Blogs > HNN > Jeremy Kuzmarov: Review of Richard Rhodes's Arsenal of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race (Norton, 2007)

Nov 19, 2007 12:52 am


Jeremy Kuzmarov: Review of Richard Rhodes's Arsenal of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race (Norton, 2007)



In justifying an interventionist foreign policy and a continued arms build-up, it has become a common refrain among conservative and neoconservative analysts to celebrate the American role in defeating the “evil” Soviet empire and “winning the Cold War.” Ronald Reagan is given particular credit for pressuring the Soviet Union to compete with the United States militarily, hence draining its treasury and facilitating its disintegration. Richard Rhodes’ provocative new book Arsenal of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race counters this perspective by demonstrating that the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. He also shows how dominant members of the national security apparatus consistently over-inflated its military capabilities and convinced Reagan to resist overtures by Michael Gorbachev for nuclear non-proliferation and arms reduction treaties, resulting in the perpetuation of a dangerously unnecessary arms race. It further compounded the social ravages bred by decades of Cold War policies – including the diversion of badly needed resources away from social programs and towards military ends, while solidifying a “permanent war” economy and national security state in the U.S incompatible with true democracy and social justice.

The author of over a dozen previous books, including a study of the Hiroshima bombing, Rhodes’ begins his book with an insightful biographical portrait of Gorbachev, who while a committed Communist apparatchik, nevertheless possessed reformist tendencies and a genuine desire to avoid military confrontation with the United States and limit the spread of nuclear weapons. His outlook was shaped in part by his having experienced the destructiveness of World War II, as well as the fall-out surrounding the Chernobyl crisis, which exposed the social and environmental hazards of nuclear proliferation (in addition to its exposure of the inefficiencies of the rigid command-style Soviet economy). In countering the mythology that Reagan’s arms build-up resulted in the collapse of the U.S.S.R., Rhodes cites a perceptive, but forgotten 1976 article by a young French scholar which recognized the untenable character of the Soviet command economy, the paradoxical existence of rampant social inequalities and cronyism in spite of Marx’s emphasis on economic justice, a dearth of consumer products and mass popular disaffection. It had little to do with U.S. policies.

Rhodes goes on to compare the realities of Soviet capabilities with the hysterical claims made by U.S. defense “experts” such as Paul Nitze in documents like NSC-68 about an expansionist and militarily powerful Soviet empire. Ignoring the paradoxes of American democracy at this time, including the disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the South, they also cast the Cold War as a Manichean struggle of good versus evil. As Rhodes tells the story, Nitze and contemporaries in the National Security establishment like Albert Wohlstetter believed in the necessity of using force to confront seemingly totalitarian enemies. They also embraced the doctrine of massive deterrence, which held that a defense build-up was the only safeguard to foreign invasion and to protect national security.

Rhodes critiques their views on several grounds. Besides overestimating Soviet capabilities and subscribing to an overly simplistic view of the world – especially with regards to Third World liberation movements which were often indigenously supported and not part of some Soviet plot – he argues that the weaponry being developed was so terrible, that if used even once would kill millions of people, while inviting equally destructive counter-retribution. Strategically, they were thus of little value. The deterrence formula also helped to foster the growth of what Dwight Eisenhower himself characterized as a “military-industrial complex,” which twisted governmental priorities in privileging defense contracts and military subsidies at the expense of social welfare and poverty eradication programs.

The Reagan era and promise of the abolishment of nuclear weapons spawned by Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union represents the tragic denouement of Rhodes’ story. While Reagan was a hard-line hawk who supported vicious proxy wars in Central America and referred to the USSR as an “evil empire,” he was nevertheless open to dialogue with Gorbachev and to considering arms reduction treaties late in his presidency. Though the original superpower talks in Iceland stalled because of Reagan’s commitment to the Strategic Defense Initiative (a missile defense shield to ostensibly protect the U.S. from invasion – derided by critics as a senseless waste of resources), the final blow came from the influential Committee on the Present Danger headed by hard-line conservatives (including Paul Nitze, Sovietologist Richard Pipes, and Richard Perle) opposed to Kissinger’s détente policy of the 1970s. Committed to the use of force in world affairs, and portraying Gorbachev’s oeuvres as a “propaganda ploy,” the Committee pressed for a rejection of any rapprochement with the Soviet Union, resulting in the breakdown of talks.

Rhodes presents this as a major turning point in world history and a great opportunity lost for the United States, magnified by the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War several years later. It provided the occasion to destroy once and for all America’s stockpile of high-tech weaponry, which continue to represent a menace to humanity and drain on American resources.

On the whole, Rhodes has written an engaging and insightful, though ultimately sad book about the devastating humanitarian effects of the arms race and potential horrors it portends. His work is important in countering conservative mythologies about the end of the cold war and its ramifications and legacies, which continue to haunt us all. It also demonstrates that there is window for dialogue and compromise within most political systems that belies the rhetoric of hard-line ideologues of all political stripes.



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Alice Walters - 11/30/2007

I've always thought that Reagan got too much credit for the end of the USSR/Cold War, and Gorbachev too little. When I was in college (back during the Cold War), we read Hendrick Smith's book "The Russians" and other, similar, works, and it was clear that the society simply wasn't working -- a fact also clear from the jokes Russians would tell about their world and their culture. Gorbachev had the guts to allow people to recognize, and comment on, the fact that the emperor had no clothes. I hope that history gives him more credit than simplistic American politicians and media commentators.


Alice Walters - 11/30/2007

I've always thought that Reagan got too much credit for the end of the USSR/Cold War, and Gorbachev too little. When I was in college (back during the Cold War), we read Hendrick Smith's book "The Russians" and other, similar, works, and it was clear that the society simply wasn't working -- a fact also clear from the jokes Russians would tell about their world and their culture. Gorbachev had the guts to allow people to recognize, and comment on, the fact that the emperor had no clothes. I hope that history gives him more credit than simplistic American politicians and media commentators.