Interviews November 2005

The World in Which We Live

William Langewiesche on nuclear proliferation—and why the U.S. is powerless to stop it.

For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, the threat of nuclear war loomed large. Nightmares were fueled by mushroom clouds and mutually assured destruction, and in our imaginations, a single finger hovered over a red button—the hair trigger separating existence and annihilation. In a sense, though, the Cold War made our understanding of things simple; it was us versus them. But in fact the world was already far more complex and dangerous than we could have imagined.

In The Atlantic's November cover story, "The Wrath of Khan," the first of two articles, William Langewiesche delves into the complex world of nuclear powers, one in which a few select countries harbor thousands of nuclear weapons and efforts to prevent the spread of these weapons to the rest of the world have become paramount. Langewiesche focuses on Dr. Abdul Quadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani atomic bomb and the mastermind behind what amounted to an international underground nuclear-weapons superstore.

Khan, Langewiesche writes, would be forever shaped by his childhood in India and the birth of Pakistan. Pakistan was formed in 1947 when, because of violence between Indian Hindus and Muslims, a border was drawn to separate it from India. Pakistan became a refuge for Muslim Indians such as Khan, who made it his adopted home as a teen in 1952. The border, however, also formalized the religious hatred—and tensions between the two nations escalated throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

Though Khan's youth coincided with Pakistan's tumultuous first years, the nationalism that that imbued in him didn't become apparent until much later in his life. As a young man, he instead focused his energy on science. His schooling took him abroad and he eventually settled in Amsterdam, where he worked in a lab as an engineer on centrifuges, machines used to enrich uranium for use in nuclear-power reactors. By 1972, Khan had access to top-secret information. But at that time, Langewiesche writes, "even he did not yet know what was soon to be on his mind."

Then, in 1974, India tested its first atomic weapon. "The desert floor heaved, and a message of success was sent to the capital, New Delhi. It read, 'The Buddha is smiling.'"

In response to India's nuclear test, Langewiesche writes, Khan almost immediately became embroiled in Pakistan's quest. "Far away in Amsterdam, A. Q. Kahn believed that the Buddha had smiled in anticipation of Pakistan's death... Apparently on his own, he decided to take action." Khan started a one-man espionage program in Amsterdam that eventually led to a full-fledged weapons lab in Pakistan. By 1986, Pakistan had developed its first nuclear bomb.

Pakistan had started its quest for a nuclear weapon before Khan got involved. In 1971, President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto called on Pakistani scientists to build a bomb. He knew India's nuclear efforts were already underway. Russia and several Western states had stockpiles of nuclear warheads, and Israel likely had a few, too. Bhutto had once "resentfully mentioned Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Communist bombs," writes Langewiesche, and "the possibility therefore existed that a Pakistani device would amount to more than a counterbalance to India—that it would be handled as a 'Muslim' bomb to be spread around."

This possibility flew in the face of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), an international pact in which countries agree to use nuclear power for peaceful purposes only. Those countries already possessing nuclear weapons, the so-called "club of five" comprising the U.S., Britain, France, China, and Russia, agree that they will, someday, disarm. Though the treaty has been effective at limiting nuclear proliferation, many non-nuclear-weapons states resent being excluded from the club. Several, including India, Pakistan, and Israel, have never signed.

Yet despite Pakistan's resentment of the NPT, regional concerns were the primary motivation for its nuclear-weapons program. After years of intimidation, Pakistan wanted to show India its muscle. In 1998, Pakistan detonated its first nuclear-weapons test in a bunker 800 feet below the Ras Koh mountain range in western Pakistan. The Muslim world was jubilant: "As far away as Cairo people danced in the streets," writes Langewiesche.

This test was merely the beginning. Khan's weapons program evolved into a weapons-technology-supply network. He found willing partners in Europe and South America to supply equipment and sold his nuclear know-how to Libya, Iran, and North Korea. Once U.S. agents exposed the network, Pakistan isolated Khan in his home in Islamabad and forbade him from communicating with the outside world. Both Khan's network and his subsequent isolation, writes Langewiesche, foil the nuclear containment efforts of the West:

The [U.S.] intelligence services would like to debrief him, because of the likelihood that much of the network he established remains alive worldwide, and that by its very nature—loose unstructured, technically specialized, determinedly amoral—it is both resilient and mutable, and can resume its activities when the opportunity arises, as it inevitably will.

Despite Khan's isolation, Langewiesche manages to piece together a layered, almost Cubist portrait:

He has been portrayed in the West as a twisted character, an evil scientist, a purveyor of death. He had certainly lost perspective on himself. But the truth is that he was a good husband and father and friend, and he gave large gifts because in essence he was an openhearted and charitable man.

As with the spread of nuclear weapons, the story of Khan, in Langewiesche's telling, is one of gray areas and inevitabilities.

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Elizabeth Dougherty was recently an intern for The Atlantic Online.

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