Rhodes: Arsenals of Folly

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Richard Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly : The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race. New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. 386 pages, with notes, bibliography, and index; 24 pages of black and white photographs.

To those of us who lived through the cold-war arms race between the US and the USSR, there was always the question: "Why?" We heard politicians and experts talk about Mutual-Assured Destruction, which they presented as though it were a provable theory, and other excuses, but the only word that ever described it was "folly", the same "folly" Richard Rhodes uses in the title of his book.

And like the rest of us, Rhodes wondered how that looking-glass situation with its abundant, unusable nuclear arsenals could ever come to pass.

I asked McNamara, who has come to believe that nuclear weapons should be abolished, why the United States built so many more than it realistically needed during the Cold War. "Each individual decision along the way seemed rational at the time," he told me. "But the result was insane." His explanation echoed something he wrote in 1986, that "each of the decisions, taken by itself, appeared rational or inescapable. but the fact is that they were make without reference to any overall master plan or long-term objective. They have led to nuclear arsenals and nuclear war plans that few of the participants either anticipated or would, in retrospect, wish to support." [p. 99]

To me the book seemed like the last episode of an epic trilogy about the US and nuclear weapons in the twentieth century; the first two were The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Star, which covered the making of the hydrogen, or thermonuclear, bomb.

Arsenals of Folly is written with the same passion, the same dramatic tension, and the same exhaustive research as the other two books. Fact after fact made it clear that the path of nuclear proliferation led only to inexplicable and inconsistent behaviors driven, not by objective planning, but fantasies and nightmares.

So much confusion, so much paranoia, so many good intentions, so much hard work, technical genius, cynicism, manipulation, buckpassing, buckpocketing, argument, grandstanding, risk-taking, calculation, theorizing, goodwill and bad, rhetoric and hypocrisy, so much desperation, all points to something intractable behind the problem of how to deploy sufficient and appropriate nuclear arms to protect one's nation from a nuclear-armed opponent. There was such a beast. It was quite simply the fundamental physical fact of nuclear energy: that such energy is relatively cheap to generate and essentially illimitable. Nuclear warheads cost the United States about $250,000 each: less than a fighter-bomber, less than a missile, less than a patrol boat, less than a tank. Each one can destroy a city and kill hundreds of thousands of people. "You can't have this kind of war," Eisenhower concluded. "There just aren't enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets." It followed, and follows, that there is no military solution to safety in the nuclear age: There are only political solutions. As the Danish physicist and philosopher Niels Bohr summarized the dilemma succinctly for a friend in 1948, "We are in an entirely new situation that cannot be resolved by war." The impossibility of resolving militarily the new situation that knowledge of how to release nuclear energy imposes on the world is the reason the efforts on both sides look so desperate and irrational: They are built on what philosophy calls a category mistake, an assumption that nuclear explosives are military weapons in any meaningful sense of the term, and that a sufficient quantity of such weapons can make us secure. They are not, and they cannot. [p. 101]
The activist-scholar Richard J. Barnet, approaching the question [of causes of the nuclear arms race] from another angle, notes that although the United States "came out of World War II the most powerful nation on earth—perhaps, briefly, the paramount nation of all time—it has not won a decisive military victory since 1945 despite the trillions spent on the military and the frequent engagement of its military forces." What the United States got instead of victory, Barnet writs, was a national security state with a permanent war economy maintained by a military-industrial complex—much like the Soviet Union in those departments, but with a far greater reserve of resources to squander. "The national security state structures could not accomplish their task unless the American people were socialized to accept the idea that the only peace possible is a form of permanent war....A threat of one sort or another to justify the continuous flow of resources to the military was now a fixture of American life."

Threat inflation, as I hope I have shown, was crucial to maintaining the defense budgets of the Cold War. The practice was carried to its extreme by Ronald Reagan, who with neoconservative coaching actually claimed that the U.S. nuclear arsenal was dangerously inferior to the Soviet arsenal, vulnerable to the first strike that Dobrynin reports was never a part of Soviet planning—and inflated his defense budgets accordingly. In words published in 1985 that describe the post-2000 George W. Bush years as well as the years of the Cold War, Barnet adds, "It is one of history's great ironies that at the very moment when the United States had a monopoly of nuclear weapons, possessed most of the world's gold, produced half the world's goods on its own territory, and laid down the rules for allies and adversaries alike, it was afraid." Fear was part of the program, the psychological response to threat inflation that delivered reliable votes. How did we come to such a pass? I was raised to believe that American were a courageous people Weren't you? [p. 298]

Rhodes frames the drama by having his scholarly camera keep a close eye on Mikhail Gorbachev, whose life and political career is contemporary with the arms race, and who was central to efforts to negotiate the elimination of nuclear arms with the US, largely during the Reagan administration. Gorbachev and Rhodes both showed their frustration with a president so enamored of his own unrealizable dreams of a "missile-defense shield" that he scuttled a chance to eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth – backed, of course, by a chorus of hawkish neo-cons whose motive force was a professional mistrust of anyone Russian. Their ideas about what we should or could do to guarantee our national security had little to do with reality.

How much we have believed in magic in space, on earth, and under the sea is measured by a little-known story told in hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee in late April 1986. Looking for arguments to defeat congressional endorsement of the Nuclear Freeze movement then rallying millions of citizens in the United States and Europe, the Department of Energy produced a report of past problems with U.S. nuclear warheads. The point of the report was to justify nuclear testing. In pursuit of that point, it revealed that "at times in the past, the warheads for a large part of the U.S. Fleet Ballistic Missile force [i.e., ballistic missile submarines] have been found to be badly deteriorated. At different times, a large fraction of the warheads either obviously or potentially would not work; they were obvious or potential duds." And not only were U.S. nuclear submarines patrolling the seas across the years of the Cold War with dud warheads on their missiles. At various times, there were duds among Minutemen ICBM warheads ("In late 1963 the AEC had to rebuild all the W56 warheads of the Minuteman ICBM force") and W45 warheads used in the Army's Little John tactical missile, the Navy's Terrier surface-to-air missile and the Marines' atomic demolition munition. In other words, at various times throughout the Cold War we were naked to our enemies. No doubt the Soviets had such troubles as well. Yet both sides plowed on, following the blind, plodding oxen of mutual belligerence, believing ourselves to be protected. Magic indeed: a house of cards, with all our lives at risk. [pp. 300—301]

Questions remain; questions will always remain. But Rhodes has told an engaging, coherent, and illuminating story, bolstered with an unrivaled (and useful) depth of documentation and original research, that charts a clear course through the historical facts even if the meaning of it all is still somewhat murkey.

-- Notes by JNS

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