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Nuclear Weapons: What You Need to Know.

Nuclear Weapons: What You Need to Know. By Jeremy Bernstein. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 299 pages. $27.00

Jeremy Bernstein has written a very interesting, albeit somewhat mistitled, book that offers a lively and anecdotal history of the evolution of nuclear weapons, but hardly all of "what you need to know." The book may be particularly illuminating for the reader who has already perused the more comprehensive histories of the emergence of nuclear physics and the resultant destructive weapons. It offers insight on the human side of physics; the author is a former staff writer for the New Yorker and a highly competent nuclear physicist with experience at the various weapon laboratories. Based in part on post-Cold War disclosures, the book provides intriguing updates for earlier histories, related to what we knew concerning Soviet, Pakistani, and earlier German bomb projects. For someone who is new to the subject of nuclear physics, the book explains a number of basic principles related to atomic and hydrogen bombs in a very readable form. Unfortunately, it offers far more detail on the history and nature of physics than most readers will really need or understand.

At its outset the book seems intended for the many Americans who (including the Congress, the executive branch, and perhaps a number of officers in the Air Force and Navy) are not paying enough attention to the role or condition of the American nuclear arsenal. But it then barely touches on the issues of nuclear strategy as they have evolved since 1945 and 1949, the respective years of the first American and Soviet atomic tests. What bothers this reviewer most about the book is its unevenness of the coverage. The author goes into great detail regarding nuclear physics, but relatively little is said about the extended debate on the strategic role played by such weapons. While more than half the text is devoted to the pre-1945 development of the first bombs, barely 30 pages are devoted to the contemporary concerns about such weapons falling into the hands of various nations.

The prose is lively, but set in a chatty conversational manner, with a number of offhand judgmental comments. The presentation of the material is mostly chronological, but not entirely so, as there are numerous digressions and asides. The text reads as an extended reminiscence by someone telling a long series of stories, for the pleasure of telling them. Some of the important facts are footnoted with sources, but others are not. Some of the interesting disclosures related to Pakistani nuclear proliferation or Soviet espionage are thus difficult to assess as to reliability.

In short, this book will engage someone who already has a basic understanding about the subject, but it might easily mislead or confuse the novice. It is enjoyable to read, but does not fulfill the promise of providing what one "needs to know" regarding nuclear weapons.

Reviewed by George H. Quester, Professor of Government and Politics, University of Maryland.
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Author:Quester, George H.
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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