The Bomb

Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War

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About The Book

From the author the classic The Wizards of Armageddon and Pulitzer Prize finalist comes the definitive history of American policy on nuclear war—and Presidents’ actions in nuclear crises—from Truman to Trump.

Fred Kaplan, hailed by The New York Times as “a rare combination of defense intellectual and pugnacious reporter,” takes us into the White House Situation Room, the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s “Tank” in the Pentagon, and the vast chambers of Strategic Command to bring us the untold stories—based on exclusive interviews and previously classified documents—of how America’s presidents and generals have thought about, threatened, broached, and just barely avoided nuclear war from the dawn of the atomic age until today.

Kaplan’s historical research and deep reporting will stand as the permanent record of politics. Discussing theories that have dominated nightmare scenarios from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Kaplan presents the unthinkable in terms of mass destruction and demonstrates how the nuclear war reality will not go away, regardless of the dire consequences.


Introduction to The Bomb
For thirty years after the Cold War ended, almost no one thought, much less worried, about nuclear war. Now almost everyone is fearful. But the fear takes the form of a vaguely paralyzed anxiety. Because of the long reprieve from the bomb’s shadow, few people know how to grasp its dimensions; they’ve forgotten, if they ever knew.

The holiday from history ended on August 8, 2017, when President Donald Trump, barely six months in office, told reporters at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, that if the North Koreans kept threatening the United States with harsh rhetoric and missile tests, “they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Even to those who didn’t remember President Harry Truman’s similar description, seventy-two years earlier, of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima (“a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth”), it was clear that, in language more bellicose than any president’s since the end of World War II, Trump was talking about launching nuclear weapons at North Korea—not if its leader, Kim Jong-un, first attacked the United States, but merely if he developed the ability to do so.

Then, six months later, Trump signed and released his administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, a seventy-four-page document that called for building new types of nuclear weapons and integrating them with the military’s conventional war plans—in short, for treating nuclear weapons as normal. The red lights flashed, the alarm bells rang furiously.

Yet here is what few recognized: none of these notions were new. The president himself seemed a departure from the norm, his character— erratic, eruptive, thin-skinned, willfully uninformed—a combustive mix for a world leader with his “finger on the button.” But the button and everything around it were the same. In those decades when most of us chose to forget about the bomb—as global tensions calmed and fallout shelters crumbled and we turned our gaze to other problems and pleasures—the nuclear war machine continued to rumble forth in the beyond-Top-Secret chambers of the Pentagon, the Strategic Command headquarters in Omaha, the weapons labs in various parts of the country, and the think tanks whose denizens never stopped thinking about the unthinkable.

They all kept at their singular tasks, wrestling with the dilemmas posed by the bomb’s existence: how to deter nuclear war; how to fight a nuclear war, if it cannot be deterred; how to win it, if such a thing is possible. This is the nature of the nuclear era, and the era never drifted into suspension, even if our attention did. Trump snapped us out of our slumber: reminded those who were old enough to know, and informed those who weren’t, that the bomb is still here.

In public, over the years, officers and officials have described America’s nuclear policy as second-strike deterrence: if an enemy strikes us with nuclear weapons, we will retaliate in kind; this retaliatory power is what deters the enemy from attacking us. In reality, though, American policy has always been to strike first preemptively, or in response to a conventional invasion of allied territory, or to a biological or large-scale cyberattack: in any case, not just as an answer to a nuclear attack. All of these options envision firing nuclear weapons at military targets for military ends; they envision the bomb as a weapon of war, writ large. This vision has been enshrined in the American military’s doctrines, drills, and exercises from the onset of the nuclear era through all its phases. Most presidents have been skeptical of this vision—morally, strategically, practically—but none of them have rejected it. Some have threatened to launch nuclear weapons first as a way of settling a crisis. The few who considered adopting a “no first use” policy, in the end, decided against it.

There are rationales for these doctrines, drills, and exercises and for the retention of the first-use option. They are driven by politics, personalities, and bureaucratic rivalries, but also by a logic, which, once its premises are accepted, hurls its adherents—and the rest of us—into a rabbit hole of increasingly bizarre scenarios that seem increasingly, if strangely, rational the deeper they’re probed.

