"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement
July 1, 2020
A Somber Trip Down Memory Lane

Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race. By Richard Rhodes,
Alfred A. Knopf, October 2007, 400 pp.

John Newhouse

Richard Rhodes has written an altogether fitting sequel to his two exceptional books on the early history of the nuclear age, books that occupy a niche of their own in the literature. Although Rhodes is not breaking a lot of new ground in Arsenals of Folly, he does impart some new information and some useful insights. His various judgments are argued with the same force and clarity as they were in the earlier books The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb.

With this book, Rhodes takes the reader on an altogether somber trip down memory lane. His review of Washington’s pathetic efforts to moderate the nuclear arms race through the medium of arms control agreements reminds us of equally pathetic U.S. efforts to inject stability in the Middle East and western Asia. Rhodes is focusing mainly on the episodic period stretching from the Ford administration through the presidency of Jimmy Carter and the eight years of President Ronald Reagan.

It was a time when there appeared large opportunities to restrain the growth of nuclear arms and lower superpower tensions, but it was also a time during which the arms control process rarely got serious. Rhodes describes the process as going around in circles as each side tried to portray the other as stronger and more menacing. In describing a mindless competition, Rhodes calls part of his book “Apes on a Treadmill,” the metaphor famously used by Paul Warnke, a pre-eminent arms control negotiator and advocate. Rhodes then tells how the muddled superpowers “inadvertently blundered close to nuclear war in November 1983.” He adds, “The Soviet Side may or may not have believed a NATO attack was imminent at that time…and U.S. intelligence had failed to grasp the true extent of their anxiety.”

Arms control is not a function that comes naturally to bureaucracies. Political leaders and other opinion molders can easily agree on the need to curb the competition in destructive weapons. The process, however, periodically requires an agreement or deal if it is to be sustainable. A deal means something for both sides, and it is when the deal is about to be closed that the unnatural quality looms larger and deep doubts surface. Bureaucratic skeptics are prone to question why if, as advocates insist, a deal is a good one for our side, the other side is so keen to close. Most senior officials had a difficult time with that question.

Opportunities to take sensible steps in the last 15 years of the Cold War were edged aside largely by the interplay of bureaucratic politics in Washington. In the mid-1970s, the concept of détente fell from fashion, with the word formally expunged from the Ford administration’s official vocabulary. Two of Rhodes’s chapters are aptly titled “The Sorcerers Apprentices.” He identifies a sizable group, many of whose names still resonate, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, and Paul Wolfowitz. Some of them operated within the government, some outside, and some were in-and-outers. Individually, most of these people were resourceful, messianic, and irrational. They were people who saw and still see lots of trees, but never the woods. (Years later, they became the shrillest advocates of invading Iraq.)

Rhodes describes in detail how this faction comprised many of the same people who succeeded in aligning Reagan with long-standing pet projects, notably ballistic missile defense, even though the debate on strategic defense had seemed to end in 1972 with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

Among other misdeeds, they also succeeded in corrupting the CIA’s leadership so that institutionally it acquired a tendency to follow the election returns when passing judgment on divergent estimates of the threat posed by Soviet strategic weapons. Estimates were bent, and the threat inflated (sound familiar?). Although the strategic forces of the two sides were always highly dissimilar, the estimates tended to compare them glibly. The forces reflected the widely different technological attainments of the two countries as well as their different geographical positions, which obviously mattered in strategic terms. The land is the natural strategic environment for Russia, while the United States can comfortably deploy strategic weapons on land and sea. Each side’s forces developed advantages that tended to be offset by the forces of the other. Hence, a rough parity, or equivalence, between the two aggregations of force emerged.

An epic and altogether useful figure appeared during this period: Mikhail Gorbachev. In two of his first three chapters, Rhodes traces first Gorbachev’s early and formative years, then his political career and campaign as a Soviet leader trying to halt the nuclear arms race. He quotes Gorbachev’s message to the 27th Party Congress: “The task of insuring security is more and more taking the form of a political task and can be resolved only by political means.” Although assorted personalities drift in and out of the story, Gorbachev emerges as not just the dominant figure but the one who tried hardest to create opportunities and then to exploit them. He struggled to move the arms control process forward against the resistance of two bureaucracies, his own and that of the United States.

What he wanted, first and foremost, was an agreement with Reagan, partly because he was the only president available to deal with and partly because Reagan was very secure politically. An agreement with him was unlikely to encounter the political squalls that had victimized the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks II (SALT II) under Carter.

Reagan thought of himself as the custodian of the peace and as a bulwark against the worst case. The problem, as he saw it, was linear and uncomplicated: the forces of good were arrayed against the forces of evil. He delegated control of East-West issues to the secretary of state, George Shultz, and the secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger. They agreed on almost nothing. Shultz was a moderate, Weinberger a hard-liner. They in turn delegated operational responsibilities for many security issues to sub-cabinet-level people, who became the key figures in the arms control saga that covered most of the Reagan era. The battles became even fiercer than those of the Nixon-Ford era, but only rarely were they joined at the senior level, as they had been in the past. The by-product of the Shultz-Weinberger duel, internal gridlock, lasted five and a half years. During this time, Reagan rarely left the sidelines. His four predecessors had each favored the SALT process, assuming that the United States and the USSR had entered an era of nuclear parity. They all had internal divisions of opinion on SALT issues, but not on the desirability of the process. Reagan and most of his people, however, saw or professed to see unacceptable disparity. In their time, the Joint Chiefs of Staff represented the only agency in town that was unambiguously sympathetic to the arms control process.

