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Does the Cold War Have Lessons for Today?

Posted on Sep 19, 2008
book cover

By Carolyn Eisenberg

(Page 3)

Despite its many strengths, the book has some notable shortcomings. While the focus on national leaders makes dramatic sense, it is also misleading. Some presidents were “deciders,” others were not. Despite his reputation for not “passing the buck,” Harry Truman was without a clue when it came to complex international issues. His exceptionally important German policy was totally framed by others in the bureaucracies for reasons of their own. It is not sufficiently informative to know what Truman felt and thought in order to comprehend American choices. In just this way, the inner life of George W. Bush is not an adequate guide to government motivation.

An additional problem is that Leffler too readily accepts everyone’s thinking as equally understandable and well intentioned. Unlike most Cold War authors, he is careful to offer two perspectives rather than one. Yet his virtual silence in the face of outlandish ideas obscures important issues. He tamely informs us that “when Truman ordered that atomic bombs be dropped on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki, these were not tough decisions for him. They were necessary in his mind, to save American lives. They vividly demonstrated American power; they confirmed that enemies of America would pay for their transgressions.”

This seems accurate enough. But is this the place where historical investigation ought to begin or end?  How does it happen that this ostensibly decent man from Missouri was willing to drop atomic bombs on two cities, populated mainly by women, children and the elderly, despite the existence of alternatives and contemporary evidence that the war with Japan could end without the use of these weapons? And why was it that experienced advisers did not insist on a formal process of decision-making before killing 200,000 people and using weapons that were known to be the most lethal instruments ever developed by human beings?


book cover


For the Soul of Mankind


By Melvyn P. Leffler


Hill and Wang, 608 pages


Buy the book


This critical edge is also missing when Leffler turns to the subject of the Vietnam War, which he obviously opposes. However, he goes to extraordinary lengths to give us the mind-set of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and their high-level experts. He repeatedly describes how anguished everyone felt, how trapped they seemed to be, how valiantly they struggled to find good options where none was available, how threatened they all felt. By its act of “aggression,” Hanoi had thrown down the gauntlet, leading these officials to fear that if Vietnam fell, so would Laos and Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and who knew what else. Leaders everywhere would know that the word of the United States was not to be trusted. Berlin might be threatened. Perhaps Moscow itself might be moved to embrace the Chinese version of communism.

One ends up sympathizing with these worried people, rather than the dead Vietnamese. Yet it would have been useful to point out that such thinking was based on misperceptions and lies. Vietnam was a single country that the United States, for purposes of its own and in direct violation of the Geneva Accords, had chosen to make two. Therefore, the very concept of North Vietnamese “aggression” made no sense and the elaborate trail of consequences was simply imagined. Perhaps people were sincere, but the important question is why two shrewd presidents and their Ivy League advisers were peddling these false ideas. Part of the answer resides in their conformity, careerism, the desire for political advantage and a morbid enthusiasm for military adventure. Yet the deepest reason was that Washington had a wildly ambitious agenda, believing that nations across the globe must follow the American example.

The author seems determined not to cast stones. So much Cold War historiography has been mired in sterile arguments over culpability that he aims to move his readers to a higher plane, where we can more easily view the tragic course of events. Yet it is a fair question whether one can adequately understand the dynamics of the Cold War without considering whether anyone was really responsible for it. And was it really the case that the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in equivalent actions with equivalent results and that each nation had comparable weight in international affairs?

American and Soviet leaders looked forward to a world in which their social system might prevail, and in pursuit of their ideals all contributed to a dangerous polarization. Yet it is also noteworthy that at every point in the Cold War, the United States exerted greater power than the USSR, whether measured by military, economic or political strength. And at every point in this conflict, American ambitions far exceeded those of Soviet rivals.

