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The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race

A-Arsenals of FollyIn 1954, Winston Churchill warned that if the United States continued the nuclear arms race, "all you are going to do is make the rubble bounce." By 1960, the Pentagon had the capacity to detonate 1.4 million Hiroshimas. Richard Rhodes's third volume about the nuclear arms race (after 1986's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atom Bomb and 1995's Dark Sun) explores how both American and Soviet experts, perceiving threats from each other, rationalized the stockpiling of nuclear bombs. In 1983, the nations came within a hairbreadth of nuclear war, but the Chernobyl explosion changed everything. Focusing on Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan and their 1986 Reykjavik summit talks, Rhodes explains how the Cold War ended, how disarmament succeeded, and how the latter was nearly derailed.
Knopf. 386 pages. $28.95. ISBN: 0375414134

Baltimore Sun 4 of 5 Stars
"Rhodes sheds new light on these 'incoherent policies' with a suspenseful narrative of the 1986 summit meeting at Reykjavik, Iceland, between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev-and the Machiavellian machinations of American neoconservatives attempting to scuttle a historic arms reduction treaty. ... Frustrated with the American negotiators' rush to 'no,' Rhodes dismisses the theory of deterrence altogether." Glenn C. Altschuler

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"It's of huge importance, a well-written history of recent times. ... Rhodes has come through again with an up-close look at people we elected to lead us and the advisers they trusted, the theories we believed in, how they worked and the consequences we bear today." Diane Hartman

Houston Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"As a contribution to our understanding of the latter half of the 20th century, Rhodes' achievement is on a par with Taylor Branch's America in the King Years trilogy and Robert Caro's monumental ongoing biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. ... Gorbachev, whom Rhodes acknowledges was 'no saint,' is nevertheless the book's hero in some sense." Charles Matthews

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"Presented through verbatim transcripts and memoirs, Rhodes re-creates Reykjavik as if we are in the presence of the speakers. ... Using an impressive range of sources, clean writing and a clear sense of the dramatic, Rhodes triumphs." Rex Burns

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This volume doesn't have a climax-fortunately for humanity, but unfortunately for the storytelling." Nicholas Thompson

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Rhodes] has composed a gripping narrative of the paranoia, cynicism, bureaucratic infighting and manipulation that brought the world close to annihilation. ... What seems missing from this otherwise comprehensive account is public opinion." Noam Lupu

Critical Summary

Richard Rhodes digs deep into the workings of the Cold War to explain how and why, between 1949 and 1991, apocalyptic nuclear war could easily have occurred-and how and why it was avoided. Through dramatic narrative and readable prose, Rhodes reveals the disjointed policies, bureaucratic infighting, and paranoia that marked this era, while profiling Soviet and American leaders (including Richard Perle, who nearly derailed the summit talks). Rhodes portrays Gorbachev, who advocated mutual security, as the era's hero; Reagan, while sympathetic, comes across as more naive. While a few critics noted some sections of the book as repetitive and slow and others described Rhodes's first two volumes as more magisterial, Arsenals of Folly provides an important, timely lesson: the cost of the nuclear arms race was a waste of resources, Rhodes concludes, and since then, there has been "no reasonable gain in security."