Badash, A Nuclear Winter’s Tale

Reviewed by Jacob Darwin Hamblin in Metascience 21:3 (2012), 727-731.

Lawrence Badash: A Nuclear Winter’s Tale: Science and Politics in the 1980s, MIT Press, 2009, 403 pp, HB

The Long Cold Nuclear Winter

Reviewing a book by one’s own mentor, especially when that mentor has recently passed on, can be a difficult enterprise.  And yet Larry Badash’s final book, published the year before his death, is worth the task.  For those who knew him, A Nuclear Winter’s Tale appears as an expression of a life’s work in scholarship.  While it is not schizophrenic, it is filled with the split allegiances to scientific objectivity and humanistic moral principles that characterized his attitudes toward the history science.  Because I met Badash when I was nineteen years old, while taking his “Atomic Age” course in college, I have taken up his final book on the subject with a relish and respect few others could match. I owe him an immense intellectual debt, and my views expressed here should be read with that in mind.

A few words about Badash may illuminate his perspective on the events of 1983-1985, which is the key period when scientists and politicians debated the nuclear winter phenomenon.  Badash became a historian of science at a time, in the 1960s, when knowledge of scientific details perhaps was more important than historical context. In later years, Badash would point out to his graduate students that he’d never taken a course in history.  He started out as a physics student, and to him, knowing one’s science was paramount.  I recall one story: during his Ph.D. qualifying examinations in History of Science at Yale, Derek J. de Solla Price had him go to the blackboard and write out the principal radioactive decay series from memory.  Badash later included this as prefatory material in his book, Radioactivity in America (1979).    Like some others of his generation, he learned how to be a historian of science by doing, contextualizing scientific ideas as he went.   Yet over time he transitioned from what he would have called an “internalist” historian, as an expert on the history of radioactivity, to an “externalist” one on the politics of science.  Throughout A Nuclear Winter’s Tale, a careful reader will notice a view of scientific practice that suggests Badash was unfazed by the science wars or postmodernism. Badash took the correctness of ideas very seriously, and he was sympathetic with scientists who had the courage to convey their truths to those in power.

Once in the late 1990s, Badash told me about a recently deceased historian who had been “the grand old man of the history of radioactivity.”  After a pause of reflection, he concluded that he had become that himself.  He was partly right, but actually many historians of science associate him instead with his textbook, Scientists and the Development of Nuclear Weapons (1995), written essentially from lecture notes in his long-standing Atomic Age course.  He was determined to write a biography of Ernest Rutherford, and as his graduate student I helped him tabulate in a spreadsheet all 3,413 of the Rutherford letters in his possession.  But the biography of Rutherford never was finished, and he found stories in the nuclear world more compelling, particularly ones that illuminated the ways that scientists could be ensnared by politics.  He got a taste of this when he encountered Rutherford’s correspondence with Peter Kapitza, an outstanding Russian physicist who lived in England from 1921 to 1934 and collaborated with Rutherford in Cambridge.  One summer, Kapitza visited home and was forbidden to return to England, where his laboratory and family were.  Rutherford tried and failed to secure his return. Badash (1985) published the correspondence between the two men, and commented on the interference of politics in working scientists’ lives.  He also reflected on this theme after speaking with American participants in the Manhattan Project who disliked the military restrictions upon their work (1980). When I got to know Badash in the early 1990s, he had begun to look at how Americans’ rabid anticommunism after the Second World War had controlled the practice of science in the United States.  He spent years writing a book (not finished before his death) he called “Science in the Haunted Fifties.”  He saw it as a continuation of the story begun by Jessica Wang (1999) in her work on the professional attacks against scientists such as E.U. Condon in the early 1950s. Badash found the meat of his story in visa denials, blacklisting, FBI investigations, and censorship of working scientists during the height of the McCarthy era and beyond.  He reveled in finding archival evidence of wrong-doing, and in the last decades of Badash’s life and work (see 2009), his scholarly activity was infused with a strong dose of no-nonsense investigation of how scientists have gotten pushed around because of others’ political goals.

