How the arms race came to an end

Review History

October 21, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,[Special to The Sun]

Arsenals of Folly

The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race

By Richard Rhodes

Alfred A. Knopf / 400 pages / $28.95

In the mid-1950s, Winston Churchill advised Americans that if they continued the nuclear arms race "all you are going to do is make the rubble bounce." With 1,756 nuclear weapons in its stockpile, the United States had the capacity to detonate 192,000 Hiroshimas. Assuming a "greater-than-expected threat" from the Soviet Union, the Pentagon increased its arsenal to 18,638 bombs and warheads (1.4 million Hiroshimas) in 1960. "We are piling up these armaments," Dwight D. Eisenhower acknowledged, "because we do not know what else to do to provide for our security."

Throughout the '50s, the Soviets played catch-up. Without bomber bases in striking distance of the continental United States, the Kremlin focused first on intermediate-range missiles aimed at Europe and then authorized the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. When John F. Kennedy and Nikita S. Khrushchev faced off over Cuba in 1963, the Soviets had 270 nuclear weapons capable of reaching American cities.

In Arsenals of Folly, Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, provides an absorbing account of the arms race. For almost a half-century, Rhodes argues, leaders of the superpowers were "apes on a treadmill," marching belligerently in no particular direction - except perhaps toward oblivion. This theme is a commonplace in chronicles of the Cold War. But Rhodes sheds new light on these "incoherent" policies with a suspenseful narrative of the 1986 summit meeting at Reykjavik, Iceland, between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev - and the Machiavellian machinations of American neoconservatives attempting to scuttle a historic arms reduction treaty.

"Leaders who make history are often provincials," Rhodes writes. They're willing to try approaches the professionals consider naive. The president and the premier were "country boys, a state park lifeguard and a champion harvester." Each possessed the maturity, motivation and self-confidence to take risks. But Gorbachev is the hero of Arsenals of Folly. Shaken by the meltdown at Chernobyl, and determined to introduce perestroika and glasnost to the Soviet Union, Gorbachev believed that by feeding the arms race, "deterrence" threatened to destroy what it was supposed to protect. While Reagan clung to an "adversarial, zero-sum `realism,'" Gorbachev advocated "common security." At Reykjavik he proposed a 50 percent reduction in strategic forces; the elimination of intermediate nuclear weapons from Europe; and a decrease of Soviet warheads in Asia to 100. Gorbachev insisted that in return the United States limit its "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative to laboratory research for 10 years.

Gorbachev's proposal appealed to Reagan's passion for nuclear abolition. But the president - whose beliefs dictated the "facts" he embraced - was equally passionate about a shield that would provide total security against "these horrible offensive weapons." At Reykjavik, Rhodes reveals, Reagan's advisers, led by Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, used SDI to convince the president to "resist new agreements." A "Bach at his harpsichord," Perle had persuaded the president to ignore the SALT II agreement. He was the author of the so-called "zero option," a "phony proposal" (that looked good on paper) to reduce all ballistic missiles - but retain bombers and sea-launched and ground-launched cruise missiles. As Gorbachev paced in an upstairs room, Reagan asked Perle if SDI research could be carried out under the constraints the Soviets had proposed. Perle said no. He had, Rhodes writes, encouraged the president "to hang a potentially world-transforming breakthrough on a special concern for testing outside the `laboratory' systems that had hardly even entered the laboratory."

Rhodes may give Perle too much credit for blocking agreement to Gorbachev's grand bargain. After all, Reagan believed that SDI "was his idea and his alone." The one-time lifeguard, whom John W. Hinckley Jr. had almost assassinated, believed that he had been spared to save the world from the scourge of nuclear weapons. Following a post-World War I pact outlawing the use of poison gas, Reagan kept reminding Gorbachev, countries continued to equip their soldiers with gas masks. Since SDI was a purely defensive system which put the nuclear genie back in the bottle, the president was not prepared to give away a modern-day gas mask just so he could leave Iceland with a treaty.

Frustrated with the American negotiators' rush to "no," Rhodes dismisses the theory of deterrence altogether. Drawing on the work of political scientist Jacek Kugler, he asserts that during the Cold War nuclear weapons did not consistently prevent the superpowers from seeking "contested policy objectives" or inhibit the escalation of crises in Korea, Vietnam and other "hot spots."

Deterrence and the national security state did, indeed, waste trillions of dollars without buying peace or safety for the people of the United States and the Soviet Union. But mutually assured destruction, in all likelihood, prevented a massive all-out war - no mean feat for superpowers whose leaders never missed a chance to miss a chance to make a more durable peace.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.

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