Special address by Dr. Christian Ostermann, Co-Director, NPIHP at Seminar: “Early years of Nuclear Cooperation and Non-Proliferation- A dialogue on Nuclear Historicities”

October 10, 2012

  • Thanks to Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis for hosting this important event South Asia’s on nuclear history. I am particular grateful to Director Dr Arvind Gypta and Research Fellow Dr Vinod Kumar for their efforts – not just in preparation of this conference, but also in pursuit of the underlying research agenda and for their pioneering contributions to an emerging international network on the history of nuclear proliferation. Their infective enthusiasm, scholarly acumen and warm hospitality have been inspiring to all of us, and it only underlines what a treasure of an institution IDSA is.
  • For more than fifteen years I have had the privilege to run a research project and clearing-house on the Cold War, the Cold War International History Project, based at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, which is an independent, non-partisan institute for advanced studies. Created in 1991, in the wake of the velvet revolutions and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the project has sought to address a fundamental imbalance in our historical understanding of the global conflict that then had just ended. Until 1991, most serious historical scholarship was based almost exclusively in Western, in particular American, documents and sources, and it thus represented a one-sided view of the conflict, through the lenses of Western, especially US policymakers and analysts. Little wonder that the historiographical debate was little more than an extension of the US political debate over US foreign policy, with many of the questions focusing on the issue of who was to blame for the rise of the Cold War confrontation.
  • While on the Western side scholars had thousands of archival documents to peruse, starting in the 1970s, when it came to explain Soviet bloc perceptions and behavior, they were forced to rely on newspapers (Pravda), the occasional smuggled out documents, and Western intelligence reports, themselves of an uncertain quality. In terms of the source base for scholarship that often claimed the ambition to inform policymaking and the public policy debate, it was a situation of the “one hand clapping.”
  • CWIHP has tried to address this source imbalance and to internationalize scholarship by providing access to the once secret, and even after 1991 difficult-to-access archives in the former Communist world. Through publications (online and in print), fellowships and workshops and conference, we have tried to contribute to a new history of the Cold War, a history that at its best is multi-archival in its source base; international in its perspective; multicultural in its approach and interactive in its narrative—interactive in the sense that the Cold War story can now be told as a complex process of action and reaction.
  • It has not always – in fact rarely -- been easy to excavate the documentation from the frequently uncooperative clutches of security establishments and archives (including in the United States), and so we have developed strategies over time to facilitate the process. Early on it became clear that thanks to the good work of Cold War era government bureaucrats, there are often multiple accounts of conversations and decisions, often multiple copies and versions of documents in a variety of archives. When the Russian archives went into retrenchment in the mid-1990s thus the far more open Eastern European archives effectively became a backdoor into Soviet policies. Triangulation and multilateralization of our archival efforts through a global network of researchers and institutions has been one of our most fruitful methodological approaches, and it requires a broad network. Let me just mention an example that had just come to for, regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis: We will shortly publish – for the first time in print – Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev describing his motivations for putting the missiles in Cuba, and pulling them out, practically in real time, as he debriefs the Czechoslovak Communist leader Antonin Novotny, on October 30, 1962—a document our Czech colleagues found in their archives! This is arguably one of the top 3 or 4 documents on the Cold War to come out of the former Communist world archives over the past twenty years.
  • Another part of our strategy has been the use of local and provincial archives when central state archives remain closed. While local archives may contain only the final results of decisions passed down from the central authorities and generally lack information about the internal decision-making processes which lead particular policies to be chosen over other options, these local and provincial archives are often considered less sensitive, and also may contain new insights on how macro-level policies affected, and were affected by individuals and institutions at the local or regional level.
  • One of the most significant developments in recent years is the opening of the Chinese Foreign Ministry archives, long a black box to researchers. Following the opening earlier that year, the Chinese government signed a landmark agreement with the Wilson Center in the spring of 2004—the first ever bilateral agreement of this sort—to allow the publication of declassified Chinese documents on the 1954 Bandung Conference in the CWIHP Bulletin. Progress on additional declassification from that time has been significant, and we are about to publish major new Chinese collections on the 1955 Bandung Conference, Sino-Indian relations and Sino-Korean relations in the 1960s. The newly released documents have helped to shape the historiography in important ways, evident in so many recent publications. The Foreign Ministry’s decision to open its archives (in however controlled of a manner) was no doubt a smart public diplomacy initiative but has contributed substantially to our understanding of China’s role in the Cold War.