Reagan nonetheless threw everyone wholly off course when he shifted his focus from offensive missiles to a space-based defense against them. What he and a tiny handful of like-minded people who had his ear had in mind was an astrodome: inbound missiles would be destroyed by lasers, particle beams, and other directed-energy weapons deployed in space. Nuclear weapons, said Reagan in March 1983, would be made “impotent and obsolete.” “Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them?” he asked. “Star Wars” became the popular name for the program that followed; the bureaucracy called it SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative). This singular proposition would in various ways agitate the balance of Reagan’s presidency.

Rhodes notes that Reagan claimed SDI as his own idea, adding that there had never been a weapon without a defense. He was apparently talking about spears and shields. Rhodes also notes that the proposal had taken most of his closest advisers by surprise, not least, as he tells the story, because of Reagan’s offer to share the technology with Moscow. He seems to have felt that if the shield could be produced, the two sides should sit down and get rid of nuclear weapons.

All or most of the Pentagon saw SDI as a serious diversion of resources. Some months after Reagan launched it, people such as Weinberger and Perle could see its potential for sidetracking arms control.

Major European capitals—London, Paris, and Bonn—were appalled. All Europeans wanted the ABM Treaty kept intact. They and most orthodox U.S. thinkers on the subject were sure that any sizable defensive system would have the perverse effect of creating an enormous spiral in offensive nuclear arms, a situation in which there would be far less stability and less security for all. Washington was imposing a whole new strategy on them without warning, let alone consultation. The guarantor of Europe’s security, it seemed, had opted for shielded insularity.

In Moscow, SDI was seen as the devil’s own mischief, partly because it would bury the ABM Treaty, by then a Russian icon. Equally pernicious would be the effort needed to deny the United States a unilateral advantage. The Soviets may have felt as if they were condemned to an endless and exhausting game of catch-up with a power that held higher cards. Both sides had been working for many years on directed-energy weapons. Neither was then investing large sums in them because throwing money at this forbidding array of technologies seemed futile. In any case, the Soviets, like U.S. allies, were comfortable with the status quo, nuclear deterrence. With SDI, Reagan was not planning to extend the arms race into outer space; but the Soviets assumed, not unreasonably, that he would do just that.

The Soviet side, along with the Shultz faction in Washington, wanted another summit meeting. The first one, in November 1985, had been a let’s-get-acquainted meeting during which the two leaders had five hours of conversation and agreed that nuclear war could not be won and should never be fought. The second summit was held in December 1987, after being preceded by an improbable tête-à-tête in Reykjavik where Reagan and Gorbachev, after nearly agreeing to abolish nuclear weapons altogether, changed course abruptly when Gorbachev tied the deal to acceptance of a ban on SDI to include research and testing.

At bottom, Reagan and Gorbachev both strongly favored abolition. They diverged on how to get there. The way to eliminate weapons, Reagan believed, was to create a defensive shield. It was, says Rhodes, “a hubristic dream, a hope, a fantasy that American technological ingenuity could finesse a dangerous dilemma without resort to negotiation or compromise.”

During the initial summit meeting in Geneva, Gorbachev cited the need to meet each other halfway so as to reduce parity to lower levels. He then, Rhodes writes, “marshaled every argument he had” against SDI, arguing that it could lead to an arms race on earth and in space. He reminded the president that their foreign ministers had agreed in January 1985 that there should be no arms race in space. It was a dialogue of the deaf.

Throughout most of the 1970s and the 1980s, most of Washington’s analysis, as well as its rhetoric, would airbrush the harsh realities of what was happening within the Soviet Union, ignore its demographic and economic crises, and grossly misrepresent Soviet strategic power.

Rarely in this dreary period were nuclear issues exposed to the same degree of public scrutiny as other issues. If they had been, topics such as protracted nuclear war or limited nuclear war would have been lost in ridicule. Also, decisions in that era too often involved too few people, many of them narrowly focused specialists—brothers of the nuclear priesthood and the inspiration for notions of competent civil defense against nuclear weapons and limited nuclear war. Among the worst effects of the priesthood and its notions was their effect on the debate or what passed for the debate. Instead of a sober and balanced discussion of nuclear issues, society was confused, hence victimized, by shrill and polarized debate, the terms of which were far too often as arbitrary as they were absurd.

John Newhouse is a senior fellow at the World Security Institute and author of Cold Dawn: The Story of SALT and War and Peace in the Nuclear Age.

Are you interested in purchasing this book? You can help support the Arms Control Association by visiting one of our partners.