In This Review

Nuclear Weapons and American Grand Strategy
Nuclear Weapons and American Grand Strategy
By Francis J. Gavin
384 pp, Brookings Institution Press, 2020
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The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War
The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War
By Fred Kaplan
384 pp, Simon & Schuster, 2020
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Super Bomb: Organizational Conflict and the Development of the Hydrogen Bomb
Super Bomb: Organizational Conflict and the Development of the Hydrogen Bomb
By Ken Young and Warner R. Schilling
240 pp, Cornell University Press, 2020
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These three books trace the political history of nuclear weapons in the United States. In a thoughtful and probing series of essays, Gavin explores the dissonance between how theorists plotted the nuclear age and how events actually unfurled. He explores, for instance, how leaders fretted about “quantitative superiority”—boasting bigger nuclear arsenals than their rivals—when it provided no route to victory. He also tries to understand why the United States put so much effort into preventing other states from getting their own nuclear weapons when doing so meant that Washington had to take more responsibility for the security of others. 

In 1983, Kaplan made a splash with The Wizards of Armageddon, which recounted in intriguing detail the actions and rivalries of the civilian strategists who built the framework for U.S. nuclear strategy. His new book focuses on the presidents and generals who were responsible for making and executing U.S. nuclear policy. Kaplan writes well, engaging the reader even when describing arcane bureaucratic battles. Although the early chapters cover familiar ground, the post–Cold War ones provide fascinating insights into why there has been so much continuity in U.S. nuclear policy, including maintaining the “nuclear triad,” which allows weapons to be launched from land, sea, and air. 

In the 1950s, Schilling interviewed 66 of the key players involved in the decision to develop the hydrogen bomb, including U.S. President Harry Truman. He wrote an article with his findings but never completed a planned book on the subject. Young, a British academic, took Schilling’s material, carried out some additional research, and crafted a compelling book that was published posthumously. Young used the interviews to present a fresh look at the defeat of the scientists, led by Robert Oppenheimer, who opposed the hydrogen bomb. He shows how the scientists were tactically inept, relying too much on the moral case against a city-destroying weapon. Truman was never likely to share their optimism on the possibility of mutual restraint with the Soviets. Proponents of the bomb turned on Oppenheimer and treated him as if he were undermining U.S. security. Schilling marveled at how the pleasant people he interviewed were entangled in so much rancor.