Arsenal of Words
Arms Race Chronicler Says U.S. Repeated Cold War Mistakes Before the Hot War in Iraq

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 29, 2007

HALF MOON BAY, Calif.

Richard Rhodes and Ronald Reagan, two sons of the American Midwest, may not have had too much else in common back in the autumn of 1983. But there was this:

Both men were haunted by the fear that the world might end in nuclear fire.

Rhodes is a prolific writer of nonfiction whose latest book, "Arsenals of Folly," chronicles the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. (He's scheduled to talk about it this afternoon at Politics and Prose in Northwest Washington.) In 1983, he was living in Kansas City and was hard at work on his breakthrough book, "The Making of the Atomic Bomb." Part of why he'd chosen the topic, he recalls, is that "it felt to a lot of us as if we were on a collision course with nuclear war."

As he worked, the TV version of his fears was playing out in Lawrence, Kan., just up the road.

ABC's movie "The Day After" featured some of Rhodes's friends as extras. He was familiar with the pile of rubble -- actually a recently demolished hospital -- used to symbolize the bombed-out city. Still, he found himself shocked when he turned on the tube in late November and saw simulated mushroom clouds loom over the landscape in which he'd grown up.

Reagan, meanwhile, had screened an advance print of "The Day After" at Camp David in October. It shocked him as well.

"The image of Jason Robards walking through the radioactive ashes of Lawrence," wrote Reagan biographer Edmund Morris, "left him dazed, and he entered into his diary the first and only admission I have been able to find in his papers that he was 'greatly depressed.' "

The president's mood was reinforced, that autumn of 1983, by a real-world scare. The paranoid old despots in the Kremlin -- rattled by, among other things, Reagan's anti-Soviet rhetoric, the rapid rise in American military spending and an elaborate NATO military exercise they thought might be a cover for the real thing -- had come to the enormously dangerous conclusion that the United States was planning a nuclear first strike.

Shaken, Reagan signaled to the Soviets that this was not the case. Determined to reduce the threat of Armageddon, he later joined the reform-minded new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in the unprecedented arms negotiations that, while not immediately fruitful, heralded the approaching end of the Cold War.

As for Reagan's fellow Midwesterner:

Rhodes published "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" in 1986, the same year Reagan and Gorbachev met in Reykjavik, Iceland. It won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Nine years later he published "Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb," the second volume in what he now expects will be a nuclear quartet. The fourth book, he says, will chronicle efforts to deactivate the many thousands of nuclear weapons that remain -- despite the breakup of the Soviet Union -- on hair-trigger alert.

Before writing that, however, he needed to understand why humanity came so close to self-destruction in the first place. What "fears and ambitions," he asks in "Arsenals of Folly," led the nuclear powers to churn out enough bombs in the four decades after Hiroshima to destroy that unfortunate Japanese city 1.5 million times?

Along the way, he found himself adding another query:

Why did the history he was researching have -- for an observer of the run-up to war in Iraq -- such a contemporary ring?

'A Hole in the World'

Rhodes is 70, though he looks somewhat younger. His house, which he shares with his wife, Ginger, a clinical psychologist, offers a stunning view of the Pacific. An everything-in-its-place tidiness is interrupted only by a beloved cat that seems intent on knocking fragile artifacts off a floor-to-ceiling bookcase.

He's come a long way from Kansas City, where, at age 8, he first encountered the atomic bomb.

He remembers opening an August 1945 issue of Life magazine "to a picture of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima." Even then, he understood that "this was something huge." Fascinated by science already, his interest increased. With a different kind of childhood, he thinks he might have become a physicist, but no one encouraged him to take the necessary math.

This was the least of his problems, as his 1990 memoir, "A Hole in the World," makes clear.

Rhodes's mother shot herself when he was 13 months old. He doesn't remember her. What he does remember is the brutal woman with whom his father, a railroad mechanic, eventually replaced her.

Rhodes and his older brother, Stanley, soon found themselves routinely beaten and systematically deprived of food. Their stepmother kept them from washing, so they went to school filthy. She forbade Rhodes to use the bathroom at night, forcing him to urinate in Mason jars and hide them in a closet. This humiliation in particular he still feels viscerally today.

