Saturday, September 17, 2011

Book Review: Twilight of the Bombs by Richard Rhodes

The career of author Richard Rhodes spans over four decades of history as well as subject matter ranging from early articles on dogs and horses for publications such as Harper's and Esquire to a handful of novels since 1973. Rhodes photo However, he has made his most important mark in nonfiction (or "verity," a term he prefers), with an impressive bibliography on the subject of nuclear bombs.

The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons, published first in 2010 and released this month by Vintage Books in a trade paper edition, is his latest treasure of information and anecdotes that mark the landscape of international politics and nuclear history in the post-Cold War era.  It is a book of remarkable depth, unbiased in its presentation, and powerfully logical in its conclusions.

Daisy Girl in 1964 adChildren of the Cold War will easily recall the heated debates as well as the horrific nightmares dramatically expressed in the political arena, dating back to such television campaign ads as the one by Lyndon Baines Johnson, the "Daisy Girl" ad, in his successful 1964 bid for the White House against Arizona senator, and noted conservative idealogue, Barry Goldwater.  

Fear haunted the generation of American children born in that era as they became aware of their vulnerability to nuclear attacks by America's ideological foes.  A measure of false comfort was attempted upon children against the Bomb drills in public schoolshopelessness and fear of a real attack.  In public schools, students were required to participate in atomic bomb drills using a "duck and cover" defense, sometimes evoking increased fear, rather than a feeling of security.  

Though the public's understanding of the power of nuclear bombs was severely lacking, it was nonetheless only a modest picture of the horror that would be visited upon Americans in the event of a real attack upon the country. Until the 1990s when the Cold War ended, the subject of nuclear arms was debated during political contests, citing mind-numbing facts and figures, to the point of Americans being lulled asleep regarding the potential of mass destruction.  It was a state of sleep from which they would not awaken until September 11, 2001, when their vulnerability was exposed, for real this time, in the tragic events in New York, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon in Washington D.C.

One of the dangerous by-products of this era of terrorism is that it causes politicians and their advisors to take their eyes off the ball in the nuclear arena. Rhodes describes this very reality during the George W. Bush administration, consumed by a war on terrorism and an eerily personal vendetta against Iraq and Saddam Hussein, in which careless rhetoric and threats against bomb-holding states such as North Korea were preferred to diplomacy and negotiations with regard to nuclear arms reductions.  

Though the Cold War has ended, Rhodes says there are still over 20,000 warheads held between the two nuclear states of Russia and the United States, about 96% of the world's total inventory.  Other countries known to be holding nuclear weapons are France, China, Britain, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea.

Another alarming statistic the author presents is that over $50 billion is required annually by the United States simply to maintain its nuclear arsenal.  This budget, as Rhodes emphasizes, exceeds all anticipated expenditures on international diplomacy and foreign assistance, which is approximately $39.5 billion.  He says, "It is nearly double the budget for general science, space and technology." The costs are more than economic.  Maintenance of nuclear weaponry and resources, which experts believe will never be used, are also siphoning off the dollars which could be invested in the expansion of technologies in fields such as medical, agricultural, and environmental.

The Twilight of the Bombs is a highly detailed account of the post-Cold War dilemma, "What do we do now?"  It is heavy reading, though eloquent.  At points, it is inspiring.  The influence of such statesmen as Senator Sam Nunn (Ga.) and President Jimmy Carter cannot be overstated.  Rhodes, though unbiased, does not fall short in giving credit where credit is due.  It is a book that will be appreciated most by those who are familiar with the nuclear issues and international politics.  Though Rhodes' background is that of a writer and journalist, his 30 years of writing on this technical subject gives him nothing less than expert qualifications.  His access to primary sources, the specific players, and the politicians gives the book extraordinary depth and credibility.  

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