Monday, April 07, 2008

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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Blogger geoffb said...

I do know that if the USA hadn't developed the Atomic Bomb I wouldn't be alive. My father was scheduled to be in the first part of the invasion of the Japanese home islands. Even in the unlikely event that he had survived that he would never have been on a certain train in 1946 where he met my mother.

All of our lives are filled everyday with small but critical events that work together to make the future in which we live.

4/07/2008 10:40:00 PM  
Blogger watimebeing said...

Pick your poison.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

4/08/2008 12:14:00 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

Since sinning, in the above sense of perhaps missing the mark, is inevitable in life, think as well as possible, then sin bravely. We farmers say, pick the crop, plant it, and don't look back.

4/08/2008 12:54:00 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

With the contest between Burr and Jefferson for the Presidency still undecided, Abigail Adams is seated next to Mr. Jefferson at a diner--

'Other guests were included and Abigail left an undated account of a conversation with Jefferson, who was seated beside her and professed not to know several members of Congress at the table. She said she knew them all. When he asked what she thought "they mean to do" about the election in the House, she said she did not know, that it was a subject she did not "choose to converse upon," and then demonstrated that she could make him laugh.

---I replied...I have heard of a clergyman who upon some difficulty amongst his people, took a text from the words: "And they knew not what to do," from whence he drew this inference, that when a people were in such a situation, they do not know what to do, they should take great care that they do not do they know not what.
At this he laughed out, and here ended the conversation.---'

from "John Adams"

4/08/2008 01:23:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

If only Rummy had woven that into the unknown unknowns...
But then, if he had, who knows where we'd be now?

4/08/2008 01:47:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

As Bob says,

Plan your trade and trade your plan.

4/08/2008 03:22:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Unfortunately, there much evidence to indicate that there was a substitute of plans, with what followed afterwards best described as folly and overreach.

4/08/2008 03:26:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

..there ^is much evidence..

4/08/2008 03:29:00 AM  
Blogger hdgreene said...

Of course Stalin had the bomb in 1948. Why assume that Stalin would not have had the bomb in '48 if we had not had it in '45?

OK, a couple of our more Patriotic Leftist gave the KGB the designs. Still, the Soviet Union could have produced "the bomb" in Secret (and maybe got some German Scientists to help). After all, it's nature's plan, not ours.

So in 1952 Stalin would have the bomb and we wouldn't. What a wonderful world that would be.

Perhaps there is a caring God after all.

4/08/2008 04:13:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

The irony is that the Japanese were much closer to developing a nuclear weapon than were the Germans. The Germans made a basic error in theoretical analysis, and subsequent investigation (secret tapings of the conversations of captured German scientists after the war) showed that it was, in fact, a real error rather than a deliberate attempt to keep the Nazis from getting the bomb.

In contrast, the Japanese, working alone, did not make that same error and duplicated the Manhattan Project almost exactly, but on a far smaller scale and largely unsuccessfully. The Japanese were far enough along that when their chief physicist heard what had happened at Hiroshima he knew at once what it had to be. The instrumentation package dropped along with the bomb that contained the letter addressed to him was not found until some time later. And virtually the whole of the Japanese project was captured by the Soviets when they took over Korea.

So, not only did the development of the bomb save millions of Japanese lives and many thousands of Allied ones, as well as those of innocent civilians in occupied lands, it also put us in better shape to confront the Soviets.

But, as Wretchard says, the defeat of both Hitler and Saddam and all that accompanied it was worth doing for its own reasons, not just for one possibly found to be invalid.

4/08/2008 05:36:00 AM  
Blogger Clioman said...

Isn't it remarkable how many truly momentus decisions have been made on the basis of "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

4/08/2008 06:07:00 AM  
Blogger Cascajun said...

Whispers in the desert

According to Loftus—whose research most recently appeared in November 2007 in the online magazine FrontPage—one quarter of Saddam's WMD were destroyed under UN pressure during the early to mid-1990s; one quarter sold to Arab neighbours during the mid to late 1990s; another quarter removed, mostly to Syria, in the last few months before the invasion; and the final quarter—including the contents of Saddam's nuclear weapons lab—still inside Iraq on the day the invasion began. Central to Loftus's arguments are the "Iraqi freedom documents"—around 50,000 files, video and audio tapes discovered in Iraq during 2003, largely consisting of Baath government records dating from the 1980s to the time of the 2003 invasion. These began to be declassified in early 2006 when, at the request of Loftus's Intelligence Summit, the US government posted online a number of the documents to harness the abilities of Arabic-speakers worldwide as part of a mass translation effort. By November that year, however, it was decided that all the documents should be taken down after a story in the New York Times pointed out that several "constitute a basic guide to building an atom bomb."


4/08/2008 06:29:00 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

History suggests that after Fermi's initial discovery, the development of the atomic bomb was inevitable. The open questions are who would have developed it first and what would they have done with it?

The sole owner of nuclear weapons would have had an irresistable power and could have conquered the world, likely incinerated dozens or hundreds of cities along the way. The temptation to use that power would be immense. Who would you trust to choose restraint over conquest?

Certainly there are many candidates, and I won't insult anyone's nationality by saying which countries would have chosen bloody conquest over peace. However, there is only one country we can say with certainty would choose peace over conquest, because America had that choice, and they chose peace.

Getting that result was well worth the price America paid to get the bomb first.

4/08/2008 06:57:00 AM  
Blogger Alaska Paul said...

At critical junctures in history, we have to make decisions based on incomplete knowledge of all parameters. The stakes are so high, and we have to make those difficult decisions. If we decided not to go forward with the Manhattan Project, and our enemies were successful in their own projects, we could be destroyed.

