As I mentioned in my previous review, my first encounter with the reality of nuclear weapons happened in high school. My AP World History teacher assigned the book, Hiroshima, for our summer reading.
I bought this book on a whim. While on the Apple Books store, I was drawn in by the unique cover art noted that the books was on sale. The description sold me. Apart from the well-publicized nuclear mistakes of the past decade, I had been almost completely unaware of the Titan II accident in Arkansas in 1980.
The book itself is 487 pages, written by an investigative journalist, Eric Schlosser. Schlosser’s work on chronicling the accidents and safety of the nuclear weapons fielded by the United States earned him a spot as a finalist for the Pulitzer Price. The thoroughness and attention to detail in this book stand out. Schlosser walks the reader through each era of America’s nuclear weapons, starting in 1945 with the original bomb.
For decades, Americans feared the Soviet nuclear threat, while oblivious to the even graver threat of a nuclear accident at home. These are the most powerful weapons of war ever created, and even now at 73 years old, we’re still trying to learn best practices for ensuring both safety and lethality. The book mainly focuses on nuclear accidents in the 1950s and 1960s, which were plentiful. More than a few times, we narrowly avoided full thermonuclear meltdown in the continental United States. While I believe that we have gotten better at handling and safeing our stockpile, the limits of this book seem to be connected to the US Government declassification schedule. The more time that has past since a classified event, the more likely it is to be declassified.
Another embarrassing thread running through this story is the pervasiveness of internecine conflict within the military and government. Agencies and branches of the military, envious of budgetary allocations and power, fought each other fiercely, to the detriment of the good of the American people. While all serving under the same flag, their pettiness put the nation at a greater risk of accident or nuclear war. These fights were at every rung of government, even at the highest levels. Strategy, research and development, and weapons deployment seemed to go to the toughest fighter, not the most appropriate branch or agency.
We’re certainly not out of the woods. Schlosser goes to great lengths in the concluding pages to note that this topic is as relevant today as it was in 1950. Within the last ten years, nuclear bombs have been accidentally flown across the United States, nuclear missile crews have been caught sleeping while on alert, a widespread cheating scandal was uncovered among missile crews, and illegal drug use by missile crews continues.
If nothing else, this book, through the lens of a single nuclear accident in 1980, brings to the forefront a sobering reality: our nuclear weapons may hurt us just as badly as we intended for them to hurt the enemy.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★