First Goldschmidt Fellow will Assess Nuclear Proliferation Risk
Portland, Ore—Alexander Montgomery, associate professor of political science at Reed College, is the inaugural recipient of the Maure L. Goldschmidt Memorial Research Fellowship. He is currently completing a residential fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, working on a manuscript titled “Atomic Misconceptions: Why Common Assumptions about Nuclear Weapons are Not Only Wrong, but Dangerous.”
Montgomery's work challenges the persistent portrayal that the sharing of nuclear blueprints, technologies, or even scientists can quickly enable a country or organization to create a nuclear weapon. Historical evidence, he says, suggests otherwise.
Following the Manhattan Project, the average length of time for a successful nuclear weapons program has increased from about 5 or 6 years between 1940 and 1960 (US, UK, USSR, France) to nearly 22 years by 2000 (Libya, Iraq, Iran, North Korea). Of the latter four, only one has had partial success. Despite concerns over the proliferation risk posed by the Pakistan-based A.Q. Khan network, says Montgomery, none of the countries appear to have succeeded in creating a weapon due to that network’s assistance.
Montgomery will first research the transfer of knowledge between nuclear weapons designers and among the complexes that produce nuclear weapons within the United States.
“We have lots of money and talent, and at the universities plenty of smart people with experience in this,” he says. “But even in the U.S. there’s been a major problem in attempting to transfer knowledge about nuclear weapons design and how to make them between generations or sites.”
Montgomery’s thesis is that it is much more difficult to design and build nuclear weapons than is typically portrayed. He postulates that the slow rate of proliferation is due not only to the scarcity of weapons-grade materials, but also to the difficulty of generating and transferring knowledge of production and construction.
The Goldschmidt Fellowship will enable Montgomery to travel to nuclear weapons design labs in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Livermore, California, to conduct one-on-one interviews with people directly involved in the weapons design process.
“The kind of information you get from talking with someone in person is invaluable,” Montgomery says. “Nuclear weapons designers don’t regularly fly to D.C. to drop by my office and say, ‘Hey, let’s go chat about these things.’”
Prior to his sabbatical at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Montgomery completed a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship in Nuclear Security, sponsored by the Stanton Foundation, with a placement in the office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction.
The Maure L. Goldschmidt Memorial Research Fellowship was established in 2012 by David M. Goldschmidt ’65 in memory of his father. Maure Goldschmidt graduated from Reed College with the class of 1930. He returned to his alma mater to serve as a member of the political science faculty for 33 years, holding the Cornelia Marvin Pierce Chair in American Institutions.
A Rhodes scholar, Goldschmidt earned a second bachelor’s degree from Oxford University in England and went on to earn a doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1941. Reed College awarded him an honorary doctor of laws degree on his retirement in 1977. He died in 1993.