From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb: the story of the entire postwar superpower arms race, climaxing during the Reagan-Gorbachev decade when the United States and the Soviet Union came within scant hours of nuclear war--and then nearly agreed to abolish nuclear weapons.
In a narrative that reads like a thriller, Rhodes reveals how the Reagan administration's unprecedented arms buildup in the early 1980s led ailing Soviet leader Yuri Andropov to conclude that Reagan must be preparing for a nuclear war. In the fall of 1983, when NATO staged a larger than usual series of field exercises that included, uniquely, a practice run-up to a nuclear attack, the Soviet military came very close to launching a defensive first strike on Europe and North America. With Soviet aircraft loaded with nuclear bombs warming up on East German runways, U.S. intelligence organizations finally realized the danger. Then Reagan, out of deep conviction, launched the arms-reduction campaign of his second presidential term and set the stage for his famous 1986 summit meeting with Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, and the breakthroughs that followed.
Rhodes reveals the early influence of neoconservatives and right-wing figures such as Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz. We see how Perle in particular sabotaged the Reykjavik meeting by convincing Reagan that mutual nuclear disarmament meant giving up his cherished dream of strategic defense (the Star Wars system). Rhodes's detailed exploration of these and other events constitutes a prehistory of the neoconservatives, demonstrating that the manipulation of government and public opinion with fake intelligence and threat inflation that the administration of George W. Bush has used to justify the current "war on terror" and the disastrous invasion of Iraq were developed and applied in the Reagan era and even before.
Drawing on personal interviews with both Soviet and U.S. participants, and on a wealth of new documentation, memoir literature, and oral history that has become available only in the past ten years, Rhodes recounts what actually happened in the final years of the Cold War that led to its dramatic end. The story is new, compelling, and continually surprising--a revelatory re-creation of a hugely important era of our recent history.
This is the third volume in a history of nuclear weaponry that began with the award-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb, but despite its subtitle, this installment might also be described as a chronicle of the unmaking of the arms race. Paralleling the careers of Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, Rhodes builds up to a detailed account of the 1986 Reykjavik summit, at which the two leaders--both eager to achieve peace--nearly came to an agreement on eliminating their nuclear arsenals, before the accord, he says, was sabotaged by then-assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle. The insistence of Perle and other advisers that the U.S. required a strong deterrent against the Soviet Union is held up for particular contempt. There has never been a realistic military justification for accumulating large, expensive stockpiles of nuclear arms, Rhodes argues. Far from keeping America strong, decades of nuclear arms production have seriously eroded the nation's domestic infrastructure and diminished its citizens' quality of life, he believes. The clarity of the historical record reinforces Rhodes's fiercely held political convictions, ensuring widespread attention as he returns to this critically and commercially successful subject. (Oct. 11)
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October 08, 2007
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Excerpt from Arsenals of Folly by Richard Rhodes
Chapter One: To the Chernobyl Sarcophagus
On the Saturday morning in April 1986 when the alarms went off at the Institute for Nuclear Power Engineering of the Byelorussian Academy of Sciences, in a forest outside Minsk, the nuclear physicist Stanislav Shushkevich thought the institute's reactor was bleeding radiation. Its fuel assemblies, sealed inside aluminum cassettes at the bottom of a deep, stainless-steel tank full of distilled water, might have sprung a leak. Or something might have spilled in the institute's radiochemistry lab. Dosimeter operators began working their way methodically through the labs and offices and found radiation everywhere. It was in people's hair and clinging to their clothes. It registered two hundred times normal on the air filters. It was near danger levels at the front door.
The dosimetrists moved outside and discovered it there as well: on the sidewalk, on the grass, on the periwinkle crocuses pushing up through the dark litter of the forest floor. So the institute wasn't the source. An order over the public-address system warned everyone to stay indoors. Someone called the Lithuanian nuclear-power complex at Ignalina, one hundred miles northwest, and radiation was everywhere there too. Chernobyl, in the Ukraine, was farther away, two hundred miles southeast, where four big RBMK* thousand-megawatt reactors were lined up end to end in a building almost a mile long. Hundreds of people worked there, but the phones rang unanswered. Something was wrong at Chernobyl.
By afternoon, institute chemists had found radioactive iodine in the fallout, which confirmed that a reactor had exploded. For radioactive gas and smoke from Chernobyl to have reached Minsk, the explosion must have occurred sometime during the night. How much radioactivity had been released? How much more would follow? Why had no one warned them?
Shushkevich, fifty-two, a solid, ample man with a ruddy face and a high, domed forehead fringed with graying brown hair, was friendly and avuncular but shrewdly intelligent. He was vice-provost of the Byelorussian University in Minsk, a liberal humanist in the tradition of Andrey Sakharov. The Soviet Union's change of direction since the death of Konstantin Chernenko in March 1985, just thirteen months before, had filled him with hope. Chernenko, an emphysemic general secretary with the soul of a retired file clerk, had served as a placeholder between the reform-minded but ailing former KGB chief Yuri Andropov and his vigorous young heir apparent, Mikhail Gorbachev. At Chernenko's death his private safe had turned up no personal diary or other intimate record, only a large cache of money no one could account for. Good riddance, Shushkevich had thought: "I was the first at the university to put a portrait of Gorbachev on the wall."
The night of Chernenko's death, Raisa Maksimovna, Mikhail Gorbachev's wife and partner, pacing beside him in the garden of their country house near Moscow, heard him say resolutely, "We just can't go on like this." The next day, 11 March 1985, Gorbachev had been elected general secretary at a meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee. In his acceptance speech immediately after his election he had called for open government and accountability: "I emphasized the need for transparency (glasnost) in the work of Party, Soviet, state and public organizations," he wrote later. He had laid out in detail his other fundamental goal, perestroika--economic restructuring, salvaging the nearly moribund Soviet economy--at a Central Committee plenum the following month, stressing "the elimination of everything that interferes with development."
The huge Soviet military-industrial complex, which insinuated itself into every corner of the Soviet economy and consumed at least 40 percent of the state budget, headed his list for cutbacks, and in a letter delivered to President Ronald Reagan on 15 January 1986 he had broached a proposal without precedent across the four dangerous decades of the U.S.-Soviet nuclear-arms race: "A concrete program," as he described it during a press conference in Moscow later that day, ". . . for the complete liquidation of nuclear weapons throughout the world . . . before the end of the present century." Opening to such unprecedented initiative, 1986 had seemed a year of immense possibility. Now a disaster loomed, of consequences yet unknown, and radiation blew north from Chernobyl.