Our ability to survive the nuclear age for so long is an impressive achievement, but it is hard to avoid the nagging feeling that at some point humankind’s luck will run out. Until nuclear weapons are somehow eliminated, we have little choice but to rely on deterrence and a taboo (of uncertain strength) against their use. Meanwhile, governments must make every effort to limit the number of nuclear-armed states, reduce the number of nuclear weapons that exist, and narrow the options for their use.
Perry has long been one of the more strenuous advocates for confronting the dangers of the nuclear age, and his engaging memoir explains why. As a young mathematician, Perry helped the CIA analyze intelligence on Soviet capabilities during the Cuban missile crisis. Later, working in the Pentagon during the Carter administration, he came to realize that it was conceivable for a false alarm to cause an inadvertent nuclear war. As President Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense, he prioritized a program to help the Russians safely dismantle parts of the Soviet nuclear arsenal—and pushed for cuts to the U.S. stockpile as well. Not surprisingly, the recent deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations has left him anxious, and he calls on the nuclear powers to revive their efforts to reduce the risks of catastrophe.
Roberts, in his well-researched and carefully argued book, takes a different approach. Without denying the risks described by Perry, he worries that there are also dangers in neglecting the more immediate challenges of nuclear strategy. His primary concern is the possibility of a conflict between the United States and a country (or countries) that has more seriously considered how to employ nuclear weapons in a crisis, if only because it enjoys fewer conventional options than does Washington. After an excellent survey of post–Cold War U.S. nuclear policy, he zeroes in on North Korea, which is probably the scariest nuclear-armed state, and then looks closely at China and Russia. He concludes that the United States must start taking nuclear strategy seriously again and that doing so will require investing in new capabilities.