Book review of “The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb” by Philip Taubman. At the height of the Cold War, eliminating nuclear weapons was seen as the province of dreadlocked hippies, peaceniks, and other “flower children” of the 1960s. It was a perspective that perversely marginalized the arms control agenda, just when it was needed the most.
Today, the world has arguably reached a similar inflection point, but the debate is beginning to change.
In the age of September 11th, nuclear terrorism is now arguably the world’s greatest threat. Given the vanishingly inadequate security at many nuclear plants and entrenchment of nuclear smuggling routes, committed organizations can gather the materials to build either a dirty bomb or a full-fledged nuclear weapon far more easily than many realize. The amorphous structure of such networks also makes them impervious to nuclear counterstrikes, meaning the massive nuclear arsenals states hold to prevent nuclear attack would prove useless. In other words, the age of nuclear deterrence is ending, and the present may be a more dangerous and volatile era of the nuclear age than anything Dr. Strangelove ever could have dreamed up.
In the midst of this new world, four “Cold Warriors” at the forefronts of diplomacy, politics, science and intelligence stepped forward and did the unthinkable: they co-authored an editorial in the Wall Street Journal calling for an eventual end to nuclear weapons, laying out a road map towards global zero based on decades of experience in Washington. Despite their low expectations, an idea that had not surfaced since Reagan and Gorbachev discussed eliminating nuclear weapons in 1986 took flight, a campaign emerged, and a safer, saner world began to seem possible. In “The Partnership”, The New York Times reporter Philip Taubman explores the lives of these men and their associates, their careers facing nuclear issues, and their diverse trajectories towards supporting the elimination of the weapons many tout as America’s sturdiest defense.
The names of the five men whom Taubman profiles, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and Sidney Drell, should be familiar to those who have followed American nuclear policy over the past sixty years. They are among the lions of the field, the men who authored the strategies, led the negotiations, and designed the technologies that led the United States through the Cold War. As U.S. President Barack Obama says in the book, “I don’t think anybody would accuse these…men of becoming dreamers.”
Taubman is more frank: he compares their current efforts to multibillionaire John D. Rockefeller calling for an end to Capitalism. In turn, their prominence in Washington circles has helped elevate the cause of getting to zero from utopian idealism to international policy debates, and lent political legitimacy to Obama’s efforts to continue nuclear disarmament.
But much tension and dissent lies behind the cohesive front the members of “the partnership” present in public. In particular, Kissinger, the group’s frequent spokesman and its most prominent member, often questions whether its stated end goal of eliminating nuclear weapons is desirable. Taubman’s access to Kissinger is notably absent from the book; according to the author, Kissinger even asked if Taubman planned to make him “the villain.” Other tensions bubble beneath the surface, shaped by years spent in the defense community and exemplified by the open conflict between Taubman’s subjects and the disarmament organization Global Zero, which advocates a different approach to eliminating nuclear weapons.
Although the men in the book, whose lives have spanned the nuclear age, claim to genuinely want to see its end, Taubman leaves much room for doubt on how they want that goal accomplished.
Taubman devotes the majority of his book describing the history of the nuclear age and profiling the extensive careers of the members of “the partnership”. He lays out the historical background of the nuclear nonproliferation movement through the eyes of his subjects, and describes the evolution of their positions on national security issues throughout the decades. The book, then, is an excellent resource for those just being introduced to the movement toward eliminating nuclear weapons or those who want to understand the psychology behind its most prominent advocates. But for those who lived through and followed the Cold War, the book’s sweeping historical overviews may seem tedious. In addition, the space Taubman devotes to the evolution of the Global Zero movement comes at the expense of a more elaborated and articulate discussion both of the unsuitability of current nuclear defense postures to modern threats and of the practical concerns around making a world free of nuclear weapons possible.
Nonetheless, “The Partnership” offers one of the most extensive biographies available on the leaders in nuclear defense policy during the Cold War, and on their subsequent careers. It excels both as an introduction to a movement and as a call to action.
“The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb” is published by HarperCollins.