Introduction to The Bomb
For thirty years after the Cold War ended, almost no one thought, much less worried, about nuclear war. Now almost everyone is fearful. But the fear takes the form of a vaguely paralyzed anxiety. Because of the long reprieve from the bomb’s shadow, few people know how to grasp its dimensions; they’ve forgotten, if they ever knew.
The holiday from history ended on August 8, 2017, when President Donald Trump, barely six months in office, told reporters at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, that if the North Koreans kept threatening the United States with harsh rhetoric and missile tests, “they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Even to those who didn’t remember President Harry Truman’s similar description, seventy-two years earlier, of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima (“a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth”), it was clear that, in language more bellicose than any president’s since the end of World War II, Trump was talking about launching nuclear weapons at North Korea—not if its leader, Kim Jong-un, first attacked the United States, but merely if he developed the ability to do so.
Then, six months later, Trump signed and released his administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, a seventy-four-page document that called for building new types of nuclear weapons and integrating them with the military’s conventional war plans—in short, for treating nuclear weapons as normal. The red lights flashed, the alarm bells rang furiously.
Yet here is what few recognized: none of these notions were new. The president himself seemed a departure from the norm, his character— erratic, eruptive, thin-skinned, willfully uninformed—a combustive mix for a world leader with his “finger on the button.” But the button and everything around it were the same. In those decades when most of us chose to forget about the bomb—as global tensions calmed and fallout shelters crumbled and we turned our gaze to other problems and pleasures—the nuclear war machine continued to rumble forth in the beyond-Top-Secret chambers of the Pentagon, the Strategic Command headquarters in Omaha, the weapons labs in various parts of the country, and the think tanks whose denizens never stopped thinking about the unthinkable.
They all kept at their singular tasks, wrestling with the dilemmas posed by the bomb’s existence: how to deter nuclear war; how to fight a nuclear war, if it cannot be deterred; how to win it, if such a thing is possible. This is the nature of the nuclear era, and the era never drifted into suspension, even if our attention did. Trump snapped us out of our slumber: reminded those who were old enough to know, and informed those who weren’t, that the bomb is still here.
In public, over the years, officers and officials have described America’s nuclear policy as second-strike deterrence: if an enemy strikes us with nuclear weapons, we will retaliate in kind; this retaliatory power is what deters the enemy from attacking us. In reality, though, American policy has always been to strike first preemptively, or in response to a conventional invasion of allied territory, or to a biological or large-scale cyberattack: in any case, not just as an answer to a nuclear attack. All of these options envision firing nuclear weapons at military targets for military ends; they envision the bomb as a weapon of war, writ large. This vision has been enshrined in the American military’s doctrines, drills, and exercises from the onset of the nuclear era through all its phases. Most presidents have been skeptical of this vision—morally, strategically, practically—but none of them have rejected it. Some have threatened to launch nuclear weapons first as a way of settling a crisis. The few who considered adopting a “no first use” policy, in the end, decided against it.
There are rationales for these doctrines, drills, and exercises and for the retention of the first-use option. They are driven by politics, personalities, and bureaucratic rivalries, but also by a logic, which, once its premises are accepted, hurls its adherents—and the rest of us—into a rabbit hole of increasingly bizarre scenarios that seem increasingly, if strangely, rational the deeper they’re probed.
Understanding the nuclear era—the era of our lifetime—means understanding the rabbit hole: who dug it and how we got stuck inside. It means tracing the maze of its tunnels, which is to say, the arc of its history: a story enmeshed in secrecy, some of it still secret, much of it now illuminated—by declassified documents and interviews with key actors—though never fully told. How did we get to this second coming of nuclear panic?
How did we wind up with thousands of nuclear weapons, far more than any war aims could justify? What propelled the nuclear arms race during the decades-long Cold War? And what happened to the weapons and their guardians after the Cold War ended? How and why did any of this persist?