For Stalin and his successors, control of the nations along Soviet borders and insurance against German revival were vital matters. Other items were peripheral. By contrast, American aspirations were limitless. It was not enough that countries in the Western Hemisphere have friendly governments, which in many instances meant dictatorships as brutal to their own citizens as the regimes of Eastern Europe. U.S. leaders also considered all of Europe and the decolonizing nations of Asia and Africa to be within their bailiwick. The Vietnam War occurred because U.S. officials took it upon themselves to decide how the Vietnamese people should be governed, regardless of their own preferences.

Moreover, in the long litany of actions and counteractions, some behaviors were more damaging and consequential than others. Of these, it is U.S. nuclear decisions that were the most pernicious. A recipe for trouble was offered by the choice to keep Stalin in the dark about the U.S. development of the atomic bomb, to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities in a demonstration of American power, to attempt to retain a nuclear monopoly for years afterward and, when that proved impossible, to insist that arms control agreements inscribe American superiority.

And then there was Germany. No single issue mattered more. The survival of the World War II alliance depended on the ability of the occupying powers to work together, and in this they failed. Leffler emphasizes how important all of this was. However, in relating the story in all its complexity, he minimizes two crucial points. One was the American refusal to give the Soviets the reparations that were promised at Yalta. At that meeting, President Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had stipulated that the Soviet Union was entitled to half of an estimated $20 billion in equipment and supplies from occupied Germany. However, from the moment Truman became president, Washington retreated from that commitment. By the time of Potsdam, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes had abandoned it.

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By diamond, September 25, 2008 at 1:52 am Link to this comment

Well libertarian you certainly won’t get any argument from me that there would be no usefulness to such an attack but the German military expert who was talking about it in a documentary and knew a lot more about it than I do was simply pointing out that there are psychopaths in the top echelons of the Pentagon,the CIA and amongst the neo cons who think it could work. They think they can put this Global Missile Defense System in Poland and they can then at some point win a nuclear war with Russia. I need no convincing that it’s crazy and would never work but it’s not me you need to tell. The people who thought the Iraqis would pelt them with flowers and that they could change the entire Middle East into a US style democracy are obviously not well - but they’ve got the taxpayers’ money and weapons of mass destruction on their side. You would also probably be surprised how young some of the cold war hawks in America are. They’re like throwbacks to the fifties. ‘The Caine Mutiny’ was about a man who periodically lost his marbles so I can see the McCain connection but Palin reminds me of a black widow spider with glasses so you better watch out.

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By correction, September 24, 2008 at 5:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

CORRECTION to my just-posted response to diamond. My second to last paragraph suggests I am placing submarines in space. Not really. But I would like to place my head on Governor Palin’s lovely shoulder while we cuddle on the bearskin rug and watch “The Caine Mutiny,” the life-story of John McCain.

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By libertarian, September 24, 2008 at 5:25 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

diamond-  You make a good point about the illusion of invulnerability. But I doubt it’s the “Cold War leftover hawks” who suffer this delusion…more likely younger and more careless analysts, such as C.Rice. I even agree with you about Putin’s abilities. But your conception of the anti-missile system is mystefying to me. The aggressive use you envision is not possible for many reasons:

ABM’s don’t work in realistic scenarios.

The Russian mobile ICBM counterforce is modern and active.

The Russians hold thousands of tactical field nukes with which to hammer European sites.

Both we and the Russians are able to park missile submarines on top of seamounts in the Atlantic for months at a time or, for that matter, in earth orbit.

There would be no usefulness to the US attack you describe.

How about a nice game of chess?

