Counting Down to Nuclear War

Monday, March 7, 2011
By Paul Martin

By RICHARD RHODES
NYTimes.com

Every thousand years a doomsday threatens. Early Christians believed the day of judgment was nigh. Medieval millenarians expected the world to end in 1000 A.D. These fatal termini would have required supernatural intervention; in the old days humans lacked sufficient means to destroy themselves. The discovery, in 1938, of how to release nuclear energy changed all that. Humankind acquired the means of its own destruction. Even were we to succeed in eliminating our weapons of doomsday — one subject of “How the End Begins” — we would still know how to build them. From our contemporary double millennium forward, the essential challenge confronting our species will remain how to avoid destroying the human world.

Ron Rosenbaum is an author who likes to ask inconvenient questions. He has untombed the secrets of the Yale secret society Skull and Bones, tumbled among contending Shakespeare scholars and rappelled into the bottomless darkness of Adolf Hitler’s evil. But nothing has engaged his attention more fervently than doomsdays real or threatening, especially the Holocaust and nuclear war. Both catastrophes ominously interlink here.

The book wanders before it settles down. Rosenbaum speculates on the risk Israel took in 2007 when it bombed a secret Syrian nuclear reactor, a pre-emptive strategy Israel has followed since it destroyed an Iraqi reactor in 1981. He cites a quotation in The Spectator of London from a “very senior British ministerial source” who claimed that we came close to “World War III” the day of the attack on Syria. With no more information than the minister’s claim, the best Rosenbaum can say is that “it was not inconceivable.”

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