THE ATOMIC BAZAAR: THE RISE OF THE NUCLEAR POOR
By William Langewiesche
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22, 179 pages
REVIEWED BY A.G. GANCARSKI
If you grew up in the United States in the era after World War II, you undoubtedly came into contact with music and movies that attempted to evoke the horrors of nuclear holocaust. From jazzbo Sun Ra’s iconic and unquotable “Nuclear War,” to films ranging from Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” to the 1980s TV movie “The Day After,” it is impossible to consider American popular culture for any length of time without coming across some reference to nuclear annihilation.
Vanity Fair international editor William Langewiesche begins “The Atomic Bazaar,” his sixth book, with this very sort of description. He describes the dropping of the 1945 Hiroshima bomb by one Paul Tibbets, and quotes Mr. Tibbets’ justification of the move a few years back to veteran journalist Studs Terkel: “You’re going to kill innocent people at the same time, but we’ve never fought a damned war anywhere in the world where they didn’t kill innocent people,” with bombs or otherwise. After noting the inevitablity of innocents meeting their final fates via collateral damage, Mr. Tibbets closed his remarks by saying “that’s their tough luck for being there.”
To modern Western sensibilities, made soft by material privilege and the passage of time since the usage of the bombs at the end of World War II seemed necessary, Mr. Tibbets’ words might sound appalling in their bluntness. But in the context of ending the conflict with Japan and establishing an Americentric world order in the wake of hostilities, the usage of the bomb proved decisive.
Policymakers and their functionaries are forced to think in such terms, whether in countries like the United States or in countries such as the “nuclear poor” ones described here so ably by Mr. Langewiesche, who early on makes clear his position that the “nuclearization of the world has become the human condition, and it cannot be changed,” in no small part because “detailed knowledge of nuclear bomb-making has passed into the public domain, placing nuclear arsenals within the reach of almost any nation.”
Nuclearization proceeds apace, argues the author, for the expected reasons. For one thing, it is easy enough for interested and connected parties — national actors or terrorist organizations — to score the materials necessary for a functional nuke. “If you wanted a bomb,” Mr. Langewiesche writes, “you would need this very thing the U.S. government seems to have lost — a sense for streets that are foreign to you, but can quietly be navigated.”
For the prospective procurer of such a bomb, the road to ownership is a clear one. A savvy party can get the necessary raw material — highly enriched uranium — from Russian nuclear cities, then secret them through the porous tribal borders to the south.
From there, Mr. Langewiesche contends, the best place to assemble the bomb would be in “some private machine shop perhaps no larger than a five-car garage” located in a “freewheeling global city where governmental control is lax, corruption runs rampant, and the noise emanating from the shop will be masked by other industrial activities nearby.” Such cities, in the authorial reckoning, include dystopian Third World megalopolises like Mombasa, Karachi, Mumbai, Jakarta, Mexico City and Sao Paolo.
Though the road to bomb procurement is clear enough, it is also fraught with difficulty — the kind of difficulty that can only be overcome by men with millions of dollars, knowledge of the black market and malign intent. With this in mind, the second part of the book focuses on the exploits of notorious Pakistani nuclear gamesmaster A.Q. Khan, specifically regarding his role in nuclear proliferation not only to his homeland, but to other corners of the Third World.
Mr. Langewiesche’s portrayal of the notorious Khan, a “revolutionary nationalist” with a “frumpy wife” from South Africa, is laden from the outset with a certain Manichean dualism — the first telling personal detail about him in a long succession of them involves Mr. Khan’s decision to build a house on the shore of a water reservoir in Rawalpindi.
Mr. Khan’s motive? According to Mr. Langewiesche, it was a singularly ostentatious gesture, a “public brag” intended to prove, somehow, that he was above the law. This desire to transgress and flout public morality is something central to the Langewieschian portrayal of the Pakistani, one that informs the bulk of the remaining narrative.
The ironic thing about the rise of Mr. Khan, perhaps, is that he made a somewhat unlikely nuclear scientist. His background in metallurgy improbably set him up, after his student days were completed, with a Dutch company that specialized in uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes. Security was lax, and Mr. Khan was able to copy plans for centrifuges as his paymasters turned a blind eye. From there, he was able to buy parts in Europe — a continent seemingly unworried about such potentially malign technology finding a home in a sociopolitical backwater like Pakistan.
Mr. Khan was able to find some helpful Dutch stooges to do dirty work for him, which included taking pictures of centrifuges and supplying equipment he otherwise might not have access to. One of these helpful Hollanders was taken into Mr. Khan’s confidence to such a degree that Mr. Khan was willing to send him to Pakistan, all expenses paid, to meet his friends and family. The Dutchman smelled a setup, but it was too late to do much good — his attempts to report Mr. Khan’s nefarity to the Dutch authorities fell on deaf ears, and Mr. Khan’s former lackey found himself having to spend the balance of his career “burrowed into the bureaucracy” of a health insurance company.
Even as Mr. Khan’s former associates were struggling, he was thriving, staying one step ahead of the dithering Dutch, who didn’t seem to understand what he was capable of or what he was doing until too late. By the end of the 1970s, Mr. Khan was firmly affixed to the bosom of his motherland, doing what has to be considered revolutionary work. The postures he struck for public consumption, likewise, were full of revolutionary brio and bluster.
A 1979 letter to Der Spiegel, for example, questioned “the bloody holier than thou attitudes of the Americans and the British … bastards” who had problems with Pakistan’s forays into the nuclear game. Similarly, in 1980, Mr. Khan took issue with a writer for the London Observer, a “Hindu bastard” incapable of “writing anything objective about Pakistan” and its nuclear efforts.
As the book progresses, so does Pakistan’s nuclear program, and the sinister machinations of Mr. Khan, who, by the end of his public career, had helped to facilitate the nuclear ambitions of Iran, North Korea and Pakistan in addition to those of his own country. Mr. Langewiesche ultimately sees a future that validates Mr. Khan’s vision, arguing that there “will be other Khans.” Is there any hope? In the author’s opinion, only through “finding the courage to accept the equalities of a maturing world in which many countries have atomic bombs, and some may use them.”
William Langewiesche’s policy presciptions and sobering observations are a world removed from the “America as hyperpower” motif trumpeted across the political spectrum a few years back. That said, in a world where American power is being challenged like it hasn’t been in decades, perhaps the time has come to consider how Washington can use its power and influence more realistically, in an attempt to vouchsafe its prerogatives in the increasingly challenging realm of foreign policy. “The Atomic Bazaar,” and its straight talk about the global nuclear race, certainly provides fodder for that all-important and seemingly unavoidable discussion.
A.G. Gancarski writes from Jacksonville, Fla.