Following up on his exceptional books The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun, historian Richard Rhodes‘ The Twilight of the Bombs provides fascinating details on all matters nuclear-weapon-related during the fall of the Soviet Union and years afterward. For instance, there are many details on the clandestine Iraqi nuclear weapons program in operation after the first Gulf War, along with frightening details on the August coup against Mikhail Gorbachev and the protection of American tactical nuclear weapons in Europe during the later years of the Cold War.
One interesting passage Rhodes quotes comes from Gorbachev’s speech from Christmas Day, 1991 formally dissolving the Soviet Union:
“We had plenty of everything: land, oil, gas and other natural resources, and God had also endowed us with intellect and talent – yet we lived much worse than people in other industrialized countries and the gap was constantly widening. The reason was apparent even then – our society was stifled in the grip of a bureaucratic command system. Doomed to serve ideology and bear the heavy burden of the arms race, it was strained to the utmost… The country was losing hope. We could not go on living like this. We had to change everything radically.”
Rhodes, Richard. The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons. p.116 (hardcover)
In another fascinating passage, Rhodes discusses the control systems in place for the Soviet nuclear arsenal during the August coup. With the particular combination of conspirators involved, it was not possible for them to make unauthorized use of the Soviet strategic nuclear arsenal. A different group of conspirators with different tactics and objectives, however, might have been able to circumvent the Soviet nuclear controls and use weapons without Gorbachev’s approval:
“‘There is an important lesson here,’ [Bruce] Blair concluded. ‘No system of safeguards can reliably guard against misbehaviour at the very apex of government, in any government. There is no adequate answer to the question, “Who guards the guards?”‘”