Richard Rhodes recently gave a Long Now talk called The Twilight of the Bombs about the future obsolescence of nuclear weaponry. From Stewart Brand’s summary of the talk:
How much did the Cold War cost everyone from 1948 to 1991, and how much of that was for nuclear weapons? The total cost has been estimated at $18.5 trillion, with $7.8 trillion for nuclear. At the peak the Soviet Union had 95,000 weapons and the US had 20 to 40,000. America’s current seriously degraded infrastructure would cost about $2.2 trillion to fix — all the gas lines and water lines and schools and bridges. We spent that money on bombs we never intended to use — all of the Cold War players, major and minor, told Rhodes that everyone knew that the bombs must not and could not be used. Much of the nuclear expansion was for domestic consumption: one must appear “ahead,” even though numbers past a couple dozen warheads were functionally meaningless.
In Arsenals of Folly, Richard Rhodes details the making of the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, with a particular focus on the roles of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. The book is fantastic and a full review is forthcoming, but I wanted to share a couple of passages that would be worthy of cinematic adaptation.
A pivotal event in the book is the 1986 summit meeting between the two leaders in Reykjavik, Iceland. For two full days, Gorbachev and Reagan discussed drastically reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the two countries’ arsenals with the eventual goal of eliminating nuclear weapons altogether. Gorbachev proposed meeting in Iceland because it was halfway between the US and the Soviet Union, but the tiny country was unprepared in some ways for the number of people participating in the negotiations.
Back at the American Embassy, Shultz assembled Donald Regan, John Poindexter, Paul Nitze, Richard Perle, Max Kampelman, Kenneth Adelman, and Poindexter’s military assistant, Robert Linhard, inside what Adelman calls “the smallest bubble ever built” — the Plexiglas security chamber, specially coated to repel electromagnetic radiation and mounted on blocks to limit acoustic transmissions, that is a feature of every U.S. Embassy in the world. Since the State Department had seen no need for extensive security arrangements for negotiating U.S. relations with little Iceland, the Reykjavik Embassy bubble was designed to hold only eight people. When Reagan arrived, the air-lock-like door swooshed and everyone stood up, bumping into each other and knocking over chairs in the confusion. Reagan put people at ease with a joke. “We could fill this thing up with water,” he said, gesturing, “and use it as a fish tank.” Adelman gave up his chair to the president and sat on the floor leaning against the tailored presidential legs, a compass rose of shoes touching his at the center of the circle.
And later, the US team deliberated in an even tinier space:
Gorbachev and Reagan returned. The leaders retreated upstairs with their teams. Reagan’s advisors briefed him in the only place where they could meet in private, Rowny recalled, “a little ten by twelve bathroom where about ten of us crowded in. Several stood in the bathtub, Reagan was on the throne. I was agitated, I was worried about the idea of giving up all nuclear weapons.”
The metaphorical possibilities of these two scenes are endless. I hope someone working with a good cinematographer makes a movie out of the book.
Richard Rhodes’ Arsenals of Folly is the third book in what is now a series of “Making of” books about the atomic age, picking up where The Making of the Atomic Bomb (for which Rhodes won the Pulitzer) and Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (which should have won a Pulitzer and is one of my favorite non-fiction books ever) left off.
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.
Random House has posted a portion of the first chapter from which I won’t quote because Rhodes’ storytelling style is nigh impossible to excerpt; he starts the story on page one and doesn’t relent until the final paragraphs. Like the above quote says, his nonfiction reads like a novel…reminds me of Tom Clancy’s books but meticulously researched and true.
Rhodes’ followup to The Making of the Atomic Bomb (for which he won a Pulitzer), while not as tight a narrative as its predecessor, was more interesting to me because I was less familiar with the story. In particular, the Soviet espionage effort during WWII was fascinating.