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  • The Bomb: A Life
  • Robert S. Norris
Gerard J. DeGroot , The Bomb: A Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. 397 pp. $18.95.

Anyone reading Gerard DeGroot's The Bomb: A Life would have to conclude that some pretty strange things happened here on planet earth when it came to trying to live with the Bomb during the second half of the twentieth century. DeGroot, a history professor at the University of St. Andrews, writes with a skeptical eye and a wry sense of humor, though his occasional attempts at a joke may cause a grimace. The book is an ambitious attempt to cover the nuclear era in a single volume, but it focuses more on the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s than on later decades. The Bomb is a welcome addition to the literature and might serve as a text for a course about the arms race and the Cold War.

As we move further in time from and begin reflecting on what transpired during this period, the logic, official pronouncements and explanations, and mindset that surrounded the Bomb look more and more outlandish. Civil defense programs and the original MX intercontinental ballistic missile basing scheme are two examples among many. A new nomenclature was invented to try to make nuclear wars seem logical, palatable, and winnable. For DeGroot this reached an apotheosis in the figure of Herman Kahn, whose book On Thermonuclear War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960) "is a massive window into a warped mind."

DeGroot's approach is close to that in Paul Boyer's By the Bomb's Early Light (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994) and Spencer Weart's Nuclear Fear (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989) in recounting the cultural, social, and psychological manifestations of the Bomb. The book contains little examination of domestic policy, geopolitics, or international crises. The short chapter on the Cuban missile crisis is particularly thin, as is DeGroot's description and understanding of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). DeGroot draws on the standard works in the secondary literature and eschews any archival research into primary sources. He offers no new document discoveries or novel interpretations, but he tells a good tale in a lively and accessible manner and is an able guide in revisiting this harrowing journey. We wonder how we made it through without blowing ourselves up.

The book is descriptive rather than analytical, providing no overarching arguments that bind the work together or any attempt to explain the big issues. One theme that recurs is the bomb's effect on science and the scientists. Throughout the nuclear era, especially during the Manhattan Project and the quest for the hydrogen [End Page 142] bomb that followed, scientists were attracted to the Bomb because of the sheer intellectual excitement it engendered. Ethics often took a backseat. Repeatedly, as De Groot notes, "[s]cientific possibility . . . smothered moral doubt." A few scientists may have written agonized letters about the morality of the bomb, but thousands of others worked diligently to create weapons of ever greater lethality and quantity. This was true of scientists in the United States as well as those in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.

One of the "abiding truths of American Cold war policy" traced by DeGroot was the belief that possessing nuclear weapons provided security and that the larger the number and the better the quality of the bombs you had, the safer you would be. The two superpowers chased this chimera for decades, tempting Armageddon in the process. DeGroot does not delve deeply into what animated the arms race, and the book would have been stronger if he had explored this in more detail. One contributing cause was the interlocking interservice rivalries in the United States and the Soviet Union. The military services in each country scrambled after the newest weapons and used the threat of their opposite number as the rationale. Congress contributed its own fuel. Key members of the congressional committees on armed services and appropriations funneled enormous amounts of money to their congressional districts, and local governments and corporations were happy to receive it.

DeGroot is better at describing how the U.S. government sought to...


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