Arsenals of Folly 

By Richard Rhodes

Picture an American administration egged on by dark-wizard neocons fabricating proof of WMDs to increase defense budgets and promulgate war. Throw in names like Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld, and you might suspect the subject is Iraq. But the bête noire that American historian Richard Rhodes tracks here is Russia. The president at the time? Jimmy Carter.

Rhodes won a Pulitzer for The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986), the first volume of his "The Making of the Nuclear Age" quartet. In Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race, his third, he sifts the half-century between World War II and the dissolution of the USSR to understand the hysteria that brought the supergiants (and the rest of us) to the brink of Armageddon. The result is a meticulously researched, compelling examination of the 20th century's dread-wracked second half. Rhodes structures his account to climax in 1986, when Chernobyl proved how widespread and toxic fallout would be, and when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavík to hammer away at an accord limiting (and nearly abolishing) the stockpiles of the title. As Rhodes describes, our real savior is Gorbachev, whose stubborn, visionary embrace of a common security through nuclear dismantling animates the baby steps humanity has since taken away from the brink of atomic apocalypse. (Reagan comes off badly.)

Arsenals sticks to its period, though Rhodes can't help but suggest parallels to our own bellicose times. The "loose association of blusterous Manichaean Democratic and Republican radicals who came to be called the neoconservatives" finds its origins here, though the piece's chief villain is assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle, now a right-wing think-tankist hawkish on Iraq. Rhodes has Perle and his fellow Washington apparatchiks in mind when writing of the Cold War's hottest moments, such as a 1983 NATO training exercise that nearly one-upped the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Rhodes's last entry in the Nuclear Age series will build on these exhaustive accounts to move through the Gulf Wars, North Korea, and 9/11 toward, the text suggests, a passionate call for nuclear abolition — the only happy ending possible to the atomic age.

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