Author of 'The Bomb' examines how presidents handle nuclear threats

Author of 'The Bomb' examines how presidents handle nuclear threats

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Many readers know author Fred Kaplan for “The Wizards of Armageddon,” his study in 1983 of the people who had shaped America’s nuclear strategy in the 1940s and 1950s.

Nuclear weapons remain with us today as a threat — and as a topic for Kaplan. In “The Bomb” (subtitled “Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War”), Kaplan reviews the history of how presidents have grappled with the question of when and whether to use nuclear weapons — even in retaliation for an enemy’s nuclear attack.

In his introduction, he writes:

“In those decades when most of us chose to forget about the bomb — as global tensions calmed and fallout shelters crumbled and we turned our gaze to other problems and pleasures — the nuclear war machine continued to rumble forth in the beyond-Top-Secret chambers of the Pentagon, the Strategic Command in Omaha, the weapons labs in various parts of the country, and the think tanks whose denizens never stopped thinking about the unthinkable.

“They all kept at their singular tasks, wrestling with the dilemmas posed by the bomb’s existence; how to fight a nuclear war, if it cannot be deterred; how to win it, if such a thing is possible. This is the nature of the nuclear era, and the era never drifted into suspension, even if our attention did.”

As those lines suggest, author Kaplan looks on the issue from a liberal viewpoint. He quotes a statement by Democrat Edward Markey of Massachusetts at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2017, after President Donald J. Trump had threatened North Korea with “fire and fury.”

Markey said: “Absent a nuclear attack upon the United States or our allies, no one human being should have the power to unilaterally unleash the most destructive forces ever devised by humankind. Yet, under existing law, the President of the United States can start a nuclear war without provocation, without consultation, and without warning. It boggles the rational mind. I fear that, in the age of Trump, the cooler heads and strategic doctrine that we once relied upon as our last best hope against the unthinkable seem less reassuring than ever.”

Depending on their political viewpoints, some readers may cheer Kaplan, while others may grumble at him. But many readers may find the prose in “The Bomb” a deterrent from finishing it. For readers outside the category of Nuclear Warfare Wonk — and that’s most of us — the bureaucratic tone of much of its English may turn us back to the television set. Here’s a sample paragraph:

“Schlesinger had been the author of the RAND memo, Rationale for NU-OPTS, and, in his three prior positions in the Nixon administration — chief of the Budget Bureau’s national security division, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and director of the CIA — he had taken part in the interagency reviews of the Foster Panel report, which had grown out of the NU-OPTS project. He was well disposed to NSSM-169, its caveats notwithstanding, and ordered work to begin on a National Security Decision Memorandum (the next step up from a study memorandum) which, if signed by the president, would turn its concepts into policy.”

Let’s hope that the nuclear stockpiles stay as sleepy as that kind of English.

Harry Levins of Manchester retired in 2007 as senior writer of the Post-Dispatch.

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