Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Oct 9 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
This is the third volume in a history of nuclear weaponry that began with the award-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb, but despite its subtitle, this installment might also be described as a chronicle of the unmaking of the arms race. Paralleling the careers of Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, Rhodes builds up to a detailed account of the 1986 Reykjavik summit, at which the two leaders—both eager to achieve peace—nearly came to an agreement on eliminating their nuclear arsenals, before the accord, he says, was sabotaged by then-assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle. The insistence of Perle and other advisers that the U.S. required a strong deterrent against the Soviet Union is held up for particular contempt. There has never been a realistic military justification for accumulating large, expensive stockpiles of nuclear arms, Rhodes argues. Far from keeping America strong, decades of nuclear arms production have seriously eroded the nation's domestic infrastructure and diminished its citizens' quality of life, he believes. The clarity of the historical record reinforces Rhodes's fiercely held political convictions, ensuring widespread attention as he returns to this critically and commercially successful subject. (Oct. 11)
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Asked how U.S. leaders had framed America's nuclear-weapons policy, Robert McNamara spoke candidly: "Each individual decision along the way seemed rational at the time. But the result was insane." In this compelling sequel to The Making of the Atom Bomb (1986) and Dark Sun (1995), Rhodes details the historical circumstances that made each nuclear decision seem deceptively rational while exposing the overarching reality of horrific insanity. Readers thus see how American and Soviet experts invoked past experience with conventional weaponry to justify the stockpiling of nuclear bombs for use on a vast arsenal of missiles, each capable of annihilating entire cities. Such perilous illogic brought the world not security but rather near-calamity when a 1983 NATO exercise almost prompted a nuclear exchange. The illusions of nuclear strategists sustained an even ruder shock in 1986 when the Chernobyl meltdown spewed radioactive fallout across Europe. Still, hardliners on both sides would have perpetuated the arms race had a farm boy from Russia (Gorbachev) and a lifeguard from America (Reagan) not defied cold war orthodoxy when they met at Reykjavik. Conservatives may complain that Rhodes gives too little credit to Reagan, whose commitment to the Star Wars missile-defense system he blames for almost derailing disarmament talks. But Rhodes gives ample reason for praising Gorbachev as the daring leader an imperiled world needed. An insightful chronicle of epoch-shaping events. Christensen, BryceSee all Product Description
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Beginning with the accident at Chernobyl in 1986 and covering the history of both the United States and Russia as they became involved in their nuclear war dance throughout the latter part of the 20th century, Rhodes uses information demonstrating that the disinformation that we've seen within government recently to shape public opinion has been going on for the last 40 years (big surprise!) creating circumstances that allowed the arms race to escalate out of control. Rhodes begins with Chernobyl (later covering the history of detente and the roles of various presidents before Reagan and Gorbachov sat down to try and rid the world of nuclear arms)because the plant itself was designed to do dual duty as both a reactor and a source of plutonium for weapons. The accident changed Gorbachov's perspective on the destruction that could result from a nuclear device simply because the damage to the environment and human life from Chernobyl was life a small nuclear device going off. This opened the way for more open and honest discussion on how to reduce the world's nuclear arsenal.
Rhodes also provides a fair balanced look at various leaders, government officals and scientists who have shifted public policy for their own political ends and agendas. It's a fascinating and involving book that you'll have a hard time putting down. For example, he gives a brief biography for each of the major players to help reader's understand what motivated those involved in both escalating and easing the arms race.
He also documents what motivated Reagan to approach Gorbachov (who had already seen the damage that could be done), dispells the "myth" that Reagan brought the Soviet government to its knees by outspending them on defense(the economy of the Soviet giant was already in deep trouble)and discusses why Reagan became obsessed with "Star Wars" (or the SDI)sticking to his guns (pardon the pun)about developing the technology. With a deft analysis of Reagan's personality he points out that SDI and the concept of eliminating the threat of nuclear war truly began after the assassination attempt on the President. It caused him to have an epiphany abandoning the idea that nuclear war and the end of the world was something that couldn't be avoided.
The book concludes with a discussion about the fragmenting of the USSR into individual countries and the concerns that the Bush administration had about the safety of the nuclear devices overseas. Finally Rhodes starkly points out what the arms race truly has cost us as a society.
Rhodes who wrote the terrific "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" and "Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb" both of which documented the various attempts crack the atom and create the first atomic and, later, hydrogen bombs at Los Alamos, provides a fascinating glimpse into the politics, science and mindset that influence policy on the arms race. Both are exhaustive and authorative books that take us behind-the-scenes focusing on the politics within the science that nudged along the unleasing of the most destructive force on Earth and the destruction/creation of careers of those involved.
Be aware that at the end of the book Rhodes does put on his editorial hat and comments about the cost of the arms race to society and the individual. So while the book is pretty fair balanced at the end he states his opinions. You may or may not agree with him but either way his comments are thought provoking.
