I'm a big fan of Richard Rhodes. I thought Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb was an absorbing, fast-paced book, a tough trick to manage when you're detailing atomic physics and its political ramifications. And his first book on matters nuclear, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, won the Pulitzer Prize.
Rhodes' latest, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race, isn't nearly as good as his earlier works. The topic seems evident from the title: It's a history of the arms race. And that's right, a bit, but the book also seems to be about Rhodes' apparent hate-on for Richard Perle.
There's nothing wrong with having a hate-on for Richard Perle. Given his role in some of the most aggressive moves America has made over the last two or three decades, having a hate-on for Perle probably is a rational response to historical fact. However, Rhodes' lets his anger get in the way of what could have been a fascinating story.
Arsenals of Folly starts out pretending to be a good book about the last 50 years of the 20th century, when policy makers on both sides of the Cold War decided it would be a good idea to spend trillions of dollars to make enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world. Then they decided to spend many more trillions of dollars making even more nuclear weapons. And then, as though they hadn't already made the Cold War dangerous enough, they started doing insane things like invading Afghanistan (the Soviets) and conducting threatening military training exercises (the Americans, which likely played a part in a Soviet jet shooting down an off-course passenger airliner in September 1983, killing 269 people).
My first indication Rhodes' book had serious problems was his' reliance on Gail Sheehy's Gorbachev biography, The Man Who Changed The World. Not many great books about Gorbachev have been written. Sheehy's biography, however, is down at the bottom of the pile. It is full of the sort of biases that dominated American perceptions of Moscow during the Cold War. And since it was published in 1990, seventeen years ago, it is brutally out of date. Rhodes should have quoted from the umpteen later books written by Gorbachev's firsthand associates, or the wealth of academic literature. In other ways, particularly when he's writing about Soviet politics, Rhodes's prose feels tentative and inexpert, as though he's strayed out of his comfort zone.
But Rhodes' book commits a worse sin: It is boring in a way that his previous two atomic histories were not. For example, when it comes to the most important meetings, the Gorbachev-Reagan battles that saw the two world leaders negotiate the end of the Cold War, Rhodes relies on archival sources taken by eyewitness note-takers. That's a good thing, usually, unless you just transcribe them into your book, as Rhodes seems to have done.
This is particularly evident as Rhodes recounts the Oct. 10-12, 1986, meetings between Gorbachev and Reagan at Reykjavik, Iceland. There is some great stuff in here, such as the fact that, because of space restrictions, the American negotiators took to meeting in a bathroom in the building that housed the summit. Reagan sat on the toilet while his aides debated over the fate of the world's nuclear arsenal. Others sat in the bathtub. Unfortunately, Rhodes doesn't edit these accounts to the extent that he should have. The reader doesn't need to know every piece of dialogue that Reagan said to Gorbachev. Give me the gist of it, keep the story going so that you still have my attention for the important stuff.
Around the time that Rhodes gets to the Reykjavik summit, what the book actually is about becomes clear. Rhodes is really mad about the second Iraqi war. And he really wants people to know that many of the same neo-cons responsible for the arms buildup of the early '80s also were responsible for the second Iraqi war. We're talking the usual suspects -- Richard Perle, Dick Cheney. And OK, we get it, the guys used bias in their reasoning. They were blind to the facts in the '80s, and they were blind to the facts in the post-9/11 rush to get into Iraq.
Rhodes is so busy trying to indict Cheney and Perle that he forgets about his history and the whole book wanders into the territory of an anti-neo-con essay -- a wholesale statement against war, nuclear or otherwise. "Fear was part of the program, the psychological response to threat inflation that delivered reliable votes," Rhodes writes on p. 298, toward the book's end. "How did we come to such a pass? I was raised to believe that Americans were a courageous people. Weren't you?"
This sort of editorializing isn't Rhodes's strength. It feels shrill. It feels obtrusive. And it feels trite. (Naomi Klein makes a similar point in her latest book, The Shock Doctrine. And Columbia University's Richard Hofstadter argued along similar lines way back in 1964, with his seminal essay, The Paranoid Style In American Politics.)
Rhodes is so angry about Perle, Cheney et. al. that he has lost his objectivity -- which is what seems to have troubled Rhodes about his enemies in the first place.