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From A Science Perspective: Books Trump Should Read Before Getting The Nuclear Codes

Alfredo Lietor
Getty Images

Soon-to-be President Donald Trump will hold the keys, or the codes, to America's nuclear weapons arsenal in a few short weeks.

On Thursday, the president elect tweeted that the United States should expand its nuclear capability, which could suggest a strategy counter to that of decades of presidential administrations — crossing party lines — aiming to decrease the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense policy. Trump wrote: "The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes."

There have been many media reports about how Trump might approach the nuclear weapons issue — including pieces on whether he will uphold last year's landmark Iran nuclear deal.

Trump has argued that the U.S. "nuclear program has fallen way behind" while Russia has "gone wild with their nuclear program." Many have noted that these comments are contrary to what is actually happening: The U.S. is modernizing its nukes.

No one can predict how a President Trump will handle the responsibility for America's nuclear warheads. But we think we can help provide some historic and scientific background.

We've prepared a short list of books that would provide a strong base for the nuclear challenges he will soon face.

Lynn Eden, Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge, and Nuclear Weapons Devastation (Cornell University Press, 2004).

Stanford Professor Lynn Eden has argued that for more than 50 years, U.S. nuclear war strategists underestimated nuclear weapons' potentials for destruction by not fully taking into account atomic firestorms.

The reason, she explains, concerned how the military was organized. The Air Force's emphasis on precision bombing had led to a rich understanding of the likely consequences of a nuclear blast. What was not pursued, however, was deeper knowledge of ways that post-explosion mass fire could be even more fatal than the initial attack. As a result, Eden suggests, the Pentagon actually built a nuclear arsenal much more destructive than was seen as necessary for war planning purposes.

A chapter of Whole World on Fire describes in vivid detail the devastation — from a blast, radiation exposure and mass fire — that could follow if a 300-kiloton hydrogen bomb were detonated 1,500 feet above Washington, D.C. Every person within 60 miles of the nation's capital would likely die. This is gravely serious.

John Hersey's book Hiroshima and Masuji Ibuse's novel Black Rain can also put into perspective the overwhelming human suffering nuclear weapons have caused.

Eric Schlosser, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (Penguin Books, 2014).

Command and Control addresses how experts who design and operate nuclear weapons and delivery missiles are "only human."

In 1958, for example, an Air Force captain flying a Boeing B-47E-LM Stratojet over South Carolina accidentally emergency-released a nuclear weapon. While the bomb did not have a nuclear fissile core installed, the device's conventional detonation injured six. It left a 50-foot crater in a family's backyard. In 1961, a B-52 bomber fell apart in the air and dropped two 3-4 megaton nuclear weapons over Goldsboro, N.C. One almost detonated. In 1980, a nuclear-tipped Titan II missile exploded in its silo near rural Damascus, Ark. Nuclear weapons have been lost at sea.

Strategic errors have occurred, too, Schlosser explains. In 1983, the Soviet Union mistakenly interpreted the vast NATO military war game exercise Operation Able Archer as real. This nearly triggered nuclear war as the Soviets began preparing for a surprise nuclear attack.

Even if we never see nuclear war — or even if the U.S. wins a future arms race (if one can even "win" an arms race) — accidents may still happen. Schlosser shows how, even while the U.S. has one of the safest nuclear arsenals on Earth, the country has "narrowly avoided a long series of nuclear disasters." Schlosser calls any nuclear weapon "an accident waiting to happen, a potential act of mass murder."

Command & Control highlights the importance of a focus on securing our own nuclear weapons further to reduce the likelihood of accidents.

Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (Simon & Schuster, 1983).

How do nuclear war planners know what they know in the first place? Fred Kaplan traces the history of U.S. nuclear strategy from the end of World War II through the early Reagan administration.

This was a time of incredible complexity. Yet RAND Corp. experts like Bernard Brodie, Albert Wohlstetter and Herman Kahn sought to impose rationality on nuclear war planning. They drew on systems analysis, game theory, quantitative computer models, military tactics from history, technical assessments on weapons and delivery systems, and their own gut intuitions to try to make a science out of nuclear warfare. Kaplan shows how, by the 1980s, these theories "had taken on all the appearances of a scientifically based reality" complete with "calculations that could be reproduced and documents that could be called off the shelf."

This book highlights the distance between defense intellectuals' intuitions and their reports' auras of objectivity, leading to understanding of the cautious poise needed to make sober nuclear decisions. It shows why this world can't be described in black-and-white certainties.

Hugh Gusterson, People of the Bomb: Portraits of America's Nuclear Complex (University of Minnesota Press, 2004).

In People of the Bomb, anthropologist Hugh Gusterson reflects on his 15 years of ethnographic fieldwork among U.S. nuclear weapons scientists.

He describes the 1990s retreat of bipolar Soviets vs. NATO nuclear geopolitics and the rise of 21st century concerns about loose nukes, dirty bombs, terrorism and rogue states. He explores how U.S. nuclear and military goals have tangled up with government leaders' speeches, pop culture, pork barrel politics, media commentary and the American national psyche. He criticizes nuclear defense intellectuals' embarrassing failures to predict the Cold War's end.

Gusterson's book is a useful primer on how American military ideology has changed since the end of the Cold War. His analysis of the enormous power U.S. politicians and media have garnered since WWII in rapidly reshaping Americans' perceptions of foreign threats is also educational. People of the Bomb informs on how rhetoric is received and adopted as a worldview.

Guest bloggers Vincent Ialenti and Annie Tomlinson are National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellows and Ph.D. candidates at Cornell University.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Annie Tomlinson
Vincent Ialenti