Michael KreponUseful Fictions and Big Whoppers

Bernard Brodie wrote in The Absolute Weapon that, “Everything about the atomic bomb is overshadowed by the twin facts that it exists and that its destructive power is fantastically great.”

From this simple truth, the dictates of state regarding the nuclear option have been advanced through partial truths, useful fictions, and the occasional Big Whopper. Since all states with nuclear weapons (and states pursuing the nuclear option) have resorted to such practices, a common, understandable language of evasion has evolved over time. One definition of expertise in this field is being able to peel away the palimpsest of official rhetoric to distinguish fact from fiction.

On rare occasions, memoirs provide candid glimpses of dissembling at the highest level. George P. Shultz’s superb memoir, Turmoil and Triumph, removed veils of official deception on many issues. One of my shoe box favorites concerns Shultz’s efforts to negotiate an agreement with the Kremlin on Afghanistan. One of the agreement’s provisions would obligate Pakistan to “prevent within its territory the training, equipping, financing and recruiting of mercenaries from whatever origin for the purpose of hostile activities” – pledges Pakistan and the United States were not inclined to honor. Indeed, Pakistan was doing precisely what the proposed agreement would prohibit. According to Shultz,

“After some discussion through our embassies, two phone calls were arranged. First, Pakistani Prime Minister Junejo called me to urge us to sign the accords and to pledge that regardless of the language the Pakistanis would agree to, they would continue to provide a home to the mujaheddin and be a place through which U.S. arms and other supplies would flow to them. Several hours later, President Zia, the truly authoritative figure in Pakistan, called President Reagan with the same message. I heard the President ask Zia how he would handle the fact that they would be violating their agreement. Zia replied that they would ‘just lie about it. We’ve been denying our activities there for eight years.’ Then the president recounted, Zia told him that ‘Muslims have the right to lie in a good cause.’”

Earlier in his memoir, Shultz offers another direct quote from Zia:

I spoke to Zia about our worry based on evidence that Pakistan’s nuclear program was developing a weapons capability… ’We are alive, sir, to the problem,’ said Zia. ‘We support your [nonproliferation] policy, and we implement it.’ … When Pat Moynihan pressed about Pakistan’s ability to make a nuclear weapon, Zia said, ”We are nowhere near it. We have no intention of making such a weapon. We renounce our right to make such a weapon.’

This clearly falls into the Big Whopper category.

Zia had plenty of company. The Government of India defined its 1974 nuclear test as that of a “peaceful nuclear device.” New Delhi is now asserting that the endorsement by the Nuclear Suppliers Group of the Bush administration’s civil nuclear cooperation agreement constitutes a “clean waver” for the subsequent transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technology. This might charitably be characterized as a useful fiction.

Sometimes a Big Whopper can also be considered useful fiction. Take Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s public unveiling to the Knesset of construction work at Dimona in December, 1960:

We are presently engaged in building a research reactor… to serve the purposes of industry, medicine and science, and to train scientific and technical Israeli manpower… This reactor… is meant to be used for peaceful purposes, and is being built under the direction of Israeli experts. On its completion, it will be open to trainees from other countries…

Another Big Whopper: The Soviet Union’s embrace of a “no first use” doctrine during the Cold War. The U.S. first use doctrine that has survived intact since the demise of the Soviet Union may now be characterized as a useful (or not so useful) fiction. Another Big Whopper: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities for “peaceful purposes.” Sometimes useful fictions stop at one’s border.

This is a partial sampler; readers are hereby invited to offer their own favorites.


  1. blowback (History)

    Another Big Whopper: The Soviet Union’s embrace of a “no first use” doctrine during the Cold War.

    Have I missed something? I don’t recall the Soviet Union attacking anyone with nuclear weapons.

    Another Big Whopper: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities for “peaceful purposes.”

    And your evidence for such a statement is…

  2. Alex W. (History)

    In 1943, the New York Times carried a story about the sabotage of Norsk Hydro and the German interest in heavy water, and its potential for a war weapon. (Why they were allowed to get a story past the wartime censor is its own historical question.) Anyway, none other than Harold Urey was drafted to write some wonderful misinformation to various editors of major periodicals:

    “The story in The Times was certainly weird enough to be a real hair raiser. It would seem to me that heavy water might be useful in war research of various kinds, principally for use as a tracing element. I am quite sure that it cannot be used as a deadly explosive of any kind. I think the best thing that can be done with such stories is to ignore them.”

