The first nuclear explosion, six decades ago, was code-named "Trinity." When that fiery cloud erupted over the New Mexican desert, its chief creator, J. Robert Oppenheimer, famously intoned a verse from the sacred Hindu script the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." Twenty-nine years later, Indian nuclear technologists sent coded word of their first nuclear-test explosion by telling their prime minister, "The Buddha smiled." The bomb brings people as close as they can get to divine power and rouses their imaginations accordingly. But as the best literature on nuclear issues suggests, protecting civilization from atomic destruction depends on secular wisdom and will. This was less a problem during the Cold War, when -- despite slogans like "better dead than red" -- the main nuclear antagonists did not let their core differences prevent them from negotiating rules to keep from blowing each other up. Today, however, many of the countries, sects and terrorist groups reaching for nuclear weapons are unwilling to find common earthly ground for establishing rules that all can live by. We still await books to give us the language and perspective to make sense of the post-Cold War nuclear challenge -- one in which the chances of planetary annihilation are lower but the chances of a regional nuclear war (India-Pakistan, Iran-Israel, U.S.-China in the Taiwan Strait) or a city-shattering catastrophe (al Qaeda getting its hands on a nuke) are far higher.

The earliest books on nuclear weapons can be read as explorations of a modern Fall. The New Yorker devoted its Aug. 31, 1946, issue to John Hersey's Hiroshima, which described the hellish fury and suffering of atomic blast and fire. Masuji Ibuse's novel Black Rain (1965) makes the experience intimate through the plain words and deeds of unexpecting victims.

Hiroshima's collective meaning continues to evolve -- was it original nuclear sin, righteous self-defense or something in between? The book that best captures the span of marshaled fact and argument is Hiroshima's Shadow (1996), a compilation of historical documents and essays by some of the 20th century's greatest American and international writers, edited by Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz.

Outstanding stories continue to be published of the bomb-builders in the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, France, China, Israel and India. (North Korea and Pakistan's nuclear stories remain shrouded in secrecy.) Richard Rhodes's The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986) focuses on the American program and remains the best-told example of this genre. David Holloway's Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956 (1994) and Avner Cohen's Israel and the Bomb (1998) also deserve special mention. Each country treats its own bomb-builders as demigods, and this trend would continue were Iran, Saudi Arabia or any other country to acquire nuclear weapons. (The father of Pakistan's atomic program, the infamous A.Q. Khan, was basically a thief and gray-market procurement wizard who has helped spread nuclear weapons know-how around the world, but he's treated as a scientific genius in Pakistan.) As long as some nations are allowed to have nuclear weapons, other people are going to want heroes to build them too, whether their governments are good or bad.

The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 elicited the fear of doomsday in ways that Americans had never experienced. Art cannot rival the intense drama of real life as recorded in The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, edited by Philip D. Zelikow and Ernest R. May (2002). In these pages, we observe the varieties of human strength and weakness, folly and wisdom, that are brought to bear when men choose to wager the fate of whole peoples on actions taken with imperfect information.

After Cuba, the Cold War antagonists spent trillions of dollars building elaborate arsenals and control systems to implement apocalyptic strategies of deterrence. In The Wizards of Armageddon (1983), Fred Kaplan elucidated how the nuclear strategists Herman Kahn, Thomas C. Schelling, Albert Wohlstetter and others believed that, by thinking the unthinkable, they were preventing it from occurring. Robert Jervis's able critique of the deterrence edifice in The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon (1989) remains insightful, while Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 (1998), edited by Stephen I. Schwartz, is the only comprehensive attempt to assess the full costs of the nuclear weapons enterprise in any country. Still, to read these accounts of the Cold War nuclear standoff today is to remember, or perhaps to discover, how surreal the world of nuclear deterrence is.

Not all Cold War scenarios have faded, of course. In John A. McPhee's The Curve of Binding Energy (1974), a brilliant, pensive, nuclear weapons designer named Ted Taylor guides McPhee through the shadows of the bomb. At one point, Taylor stands with McPhee at the foot of one of the World Trade Center towers and exclaims, "What an artifact that is!" The expert then explains the various ways that an unsophisticated, tiny (half a kiloton) bomb could destroy one or both towers. Back in 1973, this arms designer feared that the nuclear industry and the U.S. government were not taking seriously the security requirements necessary to keep terrorists from acquiring fissile materials. This was a time when a dramatic expansion of nuclear industry was "inevitable," as the industry and its many governmental champions say it is again today. A quarter-century later, the nuclear-power boom that we prepared for has not happened, and the terrorism that we did not prepare for has happened. The economy thrived without an expansion of nuclear energy, and terrorists took down the towers without the bomb.

What we miss most in nuclear literature are the voices of the people long viewed as unworthy to hold the bomb. Michael Ondaatje's lyrical novel The English Patient (1992) pivots to its end when the British-Indian sapper, nicknamed Kip, hears on his scratchy radio that the United States has bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He sinks to his knees and screams, then rises, grabs his rifle and races into the ruined villa to accost the patient being cared for there. Kip is told that the burned man is not truly English. "I don't care," the colonial subject exclaims. "When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you're an Englishman." Ondaatje, from Sri Lanka, conveys a feeling deeply held in much of the world: "They would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation."

Today, religious sectarianism fuels terrorism and conflict in the Middle East and casts shadows over nonproliferation challenges in Iran and South Asia. Christian evangelism is strong among America's future nuclear-war planners at the U.S. Air Force Academy. But there is no reason to think that the apocalyptic power of nuclear materials can be channeled only by our tribe and not by children of other gods. In this pluralistic world, only secular politics can produce the concepts and language needed to identify the common ground on which passionate and wary groups can agree to live and let live. A new literature, in new voices, must be written to inform this new politics. *

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

Mushroom cloud after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima (display from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park)