The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War

Image of The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War
Release Date: 
January 28, 2020
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: 

This an authoritative and highly readable history of the Damocles Sword that has hung over humanity for some 70 years and shows no signs of being sheathed or turned into plowshares. A Ph.D. in political science from M.I.T. with strong sources within the Washington Beltway, the Slate columnist Fred Kaplan draws on thousands of declassified government documents and interviews with more than 160 insiders.

Kaplan’s book is nothing if not alarming. The plans concocted in Washington and probably in Moscow often verged on madness—complete neglect of morality as well as practicality. The story ranges from the beginnings of the nuclear age in the 1940s to the latest upgrades of U.S., Russian, Chinese, and North Korean weapons.

In 1948 President Harry Truman summed up the problem: “You have to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses. So we have got to treat this thing differently from rifles and cannons and ordinary things like that.”

Why do the United States and Russia want thousands of nukes? Each is determined to keep an assured deterrent. If  Side A shoots first and destroys much of Side B’s forces, Side B wants sufficient redundancy to fire back.

But there is more to this story. In 1960 the U.S. National Strategic Target List included 4,000 points as “targets” in the USSR, Eastern Europe, and China. At least one bomb was needed for each target. To destroy the two hundred most important targets with 90 percent certainty, several nukes would be needed. If the president had the United States strike first, the Pentagon would launch 3,423 nuclear weapons against 1,043 targets. The plan called  for hitting a particular Soviet city the size of Hiroshima with more than six times the blast power of the Hiroshima bomb. The Defense Secretary and Joint Chiefs approved the plan just as Eisenhower administration gave way to Kennedy’s.  Some officials left in protest at overkill, but it persisted.

Kaplan details  the debates about the right balance between nuclear and conventional arms. President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized a doctrine of massive nuclear retaliation  as a cost-effective way to cope with Soviet advantages in conventional forces. Now the tables are turned and Putin seeks to compensate for Russia’s weaknesses in conventional forces with advanced missiles and nukes. Strategic planners still wrestle with the question of whether nuclear war can be “limited,” for example, by striking the enemy’s forces but not his cities, and whether the other side would understand it need not reply with an all-out response.

President Kennedy and some of his advisers looked for ways to avoid resorting to general nuclear war in case the Soviets tightened the screws on West Berlin. But U.S. leaders never asked: “Should we let the Soviets call our bluff—just let them take Berlin (or, in 1962, keep their missiles in Cuba) rather than risk Armageddon?” Just to discuss the question would appear less than macho and could weaken the reliability of deterrence. But if one deemed the survival of humanity more important than U.S. credibility, the question should have been considered. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told Daniel Ellsberg in 1961 that he believed a “limited nuclear war” in Europe impossible, because it would quickly escalate to a general war. Having argued for a counterforce strategy, however, he did not advertise his deepest concern.

How a hair-trigger alert can lead to unwonted results is seen in Iran’s shooting own a Ukrainian passenger plane in January 2020. Iranian defense crews feared an American attack but wound up killing many civilians, most of them Iranians.

President Trump’s “Fire and Fury” rhetoric in 2016 inspired Congressional hearings on the power of the president to launch a nuclear war. Military leaders agreed that he could do so if his order was “legal.” But there seems to be no “legal” restraint, even if the commander-in-chef seems mentally unstable.

Many in the U.S. Congress want a say in whether, when, and how to use nuclear arms, but if Russian or Chinese missiles appear on the radar screen, there is no time for the commander-in-chief to deliberate with others. The choices could be “use ’em or lose ’em.”

A similar problem confronts the other nuclear powers. Thus, the world’s future depends on the wisdom and emotional maturity of  individuals such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un, and whoever holds the trigger in the UK, France, Israel, India, and Pakistan. This fragility demands universal nuclear disarmament, but who will lead the way? If Washington and Moscow went first, others might demur until the superpowers got down to their levels.

American leaders so diverse as Henry Kissinger and Barack Obama have pondered how to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Once the nuclear genie has spread to other centers of power, however, universal disarmament is problematic. At issue is the Nth country problem. If  just one nation cheats and retains a cache of nukes, it could intimidate those who have disarmed.

Kaplan covers a broad canvas and does so quite reliably, but perhaps he is too reductionist in his treatment of how Eisenhower’s nuclear threats brought on the Korean armistice in 1953.  Nearly all such cases involve many variables. Also, it is very difficult to know if words really signify intent and whether some actions result from human choice or from sheer momentum or mechanical accident.

The Bomb excels at conveying the thinking of America’s strategic planners since 1945, but it lacks perspective on the processes of  action and reaction—how the United States and its rivals interacted to fuel the arms race and its dangers.

Kaplan’s book is richly documented. The author has gone through boxes of documents at the presidential libraries and National Archives. He has obtained documents via the Freedom of Information Act. He has studied the National Security Archive at George Washington University.  Apart from some translated Soviet documents at this archive, however, Kaplan cites little or nothing directly written or published in Russia or other foreign countries; no memoirs by Andrei Sakharov, Nikita Khrushchev, or Mikhail Gorbachev—parts of which have been reliably translated into English; little or nothing by leaders or analysts from China or other nuclear-armed countries; and very few references to works by academic historians of the Cold War and arms race. To see how documents from many countries can enlarge one’s horizons, see Samuel F. Wells, Jr.,  Fearing the Worst: How Korea Transformed the Cold War (Columbia University Press, 2020).