    There are a number of other instances of deliberate misinformation during the Manhattan Project (e.g. accounts of a munition depot detonating as cover for Trinity); obviously not quite the same thing as the Big Whoppers mentioned above.

  3. FSB

    I remember something about Dimona being for water desalination — how’s that “greening of the Negev” going?

  4. Dean (History)

    The United States does not torture.

  5. J House (History)

    The Soviet anthrax outbreak at Sverdlovsk, which called into question whether the Soviets had violated the Geneva Convention and the 1972 Biological Warfare Convention.

    The Soviets replied angrily to these accusations, claiming that the deaths in Sverdlovsk were the result of eating tainted meat. A Tass article entitled “A Germ of Lying,” which was published on March 24,1980, was typical, in combining the Soviet argument that a natural outbreak of anthrax, which was endemic to the area, with condemnation of the U.S. accusations as part of a plan for “spurring up the arms race and] intensifying tensions in the relations between states,” calling into question the validity of the 1972 biological arms convention, and waging psychological warfare against the USSR.

    History shows the Soviets had a massive BC reseach and manufacturing program in which the USIC was completely unaware.

    This President should keep this in mind as he calls for a ‘towards zero’ policy.

  6. Anon

    Big Whopper…Arms Control is working.

  7. JF (History)

    India didn’t invent the term “Peaceful Nuclear Explosive”

    Article V of the NPT even gives a right to PNE use.

    “Each party to the Treaty undertakes to take appropriate measures to ensure that, in accordance with this Treaty, under appropriate international observation and through appropriate international procedures, potential benefits from any peaceful applications of nuclear explosions will be made available to non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty on a nondiscriminatory basis and that the charge to such Parties for the explosive devices used will be as low as possible and exclude any charge for research and development. “

    A stick of dynamite can be used for peaceful purposes (construction). Wrap that thing with nails and you have a weapon. But up to the point where you add the nails, the dynamite is peaceful.

  8. Silent Hunter (History)

    Wasn’t the USSR’s “no first use” policy actually real though?

  9. FSB

    The real fiction is that because it cannot be confirmed that Iran’s program is only for peaceful purposes, it must therefore be working towards a bomb.

    This is untrue.

    Iran is likely working towards a nuclear weapons capability, without building a bomb.

    Having the capacity to build a nuclear weapon is not the same thing as having one, and having a large stock of low-enriched uranium is not the same as having the highly enriched uranium necessary for a bomb.

    News reports and some commentators have recently claimed that Iran has enough material for a nuclear weapon. These reports referred to Iran’s stock of low-enriched uranium. This is a misleading claim. To begin with, one cannot make a nuclear weapon with low-enriched uranium. A nuclear weapon requires highly enriched uranium or plutonium, and Iran possesses neither. In theory, Iran could take its stock of low-enriched uranium and enrich it to a grade required for making bombs, but its low-enriched uranium is currently under the surveillance of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Diverting this material for military purposes would be discovered by the IAEA. (Detection of diversion is the IAEA’s technological strong suit.) Iran’s choices, therefore, are to cheat and get caught or to kick out the inspectors. Either action would represent an extreme departure from Iranian strategy to date and in any case would likely precipitate military action by Israel.

    Even, in the worst case, if Iran were to obtain nukes, it would use them for deterrence, and could be contained.

  10. Andy (History)

    Frankly, I think promises and pledges of what a nation will and will not do in wartime generally aren’t worth the paper they’re written on when it comes to what the leadership of a country would actually do in an real crisis or war. No leader is going to stick to those promises if he or she believes that doing so would put their nation at risk for destruction.

  11. scud

    The debate around the Soviet NFU declaration is useful – given the current US own debates (see the Sagan Survival article reported in ACW). I was never quite able to make up my mind about this one. Were the Soviets really lying? Some who thought so felt vindicated when Warsaw Pact archives were opened and we learned about their actual planning. But I’m not sure. For one, Brejnev in his 1982 speech (when he announced the NFU doctrine) said, if my memory is correct, that Moscow would “naturally take into account other nuclear powers’s reactions”. Also, it seems that what the WP was planning for was massive preemptive use (because Moscow knew that NATO would cross the threshold after a few days of fighting). What do Wonkers say?

