Remaking the past
Anyone who's divorced or lost money on stocks knows that decisions are made on the basis of imperfect or incomplete information all the time. But one of the problems with retrospective analysis is that although we know how things turned out we can never be quite sure what would have happened if we took the other turning.
Albert Einstein, manifestly one of the most intelligent persons who ever lived, urged President Roosevelt to prevent a threat which turned out to be completely illusory, an act he later called "the greatest mistake" of his life.
Einstein warned Roosevelt that Germany was working on an atomic bomb and that unless the United States began efforts of its own it might face a new and unanswereable weapon. Einstein wrote:
Since the outbreak of the war, interest in uranium has intensified in Germany. I have now learned that research there is carried out in great secrecy and that it has been extended to another of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes, the Institute of Physics. The latter has been taken over by the government and a group of physicists, under the leadership of C. F. von Weizsäcker, who is now working there on uranium in collaboration with the Institute of Chemistry. The former director was sent away on leave of absence, apparently for the duration of the war. ...
In the summer of 1939 Dr. Szilard put before me his views concerning the potential importance of uranium for national defense. He was greatly disturbed by the potentialities involved and anxious that the United States Government be advised of them as soon as possible. Dr. Szilard, who is one of the discoverers of the neutron emission of uranium on which all present work on uranium is based, described to me a specific system which he devised and which he thought would make it possible to set up a chain reaction in un-separated uranium in the immediate future. Having known him for over twenty years both from his scientific work and personally, I have much confidence in his judgment and it was on the basis of his judgment as well as my own that I took the liberty to approach you in connection with this subject.
The consensus after the war was that Hitler was never even close to obtaining an atomic weapon. If the Second World War had been fought to keep Hitler from conquering the world with atomic weapons it would technically have been a mistake. "The German 'uranium project' - which had been set up in 1939 to investigate nuclear reactors, isotope separation and nuclear explosives - amounted to no more than a few dozen scientists scattered across the country. Many of them did not even devote all of their time to nuclear-weapons research. The Manhattan Project, in contrast, employed thousands of scientists, engineers and technicians, and cost several billion dollars."
Technically a mistake. Yet the question of whether it was right to topple Hitler, or even to attempt the development of American atomic weapons, is a larger one which gets no clearer over the years. Even the facts, which we take to be the bedrock of reality are never as clear-cut as we would like them to be. Today, even after more than 60 years of historical research and the occupation of Germany, there are still claims that Hitler really had an atomic weapons project which was simply not recognized at the time. German historian Rainer Karlsch claims to have uncovered archival evidence to show "the development and testing of a possible ... radiological weapon (a so-called 'dirty bomb') or a hybrid-nuclear fusion weapon. Under supervision of the SS, from 1944–45, German scientists in Thuringia tested some form of "nuclear weapon", possibly a dirty bomb (for the differences between this and a standard fission weapon, see nuclear weapon design). Several hundred prisoners of war are alleged to have died as a result. Karlsch's primary evidence are alleged vouchers for the atomic weapon attempts, a preliminary plutonium bomb patent from the year 1941 (which had been known about, but not yet found), and conducted industrial archaeology on the remains of the first experimental German nuclear reactor."
The state of knowledge among US policymakers leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom is amply demonstrated in the video below. It's easy to be right -- in hindsight.
But what does being right mean? As the recent NIE on Iran showed, what we "know" is constantly subject to revision. The Associated Press says that Hillary Clinton was "right in essence, wrong in details" of a campaign anecdote involving a woman's health care that she is accused of concocting. Now the Jerusalem Post implies that a forthcoming report will show that mysterious September 6 Israeli Air Force strike on a Syrian nuclear weapons facility involved WMDs transferred to Syria by Saddam Hussein. Could Saddam have had a WMD program after all? Why not? After all, everyone is now as "sure" that Saddam didn't have nuclear weapons as they were once "sure" that he had them.
But the problem of retrospectively assessing the correctness of historical decisions is we can't tell whether making the "correct" decision would have led to a happier ending. Nobody can say how a world without the Manhattan Project would have have turned out. We don't know what lies down the path untaken. We only know where we are.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
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