Book Review

The unmaking of the atomic bomb

By George Perkovich
Sunday, August 22, 2010


Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons

By Richard Rhodes

Knopf. 366 pp. $27.95

Once again, foreign policy circles are speculating that Israel will bomb Iran to stop, or at least slow, its march toward nuclear weapons. The political history of nuclear weapons is repeating itself: One country gets the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, feels smug and secure for a while, then tries desperately to keep its adversaries from joining the club.

That scenario predominated through the end of the 20th century. Israel bombed Iraq's Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981. The United States secretly considered attacking the Soviet Union and China before those nations could deploy the bomb. Indian leaders contemplated bombing Pakistan's nuclear facilities when Pakistan was about at the stage Iran has reached now. But bombing provides no lasting solution.

As the nuclear threat shifts to terrorists and deranged dictatorships, a new phase in nuclear history may be emerging: a recognition by some leaders in nuclear-armed states that the world would be more secure if these weapons were eliminated. To Richard Rhodes, the most accomplished narrator of America's efforts to create and control atomic weapons, complete nuclear disarmament is a laudable ambition, and it forms the underpinning of his latest work, "The Twilight of the Bombs."

No one writes better about nuclear history than Rhodes does, ably combining a scholar's attention to detail with a novelist's devotion to character and pacing. He began his exploration in 1987 with "The Making of the Atomic Bomb," which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He also earned praise for "Dark Sun," the story of the hydrogen bomb's creation. "Arsenals of Folly" tackled the beginning of U.S. and Soviet cooperation to end the arms race.

In "The Twilight of the Bombs," Rhodes documents events from the end of the Cold War to 2003 that, he believes, point toward the feasibility of eradicating nuclear weapons. He chronicles the underpublicized drama of the era: the efforts to contain the spread of nuclear weapons after the Soviet Union's collapse, the nuclear disarmament of South Africa, the fallout from India's and Pakistan's nuclear tests, and the negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear ambitions. In Rhodes's telling, big personalities clash and cooperate, jokes and epiphanies punctuate the debate, and offbeat details energize the narrative.

For instance, Rhodes puts the reader on the ground in Iraq with U.N. weapons inspectors before the Persian Gulf War. Robert Gallucci, who was deputy executive chairman of the U.N. Special Commission inspectorate in Iraq in 1991, told the author: "I rented us a couple of cars from Avis. For medical support -- this was a dangerous mission -- we had first-aid kits. For secure communications, we used a book cipher. . . . It takes about three days to decode 'Hi, Mom,' but you can do it." With no glamour or gunfire, and initially little support from the U.S. government, the inspectors impelled Saddam Hussein to eliminate his nuclear weapons capabilities.

Disarmament proceeded on a different front elsewhere that year. As the Soviet Union crumbled, the United States sought to reduce its own nuclear arsenal in an effort to ease global tensions. Germany had been reunified, leaving NATO tactical nuclear missiles and artillery on its territory with no reasonable purpose. Nuclear weapons on U.S. surface ships were inspiring anti-nuclear passions in Japan and New Zealand. South Korea wanted the United States to remove tactical nuclear weapons from its territory, but Washington did not want to look weak to North Korea by doing so.

National security adviser Brent Scowcroft took a wide-angle view of the question and proposed to President George H.W. Bush that the United States unilaterally remove all of its tactical nuclear weapons from surface ships and land forces worldwide. Dick Cheney, then secretary of defense, rejected the dismantling of the weapons, so many were kept in reserve in the United States. Still, this was a rare moment in the U.S. history of nuclear arms -- when a top official asked, "Do we really need these things?" and the answer was not distorted by partisan politics or bureaucratic pressure.

On the Soviet side, leading figures sometimes had revelations that highlighted the barbarism of mutual destruction. Case in point: Viktor Mikhailov, the domineering director of a Soviet nuclear weapons research institute and a member of a committee that selected U.S. targets for annihilation. In 1988 Mikhailov came to the United States as part of a Reagan-Gorbachev effort to demonstrate the feasibility of banning nuclear testing. "When we walked around Washington, New York and Las Vegas," Mikhailov recalled in his memoir, "I could not imagine . . . those wondrous cities as 'military targets.' Sometimes those thoughts simply terrified me and made me shudder."

Rhodes's great strength is storytelling. He is less convincing when he tries to predict the future: "We find ourselves in the second decade of the twenty-first century well along the way to eliminating nuclear weapons once and for all." Though the ingenuity and progressive spirit he reveals inspire optimism, proponents of nuclear weapons persist in the United States, Russia, France, Pakistan, Israel and other states, and they provoke rising powers such as Iran, Brazil and Turkey to resist nonproliferation rules that favor countries that have nuclear weapons over those that don't.

Even if nuclear disarmament is technically feasible, some states will continue to find power and security in these weapons. In the United States, political leaders remain ambivalent. As Rhodes puts it, "We have feared [nuclear weapons] even as we have tried to convince ourselves that they protect us, and so we have found it possible neither to employ them or to break them and throw them away." Resolving this ambivalence requires cooperative action of both the old and new powers, North and South, East and West. We know how to do it; the question is whether we have the will.

George Perkovich is the director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a co-editor of "Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: A Debate."

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