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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 379-380

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Book Review

India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation

India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation. By George Perkovich. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1999. Pp. xiii+597. $39.95.

George Perkovich traces the history of India's nuclear weapons program from the immediate post-World War II period to the tests of five nuclear bombs that it conducted in 1998. He focuses on two major questions: 1) why did India decide to proceed with a test of what it called a "peaceful nuclear explosion" in 1974, and 2), why did it then refrain from further testing for twenty-four years? Perkovich concludes that the answers lie in India's profound ambivalence toward nuclear weapons. On the one hand, it was a leader in calling for world nuclear disarmament, condemning the nuclear powers for the arms race and expressing moral revulsion at the existence of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, it was committed to throwing off the vestiges of colonialism, demonstrating its scientific prowess, and winning recognition as a major power. The bomb seemed to offer the best way to accomplish those objectives. Perkovich argues that domestic issues rather than national security concerns were the paramount considerations in India's approach to nuclear weapons.

From the beginning of its nuclear program in the late 1940s, India insisted that it wished to develop nuclear power strictly for peaceful purposes. But it also quietly sought to keep open the option of making nuclear weapons. Largely in response to the appeals of nuclear scientists, India moved ever closer to a test explosion in a series of incremental decisions. Prime Minister Indira Ghandi authorized the first test in 1974, but she was not the driving force behind it. The government was caught off guard by the intensity of the consternation and criticism that the test triggered abroad, and international pressure helped to discourage India from undertaking further experimental explosions.

Nevertheless, Perkovich suggests, the hiatus in testing between 1974 and 1998 was more a response to domestic constraints than to international disapproval. India's longstanding aversion to nuclear weapons reasserted itself. For a long time, it responded cautiously and calmly even to the increasingly apparent nuclear threat posed by Pakistan. India returned to its policy of maintaining the option of building nuclear weapons but made no effort to assemble, test, or deploy them. In keeping with this position, it refused to sign either the Nonproliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. By 1998 a number of considerations had pushed India into a resumption of nuclear testing. Its motivations arose partly from foreign policy concerns, especially the desire to impress its Asian neighbors. India did not want to fall further behind China in nuclear capacity, and it did want to reaffirm nuclear superiority over Pakistan, which had recently tested a missile with sufficient range to reach most major Indian cities. But [End Page 379] domestic pressures were even more influential, particularly the political gains that the Indian government hoped to achieve by conducting nuclear tests. Perkovich concludes that the Indian tests "were a bold statement" (p. 438) that generally failed to accomplish their objectives.

Perkovich has provided an excellent account, thorough, balanced, and convincing. He explains fifty years of Indian nuclear policies with clarity and insight. He is critical of many of India's programs and decisions on nuclear affairs without sacrificing empathy for the dilemmas that its leaders faced. The book is something of a cross between history and journalism; in discussing recent events it makes good use of interviews with high-level officials in India and the United States. The sources of the interviews are often unidentified, which will make it difficult for other scholars to follow up on the information and analyses that Perkovich offers. But until documentary sources become available, if they ever do, this book sets a high standard for understanding India's tortured path to becoming a nuclear power.

J. Samuel Walker

Dr. Walker is historian of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission...


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