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39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
In this last volume of his breathtaking account of nuclear history, Richard Rhodes describes the post Cold War problems and hopes associated with nuclear weapons. The books bears many of Rhodes's trademarks- it is extremely well-researched and contains sharp portraits of the major players as well as fast-paced accounts of key events that make you feel as if you were there. Rhodes's abilities as a storyteller are still remarkable. This book is relatively slim and does not command the high-octane prose of Rhodes's masterpiece "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" but as usual, Rhodes's authoritative knowledge of nuclear matters provides many revelations and he has a novelist's eye for detail which keeps the reader hooked.

The book can roughly be divided into four parts. The first part concerns the first Gulf War and the dismantling of Iraq's nuclear infrastructure, the second part describes the race to secure nuclear material in the former Soviet republics after the fall of the Soviet Union, the third part briefly talks about South Africa's nuclear ambitions and and then in more detail about attempts to contain nuclear efforts by North Korea and the last part concerns the run-up to the second Gulf War and some final thoughts on the future of nuclear weapons. One striking omission in the book is Iran, and I think readers would have appreciated Rhodes's insightful thoughts on the Iranian nuclear problem.

The first part examines the troubling evidence in the 1980s that Saddam Hussein was trying to build a nuclear capability. Rogue Pakistani scientist A Q Khan had even tried to unsuccessfully sell Iraq a bomb design based on a Chinese weapon. At the same time that the US was providing aid and goodwill to Iraq to support it against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, it was also unearthing evidence in the form of dual-use equipment shipments and intelligence analysis that Iraq was pursuing enriched uranium. Interestingly, the technology that Iraq was using turned out to be electromagnetic separation, a primitive technology that the US did not initially believe would be used; for nations pursuing nuclear capability, separating uranium isotopes by using centrifuges is much more efficient. Yet electromagnetic separation is exactly the kind of technology that a relatively primitive and cash-strapped economy would pursue. This is a good example of how biases can lead to false conclusions in spite of supporting evidence. Later, Rhodes has pulse-racing accounts of searches for enrichment technology in Iraq conducted by the weapons inspectors of the IAEA and the UN. Even after the inspectors discovered evidence of enrichment in the form of equipment used for electromagnetic separation, this was not yet conclusive evidence of weapons building. Probably the most exciting moment was when, deep down in a small room in a basement, the inspectors discovered a report that did provide such evidence in the form of clear and detailed descriptions of materials and design for an implosion bomb.

The second part of the book deals with the fragmentation of the Soviet Union and the spirited and at times desperate race to acquire nuclear weapons from the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. There are many heroes in this story which stands as a model of bipartisan cooperation against a serious threat. Among these are David Kay, Hans Blix and Bob Gallucci who were nuclear inspectors and disarmament specialists. Probably the most prominent ones are the Democratic and Republican senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar who worked day and night to acquire funds from Congress to secure nuclear material and weapons from the three countries and have them transferred back to Russia. Concomitantly, Secretary of State James Baker hopped from one capital to another, urging the presidents of the new nations to sign the NPT and START using a combination of carrots (in the form of monetary rewards) and sticks (in the form of possible sanctions and threats from Russia). All three nations agreed that they were better off without nuclear weapons, and the result was a transfer of thousands of strategic and tactical weapons back to Russia. A third important and massive effort involved blending down the enriched uranium from Soviet weapons to reactor grade and shipping it back to the US for use in US nuclear reactors; Americans may be amused to know that about 10 percent of their current electricity derived from nuclear energy comes from nuclear weapons that their former foe had targeted against their cities. Curiously, the biggest reformer in this drama was President George H W Bush who orchestrated the largest arms reductions in history (he abolished entire classes of weapons, including missiles with multiple warheads and all ground-based weapons), and he needs to get much more credit for doing this than what has been given to him. Rhodes also describes the sense of wonder that directors of weapons labs in the US felt on meeting their Soviet counterparts for the first time, men and women who until then had been ghost-like figures in secret installations on the other side of the world, slated to possibly remain perpetually anonymous. When the director of Los Alamos Sigfried Hecker first traveled to the Soviet Union and met his counterpart Yuli Khariton, the man who had worked on Soviet atomic and hydrogen bombs since the beginning, the latter said, "I have been waiting for this moment all my life". Everybody involved knew that this was a new chapter in history.

In the third part Rhodes first briefly talks about the dismantling of South Africa's nuclear program, which is a fine lesson for nations wanting to eschew nuclear weapons. In case of South Africa, the same reasons- internal strife, border conflicts and international alienation because of the government's apartheid policies- that provoked the country to acquire weapons also encouraged them to give them up. An uglier reason was their fear in the 80s that the weapons might fall into the hands of the black government.

