Richard Rhodes has had nuclear weapons on the brain for decades. His 1986 book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, won a Pulitzer Prize and other awards. In his third book on the subject, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race, he chronicles the final years of the Cold War when it was clear the terrible weapons that had been amassed could never be used.
How did the United States plan to use its nuclear weapons?
Based on the power of the tiny Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, the Air Force estimated that they would need about 350 to 400 small atomic bombs to destroy every major population center in the Soviet Union. That was also based on the assumption that half the bombs would fail to detonate. But when the Soviets got the atomic bomb in the early 1950s, we went a little crazy and began to make as many nuclear weapons as we could.
Did the Cuban missile crisis slow this buildup?
President Kennedy and Robert McNamara wanted to rationalize the nuclear arms race. They set about calculating how many bombs were needed to assure mutual destruction. Even then, they added to the number because the military wanted more than the MAD [mutual assured destruction] calculations would allow.
Yes, but also because of interservice rivalry. Each service believed that they needed their own nuclear arsenal. It all stemmed from the misunderstanding that these were weapons that you could actually use. On the flip side, after Cuba, the Soviets were so embarrassed that they decided to build up their nuclear arsenal to parity with the United States, even to the point where they abandoned their cherished dream of putting a man on the moon so that all their industry could focus on building ballistic missiles. The Soviets were reaching parity in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which was just at the time when the neocons were coming to power and doubled the defense budget.
How were the neocons different?
The group that would come to be called the neocons—Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld—argued for a much larger share of the national budget going to defense spending. Détente had been a product of Nixon and Kissinger, and they wanted to break with that and confront the Soviet Union. They wanted a victory over them rather than détente. The defense budget jumped by more than a trillion dollars in the first few years of the Reagan administration; the Navy moved ships much closer to Russian waters; the Air Force flew bombers much closer to Soviet airspace. The U.S. also engaged in more covert schemes like getting the Saudis to increase oil production to lower the price of oil—the Soviets were living on their oil revenue at the time. It was direct belligerence, yet it had the opposite effect of what the neocons expected. You can't bully large nations with huge nuclear stockpiles; it just makes them think you are getting poised to attack.
What did the Soviets make of the arms buildup?
The Soviets looked at this expenditure, which was creating far more weapons than were needed to wipe out the Soviet Union, and the belligerent rhetoric and concluded that Reagan must be preparing for a first strike. In the fall of 1983, we had what you might call a second Cuban missile crisis that people don't seem to have heard of—and some conservatives in government still deny was as serious as it was. During a major NATO exercise on the ground in Europe, the Soviets were pretty convinced that the West was planning a surprise attack. The entire Soviet military went on alert, and we were very close to triggering a first strike by the Soviets. That scared the hell out of Reagan, and it was the beginning of the ideas that resulted in the Reykjavik summit.
Why did things get so tense?
Able Archer was a NATO exercise including the major leaders from Europe and the United States in a simulated nuclear war. But the Soviets saw this as a disguise to build up forces and attack. We now know the United States and the Soviets planned to use "exercises" to conceal a nuclear first strike. We also know that the KGB learned that we were upgrading and updating our nuclear command and control systems, which had been long neglected. When the NATO exercises came at the same time, the Soviets went on full alert. When President Reagan realized what was going on, he shut down the entire thing quite quickly. Shortly afterwards, he spoke in Japan and made a point of saying that a nuclear war could never be fought and could never be won. We survived the Cold War by the skin of our teeth, and much of it was luck. Perhaps we shouldn't give ourselves too much credit.