“Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb” and “The Fall of Constantinople 1453” — November 8, 2015

“Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb” and “The Fall of Constantinople 1453”

Herewith, a couple more less-than-complete book reviews. They were exceptional books, so I don’t want a devotion to completeness to prevent my endorsement.

  • Richard Rhodes, “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb”. If I’ve not already said so, Rhodes’s earlier “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” is one of the three or four greatest books I’ve ever read. (Others would include “Common Ground” by Lukas and “Nature’s Metropolis” by Cronon.) What makes the earlier work so unbearably good is that it is one of the few best pieces of science writing I’ve ever read, at the same time that it’s a meticulously researched and grippingly told piece of storytelling.

    “Dark Sun” is, perhaps, even better; I’m shocked. I spent the last 12 hours or so reading it, practically without blinking. It’s got several threads going simultaneously, and delivers on each flawlessly. First it has the detailed engineering explanation of the various failed attempts at an H-bomb, culminating in the successful Teller-Ulam design. Then it has the story of the many-years-long Soviet espionage, starting early in the Manhattan Project, that allowed the Soviets to detonate their first atomic weapon years before anyone thought they could; Rhodes suggests that nearly every Soviet success in weapons development was a direct copy of something they’d secreted out of the United States. This brings us to the third strand in “Dark Sun”, namely the hunt for those who were giving American discoveries to the Soviets (most prominently Klaus Fuchs). Soon that strand transmutes into McCarthyist paranoia about traitors penetrating every level of U.S. government. But as the saying goes, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you”: Rhodes documents pretty conclusively that the U.S. and Canada were riddled throughout with spies, that the U.S. had no similar presence in Russia, and that the Rosenbergs really were guilty.

    Eventually (I’m not giving anything away here), the U.S. did develop a hydrogen bomb, the first of which had hundreds of times the explosive power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Its stated aim was deterrence, but it’s not clear to the reader — and barely seems clear to Rhodes — why the ability to engulf all of Manhattan in a single fireball would have any more deterrent value than dropping a few Hiroshima-sized bombs on it. Hence Rhodes’s book naturally turns to geopolitical and moral questions, helpfully embodied in the person of Curtis LeMay. LeMay wanted to destroy the Soviet Union while the U.S. had a nuclear monopoly, and to the end of his days believed that the U.S. had “lost” the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is a frankly monstrous definition of “losing”; that we made it through the half-century after Hiroshima without ending all life on earth — despite the apparent attempts of LeMay and his Strategic Air Command to provoke the Soviets on a few occasions, outside of any civilian authority — is nothing short of a miracle.

    Like David Halberstam’s “The Fifties”, Rhodes demonstrates that the civilian leadership had a better grasp of the big picture than the military did. The civilian leadership saw that nuclear war would be insane. No U.S. president or Soviet premier could allow the destruction of even one city by nuclear weapons; the destruction of 100 cities would be a horror beyond imagining. So what additional deterrent value does the thousandth nuclear weapon offer over the nine-hundred-ninety-ninth?

    Rhodes has now written the definitive works on the U.S. development of fission and fusion bombs. These books deserve to be on the shelves of anyone who appreciates stellar writing, and anyone who wants to know about one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century.

  • Steven Runciman, “The Fall of Constantinople 1453”. This has now filled in an important part of my historical knowledge: from the formation of the Ottoman Empire, through its conquest of much of Eastern Europe, through to its final destruction of the Byzantine Empire. Mehmet II comes across as a brilliant military commander, and Runciman mostly avoids a certain WASPy British habit of barbarianizing the “orientals.” It’s a compulsively readable book.

    Among many other little things, Runciman’s book clarified for me the geographic boundaries of historic Constantinople. When I visited Istanbul a few years ago, I stayed in Beyo─člu, which I now understand was historically a separate town called Pera. (Separate enough that when Constantinople was under siege, Pera went to great pains to remain neutral.) If I’m reading Runciman correctly, Constantinople proper was the part of modern-day Istanbul south of Pera on the western side of the Bosphorus. When the city’s tourist agencies today trumpet the city’s “spanning two continents”, that seems historically incorrect: the Asian part, opposite the Golden Horn, was a separate town called Scutari (today Üsküdar).

    I’m slowly approaching European history pre-1700 from a number of different angles. My obsession with Venice starts to pick at pre-Napoleonic history from near the eastern edge of Western Europe, facing nervously toward the Muslim invader to the east. The Ottomans are, of course, a fascinating subject on their own, so I’ve picked up Osman’s Dream. I still need to understand what happened from, say, the 17th to 19th centuries that suddenly made Europe turn from weak, unstable feudal arrangements (including endless redrawing of allegiances within Italy) to a world of recognizably modern nation-states; other than “Napoleon” and “the Industrial Revolution,” I don’t have a very precise story.