The Twilight of the Bombs

An end to the threat of a nuclear bomb? Not quite yet.

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    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 pp., $27.95
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In 1988, Richard Rhodes won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Making of The Atomic Bomb,” the first of several books he’s written about nuclear weapons and nuclear diplomacy. Rhodes calls The Twilight of the Bombs the final narrative in what has now stretched to a four-volume series.

While the title of Rhodes’s latest book might hint at an imminent close to the age of nuclear weapons, he doesn’t see the sun setting on the era of nuclear bombs just yet.

But Rhodes does offer hope. “Although the world continues at risk, by the second decade of the twenty-first century the end of the Cold War and its transformative aftermath have opened the clear prospect of moving to a world free of nuclear weapons ... where common security rather than the threat of nuclear retaliation will guard the peace,” Rhodes tells readers.

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Stretching from the heady days at the end of the cold war to the current challenges of nuclear terrorism, the story of “Twilight” gives plenty of evidence for pessimism regarding nuclear disarmament. Many of the victories Rhodes notes in “Twilight of the Bombs” come from the nail-biting improvisation of leaders acting beyond the official playbook, suggesting global security more by accident than design.

Revisiting the thorny issue of weapons inspections in Iraq after the end of the Gulf War in 1991, “Twilight” discloses how an inventive band of inspectors fought bureaucratic inertia to probe Iraq’s nuclear potential – and how subsequent political miscalculation in both Baghdad and Washington laid the groundwork for another war in Iraq.

In a chilling chapter that reads like a Tom Clancy novel, Rhodes also takes readers inside the 1991 attempted coup in the Soviet Union and the fears it evoked about the security of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Rhodes writes favorably of former President Jimmy Carter, crediting him with preventing another Korean War – and brokering a deal on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions – by bucking the official wishes of the Clinton White House.

As in his previous books on nuclear policy, Rhodes necessarily concerns himself with the technology behind the weapons, a subject of unavoidable complexity. He does a fine job of distilling the nuances of nuclear physics, but Rhodes’s careful writing on the subject demands equally careful reading.

To read “The Twilight of the Bombs” is to be reminded that its twin topics, science and diplomacy, are often creatures of acronym. Here we learn about electromagnetic isotope separation, or EMIS, as well as highly enriched uranium, or HEU, and HMX – high-melting explosive. The cast of characters also includes the DNA (Defense Nuclear Agency), UNSCOM (the United Nations Special Commission), IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), and NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty).

Like an account of the New Deal, Rhodes’s “Twilight” understandably ladles out a lot of alphabet soup. He handles this unobtrusively, although a small glossary of terms might have helped refresh the reader’s memory on key abbreviations.

Among the more ominous bits of institutional shorthand in Rhodes’s book is IND, which stands for improvised nuclear device, a homemade bomb that might be cobbled together by a terrorist.

“I would certainly prefer to believe that a [nuclear] bomb is beyond the technical and organizational skills of terrorists,” Rhodes writes. “Two personal experiences with physicists deeply knowledgeable about nuclear-weapons design leave me skeptical of such a conclusion.”

Rhodes quotes the observations of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis W. Alvarez, who commented that a little stolen highly enriched uranium could produce an explosion “just by dropping one piece onto another by hand.” Rhodes also cites an equally unsettling thought from the late Los Alamos weapons designer Ted Taylor, who concluded that just one terrorist could build a nuclear bomb and start World War III.

Although “The Twilight of the Bombs” has a sense of valedictory, a tying-up of loose ends as Rhodes wraps up his series on the world’s most dangerous weapons, his book must inevitably close as a cliffhanger.

“Nuclear weapons operate beyond good and evil,” he writes. “They destroy without discrimination or mercy: whether one lives or dies in their operation is entirely a question of distance from ground zero.”

Obviously, more chapters in the history of nuclear weapons have yet to be written. For those who want to write that story, Rhodes’s series is a worthy model.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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