Who’s next for nukes?

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With nukes in the news so much lately, I had the opportunity to look back and see what was on the nuclear horizon 50 years ago.

The Wilson Center last week inaugurated an online digital archive of declassified documents from the Cold War era. Among the documents I found was a CIA National Intelligence Estimate from June 1963 forecasting the “likelihood and consequences of a proliferation of nuclear weapons systems.”


It’s tempting to look back on this as a simpler time. The nuclear club consisted of just three states: the U.S., the USSR and Great Britain. And the tone of the report is dispassionate, unlike the endlessly nerve-wracking public discourse over Iran and North Korea’s nukes today.

But the Cuban Missile Crisis had been defused and nuclear war averted just months before. And, according to the report, two additional countries were working toward becoming members of the nuclear club.

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One was France, which was developing a bomb primarily “to heighten French prestige and status on the continent, “according to the report. The CIA’s reaction to the consequences of France’s acquisition was similar to Tom Lehrer’s, who did not have access to this document when he wrote his satiric song “Who’s Next?” the next year.

France got the bomb, but don’t you grieve
Cause they’re on our side, I believe.


The other country on the way to nuclear capability was China. “The Chinese may be able to detonate a first nuclear device by early 1964 … and build their first crude fission weapon” two years later, the report predicted.

The Chinese conducted their nuclear test in October 1964. “Johnson minimizes peril” was part of the New York Times headline the day after.

Part of the reason must have been the National Intelligence Estimate’s conclusion that a Chinese breakthrough would probably not “produce major changes in Communist China’s foreign policy in the sense that the Chinese would adopt a general policy of open military aggression, or even become willing to take significantly greater military risks.”

Other countries that in 1963 had the “physical and financial resources” to develop nuclear weapons over the following decade were India, Japan, Sweden, Canada, Italy and West Germany.

And then there was Israel. The CIA looked at the Jewish state and concluded that given Israel’s motivation to maintain its military superiority over the Arabs, it “will attempt to produce a nuclear weapon … in the next several years.”

After that statement, a large part of the page is blocked out until the report moves on to other countries.

“An Israeli nuclear capability…would be militarily significant in the Middle East and would provoke a sharp reaction there,” the report says later. “The Israelis would probably exploit their nuclear advantage, not to make war forthwith, but to intimidate the Arabs. The Arabs would also feel more inhibited in taking actions which might provoke an Israeli military response.”

With the 1967 and 1973 wars in hindsight, it’s clear that that the Arabs weren’t sufficiently inhibited.

But Lehrer clearly had Israel’s vulnerability in mind he wrote “Who’s Next?”

Egypt’s gonna get one too
Just to use on you know who
So Israel’s getting tense
Wants one in self-defense
The Lord’s our shepherd says the psalm
But just in case
We’d better get a bomb

The CIA saw an Egyptian attempt to get a bomb as following from Israeli capability, rather than the other way round. But Egypt, which was then united politically with Syria, was “so deficient in most of the prerequisites for a weapons program that it could not on its own acquire a capability over at least the next decade.”

Egypt’s strong motivation would become stronger “should the Israelis explode a nuclear device.”

Of course, the Israelis never did. They don’t even acknowledge that they have nuclear weapons, preferring the ambiguous contention that they would not be the first and the region to use nuclear weapons.

Is the world a safer place than it was 50 years ago? Absent any catastrophes, we may have to wait another 50 years to find out.

[email protected] Twitter: @davidholzel

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