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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Twilight of the Bombs’

- The Washington Times - Friday, October 1, 2010

By Richard Rhodes
Knopf, $27.95, 303 pages

Richard Rhodes is the most durable and experienced chronicler of the history of nuclear weaponry, from the birth of the A-bomb at Los Alamos, N.M., to the efforts over the years to reduce the

risk of nuclear annihilation and place international curbs on proliferation. In this book, he reviews the chronology of attempts at nuclear arms control, a long, halting, ambiguous effort. Mr. Rhodes does this by a combination of sequential narration and sidebars of interesting anecdotes, including a fascinating account of the coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

One gets a clear, if lengthy, summary of the conferences, initiatives and frustrations inherent in efforts to limit proliferation, peppered with informative and even colorful vignettes and personalities. The book is authoritative but not dry. It conveys convincingly the monumental task of attempting to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle. Mr. Rhodes combines the scholar and the reporter impressively.

"As long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will seek them." This is the axiom of proliferation. Why? "Deliverable nuclear weapons equalize the capacity of smaller powers to do unacceptable harm even to superpowers ... which is why superpowers have, or ought to have, a fundamental security interest in eliminating nuclear weapons from the arsenals of the world." This is the axiom of international nuclear arms control.

Basically, all governments want to curb everyone else's programs to enrich uranium, as well as build nuclear arsenals. Non-nuclear powers often want to earn respect through nuclear capability, or to build weapons to deter mortal enemies, while established nuclear powers want to keep the club as small as possible. Some leaders are willing to assume a degree of political risk by taking the lead toward reduction of weapons, while most military and legislative leaders, at least in the United States, fear the risk of appearing soft on defense more than they fear a plenitude of nuclear weaponry, and nearly all nuclear powers would want to keep some minimum number of weapons for deterrence.

Apart from nuclear weapons themselves, a major concern is that implementing programs to develop nuclear generation of electric power is a short step from enrichment to weapons-grade material. This has produced a sharp duality between responsible governments and unstable regimes. Iran's stated purpose to produce nuclear-generated electric power has emerged as the outstanding example of this dilemma, sharply presenting the question whether military action to destroy another country's nuclear facilities is likely or necessary, and at what point.

Most U.S. presidents since World War II have sought to encourage the reduction of nuclear weapons by agreement with Moscow. Mr. Rhodes describes the considerable progress in reducing nuclear weapons inventories and missile launch facilities, though the power to destroy each other many times over still exists. Upon the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia achieved the transfer of weapons from the sister Soviet republics to Russia, a major step toward stability. Brazil, Argentina and South Africa, after starting down the route to nuclear weapons capability, turned away from it.

Far from gaining respect and security through nuclear weapons programs, the case is often made that weapons capability tempts pre-emptive nuclear attack from long-standing enemies. The Pakistani-Indian and Israeli-Iranian confrontations are the most prominent cases of this risk, fueled by long hatred, touchy nationalism and crises in relations. North Korea has been the subject of many deals seeking stability, all short-lived and bringing control efforts back to the starting point. Former President Jimmy Carter's recent intervention to jump-start a new approach to North Korea has brought the matter to the fore once more. North Korea's capability to destroy nearby Seoul by artillery fire has all but eliminated the use of military force to suppress the North Korean nuclear program.

Mr. Rhodes seems hopeful that nuclear disarmament will make progress, while acknowledging that as long as any country has nuclear weapons or weapons capability other countries will want them. While the International Atomic Energy Agency has done good work at the margins, it seems that international control of nuclear weapons and weapons capability is not going to assume broader authority, so we will continue to see the exaggerated power of the least stable players in the nuclear sandbox, and the continuing complex puzzle that J. Robert Oppenheimer put arrestingly: "It has made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country."

David C. Acheson is a retired lawyer and foreign policy analyst in Washington.

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