By Michael Drohan
The unassuming title of The Bomb does not do justice to the enormous amount of knowledge, research and detail that Kaplan brings to the subject of the history of the development and use of nuclear weapons. The book covers the entire history of the nuclear age from the 1940s to the present “fire and fury like the world has never seen” nuclear threats of Donald Trump. The amount of detail on generals, presidents and other high army and government figures that the book covers is staggering and challenging to the reader.
The book begins with the events of 1945 that culminated with the first use of the A-bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, and Nagasaki on August 9. The dropping of the nuclear bomb on August 6 had been preceded five months earlier by 334 air-raids over Tokyo, killing 84,000 people and incinerating nearly sixteen square miles of the city. The Hiroshima A-bomb alone, however, killed 150,000 civilians in one fell swoop, an unprecedented act of barbarism in warfare. The top bombardier of the assault on Japan, Major General Curtis LeMay, when asked when the war with Japan would be over, replied “when every square mile of Japan would be incinerated.”
The dawn of the atomic age brought to a culmination the idea that in war civilians were fair game and there were no limits to the civilian casualties that war planners would consider. Just war theory that specified war was between opposing armies of combatants and the use of civilians as targets of warfare and hostility was forbidden was now rendered obsolete. In 1948, LeMay was placed in charge of a new unit in the air force called the Strategic Air Command (SAC), where he implemented a “bomb everything” philosophy of war as its key motif.
One of the most fascinating, if not terrifying, chapters of the nuclear bomb history Kaplan covers involves the Kennedy years. These years were marked by two major Cold War crises between the US and the Soviet Union, namely the West Berlin crisis of 1961 and the Cuba crisis of 1962. Kennedy was surrounded by Curtis LeMay types, who were advocating and itching for a use of the bomb against the Soviets. In the story, as recounted by Kaplan, Kennedy comes out as perhaps the most sane person among the bunch of generals and government officials serving as his advisors. The eventual resolution of the Cuban crisis, in which the Soviets under Premier Khrushchev agreed to withdraw their missiles from Cuba in exchange for the US withdrawing its missiles from Turkey and agreeing to never invade Cuba, was as near to a miracle as one can have in the nuclear age. If the generals and other Kennedy advisors such as McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk had had their way, nuclear Armageddon would very likely have occurred. Khrushchev and Kennedy went on in June 1963 to sign a treaty banning atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Hope was briefly in the air.
As the 1960s progressed, and into the 1970s, the nuclear arsenals of the Soviet Union and the US multi- plied. One facet of this proliferation in the US was driven by the rivalry between the Army, the Navy and the Air Force; each branch wanted their own arsenal of weapons and each believed they should have a monopoly. The size of Soviet arsenals was grossly exaggerated by the US, even by Kennedy, who came to power by claiming – wrongly as it proved –a missile gap that gave the Soviets superiority. How many weapons were necessary to deter the Soviets from using their weapons became the operative question. Alain Enthoven, a whiz kid adviser to Robert Mc- Namara, concluded that the Soviets would be deterred if the US retalia- tory strike could kill 30 percent of
their population and destroy half of their industrial capacity. Such crazy calculations were dubbed Assured Destruction by McNamara and later given the acronym MAD, for mutually assured destruction. In the late 1960s as Nixon was trying to bring the Vietnam war to an end, his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, tried to convince the North Vietnamese that Nixon was truly a madman who could use nuclear weapons if provoked.
On August 8, 2017, President Trump told reporters outside his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” or else “they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” This threat was a response to North Korea launching a missile on the 4th of July and another three weeks later. With this threat, Trump was threatening North Korea with nuclear Armageddon should they even develop the ability to attack the US. He was in effect proclaiming a new doctrine of preventative nuclear warfare against would-be enemies. It has brought us to yet another level of in- sanity in the story of the bomb.
Michael Drohan is a member of the Thomas Merton Center.
NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 5. July/August, 2020. All rights reserved.