It is through this lens—of politics interfering with science—that A Nuclear Winter’s Tale is written.  It is not exactly a heroic tale of scientists struggling against the heavy burdens of politics, but it is written with more than a hint of bemusement at the Reagan Administration during the 1980s, when the arms race entered a new period of intensity and escalation.  The central figure is Carl Sagan, the scientific celebrity who had dazzled audiences about the secrets of the universe in 1980 with a television program Cosmos.  In the early 1980s he teamed up with a group of scientists to connect atmospheric science with the history of dinosaur extinction and studies of nuclear blast effects.  The TTAPS group (named for Richard Turco, Owen Toon, Thomas Ackerman, James Pollock, and Carl Sagan) published scientific work suggesting that the debris thrown into the atmosphere during a nuclear war might have substantial and lasting effects upon the earth’s atmosphere, leading to much colder temperatures.  They called it “nuclear winter.”  Carl Sagan’s name is attached to it more than the others because he became an advocate for the theory, a vocal opponent of nuclear weapons, and he pre-empted publication of the scientific work by a piece in the Sunday newspaper supplement Parade.

Badash provides a detailed narrative of the scientific work that led to the TTAPS findings, the research and report-writing that followed, and the political wrangling over nuclear winter from late 1983 through 1985. Ultimately the science of nuclear winter, despite widespread support among top atmospheric scientists, failed to move the Reagan administration toward serious arms control measures. In short order the nuclear winter phenomenon was overshadowed by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, and in the subsequent half-decade by the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  As a “tale,” we can see nuclear winter as both a harbinger of climate politics to come and as a case study of what happens when scientific work is perceived to have implications for geopolitical and military strategy.

Badash raises an important issue about whether it is appropriate to abandon scientific detachment for a perceived greater social good.  In the 1980s some scientists thought it unseemly that Sagan would take such a strong stand on a political issue and use science to buttress his view. Badash seems most sympathetic with Freeman Dyson’s point that “we are scientists second, and human beings first” (304).  Atmospheric scientists were reluctant to engage with scenarios that might lead them to question the arms race. Badash documents the pressures on them, particularly those at the NASA Ames Research Center, to avoid such entanglements. Badash views this as a kind of muzzling, and in the end he sides with scientists who set aside their detachment and entered the political realm.  And yet he doesn’t consistently view this as politics; he often sees it as science, with obvious policy implications. His view is best captured by a comparison he makes between Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard during World War II.  One had downplayed the possibility of fission, and the other had assumed it would work, and both thought their views were conservative.  “Each, of course, thought he was correct, and in a sense each was right,” explains Badash.  “But Fermi was thinking of a scientific phenomenon, while Szilard had progressed to the political consequences of fission” (304).  Badash casts Sagan in a similar light, as a scientific Cassandra who had already envisioned the destruction of the earth due to nuclear conflict, and was armed with a scientific theory that would highlight just how dire the situation was.

The problem with nuclear winter was that Sagan believed that the clearest political consequence of his research was to work toward curbing the arms race.  This consequence was not then, nor even now, as self-evident as he made it out to be. Even if some in the US government believed the science, many felt that it had no clear bearing on policy. It was very easy to dismiss the findings of TTAPS because a military strategist could merely shrug and agree that a nuclear war would be catastrophic for the earth and its peoples.  That was the whole point of deterrence, and the strategy of mutually assured destruction was just as mad as its acronym suggested. President Reagan could even accept that nuclear winter was a likely outcome of war, as he finally did. The co-opting of nuclear winter by the Reagan Administration accomplished precisely the opposite of what Sagan intended.  Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, “with amazing cheek” in Badash’s view, claimed that nuclear winter underscored the importance of the administration’s controversial Strategic Defense Initiative. Because Weinberger used the threat of nuclear winter as a reason to support missile defense systems, Badash labels him as duplicitous.  Maybe. But one also could criticize those who opposed SDI because it violated the principle of deterrence, and in the same breath pointed out the insanity of deterrence in a world where nuclear winter was possible.

Even when the National Academy of Sciences gave the phenomenon the credibility it needed with a major report in late 1984, the administration did not see the wisdom of decreasing weapons production. Badash complains that the media did not sufficiently cover public protests, even after the “uselessness of nuclear weapons was reaffirmed” by the august scientific body (201).  He points out that the report should have made the Reagan administration’s attempt to get funding for more MX intercontinental missiles and its pressure on neutral countries to accept cruise missiles seem “all the more dangerous.”  But what if it did?  If mutually assured destruction already was crazily dangerous, what special significance could an acknowledgment of nuclear winter have had?

