes, but interesting plays are never finished. â¦ I remember trying to flesh out a scene from a point in the transcript in which Reagan had the curious idea that Gorbachev was a religious man. I wanted the play to get at the question of why these two men mysteriously came up with the idea of eradicating all nuclear weapons. It certainly wasn't something we heard from other world leaders at that time. I had to read Gorbachev's memoir about impact of WWII on his life, of how he never wanted to see that sort of destruction again. For Reagan, it was being a lifeguard in the town of Dixon, Ill. It was in the Rock River swimming area that he saved 77 people from drowning. It's hard to believe, but he did. The idea that he was going to save the world was deeply embedded in his psyche. These were formative experiences embedded deep in these men.
Your most famous book, The Making of The Atomic Bomb, chronicles the development of nuclear weapons up to their first use in modern warfare. But it's so objectively written. It's tempting to ask you the ultimate question, "Was the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified?"
History should be written as objectively as possible. But as to your question, no, I don't believe in second-guessing history. What people felt at the time was that those bombs ended the war. But it's now clear from people who've studied the original Russian, English, American and Japanese documents that it was not the bombs themselves that were decisive in ending the war. It was the Soviet Union entering the war.
The Soviet Union declared war on Japan, but when Stalin got word of the explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he moved up the invasion date from Aug. 15 to Aug. 8. There's an indirect connection between the bombs and Japanese surrender in that sense. His armies entered Manchuria Aug. 8, and when the Japanese army realized they were surrounded on all sides by these giant powers, that's what ended the war and brought their surrender. It's not that the bombs didn't have their effect. They did, but it wasn't the bombs alone that did it.
I do think it unfortunate that many left-wing historians say the bombs were dropped as primary purpose to scare off the Soviet Union. I don't think there's any evidence whatsoever that's true. It's an ugly charge against Truman and General [George] Marshall that they would kill hundreds of thousands of civilians just to scare off the Soviet Union.
But people continue to ask, "How could we have bombed innocent civilians?"
That decision was made in 1943 in Germany, where we firebombed cities. We bombed German civilians when we bombed every major city in Germany. The moral question was decided long before nuclear weapons were used on Japan. The Pacific War of WWII was the first war in which more civilians died than combatants, and that's because of our firebombing. The only thing that was different about the atomic bombs was the radiation.
Do you still believe the hope of the world is the scientific community confronting the powers of nation states? You wrote in The Making of the Atomic Bomb that this confrontation is "ongoing and inextricably embedded in mortal risk, but it offers at least a distant prospect of felicity."
The slow, gradual improvement in human life brought about by science and medicine will in the long run put an end to serious war. In a way it already has. Most of our current conflicts are such small scale. The improvements brought about by public health alone in the 20th century have saved millions of U.S. lives. More lives have been saved by improvements in public health in the 20th century than all the lives lost to war in the 20th century. When you think about the people who wouldn't have survived to start families and reproduce otherwise, that's a lot of people.
If the scientific community has already saved millions of lives, why doesn't the public acknowledge that more explicitly?
People are hostile toward science to begin with. They tend to see the world's ills as moral failures or rooted in religious behavior. â¦ Bohr liked to say that the goal of science isn't power over the world, it's the gradual elimination of prejudice. People used to believe the world was the center of the universe, and that humans were the center of creation. Galileo and Darwin took care of those two beliefs. Science is unsettling, and continues to be unsettling. It gets in the way of a lot of beliefs people cherish. But in the long run if you don't live according to way the world works, you don't get very far. It's really important to say this, but if anything is going to save us in the long run, it's science.
A staged reading of Richard Rhodes' new play by Plan-B Theatre Company.
When • Monday, June 24, 7 p.m.
Where • Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.
Info • Free, but tickets must be reserved at planbtheatre.org.