Danger and Survival

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

McGeorge Bundy’s Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years is a fascinating and important book. This comprehensive history surveys the ways national leaders have dealt with nuclear weapons, from the beginning of the nuclear era through the Reagan Administration. Bundy’s message is a comforting one: We can control and live with the bomb. Bundy acknowledges that statesmen have failed to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons; however, he argues that far more significant is the fact that since 1945 no such weapon has ever been used. Bundy sees the danger of nuclear war declining with each passing decade. Never, he declares, has there been a serious threat of a nuclear exchange.

Bundy writes with the authority of a man of affairs as well as a scholar. He has lived close to power ever since, as a young man, he became the protégé and biographer of Colonel Henry Stimson, the secretary of war who was responsible for supervising the Manhattan Project during World War II. Whether as an academic teaching at Harvard University or New York University, or as head of the Ford Foundation, Bundy has moved in influential circles. Bundy’s most notable public service was acting as national security adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson during the years from 1961 to 1966. As such, he played a part in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when for a few days in October the world seemed to be on the brink of a nuclear conflagration.

Because of his background, Bundy’s book transcends normal genre classifications. It is a history replete with all the conventional scholarly apparatus. Yet it is much more. Because Bundy is who he is, was who he was, Danger and Survival is also a meditation on the political management of nuclear weapons. A statesman might use it as a primer on how to deal with the bomb. Perhaps, in his heart, that is what Bundy hopes some statesman will do.

David Halberstam, in his book The Best and the Brightest (1972), an early and famous critique of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, faulted Bundy and many of his colleagues for a can-do spirit that flew in the face of harsh realities around the world. Most notably in Vietnam, they rationally atttacked a problem that defied reason, sought a solution to a problem that could not be solved. The field of nuclear strategy has long seemed to many to be one of the arenas of modern life that mock rational analysis. The risks involved in using nuclear weapons are so high, and the scenarios describing the consequences of their use so frightening, that much popular discourse about nuclear weapons and strategy has resolved itself into one or the other of two alternatives: Either talk of nuclear management is mad, because these weapons could not be used short of global annihilation, or the logic of nuclear strategy is so skewed that it can only be described in terms of satire and black humor, as in the film Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).

Bundy, a practical man, who unlike lay critics has actually dealt with the bomb, pays no heed to such attitudes. This veteran of the Cuban Missile Crisis makes no allusion to Dr. Strangelove, a cultural landmark inspired by that crisis. Bundy’s aloofness from popular concerns is the source of the many strengths and one weakness of his book.

Bundy believes that the nuclear situation must be faced resolutely and mastered rationally. To his great credit, he does not shirk the hard task of confronting the distasteful and fearful. He possesses in full measure the virtue he calls for in his book—the courage to face up to the inevitable dangers of a nuclear world. Bundy holds out no hope of an easy escape or of a simplistic solution to the nuclear dilemma. His study of history and his personal expertise both give the lie to any dream that statesmen will suddenly lose their limitations of knowledge and vision and end the threat of nuclear war. The bomb is here to stay. The only question open is how to reduce its menace to acceptable bounds. Here there is reason for optimism, for here comes into play the other great lesson of Bundy’s research and experience.

In the decades since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no nation has used a nuclear weapon against an enemy. A long, if grudging, peace has existed between the two superpowers. The lesser nuclear powers have also refrained from using their weapons to upset the international equilibrium. Bundy sees behind this restraint a balance of terror. His analysis of the exact nature of this balance is sophisticated, instructive, and ultimately heartening.

Bundy believes that the nuclear peace has been kept because nuclear weapons have failed to live up to the expectations of the men who first built and deployed them. Early in the nuclear era, it was widely believed that possession of the bomb would give a nation an absolute advantage in dealing with other powers. It was thought that by brandishing nuclear weapons, the leaders of a nation might intimidate a country lacking such armament or gain respect from a state similarly equipped. American leaders were not insensible to these diplomatic advantages. The Soviets never wavered in their determination to have the...

(The entire section is 2166 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Los Angeles Times Book Review. December 18, 1988, p. 1.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVI, February 2, 1989, p. 28.

The New York Times. CXXXVIII, December 15, 1988, p. B2.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, December 18, 1988, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, October 14, 1988, p. 60.

The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, December 11, 1988, p. 1.