Dark Sun

Posted on January 02, 2009 by Steve

Richard Rhodes' style of writing makes history a pleasure to read. Referring to the genre as "verity" instead of "nonfiction" (he grouses that "the oboe isn't a 'nonviolin'"), his frequent use of original quotes, asides, and interesting stories make a technical history read like a thriller.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb told the story of the Manhattan Project, and Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb at first seemed to be composed of leftover material. Much of the same time period was covered again, but this time with a broader scope to include the parallel effort in the Soviet Union, especially the extensive espionage that led to Joe-1, a carbon copy of the Fat Man design. Klaus Fuchs, working at Los Alamos, is well-known as a key player in the spy network, but many other colorful characters contributed to the information flow. The Lend-Lease program, which supplied war materiel to allies, inadvertently shipped hundreds of sealed black suitcases full of "diplomatic" paperwork directly to the U.S.S.R. Officer George Jordan was in charge of the staging area at Gore Field in Great Falls, Montana. One day in March 1943, the Soviet staff invited him to a restaurant and began letting the vodka flow uncharacteristically freely. After a few toasts, Jordan received a call from the field about a C-47 demanding clearance to take off. Suspicions aroused, he raced back to the aircraft, pushed past a Russian guard, and found "an expanse of black suitcases," each sealed with rope and red wax. He started slashing them open and found maps of industrial plants, naval intelligence, scientific journals, and "hundreds of photostats of what seemed to be military reports." Those suitcases were duly shipped, along with more later containing blueprints for factories and copies of hundreds of thousands of patents.

What's more, the pipeline carried material useful for atomic weapon development: exotic metals including uranium, millions of pounds of graphite used in reactors, and even a kilo of essential heavy water. Thus equipped, the Soviet atomic program tracked American progress with a lag of just a few years.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was our first serious flirtation with nuclear apocalypse, but the seeds had long been planted. Curtis LeMay, head of the Berlin Air Lift, returned to the U.S. to lead the Strategic Air Command. "Old Iron Pants," as the authoritative general was known, whipped the force into shape and eventually wrested control over most of the country's atomic arsenal. He itched to eliminate the Soviet threat before it could develop into a credible rival, and would inspire the George C. Scott character in "Dr. Strangelove" -- "Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap!" This entry in the book's index is telling:
LeMay, Curtis, use of atomic bombs urged by, 437, 438-40, 449, 454, 560, 563-64, 574-575, 576

In the early days before locks on warheads, LeMay had the capacity, if not authority, to launch an atomic attack if he deemed leadership in Washington incapable or incommunicado. When Soviets installed missiles in Cuba to counter American weapons in Turkey, he had his opportunity. While Kennedy and Khrushchev waged a war of telegrams, LeMay initiated a series of provocative gestures. Scrambled bombers flew beyond their customary turnaround points, one U-2 even strayed into Soviet airspace. When the SAC security level went to DefCon 2 (bringing the number of online nuclear weapons to 2,952), a radio message was broadcast in the clear announcing the alert and instructing wings to "review your plans for further action..." An Atlas ICBM was launched westward from Vandenberg Air Force Base according to a previously established test schedule which the SAC declined to postpone.

Somehow cooler heads prevailed and catastrophe was averted. LeMay was furious, claiming that "We lost!" Amazingly, when Kennedy had asked him how the Soviets would respond to the full attack on Cuba that he advocated, LeMay "assured him that there would be no reaction." While there have been other close calls since, this was likely as near as we have ever been to global thermonuclear war.

Somewhat reassuringly, Rhodes argues that no national leader could risk the damage, both political and retributive, that an atomic attack would invite. Somewhat less convincingly, he doubts that any nation would allow outlaws to develop atomic weapons within its borders. The somewhat surprising reality that atomic weapons have not been used since World War II gives some reason to hope.