In This Review

Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism From Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda
Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism From Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda
By John Mueller
Oxford University Press, 2009, 336 pp

In a field dominated by apocalyptic warnings, Mueller speaks up for complacency. In a world of bad people and dangerous weapons, there is no room for complacency, but Mueller has found it anyway. Of course nuclear weapons are awful, but not that awful, he argues; perhaps the bomb has encouraged some caution in political leaders, but if it had never existed the world would be much the same; it would be best if there were no more nuclear proliferation, but what is in store will not necessarily be calamitous; a terrorist's bomb might be everybody's nightmare, but it is very difficult for nonstate actors to actually construct a workable weapon. In the end, Mueller's case for calm is less compelling than his case against willful exaggeration and institutionalized paranoia in nuclear debates, whether on the part of hawks or doves. He points out the waste of resources and scientific talent they involve, as well as the way they encourage unnecessary tensions, counterproductive policies, and pointless disarmament negotiations. As always with Mueller, this book is lively and provocative and a useful corrective to much of the mainstream consensus. There is, however, a tension at its heart: if nuclear weapons are so irrelevant, how can fear of them have had such damaging effects? It is impossible to extract the nuclear factor from the history of the past six decades. Whether or not a third world war would have been avoided without nuclear weapons, the prospect of nuclear war has influenced all aspects of international affairs, for better or worse.