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Review: 'Twilight of the Bombs' by Richard Rhodes examines post-Cold War nuclear age

The atmosphere was fraught with tension on June 16, 1994, as former President Jimmy Carter, under Clinton administration auspices, sat down with North Korea's Premier Kim Il Sung in the premier's palace in Pyongyang.

Kim's U.N. negotiator, during a recent U.N. conference about nuclear inspection, had threatened South Korea with destruction in "a sea of fire," and Carter was willing to listen to the premier's side of the story.

After a frank discussion focusing on (among other subjects) the United States' not imposing economic sanctions and agreeing not to attack North Korea with nuclear weapons, and North Korea's allowing International Atomic Energy Agency inspection teams to continue their job there, the two negotiators found that they had reached an understanding. Possible nuclear war between North and South Korea, which would have inevitably pulled in the United States, had been averted.

In his fascinating and assiduously researched new work, The Twilight of the Bombs, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bombs) offers us a series of set pieces that cumulatively indicate that the past 25 years have witnessed the world's incremental, almost imperceptible, turning away from nuclear weapons. A masterful chronicler of the nuclear age, Rhodes concentrates on the post-Cold War shift away from the U.S.-U.S.S.R. nuclear competition to the more recent nuclear threats in Iraq, the several independent former Soviet republics and North Korea.

Rhodes informs us that it was Iraq President Saddam Hussein's perception that the Reagan and first Bush administrations were on his side against Iran that emboldened him to attack oil-rich Kuwait in August 1990. Stunned at Hussein's attack upon Kuwait, President Bush sought public support for U.S. military intervention by stressing Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction, which — and Rhodes does cite several sources verifying the weapons' existence — Iraq was then rapidly acquiring. This particular strategy of gaining American public support through "fear-mongering," Rhodes shrewdly points out, would come back to haunt President George W. Bush when he tried to justify attacking Iraq again by accusing that country of possessing weapons of mass destruction — weapons which, by 2003, were nonexistent.

Immediately after the Persian Gulf War ended in February 1991, the International Atomic Energy Agency, an independent body responsible to the United Nations, was called in at U.S. urging to track down and eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Heading the inspection team, Rhodes writes, was Robert Gallucci, a State Department Middle East specialist who was teaching at the National War College.

From the outset Gallucci encountered difficulties. The Defense Department, perceiving the U.N. to be weak and anti-American, refused to give him weapons inspectors. (The U.N. did not have its own.) He turned to foreign government weapons experts. No dice. Gallucci, Rhodes informs us, wound up searching for explosive-ordnance disposal contractors in the Yellow Pages.

After flying to Iraq in an old, rickety Romanian aircraft, Gallucci, boots finally on the ground in Hussein's domain, experienced an inspection tour reminiscent of the old, wildly kinetic Keystone Kops reels. Although the team did find much nuclear evidence, including large quantities of enriched uranium 235 and parts of the highly sophisticated calutron device once used for separating isotopes of uranium for the World War II Manhattan Project, it also witnessed and frantically chased enormous trucks — "Sixty-foot tank transporters … fifty or more in a long line … roaring out the base's back exit loaded with" calutron parts "and tarp-covered crates."

Rhodes also covers in detail the nuclear problems associated with several of the new independent republics of the former Soviet Union: Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and the main member, Russia. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States, especially Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, worried about the dispersal of nuclear weapons — some 27,000 "bombs, warheads and artillery shells" — scattered all over the new little republics and Russia. Nunn also worried about where all the unemployed Russian nuclear scientists would go. Rhodes tells us how Nunn, along with Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, managed to pass a crucial bill, the Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act, an economic program designed to keep Russian nuclear scientists from defecting to other, unfriendly countries.

To centralize the weapons from the small republics to the larger Russia, which already possessed and securely governed the old Soviet nuclear arsenal, Secretary of State James Baker suggested, writes Rhodes, that "Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan should give up their nuclear arsenals to Russia." After much pressure from the United States, which agreed to reduce its own nuclear arsenal, that is indeed what eventually occurred. But the transformation was not easy, especially with Ukraine.

Rhodes explores the possibility of future nuclear terrorism and concludes that, mostly because of materiel and logistical reasons, it is not very likely.

Packed with revealing, documented information, scientific facts and acute insights, The Twilight of the Bombs is a thorough examination of the last 25 years of the world's nuclear conundrum. It is compelling reading of the highest importance.

The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons

By Richard Rhodes

Alfred A. Knopf, 366 pages, $27.95

Review: 'Twilight of the Bombs' by Richard Rhodes examines post-Cold War nuclear age 09/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 18, 2010 4:30am]
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