The Twi­light of the Bombs

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — To­mas Jaehn

by Richard Rhodes, Al­fred A. Knopf/Ran­dom House, 366 pages Pulitzer-prize win­ner Richard Rhodes makes his po­si­tion clear in The Twi­light of the Bombs with an in­tro­duc­tory quote from U.N. weapons in­spec­tor Richard But­ler: “The prob­lem of nu­clear weapons is nu­clear weapons.” In a de­tailed ex­cur­sion into the world of nu­clear bombs, the author ex­plores re­cent diplo­matic, po­lit­i­cal, and sci­en­tific de­vel­op­ments of nu­clear bombs among the world’s coun­tries. The two threads that weave through Rhodes’ book are the ef­forts to suc­cess­fully ex­tend the Nu­clear Non­Pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty (which went into ef­fect in 1970 and came up for re­view in 1995) and the United States’ strug­gles to come to terms with its nu­clear poli­cies in a post-Cold War world.

Rhodes’ jump­ing-off point is the 1990s, when Mikhail Gor­bachev, the U.S.S.R.’s last gen­eral sec­re­tary, and Boris Yeltsin, Rus­sia’s first pres­i­dent, en­deav­ored to keep the for­mer Soviet Union’s arse­nal of atomic weapons un­der the con­trol of Rus­sia. The end of the Cold War also marked other coun­tries’ in­tent to gain or re­tain ac­cess to nu­clear weapons. While Rhodes dis­cusses the po­lit­i­cal and sci­en­tific cli­mates in coun­tries such as In­dia, Pak­istan, North Korea, Iran, and South Africa, it is Iraq and Sad­dam Hus­sein’s quest for weapons of mass de­struc­tion that are fea­tured most promi­nently.

In an en­gag­ing nar­ra­tive filled with his­tor­i­cal re­search, sci­en­tific de­tails, and first-per­son in­ter­views, Rhodes talks about Hus­sein’s quest to de­velop and main­tain WMDs. He de­scribes the te­dious strug­gles of Hans Blix and the In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency to keep U.N. sanc­tions in place in Iraq. The author de­scribes in de­tail the United States’ in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal strug­gles to de­velop any pol­icy, let alone a con­sis­tent one, to­ward Iraq and a re­li­able strat­egy for nu­clear dis­ar­ma­ment. The author points out that Dick Cheney, who was sec­re­tary of de­fense un­der the elder Pres­i­dent Bush, for in­stance, com­mented af­ter the first Gulf War that “it would have been a mis­take for us to get bogged down in the quag­mire in­side Iraq,” an opin­ion he con­ve­niently for­got as vice pres­i­dent un­der the younger Pres­i­dent Bush when push­ing for re­moval of Hus­sein from power. The well-known episode of the non-ex­is­tent WMDs (the IAEA in­spec­tions had worked) that led to the Iraq war — “a pro­found dis­as­ter,” Rhodes writes — is here aptly placed within the con­text of Ge­orge W. Bush’s per­sonal views as well as the broader Amer­i­can nu­clear diplo­macy.

No other sin­gle event shaped Amer­i­can nu­clear poli­cies more than the demise of the Soviet Union. As Rhodes ex­plains, Rus­sia and the United States un­der­stood that the two coun­tries’ nu­clear ar­se­nals had to re­main se­cure and si­mul­ta­ne­ously could be re­duced due to the geopo­lit­i­cal changes. Thus Rus­sia and the United States pressed for var­i­ous nu­clear-re­duc­tion treaties and the ex­ten­sion of the NPT (with­out sig­nif­i­cantly re­duc­ing their own nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties and op­tions).

Still, to re­tain one’s nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties seems to be a strong in­cite­ment among the self-pro­claimed “good” na­tions, de­spite the fact that nu­clear ar­se­nals are un­likely to be used in any war, as Rhodes fre­quently points out. The mes­sage to re­duce nu­clear ar­se­nals and the call to ab­stain from ac­quir­ing them was heard with dis­trust by na­tions who feel threat­ened by coun­tries such as the United States, Rus­sia, or Is­rael and want to at­tain nu­clear technology for pro­tec­tion (as well as for pres­tige or peace­ful use).

Rhodes’ in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the pol­i­tics and dangers of nu­clear technology is well writ­ten and metic­u­lously re­searched with avail­able sec­ondary sources. Based on this re­search, he con­cludes that nu­clear weapons are no longer nec­es­sary con­sid­er­ing that “the nu­clear threat was de­clin­ing in value” par­tially be­cause of newly de­vel­oped pre­ci­sion weapons. Iron­i­cally, some na­tions — the United States among them — find them­selves in a Catch 22 as they be­lieve in the ne­ces­sity of pos­sess­ing nu­clear weapons in or­der to ne­go­ti­ate the re­duc­tion of nu­clear ar­se­nals. Rhodes con­cludes that nu­clear weapons are kept un­der po­lit­i­cal fal­la­cies.

The po­lit­i­cal cast in this story is treated as ob­jec­tively as pos­si­ble con­sid­er­ing that the author be­lieves nu­clear weapons are a threat to peace. Not sur­pris­ingly, among those who hold on to the no­tion of nu­clear bombs as a de­ter­rent are some of the “usual sus­pects,” fore­most Cheney, Paul Wol­fowitz, and Ge­orge W. Bush. Bill Clin­ton also re­ceives his share of crit­i­cism, while the elder Bush is cred­ited with some fore­sight in re­duc­ing the nu­clear arse­nal. Some of the author’s tech­ni­cal dis­cus­sions are, at times, over the head of this re­viewer, but are nonethe­less fas­ci­nat­ing.

The author main­tains a pro­fes­sional tone through­out. In no­table con­trast, how­ever, the last chap­ter rep­re­sents some­what of a break from this tone in that the author of­fers hy­po­thet­i­cal sit­u­a­tions and out­comes should nu­clear weapons re­main. In the end, Rhodes leaves the reader with the hope that a com­mon sense of se­cu­rity will even­tu­ally keep the peace.

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