Secrecy News

The Twilight of the Bombs

In “The Twilight of the Bombs,” the fourth and final volume of his epic history of the nuclear era, author Richard Rhodes examines “how the dangerous post-Cold War transition was managed, who its heroes were, what we learned from it, and where it carried us.”

Covering the years 1990-2010, from the collapse of the Soviet Union onward, much of the latest history is familiar.  But by focusing on nuclear weapons development, proliferation and testing, Rhodes fashions his own narrative arc, enriched by new interviews and insights.

In the end, he sees a hopeful trajectory of “nuclear limitation and foreclosure:  from Mikhail Gorbachev’s and Ronald Reagan’s initiatives to end the Cold War, to the voluntary disarming of the former Soviet republics and the security of nuclear materials, to the U.S. and Russia’s deepening mutual arms reduction, to the up-and-down negotiations with North Korea that have nevertheless prevented another Korean war, to international diplomatic pressure brought to bear effectively on India and Pakistan, to the persistent march forward of negotiations toward treaties to limit nuclear testing and proliferation.”  (However, Rhodes does not specifically address the case of Iran’s nuclear program, as noted by Tim Rutten in an August 18 review in the Los Angeles Times.)

In the concluding pages of the book, Rhodes posits an analogy between previous campaigns to eradicate or limit disease and current efforts to abolish nuclear weapons, which he deems both necessary and feasible.  “In 1999, for the first time in human history, infectious diseases no longer ranked first among causes of death worldwide” thanks to the discipline of public health.  In a similarly efficacious way, he says, the ingredients of the analogous discipline of public safety against nuclear weapons “have already begun to assemble themselves: materials control and accounting, cooperative threat reduction, security guarantees, agreements and treaties, surveillance and inspection, sanctions, forceful disarming if all else fails.”

“The Twilight of the Bombs” cannot match Rhodes’ first volume on “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” for sheer mythological power, but it is fluidly and eloquently written.  The author’s prose ranges widely, sometimes vertiginously:  In the book’s Index, Scott Ritter comes right after Rainer Maria Rilke, the Ayatollah Khomeini is just above Nicole Kidman, and Sig Hecker of Los Alamos is separated from Jesse Helms by G.W.F. Hegel.

Mr. Rhodes (who I should say has been a consistent supporter of Secrecy News) ends the book with Acknowledgments, including a valentine to his wife:  “She, not thermonuclear fusion, makes the sun shine.”