Beginning with a gripping blow-by-blow account of the Chernobyl accident, Rhodes explores the nuclear arms race from 1986 through the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 in this important and thought-provoking book. He demonstrates that throughout the entire Cold War period, the U.S. had superior numbers of strategic nuclear bombs and warheads. The U.S. political debates that conjured the threat and fear of Soviet first-strike capabilities were “as divorced from reality as the debates of medieval scholars about the characteristics of seraphim and cherubim.”
What accounts from this divergence of fact and policy? One astute observation by Rhodes is that military leaders made “what philosophy calls a category mistake, an assumption that nuclear explosives are military weapons in any meaningful sense of the term, and that [therefore] a sufficient quantity of such weapons can make us secure.” That is, unlike conventional weapons, nuclear weapons are so qualitatively different in terms of both short and long term effects, that a strictly quantitative comparison is not valid.
Political concerns also have played a large role in nuclear arms accumulation. Rhodes points out that the Reagan administration sponsored “the largest peacetime buildup in American history.” Rhodes suggests that some of the motivation was “to starve the beast of government domestic spending, part of the conservative Republican agenda.”
In addition (in a harbinger of things to come), advisors to Reagan, Ford, and Bush such as Richard Perle, Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz blatantly twisted intelligence to conform to a bias that was anti-Soviet and pro-military-industrial complex. Particularly in the case of Reagan, advisors had more freedom for manipulation given a president who could not speak coherently without cue cards.
One riveting section of the book describes a very close call to nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that took place in November 1983. “That,” Rhodes charges, “was the return on the neoconservatives’ long, cynical, and radically partisan investment in threat inflation and arms-race escalation.”
A continuing thread in the book is the intelligence, courage, and perseverance of Mikhail Gorbachev. Not only did he have to overcome the ossification of the Soviet system to effect perestroika, or reform, but the resistance of U.S. hardliners as well.
How appropriate that Rhodes ends his book with a quote from J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose opposition to a nuclear arms build-up helped to vitiate his career. Oppenheimer observed presciently in 1953:
“We may anticipate a state of affairs in which two Great Powers will each be in a position to put an end to the civilization and life of the other, though not without risking its own. We may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.”
As Rhodes charges, the U.S. chose “to distend ourselves into the largest scorpion in the bottle.”
The risks of nuclear war, accidental or intentional, remain high. In fact, an article in Slate (“A Real Nuclear Option for the Nominees,” by Ron Rosenbaum, posted May 9, 2008) describes more recent “near misses” between U.S. and Russian nuclear-capable bombers.
Evaluation: This well-written history and cautionary tale continues to have relevance.
Published by Knopf, 2007