Churchill and Nuclear Terrorism

Who is our Winston Churchill now?

Sixty years ago, on March 5, 1946, in Fulton, Mo., Winston Churchill spoke of how "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the (European) Continent."

His speech signaled the beginning of an American and British understanding that the Cold War had begun. When the Soviet Union speedily developed nuclear missiles, that war threatened to become fiery — and the threat remained for the next four decades, until Ronald Reagan stood firm and the Soviet empire disintegrated.

Now a new threat looms. Just about the only similar answer that George Bush and John Kerry gave in their first debate two years ago came when they were asked to define the "single most serious threat to American national security." Both answered, "Nuclear terrorism." Last year, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Homeland Security secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff all said or implied the same.

And yet, we see paranoia regarding the Patriot Act, even as Harvard professor Graham Allison, the author of "Nuclear Terrorism," states a nuclear attack on U.S. soil within the next 10 years is probable. We see political positioning about which company will manage a port, when the real problem is that security is inadequate at all our ports. (A nuclear bomb could be smuggled across our still-porous borders, but it’s easier to import one by sea in a cargo container.)

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry put the odds for nuclear terrorism by 2010 at 50-50, and we know that Islamic militants have motive: bin Laden mouthpiece Sulaiman Abu Ghaith has announced that al-Qaida aspires "to kill 4 million Americans, including 1 million children." But we have some political leaders insisting that it’s time for the United States to return to normality.

We know that material for a terrorist bomb is readily available. The number of nuclear weapons overall is probably around 30,000, with enough "highly enriched uranium" and plutonium stockpiled for 240,000 more, and often not well protected. Once a group has 30 pounds of HEU, a competent engineer with readily available equipment can make a nuclear device within a few months. Articles describing the physics of nuclear weapons and providing schematics are on the Internet. Theodore Taylor, a nuclear physicist who designed both large and small bombs, noted that with fissile material building a bomb is "very easy. Double underline. Very easy."

Given that terrorists have the motive to murder and seem able to grab the material to build a bomb and the means to get one into the United States, why haven’t we already had some kind of nuclear disaster? Interviewers for two years have asked Harvard’s Allison that question, and his regular answers have been: "It’s a great puzzle. … I think that we should be very thankful that it hasn’t happened already. … We’re living on borrowed time."

Churchill in 1946 knew that the United States and its allies were living on borrowed time. He wisely contended that: "We cannot afford, if we can help it, to work on narrow margins. … If these all-important years are allowed to slip away, then indeed catastrophe may overwhelm us all." He uttered words about Soviet leaders 60 years ago that are now relevant in the Middle East: "I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness."

Our best opportunity to avert disaster is to stay strong and deny the terrorists secure bases. Some might credit the Bush administration for winning us some time by having the United States go on offense, rather than sit back on defense. Some will thank God that we have been spared thus far. Others will do both, and pray.

And maybe someone with the guts and rhetorical ability of a Churchill will make it his mission to awaken America to the urgency of the matter.