The Big Bangs

The cold war ended and the nightmare of nuclear war slipped from our waking minds, the grip of its terror receded from our bellies. Most of us heaved a sigh of relief and forgot the Bomb. And it may be that atomic attack is no more likely today than it was May 10, the day before India conducted nuclear tests and provoked Pakistan two weeks later into doing the same. Even so, the grim possibility of nuclear war once again seized our attention.

Can that be a good thing? Following the initial shock of atomic saber rattling and the imposition of economic sanctions, both India and Pakistan expressed willingness to talk. Can they—can we—curb the genie loosed from its bottle fifty years ago? Will the rest of the world pay attention long enough to press India and Pakistan to an agreement? There are first of all questions about the nature of the threat nuclear India and nuclear Pakistan can credibly make. Were the tests as successful as claimed? Can either deploy its weapons soon? Or in a mode of any military significance? Having declared themselves nuclear powers, does either country have the wherewithal to produce a sufficient number of nuclear weapons to change the balance of power in the subcontinent?

But uncertainty about how much damage either country could inflict on the other, or how likely either is to try, should not obscure a second set of issues just as chilling: the political and...

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