How they learned to hate the bomb

A New York Times review of The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb: On the day after a nuclear bomb annihilates Washington, New Delhi, Islamabad, Seoul, Tel Aviv or Moscow, vaporizing and burning to death hundreds of thousands of people, our present complacency about nuclear proliferation will look like daylight madness. Even the chilliest of realists have shuddered at our capability for radioactive massacre. In 1977, the strategist George F. Kennan declared, “No one is good enough, wise enough, steady enough, to have control over the volume of explosives that now rest in the hands of this country.” Nuclear arms, he concluded, “shouldn’t exist at all.”

Philip Taubman’s fascinating, haunting book, “The Partnership,” is about the drive to abolish nuclear weapons — and, implicitly, about why it will probably fail. Taubman, a former reporter and editor for The New York Times, tells the stories of five American national security mandarins who, in the twilight of their illustrious careers, stunned their peers by campaigning to scrap all nuclear arms. They are not exactly pacifist hippies: Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz, Republican secretaries of state; William J. Perry, a Democratic secretary of defense; Sam Nunn, a Democrat who had been chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; and Sidney D. Drell, an influential Stanford physicist. Their continuing activism, Taubman writes, “has induced sitting presidents and foreign ministers to embrace ideas not long ago ridiculed as radical and reckless,” and has “powerfully influenced Obama,” who advocates a world without nuclear ­weapons.

These five men had done much to foster a nuclearized world, and had prospered for their contributions to its infernal machinery. Much of “The Partnership” consists of eerie tales of the atomic cold war, charting the upward progress of these grandees. When they broke ranks, Taubman writes, “it was roughly equivalent to John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan and Jay Gould calling for the demise of capitalism.”

The core of the book is Shultz, the group’s “undeclared leader” and its “most committed” member. Taubman affectionately writes that he “radiated probity, pragmatism and Republicanism.” “I had never learned to love the bomb,” Shultz says. At the Reykjavik summit in October 1986, as President Reagan’s secretary of state, he had a heartbreaking brush with nuclear abolition. (Taubman was there as a reporter.) The American and Soviet chiefs came close to a historic deal to eliminate all their nuclear weapons. But the agreement foundered over Reagan’s “quixotic quest to build a missile shield,” which Mikhail Gorbachev rejected. Shultz, skeptical about the missile defense project, was disappointed.

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