Top 10 books on nuclear weapons and arms control
By Michael Krepon The classics in this field came early on, as might be expected: How often do strategists and conceptualists have the opportunity to work on a blank canvas? Most of the books listed below are therefore quite dated. By the late 1960s, nuclear weapon strategists and arms controllers began to lob most of ...
By Michael Krepon
The classics in this field came early on, as might be expected: How often do strategists and conceptualists have the opportunity to work on a blank canvas? Most of the books listed below are therefore quite dated. By the late 1960s, nuclear weapon strategists and arms controllers began to lob most of their heavy artillery via journal articles. (More on this later.) Those who are curious about how these debates started might check out the following volumes. Suggestions for additions and deletions are welcome.
1. The Acheson-Lilienthal Report (1946).
OK, it’s not exactly a book, but it is an extraordinary analytical effort, completed in only two months, laying out a plan for international control of atomic energy. Current hopes for abolition and the activities of the International Atomic Energy Agency draw from this remarkably bold and politically untenable report, which acknowledged that, “Inherent in the adoption of any plan of international control is a probable acceleration — but only an acceleration — of the rate at which our present monopoly will inevitably disappear.” The principal author was J. Robert Oppenheimer.
2. Dexter Masters and Katharine Way, editors, One World or None (1946).
Those wanting a sense of how policy “influentials” reacted to the shock of the atomic bomb can find no better text. Essays by the likes of Albert Einstein, Oppenheimer, and General “Hap” Arnold explained the Bomb to a stunned and frightened public. Some of the contributors became central in efforts to ban the Bomb. This book was reissued in 2007.
3. Bernard Brodie (editor), The Absolute Weapon, Atomic Power and World Order (1946).
Some of my choices are arguable; this one isn’t. Brodie and a group of political scientists at Yale’s Institute of International Studies took a first cut at the implications of the Bomb and predicted, among other prescient calls, that nations would “be eager to make political capital” out of a superiority in numbers. This slender volume was the source of the much-repeated maxim regarding conflicts between major powers: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them.”
4. Henry Kissinger, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957).
Kissinger’s launching platform was the outgrowth of a Council on Foreign Relations study group. He called for embroidering nuclear deterrence with limited war fighting options. Kissinger took on an easy target in the doctrine of massive retaliation, but this is nonetheless an ambitious book — and one that opened up a Pandora’s box of nuclear weapon requirements.
5. Bernard Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age (1959).
Brodie moved to the RAND Corporation, where he wrote this work seeking to counter the prevailing winds of nuclear policy on which Kissinger had set sail. Brodie’s background as a naval historian provided an excellent vantage point to assess nuclear matters. Brodie resisted enthusiasms on almost every page. This book continues to offer rewards. For example, he warned against preventive war which required “an extraordinary, indeed almost boundless, degree of conviction and resolution on the part of the President.”
6. Thomas C. Schelling and Morton H. Halperin, Strategy and Arms Control (1961).
This spare volume mapped new terrain that would become the practice of arms control, a much needed alternative to sterile U.S. and Soviet rhetorical volleys calling for general and complete disarmament. Another outgrowth of a study group, this volume couldn’t have been better timed: several of the Study Group participants, including Halperin, moved from Cambridge to Washington to help Presidents Kennedy and Johnson enact their ideas.
A two-fer. These books, which bracketed the Cuban missile crisis, put Kahn’s fertile and febrile brain on display to the delight of a long procession of Hollywood screenwriters — even after the Cuban missile crisis seriously depressed box office receipts for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Kahn fearlessly took Kissinger’s reasoning to its logical conclusion, which resonated with some military minds, but not with those in the Oval Office.
8. Raymond L. Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan (1985) and The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War (1994).
A two-volume history of nuclear arms control written by a practitioner with deep knowledge of Washington and Moscow. Garthoff, a meticulous researcher and restrained commentator, performed a rare feat: his many books are as accomplished as his many years of public service.
9. McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival, Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (1988).
Bundy’s mind worked like a jeweler examining all facets of the policy dilemmas associated with the Bomb. An elegant writer, he came to the subject honestly: His father was Henry L. Stimson’s assistant at the War Department, and he helped Stimson write his memoirs.
10. Strobe Talbott, The Master of the Game, Paul Nitze and the Nuclear Peace (1988).
Talbott chronicled machinations of nuclear negotiations from his perch at Time magazine. Like Bob Woodward, he gained great access to decision makers. Unlike Woodward, he provided context and depth to blow-by-blow descriptions. This book rises above its companions because, in addition to focusing on the turmoil within the Reagan administration, Talbott provides a biography of Nitze, a complex figure whose tenacity helped negotiate or block arms control agreements.
Michael Krepon is cofounder of the Stimson Center, Diplomat Scholar at the University of Virginia, and author or editor of thirteen books, most recently, Better Safe than Sorry, The Ironies of Living with the Bomb (Stanford University Press, 2009).
More from Foreign Policy
America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose
Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.
The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy
The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.
Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now
In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.
Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet
As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.