Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Dark Sun by Richard Rhodes (1995)

This turned up at the Franconia library booksale. It's a long thick history of the development of nuclear weapons, starting back before the Mahattan project. We see the physicists, the spies, the politicians. Rhodes is not a very technical guy so the coverage of the technology, the great industrial efforts, and the military efforts is a little thin. He does have a fascinating look at the Soviet nuclear program. The Soviets couldn't spare the resources for atomic weapons until after WWII, but they had a lot of good scientists, who working from a limited industrial base, and aided by brilliant Soviet espionage, acheived a bomb very early.
It's a good read. Could have been better if the author had been more sympathetic to the subject. He clearly feels the entire nuclear weapons effort was misguided and only the grace of God prevented destruction of the world. Writing in the safety of the mid 1990's, after the Soviets collapsed, (and before 9/11) it isn't hard to make the quest for the hydrogen bomb seem foolish. But as one who lived thru the cold war, that forty year faceoff with a nuclear armed super power, the desire for thermonuclear weapons (and an Air Force to deliver them) seems perfectly rational.
Rhodes tells the story of the nuclear spies, Fuchs, the Greenglasses, the Rosenburgs, Burgess and McClain, Philby, Harry Gold, and the rest. There is plenty of detail, we learn of nearly every dead drop and brushpass. Rhodes skims over the most interesting part of the spy story, the motivations. What made these people risk their lives to give the secret of the atomic bomb to Stalin? Rhodes doesn't even speculate.
Rhodes has it in for General Curt LeMay. He accuses LeMay of empire building, disrespect of superiors, unauthorized provocative actions, and offering bad advice to Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis. He fails to mention the famous Kennedy quote, "If we had a war tomorrow I'd want Le May in the lead bomber. But other than that, he's a wild man".
All in all, interesting. Could have been better, but it's still pleny OK.

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