The New Nuclear Threat

The Age of Hiroshima

edited by Michael D. Gordin and G. John Ikenberry
Princeton University Press, 431 pp., $99.95; $32.95 (paper)
Illustration by Molly Crabapple

Seventy-five years ago, at 8:16 on the clear morning of August 6, the world changed forever. A blast equivalent to more than 12,000 tons of TNT, unimaginably larger than that of any previous weapon, blew apart the Japanese city of Hiroshima, igniting a massive firestorm. Within minutes, between 70,000 and 80,000 died and as many were injured. Hospitals were destroyed or badly damaged, and more than 90 percent of the city’s doctors and nurses were killed or wounded. By the end of the year, thousands more had died from burns and radiation poisoning—a total of 40 percent of the city’s population.

The mushroom cloud became a universal symbol of horror. As Michael D. Gordin and G. John Ikenberry, the editors of The Age of Hiroshima, describe, entirely new ways of thinking about war and peace had to be invented, together with a new understanding of global interconnectedness. “Very few aspects of life,” geopolitical, technological, or cultural, they write, “have been left untouched,” not just among the superpowers but worldwide.

In part because of effective deterrence, fear of their destructiveness, and a growing taboo against their use, and in part because of dumb luck, nearly a century has passed without nuclear weapons being used again in conflict. The US and the Soviet Union survived the cold war, living on a knife edge of fear that drove each to accumulate more than 30,000 nuclear weapons, enough to destroy all life on the planet many times over. In retrospect, as documents are declassified and participants speak and write about their experiences, and as brilliantly chronicled by Fred Kaplan in The Bomb, the competition emerges, on the US side at least, as a largely mindless cycle of more and larger weapons aimed at ever more targets, and more and more targets deemed to require ever more weapons, the whole enterprise impervious to the efforts of administration after administration to define saner policies.

Kaplan tells the story of how, two weeks into the Kennedy administration, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara traveled to Strategic Air Command (SAC) headquarters in Omaha for his first briefing on nuclear war’s holy text, the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). One of its thousands of targets, he learned, was an air defense radar station in Albania. The bomb slated to destroy it was—by then only a few years into the arms race—roughly three hundred times larger than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. “Mr. Secretary,” said the commanding general, “I hope you don’t have any friends or relations in Albania, because we’re going to have to wipe it out.” Albania, a tiny country, was Communist but politically independent of Moscow.

Decades later, the same thinking—if that’s what it should be called—still prevailed. A Carter administration effort to reduce the consequences of nuclear war added “leadership” targets to the list of those to be hit in the…

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