This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. In the absence of our timeline's Manhattan Project, nuclear weapons have been developed independently in Italy, France, Great Britain, and the Polish Commonwealth. To avoid a European nuclear arms race, the four nations join together in September 1946 to create the Atomic Control Commission, tasked with maintaining a global monopoly on nuclear weapons.
When the Soviet Union detonates an atomic bomb in January 1951, the leaders of the ACC find themselves facing a dilemma . . .
28 January 1951
As the Director of the League of Nations Atomic Control Commission, Werner Heisenberg was one of the most visible men in the world, which made it awkward on those rare occasions when he wanted to move in secret. As a case in point, his current trip to Paris to visit a man who officially was not there, and in fact had vanished off the face of the earth some four years before.
Heisenberg eventually solved his problem by glueing on a false goatee and dressing in an unbearably tasteless suit of clothes, which caused all who saw him to assume that he was a visiting American tourist. As such, he was able to travel the city in total anonymity as he made his way to a certain apartment in a certain neighborhood to visit a certain man who had once gone by the name of Igor Vasilievich Kurchatov.
The man who had once been Kurchatov had little difficulty in recognizing his fellow phycisist. "Herr Director," he greeted his guest in German, "what brings you here?"
Heisenberg winced at the use of his title, even though the two of them were safely ensconced in Kurchatov's apartment. "Doctor," he answered, "I have come seeking advice on the solution to a seemingly insoluble problem."
Kurchatov nodded thoughtfully. "It is not hard to guess the source of your dilemma. I assume that my former colleagues back home have succeeded in their project."
Heisenberg scratched beneath his false goatee. "They have."
"And your organization is now faced with the problem of persuading them to hand the fruits of their labor over to you."
Kurchatov nodded again. "It is often helpful to approach a problem analytically. There are two ways to bring about a change in another's behavior. One can promise rewards, or one can threaten punishment. In other words, one can use the carrot, or one can use the stick."
"Or both," said Heisenberg.
"Or both," agreed Kurchatov. "I'm sure that you have gone over all the sticks that are at your disposal."
"We have," Heisenberg confirmed. "Dr. Teller has an aptitude for finding sticks. We cannot simply strike at the project itself, as we threatened to do in America, for it is beyond our reach. However, it has been suggested that we could send an intelligence agent into the Soviet Union to sabotage the atomic research project, or to assassinate Comrade Gordov in the hope that another power struggle would ensue, thereby distracting the Soviets for an unspecified length of time."
"Even if it worked," Kurchatov pointed out, "it would only be a temporary expedient. Eventually the political situation would stabilize, or the project would recover, and the problem would remain."
"Another suggestion was that the Soviet Union might be maneuvered into a war with the United States."
"As the United States is now a member of the Warsaw Pact, this would inevitably bring Poland and the other Pact nations into the war. President Raczynski would naturally come to you with a request that the Commission's stockpile of atomic weapons be placed at his disposal. Would I be correct in assuming that the number is currently in the approximate neighborhood of fifty?"
"Somewhere in that general vicinity, yes."
"Fifty atomic bombs, even used against primarily military targets, would result in millions of civilian deaths."
Heisenberg's eyes were closed. "Yes. The numbers would dwarf those of the Great War. In three months, more people would die in the USSR than Stalin himself managed to kill in twenty years."
"Precisely the sort of war the Commission was created to prevent," Kurchatov observed.
"There you have our dilemma," said Heisenberg as his eyes opened. "We can only force the Soviets to comply by fighting a terrible war. But if we allow the Soviets to keep control of their weapons, the result will be an atomic arms race, with a much worse war at the end of it. Or else a world poised forever on the brink of such a war."
"That is the road that the stick points to," Kurchatov agreed. "What of the carrot? What rewards can you offer the Soviets to persuade them to yield control of their atomic weapons?"
"It has been suggested that we might offer them our expertise in another technological field in exchange for their giving up atomic power. We might, for example, allow them to participate in a joint project with the British rocket scientists to put a man on the moon."
"And bring him back again?" said Kurchatov.
"Presumably, though one never knows with the Soviets."
"It is an interesting proposal, but I do not think Commissar Gordov would agree. Or if he did, it would be because he meant to acquire rocket technology without giving up atomic power. He might even seek to combine them, so that he could use rockets to carry atom bombs to targets on other continents. Are there any other carrots at your disposal?"
"We can promise them an equal voice among the councils of the Commission," said Heisenberg. "They would have an effective veto over any proposed use of atomic power. They would have the services of the Commission's own technicians in the creation of their own atomic power industry." Heisenberg sighed. "I do not believe that they would regard the gain in influence and expertise as worth the loss in sovereignty. The Americans certainly did not, and they are models of reason by comparison."
"And yet," Kurchatov observed, "the Americans did eventually yield."
Here Heisenberg chuckled. "They did and they did not. One practically has to be a physicist to appreciate the subtleties involved. In fact, Erwin Schrödinger has written a paper describing the American settlement in terms of quantum wave mechanics. The Americans simultaneously are and are not members of the Commission, simultaneously have and have not yielded control of their atomic weapons program. Until someone opens the box to see which it is, it is both, and since I have the key to the box, I will not let anyone open it." Heisenberg sighed again. "It is a pity we cannot apply a similar solution to the Soviet problem."
"I fear you are correct," said Kurchatov. "They . . . we . . . would not be content with such an ambiguous situation. In Russia, one is either the master, or one is the slave. One either wields the whip, or one endures it."
"Then you are saying," Heisenberg said, "that Comrade Gordov would accept nothing less than total submission on our part."
Kurchatov nodded. "Mere membership on the Commission would not be enough. He would insist on control over it."
"And control of the Commission would give him control of the world," said Heisenberg.
"Assuming the other powers would accept it," said Kurchatov, "which they would not. They would either resume control of their own weapons, or form an alternate Commission that excluded the Soviets."
"Which puts us in the same place as the stick," Heisenberg concluded. "Immediate war, or an arms race that leads to war, or an arms race that never ends."
"I am sorry, Director," said Kurchatov. "I fear that your trip here was wasted. I am unable to see a way clear of your dilemma."
Heisenberg sat with the nonexistent man in the nonexistent apartment while the world closed in around him. He thought again what a pity it was that they could not apply the American solution to the Soviet problem, to allow the Soviets to simultaneously control and not control the Commission. A political quantum wave function . . .
If the box stays closed, Heisenberg thought, the cat is neither alive nor dead.
In a sudden burst of mental light, Werner Heisenberg knew what he had to do.