Things got so bad that 13-year-old Stanley finally went to the police. The brothers ended up in "this wonderful boys' home," as Rhodes calls it, where they did farm work while attending public schools.

Rhodes makes a point of saying that others have had far worse childhoods. He was abused, but he was also rescued. Through the intervention of another guardian angel (Stanley was the first), he obtained a scholarship to Yale -- an intellectual paradise for a young man who had used reading as a survival tool.

Still, the record suggests deep scarring. There were failed marriages, heavy drinking, years of therapy. In "Making Love" -- the strange and revealing book Rhodes wrote after "A Hole in the World," in which he narrates his sexual history detail by intimate detail -- he explains that he "survived, in the years after my rescue and well into adulthood," partly by "using my sexuality to structure and confine the extensive psychological damage" abuse had produced.

Writing itself, in the case of these books, became a kind of therapy. But that certainly wasn't all it was. For a young man who'd thought seriously about the ministry, it was also a mission: a way to examine important issues and persuade other people, who "maybe are missing them," to confront them.

What's more, he was good at it.

In college, he majored in cultural and intellectual history and wrote features for the Yale Daily News. After graduation, he interned at Newsweek. He did some time in the Air Force Reserve, taught a year of college English and eventually -- married and with "a hundred bucks to my name" -- got a job doing public relations for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City. When he finally left to write fiction and freelance magazine articles full time, he "struggled like hell."

Then came an idea for a novel about a scientist who'd been part of the Manhattan Project. Rhodes persuaded the Guggenheim Foundation to fund it.

It didn't work.

Fiction, he realized, was no way to deal with the birth of the atomic bomb. There was far too much real information out there.

He got a $75,000 advance to write the nonfiction version. This was enough money for "two, two and a half years," but it took him more than twice that long.

"I was very aware that this was the great tragic epic of the 20th century," Rhodes says, "and that it deserved to be treated at the maximum scale."

Threat Inflation, Then and Now

When he started out to research "Arsenals of Folly," Rhodes already knew part of the answer to how the nuclear arms race had come about.

He knew as much as anyone about the Manhattan Project, which was fueled by the fear that the Germans were building an atomic bomb. They weren't, "but they could have," Rhodes says, and he views the wartime American drive to get there first as "legitimate and justified."

He also knew about the hydrogen bomb, whose development he sees as more problematic. After the Soviet Union ended the brief American monopoly on atomic bombs in 1949, Rhodes says, "we panicked. And the only solution seemed to be a bigger and bigger bomb."

This kind of panic, he found as he dug into the history of the Cold War, occurred over and over again, on both sides, and the easiest "solutions" were always military ones.

It's "a theme that goes through the whole story," he says. "Again and again when we had a choice -- for, I think, mostly domestic political reasons -- it was easier to say 'more, more, more.' "

Easier, perhaps, but not always easy. Plenty of people in government understood that the endless stockpiling of nuclear destructiveness was not in anyone's interest. "You can't have this kind of war," as President Dwight Eisenhower once put it. "There just aren't enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets."

Yet there is another pervasive theme Rhodes encountered in his research. He calls it "threat inflation," and it works like this: In the absence of solid information about the other side's intentions and capabilities, proponents of military solutions -- who may believe their own rhetoric or may simply be sowing fear for political advantage -- sell questionable data and worst-case scenarios as facts.

The contemporary resonance is difficult to miss.

Much of "Arsenals of Folly" can be read as a history of Cold War threat inflation, particularly on the American side, where Rhodes had better access to the historical record. He offers numerous examples, but two can stand for the whole.

In 1957, an Eisenhower-appointed panel, heavily influenced by national security hawk Paul Nitze, raised the alarm about intercontinental ballistic missiles. Soviet ICBMs, the panel's report claimed, could render the Strategic Air Command "almost completely vulnerable" by 1959. Before long the nation's political discourse was filled with talk of this "missile gap." Eisenhower never bought it, but John F. Kennedy flogged it relentlessly in his successful campaign for the presidency.

But the gap didn't exist.

As Rhodes notes, "the Soviets had deployed no operational ICBMs at all by 1959." (A couple of years later, they had four.) Though a new spy satellite soon confirmed this weakness, it didn't stop Kennedy from authorizing the production and deployment of 1,000 Minuteman missiles.

