From the author of the classic The Wizards of Armageddon and Pulitzer Prize finalist comes the definitive history of American policy on nuclear war—and Presidents’ actions in nuclear crises—from Truman to Trump.
Fred Kaplan, hailed by The New York Times as “a rare combination of defense intellectual and pugnacious reporter,” takes us into the White House Situation Room, the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s “Tank” in the Pentagon, and the vast chambers of Strategic Command to bring us the untold stories—based on exclusive interviews and previously classified documents—of how America’s presidents and generals have thought about, threatened, broached, and just barely avoided nuclear war from the dawn of the atomic age until today.
Kaplan’s historical research and deep reporting will stand as the permanent record of politics. Discussing theories that have dominated nightmare scenarios from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Kaplan presents the unthinkable in terms of mass destruction and demonstrates how the nuclear war reality will not go away, regardless of the dire consequences.
Slate columnist Kaplan (Dark Territory) charts the fraught relationship between U.S. leaders and America's nuclear arsenal in this thorough and frequently terrifying account. Drawing on interviews and recently declassified materials, Kaplan documents developments in nuclear arms policy since the Truman administration, including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's 1962 announcement of the "assured destruction" doctrine (the ability to absorb a first strike and still be able to launch an overwhelming response). The philosophy of nuclear deterrence kept the Cold War from heating up, but initiated an arms race and would have required U.S. presidents to launch nearly 2,000 nuclear weapons in response to an attack. Kaplan writes that Richard Nixon was "visibly horrified" to inherit a plan outlining his strike options in the Soviet Union and China. According to Kaplan, the challenge of planning a response that is "large enough to terrify" yet small enough to classify as "limited" has yet to be resolved. He credits Ronald Reagan with approaching a "grand peace" in the 1980s, but disconcertingly notes that in 2018 lawmakers were so concerned about the possibility that President Trump might launch a nuclear first strike against North Korea that they held the first hearing on the matter in 41 years. Kaplan synthesizes a wealth of material into lucid, easy-to-follow anecdotes that reveal the complex nature of planning for nuclear war. Readers with the stomach for pondering Armageddon will find this well-written history to be full of insights.