Armageddon and paranoia: the nuclear confrontation

Armageddon and paranoia: the nuclear confrontation Rodric Braithwaite's new book is, like his other works, well and clearly written, informed by careful research and a thought-provoking read. The bulk of the text is devoted to an account of the nuclear confrontation between the United States and the USSR from 1945 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, with an analysis of its evolving consequences. Like Across the Moscow river (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), Moscow 1941 (London: Profile Books, 2006) and Afgantsy (London: Profile Books, 2011; reviewed in International Affairs 87: 3, May 2011), the book benefits from Braithwaite's deep affection for Russia and the Russians—bolstered by his ability to get the knowledgeable among them to talk to him with trust. It is fitting in this regard that he has dedicated Armageddon and paranoia to his late wife Jill, who played such a vital part in that achievement. Braithwaite begins his account by recalling the moment when, as a boy, he read in The Times on 8 August 1945 that Hiroshima had been obliterated by an atomic bomb two days earlier. He concludes at the end that ‘humanity had got itself into a fix from which it seemed incapable of extricating itself … The sword of Damocles remained suspended, though by a stouter thread’ (p. 405). He had in mind, in referring to a stouter thread, the ‘cobweb’ (p. 316) of international agreements covering both nuclear and conventional arms limitation, gradually developed from 1963, which he discusses in detail in his book. But while the dangerous logic of mutually assured destruction (MAD) had, as Braithwaite describes, become ever clearer over time to US and Soviet leaders, as well as to their British and French counterparts, the sword of Damocles was still there. Their efforts to create a world free of nuclear weapons has never been realized. Anyone, Soviet, American or European, who lived through the years of the Cold War—and from its beginning with Hiroshima through to the Cuban Missile Crisis in particular—will remember their persistent fears of extinction under a mushroom cloud. Braithwaite extends this period into what he calls a second Cold War in the first years of the Reagan presidency—a memory that perhaps has been mellowed for others by the achievements of the later Reagan, Gorbachev and Thatcher years. Those achievements, however, have been frayed recently. The arms limitations, agreements and the behaviour and attitude that underpinned them have been weakened, in the European theatre in particular, and as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has lost some of its force. There are more nuclear powers in the world today and not all of them are led (speaking with due diplomatic caution) responsibly. The current President of the United States and the current, but also longer-serving, President of Russia, make freer reference to their abilities to reduce others to ashes than was the case until quite recently. The underlying narrative between Washington and Moscow, and between other European powers and Moscow for that matter, has, too, returned to something closer to that which prevailed in the middle of the last century. There are numerous references in Armageddon and paranoia to the then US contention that the Soviet Union aimed to dominate the planet. That may indeed read as paranoia today, but should be remembered along with the reality of Soviet action in Europe and beyond, together with the ideology that appeared to inspire it. Braithwaite records, for example, the comment by Milton Bearden, the head of the CIA's Soviet/East European Division at the time of the Soviet Union's collapse: ‘We didn't realise how f∗∗∗∗∗∗ scared Soviet leaders were of us’ (p. 214). Braithwaite's account of the confrontation is also a story of the inherent difficulty that each of the principal sides had in understanding, let alone empathizing with, each other, particularly during its formative years—especially considering the force of the emotional narrative that informed their relations. Furthermore, his comment as to the relationship today is apt: ‘the myth that a great country had been destroyed by a lethal combination of secret foreign enemies and the domestic traitors they recruited … survived, took deep root, and flourished in Putin's Russia’ (p. 235). Armageddon and paranoia's account of the development of the atomic bomb in the United States and its use in Japan is followed with the argument that Stalin instantly saw that attack as atomic blackmail against the USSR (p. 75). He would, of course, would he not? The wider truth may, however, be that once a nuclear weapon had been shown to be feasible, others would seriously aspire to have such weapons themselves—all the more so in the case that they felt themselves at risk from potential or actual enemies. That is, after all, why the British began their own programme during the Second World War—in case Nazi Germany got there first. The ‘inexorable logic’ (p. 397) still has politicians, whatever their nationality, trapped in its web—even though, as Braithwaite makes clear, an actual nuclear war would make ‘no sense’. Armageddon and paranoia abounds with the illustration of these truths, and with the anguish of the scientists, whether Soviet or US, who pursued the development of ever more terrible weapons despite themselves. Few, indeed, were able to act on the truth set out by the leading British scientist Henry Tizard, when the development of hydrogen weapons was considered by the United Kingdom in the mid-1950s: ‘We are not a Great Power, and never will be again, but if we continue to behave like a Great Power we shall soon cease to be a great nation’. The inference for some of today's leaders is obvious, but the chances of it being respected are remote. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png International Affairs Oxford University Press

