Still Crazy After All These Years

Issue section: 

Review of 'The Bomb', Gerard DeGroot, Jonathan Cape £18.99

When former president Ronald Reagan died, he was acclaimed as a great president who saw off the threat of Communism. Few of his obituaries noted how he oversaw a massive increase in defence spending. His running mate in the 1980 election, George Bush Senior, described how the US could win a nuclear conflict if they had a 'capability that inflicts more damage on the opposition than it can inflict on you'. Together, they presided over a reheating of the Cold War, threatening the whole of the planet.

In the face of the Reagan administration's hysterical anti-Communist ranting, arms control talks collapsed and the Soviet military command increased the numbers of missiles aimed at Western Europe. For the first time in 14 years the two superpowers were not talking, and nuclear war was a distinct possibility.

DeGroot's fascinating book is a history of the nuclear bomb, the scientists who worked on it, the politicians who armed themselves with it and the lies told to justify its existence.

For DeGroot though, the bomb isn't something special - it was a consequence of the mass bombing campaigns that marked the end of the Second World War. Air raids on Tokyo and Dresden in 1945 killing tens of thousands of civilians meant that politicians had got used to mass destruction.

There is much to recommend about this book. For instance the author notes that British submarine commanders were expected to retaliate by launching their missiles at Russia in the event that Britain was destroyed in a nuclear attack. One of the signals that this had happened was if the BBC's Today programme stopped broadcasting.

Countless pamphlets were produced by the US government instructing civilians how to survive a nuclear attack - emphasising how 'traditional' families, with a wife who cooked and cleaned at home, would be the ones most likely to survive. Very little was said about the world they would survive into - the radiation, food shortages and collapse of government.

This book does have several weaknesses. The author apparently feels that the US was the principal threat to world peace throughout the Cold War. There are some good arguments for this - after all several presidents displayed a most zealous anti-Communist rhetoric and key members of their administrations clearly wanted to provoke a military confrontation with the USSR. But it is also true that the Soviet leadership was equally prepared to use nuclear weapons.

He concludes that the end of the Cold War has removed the balancing force on the US - that the very existence of Russia and its huge arsenal of weapons made it likely that war wouldn't happen. This strikes me as simplistic - especially as the author has made it clear that war nearly occurred several times.

But these minor disagreements aside, this is a fascinating work that will help educate a new generation of anti-war campaigners to the consequences of nuclear war, as well as reminding us all that Blair and Bush aren't the first leaders to threaten death on an enormous scale.