Books of Note

The Bomb: A Life
By Gerard DeGroot, Harvard University, May 2005, 397 pp.

Gerard DeGroot chronicles a broad tableau of nuclear history from the first realization of the possibility of the atom bomb in the physics labs of Europe, to its birth in Los Alamos, its use in war, and its subsequent proliferation. The book spans seven decades of the bomb’s influence on politics and popular culture, but DeGroot puts far more emphasis on the period before the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Controversially, he downplays the events that followed, particularly the arms control negotiations of later decades. “Once the atomic powers decided that the best protection against a bomb was another bomb, any talk of arms reduction was rendered irrevocably futile,” he writes.

South Africa's Weapons of Mass Destruction
By Helen E. Purkitt and Stephen F. Burgess, Indiana University Press, May 2005, 322 pp.

On the basis of extensive archival evidence and interviews with military and political officials, Helen Purkitt and Stephen Burgess offer a comprehensive analysis of South Africa’s secret development and then voluntary disarmament of its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Their story is a cautionary tale for policymakers. As they note, South Africa was able to circumvent sanctions through its network of agents around the world, suggesting how difficult it is to prevent a committed nation from obtaining banned materials or technologies. To prevent countries from violating nonproliferation norms, states must go beyond sanctions and consider other factors such as domestic politics, bureaucratic organization, and leadership psychology. Similarly, South Africa’s disarmament points to several determinants that policymakers might consider in attempting to prod other states to follow a similar path, such as the decline of regional security threats and changes in domestic politics.

The Worlds of Herman Khan: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War
By Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, Harvard University Press, April 2005, 387 pp.

Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi delves into the remarkable and terrifying world of Herman Kahn, offering a unique portrait of the analyst who gleefully articulated a vision of a survivable post-nuclear war world. Highlighting Kahn’s infamous jokes about mass annihilation as well as quirks of the Cold War era—the high consumption of tranquilizers—Ghamari-Tabrizi describes the occult culture at the RAND Corporation, where Kahn and his fellow nuclear researchers sought to fill in the blanks of strategic uncertainty. At RAND, Kahn used systems analysis and mathematical and scientific tools to forecast, among other things, extravagant threat scenarios. Khan’s 1961 book, On Thermonuclear War was the first effort to explore the possible effects and strategic options of nuclear war. The author hints that Kahn’s complex vision of civil defense—200 million underground shelters—might have unintentionally helped convince President Dwight Eisenhower that American society could not survive and rebuild from a nuclear war.

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