The Twilight of the Bombs
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.