Interesting Nuclear History Reads

8 Feb

For want of something substantive to say (I’m currently mired in the documents I harvested from The National Archives last month), I though it might be useful to highlight some recent scholarship in the field of nuclear history. Rather than give substantive reviews of these works (although I am working on a full review of Nuclear Apartheid) I’ll offer brief comments, plus links to reviews as appropriate.

Matthew Jones, After Hiroshima: The United States, Race and Nuclear Weapons in Asia, 1945–1965 (Cambridge, 2010)

After Hiroshima is a convincing and timely exploration of the intersections between race and nuclear weapons. In fact, this was going to be my original Ph.D project, but Professor Jones beat me to it, thus proving that nothing you ever think of is original!

While other authors have briefly touched on race as it applied to nuclear weapons policy in Asia during the two decades after Hiroshima, this study represents the first comprehensive examination of the topic. Jones argues that the underpinning of American power by nuclear capability had many complex repercussions on US-Asian relations. After Hiroshima explores what American policy makers, military leaders, and commentators thought ‘Asia’ believed about US intentions in that part of the world and how those beliefs helped to shaped policy.

Placing his argument within other Cold War developments such as Sino-Soviet relations, colonisation and decolonisation, and the domestic US matters of civil rights and race relations, Jones connects his thesis to a broad range of international, transnational, and domestic issues in a manner that illuminates and underscores the nuclear/race issue, demonstrating how race created problems for American testing, deployment, and potential use of its nuclear arsenal.

You can find a far more lengthy series of analyses of this important work in this H-Net roundtable review.

Shane J. Maddock, Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy From World War II to the Present (Chapel Hill, NC, 2010)

This really is one of those books that I am immensely conflicted about. On one hand, it is a great synthesis of a wide range of scholarship on nuclear proliferation which takes an interesting, cultural approach to its subject matter. On the other hand, there are parts that leave me less than convinced by those very elements that I find most interesting.

The case for race and gender as motivating features in US non-proliferation activities remains maddeningly opaque. They are present, but seem to sit slightly disconnected from the overall narrative. No doubt the subtitle of the book was at the behest of the publishers, as the volume devotes a scant handful of pages to the post-1970, post-NPT era. Which, for a junior scholar such as myself, is actually quite handy, as it leaves scope for my own project!

There is a very extensive series of expert reviews available in this H-Net roundtable review pdf.

John Mueller, Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism From Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda (Oxford, 2010)

I’ve mentioned John Mueller before, in the context of his earlier work on the irrelevance of nuclear weapons to the Cold War. In this, his latest work, he attempts to debunk what he (and other scholars) refer to as “nuclear alarmism.”

The work itself, while an entertaining read, suffers from some of the same flaws as Nuclear Apartheid, and a little more. The narrative feels somewhat bitty and fractured not helped by – I would suggest – an overly broad remit. As Michael Burleigh notes, Mueller seems to go slightly too far in attempting to make nuclear weapons less horrifically destructive than they appear in the public imagination. While it is true that in the popular imagination, all nuclear weapons have the terrifying power of 20 megaton hydrogen bombs, Mueller tends to head in the opposite direction with a little too much haste.

Where the book is undoubtedly at its best is when Mueller examines the capacity of terrorist groups or non-state actors to acquire or construct nuclear weapons and the alarmist notions that have surrounded such a (non) event for the last few decades.

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