Tuesday, January 12, 2010

'Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years'

This book review was first published in the monthly Journal of Civil Defense in June 1989.

DANGER AND SURVIVAL: CHOICES ABOUT THE BOMB IN THE FIRST FIFTY YEARS by McGeorge Bundy. New York: Random House. Publication Date: December 12, 1988. Pages: xiii + 735 (including bibliography, notes and index). Price: $24.95 (hardcover).

— Reviewed by Richard Sincere.

McGeorge Bundy, who gained national prominence as President John F. Kennedy’s national security advisor more than twenty-five years ago, now is a professor of history at New York University. As a historian, he has produced a readable if lengthy chronicle of the nuclear age, Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years.

Because of the book’s sheer length — over 600 pages of text alone — it is difficult in a short review like this to do it justice. For that reason, let us look at just two topics that Bundy handles that have special interest for readers in 1989: civil defense and the Strategic Defense Initiative.

For a Kennedy administration alumnus, Bundy’s discussion of civil defense is surprisingly spare. After all, in real dollar terms, federal spending on efforts to protect civilians against enemy attack reached its peak in the Kennedy years and has steadily fallen since. President Kennedy had a genuine commitment to civil defense, as he noted in several public statements. “To recognize the possibilities of nuclear war in the missile age,” Kennedy said in June 1961, ‘without our citizens knowing what they should do or where they should go if bombs fall, would be a failure of responsibility.”

Bundy notes that he agreed with Kennedy on the need for civil defense as a sort of “insurance policy” against the dangers of nuclear war. He also says that both he and Kennedy underestimated the political realities of trying to get an effective civil defense program off the ground. Kennedy was troubled by his failure to establish a good program, and Bundy reports the president attributed this failure to the ebbs and flows of politics: “These matters have some rhythm,” said Kennedy in a 1962 press conference. “When the skies are clear, no one is interested. Suddenly then, when the clouds come. . . then everyone wants to find out why more hasn’t been done about it . . I think the time to do it is now.”

Similar views have been expressed from time to time by other national leaders: Nelson Rockefeller, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan. For some reason (sociological? political?), their opinions in favor of civil defense have not influenced national policy. Bundy notes — although some strategic thinkers, including myself, might disagree with him — that “civil defense is not a reinforcement of deterrence; it is not a tool of crisis management; it certainly does not demonstrate will or confer superiority. But” — and here I do agree with Bundy — “neither is it belligerent or provocative.”

Bundy’s discussion of civil defense ends with the Kennedy administration, despite the fact that civil defense became a controversial national issue during both the Carter and Reagan presidencies. He neglects the creation (under Carter) of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the sometimes comic events under Reagan that led to a diminished commitment to civil defense in spite of repeated promises of support from the White House. Perhaps Bundy has fallen prey to his own assessment of why civil defense lacks public support: “The subject may be too dreadful for rational discussion.”

Professor Bundy compares Ronald Reagan’s March 1983 decision to announce the Strategic Defense Initiative with Franklin Roosevelt’s October 1941 decision to embark on the atom bomb research program. Yet, advancing from the historic nature of these decisions, Bundy remains skeptical. “What is clear,” he writes, “is that any limited defense will leave essentially unchanged the strategic stalemate we now have — one that rests in the end on mutual vulnerability. The leakproof space shield that is Ronald Reagan’s dream will not become real for decades, if ever.”

Bundy’s skepticism is based on the testimony of technological and scientific experts who downplay the possibilities of SDI and emphasize its shortcomings. Although he discusses extensively the political play that has accompanied the strategic debate since 1983, he seems to ignore certain implications of the evidence that he brings up himself. The conclusion I draw — and others, too — from such evidence is that the practicability of strategic defense is more a function of political will than of technical advance.

I expect that McGeorge Bundy’s Danger and Survival will find its way into many college classrooms as a basic text on the history of nuclear weapons. An interesting and enjoyable work, it will probably be very useful to students of diplomatic history, the Cold War, and strategic thinking. It does not, however, tell the whole story. No single book could.

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