One Oops From Armageddon

'Command and Control,' 'Thermonuclear Monarchy'

Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety
Eric Schlosser
The Penguin Press, $36, 631 pp.

Choosing Between Democracy and Doom
Elaine Scarry
W.W. Norton & Company, $35, 593 pp.

It is not as though we haven’t been warned. In April 1945—three months before their invention was tested, and before they could know if it even worked—the scientists who had built the first atomic bomb warned American policymakers that it was likely others, too, would soon make a nuclear weapon: “As a result, it is extremely probable that the future will make it possible to be constructed by smaller nations or even groups.”

It is a warning that has gone unheeded ever since. During the Cold War, the great fear was of a history-ending conflagration, a “nuclear exchange” between the United States and the Soviet Union. Since 9/11, concern has centered on the use of a nuclear weapon—or of radiological poisons—against a civilian population by a terrorist cell: the unspecified “groups” of the scientists’ jeremiad. Now, journalist Eric Schlosser has given us the raw material for a new nightmare: the likelihood of a catastrophic mishap culminating in the unintended explosion of a nuclear weapon. As a declassified Air Force history cited in Schlosser’s book observes with admirable understatement, the result would be “an accident for which a later apology might be inadequate.”

Although he is the author of two New York Times bestsellers—Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness—Schlosser seems an unlikely authority on a topic that traditionally has been not only top secret, but the near-exclusive purview of so-called defense intellectuals, wonks who...

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About the Author

Gregg Herken is an emeritus professor of American history at the University of California, and author of Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller. His next book, The Georgetown Set: The Friends and Rivals Who Waged—and Won—the Cold War, will be published by Knopf this fall.