  • Let me inject here that I am very grateful to Pinak Chakravarty, special secretary (Public Diplomacy) in the external affairs ministry, for his speech and the recent unprecedented release of over 70,000 documents pertaining to India's post-1947 diplomatic and foreign policy history. It effectively ends an era in which India’s role in the Cold War was researched and told based on documents from other countries—from Russia, China or Hungary. This decision is tremendous boost to historical scholarship on the Cold War, and we congratulate the FM and are looking forward to further such releases
  • There are many important findings emerging from the new global history of the Cold War, and relating this revolution in our understanding of the conflict is beyond my task here: Suffice it to say two things that stood out to me as an overriding result: First, we have today a far more complex picture of the conflict that dominated international politics in the second half of the twentieth century. The Cold War was the political-ideological, economic, intelligence and military, technological-scientific and socio-cultural confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States and their respective blocs from 1945/47 to 1989/1991. It was a truly complex phenomenon with a multitude of “battlegrounds” which had a nearly “total” impact on the centrally and marginally involved societies and even on the non-aligned nations that attempted to distance themselves from it.
  • Secondly, I am struck time and again by the interconnectedness of Cold War events, decisions and developments across the globe—the many angles and layers of interaction and interconnection that existed within this global phenomenon. Many of these connections we are just beginning to discover.
  • One example for the interconnectivity is the Cuban Missile Crisis, the 50th anniversary of which we will be commemorating next week. On the occasion CWIHP will be publishing several hundred pages of new non-US documentation, including translated archival documents and other sources from more than twenty countries, from Brazil to Bulgaria, from China to Denmark and Israel. (I would have liked to add Indian archives to that list!)
  • Indeed, as Tom Blanton recently wrote, the Cuban Missile Crisis “just isn’t what it used to be,”1 because historians, political scientists, psychologists, and eyewitnesses have revised and reconstructed all of our received narratives, while adding many new ones we never thought about before. The Bulletin issue, soon to be available online at CWIHP.org, one can find extraordinary new details on the global impact of the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example in East Asia, and on the development of what would become today’s North Korean nuclear program!
  • The new documentation has punctured one after another the myths of the Missile Crisis. The old story revolved around unprovoked aggressive behavior by the Soviets met with tough American brinksmanship. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. conveyed the conventional wisdom when he described President John F. Kennedy’s “brilliantly controlled… matchlessly calibrated” crisis management that forced the Soviets to back down. Secretary of State Dean Rusk provided the most famous quote about the Crisis: “We’re eyeball-to-eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked.” But (as Blanton writes) “the documents over time compelled new conclusions and new narratives suggesting, in fact, that both sides blinked, that the crisis arose from adventurism beforehand by both Kennedy (his harassment of Cuba with assassination plots and Operation Mongoose) and Khrushchev (his deceptive deployment of the missiles); and that both leaders stepped back from the brink because of their mutual sense of events spinning out of control.” Indeed, the new evidence suggested “the Crisis was even more dangerous than policymakers thought at the time, with multiple potential flashpoints, mostly unbeknownst to the highest officials and certainly out of their control, girdling the globe with nuclear weapons whose routine deployment was standard operating procedure for both U.S. and Soviet militaries. Thus, American fighter jets scrambling over Alaska to defend an off-course U-2 spy plane over Siberia during the most dangerous day of the Crisis (October 27) each carried nuclear-tipped air-to-air missiles under their wings. Soviet diesel submarines each carried a nuclear-tipped torpedo for taking out large surface ships, or even fleets! “Adventurism, accident and human fallibility,” as one scholar recently put it, spelled a doom that was only avoided by luck and restraint.
  • There is still much we don’t know: The Cuban archives remain largely inaccessible, and the Cuban side of the story still has large holes. The are others blank spots as well: How for example did the Sino-Indian conflict interface with the Sino-Soviet dynamics during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Nonetheless, the empirical database had dramatically expanded and set off what has been called the “Third Wave” of Cuban Missile Crisis scholarship.
  • It is this fundamental methodological approach that I just outlined that underlies our new nuclear proliferation international history network, in which we are a proud partner with IDSA as well as
    • The Machiavelli Center for Cold War Studies (CIMA);
    • East China Normal University in Shanghai;
    • The Center for Security Studies at the Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule, Zurich;
    • the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Brazil;
    • the University of Vienna’ s IAEA International History Research Project and
    • Monash University, South Africa.

