When the father of the American atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, first saw the now-familiar mushroom cloud rising from the desert of New Mexico in 1945, legend has it that he murmured a phrase from a sacred Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." For the first half of the nuclear age, that ability to unleash Armageddon was confined to a select club of more-or-less "responsible" powers: the United States, the Soviet Union, and later Britain, France and China. While U.S. leaders hated the idea of their communist adversaries possessing the bomb, Washington at least trusted Moscow and Beijing to act in their own self-interest and refrain from blowing up the entire planet -- the grim premise behind the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.

Over the past two decades, however, the nuclear club has burst wide open as Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea and perhaps now Iran have gained access to "world-destroying" weapons. As three new books demonstrate, the rules of the nuclear game have changed radically since John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev went eyeball-to-eyeball in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The information revolution, combined with stunning scientific advances, permitted third-rank dictators Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il to pursue destructive technologies that were once the preserve of the great powers. It seems only a matter of time -- perhaps a decade or two, perhaps less -- before even nonstate terrorist groups are also able to get their hands on weapons of massive destruction. In their first presidential debate, both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry agreed that nuclear proliferation is the deadliest national security threat now confronting the United States.

How Close Did Iraq Come?

In The Bomb in My Garden: The Secrets of Saddam's Nuclear Mastermind (Wiley, $24.95), a former Iraqi nuclear scientist, Mahdi Obeidi, describes in jaw-dropping detail how Iraq acquired the means to produce highly enriched uranium, the key ingredient to building a nuclear weapon, by the eve of the first Gulf War. Had Saddam Hussein not made the fatal mistake of invading Kuwait in August 1990, he probably would have possessed a crude atomic bomb by 1992 or 1993, insulating his regime from the threat of foreign invasion.

Relatively unknown in the West until recently, Obeidi was the Iraqi scientist responsible for developing a gas centrifuge, the most direct and efficient route to enriching uranium. After U.N. arms inspectors forced Iraq to close its nuclear weapons program following the 1991 Gulf War, he buried a prototype of his centrifuge in his backyard in Baghdad (hence his book's title). After the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, Obeidi turned over this last remnant of the Iraqi nuclear program to the United States and teamed up with American reporter Kurt Pitzer to write this book.

The result offers insights into how a determined dictator, backed by sufficient resources, can come within reach of acquiring the world's most horrific weapons. It is a tale of cruelty and ruthlessness on the part of Hussein but also of naivete and greed on the part of Western scientists who enabled Iraq to take shortcuts toward becoming a nuclear power. Obeidi's early centrifuge experiments ended in failure in January 1988. But with the help of American, French and above all German scientists, he was able to create a reliable prototype by the spring of 1990, paving the way to mass production of enriched uranium. One German scientist, Bruno Stemmler, sold Iraq samples of many of the components of a centrifuge for just over a million dollars. A mysterious English-Pakistani businessman identified only as Malik agreed to provide 100 tons of high-grade hardened steel for $7 million. By Obeidi's calculations, this was enough steel to produce sufficient enriched uranium for 10 Hiroshima-type bombs a year. If a relatively well-off German scientist was willing to sell the key components of a centrifuge for $1 million, imagine how little it costs to bribe a desperately poor Russian or Ukrainian.

Who's Next?

Among the jarring juxtapositions in The Bomb in My Garden are the contrasts between the macabre nature of the nuclear-weapons trade and the reassuring surroundings in which the transactions took place: a tea shop in the London suburb of Wimbledon, a nightclub off the Champs-Elysees in Paris, a four-star hotel in Bonn. Strobe Talbott's latest book, Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, and the Bomb (Brookings, $27.95), produces a similarly discombobulating effect on the reader. A former Time magazine journalist who served as deputy secretary of state under President Clinton, Talbott is at pains to present the Indian negotiators as cultured, reasonable individuals, even as they undermine the entire postwar system of international diplomacy.

Talbott's account of the frenetic diplomacy that ensued after India tested three nuclear weapons on May 11, 1998, serves to underline why the bomb holds such allure for many developing-world governments. Until that moment, India was, in Clinton's phrase, the Rodney Dangerfield of nations -- never getting enough respect. Almost overnight, India shot to the top of Washington's agenda. After its enemy Pakistan replied with its own nuclear test a few weeks later, Clinton concluded that "the world was closer even than during the Cuban missile crisis to a nuclear war."

Talbott's main Indian interlocutor was Jaswant Singh, the Indian foreign minister. Talbott presents Singh -- a leading foreign policy thinker from India's ruling Hindu nationalist party -- as charming and clubbable, the kind of person who would not seem out of place at a Georgetown dinner party. The two men quickly agree to first-name terms. Together they hold a series of 14 meetings in such agreeable surroundings as the rooftop restaurant of the Hotel Hassler in Rome and the Talbott kitchen table in Woodley Park.

At the end of all this diplomacy, however, Talbott is forced to concede that Singh "came closer to achieving his objective in the dialogue than I did to achieving mine." He is taken aback when Singh has the poor taste to joke about the Indian bomb in a dinner skit at the end of a conference of Asian foreign ministers:

Why such a fuss over a few crackers in the Thar?

They weren't as loud as Nevada and Lop Nor.

"There were a few more verses, all rubbing it in," sniffs Talbott. "The rest of the world would just have to get over its hypocritical tantrum and learn to live with an India that had the bomb. No one in the audience found Jaswant's performance amusing. "

Danger and Survival

Such frustrations are enough to make Talbott nostalgic for the simple days when the United States and the Soviet Union stood ready to obliterate each other with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. In High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Cuban Missile Crisis (Ballantine, $23.95), former New York Times editor and diplomatic reporter Max Frankel argues that the world did not come as close to nuclear annihilation in 1962 as is commonly believed. His thesis is that Kennedy and Khrushchev were "responsible and highly intelligent men" determined to prevent a nuclear war and "firmly in charge of both governments." Frankel believes that scholars, journalists and screenwriters have colluded with former Kennedy administration members like defense secretary Robert McNamara in a game of "literary brinkmanship" to exaggerate the danger the world faced during the missile crisis.

Frankel has written an exciting, sparsely elegant account of the missile crisis, albeit one that contains little original research. But by focusing on what was happening in the White House and the Kremlin, he largely overlooks the much greater danger of events spinning out of control, despite Kennedy and Khrushchev's machinations. We now know that there were many more nuclear weapons in Cuba than the CIA believed, including dozens of tactical weapons whose primary purpose was to forestall an American invasion. While Khrushchev forbade use of these battlefield nukes without permission from Moscow, there were no physical controls over the weapons and no guarantees that they would not be used as part of a desperate last stand.

Although Kennedy was working off of imperfect intelligence, he had a better intuitive understanding of the potential for disaster than most of his advisers. A commander of a Navy patrol boat in World War II, he had developed an acute awareness of the absurdities of war -- and the risks of miscommunication as orders worked their way down the chain of command. As JFK complained to an aide when a U-2 spy plane on an air-sampling mission over the North Pole stirred Soviet fears of an imminent U.S. attack by blundering over Siberia at the height of the crisis, "There's always some sonofabitch who doesn't get the word."

Four decades later, the world is in an infinitely more complicated -- and in some ways more dangerous -- place than it was during the Cuban missile crisis. Back then, at least we knew who the enemy was and where he would be most likely to strike. These days, we cannot be sure who the enemy is or who possesses the power to "destroy worlds." *

Michael Dobbs is a national reporter for The Washington Post. His most recent book is "Saboteurs: The Nazi Raid on America."

Demonstrators show their support for Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his nuclear program in 1998.