Wednesday, January 6, 2010

'Waging Nuclear Peace: The Technology and Politics of Nuclear Weapons'

This review originally appeared in the Washington Times on Thursday, May 2, 1985. This is probably the first time it has been readily available in digital form.  (Versions of this book review also appeared in the New York City Tribune on September 3, 1986, and in the spring 1985 issue of Strategic Review.)

BOOK REVIEW/Richard E. Sincere Jr.
A textbook look at our nuclear strategies

Waging Nuclear Peace: The Technology and Politics of Nuclear Weapons
By Robert Ehrlich
University of New York
$12.95 paper, 397 pages

When George Mason University physics professor Robert Ehrlich began to teach a course in arms control and nuclear weapons policy a few years ago, he could find no adequate, single-volume text that was conducive to class discussion and that provided sufficient technical and political background for his students. So, Mr. Ehrlich has produced a readable, detailed and useful primer on nuclear strategy that will also be an excellent reference book for those who are already in the field.

Page 1 introduces the purpose of the book with the question, “Are we discussing the real issue?... Nuclear war is a highly emotional issue,” Mr. Ehrlich points out. “It would be almost irrational not to become emotional when reflecting on the horror that a nuclear war could bring. However, the whole point of thinking analytically about nuclear war is to try to see facts objectively, not as we might wish them to be. It is only by clearing away these misconceptions that we can best assess the most likely course of action to avert catastrophe.”

The practical applications of this view become clear later in a discussion of the 1979 Office of Technology Assessment study, The Effects of Nuclear War, a report often cited as a primary source on the immediate and long-term effects of a nuclear attack upon the United States. Mr. Ehrlich compares the advantages and disadvantages of the United States and the U.S.S.R. that bear on their prospects for survival following a nuclear exchange. He notes that the OTA report concluded that there is no evidence “that the Soviets face a lower risk [than the United States] of finding themselves unable to rebuild an industrial society at all.”

Mr. Ehrlich argues, however, that an objective reader may come to different conclusions from those reached by the OTA report’s authors, and conclude that the Soviet Union is better prepared to survive a nuclear attack than the United States: “It is possible that the authors of this [OTA] study did not want to encourage the belief that nuclear war might be survivable -- especially the notion that it might be more survivable in the Soviet Union than in the United States.”

If Soviet military leaders do believe in the survivability — or winnability — of a nuclear war, the United States is faced with a major problem for strategic policy. And Mr. Ehrlich’s analysis of this problem deserves more prominence in, his book than he gives it.

Among many other issues that Mr. Ehrlich sheds light on, two are of particular current interest, antiballistic missile defense (ABM) and civil defense. One of his views on ballistic missile defense may surprise some pundits: “It would make little sense’ the author argues, “to build an expensive and exotic ABM system of uncertain feasibility without first investing in a much cheaper civil defense system. Such a course of action would be akin to installing an expensive photovoltaic solar-energy collection system n your roof and not bothering first to add insulation in your ceiling -- a much more cost-effective measure.”

This approach is unusually relevant, since the Reagan administration has cut the civil defense budget for fiscal 1986 from $181 million to $119.1 million. There appears to be a trend in administration thinking toward putting all of its eggs in the Strategic Defense Initiative basket -- a prospect that chills arms-control advocates as well as civil defense professionals.

While acknowledging the arguments of Physicians for Social Responsibility and other groups that there may be “insurmountable obstacles” to surviving nuclear war, including long-term climatic damage and the destruction of our national infrastructure, Mr. Ehrlich remains firm in his support for population-protection measures. At the conclusion of his discussion of the effectiveness of civil defense, he writes:

“While there are major obstacles to survival following a nuclear war, it is by no means clear that these obstacles are insurmountable. In the nuclear age the goal of preventing nuclear war must, of course, take priority over surviving one. Nevertheless, because a nuclear war could occur despite our best efforts at prevention, prudence requires that some attention be devoted to the problem of survival.”
The book is rich in its exposition of the myriad issues that students, citizens, and policymakers must face in the crowded debate over nuclear weapons policy. It is well- structured, with divisions into four topical sections: “Introduction to the issues,” “Nuclear Arms and Nuclear War,” “The Effects of Nuclear War” and “Policy Options and Objectives.”

These are further divided into chapters with headings such as “Public Opinion and the Media,” “Long-Term Worldwide Effects of a Nuclear War,” and “Arms Control and Disarmament.” Two appendixes address “The Physical Principles of Nuclear Energy and Radiation” and “Survival After Nuclear War.” Each chapter and appendix is followed by study questions to help instructors conduct class discussions or to devise midterm and final essay questions.

The fact that this book is designed for classroom use should not deter readers who are past the age of worrying about term papers, grades, and spring break in Florida. Waging Nuclear Peace is an important contribution to the catalog of nuclear-strategy books.

Richard E. Sincere Jr. is vice president of the American Civil Defense Association.

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