Archive for the ‘From the armchair’ category

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips

8 July 2009
Categories: From the armchair

coverFor whatever reason, when I’m given books as gifts, I often don’t read them for a very long time afterward. They sit on the “pending” shelf in my library, gathering dust like all the rest, taunting me by tacitly saying, “me next!” But they only rarely make it to the head of the reading queue.

I suppose I could speculate on some reasons for this. One is the basic assumption of friends that I’ll like to read what they like to read. That’s not always the case. Slightly more off-base is the assumption that I’ll like what they think I’ll like. These are, of course, the normal pitfalls of gift books. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure that the majority of books I’ve gifted over the years have similarly languished on shelves. I have no hard feelings about that fact, and so I suppose I should not feel all that guilty for doing the same.

To be honest, nearly every book I add to my collection tends to sit on the shelf for quite a while before I get around to reading it. Such is the way of the avid book collector.

Moreover, though, there’s the simple fact of my tendencies when selecting new reading. I like to think that the next book chosen is generally either a logical progression or wildly divergent from the last, but perhaps that’s not really true. In a quick review of my reading selections of the past few years, I see that they hop between several of my favourite topics—in particular space and history, and their literary adjuncts sci-fi and historical fiction—with the occasional digression into what can only be termed research reading, mainly into the history of my alma mater, Michigan State University. And then, mixed amongst those, there’s the odd book that doesn’t really fit into my usual routine but piques my curiosity due to interesting reviews, or coincidences with other media, etc., such as In Cold Blood (the movie Capote), The Dangerous Book For Boys (several rave reviews and sale-priced at Costco), The Barn House (excerpted in the Chicago Reader), and The French Connection (again, the movie), to name a few.

Into this fray leapt my friend David, who presented me with a hardcover copy of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips. I’d read a positive and intriguing article about this book in the Reader, and so it was on my radar as something I might want to read some day. Yet given that the article ran nearly three years ago, it’s clear that I would not have gotten to it any time soon—had David not pressed the issue by giving me a copy for my birthday, and later asking an innocent question about whether I’d started reading it yet.

Here’s the thing. I’m pretty sure I’ve never read anything by James Tiptree Jr.

As a kid, I got into sci-fi in grade school and read a bunch of it over the years, mostly sticking to stuff by a few of the “heavies”: Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein. Around the time I graduated from college, I decided to expand my horizons and look beyond the familiar… but not knowing quite where to start, I decided to delve into the lists of Hugo and Nebula award winners. I could not have made a better choice—it was like having my own personal sci-fi Virgil to guide me. That’s how I discovered many of my very favourite authors, including Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, Samuel Delany, and David Brin.

(As an aside, I’m interested to note that four visits to my website this week have been the result of searches on “sci-fi book recommendations”—it turns out Google has my page currently listed third. Awesome. Google still loves me. As a result, I amended that page to suggest the Hugo and Nebula lists.)

Helping me considerably in my quest for quality sci-fi was Curious Book Shop in East Lansing. Long before authors like Delany enjoyed a renewed interest and subsequent re-issuance, I could almost always count on Curious to have the out-of-print paperbacks. (Sad to say, despite having borrowed its name from a classic Alfred Bester title, Chicago’s now-defunct shop The Stars Our Destination always came in a distant second to Curious in terms of both selection and price.) For example, one of Bester’s works, The Computer Connection, didn’t make Vintage’s reprint cut a dozen years ago, but I didn’t mind because I’d already managed to find the Analog 1974/5 three-issue serialisation (with the unfortunate title The Indian Giver) in the basement at Curious.

But I never read Tiptree, and here’s why: he mainly wrote short stories. Back when I was hitting Curious on a weekly basis, it was in the very early days of the web and it was not as easy as it is now to determine where these stories have been published. On the rare occasion when I could figure out a source, it often involved some thick anthology, which felt unfrugal to purchase for the sake of a single entry. So I stuck to the Best Novel lists.

To my detriment, it would seem—Tiptree’s stories sound fascinating. And if I may offer one caveat regarding Phillips’ biography, having read fewer than a hundred pages into it, I fear that it might contain more than a few spoilers—it already has given away a couple of endings. Perhaps it would be in my best interest to seek out some of Tiptree’s work in advance of finishing the biography.