Despite Badash’s sympathetic treatment, Sagan’s political missteps seem obvious in hindsight.  He teamed up with biologist Paul Ehrlich, who already had courted controversy in the late 1960s with his Population Bomb and subsequent outspoken views about the limits to economic growth.  Sagan gained the same enemies, including the prickly editor of Nature, John Maddox, who was as hostile to Sagan as he had been to Ehrlich a decade earlier.  Badash suggests that it was rare for an editor of either Science or Nature “to depart far from the function of gate-keeper to the pages of his journal to become an opinionated actor in the drama, as Maddox did with NW” (145).  But actually Maddox did this often, and one could argue that this is precisely what “gatekeeper” really means.  Another of Sagan’s missteps, which seems a howler even now, was to seek cooperation from the Soviets, on the grounds that if the research were internationalized, the level of suspicion would decrease.  That didn’t work.  Badash argues that American commentators were incapable of attributing honest motives to anyone east of the Iron Curtain (107).

Some readers will have the most difficulty (as I did) embracing Badash’s view of the Soviet Union’s efforts on behalf of nuclear winter.  He appears to accept at face value that Soviet leaders took it more seriously than the Americans did and were ready to take substantive action, quoting cosmonaut Alexsei Leonov’s impression of a visit to Moscow by Carl Sagan: “After he left, a dozen men on the General Staff looked around at each other, and they said, ‘Well, it’s all over, isn’t it? The nuclear arms race doesn’t make sense anymore, does it? We can’t do this anymore. The threat of massive retaliation isn’t credible anymore. It jeopardizes too much of what is precious to us’” (217). Soviet scientists were quick to confirm the phenomenon, and the leading atmospheric modeler Vladimir Aleksandrov worked feverishly to point out the dangers, despite having no access of his own to the supercomputers required to do independent analysis on the same scale as the Americans. The U.S. Congress attempted to form a joint commission on the science of nuclear winter, but the Reagan Administration had little interest, and many believed that the Soviets would use it to gain access to American technology, or to emphasize the dangers in the nuclear arms buildup.  “Soviet scientists, naturally, saw nothing sinister in their own behavior,” writes Badash.  “And they were refreshingly open in admitting their goal, more so than most of their American colleagues.  Presumably, this was because it was politically acceptable for them, while politically indelicate for the Americans” (223).  This is undoubtedly true, though “politically acceptable” might be amended to be “politically required,” as Aleksandrov could not have expected to travel as widely (including speaking before Congress) if his actions were not aligned with the policies of his government. It is fascinating to read Badash’s descriptions of how TTAPS authors genuinely believed the Soviets might contribute to the science in an open and honest fashion, only to be disillusioned by their blank stares and awkward silences when questions of real substance were raised to them at international meetings.  If only one could ask them now.  Unfortunately Aleksandrov disappeared in Spain in 1985, and subsequently his government purged his name from his work.

Badash expresses strong opinions in this book, backed up by substantial scholarship, but he seems reluctant to admit that he is doing so. In the preface, he rejects arguments that attribute events to any particular force.  Normal human behavior determined events, he writes.  “Scientists investigated subjects that interested them and then debated the results; politicians sought to take advantage of new events and at the same time defend their long-time interests” (xi).  This is the detached, science-minded side of Larry Badash writing.  But it is hard to square with Sagan’s outlook and actions, and by the concluding chapters Badash adopts a more strident tone, as the moral humanist side of Larry Badash emerges.  He rails against the “political cultural bias in American society” that often allows efforts for peace to be dwarfed by a widespread acceptance of a weapons culture (313). Throughout the book his sympathies are clearly with Sagan, and with those who opposed nuclear weapons.  In the final analysis, the book does far more than simply describe scientists investigating interesting subjects.  Instead we see scientists grappling with the same issues that animated Badash’s best work: balancing a faith in science with a strong sense of humanistic commitment.  The scientists in A Nuclear Winter’s Tale were not detached observers, nor did they simply speak truth to power.  Instead, they tried to articulate scientific arguments in support of their strong convictions about the state of the world and the extraordinary danger of nuclear war.


Badash, Lawrence. 1979. Radioactivity in America: Growth and Decay of a Science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.

Badash, Lawrence. 1985. Kapitza, Rutherford, and the Kremlin. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Badash, Lawrence, Joseph O. Hirschfelder, and Herbert P. Broida, eds. 1980.  Reminiscences of Los Alamos, 1943-1945. Boston: Reidel.

Badash, Lawrence. 1995. Scientists and the Development of Nuclear Weapons: From Fission to the Limited Test Ban Treaty, 1939-1963. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities.

Wang, Jessica. 1999. American Science in an Age of Anxiety: Scientists, Anticommunism, and the Cold War. Chapel Hill: UNC Press.

Badash, Lawrence. 2009. The Near-Appointment of Linus Pauling at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Physics in Perspective 11: 4-14.

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