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Destroyer of Worlds

Reviewed by George Perkovich
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page BW07


By Gerard J. DeGroot. Harvard Univ. 397 pp. $27.95

Nearly 20 years have passed since nuclear Armageddon draped American dreams. Once Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev pulled the curtain back and let in the light, people escaped dark thoughts of total, planet-annihilating nuclear war. Although Sept. 11 sparked new fears of nuclear terrorism, Congresses come and go from Washington now with little knowledge of the nuclear enterprise, as do reporters, pundits, bloggers, legislative aides and more. Our post-Sept. 11 country should find The Bomb's story enlightening.

_____Book World Live_____
George Perkovich will be online Tuesday, March 22, at 3 p.m. ET to field questions and comments about nuclear history and todays tensions with Iran and North Korea.

Gerard J. DeGroot has done more than write the best single-volume history of the bomb's early life in the original nuclear family: the United States, the Soviet Union, and their British, French and Chinese offspring. He has also narrated themes that run through this generation and perhaps the next. As characters move across the page -- Oppenheimer, Teller, Sakharov, Truman, Churchill, Stalin, de Gaulle, Mao, LeMay, Reagan and Gorbachev -- one sees that the dangers these men created and confronted resemble the current dramas of terrorism, proliferation and military intervention.

Intelligence failures contributed to some of the most dramatic nuclear episodes of the Cold War, as they did in Iraq. Washington underestimated how long it would take the Soviets to get atomic and hydrogen bombs, then famously overestimated the "missile gap" in 1960. Both failures killed any prospect of limiting the arms race or taming competitive paranoia. Faulty intelligence kept U.S. officials from seeing the full extent of the nuclear danger during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and in the 1980s caused Soviet leaders to overestimate the threat of nuclear attack by the Reagan administration.

Nor is the American embrace of preventive war new. In 1947, U.S. war planners concluded "it is necessary that, while adhering in the future to our historic policy of non-aggression, we revise past definitions of what constitutes aggression." With this rethinking, "the mere manufacture of nuclear weapons by another power, or even the procurement of fissile materials, might constitute grounds for action." The United States, according to a 1947 Joint Chiefs study, must act "before a potential enemy can inflict significant damage on us." It took 56 years for an American president to employ this strategy; Washington may feel liberated by its escape from being deterred, but the history of the bomb suggests that other, smaller powers will react.

Another story appears repeatedly in The Bomb and is being told again on Capitol Hill: Lab directors exclaim that their latest nuclear gizmo will not only work better and more cheaply than anything devised before, but it will also save American liberty from otherwise certain peril. The device's critics are portrayed as naive softies, the public has no idea what's going on, and Congress logrolls. Finally the weapon gets built, driving other nuclear powers to make their own versions. Decades later, this type of weapon is deemed inadequate -- indeed, morally suspect -- and must be replaced by something much more suitable, thereby starting the whole process over again. Today, Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio) and a few Democrats are trying to block R&D funding for a new nuclear warhead that the laboratories say would be great for burrowing underground and destroying bunkers. To see how the story will turn out, read The Bomb.

The most troubling part of the nuclear story is the way leaders rationalize their willingness to use doomsday weapons -- and to blur the just-war distinction between legitimate military targets and innocent civilians. In 1945, President Truman reluctantly agreed to allow an "Interim Committee" of a handful of wise men to consider how the bomb should be used. The committee, DeGroot notes, "pretended that the bomb would be used on a military target, but widened the definition of such to include workers' houses. The legitimacy of a target had been stretched to accommodate the power of the bomb. In other words, the committee had approved terror bombing but called it something else." The allies had been fire-bombing Japanese cities for years before 1945, of course, but Truman was tormented by the reality of the civilian toll of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He therefore always pretended that the bomb had been dropped "on a military base . . . because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians." By 1950, Truman was truer to his words and refused military advice to use atomic bombs in the Korean War. Leaders of other states with nuclear weapons have been even more reluctant to make nuclear threats.

But the possessors of nuclear weapons still don't face up to their own readiness to kill -- on a disproportionate and even a first-strike basis -- hundreds of thousands or indeed millions of innocents. We -- Americans, Russians, Chinese, Israelis, Indians, Pakistanis -- do so now while waging war against terrorism, often defined as the politically motivated targeting of civilians by nonstate groups. We rightly consider it nonsense when Osama bin Laden says, "The September 11 attacks were not targeted at women and children. The real targets were America's icons of military and economic power," which could, he argues, legitimately be struck in reprisal for U.S.-backed attacks on Muslims in Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir and Iraq. But if the intentional killing of noncombatants cannot be justified, shouldn't the nuclear powers do much more to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their policies?

DeGroot tells his story fairly and fluently, but it is the story of a bygone nuclear era. One of that period's pillars, the Soviet Union, has broken down, and the new nuclear powers are not sure what rules to follow. Profit and greed now drive the drama as much as budgetary politics. Terrorists feel no responsibility to protect territory and regimes from nuclear retaliation; deterrence is less relevant than moving urgently to keep nuclear materials out of their hands. Racial and religious identity conflicts roil many of the smaller nuclear-armed countries, while one dominant, unchecked power stands above the fray, rejecting family therapy for the discipline of the belt. Knowing how we got this way may help us get over it. •

George Perkovich is vice president for studies of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of "India's Nuclear Bomb."

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