The Atomic Bazaar

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In a number of ways, The Atomic Bazaar is a very disturbing book. Written by William Langewiesche — who served for years as a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, in which this material first appeared — it exposes the secret progress of nuclear weapons proliferation over the past few decades. Based on extensive investigation of licit and illicit nuclear technology ventures, it provides a dismaying portrait of how national rivalries, supplemented by human greed, are producing an ever more dangerous world.

Langewiesche begins by taking a look at the nuclear issue that most frequently grabs the attention of the communications media and of the American public: the prospect of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons. Somewhat reassuringly, he does not think it likely that they will obtain such weapons on their own. Although he provides a frightening picture of rotting, lightly-guarded nuclear weapons facilities in Russia, surrounded by sullen, desperate local citizens, he considers a commando-style raid there by terrorists unlikely to succeed. International smuggling of highly-enriched uranium out of Russia is a better bet, he concedes, especially given the country’s porous southern borders. Nevertheless, as he remarks, "The construction of a bomb is not a casual project," and might well be discovered by snooping neighbors or the authorities, even in chaotically governed nations. Thus, he concludes, the odds are stacked against a would-be nuclear terrorist.

Terrorism, however, does not constitute the greatest nuclear danger. Washington, London, and New York, Langewiesche argues, "are unlikely anytime soon to suffer a nuclear strike — though certainly the possibility exists. More at risk for now . . . are the cities of the nuclear-armed poor, particularly on the Indian subcontinent, and in the Middle East." In the past few years, millions of Indians and Pakistanis twice came close to nuclear annihilation, and "this is the world in which increasingly we live, of societies . . . that are weak and unstable but also nuclear-armed."

Pakistan, particularly, Langewiesche notes, "is the great proliferator of our time." And this, in turn, owes much to the work of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan. Trained as a metallurgist, Khan began his career as a nuclear proliferator in the mid-1970s, when he returned to Pakistan from employment in the Netherlands. Drawing upon stolen nuclear designs, he dramatically built up Pakistan’s nuclear facilities through the Khan Research Laboratories, which produced highly enriched uranium, the fissionable material necessary for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and designed the warheads and missiles to deliver them. Along the way, Khan became a sort of demigod in Pakistan, living in luxury, accepting awards of every kind (including six honorary doctoral degrees, 45 gold medals, and three gold crowns), and, as Langewiesche notes, "holding forth on diverse subjects — science, health, history, world politics, poetry, and (his favorite) the magnitude of his achievements."

In fact, Khan was not an independent operator, for his nuclear activities received the lavish support of the Pakistani government. Langewiesche observes that Khan’s budget "was apparently unlimited. Eventually he hired as many as ten thousand people," and "also launched a massive shopping spree in Europe and the United States." Given his government’s largesse, Khan could offer two or three times the going rate for nuclear-related products manufactured by corporations in more industrially advanced nations — products which they happily provided.

Khan’s importance to the Pakistani regime reached an apparent zenith in 1998, when it exploded its first atomic bombs. Shortly after a technician pushed a button and proclaimed "Allah-o-Akbar" (God is great), a fierce nuclear explosion shook the test mountain, shrouding it in dust. Pakistan had become a nuclear nation.

By this point, Khan was dealing on a much larger stage. Eager to enhance his considerable personal fortune, he sold vital nuclear information and material to the governments of Libya and Iran. During the 1990s, he also worked out a deal with the North Korean regime, in which that government provided him with missile prototypes (which were then modified and produced at the Khan Research Laboratories) and he provided that government with centrifuge prototypes and advice on uranium enrichment and procurement.

Ultimately, these arrangements led to Khan’s downfall. With Khan’s extensive nuclear sales operations revealed by the Libyan government, the U.S. government demanded that Pakistan’s dictator, General Pouvez Musharraf, take action against him. Although Musharraf and other Pakistani officials were deeply complicit in Khan’s activities, the general arranged to have Khan make a formal confession on television in which he accepted the sole blame for them. "I also wish to clarify," Khan stated on that occasion, "that there was never ever any kind of authorization for these activities by the government." As a reward for Khan’s willingness to take the heat, Musharraf pardoned him. But the general kept Khan under house arrest in one of his mansions, where he would remain out of sight, out of mischief, and out of reach of independent inquiries.

For Langewiesche, the moral of this sad story of corruption and the dispersal of nuclear weaponry is not to abandon efforts at nuclear nonproliferation, but to find "the courage in parallel to accept the equalities of a maturing world in which many countries have acquired atomic bombs, and some may use them."

But much of his evidence can also support a different conclusion — one pointing to the failure of nuclear-armed nations to live up to their responsibilities. Time after time, as Langewiesche shows, the U.S. government — despite repeated warnings from U.S. intelligence agencies — was content to ignore Khan’s operations because of the assistance Pakistan could provide to U.S. military ventures. For example, starting in 1979, the U.S. government drew upon Pakistan as a base for anti-Soviet operations in Afghanistan. Beginning in 2001, it cozied up to Pakistan to secure that nation’s cooperation in subduing Al Qaeda and the Taliban in that same country. In these circumstances, the U.S. government found it relatively easy to accommodate itself to Pakistan’s role as a nuclear nation and, for a time at least, as a nuclear Wal-Mart.

Furthermore, as Langewiesche concedes, much of motivation for building the Bomb among Third World leaders was based on their resentment at the world’s nuclear two-tier system: nuclear weapons for some nations and no nuclear weapons for them. There was, as he writes, "a moralistic rejection of the discriminatory nuclear order." For all his venality, Khan shared this sense of grievance. "I want to question the bloody holier-than-thou attitudes of the Americans and the British," he wrote in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, in 1979. "Are these bastards God-appointed guardians of the world to stockpile hundreds of thousands of nuclear warheads, and have they God-given authority to carry out explosions every month?" By contrast, if Pakistanis "start a modest programme, we are the satans, the devils." Although Khan exaggerated the numbers of nuclear warheads possessed by the U.S. and British governments, he did not exaggerate their national arrogance.

Of course, coupling the abandonment of nuclear weapons by the nuclear nations with the renunciation of nuclear weapons by non-nuclear nations is the bargain that was struck under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968. If we want nuclear safety, it is more likely to come in that form than in the form of further nuclear proliferation. But moving in the direction of this kind of equal playing field — a nuclear-free world — requires that the nuclear powers accept the responsibility to fulfill their treaty commitment to their own nuclear disarmament. Until that happens, we can expect what Langewiesche predicts: further nuclear proliferation and a heightened danger of nuclear war.

Lawrence S. Wittner [send him mail] is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany and co-editor of the new book, Peace Action: Past, Present, and Future.

This article originally appeared on the History News Network.

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