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The Cold War Report December 6, 2007
Megatons and Memory Holes
Richard Rhodes, Richard Perle, and the Man Who Saved the World By Alexander Zaitchik Browse author Email
Page 2 of 5

The terror reached screaming pitch with the primetime November 20, 1983 broadcast of The Day After on ABC. It was at this point that nuclear dread became so unavoidable, so widespread, that it was almost as much of a subject of debate as the weapons themselves. The day before the film’s airing, my rabbi called a special meeting during Hebrew school to try to reassure us. It was just a movie, he said. But we knew that was bullshit. What made the early 80s so scary for children was how obvious it was that adults were as scared as we were. It was they, after all, who were calling the 1-800 hotlines that ABC had set up to calm people down during and after the Day After airing. Adults had grown up with their own nuclear nightmares; nobody and nothing could make them go away. (It’s always struck me that children have a dog-like intuitive sixth sense when it comes to nuclear danger. During the Kosovo war, when U.S.-Russian relations sank to a post-Cold War low, psychologists reported a remarkable increase in nuclear nightmares among young children—children with no memory of the Cold War.) 

Needless to say, the autumn of 1983 could not have been a worse time for false alarms in Moscow like the one Stanislav Petrov stared down. Although few knew it at the time, it was the season of Able Archer, a war game conducted by NATO so elaborate that it convinced the Kremlin that the West was preparing to launch a first-strike. In response, Andropov ordered Project RYAN, an intelligence-gathering operation in which Soviet agents were instructed to note possible evidence of western preparations for nuclear war. A directive went out to the Soviet embassies in Europe and North America to scrutinize such signs as parking patterns at the Pentagon and “increased purchases of blood from donors and the prices paid for it.” 

This last morbid detail comes from Richard Rhodes new book, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race. While not as comprehensive a history as the author’s two definitive studies of the American atom and hydrogen bomb programs, Arsenals provides a timely and wise reexamination of the politics, people, and policies that underpinned and drove the arms race on both sides. Like all of Rhodes’ books, it is also a great read.

Rhodes assembles a damning case that the extreme overkill capacity built up by the nuclear superpowers was always every bit as unnecessary and insane as it appeared. Yet it rolled on for nearly four decades. Why? Rhodes explains the arms race as the irrational result of interplay between institutional inertia, domestic politics driven by often-false threat perceptions, and the malign designs of ideologically driven and frequently sociopathic defense intellectuals. Neither side—“two apes on a treadmill”—ever stopped long enough to consider this and begin reversing course until Reagan and Gorbachev began a climb-down in the mid-80s. 

By then, the superpower standoff resembled two Siamese twins with Elephantitis: Cold War nuclear stockpiles totaled more than 50,000 bombs and warheads with a combined explosive force equal to 1.5 million Hiroshimas—a completely unusable capacity to destroy the earth every day for a hundred years. As scientists began to figure out around the time these levels were reached, it would take only a fraction of this megatonnage to throw enough debris and soot into the air to block the sun for generations, resulting in a “nuclear winter.” (Anyone interested in imagining what life would be like in this endless winter is directed to Cormac McCarthy’s Oprah-approved nuclear novel, The Road.) 

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Alexander Zaitchik is an editor at The eXile. Email him at

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