"A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." The words are Ronald Reagan's. While McGeorge Bundy, like many others, finds Reagan's thinking about nuclear weapons muddy and his administration's public presentation of nuclear reality disgraceful, this particular sentence is crystal clear. It echoes the conclusion of the only person ever to authorize a nuclear strike, Harry Truman: "Starting an atomic war is totally unthinkable for rational men."
These sentences reflect the central message of Bundy's magisterial history of decisions during mankind's half-century of living with atomic fire. The message is deceptively simple: since 1945 no nation has ever come close to using a nuclear weapon, not even the United States during what is now too often remembered as a golden age of nuclear monopoly, followed by a period of superiority.
From the start of the nuclear age, Bundy argues, any superpower crisis that involved the "scent of burning" also evoked the smell of nuclear danger, and so American and Soviet heads of government were impelled toward prudence. Confrontations thus turned on other factors: the dispute over Berlin on Khrushchev's appreciation that taking action beyond his nuclear bluster would only galvanize the NATO partners; the Cuban missile crisis on American conventional superiority.
The book reaffirms Bundy's credentials for writing on this momentous subject. In the first half, which covers the nuclear age through the Eisenhower Administration, his method is primarily historical, but he walks around and around his cases searching for how they might have turned out differently.
We have, for instance, Truman's testimony that the decision to drop the bomb on Japan was not a difficult one. Perhaps it was not for him, a newcomer to the atomic secret, preoccupied with finishing the job FDR had started. For the decision to have come out another way-a demonstration shot, a warning, or an invitation of neutral observers to New Mexico for the test-would have taken analyses that were not much at hand, arguments that were "iffy" and were not pressed
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