  12. Mark Gubrud

    “Everyone believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” (variant: “Every intelligence agency in the world…”)

    Everyone, that is, except anyone who ever spent an afternoon on the internet earnestly looking into the matter.

    By early 2002, the UNSCOM, UNMOVIC, and IAEA reports showed conclusively that Iraq’s nuclear program had been shut down and essentially all hardware destroyed. Nearly all of its SCUDs and other banned ballistic missiles had been accounted for and destroyed, and any that might remain hidden would be unlikely to be usable. Its industrial-scale facilities for developing, testing, and manufacturing chemical and biological weapons had been shut down and destroyed. Its massive infrastructure for stockpiling, field deployment and military use of chemical weapons had been dismantled. All militarily significant stocks of chemical weapons were known either to have been destroyed or by then to have been sufficiently degraded over time as to be useless. All of this was thoroughly documented in open literature.

    Of course, there could not be 100% accounting of everything, and Iraq continued to resist full disclosure and access of inspectors to all facilities at all times. One could not be certain, in early 2002, that Iraq was not hiding some small amount or capability to produce chemical or biological agents in quantities that might be effective for terrorism. It is often said that Saddam Hussein may have wanted to pretend he was hiding some WMD in order to deter attack, but there is no real evidence of this. Rather, it is reasonable to suppose that Iraq continued to try to protect its sovereignty and military security – until UNSC 1441 and the looming threat of an invasion.

    There were stories which appeared in the media and official statements which suggested that Iraq continued to possess some CBW capabilities or to pursue nuclear weapons. These stories were usually short on substance or credibility, and the most prominent of them were usually quickly debunked. When Honest Man Colin Powell gave his famous speech before the UNSC, about a third of what he said had already been debunked, another third was debunked within a week of the speech, and the remainder was irrelevant or inconclusive junk.

    In late 2002, under the threat of imminent attack, Iraq consented to the most invasive arms control inspection regime ever imposed on any nation not under direct military occupation. All doors knocked on by Hans Blix’s inspectors were opened. UN planes flew up and down Iraq searching for buried weapons or bunkers with ground-penetrating radar. Much was made of a few old chemical artillery shells that were found, and Blix tried to protect his credibility by acting tough, not reporting a clean bill for Iraq despite the fact that he had found nothing significant and that the Iraqis were bending over backwards to cooperate, comply, and convince the world that they were not hiding anything.

    By March 2003, it was obvious that not only did Iraq not retain militarily relevant WMD, it actually retained no WMD. Yet Bush and the mass media continued to trumpet the same big lies, and the tanks rolled in.

  13. Josh Narins (History)

    The Israeli-South African nuclear test which South Africa initially strongly denied. This writeup has lots of details

  14. bradley laing (History)

    ——I have spent the past few days reading about, and e-mailing people about,
    Walter Cronkite.

    ——He did CBS’ half-hour evening newscast from 1963 until 1981. People I
    disagree with have criticised Cronkite for his coverage of the Vietnam War.

    ——But, between ’63 and ’81 were: China’s first nuke test, NPT, Start I,
    India’s 1974 nuclear test, Carter’s order to field the MX Missile in
    underground silos, the Progressive magazine H-Bomb article, and the Neutron

    ——From memory of what you have read, did anyone suggestCronkite promoted or
    discouraged anything about any of these things? I mean, there are definately
    websites blaming Cronkite for changing the direction of public opinion about
    the Vietnam War. But…what about any of the nuclear weapons topics? Did anyone
    you can remember, (even people who seemed out of their minds) say Cronkite was
    trying to swing a decision about the subjects above?

  15. hass (History)

    Course, in the case of Iran’s alleged “big whopper”, thus far the IAEA has vindacated Iran’s position, hasn’t it?

  16. scud

    Mark Gubrud: any post starting with “By early 2002, the UNSCOM, UNMOVIC, and IAEA reports showed conclusively that Iraq’s nuclear program had been shut down and essentially all hardware destroyed” has no credibility. UNSCOM/UNMOVIC had no responsibility for the nuclear program. The IAEA Action Team had responsibility. To cut a very long story short – yes, many intelligence agencies around the world were convinced that SH was hiding stuff.

    Massive self-delusion, yes. Distorted intelligence, yes. “Big lies”, no. Even Hans Blix – no friend of Cheney et al. – is on the record for saying that he does not believe the Bush administration was lying.