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By diamond, September 23, 2008 at 1:37 am Link to this comment

The Cold War was never anything other than a big chess game - one in which people could sometimes die. Putin is or was KGB and he knows all about the chess game. But Putin has become much more than a chess piece and does not accept America’s plans - which were to get control of all of Russia’s gas and oil. Putin acted to prevent that, to America’s fury. Whatever else he is, Putin is not stupid and he knows that the Global Missile Defense system is aimed at Russia. It’s not hard to tell. The GMDS can only intercept a certain number of enemy missiles and that number of missiles according to some commentators is the number which is left over after a pre-emptive strike on Russia by America. Even after such a strike a certain amount of second-strike Russian capacity remains and it is to counter this that the Global Missile Defense System exists. This gives the Americans (they believe) the ability to launch a pre-emptive attack on Russia without consequence. This gives America’s Cold War leftover hawks the illusion of invulnerability - and I’m sure it is an illusion. The question is: do you want to trust the same people who did 9/11, sent anthrax to Democrat senators through the mail and have just trashed your economic system to know when and if to strike and against whom? I don’t and most of the world doesn’t. None of this is all in Putin’s head. He’s not paranoid: he knows they’re out to get him and his country. Or more specifically its energy resources. By acting against Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia he busted out of the encirclement that the CIA and the Pentagon have spent a great deal of time constructing. Hopefully Obama will be able to create enough goodwill to get relations with Russia back on track. If Cheney and his goons don’t manage to start World War III first and then cancel the elections.

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By Big B, September 21, 2008 at 6:31 pm Link to this comment

The cold war created, and kept in power, the military industrial complexes of both the US and Soviet Union. This “guns over butter” argument led to the financial collapse of the USSR. It is currently leading to the collapse of the US as well.
The last shot fired in the old cold war will be in a US bankruptcy court.

The airforce may indeed someday have to hold a bakesale to buy a bomber. But by then cupcakes will be $4000.

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By jackpine savage, September 21, 2008 at 4:11 pm Link to this comment

Bravo…i’m speechless.  Prof. Eisenberg has written an essay of profound proportions, based on a book that i now feel obligated to read.

Maybe the book will be better, but this is the best vivisection of the Cold War that i’ve read to date…and i’ve read a few from both sides of the curtain.

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By yellowbird2525, September 21, 2008 at 12:35 pm Link to this comment

intersting you bring up WW11: because the only reason that the USA went into the war was there had been talk of concentration camps: and HEARST said: bring me pictures! and that will bring us into the war! and so ask yourselves WHY? are there NO pictures of Iraq & Afghanistan? WHY is there such “staged” news on the media today? WHY is the sound of overseas media blocked out at times? WHAT is it that OUR NATION is trying so hard to KEEP it’s citizens from knowing? WHY are the “demonstrations” NOT being shown? WHY are the pictures of police beating on peaceful protesters of the treatment of the monks in Tibet NOT being shown repeatedly on TV? Why are journalists being TARGETED? and by the USA; why are we being shown pictures of a European newscaster mocking saying the people feel they have a RIGHT to water how do YOU feel about that? to a “politician” in another country? could it be that the USA is NOT broke at all: in fact they have been busy running around like always either bribing heads of countries to go along with THEIR plan: after all they’ve gotten away with it in the USA for so long: OR they are causing civil unrest in any country who dares to TREAT it’s people right; because that is what the USA does folks: we are NOT the folks in white hats; it is NOT to promote “freedom”; it is to put in corrupted politicians like we have here: or DICTATORSHIPS who treat the people cruely; just like here. Don’t go by what is SAID: by their ACTS you shall know them. Woodrow Wilson ww1: no longer are we a land of the FREE: so for at least what: 100 years or so we have been under the RULES & DICTATES of a few dominent men. (he went on to say nor even of majority vote folks); because what THEY want: they do; your point of view is interesting but NOT going to change what they do. Consider: our nation is known for torture & training torturers folks: other nations have no confusion; do not suffer from “delusion”; they KNOW that our country is dictatorship; only YOU have been lied to & deceived; because if they SAY it long enough you believe it. They bank on it. ****by the way, the deliberate exploitation & victimization our Gov claims is “democracy”; is not; a Gov that is FOR THE PEOPLE: has laws protecting the people from the CRIMES; not ours; “claiming” “free economy” is quite simply as long as it harms the people you are FREE and have total immunity from being prosecuted: because WE the politicians of THIS country: are the head of the FBI, & “dept of justice” & everything else; WE can protect YOU and give YOU as well as US total immunity from all persecution. And that is what they “sell” to other nations: cuz they have gotten away with it so long in the USA. It is NOT democracy at all nor even a Gov for the people: it is a license to steal; just like the name of the book re Wall ST who simply take their cue from the Capitol Hill.; bill moyers journal; crimes on capitol hill.

