On Nov. 2, 1945—All Souls' Day in the Catholic tradition—J. Robert Oppenheimer spoke to scientists at Los Alamos. "It is clear to me that wars have changed," he said. "It is clear to me that if these first bombs—the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki—that if these can destroy 10 square miles, then that is really quite something. It is clear to me that they are going to be very cheap if anyone wants to make them." Oppenheimer basically had it right: nuclear weapons are not particularly cheap, but the knowledge, once unleashed, could not be contained. This was a persistent concern among the scientists who made the Manhattan Project come to life, including Albert Einstein, who wrote FDR in 1939 about "extremely powerful bombs of a new type." (The Pulitzer Prize–winning book American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, is essential reading about the beginnings of the bomb.) Those present at the creation feared what has come to pass: the steady proliferation of the means of Armageddon.
I am not being hyperbolic or grandiose. The drama now playing out with Iran is a chapter in a long story. That story—of the gradually rising number of members of the nuclear club—is arguably the single most important national-security question of our time. Nothing else really comes close. If you doubt this, think about how significant proliferation will appear the day after a nuclear conflict of any scale, involving either terrorists or nation-states.
My colleague Fareed Zakaria argues that deterrence has worked since 1945, and he is right. But I have a more tragic view of things. The success of deterrence is dependent on rationality, and the more people with access to nuclear weapons increases the risk that irrationality will enter the equation. Which is a polite way of saying that human forces—pride, ambition, fanaticism—will always confound the most elegant of geopolitical calculations.
So what to do? Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren tells Lally Weymouth that "all options" are on the table, but there are no good ones. In the movies that play in the heads of politicians, everybody wants to be a Churchill. Nobody dreams of being remembered as a Chamberlain, the prime minister who misread Hitler and finally gave way to Churchill in May 1940. Few American politicians of the postwar era thought as much of and as much about Churchill as John F. Kennedy, the president whose father had been on the wrong side of history. Obsessed with toughness, Kennedy seemed programmed to take the military's hardline advice to strike Cuba in October 1962. The ghost of his appeaser father, the fear of being seen as less than a man, the pride and passion aroused by the Soviets' provocative act—all of these human factors could have argued for action, not talk, for force, not compromise. But as we know (and we know it because we are here, alive, to know it, which many of us might not be if nuclear weapons had been used that autumn), Kennedy pushed back against the hawks, and the Free World wound up safer.
Many leaders in President Obama's position would love the opportunity to be Churchill and order up a dramatic strike that would set the Iranian program back and send a message of resolve. But even the most hawkish of American politicians do not believe such military action would work at an acceptable cost. In a conversation last week with John McCain, I asked whether we would have to live with a nuclear Iran. Without hesitation McCain replied: "Very likely." Then, after a pause, he added: "But if we find ourselves living with a nuclear Iran, then we better be ready to live with a nuclear Middle East. How long do you think the Saudis or the Egyptians will sit on the sidelines if they know Iran has the bomb?"
Given Russia's and China's interests in trading with Iran, sanctions alone are unlikely to be decisive, which leaves us with the approach Obama appears to be taking: build the best sanctions regime you can and use diplomacy to urge Iran to stop short of an actual bomb. In the end, the best hope for peace lies not with us but with the Iranians themselves. "We need the same kind of vocal support that we gave democratic forces in the old Soviet bloc," says McCain. "Beyond the regime, Iranians are very sophisticated, very cultivated, very global, and I don't think the great mass of people in Iran want to live under this totalitarian system." An interesting point, for if nuclear proliferation is, as Oppenheimer believed, an inevitability of the postwar world, so is the spread of liberty.