Easily done, of course. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever collects several of his best-regarded works, including the Nebula Award–winning “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death,” the Hugo Award–winning “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” and the Hugo and Nebula Award–winning “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” Nowadays, there’s something called the “Internet Speculative Fiction Database” that makes that kind of fact-finding simple; not to mention for a quick and easy shopping spree. (Sorry, Curious… just can’t make a 200-mile road trip right now.)

Trouble is, The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon is awfully hard to put down. I’m fascinated by Alice’s childhood experiences in the disparate but equally wild jungles of the Belgian Congo and Chicago’s upper-class society. Julie Phillips employs clear understanding and deft phrasing to explain the origins of her “double life” in language that avoids stereotyping and value judgments. When discussing written works she treats Sheldon and Tiptree as distinct, using both gender-specific pronouns depending on whether she (Sheldon) or he (Tiptree) was the writer, a conceit I have followed here.

All in all, I doubt I’ll be able to hold off on finishing this terrific biography before a box with the familiar smiley-swoosh arrives. Thank you, David!

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

30 June 2009
Categories: From the armchair

coverFollowing a recommendation from a colleague at work, and attracted by his piecemeal summaries as he progressed through the book himself, I recently read House of Leaves, by first-time novelist Mark Z. Danielewski.

The grab-line from the front flap is catchy: “A young family… moves into a small house… where they discover something terribly wrong: their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.”

But that barely scratches the surface of what the book’s really about. The story is told (with occasional interjections by an unnamed “Editor”) by a twentysomething slacker named Johnny Truant who discovers a shambolic manuscript by a dead man named Zampanò, about a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer named Navidson, head of the aforementioned “young family,” who films the experience of moving into the little house in the country and the subsequent expeditions into its strange spaces, and edits it into an alternately acclaimed and despised cult film. Zampanò discusses and analyses the film with scholarly exactitude, yet his manuscript is a disheveled, incomplete mess; Truant reprints and organises Zampanò’s manuscript, completing his references and finding translators for its foreign-language excerpts. All the while, Truant’s footnotes frequently digress into rambling tales of his life and how working on the manuscript has invaded his mind and taken over his every moment.

The trouble with the manuscript, as Truant comes to discover, is that neither Navidson, his former-model wife, nor the film ever existed. And even if they had existed, Zampanò’s detailed descriptions of the cinematography would be suspect, considering that he was blind.

This nested concept, centered around a lengthy dissertation about a fictitious film that seems to engross the mind of anyone who comes into contact with it, makes a very interesting premise, and the book starts off promisingly, with frightening hints even in Truant’s introduction that things have gone terribly wrong for him as a result of editing Zampanò’s manuscript. After a while, though, despite a decent intertwining of love story and horror story, there’s something about the author’s arch conceits that becomes a distraction rather than an integration.

There are the little inscrutable typographical puzzles, like the fact that every instance of the word “house” throughout the book including the front cover, in any language, or even embedded within longer words, is printed in blue. Much more obvious (if not facile) were the pages that are meant to illustrate the sense of confusion and space-shifting that happens to the occupants of the house, with print that appears upside-down, or sideways, or only at the very top or bottom of the page.

There are the rampant footnotes, which I ordinarily wouldn’t mind, until it became clear that a great many (if not all) of them were citations of fake journals, magazine articles, and books, and simply a part of Zampanò’s elaborate hoax. I got to wondering if Danielewski got tired of making up fake article titles, because I certainly got tired of reading them all.

Then there’s the smugness of its self-reference. In a chapter where the lost expedition taps out S.O.S. in Morse code, Zampanò describes how Navidson’s film echoes the pattern of ••• ––– ••• with its editing: three short takes, followed by three long takes, followed by three more short takes. Meanwhile, the paragraphs describing these takes follow the same pattern. This might have been an ingenious idea—if not for the fact that by the end of the chapter Truant has pointed out the paragraph pattern to us, just in case we have missed it. I still haven’t decided whether Danielewski is being patronising or merely a spoiler by doing this; either way it’s annoying.

Annoying enough that when I got to the chapter about the labyrinth, with its mirror-image pages, and footnotes that tunnel down through page after page, or reverse back, or twist this way and that, with circular references and myriad dead-ends, it was all too easy as a reader to say, “Yes, I get it—the chapter about the labyrinth is itself a labyrinth. Can we move along now?”

