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‘The Bomb’ is a deeply researched dig into the nuclear arms race -- and a cautionary tale

A mushroom cloud billows into the sky about one hour after an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.Associated Press/US Army via Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

We had — we have — the ability to employ nuclear weapons to kill in vast magnitudes, to pollute vast areas of land, to send vast amounts of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere, to create vast amounts of smoke — in short to produce vast murder and mayhem. The Soviet Union had — and contemporary Russia has — the same vast powers of destruction. So do many other nations.

Pick up Fred Kaplan’s “The Bomb” with caution, and as a cautionary tale. The caution is required because of the fear this book will relieve. The cautionary tale is the effect this book should have. We, humankind, have met the enemy. You know the modern version of the next sentence.


It would be easy to say that all this started innocently, but it would be facile to do so. The creation of nuclear weapons courted danger from the start. Wander only a few pages into this book and you will discover how casually our own military thinkers — presumably the good guys in the Cold War — threw around rhetoric about throw-weights; how casually Curtis LeMay, who perhaps never should be in the position to think about nuclear warfare, spoke of hurling “the entire stockpile of atomic bombs” in “a single massive attack”; and how recklessly the presumably sober men of the Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke in 1954 of the doctrine that, in a general war, “regardless of the manner of initiation, atomic weapons will be used at the outset.”

It’s not that we didn’t know some of this, though Kaplan, a former Globe reporter, tells us in this volume much that we did not know. As early as 1955 George Kistiakowsky, Dwight Eisenhower’s chief science adviser, was told that the United States had the capacity — indeed had the plan — to obliterate a Soviet city the size of Hiroshima with 600 times the blast power of the single bomb that had wrecked that Japanese city only a decade earlier. The power would come from what Kaplan tells us, in mordant language, was “one 4.5 megaton bomb, followed by three 1.1-megaton bombs, in case the first one was a dud.”


And that was a half-dozen years before the nuclear arms race began in deadly earnest.

The number of Soviet targets for obliteration? 4,000. The numbers are staggering. Here is Kaplan’s analysis of LeMay’s plan:

“Hundreds of nuclear warheads would have exploded across Russian and Chinese territory, destroying every air base, missile tie, naval port, and dozens of other garrisons and facilities — yet, to LeMay, this attack would inflict too little damage, to the point where the very survival of the United States would be imperiled, because a spare parts factory was left standing, as a result of which the Soviet and Chinese Americans forces might be up and flying in next to no time.”

It is astonishing today to learn how much planning went into first strike options, how gratuitously Chinese targets were included in Pentagon plans to react to a crisis in Berlin, how quickly escalation of a military confrontation could reach a critical stage. The plan: “If none of these [previous] steps worked, we would use nuclear weapons.”

Eventually the biggest rebel against the military thinkers was John F. Kennedy. In his famous American University speech in June 1963 he said he spoke of peace ‘’because of the new face of war.’’ Two weeks after he was assassinated Lyndon Johnson, working off a script prepared by McGeorge Bundy, said, ‘’A nuclear war would be the death of all our hopes, and it is our task to see that it does not happen.’’


Even so, by the end of the 1960s, Kaplan tells us, ‘’the arsenals swelled beyond numbers ever previously imagined, and plans for fighting — and probably winning — a nuclear war emerged as too tempting to pass up.’’

Kaplan then walks us through various permutations of nuclear strategy, many of them designed to prevent America’s enemies from retaliating or striking first, as if the term Limited Nuclear Option (200 nukes aimed at targets in the southern fringes of the USSR) had any real meaning. So risible a notion was it that even Henry Kissinger said, ‘’Are you out of your minds? This is a limited option?’’

The goal throughout was what Kaplan describes as “how to plan a nuclear attack that was large enough to terrify the enemy but small enough to be recognized unambiguously as a limited strike, so that, if the enemy retaliated, he’d keep his strike limited too.”

Through ICBMs, GLCMs, SLCMs, the MX, MIRVs and SDI, and through various nuclear agreements, the world muddled through. The threat from the USSR diminished, the threat from Korea grew. Presidents came and went. Barack Obama was a first-use skeptic. Donald Trump wondered why he had fewer nuclear weapons than his predecessors. Overall, Kaplan believes our presidents have been sober custodians of the bomb, and shrewd strategists in the effort to avoid nuclear war.


By the end of “The Bomb” the reader will be glad we are all around to discuss this history, which Kaplan put together with newly available documents. The reader also will say that we are damn lucky the nuclear genie remains in its fragile bottle.


by Fred Kaplan

Simon & Schuster, 384 pp. $30

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.