Confronting the Bomb: Pakistani and Indian Scientists Speak Out

Edited by Pervez Hoodbhoy, Oxford U. Press, (Karachi, Pakistan), 2013, $40.00, 392 pages, ISBN 978-0-19-906833-3

Though the principal thrust of this important book is the combustible situation between India and Pakistan, the themes addressed can be extrapolated to the general problems of conflict between any potential nuclear adversaries. The chief contributor is the Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy who received his PhD in nuclear physics from MIT. Hoodbhoy authored the Introduction and seven chapters, and co-authored two others. John Polyani, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, gives historical and philosophical perspectives. Polyani writes: “Nuclear weapons are a plague on the earth, differing from earlier plagues in that they are visited on us not by God but by man.”

Among the familiar names associated with the genesis of nuclear bombs, Polyani gives ironic “credit” to Hitler’s deputy, Rudolph Hess, who after deserting Germany and parachuting into England in 1941 may have reported the threatening meaning of the discovery of uranium fission by German scientists. The subsequent observations of Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, and the famous Albert Einstein letter to President Roosevelt, were decisive in leading to American nuclear weapons.

Hoodbhoy and Zia Mian give in Chapter 15 an analysis titled “America, Global Domination, Global Disarmament.” Mian, a physicist, directs the Project on Peace and Security in South Asia at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security. They estimate there are in excess of 25,000 nuclear weapons in the world today of which 20,000 are held by the U.S. and Russia with the other seven countries (Great Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea) each having up to several hundred but striving for more. There has been almost universal agreement since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the world was in danger from weapons. Over 400,000 people have signed on to the International Global Zero Declaration for a verifiable agreement to completely eliminate nuclear weapons from the planet. Apparently the former president of the Soviet Union, Mikail Gorbachev, and the late president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, actually made efforts toward this objective during their meeting in October, 1986 but only limited success has been achieved. Other nations have tried to obtain these weapons despite the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) signed by most nations. Non-signers include India and Pakistan. Agreeing to the NPT did not assure that Iran would abide by its terms.

However, there also has been reluctance to use these weapons. The U.S. did not use them in Vietnam and accepted 58,000 American deaths and several hundred thousand combat casualties in a futile and lost war. The Soviet Union lost its own war in Afghanistan and also opted not to use nuclear weapons. That country’s disintegration into independent entities was not prevented despite its nuclear stockpile. Potential uses were the reported U.S. readiness to use nuclear weapons in the event of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe during the Cold War, and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, generally acknowledged to be the closest the U.S. came to nuclear war with the Soviets.

During the 1973 Yom Kippur war when Israel was attacked and came close to defeat by Egypt and Syria, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan reportedly received permission from Prime Minister Golda Meir to use its never-acknowledged atomic arsenal. The Arab thrust was finally thwarted by conventional military means. India began developing nuclear weapons in 1971 with its first explosion in 1974, saying it was for “peaceful” purposes. Pakistan’s first bomb followed later in 1990 with the cooperation of China which had tested its bomb in 1964. In 1998, India conducted five nuclear weapons tests, followed 17 days later by Pakistan detonating five of its own.

There have been three consequential wars between India and Pakistan centered on the disputed Kashmir area populated by a Muslim majority but awarded by the United Nations to India. Among the more serious other incidents are the attack by Islamic jihadists on the Indian parliament in 2001 and the Mumbai massacre in 2008 which killed 164. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan is not inevitable but is becoming more likely. In their conventional wars, India has prevailed more or less decisively because it has a larger and better educated population and a stronger industrial and technical base.

In an all-out engagement where overwhelming defeat was envisaged, Pakistan might use its nuclear arsenal. India would retaliate in kind. In anticipation of Pakistan’s use of its nuclear weapons, India may preemptively attack Pakistan’s launch sites prior to a conventional military invasion. An estimate of immediate nuclear casualties in an all-out war is 2.9 million deaths with 1.45 million severely injured. This does not include the unknown effects of radiation sickness and genetic damage to subsequent generations.

Many issues discussed are of direct U. S. concern. Iran’s obvious effort, despite their denial, to develop a bomb is reviewed. Hoodbhoy writes, at the conclusion of the chapter titled “Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the ‘Islamic bomb’”: “However unwelcome Iran’s bomb (and the “Sunni bomb” that could someday come from Saudi Arabia), it is far better to live with potential dangers than to knowingly create a holocaust through military action. Tel Aviv and Washington must never even contemplate an attack; to do so would set the world on fire.” However, it appears from President Obama’s and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statements that military action may be imminent.

The book states “Albert Einstein, whose mass-energy equivalence formula lies at the very foundation of the bomb, became convinced that danger lurked around the corner.” Einstein wrote in 1948: “Let us hope that the abolition of the existing international anarchy will not need to be bought by a self-inflicted world catastrophe the dimensions of which none of us can possibly imagine. The time is terribly short. We must act now if we are to act at all.” Confronting the Bomb makes it clear that the time has become even shorter.

Hoodbhoy expresses the opinion that “It is unlikely that this will be a popular book.” This reviewer hopes Hoodbhoy turns out to be wrong. This scholarly study warrants the widest readership.

Leonard R. Solon, Ph.D.
Adjunct Associate Professor, Retired, New York University School of Medicine

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.