In 1974, the Joint Chiefs of Staff presented President Richard Nixon’s national security advisor Henry Kissinger with an LNO – a Limited Nuclear Option plan – to be carried out in response to a Soviet invasion of Iran (then a US ally). The LNO called for firing 200 nuclear weapons at military targets in the southern part of the USSR. Kissinger reportedly screamed: “Are you out of your minds? This is a limited option?”
That moment encapsulates the conflict at the heart of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Fred Kaplan’s “The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War”: the clashing mindsets of the American military leaders who made plans for fighting a nuclear war and the civilians who would bear the ultimate responsibility for carrying them out.
During the Cold War most of the U.S. nuclear arsenal was under the control of Strategic Air Command, a military institution that operated according to a consistent but insidious logic. SAC was founded in 1946, just one year after atomic bombs brought a swift victory in the war with Japan. Some generals were giddy at having weapons of unprecedented power, and they were willing to use these weapons not just in an all-out war with the Soviet Union, but even for tactical purposes in a “local war” – including ones confined to a distant region that didn’t even jeopardize national interests.
Maddeningly, inter-service rivalries, not actual defense needs, often determined the acquisition and deployment of nuclear weapons. The Air Force has historically been determined to get more nukes than the Army and Navy: In Pentagon politics, the branch of the military with the biggest budget is the winner. Then to justify having more weapons, SAC would add more targets to its war plans. During a briefing on one of those plans, President John F. Kennedy asked a general why so many missiles were to be fired at locations in China: “As I understand this scenario, this war didn’t start there.” The general just replied, “They’re in the plan, Mr. President.”
The grotesquery of devising tactics to justify the possession of weapons led to horrifying negligence on the part of war planners. In calculating the damage of a particular strike the generals measured only explosive force, ignoring radiation, fire, and heat. In preparing lists of military targets, no one bothered to plot their locations in relation to each other, with the result of missile overkill. It wasn’t until the administration of President George H. W. Bush that inquisitive civil servants forced the Joint Chiefs to confront the excessiveness of these war plans and the United States initiated serious reductions of its nuclear arsenal.
However disturbing Kaplan’s revelations about the Cold War might be, the horrors are blunted by the simple fact of belonging to the past. The most chilling chapter of this book concerns President Donald Trump. When he was briefed on the success of reducing the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in recent decades, he demanded to know why he couldn’t have more nuclear weapons. In 2017, when discussing the potential threat posed by a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile, Trump boasted that “We have missiles that can knock out a missile in the air 97 percent of the time.” That’s not true, according to Kaplan. During tests, the U.S. antimissile defense system was successful only 10 out of 19 times. In November of that year the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing during which the question was raised: If a president wanted to start a nuclear war, who could stop him? There was no definitive answer.
At times, “The Bomb” is as tiring as it is terrifying. Kaplan is a talented writer and historian, but his subject is one that at times defies comprehension. Numbers such as 275 million (the estimated number of Russian, Chinese, and Eastern European deaths that would result from one of SAC’s war plans) are so large as to be meaningless. And even a careful reader is likely to get lost in the various acronyms and terms used by generals and military analysts: SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan – e.g., the general U.S. plan for nuclear war), MIRV (Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle, or a missile carrying multiple warheads, each one aimed at a different target) and megaton (a unit of explosive force equivalent to one million tons of TNT).
Kaplan packs a lot of information – too much, at times – into “The Bomb.” But his salient point is all too clear. It’s been almost 75 years since Hiroshima, and humanity has managed to avoid destroying itself. It could still happen.