Armageddon & Paranoia—Former British Ambassador to the Soviet Union offers a comprehensive history of nuclear policy

“Is there either logic or morality in believing that if one side threatens to kill tens of millions of our people our only recourse is to threaten killing tens of millions of theirs?”

—Ronald Reagan, Second Inaugural Address, January 1985

For decades, an apocalypse seemed imminent, staved off only by the certainty that if one side launched these missiles the other would launch an equally catastrophic counterstrike. This method of avoiding all-out nuclear warfare was called “Deterrence,” a policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Still, though neither side actively wanted to plunge the world into a nuclear wasteland, the possibility of war by misjudgment or mistake meant fears could never be entirely assuaged.

Armageddon and Paranoia: The Nuclear Confrontation since 1945 unfolds the full history of nuclear weapons that began with the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union and now extends worldwide. Robert Braithwaite offers this important and comprehensive history at a time when tensions surrounding nuclear armament have begun mounting once more.

Armageddon and paranoia book cover
Armageddon and paranoia book cover

Excerpt from Armageddon and Paranoia:

How did the world get itself into such a long-running mess? Who was to blame? Was it the scientists? The soldiers and the officials? The politicians?

It was easy enough to blame the scientists. President Eisenhower said in his Inaugural Address: ‘Science seems ready to confer upon us, as its final gift, the power to erase human life from this planet.’

That was not quite fair. Scientists such as Leo Szilard spent much of their lives warning passionately against nuclear weapons and their use. The Nobel Prize winner James Franck argued against dropping the bomb on a Japanese city. Isidor Rabi and Enrico Fermi called the hydrogen bomb ‘an evil thing considered in any light’. In 1995 Hans Bethe appealed to ‘all scientists in all countries to cease and desist from work creating, developing, improving, manufacturing further nuclear weapons’, though few responded to his call.

And yet, when war loomed, most scientists swallowed their scruples and joined their countries’ weapons projects, moved by a sense of patriotic duty. Fermi and Bethe both returned to Los Alamos as the Cold War got underway. Only Lise Meitner, who had confirmed Hahn’s discovery of the nuclear chain reaction, refused to join the Manhattan Project, saying, ‘I will have nothing to do with a bomb!’

She remained a pacifist to the end of her life. She is buried in Hampshire in England. Her gravestone reads: ‘Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity’.*

Soviet scientists had much the same scruples as their American colleagues, though they felt that for them the moral issue was less stark. It was not they who had opened Pandora’s box; nor was it their country that had used the weapon in war. Some felt that Truman was guilty of a major war crime. Others accepted that his responsibility for the lives of America’s fighting men left him no option. Either way, the greater part of the moral burden fell on the Americans.

But for the most part, the Soviet scientists too were haunted. Evgeny Zavoisky, who worked at Arzamas-16 in the early years, was flummoxed when his daughter eventually asked him, ‘How could you do it?’ He could only reply, ‘I’ve been waiting the whole of my life for you to ask that question. All I can say is that I fell right into the soup.’ We do not know if his daughter was satisfied with this unilluminating response.

Yuli Khariton, Oppenheimer’s nearest opposite number in the Soviet nuclear project, born in the same year, briefly a contemporary at Cambridge, sent a message to the ceremony held to honor Oppenheimer’s memory at Los Alamos in 1995. ‘I too was involved in the remarkable scientific and engineering achievements which enabled humanity to master a practically inexhaustible source of energy,’ he wrote. ‘But I am no longer certain that humanity has matured enough to manage that energy. We have contributed to the terrible death of people, and done monstrous damage to Nature, to our home the Earth. Words of regret will change nothing. May God grant that those who follow us find the way, the strength of spirit and determination in themselves, to do nothing bad as they strive towards the good.’

The above excerpt has been adapted from Armageddon and Paranoia: The Nuclear Confrontation since 1945 by Rodric Braithwaite. Copyright © OUP 2018 and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.


Rodric Braithwaite is former British Ambassador to the Soviet Union and Russian Federation. He is the author of Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at WarAfgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, and Armageddon and Paranoia: The Nuclear Confrontation since 1945.