I suppose mainly I just didn’t fathom House of Leaves. I wanted to like it, and much of it was interesting and intriguing. Yet its open-ended tendency to leave many of its notions unexplained might be best exemplified in the Ouroboros of self-reference that results when, in the final stages of deconstruction, Navidson burns the pages of the book he’s reading in order to provide the light he needs to read it—a book titled House of Leaves, presumably a copy of the very book we hold in our hands.

It’s only mentioned that one time, a throwaway comment that refuses to address its utter impossibility. It left me feeling much like Navidson must have felt—that I needed to hurry up and finish reading the book. Except that for him, the impetus was that he was swiftly running out of pages to burn before he caught up to the page he was reading; for me the impetus was tinged with the thought of getting it over with so that I could have closure and move on to something—anything—more enjoyable to read.

The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy by Robin Moore

10 October 2008

coverThe excellent 1971 film of The French Connection, starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, has been running quite frequently on the Fox Movie Channel of late. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s usually on late at night, so my focus is fuzzy, but there’s a major plot point in it that always had me confused.

The brown Lincoln Continental is brought into the country, loaded with concealed heroin, by the French connection. Then Sal Boca, the American connection, takes the car from a hotel parking ramp and parks it overnight on a seedy waterfront street, where it is nearly stripped by a roving chop shop gang. Popeye has the car impounded, the cops (finally, after hours of searching) discover the drug cache, then they close it back up good as new and return it to—the French connection, who later takes it to a desolate island in the East River for the deal to go down with Sal.

So here lies the confusion: why does Sal take possession of the car, full of drugs, before the deal—and then abandon it in a bad area? Why doesn’t he just off-load the drugs right then?

The answer lies in Robin Moore’s terrific non-fiction tale of, as he hyperbolically puts it, “the most crucial single victory to date in the ceaseless, frustrating war against the import of vicious narcotics into our country.” As Moore explains, the car (in reality a tan 1960 Buick Invicta) was left by the American connection on that waterfront street because at that point it was loaded, not with drugs, but with the cash payoff from a previous import. The car soon disappeared from the street, picked up by an unseen accomplice, and returned to Montréal (and ultimately France) to begin the next, even bigger, drug smuggling operation.

The stake-out scene in the movie is tense and dramatic, and it makes sense that it was included virtually unchanged from the book. But because the filmmakers have conflated two separate deals into one big deal, the chain of events ceases to make any sense at all. I find this ironic, considering that The French Connection is one of the films that is lauded for its gritty realism, a hallmark of American cinema in the 1970s. It’s a great movie—if for nothing else than the classic, nay, iconic chase scene between Popeye in a borrowed Pontiac Le Mans and his intended assassin in a commandeered elevated train—yet its five Academy Awards completely overshadow its excellent, worthy source material: Robin Moore’s 1969 book.

Forging a Fateful Alliance: Michigan State University and the Vietnam War by John Ernst

15 April 2006
Categories: From the armchair

coverHere is a surprising and little-known fact: from 1955 to 1962, Michigan State University was contracted by the U.S. government to provide “technical assistance” in Vietnam, teaching aspects of civil service and police administration to the government agencies of South Vietnam.

The story begins in 1954, after French colonialism met its demise at Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva Accords divided the country into North and South. The U.S. decided that the best hope to staunch the spread of communism in South Vietnam lay in its new prime minister, a former exile named Ngo Dinh Diem. The International Cooperation Administration (ICA), a U.S. government agency, hoped to provide Diem with the means of “nation building.”

During his self-imposed exile in the early 1950s, Diem had met and befriended Wesley R. Fishel, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State with a Ph.D in international relations from the University of Chicago. When Diem came to power in 1954, Fishel became something of a confidant and informal advisor to the prime minister. Diem sought the means to improve the new government’s strength and make it more responsive to issues that included a communist insurgency, a massive refugee influx from North Vietnam, and a calcified bureaucracy whose Vietnamese workers had never been adequately trained by the recently departed French colonialists (who coveted both the knowledge and all the top positions). Fishel convinced Diem that MSU had the know-how to provide the needed training in police and public administration, and when the request for assistance reached the U.S. government, MSU led a very short list of candidate schools.