Understanding the nuclear era—the era of our lifetime—means understanding the rabbit hole: who dug it and how we got stuck inside. It means tracing the maze of its tunnels, which is to say, the arc of its history: a story enmeshed in secrecy, some of it still secret, much of it now illuminated—by declassified documents and interviews with key actors—though never fully told. How did we get to this second coming of nuclear panic?

How did we wind up with thousands of nuclear weapons, far more than any war aims could justify? What propelled the nuclear arms race during the decades-long Cold War? And what happened to the weapons and their guardians after the Cold War ended? How and why did any of this persist?

About The Author

Carol Dronsfield

Fred Kaplan is the national-security columnist for Slate and the author of five previous books, Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber WarThe Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War (a Pulitzer Prize finalist and New York Times bestseller), 1959, Daydream Believers, and The Wizards of Armageddon. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Brooke Gladstone.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (January 10, 2020)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982107291

Raves and Reviews

"Bracing clarity....[A] rich and surprisingly entertaining history of how nuclear weapons have shaped the United States military and the country's foreign policy....Kaplan has a gift for elucidating abstract concepts, cutting through national security jargon and showing how leaders confront (or avoid) dilemmas."New York Times Book Review

"[An] excellent history of nuclear war and its long shadow....he uses more recently released classified documents to focus on the actual policymakers, describing with lucidity and a healthy dose of dark irony their trips down the rabbit hole....Kaplan’s book is a timely reminder of the need to take a deep breath before thinking the unthinkable."Washington Post

"[Kaplan] distinguishes himself with tight, journalistic accounts of what one might term the 'high nuclear politics' of D.C. policy makers, military men, public intellectuals and government officials, especially as they quarreled behind closed doors. Mr. Kaplan pulls together tales from candid interviews with participants, while also drawing on declassified (and often eye-popping) documents from presidential libraries, Department of Defense files and State Department records....Mr. Kaplan’s forte is with the primary stuff, not the secondary literature....The author is a punchy and sometimes even graceful stylist....'The Bomb' thus unfolds at a speedy pace....The stakes are enormous, it seems; no other form of conflict and warfare counts; really, no other form of history counts. Mesmerized by the dramatic detail, the reader might find it hard to disagree....“The Bomb” is a work that should make thoughtful readers even more thoughtful. But it is not a book for the faint of heart."Wall Street Journal

“With its stunning, new, in-the-room revelations, and with Fred Kaplan’s deep knowledge of nuclear strategy, The Bomb is the best overview yet of the world's continuing struggle to come to terms with the threat of nuclear war.”—Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Arsenals of Folly

“Fred Kaplan is the world’s preeminent Dr. Strangelove-whisperer, and The Bomb is the smartest, most riveting, and up-to-date history of how US leaders, military and civilian, have thought the unthinkable. The chapter on Trump and nuclear weapons is nothing less than alarming.”Timothy Naftali, author of George H.W. Bush and co-author of Khrushchev’s Cold War

“In The Bomb, Fred Kaplan has delivered a timely, lively, highly readable account of how Presidents from Truman to Trump have prepared for nuclear war—a history that is as deeply informed as it is utterly alarming.”—Steve Coll, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ghost Wars and Directorate S

“With powerful anecdotes and a wealth of historical detail, Fred Kaplan tells the story of the men and women who found themselves both appalled and entranced by the fearful, mad logic of nuclear war from the aftermath of Hiroshima to the present day. The Bomb is a frightening but necessary read."Rosa Brooks, author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon

"The Bomb is like the Pentagon Papers for U.S. nuclear strategy. Kaplan has the insider stories of an investigative journalist, the analytic rigor of a political scientist, and the longer-term perspective of a historian. Insightful and important.” SCOTT Sagan, professor of political science at Stanford University and chairman of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ Committee on International Security Studies

"The Bomb is like the Pentagon Papers for U.S. nuclear strategy. Kaplan has the insider stories of an investigative journalist, the analytic rigor of a political scientist, and the longer-term perspective of a historian. Insightful and important.” SCOTT Sagan, professor of political science at Stanford University and chairman of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ Committee on International Security Studies

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