    Many of our partner institutions are represented here today, and I want to convey in particular the best wishes and regards from my co-director, Professor Leopoldo Nuti at Roma Tre, who cannot be here for health reasons.

  • In many ways, the situation with regard to global nuclear history mirrors that of the Cold War history: For decades thinking on nuclear issues has centered on the East-West nuclear arms race, deterrence, nuclear technology sharing, and arms control and disarmament. Experts limited themselves by and large to the two superpowers and their first- or second-world allies in Europe and Asia. Today long-standing concerns about nuclear proliferation and the fear of nuclear warfare have been eclipsed by concerns about regional nuclear arms-races, local nuclear wars, and nuclear terrorism, which in some ways may be more complicated than the challenges faced by Cold War nuclear policymakers. Recent developments (especially those in Iran and North Korea) have highlighted the importance of analyzing the national and regional dynamics—formerly submerged beneath the narrative of the Cold War—which triggered or reversed nuclear programs and proliferation in the Southern Cone of South America, South Asia, the Middle East, Northeast Asia and elsewhere.
  • Yet with limited empirical evidence on nuclear history available, scholars of international relations are forced—or some would say at liberty--to develop theories, and policy-makers are forced to make judgments, on the basis of an incomplete understanding of the historical drivers and inhibitors of states’ nuclear behavior. A new international history of nuclear proliferation and non-proliferation, we believe, is critical as scholars, policy-makers and analysts grapple with the present and future international nuclear governance issues.
  • I want to emphasize this point: what we are not after is to develop a history of nuclear secrets or weapons, to advocate certain policy solutions or to moralize about the nuclear postures of countries. Rather, what we are trying to do, as Frank Gavin made clear in a recent piece in International Security, is to make a contribution to policy analysis by deepening understanding of the goals, interests, the situational circumstances, and the character of nuclear and non-nuclear states in relation to their nuclear outlooks and strategies, that is not a history of the weapons themselves, but their underpinning politics. Only by looking at the underlying politics can we begin to explain the widely divergent nuclear postures chosen by states like China, Pakistan, or the United States.
  • So this is the challenge that we hope to address through the NPIHP network, and we know from our experience with CWIHP, that the best way to learn about why countries make (or do not make) certain decisions is to research in a given country’s archives to read about the decision-making process as it was understood by its participants, or if these archives ate closed, to explore backdoors…
  • This is a process that NPIHP has only started. But the network is unearthing surprising new findings from archival research and interviews and conferences all over the world.
  • For example, a conference that our partners in Rio De Janeiro in Brazil put together this past March produced surprising new insights about the relationship between Brazil and Argentina. Outside observers long thought that the two countries had been nuclear rivals during the 1970s and 80s—and consequently feared the possibility of a South American nuclear arms race. Testimony delivered by conference participants from both Brazil and Argentina, on the other hand, indicated that personal connections between Brazilian and Argentine nuclear scientists contributed to transparency and mutual trust between the two countries.
  • We were equally surprised to learn from one of our colleagues who is working on her Ph.D., that scholars and policy-makers may need to re-examine their thinking on the role of carrots and sticks in non-proliferation. South Korea signed the NPT in 1975 under intense pressure from the United States—effectively putting to an end its nuclear weapons ambitions. New evidence from archives in Canada, however, suggests that the ‘carrot’ of Canadian nuclear assistance, which would only be provided if South Korea joined the NPT, may have been as important to South Korean decision-making as US pressure. Incidentally, we are also getting some very interesting new materials for North Korea’s erstwhile Communist allies that help explain the origins of the DPRK’s efforts to obtain nuclear technology.
  • NPIHP Working Paper #1, The Elephant in the Room, by Balazs Szalontai, demonstrates –based on Hungarian documents! -- that that Indian government officials were reportedly grateful for the Soviet Union’s ‘conspicuous silence’ following that country’s 1974 nuclear test. Indeed, the fact that this silence seems to have achieved the Soviet Union’s near-term objective of enhancing its influence in South Asia, demonstrating the extent to which non-proliferation tied in with the USSR’s larger foreign policy strategy. Ongoing archival research efforts in India will need to substantiate whether and how this Soviet reactions impacted India’s nuclear decision-making.
  • In a similar vein, NPIHP research led by East China Normal University has helped to explain Khrushchev’s motivations for providing the PRC with nuclear aid. While the standard narrative among scholars has pointed to an almost naïve sense of socialist solidarity as a key motivating factor, newly declassified and translated documents from the PRC Foreign Ministry Archive and provincial archives suggest that in fact Khrushchev saw nuclear aid as part of a quid-pro-quo by which he obtained Mao’s support for his continued leadership in the face of political opposition from other members of the Soviet leadership.2

Many of these findings are necessarily preliminary and incomplete. They point to the need for further collaborative research. India’s role in the Cold War, in particular its nuclear past, remain largely unexplored, and much of the existing literature is based on Western sources: Did Jawaharlal Nehru favor nuclear weapons? Why didn't India undertake its nuclear weapon test before the NPT came into force? Was the 1974 Peaceful Nuclear Explosion intended to demonstrate India's nuclear weapon capability, or was it a genuine exercise for development purposes?

Today’s seminar will address some of these important questions, and in conclusion, I wish us all a successful and rewarding day together. May it be the first of many such workshops on nuclear history here to come, and may it contribute to deeper understanding and better public policy here and around the world. Thank you.

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  1. 1. Thomas Blanton, “The Cuban Missile Crisis Just Isn’t What It Used to Be,” forthcoming issue of the Cold War International History Project Bulletin (Fall 2012). The following paragraph is based on Blanton’s article.
  2. 2. NPIHP Working Paper #2, Between Aid and Restriction: Changing Soviet Policies toward China’s Nuclear Weapons Program, 1954-1960, by NPIHP partners Shen Zhihua and Yafeng Xia.