Rhodes then describes in detail the difficult relationship between the US and North Korea in the context of North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Along the way, Rhodes also provides perspective by noting that the US had mercilessly bombed the North during the Korean War; since then the North Koreans have constantly been in a kind of perpetual state of war, surrounded by giant powers like Russia and China. It's also worth keeping in mind that the US had stationed hundreds of nuclear weapons in South Korea as a deterrent until about 1990. Although these actions by the US do not justify the North's nuclear efforts, they do explain the paranoia and deep sense of insecurity that has fueled North Korea's animosity towards the US. Again, there are heroes in this story, but one singled out by Rhodes is former President Jimmy Carter who went to North Korea of his own volition in 1994 and successfully mediated the Koreans' proposal to stop reprocessing in return for light water reactors; the consequence of this diplomacy was the so-called "Agreed Framework" to regulate North Korea's commercial nuclear program, which unfortunately broke down in 2003 in the face of North Korean non-compliance and disagreements. Since then, North Korea has always had to be kept on a tight leash and there have been several moments of tension between the two countries, but Rhodes's accounts make it clear how diplomacy has averted another Korean War. Rhodes also has succinct discussions of efforts to develop and implement a framework for the CTBT, which was signed by Clinton but unfortunately not ratified by the Senate.

The last part of the book concerns the run-up to the second Gulf War. This story has been told before but Rhodes tells it succinctly and well. Meticulous weapons inspections in Iraq between 1992 and 1998 had unearthed no evidence of a WMD capability, although Iraq had also not furnished clear documentation of the dismantling of its WMD capability. As Rhodes tells it, regime change had already been on the table, especially pushed by neoconservatives like Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz but even contemplated by former Vice President Al Gore. But even after 9/11, it does not seem like Bush was thinking of attacking Iraq. However, as the record indicates, something changed in his thinking in the next two months, and invading Iraq became a concrete strategy in his mind. Rhodes thinks that a major reason for this shift in his thinking may have been the anthrax attacks which followed 9/11. It seems that these attacks really rammed the threat of terrorism home; at one point alarms even went off in the White House and Dick Cheney suspected that he himself may have been contaminated. Nonetheless, as is well-known now, Bush and his associates decided to invade Iraq fueled by the tried and tested strategy of threat-inflation and on evidence that was dubious at best. Rhodes clearly establishes the prevarications of the administration's claims about WMDs in Iraq, based on discredited reports about uranium shipments from Niger to Saddam (reports discredited even by the CIA) as well as Chinese imports of supposed aluminum tubes for centrifuges, which turned out to be parts for short-range rockets. At best Iraq was years behind the difficult goal of building a nuclear weapon, a goal which would have needed extensive operations of enrichment and processing which would most likely have been detected. No matter how you cut it, there was no concrete justification for invading Iraq except one based on ideology and belief. Bush also seriously damaged arms reduction efforts by withdrawing from the ABM treaty, by his belligerent rhetoric against North Korea (which withdrew from the NPT and tested a nuclear weapon in 2006) and Iran, by lifting sanctions on Pakistan (a particularly recalcitrant and prolific proliferator) and by agreeing to supply India (which had not signed the NPT) with nuclear-related equipment. And yet in the midst of this tragedy it is easy to miss Bush's one success in arms control in which he signed major arms reductions with Russia; these reductions brought down the number of warheads on US delivery vehicles from about 10,000 at the end of the Cold War to about 2600.

This brings us to the final, eloquent part of Rhodes's book where he talks about the possible abolishment of nuclear weapons. He describes the very serious problem of nuclear terrorism; in his view, while it may be very difficult for terrorists to use a sophisticated nuclear weapon, it may be much easier for them to acquire enough material for a crude explosive. Even state-owned nuclear weapons are susceptible to accident, miscalculation and misunderstanding. The bottom line is that as long as nuclear weapons are around, there is always a possibility that they may be used. The only, truly final solution for reducing the threat of nuclear weapons is to get rid of them. How do we achieve this? I would have appreciated more detail from Rhodes in this regard, but he describes promising developments. For one thing, simple laws of physics dictate that without nuclear material one cannot make nuclear weapons. So securing nuclear material is key and the Nunn-Lugar initiative has set a worthy bipartisan example for achieving this goal. Many recent initiatives to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons have also been refreshingly bipartisan. Efforts to ban nuclear testing have already been fine-honed for decades, and getting all nations on board the CTBT would mean a lot; in this context Rhodes singles out Australian diplomat Richard Butler and his Canberra Commission for special praise. The fact is that, in spite of nuclear proliferation, there have been hundreds of nations which have found it prudent not to develop nuclear weapons for various reasons (not the least of which is their expense; according to Rhodes it costs the US 50 billion dollars just to maintain its current stockpile of weapons), so there is hope.

