Reviewed by Charles Bogart
This well-written and crafted book is an insider’s look at how the United States’ strategic nuclear weapon stockpile grew from three weapons in 1945 to over 10,000 in 1980 and then began to shrink to its present level of some 2,000. The author is multifaceted in telling this story. He discusses the political and military process by which the United States reached decisions on the quantity and quality of nuclear weapons to place in its arsenal. Tied in with this discussion is the question, “Were United States nuclear weapons for use in a first strike force or to be held for a retaliatory strike?” Buried within this discussion is the question of what were the Soviet Union targets that the United States nuclear weapon systems should be programmed to hit. This discussion then leads to the question of how many weapons do you have to allocate to hit a target to insure the target is destroyed and what do you target–military forces, industrial sites, urban population centers, or some sort of combination of these sites. Wrapped within all of these discussions are comments concerning command and control issues affecting the military and their civilian masters.
The author traces the nuclear weapon stockpile program’s growth and decline from the Roosevelt to the Obama administration. Each President and his Secretary of Defense are examined to show that administration’s concerns about the size of the United States’ nuclear weapon stockpile. Each administration, to a certain extent, wrestled with the question of how many strategic nuclear weapons did the United States need to insure parity or superiority to the Soviet Union and to provide Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) capability.
Much of the discussion within the book keeps returning to the subject of the United States’ Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). One question that kept coming up as the SIOP was revised was the ratio of nuclear weapons to be targeted against military and civilian sites. This, in turn, led to the question of which service and which component of that service would hit a specific target. Further complicating the development of the SIOP plan was the need to address what was the type of nuclear retaliation to be launched that was proportional to the attack on the United States.
One constant theme in the book is the author’s contention that the developers of the SIOP and their masters had a fixation on land based missiles and aircraft. The result was that they never understood the threat the Soviet Ballistic Missile Submarine force posed or the relative invulnerability of the United States Ballistic Missile Submarines. While a lot of publicity was given to the concept of a Triad nuclear weapon delivery system during the period 1960 to 1990, the truth was that the United States gave more thought to the use of land based airpower and missiles than to sea based nuclear response capability.
The author intertwines within his story of the growth of the United States nuclear stockpile efforts by others to contain and reduce the number of nuclear weapons. This story seeks to explain that counting the total number of nuclear weapons possessed is not necessarily the way to quantify nuclear weapon superiority. The first hesitant steps taken by both the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia to limit each others nuclear weapon arsenals is an interesting read.
With the last chapter of the book “The Future: What is Next?” the author looks ahead at such nuclear weapon topics as threats, status of the deterrent force, arms control, testing, proliferation, force composition, and other topics. This is an intellectual tour of various actual and potential problems facing the United States over the next decade. It gives one pause to think and reflect on what should the United States’ nuclear weapon policy be for the next decade.
Those seeking a good, concise explanation of the theory of deployment of nuclear weapons by the United States will find this book enlightening. It is a great addition to and complements the author’s first book Nuclear Weapons and Aircraft Carriers.
Charles H. Bogart of Frankfort, KY, served in the Navy from 1958-1961. He recently retired as a Planning Supervisor from the Kentucky Department of Military Affairs and is now employed as a Historian by Frankfort Parks and Historical Sites.