Dark Sun

Government offices in Gatineau

The whole technical and chilling history of atomic weapons is reviewed in Richard Rhodes’ Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. Released in 1995, it is based substantially on documents that became available after the end of the Cold War, documenting the development of nuclear and thermonuclear bombs in the United States and Soviet Union, as well as delving into issues of international politics, espionage, and delivery systems.

Most people are likely to find some aspects of the book tedious, while others are fascinating. For instance, I noted all the descriptions of design details of nuclear and thermonuclear issues with interest, but found a lot of the minute descriptions of espionage activities tedious (especially descriptions of nearly every meeting between the atomic spies and their contacts). That said, the book will certainly offer good rewards to anyone with an interest in some aspect of nuclear weapons or the Cold War.

The last few pages really ought to be read by everyone. They document the shocking behaviour of Curtis LeMay and the Strategic Air Command (SAC) in the period prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as during it. At the time, LeMay and some of his commanders could use nuclear weapons without presidential authority; they were also obsessed with striking first, and generally convinced that war with Russia was inevitable. Perhaps the most shocking actions detailed are LeMay’s strategy of flying nuclear-capable bombers over targets like Vladivostok, in the Soviet Union. They were running drills and taking photos, but it looked to the Russians exactly like an atomic attack. I don’t think Rhodes is wrong to suggest that, had the Soviets done something similar in America, the SAC would have launched an all-out attack against them. Rhodes marshals compelling evidence that LeMay did, at times, seek to provoke a nuclear war through initiatives like these flights and the provocative American ballistic missile test undertaken during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The book’s closing also laments the enormous amounts of sacrifice made to build up these massive, threatening stocks of weapons. The Oak Ridge and Hanford complexes, producing fissile materials, used more energy than the Tennessee Valley Authority, Hoover, Grand Coulee, and Bonneville dams could produce together. One year of expanding the facilities required 11% of US nickel production and 34% of the output of stainless steel. All told, Rhodes estimates that the arms race cost America over $4 trillion, which could have otherwise been put to productive uses. On the Soviet side, the story is far more appalling: with thousands of slaves being terrorized and irradiated in the drive to match the American weapons complex. The irony is that, while generals and arms manufacturers clamoured for ever-more warheads, politicians on both sides of the Iron Curtain had already come to understand that the weapons could never be used. Indeed, Rhodes’ account provides a nice counter-argument to the view that all politicians are short-sighted and lacking in wisdom.

All told, Rhodes’ account is an excellent one: historically rigorous, but alive to the human issues raised inevitably by the subject matter. It’s a book that is deeply relevant in a world where US-Russian tensions are growing, weapons are proliferating, and a terrifying number of bombs are still deployed on 15-minute hair-trigger alerts.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

20 thoughts on “Dark Sun

  1. You have written an enticing review of this book and I certainly feel that I would like to read it. Where can I get a copy of it?

  2. The Vancouver Public Library and Amazon both have it, and the UBC library system probably does as well.

  3. Thanks. It was taken a few minutes before this one, while walking along the Ottawa River with my mother.

    I want to drag some strobes, light modifiers, and a subject to the same general area during the same time of day sometime soon. I think it could make for some really nice mixed ambient-flash portraits.

  4. What Else Are We Wrong About?
    The danger of nuclear proliferation and other possible fallacies.
    By Jacob Weisberg
    Posted Saturday, April 4, 2009, at 6:56 AM ET

    A lot of our premises have turned out to be wrong lately. I’m talking not about evanescent bits of conventional wisdom that have shifted but about overarching assumptions that were widely shared across the political spectrum—big things that experts and nonexperts agreed about—until they were proved false.

    For instance, before 1989, virtually all Sovietologists agreed that the USSR was highly stable. Before 2001, few Middle East scholars worried that the United States was vulnerable to a major terrorist attack. Before 2003, everyone from neocon hawks to French lefties agreed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Before 2008, few economists wondered about the fundamental soundness of the American financial system. Popular opinion echoed the expert consensus on each of these points. Those who challenged the groupthink—such as Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik, renegade counterterrorism expert John O’Neill, former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, and pessimistic economist Nouriel Roubini—tended to be dismissed as provocateurs, wackos, or (in Ritter’s case) worse.

  5. Obama Calls For Nuke-Free World

    President Obama has put out a call for a world free of nuclear weapons at a speech in Prague today. He acknowledged that it was a long-term goal, perhaps not something that can be accomplished in his lifetime, but promised to encourage the US Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty. According to the BBC, he also stated his desire to “negotiate a new treaty to end the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons,” and to hold a global summit within the next year to work out agreements for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. Obama said, “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it.” His speech came less than a day after North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket.

  6. Many obstacles to Obama nuclear dream

    By Paul Reynolds
    World affairs correspondent BBC News website

    President Obama’s hopes for a world free of nuclear weapons may just be a dream.

    Despite his rousing rhetoric in Prague that “we can do it”, huge obstacles are in the way and even he gave himself two escape clauses.

  7. “The second, and more important get-out, was his statement that so long as these weapons exist, the US will maintain a “safe, secure and effective” arsenal.

    So if just one country maintains nuclear weapons, so will the US. Otherwise that country could dominate the world. And if the US does, so will Russia and China. And the French will not want to rely on the Americans so they will keep them and the British will not want the French to be the only ones in Europe with them, so the British will keep them too. “

  8. Peace, love and understanding

    Apr 6th 2009 | PRAGUE
    From Economist.com
    Barack Obama proposes a world free of nuclear weapons

    AMERICA has the “moral responsibility” to lead a campaign to rid the world of all nuclear weapons, Barack Obama told a cheering crowd in Prague on Sunday April 5th. He offered the world a goal of eradicating nuclear weapons, although he admitted that it might not be achieved in his lifetime.