  17. Andy (History)


    I would suggest that a lot of what you now see as clear and definitive evidence was, at the time, quite ambiguous. Hindsight gives one that advantage.

    I do have a couple of corrections and clarifications to what you wrote:

    All militarily significant stocks of chemical weapons were known either to have been destroyed or by then to have been sufficiently degraded over time as to be useless.

    The problem was that Iraq destroyed much of its stock unilaterally and provided little or no documentation or proof (doing so was actually a violation of the armistice). So the question of whether they were really destroyed or not came down to Iraq’s credibility, which wasn’t very good as they were lying about so many aspects of their program.

    Secondly, “unusable” is relative and there wasn’t agreement on what the self-life of these weapons actually was, particularly if one believed they might be stored and maintained at a secret location.

    There were stories which appeared in the media and official statements which suggested that Iraq continued to possess some CBW capabilities or to pursue nuclear weapons.

    That depends on what you mean by “some CBW” capabilities. The Iraqis did keep some capability to allow all the programs to reconstitute once sanctions were gone, but these were much more limited than what was alleged at the time.

    It is often said that Saddam Hussein may have wanted to pretend he was hiding some WMD in order to deter attack, but there is no real evidence of this.

    There is actually quite a bit of evidence for this from Saddam himself, Tariq Aziz and Chemical Ali, who’ve all said that was essentially the strategy. The strategy was to deny any conclusive evidence that he had WMD while purposely not removing all doubt. See this interview and pgs 91-92 of the IPP report. Saddam admits he miscalculated on this count and did not believe the US would invade without a smoking gun. He was also helped by the French and Russians who assured him they would block any authorization for war, which they believed would keep the US from attacking. In fact, fear of Israel and Iran was reason that Western analysts thought Iraq probably DID retain a weapons capability.

    In late 2002, under the threat of imminent attack, Iraq consented to the most invasive arms control inspection regime ever imposed on any nation not under direct military occupation.

    Ironically, after years of deception, the new openness had the opposite effect of what was intended. Again from the IPP report:

    Ironically, it now appears that some actions resulting from this new policy of cooperation solidified the Coalition’s strategic and operational case for war in the eyes of many. In the decade prior to the 2003 war, the Western intelligence services had obtained many internal Iraqi communications, among them a 1996 memorandum from the Director of the Iraqi Intelligence Service directing subordinates to “insure that there is no equipment, materials, research, studies, or books related to manufacturing of the prohibited weapons (chemical, biological, nuclear, and missiles) in your site.” When UN inspectors went to these research and storage locations they inevitably discovered lingering evidence of programs relating to WMD.
    So in 2002, when the United States intercepted a message between two Iraqi Republican Guard Corps commanders discussing removal of the words “nerve agents” wherever mentioned “in the wireless instructions,” or when it learned of instructions to “search the area surrounding the headquarters camp and Al-Madinah battalion for any chemical agents, make sure the area is free of chemical containers, and write a report on it,” US analysts viewed this information through the prism of a decade of prior deceit. Western intelligence analysts would have no way of knowing their information this time indicated an attempt by the regime to ensure it was in compliance with UN resolutions.
    This flurry of last-minute activity “to remove all traces of previous WMD programs” did not go unnoticed in the West. However, what was meant to prevent suspicion actually served only to heighten it. Military actions to remove lingering traces of weapons fielded in the past appeared to Western intelligence agencies as attempts to conceal current WMD assets or operations.

    Although there are some to still insist that the Bush administration made everything up (and some of that is true), this is one case where analysis clearly failed. I’m guilty of this as well – when I left the intelligence business in 2000, I had read a lot of the intel on Iraqi WMD and believed the evidence showed that Iraq probably retained some weapons capability.

    And therein lies the lesson for Iran. If one develops a mindset that Iran (or any country) is bent on acquiring WMD then one is going to interpret ambiguity to fit that conclusion. It’s critically important the mistakes made with Iraq are not repeated and sitting on the outside, it seems to me the IC has a much better handle on things this time around.

  18. FOARP (History)

    Not so much a ‘big whopper’ as a myth – the goodness of those countries which voluntarily renounce nuclear weapons. The South African bomb was dismantled by the white-minority government ahead of the hand over to the African majority – saying that this was out of the goodness of their hearts is perhaps being a bit charitable given how the program was pushed by the pretty much the same people. Likewise Taiwan’s abandonment of nuclear weapons technology (which may well eventually be their own reliable means of defence against the PRC) was hardly motivated by peaceful intent, and much more by the threat of sanctions, and nowadays the PRC threatens to invade should they catch wind of renewed Taiwanese nuclear research.

