The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 54.0°F | A Few Clouds

Wizards of Armageddon presented in book

Counsels of War, by Gregg Herken. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., $18.95.

There is often a touch of embarrassment in accounts of the role of so-called experts in a particular field; but if that field is nuclear strategy, the embarrassment may become downright disconcerting.

It is precisely that feeling of uneasiness that is produced by Gregg Herken's book Counsels of War. Starting with the first atomic bomb test at Trinity, Counsels of War follows the civilians involved in nuclear arms policy on their (and our) journey through the atomic age, tracking the relations between that policy and their careers. The resulting spectacle is a pandemonium of conflicting opinions and interests, behind which looms the almost unthinkable threat of the Nuclear Holocaust.

The prodigious and seemingly autonomous growth of the world's nuclear arsenals is the gloomy background against which Herken's experts juggle with the future of humanity. The number of 13 A-bombs mentioned as the size of the US arsenal in 1947 became rapidly obsolete when the first succesful Russian test inaugurated the weapons race. The development of the hydrogen bomb vastly expanded the destructive power of nuclear devices. Nowadays, the number of nuclear bombs stored around the globe is immense, and their possible impact simply transcends the imagination.

In Herken's interpretation, the first fifteen years after the War were an age of missionaries -- of civilian experts witnessing, rather than determining the shaping of nuclear arms policy. In the work of the strategists of the first hour (like Bernard Brodie, William Borden and Paul Nitze), most of the fundamental problems appeared. Foremost among those were the parallel distinctions between deterrence and deployment, Armageddon and limited war, strategic and tactic warfare. Think-tanks like the famous Rand Corporation developed these concepts in all possible directions.

The beginning of the Kennedy Administration marks for Herken the rise of the experts to political power. Their advice would be crucial in the subsequent revisions of official policy. This pre-eminency declined when the Vietnam debacle, in exposing the experts' inadequacy in coping with real, though conventional warfare, implicitly undermined their judgement in nuclear matters.

The present status of the experts is unclear. On the one hand, their role in policy-making is still extremely important. On the other, their qualifications and objectivity are more and more questioned by the general public -- and partly by themselves. On the last page of the book, Herken appropriately quotes Paul Warnke (the head of Carter's Arms Control and Disarmament Agency): "There is a realization that the experts don't have all the answers -- and possibly not any of the answers."

To judge from the references, Herken's research for this book has been meticulous. Apart from published books and articles, he draws from interviews he conducted with just about every major figure mentioned in the book (the dead, presidents, and dead presidents excluded); the list includes, according to his own classification, three former secretaries of defense, four ambassadors, seventeen nuclear strategists, and twenty-two atomic scientists.

It is a pity, though, that the author disseminates this material often indiscriminately upon his readership. In reading the book, one feels constantly overwhelmed by its incredible density of facts, names and figures -- many of them, however interesting, obscuring the argument, rather than illustrating it. The book would have gained in digestibility if part of the less relevant details had been omitted in favor of more analysis.

A related point is that large parts of the book, especially toward the end, simply resemble catalogues of opinions. As it stands, the book is a rather unhappy marriage between solid historiography and frontline journalism. This applies to form as well as to content, since Herken's attempts to relieve the tedium of the text by striking formulations or funny chapter titles are often a bit too calculated to be effective.

But perhaps this is being too harsh upon a book which has the undeniable merit of presenting a large amount of information on a topic as important as nuclear arms policy. Where peace and civilization itself are at stake, awareness of the issues involved should be widespread. Counsels of War contributes voluminously to this purpose, and therefore deserves a broad readership.

Michiel Bos->