A cadre of professors, from the departments of economics and political science as well as the school of public administration and public safety, soon deployed to Saigon as the Michigan State University Group (MSUG). From May 1955 to June 1962, the MSUG participated in several major programs, with varying success.

One of these was COMIGAL, a refugee resettlement program that provided placement and infrastructure-building for some 900,000 people fleeing the communist North. Most of the refugees were Catholic, as Diem (himself a Catholic) had widely promulgated the idea that they might be persecuted under communist rule. Among the MSUG’s positive influences was the idea of decentralized bureaucracy, of scattering COMIGAL offices throughout the villages to improve both the responsiveness of those offices and the self-responsibility of the refugees themselves. Yet the MSUG was unable to convince Diem of the validity of the land claims made by the Montagnards, Vietnam’s “mountain people” of the central highlands, and thousands of refugees—with government approval—became permanent squatters on land “already cleared by highlanders for planting.” Both the Montagnards and the majority Buddhists resented being governed by a Catholic regime, a minority religious group that they saw as unabashed colonialists. This opposition and Diem’s ruthless suppression pushed these groups toward further insurgency and, ultimately, communist rule.

In another program, the MSUG designed, financed, and implemented an expansion of the National Institute of Administration (NIA), a civil servant training school in Saigon. The NIA library in particular saw a tremendous improvement in both the size of its holdings and its organization. But students, used to the French style of juridical education, did not benefit well from American-style lectures. The library fell into disuse as most of its documents were in English, yet English-language studies were not emphasized. Finally, this notable quote, from an MSUG veteran in support of the project, expresses instead its mixed results: “You could tell that they [NIA graduates] were quite successful and in positions of authority because a number of them were assassinated after they went out to their posts in the countryside.” (emphasis added)

In the “participant program,” some 179 Vietnamese civil servants travelled to the United States, the Phillippines, Japan, and elsewhere, to be educated. Participants studied at major universities (not just Michigan State, but also Vanderbilt, Harvard, and many others) in pursuit of masters degrees and doctorates in civil service-related fields such as economics or political science. This program petered out during the seven years of the MSUG project—partly due to language and cultural difficulties—and never had the full support of Saigon. For one, it was feared that students who had become familiar with American language and culture would be reluctant to return to Vietnam. (Contrarily, although many did stay in the States, homesickness was a more common issue.) For another, not only were returning participants not given promotions commensurate with their new abilities, they were not always guaranteed to get their old jobs back.

Then there was the police administration project.

The MSUG helped the Sûreté—which they renamed the Vietnamese Bureau of Investigation, in an attempt to lessen the negative public image of that special police agency—to establish a national identification card. It was intended to streamline government services. Diem used the i.d. card registry to crack down on dissenters.

The MSUG tried to reform the civil guard into something resembling a U.S. state police outfit, an organization familiar to the professors, while Saigon (and the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group) preferred that the civil guard be a more heavily armed paramilitary force that could exercise national police duties and support the national army. The indecision and infighting between the advisory groups left the civil guard unprepared when major communist insurgency action began in 1959.

Much of the police administration training involved rudimentary tasks, such as the use of fingerprint kits, and even some seemingly obvious fundamentals, such as teaching city cops to treat the public they serve with politeness. And as far as the recorded history shows, it would appear that the MSUG’s primary roles were dispensing handcuffs and training Vietnamese police in small firearms.

Perhaps the biggest issue at stake was the fact that Michigan State lacked the manpower to sustain both its home campus and the MSUG. Particularly in police administration, a field in which MSU was widely respected in the 1950s, it became necessary to hire extensively outside the university in order to staff the project and still leave a sufficient contingent in East Lansing to teach classes. At one point, of the thirty-three police advisors stationed in Vietnam, only four were Michigan State employees prior to the MSUG. The “hired guns” often received academic status as lecturers or assistant professors at State. Moreover, several were also employees of the CIA.

It makes some sense that CIA-trained personnel were hired, since much of the police training was in counter-insurgency tactics. Whether these hirelings were merely teachers with former (or current) CIA associations, or active CIA agents performing covert operations on the side, remains a matter of conjecture. The official CIA record will be classified for many years to come. Ultimately, regardless of whether or not the CIA connection was appropriate, it opened the door for valid criticism of the MSUG.