Threat inflation had worked for him, and politically, he couldn't settle for less.

A little over a decade later came the so-called Team B episode, perhaps the most dramatic threat inflation effort of all. Team B's complex history is laid out in great detail in "Killing Detente," a 1998 book by political scientist Anne Cahn that Rhodes cites extensively.

In brief: During the Ford administration, a group of defense hawks, led by, among others, Nitze and Rand Corp. nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter, sought to counter a CIA assessment of Soviet strength and strategic objectives they deemed overly optimistic. Their weapon of choice was a panel of outside experts chosen because they shared Nitze and Wohlstetter's views.

The idea was that Team B would prepare an "alternative threat assessment" using the same classified data the CIA used.

CIA Director William Colby rejected the Team B notion out of hand. His position, Cahn says, was essentially: "Not on my watch. You're not going to second-guess my guys."

But Colby was a lame duck and Ford was facing a 1976 primary challenge from the right in the person of Ronald Reagan. On instructions from the White House, Colby's CIA successor, George H.W. Bush, gave Team B the green light.

The report it produced read like a ringing alarm bell. The Soviets, it claimed, were "preparing for a Third World War as if it were unavoidable." It went on to detail Soviet actions that allegedly proved this point -- though Cahn found that "in almost every instance," these allegations were wrong.

Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976. Carter rejected the Team B report. "But then Afghanistan happened and things changed," Cahn says. Whatever the actual reasons for the Soviet Union's disastrous 1979 invasion, it bolstered views of the Soviet leadership as dangerously expansionist.

Reagan replaced Carter in 1981, and many of those who shared the Team B worldview found themselves in power. The post-Afghanistan arms buildup Carter had begun was greatly ratcheted up -- helping to cause, Rhodes says, the near-miss nuclear confrontation in 1983 that so worried Reagan.

Rhodes sees a clear parallel between Team B's triumph and the push by "Vice President Richard Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and their associates in the administration of George W. Bush" to get the CIA "to inflate the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction." Some of the same names pop up in both episodes. Rhodes notes that Cheney, then Ford's chief of staff, was supportive of Team B and that Rumsfeld protege Paul Wolfowitz was part of the team itself -- though Cahn, for one, doesn't think Wolfowitz was an important player.

Some reject the parallel entirely.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a Commentary editor assigned to review "Arsenals of Folly," argues in the neoconservative magazine's October issue that Rhodes's whole purpose in writing it was "to project the past onto the present in order to vilify the Bush administration and its war to depose Saddam Hussein."

Rhodes dismisses the accusation. He had "no idea," he says, that present and past would turn out to mirror each other this way.

'A Thin Margin of Hope'

He's a little obsessed with the topic right now, but it would be a big mistake to think that Rhodes cares only about nuclear weapons. He has an abiding interest in the natural world, and his previous book was a well-received biography of John James Audubon.

"I loved writing about Audubon," he says. "What a funny, charming man he turned out to be."

Yet many of Rhodes's books -- including, of course, the nuclear ones -- can be linked to a preoccupation with human violence that comes straight from his childhood. Ginger Rhodes's specialty as a psychotherapist is trauma and violence, and down the road -- "not very far down the road at this point" -- husband and wife are hoping to collaborate on a major exploration of the subject.

For now, however, it's still all nukes all the time. How does he deal with the grimness of the subject he's constantly thinking and writing about?

"I've always wondered where my optimism comes from," Rhodes says. He suspects it goes back to the fact that he was rescued from his "modest childhood disasters." This makes him resonate with the idea expressed by Leo Szilard -- who conceived the idea of a nuclear chain reaction that led to the bomb -- "that at the edge of the darkness there's still a thin margin of hope."

Right now he sees that hope in a nuclear disarmament initiative being pushed by Reagan's secretary of state, George Shultz, and a bipartisan group of like-minded former officials, Sam Nunn and Henry Kissinger among them.

"Bush could save his presidency. All he'd have to do is walk into the U.N. and say, 'We propose to eliminate all nuclear weapons. We'll do it if you'll do it,' " Rhodes the optimist says.

"And the Iraq war would be a footnote in the history books."

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