THE WIZARDS OF ARMAGEDDON
In the sea of books published during the last fifty years about nuclear weapons and Cold War arms strategy, very few stand out. Fred Kaplan’s The Wizards of Armageddon is one that does and, indeed, towers above the rest. As David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972) did in telling the story of the otherwise brilliant people who established the foreign policy that led to the escalation of the war in Vietnam, Kaplan’s book reveals the personalities behind the strategic planning for the use of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Because of the time period involved there are even some cross-over characters between the two books including Robert S. McNamara and McGeorge Bundy among others.
Kaplan weaves a narrative that incorporates the stories of the influential men of the era and the seminal events that they were involved in such as the creation of the RAND think tank (later the RAND Corporation). The background of the Gaither Committee’s top secret study of civil defense is also presented.
Kaplan broke news in his 1983 book with the revelation that the Kennedy administration had developed a plan for a limited first strike on the Soviet Union during the 1961 Berlin crisis. Using government documents declassified after the publication of Wizards of Armageddon, Kaplan greatly expanded upon this story for a 2001 article for the Atlantic Monthly (“JFK’s First Strike Plan,” October 2001).
Perhaps the most amusing anecdote in the book is one about Dr. Edward Teller visiting the White House in late 1961 and alarming President Kennedy with his Stangelovian ideas about civil defense. This story is more than just an anecdote, however, as it was Teller who, along with other factors during this time period, steered Kennedy away from a more ambitious and costly civil defense policy.
The Wizards of Armageddon takes the reader through the first days of the Reagan administration's arms buildup, but the most interesting aspect of this book is the formative years of nuclear strategy.
The editors of CONELRAD cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Fred Kaplan’s most recent book, Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power is about the (George W.) Bush administration’s military and foreign policy in the wake of 9/11.
THE WIZARDS OF ARMAGEDDON
By Fred Kaplan
Copyright 1983; Published by Simon and Schuster, New York
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