`The Bomb' in history. Lessons half learned: insights on the Atomic Age

By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, by Paul Boyer. New York: Pantheon Books. 426 pp. $22.95. The Nuclear Confrontation in Europe: A Research Volume from The Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, by Jeffrey D. Boutwell, Paul Doty, and Gregory F. Treverton. Dover, Mass.: Auburn House Publishing Company. 247 pp. $27.95. Although these two books are different in approach, they share a common bond: history.

Paul Boyer covers the period between 1945 and 1950, when Americans were first coming to grips with the social and moral issues raised by the bomb. Essayists in ``The Nuclear War in Europe'' write about the United States and NATO from the 1950s to the present.

A professor at the University of Wisconsin, Boyer explains what led him to write ``By the Bomb's Early Light'': ``My students were clearly anxious about the nuclear threat, yet almost totally innocent of its history. In this respect, I sensed, they were not much different from the rest of society.''

Besides providing readers with a description of the world's first reactions to the bomb, he gives details of its effect upon even the minor facets of American cultural life at the time -- telling how the bomb was dealt with in comedy, jewelry, and music, for example. Side by side with profound questionings by the nation's best thinkers, Boyer reports, was the effort of commercial endeavors to use the attention the bomb was getting on their own behalf.

A breakfast cereal, for example, offered -- for 50 cents and a box top -- an ``Atomic Viewer Ring,'' and by 1947 the Manhattan telephone directory listed 45 businesses whose names included the word ``atomic,'' among them, the ``Atomic Undergarment Company.''

Beyond the reactions and efforts to put events in perspective, Boyer tells us that three major phases ensued. The first was a movement toward world government, pushed by figures like E. B. White, Walter Lippmann, Chancellor Robert M. Hutchins of the University of Chicago, and Norman Cousins. In addition, scientists, including James Franck and Eugene Rabinowitch, who had been with the Manhattan Project, offered support.

Boyer feels that the world government and the scientists' movements were jolted by the Soviet Union's testing of the atomic bomb, the US decision to develop a hydrogen bomb, and the beginning of war in Korea. To Eugene Rabinowitch, these events were a sign that a major arms race was starting.

``Dissecting the propaganda campaign in which he himself had played a prominent role,'' Boyer writes, ``Rabinowitch concluded that . . . it had actively encouraged the very reliance on atomic weapons the scientists had hoped to avoid. [Their] endless insistence on the awesome destructive potential of the atomic bomb had left the American people `half educated': The lesson of the bomb's terrible power had been well learned, the lesson of international control and cooperation as a means of escaping that terror had not, leaving a net effect of `despair and confusion.' ''

As the world government movement declined, it was replaced by what Boyer calls ``Fantasies of a Techno-Atomic Utopia.'' Among the wonders thought of were rockets, airplanes, ships, and automobiles powered by atomic energy. Improvement of Earth's climate, as well as heating and cooling entire cities, seemed possible. Medical use of radioactive isotopes held out hope to many.

The final phase of Americans' reaction to the bomb was that of acceptance and commitment to it. Yet Boyer points out that even after this point, cycles of apathy toward it and activism against it followed. He draws parallels with today's cycles of anti-war activities and apathy, while giving insights into how they differ.

The Nuclear Confrontation in Europe, a collection of essays on NATO, focuses less on the human-interest side and more on political and military policy and history. Portions of the volume may seem dry, but its solid information on US-European-Soviet relations helps one understand why negotiating arms-control treaties is so challenging.

The first three essays provide historical background and explain the European perspective on nuclear forces, including the concern that the US would use Europe as its battleground.

Other essays explain the nature and strategic value of theater nuclear forces. But perhaps the most interesting are ``The Soviet Nuclear Force Posture: Doctrine, Strategy, and Capabilities,'' by Stephen M. Meyer; ``Nuclear Weapons and the Warsaw Pact,'' by Condolezza Rice; and ``The Role of Third-CountryNuclear Forces,'' by Lawrence Freedman, which covers Britain, France, and China.

Among the myths that Professor Meyer's essay rejects is the belief that before the 1970s, Soviet missiles were targeted primarily on European cities. He writes of post-1960s Soviet policy: ``In essence, should global nuclear war erupt, the United States should be removed as a viable economic-industrial-military power, while European economic-industrial resources should be spared . . . in order to aid in rebuilding the Soviet economy.''

The final essay, ``Whither the Nuclear Confrontation?'' by Paul Doty and Gregory F. Treverton, reveals some of the puzzles arms-control negotiators face. For example, how should British, French, and Chinese forces be treated in negotiations between the US and the USSR? What criteria should be adopted to distinguish nuclear-capable and non-nuclear-capable aircraft?

From their different standpoints, both books make clear that the questions people have been raising over the years since the bomb was dropped have not been easy ones to answer, and that we will be continuing to ponder them.

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