Living on the Edge

R.W. Johnson

  • Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-49 by Jim Baggott
    Icon, 576 pp, £10.99, November 2009, ISBN 978 1 84831 082 7
  • The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers and the Prospects for a World without Nuclear Weapons by Richard Rhodes
    Knopf, 366 pp, $27.95, August 2010, ISBN 978 0 307 26754 2
  • Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers by Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi
    ICNND, 294 pp, November 2009, ISBN 978 1 921612 14 5

One of the unheralded heroes of the end of the Cold War was General Y.P. Maksimov, the commander in chief of the Soviet strategic rocket forces during the hardliners’ coup against Gorbachev in August 1991. He made a pact with the heads of the navy and air force to disobey any order by the coup plotters to launch nuclear weapons. There was extreme concern in the West that the coup leader, Gennady Yanayev, had stolen Gorbachev’s Cheget (the case containing the nuclear button) and the launch codes, and that the coup leaders might initiate a nuclear exchange. Maksimov ordered his mobile SS-25 ICBMs to be withdrawn from their forest emplacements and shut up in their sheds – knowing that American satellites would relay this information immediately to Washington. In the event, the NSA let President Bush know that the rockets were being stored away in real time.

In trying to understand how we got to the fantastical position where lorries trundling around in Siberian forests could be so nervously followed from space, a good place to start is Jim Baggott’s Atomic. The story of the making of the atomic bomb has been told countless times before, most notably by Richard Rhodes, but Baggott’s book is rare in giving details not just of the successful Anglo-Canadian-American effort at Los Alamos, but the competing efforts in Germany, Japan and the USSR, culminating with the explosion of Joe-1 (the first Soviet bomb) in 1949, together with the complex web of espionage which connected them all.

We have been living on the edge for a long time. In 1948, during the Berlin airlift, the US drew up Plan Trojan, targeting 30 Soviet cities for nuclear attack; at the time the USSR had no means to reply. In March 1949 Curtis LeMay, the head of Strategic Air Command, drew up his first war plan. LeMay had been responsible for killing some two million civilians in his fire raids of 1945 on 63 Japanese cities: in his view nuclear weapons were just another means of doing the same job. His War Plan 1-49 envisaged B-29 and B-50 bombers dropping 133 nuclear bombs on 70 Soviet cities, killing three million civilians and injuring four million more. LeMay found he could fly reconnaissance missions right over Vladivostok without meeting the slightest resistance. ‘We could have delivered the stockpile … with practically no losses,’ he reported. The temptation was strong for America to use its nuclear advantage to achieve an immediate victory over the Soviets. In 1954, Eisenhower resisted considerable pressure from the military to mount a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the USSR before it managed to acquire a competitive nuclear force. He said that pre-emptive strikes were un-American, pointing to the bitter American resentment of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Later, Rhodes says in his new book, The Twilight of the Bombs, Kissinger prevented the South Koreans from developing nuclear weapons only by threatening the complete withdrawal of US forces from the peninsula. But for that, the recent angry artillery exchanges between North and South Korea might have led to a nuclear war.

According to Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi, in a report for the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, in 2009 the US possessed between 9400 and 10,400 nuclear warheads, Russia between 12,950 and 13,950, China between 184 and 240, France around 300, the UK 160, Israel between 60 and 200, India 60 or 70, Pakistan about 60 and North Korea five or six. Rhodes says that the most likely future exchange would be between India and Pakistan. If they were to throw all their nuclear weapons at one another, with a total yield of around 1.5 megatonnes – less than that of many individual thermonuclear weapons in the American and Russian arsenals – the smoke from the fires would rise into the atmosphere and take ten years to dissipate. The earth would be returned to the conditions of the ‘little Ice Age’ in Europe between the 16th and mid-19th centuries, resulting in crop failures and other unpredictable phenomena. So even a modest exchange between third-tier powers would be a global disaster.

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