Book is vivid, timely re­minder of dan­gers of nu­clear war

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Read - BY JEFF ROWE

While we’re fret­ting about global warm­ing, “The Bomb” gives us an even greater worry: nu­clear war that would ren­der much of the Earth a smol­der­ing, ra­dioac­tive waste­land lit­tered with hun­dreds of mil­lions of bod­ies and chill­ing, as a cloud cover of dust and de­bris blocks sun­light for years.

Mil­lions would re­quire med­i­cal care that would be un­avail­able; the liv­ing would envy the dead.

And yet for seven decades now, as Kaplan re­lates, that cer­tainty of doomsday in a nu­clear war has not been enough to get the United States, Rus­sia and other nu­clear pow­ers to aban­don the weapons, in part be­cause do­ing so is freighted with its own dan­ger. What if an ad­ver­sary launches a bi­o­log­i­cal or cy­ber­at­tack on the United States? The gen­er­als want a nu­clear op­tion to counter that.

Pres­i­dents have threat­ened un­ruly na­tions with nu­clear at­tacks, some­times to darkly comic ends. In Kaplan’s telling, Sec­re­tary of State Henry Kissinger tried to con­vince North Viet­namese ne­go­tia­tors that Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon was a mad­man and might or­der a nu­clear strike if the North Viet­namese would not agree to a rea­son­able plan to end the war.

The North Viet­namese shrugged.

And that “big but­ton” on his desk that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump threat­ened to push if the North Kore­ans mis­be­have? Amer­i­can mil­i­tary gen­er­als ac­tu­ally wield im­mense power in de­ter­min­ing how many nu­clear weapons the U.S. pos­sesses and where they will be de­ployed.

Pres­i­dent af­ter pres­i­dent, Kaplan writes, ap­palled by the size, num­ber and pro­jected ca­su­al­ties in a nu­clear war, have tried to re­duce the ar­se­nals. Ev­ery time, the gen­er­als thwarted po­lit­i­cal ef­forts to re­duce nu­clear weapons un­til Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan asked Mikhail Gor­bachev if the Soviet Union would help the United States if aliens from an­other world at­tacked. Yes, Gor­bachev said. That changed the dy­namic be­tween the two men and real progress was made in re­duc­ing nu­clear arms.

But as Kaplan dis­tress­ingly notes, U.S. use of nu­clear weapons piv­ots on guess­ing what the Rus­sians might do in any given sce­nario.

The book is rich in de­tail, per­haps too much so – ac­counts of con­ver­sa­tions decades ago oc­ca­sion­ally bog down a metic­u­lous and fright­en­ing ren­der­ing of how the United States and Rus­sia re­main on alert to launch enough nu­clear weapons to make global warm­ing seem like a mi­nor an­noy­ance.

Kaplan’s book par­al­lels Daniel Ells­berg’s ex­cel­lent 2017 book, “The Doomsday Ma­chine: Con­fes­sions of a Nu­clear War Plan­ner,” and Ells­berg emerges sev­eral times in Kaplan’s book, con­cerned from his early days as a re­searcher that any nu­clear ex­change would es­ca­late quickly into an all-out launch of both sides’ nu­clear ar­se­nals.

Ells­berg and Kaplan emerge deeply fear­ful that the world can for­ever es­cape a nu­clear war.

The Bomb: Pres­i­dents, Gen­er­als, and the Se­cret His­tory of Nu­clear War

By Fred Kaplan, Si­mon & Schus­ter, 377 pages, $30

Si­mon & Schus­ter via AP

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