Self-destruct Sequence

How the End Begins
The Road to a Nuclear World War III
Ron Rosenbaum
Simon & Schuster, $28, 303 pp.

According to Ron Rosenbaum, when the Cold War ended—and especially after September 11 raised the specter of a nuclear attack by terrorists—people “succumbed to a historical amnesia” and stopped worrying about the old-fashioned kind of nuclear war, the one that could happen between states. In his provocatively titled new book, Rosenbaum, a longtime journalist and self-professed “obsessed outsider,” aims to erase this deficit of conscience and prudence. How the End Begins illuminates both the genuine strategic risks of nuclear war between such adversaries as Israel and Iran or India and Pakistan, and the residual dangers (think Fail-Safe) of the nuclear confrontation between the United States and Russia.

Rosenbaum starts his analysis by wondering whether humanity got through the Cold War without a nuclear exchange by virtue of the “ingenious design of deterrence” or by “sheer luck.” He suspects mostly the latter. In support he offers lively accounts of the circumvention of purported fail-safe mechanisms (like the Rube Goldberg “spoon-and-string” maneuver devised by launch officers to enable an ICBM to be fired by a single man instead of two), the perils of brinkmanship during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Yom Kippur War, and the Soviets’ misinterpretation of a 1983 NATO nuclear-war exercise as real. Until the end of the book, when he acknowledges the effective internalization of the nuclear taboo by American decision makers and some of their...

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About the Author

Jonathan Stevenson is a professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College and author of Thinking Beyond the Unthinkable: Harnessing Doom from the Cold War to the Age of Terror (Viking).