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A Colder War | The Nation

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A Colder War

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After finishing The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Rhodes plunged into the new age, writing Dark Sun. The events recounted precluded the book from having the satisfying unity of its predecessor. For one thing, there was most fortunately to be no use of the H-bomb, much less of the whole infernal arsenal, to provide a natural conclusion to the book. (Of course, such an event likely would have finished off the book's writer, in which case there would have been no book at all.) For another, in 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, demonstrating that the "secret" of the bomb could not be kept. The new age was to be open-ended. With the Soviet test and the arrival of the H-bomb, the nuclear story became less a specific chain of linked events in a single country and more like a mist spreading across the world, as the nuclear know-how passed from mind to mind and country to country (in the process later called "proliferation"), all the while haunting the minds of its first superpower possessors with a nervous insecurity and bottomless dread that they could neither quite face up to nor shake off.

About the Author

Jonathan Schell
Jonathan Schell is the Lannan Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at...

Also by the Author

After 9/11, the US invented a new kind of borderless, pre-emptive warfare, plunging the world into an endless cycle of violence.

The United States is no Soviet Union—and yet it has set up machinery that satisfies certain tendencies that are in the genetic code of totalitarianism.

In the face of these difficulties, Rhodes's modus operandi still serves him well. Again he tells individual stories; again he conducts the layman through scientific thickets in vigorous, lucid, compressed prose; again he casts his historical net wide. He tells the stories of the Soviet program to acquire the bomb (obtusely, Stalin, his mind clouded by the conventional wisdom of ideology, failed to understand the revolutionary import of the new weapon until it was used on Hiroshima); the growth of the American Strategic Air Command under Gen. Curtis LeMay; the debates among officials in the American government over whether to build the H-bomb, which many of them knew to be "genocidal"; the twisted and deranged security hearings that barred Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific leader of the A-bomb project, from access to H-bomb secrets.

Drawing on this material, he deepens the lesson he began to draw in The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Science had not created a weapon for war. Rather,

fission introduced a singularity into the human world--a deep new reality, a region where the old rules of war no longer applied. The region of nuclear singularity enlarged across the decades, sweeping war away at its shock front until today it excludes all but civil wars and limited conventional wars.

Arsenals of Folly has no new bomb or other technical discovery to organize it, but it still has a center of gravity: the decades-long technical, bureaucratic and, above all, political struggle over the composition, size and ultimate disposition of the preposterously gigantic American and Soviet arsenals (65,000 thermonuclear bombs at their peak). Inasmuch as part of this story is the modestly successful effort, beginning in the late 1960s, to rein in the nuclear buildup, Rhodes turns in this volume from the making of the bomb to its unmaking, a task that has proven more difficult for those dedicated to it.

The struggle proceeded on two fronts. One was the civilian and military bureaucracies of the United States and the Soviet Union. Rhodes shows more vividly than anyone has before that, within the cold war between the superpowers, there was an even colder war being fought among factions within the nuclear establishments in Washington and Moscow. George Shultz and other American officials tell Rhodes that these internal battles were more viciously contested than any with the Soviet Union.

On the one side were the hawks, persistently seeking to enlarge nuclear arsenals. In the United States, they were heirs to Hiroshima: the image of the bomb as a war winner set the stage for the rise of a postwar school of thought based on the conviction that nuclear war, like conventional war, could be fought and won. Its members believed that "Victory Is Possible," in the words of the title of an article written by two Reagan advisers, Keith Payne and Colin Gray, and they fought tenaciously for American nuclear superiority without end. For them, the idea that nuclear arms were not usable military instruments was anathema. In the words, quoted by Rhodes, of one of their number, the Harvard historian Richard Pipes, who became Reagan's National Security Adviser on Russian affairs, those who disagreed with the war-fighting school were "no more prepared to take seriously the proposition that nuclear weapons might be effective instruments of warfare than to waste time proving that the earth is not flat."

On the other side of the bureaucratic struggle were the disarmers and arms controllers--to speak comparatively, they were nuclear doves--who did indeed regard any notion that nuclear war could be won as a flat-earth sort of proposition. They took their stand on a factual foundation succinctly stated by Jerome Wiesner, President Kennedy's science adviser, who later became president of MIT.

For most cities it is reasonable to equate one bomb and one city.... I would say 50 bombs, properly placed, would probably put a society out of business, and 300 such in each of the two countries leading the arms race would destroy their civilizations.

Curiously, after about 1960, when a debate raged over the usefulness of civil defense shelters in a nuclear war, the nuclear-war fighters did not attempt to rebut Wiesner's assessment, based as it was on proven facts regarding the destructive capacities of nuclear weapons. Instead, their point of attack was a series of allegations that the Soviet Union was ahead and therefore the United States needed to catch up. "Threat inflation" became their stock in trade. The allegations included the false charge that there was a "missile gap" in the late 1950s (there was one, but it overwhelmingly favored the United States) and repeated misleading charges in the '70s that the Soviet Union had gained a dangerous superiority (the truth was that the United States had the upper hand in some categories, such as the number of warheads, while the Soviets had it in others, such as the number of land-based missiles).

In the background of these debates was the less-discussed question of whether superiority in numbers mattered at all in a world in which Wiesner's 300 warheads could destroy any country's civilization. The war fighters resorted to a complicated argument: even if it were true that, say, the 30,000th warhead would only make the rubble bounce for the hundredth time (if there was any rubble left at that point), superiority was still important for "psychological" reasons. Nuclear bombs, in this view, were chiefly "political" weapons, and if people thought superiority was important, then their belief made it so. This belief was not held only by the war fighters; almost all nuclear strategists subscribed to a version of it. Strangely, it apparently never occurred to them that if a widespread false impression--a delusion--was the problem, then the solution might be not to bow to it, thus confirming it, but to dispel it, through statements, arguments and public education of all kinds.

The nuclear doves, of course, held that if a nuclear war would end civilization, it could not be won. In addition, they argued that once overkill had been obtained, any further buildup would be redundant; therefore, agreements bringing verified mutual reductions made sense. Each side in the debate had some successes: for the hawks, it was the gigantic arsenals themselves; for the doves, it was the web of arms control treaties--the atmospheric Test Ban Treaty, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the first and second Strategic Arms Limitations Talks.

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