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Not an Impressive Follow-up
on August 7, 2007
The Pulitzer Prize-winning treatise "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" (1987) was the well-deserved claim-to-fame for American journalist and historian Richard Rhodes. The deservedly eminent nuclear pundit's follow-up book, Dark Sun (1995), attempts to provide an accurate historical account of the hydrogen bomb's development. The book is written for a non-expert audience, yet still provides enough technical information to give the reader a basic understanding of nuclear technology without inducing a migraine headache. Dark Sun aims to elucidate the technical achievement, political chicanery, and ethical controversy surrounding the production of thermonuclear weapons.
In the first section of the book, Rhodes uses declassified U.S. archive documents to trace the historical development of the hydrogen bomb from the discovery of fission to the first thermonuclear detonation in 1952. Rhodes does not focus on the ethical dilemmas per se; nonetheless, three of them feature prominently throughout the book. The first of those questions is probably the most obvious: given their indiscriminate and immensely destructive nature, should these weapons ever have been developed in the first place? Repeating a similar discussion from "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" (almost verbatim) he recounts the Scientists' understandably conflicted feelings. But Rhodes makes no effort to disguise his obvious disdain for both Edward Teller and his brainchild, believing the bomb's only function to be committing "omnicide".
The second portion of Dark Sun deals with the Soviet's nuclear espionage program, whose roots extend back to World War II. Rhodes argues that Soviet technical advancement depended almost entirely on espionage; as such, he uses newly (early 1990s) declassified KGB documents to show how effective the Soviets were in assuring that virtually every American breakthrough was quickly mirrored in the Soviet Union. Rhodes argues that this seemingly fluid transfer of technology and the subsequent success of the Soviet program would only have been possible with the help of certain individuals. He argues that Klaus Fuchs, the Rosenbergs and/or "Perseus" were sending the Soviets fusion-bomb designs (mainly Teller's) as early as 1946. During the early 1990s, former NKVD agent Pavel Sudoplatov alleged that Robert Oppenheimer himself was a source of information, but Rhodes goes out of his way to convince the reader that, contrary to Teller's allegations, Oppenheimer was an innocent victim of the political brouhaha accompanying the McCarthy-driven "red scare". The espionage section culminates in the Rosenberg's execution in 1953 for treason, a sentence Rhodes finds murderously unfair. Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that the execution was in fact a political memorandum to the Soviets stating that the United States' takes its national security seriously. In hindsight, failure to exact harsh punishment would have demonstrated a lack in resolve and would have been viewed as proof-positive that the U.S. is so weak that it cannot even bring known spies to justice. This in-turn would probably have resulted in a dramatic increase in Soviet espionage activity.
The concepts of espionage and technology transfer gives rise to the first moral quandary: horizontal proliferation. Rhodes does a brilliant job of recounting the ethical dilemmas faced by scientists and policy makers at the time. The willingness of American scientists to "betray their country" and pass on nuclear secrets to the Soviets can be understood if one pictures the geopolitical attitudes at the time (the US and Russia just fought a war as allies) and if one viewed nuclear hegemony as catastrophically destabilizing. For policy makers the primary question was (and still is) one of usage: against whom and under what conditions should these weapons be used? Rhodes does a marvelous job of describing the personal sentiments and interpersonal relationships of those involved. The political struggle between Oppenheimer and Teller regarding leadership and nuclear policy is discussed ad nauseam. Nevertheless, Rhodes makes a very convincing argument that Teller's obstinate refusal to compromise on bomb design severely jeopardized the H-bomb's development. In fact the project would have been scrapped, were it not for Marshall Holloway, Cornelius Everett, Carson Mark, and Stanislaw Ulam.
Dark Sun's final section concerns events during the Cold War, from the blockade of Berlin to the Korean War and how these incidents set the tone for the ensuing arms-race. While it is relatively clear that neither side wished for war, many on both sides perceived the looming cataclysm as all but inevitable. Rhodes makes some controversial assertions about U.S. Cold War military doctrine, specifically, what he regards as the potentially catastrophic risks run by the Strategic Air Command. He suggests that General Curtis E. LeMay had the ability to start World War III at a whim, a notion that unrealistically marginalizes the available safety protocols and represents a fundamental misunderstanding of contingency measures.
Contrary to the rest of his historically accurate exposition, Rhodes' hypothesis that the world teetered on the brink of nuclear holocaust during the first decade of the Cold War is both logically flawed and historically inaccurate. In point of fact, the scarcity of deliverable Soviet nuclear weapons in the ten years following WWII suggests that the only ones facing potential annihilation were the Soviets, at least until 1955 (W. Lambers - Nuclear Weapons). By Rhodes own admission, it was during that particular period of time that the United States' arsenal grew to several thousand deliverable nuclear weapons. This overwhelming advantage encouraged hawkish leaders like General LeMay to consider a preemptive strike against the Soviet's infantile nuclear capability. The possibility of a preventative strike against the budding Soviet arsenal delineates one final ethical dilemma that one might derive from Dark Sun: Would a preemptive strike against Soviet nuclear facilities in the late 1940s or early 1950s have been preferable to a Cold War that endured for half a century, risked the lives of millions (possibly billions), and left most of the Eurasian continent in economic shambles? Not to mention the number of under-developed countries around the world, formerly in one of the "spheres of influence" that still struggle with economic stagnation and relentless civil-conflict, fueled by the deluge of surplus Russian small-arms. Is all of that worth 100,000 lives? 200,000? Half a million? Opinions will vary; needless to say Dark Sun does not have the answer.
Rhodes takes on the ambitious task of trying to show both the American and Soviet perspectives. This was a mistake because it resulted in the sacrifice of coherency in favor of inclusivity. Dark Sun's discussion of the Soviet perspective suffers from a dire lack of supporting documentation, which only serves to detract from the book's overall quality. Rhodes should have limited his coverage of the Soviet program to the American point of view. Stalin and the Bomb by David Holloway does a much better job of analyzing the Soviet experience.
While its simultaneous coverage of American and Soviet endeavors to acquire a fusion weapon is unparalleled, Rhodes falls short of his reputed narrative brilliance evinced in "The Making of the Atomic Bomb". The primary reason for this dearth in quality is the lack of information actually pertaining to thermonuclear weapons or their technical development.
Dark Sun has its shortcomings and does not contain much information that has not already been covered by scholars like Eric Rosenberg or Lawrence Freedman. Nevertheless, Rhodes makes excellent use of interviews and declassified documents, successfully demonstrating that the H-Bomb was not a spontaneous development, but rather the culmination of a series of technical achievements, strategic perceptions and policy directives.