Cold War Brinkmanship: Nuclear Arms, Civil Rights, Government Secrecy

by Alexander DeVolpi, Pub. by Amazon, 2017, 679 pp., $30, ISBN-10: 1545348413

From 1946 until 1991 the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a cold war. The two countries built up huge arsenals of nuclear weapons that could be delivered by airplanes, land-based missiles, and submarine-launched missiles. The two states threatened each other with nuclear annihilation. The preservation of peace depended largely on a stalemate (mutual assured destruction) between the two countries. During the period of the cold war and continuing to the present there were other related developments, including the use of radioactivity in medicine, the development and application of nuclear power, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and attempts to reduce the size of nuclear arsenals.

Alexander DeVolpi discusses these developments in this book that is part history and part memoir. DeVolpi is particularly well qualified to discuss these topics. He served 5 years in the US Navy followed by 20 years in the naval reserve. After leaving the active navy he obtained a Ph.D. in physics and then went to Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois where he worked on the development of nuclear reactors for peaceful uses. However, it was necessary for him to get top-secret security clearance and become familiar with the properties of nuclear weapons. In later stages of his career he worked on the problem of verification of treaties that would reduce the size of nuclear arsenals. In the course of his work DeVopi had contact with other scientists working on nuclear power and nuclear weapons, including visits to other laboratories in the US and the former Soviet Union. DeVolpi also had contact with people in the civil rights and anti-war movements, which led him into these movements. His work, his knowledge of secret materials, and his outside activities led to his being investigated several times by the FBI. His security clearance was even revoked once but was restored after a short time. In addition to his own files from the period, DeVolpi based much of this book on government reports obtained under the freedom of information act.

In the book’s nine chapters, DeVolpi discusses the cold war and related events of the second half of the twentieth century. The discussion is primarily from the point of view of his connection with these events. Central to the entire period is the buildup of large stockpiles of nuclear weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union. The confrontation between the US and the USSR was partly responsible for the wars in Korea and Viet Nam. But the most dangerous confrontation was the Cuban missile crisis that nearly produced a nuclear exchange. The wars in Korea and especially in Viet Nam, along with the buildup of nuclear weapons and means of delivery, led to the anti-war and nuclear disarmament movements. At the same time the civil rights movement increased in intensity. Dr. DeVolpi contributed to these movements.

Although DeVolpi is strongly in favor of reducing the size of nuclear arsenals, he feels that total elimination of nuclear weapons is not feasible. Rather he recommends that states be limited to no more than a few hundred nuclear weapons. This is far fewer than the thousands now possessed by the US and Russia and would not present the same danger. A few hundred nuclear weapons would be enough to deter a nuclear or even a conventional attack but not enough to mount a first strike.

DeVolpi makes a strong case for application of nuclear power. He argues that nuclear is the only source that can provide large amounts of carbon free power. Solar and wind are certainly worthwhile and should be pursued but cannot alone replace fossil fuels. He argues that the dangers of nuclear power have been greatly overrated even in the cases of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. He also argues that the fear of reactor grade nuclear materials being used for weapons is baseless. These materials are unsuitable for weapons and have never been used in that way. Indeed, he argues that the best way of eliminating weapons grade uranium and plutonium is to use them as fuel in reactors.

Based on his experience with government secrecy DeVolpifeels there is far too much classification. Often it does not involve sensitive material but is being used to prevent government from being embarrassed. Even material already in the public domain has been classified. DeVolpi particularly notes the article on H-bomb design published in Progressive magazine and based on public information. He has co-authored an earlier book on that case, Born Secret: the H-bomb, the Progressive case, and National Security (Pergamon Press, New York, 1981). DeVolpi feels the proper government reaction to such cases is to ignore them. Attempts to censor such articles suggest that they contain significant material.

One feature of this book that I particularly like is the index of acronyms. In reading other books one often forgets the meanings of acronyms, leading to great difficulty in locating the original definition.

Unfortunately this book does have several flaws. First, it is quite repetitious. DeVolpi discusses a topic and then, in a later chapter, discusses it again. In a few places herepeats nearly the same sentences within a few paragraphs. The book would be more readable and useful if it were better organized. Second, the text contains very many errors. Most are minor grammatical or typographical errors but some are more serious. In any case there are far too many. The book needed a serious proofreading before publication. Third, in many places the print is so fuzzy that it is nearly impossible to read.

In spite of these flaws I recommend the book. It is an important work that should be read by anyone concerned with the cold war and related matters.

Kenneth S. Mendelson
Professor Emeritus of Physics
Marquette University

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.