BOOK REVIEW: Facing the Reality of the Bomb

By Ward, Barclay | Arms Control Today, June 2009 | Go to article overview

BOOK REVIEW: Facing the Reality of the Bomb


Ward, Barclay, Arms Control Today


BOOK REVIEW: Facing the Reality of the Bomb Better Safe Than Sorry: The Ironies of Living with the Bomb By Michael Krepon Stanford University Press, 2009, 270 pp.

President Barack Obama's enlightened Statement April 5 in Prague on the future of nuclear weapons raised the possibility that we are at a turning point in our long life with the atomic bomb. What we do now will depend a great deal on how much we have learned over these years. One of the uniquely important aspects of Michael Krepon's excellent book is that, among other things, it is a book about learning and forgetting.

Paul Nitze exemplifies the many decades we have spent on the learning curve. As Krepon notes, Nitze gave us NSC-68, the 1950 policy document that called for a long-term military buildup as a major component of the containment policy directed against the Soviet bloc. As a member of the Committee on the Present Danger, he was most critical of President Jimmy Carter's arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union. In the end, however, Nitze came to favor abolition of nuclear weapons because he saw that a nuclear world is not in the national security interest of the United States. He was not alone, of course, as George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn have come to a similar conclusion in their well-known Wall Street Journal articles of 2007 and 2008.

Krepon reminds us that even before the nuclear age had gathered steam, Henry Stimson anticipated the dangers of a nuclear world and pushed for weapons controls. Our collective learning at that time lacked consensus and conviction. In 1946 the United States made a stab at trying to establish international control over nuclear energy through the Baruch Plan. The proposal called for a UN agency to oversee all development and use of nuclear energy. The United States would dispose of its stockpile and stop producing nuclear weapons, and there would be punishment that could not be thwarted by a Security Council veto for states that violated the plan's provisions. After the Soviets rejected the Baruch Plan, the United States and the world veered onto a different path.

Changes in thinking often have been propelled by specific, unsettling events. The 1949 Soviet test undoubtedly strengthened the hand of those who saw the need for large numbers of nuclear weapons, although a specific theory of deterrence was not publicly articulated until 1954. As our thinking evolved after the 1950s, our elaborate theorizing about nuclear doctrines became a type of intriguing parlor game, based not on experience but rather on an abstract, somewhat antiseptic logic that belonged more comfortably in the world of think tanks than in the real world. This is not a criticism because good and bright people did the best they could with imperfect knowledge, which always seemed to lead them to a strategy of "better safe than sorry." Consequently, this strategy led to the production of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons that, by luck, doctrinal design, and, in several instances, timely presidential restraint, have never been used.

The Cuban missile crisis in 1962 strengthened the hand of those who saw the value of moving in the direction of arms control. Even while the Cold War was beginning to melt in the second half of the 1980s and early 1990s, the United States and the Soviet Union were reaching some sweeping agreements. In particular, START I, which was signed in 1991, was the first treaty actually to reduce strategic weapons, and the 1987 IntermediateRange Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty eliminated an entire class of delivery vehicles. In the story Krepon tells of our life with nuclear weapons, it is fitting that success in concluding the INF Treaty was due in large measure to Nitze's role as negotiator in the early stage. So, at that point in time, we were learning the right lessons.

In 2001 the United States seemed to stop learning and to start forgetting. Much is often made of the impact of the September 11 attacks on our thinking, but it is good to keep in mind that the decisive shift away from arms control and nonproliferation started before September 11, 2001. …

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