So one makes the tough decisions, based on imperfect knowledge, and moves on. That is the nature of war.

4/08/2008 08:29:00 AM  
Blogger rhhardin said...

Robert Frost, however, is mocking the feeling of the importance of the choice made.

4/08/2008 08:37:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

Maya Angelou mocks whatever happens to come to mind.

4/08/2008 09:12:00 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 20

Isn't this about when he decided to go into the poetry business?

4/08/2008 09:40:00 AM  
Blogger |3run0 said...

I thought Einstein considerd the greatests mystake in his life to be the introduction of the cosmological constant to allow for a static universe...

Of course, recent measurements have made said cosmological constant fashionable again (or, at any rate, suggest there is some negative-pressure component accelerating the Universe's expansion; CC is just the simplest way of doing it)

4/08/2008 09:47:00 AM  
Blogger weswinger said...

"And tell the pleasant prince that this mock of his/Hath turn'd his balls to gun-stones; and his soul/Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance/That shall fly with them: for many a thousand widows/Shall this mock mock out of their dear husbands;/Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down. . ./. . .and tell the Dauphin/His jest will savor but of shallow wit,/When thousands weep more than did laugh at it."

But so disassociated are the mockers of our time, that when the hard evidence of Saddam's WMD is well known, they will have "moved on" to the next fashionable anti-patriotic talking point.

O for a leader who would stuff our modern mockers' mocks right up their podexes like the good Henry V!

4/08/2008 09:58:00 AM  
Blogger PeterBoston said...

Good decisions can produce bad outcomes. It's always been that way. That's life.

4/08/2008 09:59:00 AM  
Blogger weswinger said...

The greatest irritant to the trader is the Monday morning quarterbacking performed by everyone who wasn't there, from management to the regulatory commission to the media. A soul deep sigh is made when the critic does not understand that one leg of a spread trade will be a loser. Where do you start?

The nervous impatient politicians, media and pundits try to thwart the executive's strategy before it has a chance to play out, so invested are they in the executive's failure, even (especially?) if it mean's the country's failure.

4/08/2008 10:10:00 AM  
Blogger Jrod said...

Not sure why, but this post reminds me of something my high school football coach used to tell us many years ago; and that was if you're going to make a mistake on the field, make it going 100 mph.

Bobal, thanks for the JA spoiler ;-) Got that episode queued up on Tivo for later.

4/08/2008 11:10:00 AM  
Blogger Pangloss said...

And then there is the historian's job of assembling the fragmentary knowledge available to the actors at the time and recording a coherent history from them. Or the politician's job of assembling his resume from the evidence of what was known, what was commonly believed whether rightly or wrongly, and what he did and why. Some examples might include the revisionist history being written these days of the Vietnam War, the history that will be written that connects the dots of Saddam's WMDs and the Syrian nuclear project, or the significance of last week's Maliki vs Sadr dust up in Basra. Not so much a Sadr victory this week as it was last.

4/08/2008 12:53:00 PM  
Blogger shivermetimbers said...

Has anyone ever heard of Ion Mihai Pacepa?

I remember reading this article in the Washington Times where he describes the Russian's involvement of dismantling Saddam's WMDs.

He sounds pretty convincing. But, I do not hear anyone referring to his position.

Do you think he points are legitimate?

4/08/2008 03:31:00 PM  
Blogger jj mollo said...

... 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. ...

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Ben Franklin and company gave us a republic, which decision has entailed a lot of irreversible history and a certain commitment to the single executive model. We spend so much time, effort, wealth and angst picking our leader that it should require us to commit ourselves to a certain level of allegiance. We elect presidents to make the hard decisions. If we believe in the efficacy of democracy, then we need to respect the complexity of these hard decisions and have faith in his judgment no matter which party is in power. We should at least have sufficient humility to admit that the POTUS has more information and access to more qualified expert opinion than we are likely to ever encounter. If he's making the wrong decision, then there may have been no way to make the right one, except on Monday morning, which is not a customary luxury, ... and if we have elected the wrong person, let it not be for lack of trying.

4/08/2008 07:50:00 PM  
Blogger eggplant said...

Dan said:

"History suggests that after Fermi's initial discovery, the development of the atomic bomb was inevitable. The open questions are who would have developed it first and what would they have done with it?"

The discoverer of nuclear fission was the German chemist Otto Hahn. Hahn discovered nuclear fission on 17 December 1938. Hahn remained in Germany during WW-II but refused to cooperate with the Nazis (Max Planck was another great German scientist who also refused to cooperate with the Nazis). Unfortunately Werner Heisenberg did cooperate with the Nazi nuclear weapon's program.

German physicists did the majority of pre-WW-II research in quantum and nuclear physics. Einstein was quite correct is assuming that the Germans had a nuclear weapon's program. What Einstein did not anticipated was Nazi stupidity. The Nazi's had this quaint notion of "Aryan versus Jewish Physics". Believe it or not, the Nazi leadership actually believed that modern physical concepts like the Theory of Relativity, Quantuum Theory and nuclear physics were tainted because Jewish scientists had been the original investigators. This stupidity was a classic example of Darwinism in action. Had the Nazis embraced "Jewish Physics" they might well have developed nuclear weapons before the United States (the Germans had a huge head start).

4/08/2008 08:58:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Carson said...

My father was scheduled to be in the first part of the invasion of the Japanese home islands.

Same here. My father (Major Jack M Carson), having been stateside for 4 years in troop training roles, was in a flotilla of troop carrier ships zigzagging their way to Asia when the bomb when off.

4/09/2008 11:27:00 AM  

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