Archive for January 2006

Book recommendations: Nuclear weapons development, the Cold War, and their ramifications

22 January 2006
Categories: From the armchair

coverThe Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes
Even before the moment in 1933 when Leo Szilard stepped off a curb and had his epiphany of nuclear fission, the Atomic Age was inevitable. Rhodes’ Pulitzer prizewinner makes the difficult concepts of physics and chemistry understandable without oversimplification, and explains the background of each discovery as well. This could have made for a dull, tedious read, but Rhodes uses honest drama and solid characterizations to create a ripping good tale. No other book covers both the history and the morality of this subject better.

coverThe Myths of August by Stewart Udall
August 1945, and the myths are those which were accepted by the American public in the wake of the atomic bombings of Japan. Former Secretary of the Interior Udall rips to logical shreds the notion that the bombings were necessary to end the war. When those in command were unable or refused to see the diplomatic resolution before their eyes, science provided a deadly alternative. Udall goes on to explain how the secrecy of the Manhattan Project continued, expanded, and mutated during the Cold War, creating a government within the government that answers to no authority and hoards information vital to the well-being of everyone on Earth in the name of “national security.” A scathing and cogent indictment of Cold War values that continue to shape the American consciousness; a must-read.

coverDark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb by Richard Rhodes
At the dawn of the Cold War, Edward Teller, a brilliant but egomaniacal physicist, led a crusade to build a “Super” bomb. In the process, he deliberately destroyed the career of Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project and opponent of hydrogen bomb development, claiming him to be a Communist sympathiser. Co-designer Stanislaw Ulam is now nearly forgotten, and Teller is putatively known as the “Father of the H-bomb.” This book is a fascinating document of the long and treacherous road Teller travelled to gain that title and create the most destructive weapons in the American nuclear arsenal.

coverEye in the Sky: The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites by Dwayne A. Day, John M. Logsdon, and Brian Latell, eds.
The result of a 1995 conference that brought together many of the people responsible for the Corona program, this book contains essays written by several of the major players. Each essay covers the same series of events from a unique viewpoint, depending on whether the author worked in vehicle development, camera systems, photo interpretation, or other aspects of the project. An improvement over Peebles’ The Corona Project (see below) because of the first-person perspective and the addition of a chapter on Zenit, the Soviet “equivalent.”

coverThe Corona Project: America’s First Spy Satellites by Curtis Peebles
When Sputnik was launched in 1957 and caused a panic among the American public, some people in the U.S. government were glad to see it, because the Soviets had inadvertently set the precedent that overflights of a country by satellites were not the violation of sovereign airspace that missions in high-altitude spyplanes were. Soon the U.S. was launching Corona, a photographic spy sat that returned its exposed film to earth in heat-resistant “buckets” to be caught in mid-air by specially-equipped cargo planes over the Pacific. Though not without its problems—one engineer said that the program pioneered every kind of failure the U.S. space program had, but did it in secret—Corona lasted a dozen years and among other successes was solely responsible for putting to rest fears of both a “bomber gap” and a “missile gap” with the Soviets.

coverOne Point Safe by Andrew Cockburn & Leslie Cockburn
The book on which the film The Peacemaker was based. In the movie a highly-trained platoon of renegade Russian commandoes, in an intricately orchestrated operation, hijacks a train to steal nuclear weapons. In the book—and in real life—weapons-grade plutonium is stolen by three disgruntled Naval officers who are only caught because one of them is a drunk who talks too much in bars. This is but one of many examples of why the end of the Cold War does not mean the end of a threat of annihilation. It may have been an exciting movie, but the reality of nuclear security (and lack thereof) after the breakup of the Soviet Union is far more frightening.

coverNuclear Landscapes by Peter Goin (out of print)
Beautiful and haunting photographic collection from the Cold War-ravaged landscapes of Hanford, Washington; the Nevada Test Site; and Bikini and Enewetok atolls.


cover Atomic Harvest by Michael D’Antonio (out of print)
The tale of the Hanford Downwinders. Here is a book report.


coverThe Day We Bombed Utah by John G. Fuller (out of print)


coverBlind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew
A well-researched and well-written account of the underwater Cold War, despite security restrictions that prevent the authors from naming most of their sources or getting the complete story from them. The search for Scorpion, the folly of the Glomar Explorer, and cable-tapping missions in Soviet waters are all included here, along with numerous anecdotes about the tedium and danger of submarine life. Though the more recent accounts are understandably sketchy, I was fascinated to learn how old-school methods of espionage carried on by the submarine fleet dramatically increased tensions during the years of Nixon’s détente and Reagan’s “Evil Empire” posturing.

coverThe Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case by Sam Roberts
An engrossing, cautionary tale. David Greenglass was an ordinary Los Alamos machinist (with vaguely Communist leanings and decidedly underdeveloped ethics) who provided classified information about atomic bomb construction to the Soviets during World War Two. When the FBI caught up with him five years later, he cooperated in order to protect his complicit wife from indictment—but in his testimony he fabricated lies and suppositions that ultimately were the prime reason his sister, Ethel Rosenberg, was sentenced to the electric chair. Years later, Greenglass rationalized his espionage by claiming that his worst deed was helping to build the bomb, not sharing it with the Russians: “they never dropped the bomb on anyone.” But his sister, now a Cold War martyr for the cause of Communism, probably did not need to die so that David’s wife could remain free.

coverTrinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie by Peter Kuran
Admittedly, not a book—but in the context of the Cold War, this excellent documentary film on nuclear weapons tests holds as important a place as any book on the subject. Here’s a review.