Do Nuclear Weapons Matter?

Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years

by McGeorge Bundy
Random House, 735 pp., $24.95
McGeorge Bundy
McGeorge Bundy; drawing by David Levine


McGeorge Bundy has written an exceptionally important book. When, in 1969, he left the presidency of the Ford Foundation in order to teach history at New York University, he decided to combine his lifelong academic interest in the study of American foreign policy and his experience both on the edges of government (he had helped Henry L. Stimson, FDR’s secretary of war, write his memoirs, and been the secretary of the 1952 Oppenheimer panel on arms and policy) and in power as national security adviser of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. For nine years, he worked on a book which, he tells us, is “about political choices in the fifty years of man-made nuclear fission.” It is not about all such choices, but about those that he deems important and that he thinks he can discuss in an informed and useful way.

As he warns his readers, he has really published three books in one. The first is a history, based on archives, of decisions made by Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. The second, based on his experience, reviews Kennedy’s choices. These two parts are detailed (the chapter on the Cuban missile crisis is seventy pages long), olympian in tone, inquisitively and judiciously analytical. The third part is a brief, and often very caustic, commentary on the main public debates about nuclear matters in the Seventies and Eighties—which takes up only about fifty pages. In addition to American policy, Bundy also examines the decisions of Britain, France, Israel, and China to become nuclear powers.

The fate of many large, scholarly, and closely reasoned books is to have readers who look only either at the one issue that interests them or at the conclusions. In the present case, the final chapter, on lessons and hopes, is essential, but it owes its strength to the subtle investigations of historical cases that make up the rest of the book. Bundy is not primarily interested in telling a story, or reconstructing a record. His method is the historian’s, but his concern is didactic and political. What do the actions of statesmen tell us about how to live and survive in the nuclear age, and about how to diminish its danger?

The two most important aspects of the book are the careful reconsideration of how crucial decisions that were made might have been better made, and thus have led to a safer world, and the documented dismissal of the claims of atomic diplomacy—i.e., of false, fanciful, and often fearful connections that are made between levels of nuclear force and political outcomes. Bundy reexamines the past from a point of view that his late friend Raymond Aron would have approved. He puts himself in the shoes of the statesmen and thus avoids the mistakes of ahistorical historians and polemicists, whose criticisms do not take into account the circumstances, or the limited information available to the actors. But at the…

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