Yikes, this is a scary book. I had either never known or had forgotten about the awfulness of the times when huge proportions of our GNP were devoted to developing strategic weapons and the means to deliver them. For example:
- During the Korean War the US temporarily stored 9 nuclear weapons on Guam in case they were needed to repel Chinese or Russian invaders from North Korea
- During the Cuban Missile Crisis the Russians already had nuclear missiles ready to be launched from medium range missiles located in Cuba — and Russian field commanders were authorized to use them
- One of the United States’ Pacific island hydrogen bomb tests yielded multiple times the energy initially calculated and was nearly classified as a “runaway”
- Personality and politics were so strong in the development of the U.S. hydrogen bomb that simpler designs — later successfully tested by the Russians — were ignored in favor of Edward Teller’s initial complex design
The personalities that percolate throughout this book include Oppenheimer, Teller, and Curtis LeMay. Oppenheimer managed development of the first atomic bombs — then subsequently had his security clearance revoked when he was accused of being a Communist. Teller’s personality was such that he could not harbor thoughts of not being in control of the US hydrogen bomb development efforts — even if it meant simpler and less costly methods would have sufficed. And LeMay — well, author Rhodes really does a job on LeMay, quoting him repeatedly as making incredibly hawkish comments about how we needed to start WWIII and get it over with — the “it” being in this case the destruction of the Soviet Union before they had a chance to catch up with the US in nuclear weapons delivery.
I certainly don’t qualify as an expert on these events — I was just a little kid during much of this, or not even born — but reading this book reminded me of how close we actually came to destroying Western civilization during the Cold War. Unfortunately many of these weapons — and information on how to build them — are still around and no longer subject to the tenuous controls of “mutual assured destruction.”