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Review: The Nuclear Almanac: Confronting the Atom in War and Peace.

R. V. Cupido (reviewer) — October 1984

Compiled and edited by faculty members at the Massaehusetts Institute of Technology. Reading, Mass.; Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1984. 546 pages, $25.95 (paperback).

The threat of nuclear war – both actual and perceived – has increased dramatically in recent years, becoming the most urgent public issue of our time. Paradoxically, the horrible predicament in which we find oursleves has yielded a number of beneficial by-products. The most conspicuous of these is the meteoric rise of an international mass movment dedicated to nuclear disarmament and world peace. Another, less visible, benefit has been the enormous outpouring of literature, much of it of the highest quality, dealing with every facet of the nuclear question. As a result, the “experts” and technocrats, with their cult of secrecy and paternalistic contempt for the uninitiated, have lost their monopoly on knowledge. And in the realm of public policy, knowledge is power. For the first time, the ordinary citizen has access to information that will equip him to take an active role in the debate over nuclear weapons. Genuine democratic control over decisions relating to fundamental issues of war and peace has become feasible.

The Nuclear Almanac is the kind of book that has helped bring this new and promising state of affairs into being. This is a massive, encyclopaedic work, covering every aspect of man’s use and abuse of atomic energy. Originating as a project of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Faculty Coalition of Disarmament, it is a compilation of articles and essays by a group of eminent scientists, scholars and public figures, including the physicists Kosta Tsipis, Herbert York and Bernard Feld; Paul C. Warnke, former director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency; and the historians Henry Steele Commager and Alice Kimball Smith.

The scope of the collection is impressive. The authors address such topics as the history, design, manufacture and effects of nuclear weapons; current strategic theory and the nuclear policies, doctrines and capa bilities of the two opposing blocs; nuclear weapons proliferation and international arms control; the rise of the civilian nuclear power industry; the nature and effects of ionizing radiation; and the history of nuclear physics in the twentieth century.

Highly technical subjects are treated in considerable depth, yet presented in a lucid, straightforward style that renders them accessible to the lay reader. The Nuclear Almanac is a splendid example of popularization, managing to simplify without being simple-minded or condescending.

The text is supplemented and enhanced by many striking photographs – some of them containing almost unbearably powerful images – and exceptionally well-designed tables and diagrams. The inclusion of glossaries, footnotes, a comprehensive, cross-referenced index and short bibliographies appended to the end of each chapter facilitates the book’s use as a basic reference tool.

Those sections concerned with such topical matters as new weapons technologies, arms control and the shifting military balance will inevitably be overtaken by events in some degree. This circumstance, which affects most works in this volatile field, prevents The Nuclear Almanac from achieving the status of a definitive sourcebook.

Neither is it, as its publishers claim, truly comprehensive. In a number of chapters – e.g., those pertaining to the military-industrial complex, the nuclear power industry and the peace movement – attention is focussed on developments within the United States. This is not intended as a serious criticism. While some mention is made of parallel developments in other countries, no single work can reasonably be expected to provide an exhaustive account of so vast a subject. The authors are writing primarily for an American audience. But because the United States is the world’s foremost nuclear power, with a potentially fatal impact upon all other nations and peoples; and because the issues and dilemmas confronting American citizens and policy-makers are substantially the same as those facing all modern societies in the nuclear age, the book’s relevance transcends national boundaries.

The Nuclear Almnnnc is more than a mere compendium of dry technical facts. issues are examined critically; official government policies, past and present, are challenged and enlightened alternatives arc put forward. The contributors are not afraid to draw controversial, if rarely radical, conclusions from the facts they have marshalled – for example, with respect to Reagan’s bloated military budgets; the futility of civil defence measures; the dangerous folly of nuclear war-fighting strategies and “counterforce” nuclear weapons; the missed opportunities in the “sorry history of arms control”; the environmental and economic costs of ci.vil nuclear energy programs; the intractable problem of radioactive waste disposal. Rigorous scientific content is combined with an unambigous moral perspective.

The authors are clearly motivated by a sense of urgency. Their intention is expressed in the sub-TITLE:to confront us with the painful facts about the unleashed atom and, further, to incite us to action.

One body of experts brought us the first atomic bomb, Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, finally, a whole world wired for destruction. But, at the same time, other experts – some of them defectors from the first group – have been in the vanguard of efforts to promote peace and disarmament. One thinks of such courageous figures as Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard, George Kennan, Lord Zuckerman and Daniel Ellsberg, among many other dissenters and apostates from nuclear orthodoxy. The men and women responsible for The Nuelcnr Alumnae have made a significant contribution to an honourable tradition.