Book Review: From Hiroshima to New START

Reviewed by Jack Mendelsohn

A Global History of the Nuclear Arms Race: Weapons, Strategy and Politics
By Richard Dean Burns and Joseph M. Siracusa
Praeger, 2013, 640 pp.

In their new book, A Global History of the Nuclear Arms Race: Weapons, Strategy and Politics, Richard Dean Burns and Joseph M. Siracusa set out to rectify what they consider to be a “lacuna of a global narrative in the nuclear arms literature.”

Their two-volume work focuses on five themes—political dimensions, technological developments, military planning, diplomatic strategies, and the impact of nuclear weapons on world events—and divide the last six decades into four eras: U.S nuclear monopoly, U.S. nuclear superiority, U.S.-Soviet superpower parity, and the post-Cold War period.

Burns, a professor emeritus at California State University, Los Angeles, and Siracusa, a professor at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, note that their book is not meant to be either an encyclopedia or a reference text. “[W]e have not designed the chapters…to resolve any particular issue; instead, they are framed to review the many stages or aspects of the global nuclear arms race to provide readers with the information necessary to decide fundamental questions themselves,” they write. They also alert the reader that their global history is “based on a synthesis of a broad range of the available literature,” not on original research or analysis of primary sources. This approach is discussed later in this review. (This reviewer is cited in the book’s endnotes and reviewed a manuscript of one of Burns’ earlier works.)

The book begins with a review of the massive U.S. program to develop a nuclear weapon. In succeeding chapters, it discusses early efforts to establish international controls on nuclear weapons, the growing militarization of the U.S.-Soviet confrontation after NSC-68—a 1950 White House strategy document that formed the basis for a hard-line U.S. policy—and the move from fission to fusion weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union. It also covers the development of long-range ballistic missiles with short flight times, the search for ballistic missile defenses in response to this growing threat, and the various efforts to devise a rational nuclear weapons employment policy through the decades of the 1950s and 1960s up to the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963 and the first Chinese nuclear test in 1964.

The second volume of A Global History continues the story of the superpower arms race and the diplomatic and political efforts to contain it through the arms control process, from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty through the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, and the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Several additional chapters in the second volume are devoted to the history of weapons development and acquisition by China, France, and the United Kingdom; the spread of ballistic missiles and the continuing search for defenses to counter them; the appearance of “regional” nuclear states India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan; and the growing importance of the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

A Search for Security

After 500-plus pages, the book concludes with a brief set of thoughts entitled “Reflections” on the nature of the world in the nuclear age. The authors point out that “[m]ost national nuclear weapons programs thus far have had as their objective simply having the bomb, not using it.” It seems, they note, that “[s]ecurity and prestige are the most frequently cited justifications for national nuclear ambitions, but neither of these ends is served by actual use.” Furthermore, in the arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States, “[N]uclear warheads and delivery systems became disconnected from the political and economic dimensions separating the two superpowers. These weapons of mass destruction had taken on a life of their own in each country as their scientific-military-industrial bureaucracies pressed for the development and production of more and more new weapons.”

Burns and Siracusa ask whether nuclear weapons have helped or hindered the cause of peace and suggest that this issue remains unresolved, quoting Gerard Smith, a former diplomat and former chairman of the Arms Control Association, as saying, “[w]e have avoided nuclear cataclysm as much through Providence as through wise or well-informed policy.”

The authors continue by observing that the “clarity” of the Cold War world has given way to the “uncertainties” of a 21st century world threatened by “regime collapse, nuclear terrorism, new nuclear weapons states, regional conflict,” and a huge nuclear overhang. Although the nuclear arms race has ended, the threat from nuclear weapons has not, and “[t]he global concern with nuclear nonproliferation…[is being] viewed with a renewed urgency.”

The book concludes with a reminder of how much treasure the United States has expended on nuclear weapons: $5.5 trillion between 1940 and 1996 (in 1996 dollars) as cited in a 1998 study.[1] It also notes how many nuclear weapons have been produced: 128,000 since 1945, the overwhelming majority (98 percent) by the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. The book reminds the reader of the relevance of President Dwight Eisenhower’s warning in his 1961 farewell address about “the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex” and the resulting potential for a continuing impetus to an arms race. A Global History concludes with a quote stressing that current proliferation issues “have deep roots in the past” and that, for global policies to be successful, “an understanding of this history is vital.”[2]

The second volume includes a fine bibliography, likely to be of great help to educators preparing a course on the nuclear age as well as to readers interested in further, focused research. One entry in the 46-page bibliography, “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” Carol Cohn’s insightful and sardonic article on the use of abstract language to shield horrific concepts,[3] is sure to catch the eye of graduate students and arms control wonks everywhere.