    Two decades earlier, in the Velvet revolution of 1989, Czechs brought down a nuclear-armed empire without a shot, Mr Obama told an audience of some 20,000 people who had gathered in the shadow of Prague castle. Most of the youthful spectators, who had waited since before dawn to hear the American president, were too young to remember the cold war or the Prague Spring of 1968.

    He described a 21st century in which nuclear powers agreed to reduce arsenals, countries without nuclear weapons pledged not to acquire them and all countries enjoyed the right to civilian nuclear power, ideally drawing their fuel from a tightly controlled “international fuel bank”.

  9. Unfinished Business at Hanford
    By Clark Williams-Derry

    May 15 marks the 20th anniversary of a state-federal agreement to clean up the Hanford site in south-central Washington. During the Cold War, Hanford produced most of the weapons-grade plutonium for the US nuclear arsenal — and as a result, the site remains contaminated with an incredible volume of high-level nuclear waste.

    To mark the upcoming anniversary of the Hanford cleanup agreement, the US Department of Energy has compiled a list of its accomplishments.

    Yet there’s a tremendous amount of unfinished business at Hanford. The Washington Department of Ecology still calls Hanford “the most contaminated site in North America.” And as this article, published recently in Remediation Journal, points out, the Hanford cleanup effort remains riddled with problems. (Full disclosure: John Abbotts, a longtime friend of Sightline, is one of the article’s authors, and also provided information for this blog post.)

    Some 50 million gallons of highly radioactive liquid wastes are still being stored at the site, contained (for now, at least) in more than 100 underground tanks that have already exceeded their design lifespans. A facility designed to stabilize and solidify the Hanford tank wastes is now 8 years behind schedule and about $8 billion over its initial budget. And the Department of Energy’s cleanup effort is underfunded: at the end of 2007, projected budgets over the next 10 years were expected to fall $5 billion short of the funding needed to meet the deadlines set by the state-federal cleanup agreement.

  10. Louis Rosen, physicist who worked on the first atomic bomb, dies.

    The “Los Alamos lifer” died at age 91 at his home in New Mexico.

    He was one of the last surviving links to the scientific giants who had created the atomic age — men like J. Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi as well as Dr. Teller. But more than that, he had also advanced the era.

    Dr. Rosen was a lifer at Los Alamos. Where other scientists drifted away, he spent his career there, and built the most intense atom smasher in the world. He was also part ambassador, part lobbyist for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, promoting its continuing importance as a center not only of weapons development but also of basic research.

    His atom smasher was his most spectacular project. “This monstrous gadget will give us new windows on the nucleus, a new set of probes,” he said in an interview with The New York Times.

  11. Gentlemen, you can’t fight here! This is the War Room!

    By DreamerFi on sovjet

    1995 Contractor Study Finds that U.S. Analysts Exaggerated Soviet Aggressiveness and Understated Moscow’s Fears of a U.S. First Strike. During a 1972 command post exercise, leaders of the Kremlin listened to a briefing on the results of a hypothetical war with the United States. A U.S. attack would kill 80 million Soviet citizens and destroy 85 percent of the country’s industrial capacity. According to the recollections of a Soviet general who was present, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev “trembled” when he was asked to push a button, asking Soviet defense minister Grechko “this is definitely an exercise?” This story appears in a recently released two-volume study on Soviet Intentions, 1965-1985, prepared in 1995 by the Pentagon contractor BDM Corporation, and published today for the first time by the National Security Archive.

    Based on an extraordinarily revealing series of interviews with former senior Soviet defense officials–“unhappy Cold Warriors”–during the final days of the Soviet Union, the BDM study puts Soviet nuclear policy in a fresh light by highlighting Soviet leaders’ recognition of the catastrophe of nuclear conflict, even while they supported preparations for fighting an unsurvivable war.

  12. “[Obama] has released not just the current numbers but the numbers, year by year, dating back to 1962. (The numbers for 1949-61 were declassified, after much internal debate, in 1994.) And it turns out that in 1967, the year when the NPT was signed, the United States had 31,255 nuclear warheads. (This was the all-time high.) In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, we still had 22,217. Over the next four years, as the Cold War’s demise sank in, the number was cut in half, to 11,511. For the next 10 years, this number stayed pretty much unchanged. Then, starting in 2004, the cuts resumed, winding down to the current 5,113.

  13. The Congressional Budget Office on Friday estimated that strategic nuclear forces would cost the Pentagon $132 billion over the next 10 years, based on current plans. That would include $20 billion for the ICBM force alone. It does not include an estimated $56 billion for the 10-year cost of communications and other systems needed to command and control the whole nuclear force.

    One prominent American who has questioned the future of ICBMs is Chuck Hagel, the current secretary of defence. As a private citizen in 2012 he endorsed a report that outlined a phased elimination of nuclear weapons, to include scrapping U.S. ICBMs within 10 years. The report by a group called Global Zero said the ICBM “has lost its central utility” in nuclear deterrence.

    The current ICBM, known as Minuteman 3, has been in service since 1970. The Air Force operates 450 of them and has suggested cutting to 400 as part of adapting to the new strategic arms treaty with Russia by 2018.


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