Archive for Sunday, November 4, 2007

Time bomb

Richard Rhodes takes an abiding interest in America’s nuclear past with ‘Arsenals of Folly’

November 4, 2007


Bikini Atoll was the site of more than 20 nuclear weapons tests between 1946 and 1958, including the first test of a hydrogen bomb in 1952.

Bikini Atoll was the site of more than 20 nuclear weapons tests between 1946 and 1958, including the first test of a hydrogen bomb in 1952.

— 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. 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' 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?

'This kind of war'

When he started out to research "Arsenals of Folly," Rhodes, now 70, 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, which he calls "threat inflation": 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.

Present and past

Much of "Arsenals of Folly" can be read as a history of Cold War threat inflation, and Rhodes offers numerous examples.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a Commentary editor assigned to review "Arsenals of Folly," argues in the neoconservative magazine's October issue that Rhodes' 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.

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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