Armageddon and paranoia: the nuclear confrontation

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Publisher
The Royal Institute of International Affairs
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0020-5850
eISSN
1468-2346
D.O.I.
10.1093/ia/iix272
Publisher site
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Abstract

Rodric Braithwaite's new book is, like his other works, well and clearly written, informed by careful research and a thought-provoking read. The bulk of the text is devoted to an account of the nuclear confrontation between the United States and the USSR from 1945 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, with an analysis of its evolving consequences. Like Across the Moscow river (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), Moscow 1941 (London: Profile Books, 2006) and Afgantsy (London: Profile Books, 2011; reviewed in International Affairs 87: 3, May 2011), the book benefits from Braithwaite's deep affection for Russia and the Russians—bolstered by his ability to get the knowledgeable among them to talk to him with trust. It is fitting in this regard that he has dedicated Armageddon and paranoia to his late wife Jill, who played such a vital part in that achievement. Braithwaite begins his account by recalling the moment when, as a boy, he read in The Times on 8 August 1945 that Hiroshima had been obliterated by an atomic bomb two days earlier. He concludes at the end that ‘humanity had got itself into a fix from which it seemed incapable of extricating itself … The sword of Damocles remained suspended, though by a stouter thread’ (p. 405). He had in mind, in referring to a stouter thread, the ‘cobweb’ (p. 316) of international agreements covering both nuclear and conventional arms limitation, gradually developed from 1963, which he discusses in detail in his book. But while the dangerous logic of mutually assured destruction (MAD) had, as Braithwaite describes, become ever clearer over time to US and Soviet leaders, as well as to their British and French counterparts, the sword of Damocles was still there. Their efforts to create a world free of nuclear weapons has never been realized. Anyone, Soviet, American or European, who lived through the years of the Cold War—and from its beginning with Hiroshima through to the Cuban Missile Crisis in particular—will remember their persistent fears of extinction under a mushroom cloud. Braithwaite extends this period into what he calls a second Cold War in the first years of the Reagan presidency—a memory that perhaps has been mellowed for others by the achievements of the later Reagan, Gorbachev and Thatcher years. Those achievements, however, have been frayed recently. The arms limitations, agreements and the behaviour and attitude that underpinned them have been weakened, in the European theatre in particular, and as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has lost some of its force. There are more nuclear powers in the world today and not all of them are led (speaking with due diplomatic caution) responsibly. The current President of the United States and the current, but also longer-serving, President of Russia, make freer reference to their abilities to reduce others to ashes than was the case until quite recently. The underlying narrative between Washington and Moscow, and between other European powers and Moscow for that matter, has, too, returned to something closer to that which prevailed in the middle of the last century. There are numerous references in Armageddon and paranoia to the then US contention that the Soviet Union aimed to dominate the planet. That may indeed read as paranoia today, but should be remembered along with the reality of Soviet action in Europe and beyond, together with the ideology that appeared to inspire it. Braithwaite records, for example, the comment by Milton Bearden, the head of the CIA's Soviet/East European Division at the time of the Soviet Union's collapse: ‘We didn't realise how f∗∗∗∗∗∗ scared Soviet leaders were of us’ (p. 214). Braithwaite's account of the confrontation is also a story of the inherent difficulty that each of the principal sides had in understanding, let alone empathizing with, each other, particularly during its formative years—especially considering the force of the emotional narrative that informed their relations. Furthermore, his comment as to the relationship today is apt: ‘the myth that a great country had been destroyed by a lethal combination of secret foreign enemies and the domestic traitors they recruited … survived, took deep root, and flourished in Putin's Russia’ (p. 235). Armageddon and paranoia's account of the development of the atomic bomb in the United States and its use in Japan is followed with the argument that Stalin instantly saw that attack as atomic blackmail against the USSR (p. 75). He would, of course, would he not? The wider truth may, however, be that once a nuclear weapon had been shown to be feasible, others would seriously aspire to have such weapons themselves—all the more so in the case that they felt themselves at risk from potential or actual enemies. That is, after all, why the British began their own programme during the Second World War—in case Nazi Germany got there first. The ‘inexorable logic’ (p. 397) still has politicians, whatever their nationality, trapped in its web—even though, as Braithwaite makes clear, an actual nuclear war would make ‘no sense’. Armageddon and paranoia abounds with the illustration of these truths, and with the anguish of the scientists, whether Soviet or US, who pursued the development of ever more terrible weapons despite themselves. Few, indeed, were able to act on the truth set out by the leading British scientist Henry Tizard, when the development of hydrogen weapons was considered by the United Kingdom in the mid-1950s: ‘We are not a Great Power, and never will be again, but if we continue to behave like a Great Power we shall soon cease to be a great nation’. The inference for some of today's leaders is obvious, but the chances of it being respected are remote. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.

Journal

International AffairsOxford University Press

Published: Jan 1, 2018

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