15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation; How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III

In This Review

15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation
By L. Douglas Keeney
St. Martin's Press, 2011
384 pp. $26.99
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How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III
By Ron Rosenbaum
Simon & Schuster, 2011
320 pp. $28.00
Purchase

General Curtis LeMay, forever associated with the firebombing of Japan and nuclear belligerence during the Cold War, was also a formidable manager. Keeney's book is not so much about LeMay as about the extraordinary system he created to ensure that the United States could threaten the Soviet Union with nuclear retaliation under all circumstances. Keeney cites LeMay's views in 1950 about what would be needed to allow the United States to deliver a retaliatory strike rather than just a first strike: an intelligence system that would warn of an incoming attack, a continual war footing for the air force, sufficient funds to support ambitious operational planning, and, in LeMay's words, the need to "re-examine present policies which imply that we must absorb the first blow." If retaliation was the order, then everything revolved around the 15 minutes of Keeney's title -- the time it would take to get strategic bombers airborne while giving the president time to decide whether to exchange nuclear devastation. This strategy explains the massive size of the U.S. arsenal, which at its peak comprised some 34,000 nuclear weapons. The justification for all this is that it worked: mutual deterrence took hold, and the Cold War ended peacefully. But accidents and potentially catastrophic errors were regular. Along with David Hoffman's The Dead Hand, Keeney's book is yet another chilling reminder of the enormous gamble of Cold War deterrence.

It would certainly be grist for the mill for Rosenbaum, an accomplished journalist with a talent for exploring familiar issues from novel angles. His instincts are liberal and antinuclear, and in How the End Begins, he interrogates nuclear experts about how stable nuclear relationships were in the past and whether, in the light of Iranian endeavors, one can be confident about the future. He is particularly bothered by a question that is also at the heart of Keeney's book, one that was posed in 1975 by a major in the Strategic Air Command (to whom Rosenbaum's book is dedicated) and one that leads Rosenbaum into a disquisition on the morality of second-strike retaliation: Should the order to unleash a nuclear strike be issued, how can one know if the president is sane?