THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

At our peril

In the latest installment of his series on nuclear history, Pulitzer-winning historian sees stark choices — and hope — ahead

(Daniel Hertzberg)
By David M. Shribman
Globe Correspondent / August 29, 2010

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The great unrecognized global triumph of modern times is that the history of nuclear war ordinarily consists of two tragedy-laden episodes (one about Hiroshima, the other about Nagasaki) and one great sigh of relief (the Cuban missile crisis). But Richard Rhodes, a Pulitzer-winning historian, has made a career since 1979 of writing about how the bomb was built, refined, and delivered and how atomic war was conceived, conducted, and avoided.

In an age when the phrase “weapons of mass destruction’’ tumbles easily off the lips, we can only hope that “The Twilight of the Bombs,’’ Rhodes’s survey of nuclear history, will be the last volume in his four-part series. Indeed, if the world listens, it might be.

The thesis of Rhodes’s latest nuclear narrative is both simple (nuclear war is dumb) and subtle (the big nuclear powers have preferred stalemate or defeat, in Vietnam and Afghanistan, to using the most lethal arms in their arsenals). “Is there,’’ he asks in the question that explains everything, “better evidence of the military uselessness of nuclear weapons than six decades of futility?’’

“The Twilight of the Bombs’’ is no manifesto, but Rhodes leads us slowly to the conclusion that nuclear disarmament, or at the very least wholesale destruction of nuclear arms, is the happy union of moral and military wisdom. He believes that within a generation or so, such weapons will be outlawed. “In time, possession of a nuclear weapon will be judged a crime against humanity,’’ he says. “Such a judgment would only codify what is already an evident fact.’’

Thus his title is both fact and wish. And this book, his 23d, explores the much-ignored terrain of wars that didn’t happen and crises that didn’t erupt along with comprehensive looks at the events that mark contemporary history. Here is perhaps the most approachable look at Iraq’s nuclear effort, a riveting account of the whereabouts of the Russian nuclear-weapons activization apparatus during the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, and a detailed examination of Sam Nunn’s crusade to account for the nearly 1,500 metric tons of nuclear materials and weapons of the former Soviet Union in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union had huge political and cultural effects, but its nuclear implications are, even now, vastly unacknowledged. Chief among them is the idea that, as Rhodes put it, “nuclear weapons, which men and nations had sworn were guardians of their survival during the Cold War, depleted to commodities in its aftermath.’’

The quiet, unacknowledged work of those who were determined to account for weapons materials and to search out the scrap, waste ponds, and dumps of the nuclear age got the world through a dangerous period when it was not unreasonable to worry about “the notion of a former Soviet Union armed with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons collapsing into ruin and civil war.’’ This period was all the more perilous because of the conviction, in the press and among national leaders around the world, that the greatest moment of superpower peril had passed.

But Rhodes shows how Russia, surrounded by potential enemies and facing internal rebellions in places like Chechnya, actually had an incentive to advance this work.

The Soviet Union had been a tyranny where the threat of insider nuclear theft was inconceivable. Suddenly its successor states were full of elements that might pull that off, perhaps at great profit. The result was the Russians’ willingness, even eagerness, to sell blended-down Soviet warhead residue as fuel for American reactors — one of the great, unheralded achievements of diplomacy and delicate attention to national sensibilities that, until now, remained a largely untold story. It is also perhaps history’s most significant triumph of capitalism.

The world became safer and, suddenly, nations like Brazil and Argentina abandoned their nuclear-weapons programs, France and China lined up behind nonproliferation efforts, and South Africa disarmed — the product both of the new nuclear logic and of the realpolitik calculation that if the nation possessed nuclear arms, those weapons very likely would fall into black African hands once apartheid ended.

Make no mistake, however — nuclear fears remain, and they are not irrational in a world of international terrorism. But Rhodes sees many reasons for hope. He argues that no nuclear weapons have been stolen since the advent of nuclear war in 1945, and he points out that the remaining American and Russian arms have complex security mechanisms that very likely cannot be overcome by saboteurs or thieves.

Eventually, Rhodes believes, terrorist threats — among other factors — will lead the nuclear nations to understand that strict control of plutonium and highly enriched uranium is essential, and that nuclear disarmament is logical. “The world,’’ he says, “faces a stark choice: eliminate nuclear weapons and secure their fissile explosives or expect them to be used.’’

This combination of utopianism and uranium realism is what separates Rhodes’s book from others in this genre. His volume may be amply stuffed with charts and diagrams but remains engaging and comprehensible to the lay reader. Indeed, in an unusual alchemy of physics and politics, Rhodes explains both the science and the culture of the nuclear age. He does so with the wisdom of the historian and the morality of the ages.

David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.

THE TWILIGHT OF THE BOMBS: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons
By Richard Rhodes
Knopf, 384 pp., illustrated, $27.95