THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Arms and the men

A sobering account of postwar nuclear strategy, culminating in the Reagan-Gorbachev years

Email|Print| Text size + By Gregg Herken
November 18, 2007

Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race
By Richard Rhodes
Knopf, 386 pp., illustrated, $28.95

Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, an op-ed piece in The New York Times celebrated the evident fact that, with the nuclear arms race finally over, humanity no longer needed to worry about the atomic bomb. The celebration was premature. Today, the Bomb is back. And, as it turns out, the nuclear arms race is not so much over as proceeding in a new - and probably more dangerous - direction.

Richard Rhodes, the author of two previous, deservedly popular books on nuclear weapons - "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" and "Dark Sun" - has written a third book in his series on what now seems, in retrospect, Nuclear Arms Race I.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Rhodes's new book is its focus on two dirty little secrets about nuclear strategy during the Cold War that the experts never liked to talk about: the first being that, while both superpowers talked deterrence, they were actually planning for a possible preemptive attack - which, in the Pentagon's official definition, is "an attack initiated on the basis of incontrovertible evidence that an enemy attack is imminent." The other, dirtier secret is that at least three American presidents were presented with plans for a surprise nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, otherwise known as preventive war - "a war initiated in the belief that military conflict, while not imminent, is inevitable and that to delay would involve greater risk."

In 1949, President Truman rejected the advice of those who urged that he strangle the Soviet nuclear program in its cradle. Eight years later, Eisenhower's secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, showed one defense expert the door after his visitor suggested that the United States launch a Pearl Harbor-style nuclear attack on the Russians. President Kennedy was reportedly intrigued, during the 1961 Berlin crisis, with the plan that aides gave him for what they called a "clever first strike" - a scheme to disarm the Soviets by destroying Russian bombers and missiles on the ground. But in every case cooler heads prevailed.

Still, as Rhodes lets the reader know, it was a near thing. The great danger of the Cold War was that an accident or miscalculation could occur during a crisis, when both superpowers engaged in a game of chicken known as mutually reinforcing alerts. The unthinkable almost occurred in 1962, when the United States and the USSR faced off over the clandestine introduction of Soviet missiles into Cuba.

Bad as the consequences of a nuclear war were believed to be back then, the reality would almost certainly have been much worse. Incredibly, despite the money and talent lavished on the weapons themselves, the planning for their use now seems both short-sighted and slipshod. It was not until the early 1980s that strategists realized how the dust and debris kicked up by nuclear explosions might enshroud the earth, bringing about a so-called nuclear winter and perhaps casting humanity into Stygian darkness. Even more remarkable is that war planners, when estimating prospective casualties in a nuclear war, looked only at fallout and blast damage, neglecting to factor in the effects of fire - even though the majority of deaths in World War II's massed bomber raids on Hamburg and Tokyo had been caused by the resulting conflagration, which literally sucked the air out of the lungs of people huddled in underground shelters. In the 1960s, US nuclear strategists thought that an all-out nuclear war -what strategist Herman Kahn famously called a "wargasm" - might leave 285 million Russians, Chinese, and Europeans dead. More recent estimates are that such a war could have killed nearly a billion people, almost a third of the human population at that time.

One can still wonder whether the seemingly intelligent people who continued to argue that victory was possible actually believed that, or were simply saying it in hopes of forcing the other side into behaving rationally because the crazies were obviously in charge. But as with religion, ritual and incantation evidently led, eventually, to faith.

Those who are inclined to give Ronald Reagan credit for winning the Cold War will not find much support for their case in "Arsenals of Folly." In the author's reading, it was Mikhail Gorbachev, and not Reagan, who became the first superpower leader to understand the blindingly obvious lesson of history that is also the thesis of Rhodes's book - namely, that "there has never been a realistic military justification for accumulating large, expensive stockpiles of nuclear arms." It was Gorbachev's willingness to stare down the leaders of the Soviet Union's military-industrial complex - the infamous "metal eaters" - while Reagan was shoveling money at their opposite numbers here at home that Rhodes credits with beginning the end of the Cold War. After the Soviet leader removed the first brick, the whole edifice began to crumble.

To Rhodes, the unintended consequence of the Reagan administration's military buildup was to convince the Soviet Union that the United States was indeed finally intending to carry out its long-planned surprise nuclear strike, under the guise of a NATO training exercise called "Able Archer." Just as in October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union almost blundered into war in November 1983. "That, and not the decline and fall of the Soviet Union, was the return on the neoconservatives' long, cynical, and radically partisan investment in threat inflation and arms-race escalation," Rhodes writes.

The author recycles some stories from his two earlier books in "Arsenals." Readers who check footnotes will also find that many of Rhodes's citations are to his previous work, which makes the scholarship seem incestuous in places. But, even if there are no breathtaking revelations, Rhodes has done his usual excellent job in creating a highly readable synthesis. At the end, too, it is difficult to disagree with his conclusion that true sovereignty lies with the weapons themselves, and not with the nations that possess them.

Indeed, in that regard, "Arsenals" has already been overtaken by events, since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred in the midst of the author's research. From the perspective of this century's new Ground Zero, the destruction of Hiroshima begins to look like something of a false dawn. The real danger lies in the growing number of nations, like Iran, that aspire to membership in the nuclear club. The ultimate implications of the Bomb were foreseen by its creators, a handful of nuclear physicists who warned the US government in the spring of 1945 - several months before the first bomb had been tested - that it was "extremely probable that the future will make it possible [for nuclear weapons] to be constructed by smaller nations or even groups."

Thankfully, that dawn has yet to break.

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