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The Hazard of Nukes

The perils of proliferation in the post-Cold War world.

Jun 20, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 38 • By MICHAEL ANTON
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How the End Begins

West German demonstrators against NATO Pershing missiles, 1983

West German demonstrators against NATO Pershing missiles, 1983

Alain Nogues / Sygma / Corbis

The Road to a Nuclear
World War III

by Ron Rosenbaum

Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $28

This is, at once, a very bad good book, and a very good bad book. Its conversational writing style—full of fragments, run-ons, pop-culture references, and silly asides—is unworthy of its serious subject matter. There are typos everywhere, suggesting a rush job. Several long passages are given over to word-for-word transcripts of interviews that could have benefited from editing.

Ron Rosenbaum also makes some elementary errors. For instance, he asserts that North Korea is capable of producing nuclear weapons with yields of one megaton or more. In fact, both North Korean nuclear devices tested so far were in the low kiloton range and probably “fizzled”—that is, failed to produce their anticipated yields, which were unquestionably far lower than a megaton. Reaching the latter requires mastery of thermonuclear fusion, and we have no reason to believe the North Koreans can manage it. He also repeats the common misconception that Israel can be destroyed by “one” nuclear bomb. Not to minimize the horror of such an event, but even if one assumes megaton-scale weapons in the hands of, say, Iran (an unlikely prospect), it would take several to destroy all of the main Israeli population centers in the “T” from Haifa to Ashkelon, Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—still not quite the whole country.

Rosenbaum approaches the topic from the left side of the aisle, and sometimes his biases get the better of him. He is completely dismissive of missile defense. He takes at face value the Russian insistence that proposed American intercept and radar sites in Eastern Europe (which the Obama administration cancelled) threatened Russia’s ability to strike the United States. The truth, which the Russians well know, is that their vast arsenal could easily overwhelm any American system contemplated, much
less deployed. 

Rosenbaum claims to have read a vast number of articles and policy papers on nuclear strategy—and doubtless he is telling the truth—but he seems to have missed that, President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative notwithstanding, the United States gave up on pursuing all but the most limited defensive systems in the 1960s. And not because missile defense is technically unfeasible (which Rosenbaum takes for granted) but because nuclear theorists convinced policymakers that such systems destabilize the strategic balance by creating an incentive for nuclear peers to strike first. Bush administration officials were not being disingenuous when they said that Czech and Polish sites were intended to safeguard the United States and Europe against Iran. Moscow, having spent a great deal of money and political capital arming Iran, was just protecting
its investment.

Rosenbaum also occasionally lapses into caricature. He finds a villain in Keith Payne, a prolific writer on nuclear strategy whose views no doubt contrast sharply with Rosenbaum’s own. Yet ironically, Payne’s magnum opus, The Great American Gamble (2008), is a modern masterpiece of Thomistic Quaestiones Disputatae: Payne states the differing schools of nuclear strategy so clearly and fairly that the reader who picks up the book with an open mind will have a hard time deciding which approach to prefer.

Nonetheless, the virtues of How the End Begins are numerous and impressive. Beneath its surface superficiality, this is a deep meditation on the role, meaning, and possible consequences of nuclear weapons in our time. Rosenbaum is willing to discuss terrible things that nearly everyone else would prefer to ignore. An accomplished journalist, he manages to get access to an impressive list of sources. His longstanding liberal credentials open doors to fascinating discussions with disarmament icons such as Daniel Ellsberg and Bruce Blair. His journalistic chops gain him entrée into the highest levels of the Israeli defense establishment. Rosenbaum does not waste his chances.

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