A few weeks before my 10th birthday, the president of the United States made a special appearance on prime-time television to advise us that we might have only days, perhaps even hours, to live. The date was Oct. 22, 1962, five days after the CIA's National Photographic Intelligence Center identified Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles being readied for deployment in Cuba. The nightmare scenario our class had drilled for, "duck and cover"-style, had arrived. Sleepless nights bled into surreal days, the faces of parents and teachers endlessly scanned for clues about what might be coming and when.
If you were raised between 1949 and 1991, odds are you grew up resigned to the grim prospect of a nuclear exchange between the superpowers. For many, that marrow-deep fear of imminent, searing annihilation remains palpable to this day. With his new book Twilight of the Bombs, Richard Rhodes brings his now-familiar meticulous research and insight to bear on those fears, which turn out to be far more justified than we knew. It seems that not only have we been toes-over-the-abyss more often than anyone cared to admit since that terrifying autumn of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but in the wake of the Cold War, the danger has not only failed to abate, it may actually have increased.
As President Barack Obama observed in a 2009 speech, "In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up."
More than 30 years ago, Richard Rhodes set out to write the history of the nuclear age. His richly detailed, Pulitzer Prize-winning 1986 volume The Making of the Atomic Bomb was followed by Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (1995) and Arsenals of Folly (2007), which showed the massive stockpiling of nuclear weapons on both sides from the 1960s through the 1980s.
Twilight of the Bombs picks up the tale toward the end of the Cold War. (An early anecdote recalls a phone chat between Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush on Dec. 25, 1991, during which Gorbachev announced that he'd just dissolved the Soviet Union. After wishing the president and his wife a Merry Christmas, Gorbachev added that they could "have a very quiet evening.")
Rhodes outlines the chaos of trying to secure thousands of ready-to-launch weapons scattered across the 11 time zones that make up the vast former Soviet empire. The United States was heavily involved with their former adversaries during this critical period, right down to the mundane details of protecting weapons in transit from small-arms fire. As Rhodes dryly observes, "The need for Kevlar blankets to shield Russian nuclear weapons from the potshots of disgruntled citizens underscores the former Soviet Union's economic collapse in the first year after its breakup."
The two decades that followed the end of the Cold War (a moment Francis Fukuyama famously, if prematurely, called "the end of history") continued the stop-start process of winding down the former adversaries' hair-trigger nuclear alert systems, although the number of potentially calamitous false alarms continued and even increased, including at least one instance in which an inebriated Boris Yeltsin had mere moments to decide whether to launch a counterattack. (He deferred it.)
The era also triggered a frightening increase in the number of nations either seeking or acquiring nuclear weapons. Rhodes takes us through the machinations of the governments of Pakistan, South Africa, North Korea, Iraq and Iran to fill their warehouses with the sort of doomsday instruments the author clearly demonstrates were rendered obsolete more than six decades ago with their first and only use.
Of particular interest are the chapters on Saddam Hussein's dealings with UN weapons inspectors following the first Gulf War. Rhodes details miscalculations on both sides before revealing a previously little-known though critical motive for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a response to a threat dire enough to make vice-president Dick Cheney take extended refuge in that famous "undisclosed location" (actually a nuclear bunker buried deep in the bedrock near Camp David) while the president pushed secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld for an invasion plan, certain that WMDs were not only in Saddam's arsenal, but were about to be deployed against U.S. citizens on their home soil. (Being no fan of spoilers, I won't disclose the triggering event here, other than to report that as a threat this one was vastly overblown, though as scoops go, it's a doozy.)
I had occasion to interview Rhodes in 2004 for a film that traced the development of the hydrogen bomb. At the time, he had yet to begin work on this volume, but both the logic and the passion that would lead to this globe-spanning, beautifully rendered tale of human brilliance, stupidity and endurance were already there. Rhodes believed then that the time for the existence of nuclear weapons as instruments of policy was long past, the potential danger of nuclear terrorism simply too great. As he now observes in Twilight of the Bombs, the only nation to have used nuclear weapons in anger has demonstrated its willingness to lose wars (Vietnam) rather than deploy them again, paralleling the decision the Soviet Union reached in Afghanistan. Rhodes concludes the book with a clear-eyed yet optimistic road map that must eventually lead to the end of the nuclear era.
Despite the best efforts of countries like North Korea and Iran, the final act appears to be as inevitable as it is necessary, although the timing will depend on the willingness of leaders everywhere to recognize the obvious. As Rhodes observes, "Nuclear weapons, never weapons of warfare except in the grandiose imaginations of air-power fantasists, have reverted to their original function: They are terror weapons."
He then asks the only logical follow-up: "Are we terrorists?"
Author and filmmaker Michael Lennick's most recent book is Launch Vehicles. In 2005, he wrote and directed the PBS documentary Dr. Teller's Very Large Bomb.