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By felicity, September 21, 2008 at 10:11 am Link to this comment

Very interesting post.  I recall that for 4 years of WWII 400 Soviet and German divisions clashed over a 1,000 mile front - extraordinary.  (In the same time period in the West there were never more than 15 allied and German divisions active.)  Our treatment of Russia following the War is really unforgivable - there are many who even suggest that it was actually Russia that won WWII.

The trajectory of the Cold War, or any historical conflict, global or otherwise so often seems to take on a life of its own - war on terrorism fits - and its outcome more often than not is determined by peripheral conditions.

WWI, foreinstance, was a product of chauvinism, of ambitions for national prestige, of capitalist competition for markets and new fields of investment, of age-old hatreds between nations and fears engendered by crises and by the race of superiority in armaments.  When such factors combined to rule the constellation of events, political leaders were hardly more than playthings of fate.

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By yellowbird2525, September 21, 2008 at 10:08 am Link to this comment

and as for the Roman Empire taking over countries: go to Yahoo news and read where 2 USA diplomats were kicked out of countries because it was discovered that the USA were trying to oust the current leaders: because they REFUSE to allow the USA Corps to take THEIR land and THEIR water as they have done so many other countries; and the ambassadors there? oh, “we wanted to end poverty”; ******in the USA minimum wage is $5.95; Fed income tax takes 41% at the current time & is going up to 65%; if you are a single parent getting child support $25 out of every $400 you receive is going to “balance the budget”; vets pensions & health benefits are stripped; & disabled vets from Iraq & Afghanistan many have YET to receive a CENT; many who were injured & unable to return to duty are called what 5 & 6 times a day to get back their sign up pay; The Gov of the USA started the LIE that ALL military personnel have mental problems followed by the Corps saying “we don’t want to hire military personnel”; so the LONG TERM goals & plans laid out by the Gov who sits down & plans with Corps what they are going to do: in 1996 THEY had decided to remove Hussain; they already KNEW they were going to war; they had already PLANNED to bring in “millions” of immigrants & give political preference & jobs to THEM; so they KNOWINGLY with premeditated malice & hostility toward the PEOPLE of this country: set it up for the military personnel to NOT be able to have medical coverage, & to deny them jobs & medical treatment when they got back. I wept on 11/17/07 when disabled vets were yet again denied a PENNY: claiming “not enough paperwork” while they gave $13b to oil companies; $273 I believe it was to “investors”; and on it goes. Research “refugees” with benefits folks: the problem is NOT the immigrants: it lies in Washington; THEY are the ROOT of the problem. Our Gov has NEVER been “for the people” and the ABUSE of the people for their own profits is nauseating.

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By yellowbird2525, September 21, 2008 at 9:57 am Link to this comment

1st of all: the “private contracts” read mercenarie’s from the USA were in Georgia 2 weeks training them prior to GEORGIA aggressively going into the other countries. (; folks: just because the USA is presenting FALSE information repeatedly to the people of the USA does NOT make the “lie” the truth. The REASON they are saying “marched like Hitler did” is because all other countries of the world KNOW the truth: and are TALKING Hitler & how he did it & how it is being done today in the USA. So: disperse the LIES with the TRUTH: then understand why Americans are THE DECEIVED. Numerous articles came out with the TRUTH which are HIDDEN because of the perpetration of the LIES repeated endlessly.