In the end though, only political will, strong leadership and international cooperation can rid the world of these terrible weapons. At some point, owning a nuclear weapon needs to become a crime. It is absolutely necessary to stop regarding these weapons as partisan, parochial concerns which can be leveraged to score political points in elections. To underscore this point, Rhodes recounts a fascinating idea put forth by the Scottish writer Gil Elliot in his book "Twentieth Century Book of the Dead". Elliot talks about the international efforts to prevent and cure infectious disease and believes that war should similarly be treated as an international anathema that is to be abolished. Efforts to eradicate disease through public health campaigns crossed boundaries and saw even countries who were otherwise very hostile towards each other mutually cooperating. This was because disease was not seen as some other country's problem but as a common threat. Because of their sheer destructive power, nuclear weapons similarly pose a common threat to all of humanity. Rhodes says that only when nuclear weapons are similarly and completely depoliticized to the extent that infectious diseases are, only when the world sees them not as instruments of aggression and patriotism owned by specific nations but as a common scourge that threatens all of humanity irrespective of our political leanings and differences, only then will we all work together to abolish them.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on September 22, 2010
I try to keep up with all the literature relating to nuclear weapons, etc., but this book was a revelation. He provides the inside stories, often quoting sources he interviewed directly, re what really went on in the IAEA and UNSCOM inspections (some fairly dramatic stuff), who was who and who did what (e.g., for those who have had the good fortune to meet Hans Blix and Amb. Thomas Graham and Bob Galluci, it is fascinating to see the roles they played. And to read the reactions of the US and Soviet teams of scientists as they visited each others' countries, there are moments of stunning insight provided (e.g., the Soviet top nuclear targeting guy marvels that all the various cities he visits were just spots on a map, and now he cannot conceive wiping them out).
This book is not for the unitiated, however. It assumes a certain level of knowledge (e.g., having read perhaps one of his earlier fabulous books).
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on September 17, 2011
The career of author Richard Rhodes spans over four decades of history as well as subject matter ranging from early articles on dogs and horses for publications such as Harper's and Esquire to a handful of novels since 1973. However, he has made his most important mark in nonfiction (or "verity," a term he prefers), with an impressive bibliography on the subject of nuclear bombs.

The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons, published first in 2010 and released this month by Vintage Books in a trade paper edition, is his latest treasure of information and anecdotes that mark the landscape of international politics and nuclear history in the post-Cold War era. It is a book of remarkable depth, unbiased in its presentation, and powerfully logical in its conclusions.

Children of the Cold War will easily recall the heated debates as well as the horrific nightmares dramatically expressed in the political arena, dating back to such television campaign ads as the one by Lyndon Baines Johnson, the "Daisy Girl" ad, in his successful 1964 bid for the White House against Arizona senator, and noted conservative idealogue, Barry Goldwater.

Fear haunted the generation of American children born in that era as they became aware of their vulnerability to nuclear attacks by America's ideological foes. A measure of false comfort was attempted upon children against the hopelessness and fear of a real attack. In public schools, students were required to participate in atomic bomb drills using a "duck and cover" defense, sometimes evoking increased fear, rather than a feeling of security.

Though the public's understanding of the power of nuclear bombs was severely lacking, it was nonetheless only a modest picture of the horror that would be visited upon Americans in the event of a real attack upon the country. Until the 1990s when the Cold War ended, the subject of nuclear arms was debated during political contests, citing mind-numbing facts and figures, to the point of Americans being lulled asleep regarding the potential of mass destruction. It was a state of sleep from which they would not awaken until September 11, 2001, when their vulnerability was exposed, for real this time, in the tragic events in New York, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon in Washington D.C.

One of the dangerous by-products of this era of terrorism is that it causes politicians and their advisors to take their eyes off the ball in the nuclear arena. Rhodes describes this very reality during the George W. Bush administration, consumed by a war on terrorism and an eerily personal vendetta against Iraq and Saddam Hussein, in which careless rhetoric and threats against bomb-holding states such as North Korea were preferred to diplomacy and negotiations with regard to nuclear arms reductions.

Though the Cold War has ended, Rhodes says there are still over 20,000 warheads held between the two nuclear states of Russia and the United States, about 96% of the world's total inventory. Other countries known to be holding nuclear weapons are France, China, Britain, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea.

Another alarming statistic the author presents is that over $50 billion is required annually by the United States simply to maintain its nuclear arsenal. This budget, as Rhodes emphasizes, exceeds all anticipated expenditures on international diplomacy and foreign assistance, which is approximately $39.5 billion. He says, "It is nearly double the budget for general science, space and technology." The costs are more than economic. Maintenance of nuclear weaponry and resources, which experts believe will never be used, are also siphoning off the dollars which could be invested in the expansion of technologies in fields such as medical, agricultural, and environmental.

