Jeffrey LewisHoffman on the NPR

The other day after Tom Schelling spoke at one of our events, we stepped into the elevator together. David Hoffman, who works upstairs, was standing inside. I introduced them.

“A Nobel Prize winner and a Pulitzer Prize winner,” I said. “This is a pretty quality elevator ride.” Hoffman demurred that a Nobel is much more impressive than a Pulitzer, but he can say that. I haven’t won anything.

Today, Hoffman has a very readable piece (Obama’s Atomic Choices) on the Nuclear Posture Review on the Foreign Policy website.

He ledes with the Administration’s last minute decision not to declassify the size of the nuclear stockpile. Hoffman argues that the decision to back down offers a “clue about the president and the process that created the document”:

After a painstaking, months-long process, one of the issues still being hashed out at the end of the deliberations on Barack Obama’s new Nuclear Posture Review was whether his administration could finally go public with the precise number of nuclear warheads held by the United States.

Those arguing to disclose the total said it would set an example for the rest of the world. Obama’s report was the first in the post-Cold War era to be entirely unclassified, and the document called on China, in particular, to be more transparent about its nuclear forces and intentions. An accounting of the total number of American warheads would be a highly symbolic move.

Those arguing to keep the number secret said it was too dangerous to reveal, offering states or terrorists seeking to build their own weapons a clue to the amount of fissile material necessary for a bomb. The fear was they might be able to calculate this by comparing the warhead total with previous statements on stocks of fissile material. (Jeffrey Lewis of the New America Foundation disclosed this debate in a blog post that pointed out that the amount of plutonium needed for a weapon is already declassified.)

In the end, by the time the Nuclear Posture Review was unveiled April 6, a decision had been made to keep the warhead total under wraps. This choice offers a small clue about the president and the process that created the document, only the third such review since the end of the Cold War and described by the administration as a “foundation” of U.S. policy on nuclear weapons for years ahead.

Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world met the reality of a commander in chief’s world; his campaign for change ran into the inertia and complexity of governing.


  1. FSB

    So, Obama “pointed to the future, with his feet planted firmly in the status quo.”

    Change we can’t believe in.

    Hope? Sure go ahead and hope.

  2. Scott Monje (History)

    “In drafting the review, the administration seems to have paid close attention to politics, with an eye toward winning Senate ratification of the new strategic arms treaty with Russia. Obama avoided decisions that could become possible targets for treaty opponents, and appears to have been especially careful to court all the fractious interests involved, including Congress and U.S. allies. . . . [O]n nuclear issues at least, Obama is not brimming with ideology.”

    Some might call this the definition of the successful political leader.

  3. anon

    “…his campaign for change ran into the inertia and complexity of governing.”

    yip, it’s called reality.

  4. FSB

    Of course, compromise is needed.

    What is really pathetic is how the center of gravity of the NPR is much closer to the republican hawks’ position than to what Obama said he would do in his campaign.


    e.g. Someone remind me why we need hair-trigger alert nukes aimed at the ocean? Why not a shoe-string alert status?

  5. shaheen

    I find Halperin’s reported comment on the fact that the Pentagon had conviently forgotten the Prague sentence that mentions “reduce the role of nuclear weapons” a trifle disingenuous. Of course the DoD had reducing the role of nuclear weapons in mind. That was in their original White House instructions. And I can testify that they took this seriously. That they were not behind the revised NSA as proposed by DoS is a different matter.

    It is a little tiring to read all this nonsense about “the bad DoD” and “the good DoS” during the NPR process. There were also hawks in the DoS and doves in the DoD.

  6. MarkoB

    Obama’s “vision” of a nuclear weapons free world is on a par with Bush’s “vision” of a Palestinian state. Or perhaps Obama’s “vision” is on a par with India’s “vision” of a nuclear weapons free world. We might be cynical about India’s “vision”, but i’m sure that the sribes working for the Times of India would say that it’s a complex and inertial world after all. The closer you are to Delhi the more real is the vision.

  7. Yale Simkin (History)

    I think it is a shame that Hoffman weakens his point by a making a serious (and dangerous) mistatement.
    He claims “that the amount of plutonium needed for a weapon is already declassified”

    Of course that is untrue.

    The declassified numbers are what you could build a bomb with, not the actual minimum quantity that actual devices have or could contain (which is classified).

    “30. Special nuclear materials masses:
    That about 6 kg plutonium is enough hypothetically to make one nuclear explosive device.
    a. Hypothetically, a mass of 4 kilograms of plutonium or uranium-233 is sufficient for one nuclear explosive device.

    Those two numbers are (I assume) based on two numbers already “out there”. The
    “about 6 kilograms” is from the Groves letter, and the “4 kilograms” is from the unclassified graphs of critical masses of UNCOMPRESSEED fissiles in various reflectors.

    The amount of fissiles required drops with the square of the density.

    Compressing Pu and its reflector by only 1.4 cuts the critical mass by half.

    Compression of a factor of 2 (exceeded by Trinity/Fat Man) cuts the critical mass by a factor of four.

    The unclassified numbers of “hypothetically about 6” or “4” kilograms tells you nothing about real weapons.

    This note follows the declassification:

    NOTE: The average masses of special nuclear materials in the U.S. nuclear weapons or special nuclear materials masses in any specific weapon type remain classified.

  8. FSB

    Well it’s about time

    It’s not as if the biggest obstacle to making a nuke is figuring out the requisite masses.