Don't be intimiated by the fact that this is a history book. It is as fascinating as any novel. Rhodes breezy style and thoughtful observations make "Arsenals of Folly" an essential book to undertstand the arms race and its impact on the post 9/11 world we live in today.
The book begins promisingly enough with a compelling account of the Chernobyl disaster, but then it becomes a repeat of various memoirs from various members of the Regan administration and Mikhail Gorbachev. Unlike the two previous book, Rhodes does not do a great job of synthesizing the information and presenting it as its own. This seems to be nothing more than reheated left overs.
The far more promising concept and what Rhodes fans were expecting was a history of the development of Nuclear Weapons, far more history on the SALT and START talks and the development of delivery vehicles. The background history of the poor state of the Soviet economy was very good and more attention should have been placed on it, but sadly that was focused on details of the Geneva meeting place.
All in all this was a tough read and for certain is the third of Richard Rhodes three books on the development of the nuclear arms race.
In this book which can be considered the third installment in his nuclear histories (a fourth and final one is also due), Rhodes takes a step further and covers the arms race from the 1950s onwards. He essentially proceeds where he left off, and discusses the maddening arms buildups of the 60s, 70s and 80s. One of the questions our future generations are going to ask is; why do we have such a monstrous legacy of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, enough to destroy the earth many times over? The answer cannot be deterrence because much fewer would have sufficed for that. How did we inherit this evil of our times?
Much of the book is devoted to answering this question, and the answer is complex. It involves a combination of paranoia generated by ignorance of what the other side was doing, but more importantly threat inflation engendered by hawks in government who used the Soviet threat as a political selling point in part to further their own aims and careers. It is also depressing to realise how in the 50s, when the Soviet atomic bomb programs were still relatively in their beginning stage and the US had already amassed an impressive fleet of weapons, opportunity was lost forever for negotiating peace and preventing the future nuclear arms debacle that we now are stuck with. Rhodes details a very interesting and disconcerting fact; every US president since Truman wanted to avoid nuclear war and was uncomfortable about nuclear weapons, yet every one of them had no qualms about increasing defense spending and encouraging the development of new and more powerful weapons. It was as if a perpetual motion wheel had been set in motion, oiled by paranoia and deep mistrust, not to mention the clever manipulation of ambitious Cold Warriors. In the 50s, hawks like Edward Teller influenced policy and exggerated the threat posed by the Soviets, when in fact Stalin never wanted any kind of war with the US.
Later, this role was taken up by people such as Paul Nitze who admittedly was the "father of threat inflation". His job and that of others was to exploit the uncertainty and fear and turn it into a potent force for justifying the arms race. Into the 60s and 70s, Nitze gathered around him a cohort of like-minded people who included today's neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld. They wrote reports that tried to argue against detente, and advocated further and more powerful arms buildups. In the middle of this politicking, it seems a wonder that presidents could negotiate treaties such as the anti-ballistic missile treaty and the NPT. Reading accounts of these people and their clever spin-doctoring and manipulation of the threat, one cannot help but feel a sense of deja vu, since it's largely the same people who inflated the threat of WMDs in the Bush administration, as well as much else. What can we say but that public memory is unfortunately short-lived. Reading Rhodes's accounts gives us a glimpse of the birth of today's neocons, who have wrought so much destruction and led the country down the wrong path. Rhodes deftly recounts the workings of key officials in both governments, and how they influenced policy and reacted to that of the other side. He also has concurrent accounts of economic and military developments in the Soviet Union, and how channeling of funds towards defense spending created major problems for the country's growth and development.
However, the major focus of Rhodes's book concerns the two principal characters of the endgame of the Cold War and their lives and times; Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Rhodes paints a sensitive and insightful portrait of Gorbachev, as a man who was a reformist since the very beginning when he was a minister of agriculture. Rising to high positions from humble and trying beginnings, Gorbachev realised early on the looming menace of the arms race and its impact on his country's development. He tried sensibly to negotiate with Reagan's administration to cut back on nuclear arms. He could be compassionate and sympathetic, but also a very good politician. Rhodes's portrait of Reagan is less favourable, and Reagan appears to be a complex man who harbored complex and sometimes puzzling ambitions. On one hand, he was a man who wanted to abolish nuclear weapons and end the threat of nuclear war. On the other hand, he was a naive idealist who sometimes thought of himself in messianic terms, thinking that God had a special role for him in the Cold War. Rhodes rightly compares some of Reagan's thinking to religious thinking. Reagan quite bizarrely encouraged tremendous defense spending (more than the earlier three presidents combined) and massive and dangerous weapons developments and military exercises. Rhodes's account of the NATO military exercise named Able Archer in 1983 which almost spurred the Soviets to ready a nuclear strike speaks volumes about Reagan's belligerent policies, particularly strange given his "other side", which eschewed nuclear conflict. An intelligent but not particularly intellectually sophisticated president, Reagan liked to hear about policy more in the form of stories than reports, and because of his relatively poor and unsophisticated background in issues of national security had to depend on his advisors for insight into these issues.