Some MSUG professors may have ignored the signs of trouble and succumbed to the glamour of overseas service in a land where a professor earning “hardship assignment” pay incentives could hire five full-time servants and find them well within budget. Others, home from their tours of duty, wrote articles critical of the Diem regime and U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Two appeared in The New Republic magazine in 1961 and 1962. One in particular, a scathing indictment by professors Adrian Jaffe and Milton Taylor titled “A Crumbling Bastion: Flattery and Lies Won’t Save Vietnam,” enraged Diem. In spite of the university’s attempts to appease him, Diem called for termination of the MSUG project. The group left Vietnam in June 1962.

Within eighteen months, Diem was dead from a coup by a group of Vietnamese general officers, and the U.S. had begun to send the first of its military “advisors” that soon led to twelve years of conflict and over fifty-eight thousand Americans—and two million Vietnamese—dead.

Four years after MSUG’s expulsion an exposé appeared in Ramparts, which Ernst routinely describes as a “liberal West Coast Catholic magazine.” “The University on the Make” was sensationalistic in tone, and some of its facts were later admitted to be untrue. (What is apparently the full text is available online at But it offered powerful fodder for the nascent antiwar movement, and it raised some interesting questions about a university’s role in the world community. CIA involvement was a main focus of the article, with the implication that the MSUG provided cover for “cloak-and-dagger” work. The article made Professor Fishel the scapegoat for the project, and he was soon demonized on campus, both in East Lansing and later at Southern Illinois University. He died at the age of 57 in the mid-1970s, and one could certainly argue that his notoriety contributed to his early demise.

Anyway, that’s roughly the story. John Ernst’s telling is a solidly researched, seemingly objective, overview of the Michigan State University Group. The book suffers some from repetition, engendered in part because each major player (MSUG, ICA, MAAG, etc.) is redefined and reintroduced in each chapter, seemingly as if that chapter might be republished as an individual essay elsewhere. There are a few teasers, the most major of which is the assertion that “the Kennedy administration encouraged the plot” by the Vietnamese military to assassinate Diem in 1963; this aside is never expounded or substantiated. But overall it’s an excellent and scholarly work, of an interesting and intentionally forgotten period in American international relations.

In my review of Walter Adams’ book The Test (which provided my first hint of this story’s existence), I stated my opinion that John Hannah was one of Michigan State’s greatest presidents. For his tireless work in growing the school from a humble agricultural college into a major university, I continue to feel that Hannah merits this distinction. But Hannah had traits—among them a propensity for high-level political wheeling and dealing, and a staunch anti-communist bent—that became serious flaws in the case of the MSUG. Hannah firmly believed that “the world is our campus” and defended the MSUG as a positive example of this sort of world service, long after the project had ended with mixed results and had become a political liability.

Adams in particular, who prodded Taylor and Jaffe to write their New Republic articles, would argue that the university’s role is not to act as the instrument of the nation’s foreign policy, and I must agree. The U.S. wanted to stop the spread of the “red menace,” but in backing Diem—an entrenched bureaucrat with despotic tendencies—it may have provided the direct catalyst for South Vietnam’s ultimate fall to communism. The MSUG’s intentions were, for the most part, noble, and the group had some successes (however short-lived) in improving Vietnamese public welfare and safety. But MSU was rightfully burned by the public-opinion fallout of the Vietnam project. The MSUG was solely there for “technical assistance,” and had no position to voice or act upon its opposition to Diem’s policies. The university saw no academic gains from its involvement. What ground the MSUG gained in Vietnam was surely surpassed in effect by Diem’s autocratic, nepotistic, draconian rule.

One too can wonder what benefit, if any, the project could have had even if it had been wholly successful. Scholarly research was nearly impossible given the sheer volume of practical work involved. As the Ramparts article noted just four years after the project’s end with some glee (and validity), “MSU has not a single course, not even a study program, to show for its six [sic] years in Vietnam.” About the only campus remnant of this history that survives to the present is the International Center, built in 1964 using a portion of the MSUG’s $25 million government stipend.

Meanwhile the university continued to accept overseas technical-assistance contracts, but never again on the scale of the MSUG. Even today MSU is engaged in dozens of overseas projects—including one in the Mekong Delta, where MSU is teaching environmental resource management under contract to the U.S. Department of State.

And of course, the U.S. government continues its attempts at overseas nation-building, with mixed results at best.

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.