Problematic Aspects

Several aspects of A Global History are problematic, if not off-putting. One is the syncretic manner of presentation. The authors tell their story uniquely from secondary sources and except for some brief commentary in the final chapter, do not contribute much in the way of their own analyses or research.

The reader encounters numerous paragraph such as this one, simply linking together sentences composed of citations drawn from secondary sources:

Groves was appointed to the Military Liaison Committee where, according to Herken, “he considered himself, not Lilienthal, the one best suited to watch over the nation’s interests with regard to nuclear energy.” Not surprisingly, controversy and bitter disputes lay ahead, for as Newhouse has written, “the principle of civilian control was laid down, but the military would have a major role in production decisions—i.e., how many bombs to make—and the priorities of the overall atomic energy program.”

Granted, the sources are respectable and the quotes relevant to the history, but the overall effect is to distance the reader from the material and interrupt the narrative flow.

A second problematic aspect of A Global History is the issue of reliability and accuracy. There are a number of serious factual errors in the book. For example, in referring to the bomb used on Hiroshima, Burns and Siracusa state that “the first…uranium-235-based bomb to be used had the explosive force of 20,000 tons of TNT.” Actually, the estimated yield of the Hiroshima weapon has been judged to be closer to 15,000 tons of TNT, or 15 kilotons, while the yield of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, which is not specified in the text, is believed to be 20 kilotons. This makes a subsequent sentence, noting that the Nagasaki bomb had “greater power” than the one dropped on Hiroshima, accurate in general but incorrect in the details.

In a discussion of the current generation of U.S. ballistic missile submarines, the book says that, of the 18 Ohio-class submarines, 14 carry Trident ballistic missiles and four carry cruise missiles. This is correct but again misleading. All 18 Ohio-class submarines originally carried Trident ballistic missiles. The first four boats, however, commissioned between 1981 and 1984, were converted to carry cruise missiles 20 years later as the number of ballistic missile warheads permitted under strategic nuclear arms control treaties declined.

Burns and Siracusa write that an “issue arose over in which category Blackbird—Moscow’s new medium bomber—should be placed.” The Blackbird, the SR-71, is a U.S. supersonic reconnaissance aircraft. The plane in question was the Russian Backfire bomber. In another example, the book says that, “[o]n August 10, 1960, the United States launched its first successful satellite, named Discoverer, which during the winter and spring sent back thousands of photos covering the entire Soviet Union.” The United States did indeed test-launch a satellite on August 10, 1960, but it did not take photographs. The first reconnaissance satellite to actually return a bucket with film in it was launched a week later on August 18, 1960.

The cumulative effect of these errors is to make a reader wonder about the accuracy of dates and data in areas where he or she might not be knowledgeable.

A third issue, admittedly minor but still irritating, is the inordinate number of easily avoidable typographical errors in the two volumes. A sampling of errors that closer proofreading could have corrected includes Bernie Baruch becoming “Bernie Bruch”; the Tu-95K Bear bomber becoming “Tu-K”; the abbreviation for “ballistic missile defense” being rendered as “BDM” rather than “BMD”; the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission being described as seeking to persuade the public that “worldwide fallout was harmlessness”: arms control negotiator James Goodby becoming “Goodly” in one footnote; Paul Nitze, the author of NSC-68, being described as believing that “the American people should not become compliant” rather than “complacent”; and the book referring to the Soviet R-12 “or U.S.-designed SS-4,” which should read “or NATO-designated SS-4.”

A Global History of the Nuclear Arms Race tries valiantly to fill the gap in arms control literature that the authors identified in their book’s opening pages. It spans the six-odd decades of the nuclear age, touches on the major events in the period, and covers all the players, major and minor, in the nuclear universe. Yet, factual errors and slapdash editing keep the book from being the useful reference it might have been.

Jack Mendelsohn was a member of two U.S. arms control delegations, deputy director of the Arms Control Association (ACA), and professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy, The George Washington University, and American University. He is a member of the ACA Board of Directors.


1. Stephen I. Schwartz, Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998). It would have been helpful to have these 15-year-old figures brought up to date or at least translated into 2013 dollars.

2. Francis J. Gavin, “Same As It Ever Was: Nuclear Alarmism, Proliferation, and the Cold War,” International Security, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Winter 2009/2010): 7-8.

3. Carol Cohn, “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” Signs, No. 12 (Summer 1987), pp. 687-718.