The critical importance that the nuclear weapon was to assume in the relations of the US and the USSR after Hiroshima made it inevitable that the writing of books about so-called nuclear policy would become a thriving industry. It is, however, a regrettable fact that the books that now follow one another in so rapid a succession do nothing to dissipate the underlying suspicions that divide the two superpowers. Most of the books and articles that see the light of day come from the US, and the views that some have proclaimed have clearly exacerbated the worries of the USSR, which, in comparison with the US, contributes practically nothing to public discussion (with America’s NATO partners also in the main silent). The debate therefore becomes parochial, some might even say parasitic, when, as not infrequently happens, an academic in some university, or even a postgraduate student with no direct experience of the subject, picks up his pen to provide a digest, often politically and militarily naive, of what can already be read in other books. The ground has been worked over so thoroughly and so often that it is rare indeed for one to come across even the germ of a new idea.
Dr. Herken, a teacher of history at Yale, gave his book the title Counsels of War. It has the look of a scholarly work, and it ends not only with a lengthy list of the names of people whom the author interviewed (a few over the telephone, if that can be called interviewing), but with an even lengthier list of books and articles which were presumably studied, followed by nearly forty pages of notes, and then an adequate index.
I started to read with keen interest, hoping to learn things I did not know before. I soon did. On page xv of the prologue I read that Edmund Burke had commented on the views of “nineteenth-century advocates of prison reform,” the authority for this statement being given as a book by Michael Walzer. I paused. As an undergraduate, I had as one of my prize possessions a first edition of Burke’s Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, and that, I remembered, had been published in the middle of the eighteenth century. Burke died in 1797. Since Dr. Herken teaches history at Yale, I felt that this must have been a casual error on his part.
I read on, only to discover on page three that George Kistiakowsky designed the nuclear core of the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki (he reappears as a “physicist” on pages 129 and 183). In fact Kistiakowsky, who died only recently, was one of Harvard’s most distinguished chemists who, as is well known, was responsible for devising the chemical implosive system of the bomb—not the nuclear core. On the next page I learned that cyclotrons were used to enrich uranium. I could only suppose that Dr. Herken had been too busy to consult his scientific colleagues…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.