The Twilight of the Bombs is a highly detailed account of the post-Cold War dilemma, "What do we do now?" It is heavy reading, though eloquent. At points, it is inspiring. The influence of such statesmen as Senator Sam Nunn (Ga.) and President Jimmy Carter cannot be overstated. Rhodes, though unbiased, does not fall short in giving credit where credit is due. It is a book that will be appreciated most by those who are familiar with the nuclear issues and international politics. Though Rhodes' background is that of a writer and journalist, his 30 years of writing on this technical subject gives him nothing less than expert qualifications. His access to primary sources, the specific players, and the politicians gives the book extraordinary depth and credibility.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Article first published as Book Review: The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons by Richard Rhodes on Blogcritics.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 15, 2011
I was more familar with Richard Rhodes from his biography on John Audubon (having grown up near Audubon, Pennsylvania and spending many an afternoon at Audubon's home having lunch when it was near my office). He is an excellent researcher (and a former Pulitizer Prize winner) and an excellent writer. This book, the fourth in his series on nuclear weapons is thought provoking following the weapons inspections after Desert Storm, the break up of the Soviet Union and North Korea's nuclear program. I was riveted to this book (being a hardcore nuclear abolitionist) and I highly recommend it. I think it should be mandatory reading for our leaders as well as Rhodes covers the many political opportunities that were squandered along the way.

One of the stories that had the most impact is when Russian nuclear scientists visited places in the US like Las Vegas and how hard it was to think as cities as targets once they had been there.
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There's no shortage of books about the development and testing of nuclear weapons by the two great Cold War adversaries, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Other books, albeit far fewer of them, document the nuclear activities of major global players such as Britain, France and China.

In "Twilight of the Bombs," Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes caps his monumental multi-volume history of nuclear weapons with a comprehensive look at the nuclear ambitions, failures and successes of "the rest of the world"--Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Australia, North Korea and Iraq, among others--and the challenges posed by nuclear WMDs in the post-Cold-War age.

"Twilight of the Bombs" is fast-paced and very readable, especially considering that much of it deals with arcane bureaucratic minutia such as treaty language and interminable international negotiations. There's enough meat to satisfy the techno-geek, but this is really more a story of international relations rather than nuclear technology. Even so, it's a must-read for anyone who wants to learn about the world we live in now that the two superpowers no longer aim their hair-trigger nuclear arsenals at each other and promise "Mutual Assured Destruction."

Dr. Rhodes tells an important, wide-ranging and eye-opening story that every American should know. I recommend "Twilight of the Bombs" very highly.
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on December 22, 2014
I had read the first two books from Richard Rhodes about nuclear weapons (“The making of the atomic bomb” and “Dark Sun”) in the 1990s and both had really fascinated me. This summer (2014) I read, in the kindle format, the third chapter “Arsenals of Folly”. I have now just finished the fourth and final book of the series “Twilight of the Bombs”. I definitely recommend it, if you have been fascinated by the previous books this will not delude you. The story about nuclear weapons, as presented by the author, is not only about the technology or its military applications, but it is first of all about people and world politics.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 21, 2015
superb concluding book on the nuclear weapon era. History, as it should be written!!
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on April 30, 2013
There have been numerous instances of newsworthy incidents where I have had direct knowledge of what happened and then went on to find many errors in published accounts. The first chapter of this book covers a nuclear trigger sting operation against Iraq that I was personally involved with that took a year and a half to complete. Mr. Rhodes accurately condenses and succinctly covers the sting in a few pages of text. Mr. Rhodes also makes a very strong case for the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons. Hopefully, policy makers around the world will read this book.
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on July 12, 2015
This one of the finest books describing the impact of nuclear weapons and their pursuit post World War II. Having read Mr. Rhodes first two books many times I was very pleasantly surprised with the retention of quality in this last work on the issue. From my own early years in Defence policy Mr. Rhodes' work rings true and is most illuminating.

This is a highly recommended book for anyone wanting a background in the major if back ground impact on nuclear weapons on major current events even though they have not been used in 70 years.
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on June 10, 2014
A wonderfully incisive book. Rhodes does it yet again. He is a consummate craftsman at writing non fiction in fictional forms which keeps one riveted from cover to cover. Zeitgeist has it own angst. The author describes it with panache and aplomb. Hats off to the master storyteller! Despite the fact that Rhodes is dealing with the grundnorm of realities, he narrates as if it is a fairy tale. An art of writing quite without a parallel.
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