Arsenals of Folly

The Making
of the Nuclear Arms Race

By Richard Rhodes

Knopf. 386 pp. $28.95


Reviewed by Chris Patsilelis


Richard Rhodes, who won the Pulitzer Prize for

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

(1986) and who is also the author of

Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb

(1995) and

Masters of Death

(2002), recounts the American-Soviet nuclear arms race in his engrossing and illuminating new work

Arsenals of Folly

.

The race began, Rhodes informs us, with the Soviet Union's detonation of its first atomic bomb on Aug. 29, 1949. It reached its climax with the tense 1986 summit meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, in which the two leaders nearly agreed on total mutual nuclear disarmament.

Focusing upon how the superpowers' "fears and ambitions had justified such an apocalyptic accumulation" of nuclear weapons, Rhodes proceeds to chronicle the volatile Cold War relationship between the United States and the U.S.S.R. He describes America's development of the multi-megaton thermonuclear hydrogen bomb in 1952; the construction of nuclear-capable bombers on both sides in the 1950s and '60s; the downing of Gary Powers' U-2 spy plane over Soviet territory in 1960 (which scuttled a nuclear test ban agreement between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev); the near-apocalyptic 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis; and the dangerously provocative 1983 NATO war games in Eastern Europe.

Throughout his assiduously researched work, Rhodes cites stunning statistics to support his contention that the nuclear competition had run amok. By the mid-1980s, he says, the total world stockpile of nuclear weapons had increased "to about fifty thousand bombs and warheads" - the explosive equivalent of "1.5 million Hiroshimas."

The author explains this over-stockpiling to a degree by pointing out that leaders such as Stalin, Khrushchev, Harry S. Truman, Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and U.S. Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay and others abetted the nuclear arms buildup because they were so worried about national security after their hard experiences in World War II. More specifically, American military strategists feared that if cities like Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki could be destroyed from the air, then nuclear-capable Soviet bombers or missiles could easily do the same to American cities.

Arsenals of Folly

is packed with important, revealing information. Superb is his rendering of hawkish assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle's sabotaging of the Reykjavik summit by convincing Reagan that mutual nuclear disarmament entailed giving up his cherished Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars"). But what really propels his narrative are the penetrating psychological portraits of Gorbachev and Reagan.

Rhodes focuses unflinchingly upon Gorbachev's terror-filled boyhood years in the 1930s and '40s in southern Russia, and how he was affected by Stalin's mass starvation of Soviet farmers as they were forced into collectives. He also tells of the fields of unburied rotting corpses of World War II Russian soldiers which, Gorbachev later confessed, left "its mark both on our character and on our view of the world."

But Rhodes relates that somehow, despite such an environment, young Gorbachev never became violently socialized. Gorbachev writes in his memoirs that words and diplomacy became his main political weapons from an early age, along with a critical outlook that even the Communist Party's "massive ideological brainwashing" could not stifle.

Rhodes' psychological portrait of the young Ronald Reagan is fascinating, too. As a young lifeguard over seven summers at a lake in Dixon, Ill., Reagan saved 77 lives. Rhodes goes on to cite Reagan biographer Lou Cannon (

President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime

, 1991) in positing a connection between Reagan's early lifesaving experience and his firm faith, 50 years later, in his Strategic Defense Initiative.

"Lifeguards are solitary objects of adoration," Rhodes quotes Cannon, "who intervene in moments of crisis and perform heroic acts without becoming involved in the lives of those they rescue." Thus, in a 1980s speech - about saving lives on a massive scale - Reagan fervently described the SDI program as "a shield that missiles could not penetrate, a shield that could protect us . . . just as a roof protects a family from rain."

Reagan's insistence upon SDI proved unacceptable to Gorbachev, dashing any hope of reaching a nuclear disarmament agreement at Reykjavik.

Dense with crucial, revealing information obtained from personal interviews and newly declassified documents, Rhodes'

Arsenals of Folly

is a dramatic and penetrating investigation of the nuclear arms race and its eventual end.

Chris Patsilelis has reviewed books on military subjects for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle.