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On a mission from God

How Reagan & Gorbachev ended the nuclear arms race

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Acclaimed writer/historian Richard Rhodes wraps up his nuclear trilogy which began with 1986's The Making of the Atomic Bomb and continued in 1995 with Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. Rhodes looks at American and Soviet nuclear policy, focusing particularly on how Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan -- each of whom had a vision of a nuclear weapons-free world -- finally brought an end to their nations' perilous arms race.

Gorbachev was hugely affected by the disaster at Chernobyl, realizing firsthand how enormous the damage to the environment and human life would be if even a small nuclear device was exploded. On the other hand, he had to pacify the Soviet military which was convinced the United States meant to launch a nuclear first strike against Russia.

Reagan, who first "discovered" during his presidential campaign that incoming Soviet missiles could not be "shot down," was horrified by the prospect of nuclear war. After he survived the 1981 assassination attempt, he became convinced that God wanted him to rid the world of the nuclear threat. Nevertheless, Reagan continued to push for massive hikes in weapons spending, at the instigation of some of his top foreign policy advisers. Those advisors were determined to "out-threaten" the Russians by keeping nuclear missiles rolling off the assembly lines. This group, which included the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Nitze and Paul Wolfowitz, was the seed-crystal of the neoconservative movement that has effectively controlled the foreign policy of George W. Bush's administration.

Rhodes shows the tragic absurdity of U.S. and Soviet post-Hiroshima nuclear policy, when both nations operated on the assumption that nuclear weapons might be practical, usable weapons rather than keys to worldwide cataclysm. The two nations threatened and bullied one another for decades, seemingly unable to stop either their deadly one-upmanship or the mounting mountains of world-ending weapons at their disposal.

Arsenals of Folly is most fascinating when Rhodes describes, in detail, the historic, high-stakes talks at Reykjavik, Iceland in October 1986. Reagan and Gorbachev came agonizingly close to an agreement to rid the world of nuclear weapons, but stalled on the last day over the issue of Reagan's plans for a Strategic Defense Initiative (called "Star Wars" by critics). Reagan clung stubbornly to his belief that SDI could effectively protect the world from nuclear attacks, while Gorbachev saw the program as an American excuse to start a new nuclear arms race in space, and viewed Reagan's attachment to SDI as naïve and puzzling. Despite the temporary setback, the intense Reykjavik talks led to wide-ranging agreements in the months afterward, including deep cuts in both nations' nuclear weapons cache that would have been deemed impossible a year before.

Rhodes' book is downright creepy in its portrait of how the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz gang, distrustful of the CIA, set up their own intelligence analysis operation and manipulated reports to make the Soviet nuclear threat much larger than it really was. Fifteen or so years later, those people used the same tactics in their successful campaign to promote an invasion of Iraq to rid the world of Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction.

Not many writers can match Irish writer Roddy Doyle's wit, empathy, or gift for dialogue, as he's shown time and again, particularly in his "Barrytown Trilogy" (The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van) or the tragically beautiful The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. The patented Doyle wit and dialogue can be found in abundance in Deportees, a new collection of short stories, but they don't help hold together this thin group of tales.

Granted, this isn't a typical Doyle effort. Originally serialized in a Dublin newspaper, Deportees brings together eight stories, each one concerning someone born in Ireland who meets someone who has moved there. One might expect insights into the effects of immigration on Ireland, its people, and their culture. Instead, we get a tired tale titled "Guess Who's Coming for the Dinner," about (you guessed it) a modern father's reactions to his daughter inviting a black guy to the house. Or "New Boy," in which two angry Irish boys meet an African immigrant their age and, lo and behold, they become friends! Pretty trite stuff. The one saving grace in Deportees is the title story, a sequel of sorts to the Barrytown tales, in which Jimmy Rabbitte (who founded a soul band in The Commitments) puts together a multicultural celebration of Woody Guthrie. That story is so good, it will no doubt eventually be anthologized elsewhere. It's worth waiting for, even if the book it originally appeared in is a big disappointment.

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