Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race
By Richard Rhodes
Alfred A. Knopf, 2007
Richard Rhodes is perhaps the foremost nuclear historian of our time. His past two books (among many others on extremely varied subjects) on the making of the atomic and hydrogen bombs are landmark historical studies. But as readers of those books would know, they were much more than nuclear histories. They were riveting epic chronicles of war and peace, science and politics in the twentieth century and human nature. In both books, Rhodes discussed in detail other issues, such as the Soviet bomb effort and Soviet espionage in the US.
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.