  19. Mark Gubrud

    scud, any reader who can’t figure out that my listing of the reporting agencies was meant to cover everything in that paragraph isn’t honestly trying. Yes, I know that IAEA was responsible for the nuclear file, and I would think the level of familiarity with the subject that I displayed would at least excuse me from such pedantry.

    Andy, yes, I know that much of Iraq’s chemical stockpile was destroyed unilaterally with inadequate documentation, but this was understandable in the postwar (1991) chaos, and as I wrote, it was known that any stockpiles would have degraded beyond use by 2002, given the low quality of Iraq’s CW.

    No, Sadddam didn’t shoot all his qualified scientists, and some small amount of information and apparatus was hidden, but this was a tiny remainder of a formerly vast industry; in other words, Iraq was essentially in compliance with the disarmament order. This was known and documented.

    As for the claim that Saddam deliberately cultivated the perception that Iraq still possessed WMD in order to deter attack, this canard is so central to the American postwar retelling and rationalization, after no WMD were found, that one really has to scrutinize assertions of it to see if they contain any real evidence. The only such evidence contained in the pages you cite from the IPP report is the following:

    “According to Chemical Ali, Saddam was asked about having WMD during a meeting with members of the Revolutionary Command Council. He replied that Iraq did not have WMD, but flatly rejected a suggestion that the regime remove all doubts to the contrary. Saddam went on to explain that if Iraq made such a declaration, it would not only show Israel that Iraq did not have WMD but might actually encourage the Israelis to attack.”

    So, what we have here is a second or third-hand account of something Ali Hasan al-Majid supposedly told his American captors Saddam had said. First of all, it can’t be taken too literally, because Iraq certainly did declare repeatedly that it had no WMD, but presumably the question was something along the lines of, “Why don’t we just do everything the inspectors ask of us, and really try to convince them?” Saddam may have had many motives for not doing so, including protection of other Iraqi military secrets, not wanting to appear to be kowtowing to foreigners in the eyes of Iraqis and others, and taking a confrontational stand, periodically provoking crises with the UNSC after years of actual compliance had failed to yield a lifting of the sanctions. On the other hand, he would be unlikely to want to try to explain all this to the idiot who questioned him; talking about Israel would have been a convenient way to deflect attention from his real motives.

    As for the Piro interview, nothing Saddam actually said is quoted, and Piro responds vaguely to leading questions posed by his interviewer. Whatever credibility one might ascribe to this process collapses when he is asked “As the U.S. marched toward war and we began massing troops on his border, why didn’t he stop it then? And say, ‘Look, I have no weapons of mass destruction.’” Hello? …as if the document dump and the inspections of late 2002-early 2003 didn’t happen? The whole piece is just more atmospheric propaganda to soothe the American public’s feelings of guilt and anger at the realization that it was duped into this war.

    The passage you quote about American analysts misinterpreting evidence that Iraq was really trying to ensure full compliance as evidence of a coverup, because of a “mindset,” falls into the category of a very lame excuse. Even if it is true, it doesn’t change the essence of what I wrote – that based on public information alone, one knew in early 2002 that Iraq was essentially in compliance and by early 2003 that Iraq was actually in full compliance. A last-minute snark hunt, in which a few old artillery shells, and orders to ensure that every such thing was cleaned up, were seized on as evidence justifying an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation that predictably has cost more than a million lives and more than a trillion dollars, indicates a failure not of intelligence but of sanity and morality.

  20. scud

    Mark, point taken.

    But where there is really a disagreement here is about the “big lie” category. More than one Western intel agency (including the French, for heaven’s sake) honestly believed that Iraq was still hiding equipments and programs. There were signs, bits and pieces which were understood and interpreted in a certain way. It’s all about the mindset. We (I include myself) interpreted things that way because we could not believe that SH had gotten rid of all this stuff – and we could not believe that in an authoritarian state like Iraq, there was no documentation of the destruction. “We were all wrong” – but there was no “big lie”.

  21. Alok Niranjan (History)

    Double Whopper:

    1. The NWS will give up their nukes under the NPT.

    2. Mike Krepon supports this lie.