These advisors, especially Richard Perle and others, persuaded Reagan to stall negotiations with the Soviets, whose main insistence was that that he give up his dreams of SDI or "Star Wars", a costly space-based weapons system that was clearly going to engender more animosity and arms buildups. This system was not just threatening and unnecessary, but would not have even been technically effective. Again, one cannot help but think of the Bush administration's flawed insistence on missile defense systems. Reagan refused to back down on this central point in negotiations with the Soviets in Geneva and Iceland, mainly advised by Perle and others. Egged on by false hopes of security through SDI, he squandered important opportunities for arms reduction. In the pantheon of presidents trying to reduce Cold War nuclear threats and curtail weapons development, Reagan is surely the biggest offender. However, it is also not fair to blame him completely; clearly his hawkish advisors played a key role in policy making, even while his more moderate advisors struggled to find a way out of the madness. Ronald Reagan was a complex character, and a comment by Gorbachev, if perhaps a little too critical, accurately captures his personality; Gorbachev once said that he would love Reagan as a dacha neighbor, but not as president of the US.
In the end, it was largely inevitability that ended the Cold War. In this context, Rhodes also dispels some myths about it. One of them, cleverly used by conservatives these days, is that it was Reagan who was the principal instrument in ending the Cold War. Rhodes makes it clear that it was Gorbachev who was instrumental. Allied with this myth is another one, that the US drove the Soviet Union into the ground essentially by bankrupting them, as if that somehow almost points to a clever strategic decision by Reagan to increase his own arms spending to induce the Soviets to increase theirs. But this myth is also not true. The Soviet Union carried the seeds of its downfall inside itself since the beginning, and the fruits of those seeds were beginning to show since the 1970s. Gorbachev recognised this, and it was largely the economic situation in his country and his own actions and realisation of the inevitability of affairs that ended the Cold War. Reagan in fact may have slightly prolonged the Cold War, and he certainly made it more dangerous towards the end with his idealistic visions of more security through wondrous weapons building. He also made negotiations much more difficult by constantly casting Soviet-US relations under the rubric of good and evil, piety and godlessness, and by smooth talking rhetoric and debate. Robert McNamara has said that our immense nuclear legacy arose from actions, every one of which seemed rational at the time, but which ultimately led to an insane result. Ronald Reagan is perhaps the epitome of a US president who had his own remarkable but largely flawed internal rational logic for justifying enormous nuclear arms accumulation.
Throughout the book, Rhodes's trademark style shines through; meticulous research that envelops the reader, remarkable attention to detail and internal logic, a novelist's sense of character development and the retelling of key events,- such as his gripping account at the beginning of the book of the Chernobyl tragedy that exposed many of the Soviet Union's weaknesses and contradictions- cautious and yet revealing speculation, and narration that instills in the reader a rousing sense of history and human nature. He gives sometimes minute-by-minute accounts of the deliberations and meetings between Reagan and Gorbachev. As in his other books, he liberally sprinkles all accounts with extended quotes and conversations between key participants, thus giving the reader a sense of being present at key moments in history. I have to say that this book, while very good, is not as engaging as his first two books, but it nonetheless is solid history and storytelling, and a chronicle of one of the important periods of the century, a period that influences the world to this day.
I won't dispute that the number of nuclear missiles pointed at each other wasn't ridiculous. I won't dispute that a LOT of money and resources was wasted. I won't even dispute that American politicians are generally a sleazy lot. But I do dispute his characterizations of the Soviet leaders as peaceful and merely reacting to threats and provocations by the Americans.
A few other points Rhodes makes which I dispute:
- He blames the Reagan Administration for the tragedy when the Soviets shot down a Korean air liner with 260 passengers!
- He describes the American bombers in the 50s as a superior delivery system to that of the Soviets missiles, ignoring the fact that nuclear missiles would arrive in a matter of minutes whereas bombers would take hours to deliver their payload (never mind that bombers could be shot down).
- Gorbachev comes off as a peaceful genius with an agricultural background, whereas Reagan is a dim-witted religious fanatic. He mocks Reagan's surprise that the Soviets thought his rhetoric was serious (while calling Soviet leaders "candid"), and his hopes for SDI. He says Reagan did nothing to contribute to the fall of the Soviet Union - it was either happening on it's own or because of prior US persecution.
- He infers that Soviet intervention in countries that fell to communism was merely aiding well-meaning and like-minded people, whereas Americans were being "interventionist."
- Many of his quotes and citations are from people who were low level or outsiders, including many journalists and even an American defector. Quotes are selective and do not give a balanced perspective.
I found his discussion at the beginning of Soviet history fascinating. But his discussions of the United States were so one-sided and seemingly agenda driven as to ruin all credibility. He continually vilifies everything the Americans did, while painting the Soviets as unwillingly caught up in the arms race. I've heard great things about prior books by Rhodes, but this one has so soured me that I'm not sure I'll bother. I finally gave up about 3/4 through - what a waste of time. (I listened to the audiobook and the reader was fine, although he read with such a monotone voice that it certainly didn't help to make the material any more interesting).