The Dream of Disarmament Dies Hard

September 16, 2010

“Every age finds the writers it needs,” averred The Nation, in a rare moment of lucidity, “and the nuclear age has found Richard Rhodes.”

A novelist and historian, Rhodes received the Pulitzer for The Making of the Atomic Bomb. A decade later, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb nearly won him another. Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race wrapped up his towering saga of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. atomic standoff.

Now Rhodes is back with an exploration of nukes in the post-Cold War era, The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons.

The last two decades saw disarmament efforts shift from the superpowers to the small fry. Rhodes takes readers on a tour of new, wannabe, and might-have-been nuclear nations, including India, Pakistan, Iraq, South Africa, Israel, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and North Korea.

The George W. Bush administration’s dodgy “intelligence” about Saddam Hussein’s “reconstituted nuclear weapons” makes it easy to forget that the Mesopotamian strongman did build a nascent nuke capability in the 1980s. Rhodes recounts the struggles of inspector David Kay, who in September 1991 was held hostage by Iraqis in a showdown over bomb-program documents. After four days in limbo, living in vehicles and running up a ridiculous satellite-phone bill, Kay’s team was freed.

As the only nation to indigenously develop, and then abandon, nuclear weapons, South Africa is a curious case. (Its cooperation with Israel, including the explosion of a mini-nuke in 1979, is curiouser.) Rhodes dutifully covers North Korea’s nuclear extortion, as well as the touchy negotiations undertaken by the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations to convince former Soviet republics to surrender their warheads to Russia.

It’s all good stuff, and Rhodes’s ability to explain science and international politics in a compelling way isn’t in question. Still, The Twilight of the Bombs suffers from two flaws -- one under its author’s control, one not.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb topped 800 pages; Dark Sun surpassed 700. Arsenals of Folly didn’t reach 400 pages, but its chilling tale of NATO’s Able Archer 83 exercise -- a wargame that arguably brought the planet closer to nuclear annihilation than the Cuban Missile Crisis -- gave the book shuddering gravity.

Isolated from Rhodes’s earlier Cold War setting, The Twilight of the Bombs swims in shallower waters. As figures of world-historical importance, Clinton and W. hardly measure up to Truman and the Gipper. Saddam Hussein and Kim Il Sung were thugs, to be sure, but petty hoods compared to Stalin and Khrushchev.

Beyond its small-scale stakes and second-rate players, The Twilight of the Bombs disappoints due to its author’s inability to look beyond the false nuclear choices offered by the foreign-policy establishment.

As a Yalie, visiting scholar at Harvard and MIT, and fellow of the Ford, Guggenheim, MacArthur, and Sloan Foundations, Rhodes shares elites’ consternation over the international community’s failure to restrict, and ultimately eliminate, nukes. Richard Butler, an Australian diplomat he idolizes, put the arms-control movement’s idée fixe best: “The problem of nuclear weapons is nuclear weapons.”

In a manner akin to gun grabbers, Rhodes and Butler consider the mere existence of nukes dangerous -- not the nature, intentions, and political limitations of the politicians who posses them. Sixty-five years of nuclear-armed mankind suggest that the prohibitionists are wrong. While the American government did strike Japan in 1945 (acts condemned by Eisenhower and MacArthur, few have bothered to learn), all subsequent a-bomb and h-bomb detonations were tests, or “peaceful” explosions. Russia and China didn’t hurl warheads at each other in the late 1960s. Pakistan and India stubbornly refuse to take their conflict nuclear. And however dicey things may get at times, we will live with a nuclear-armed Iran.

The old bumper sticker was right: One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day. And the disarmament lobby’s enemies are an unappealing lot. The paranoia of Richard Perle, Richard Cheney, and their ilk is terrifying in its own way.

That’s why a third option must be explored -- an alternative to Rhodes’s failed “collective security” and crazed, “kill ‘em all” neoconservatism. That path is noninterventionism abroad; the retracting of America’s “nuclear shield” from other countries; a workable, realistically tested missile-defense system; and the maintenance of a small nuclear arsenal that guarantees the destruction of any attacker.

In a perpetually dangerous world, that’s the best defense posture for the United States. It won’t satisfy Richard Rhodes, but it’s better than clinging to disarmament schemes that will never be.

D. Dowd Muska ( writes about government, economics, and technology. He lives in Broad Brook, Connecticut.

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