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By P. T., September 21, 2008 at 9:36 am Link to this comment

Yes, if you look at the Cold War as a strategic competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., the situation appears irrational.  However, viewed from the perspective of the U.S. elite, things make sense.  That elite was and still is determined that countries around the world will follow the capitalist model and display a minimum of fealty to U.S. interests—particularly, the interests of U.S. capital.  Hence, U.S. imperialism marches onward whether or not it has the excuse of the Cold War to help provide cover.

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By Folktruther, September 21, 2008 at 8:44 am Link to this comment

The comment by Eileen Fleming throws new light on the coalition ranged against Kennedy that resulted in his assassination.  This coalition was posited by Peter Dale Scott in his fanatical scholarship in his book on the Kennedy murder.

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By troublesum, September 21, 2008 at 6:54 am Link to this comment

Krushchev sent seven letters to President Johnson in the first months of his presidency seeking an end to the cold war, but Johnson ignored them because he was “preoccupied” with Vietnam?  That would have been December-January, 1964.  Johnson was not “preoccupied” with Vietnam until probably mid 1965.  Krushchev was deposed in the fall of 64 long before Vietnam became a major issue for Johnson.  The truth is that in the eyes of the world the Soviet Union had been humiliated by the US during the Cuban missile crisis.  They were forced to back down and remove the missiles.  Johnson was content to let the Russians twist slowly in the wind at that time.  The Kremlin would have seen Johnson’s rejection of Krushchev’s overtures as a further humiliation and so he was gotten rid of.  Johnson did not condescend to meet with the new Russian leaders for three more years, in the summer of 1967.  An historian should check the facts.

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By troublesum, September 21, 2008 at 4:47 am Link to this comment

There were no missed opportunities for peace because peace has never been on the agenda.

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By troublesum, September 21, 2008 at 4:36 am Link to this comment

The US economic and political system cannot function without an enemy.  It doesn’t matter whether that enemy is another nuclear power like the Soviet Union or a tin horn dictator in Panama.  There must be an enemy.  What would happen in this country if we did not have an enemy?  That is the question to consider.

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By Fahrenheit 451, September 21, 2008 at 3:25 am Link to this comment

@ eileen fleming;

Thank you so much for your informative comment.  It adds greatly to my continuing efforts at understanding our very complex world.

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By Lewis Bernstein, September 20, 2008 at 5:06 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

So much to say—where does one begin?
I have not read Professor Leffler’s book but am familiar with his work on Vietnam and am completely unfamiliar with Professor Eisenberg’s scholarship. 
For example, what “popular mythology” about a Soviet plan for world conquest is she writing about?  Don’t recall that being very current.  As far as “expansion into areas immediately adjacent to the USSR mean?”  After all, the Roman Empire kept expanding into territory “immediately adjacent” to it!  The term is fraught with expansiveness. 
Professor Eisenberg also writes about Stalin’s “safest bet,” according to her or some Platonic ideal of which she is thinking.  Stalin, as the archives and his actions make plain, saw himself as a Marxist-Leninist and an imperial statesman.  He was dependent upon keeping the USSR as sealed as possible against outside influences.  Outside aid and trade would mean outside influence and besides how could he accept aid from the capitalist West—the sworn enemy of world socialism?  How would he keep that cordon sanitaire in place if foreign aid was allowed?  The question is one the reviewer never considers.
Professor Eisenberg misunderstands the nature of Stalin’s leadership and the nature of the collective leadership that succeeded him.  Again, never discussed in the review. 
The most effective weapon the US wielded in Europe was the USIA and Radio Free Europe backed by the sword of NATO.  In the conduct of foreign affairs, soft power can be very persuasive but it must always be backed by the implicit threat of armed force.
Proceeding onward, the idea that the conflict in Vietnam was a “major war” is laughable.  When we “lost” what did we lose?  The internal damage was more serious than any foreign policy consequences. Ignoring Khrushchev’s internal problems in 1963-1964 she ascribes to him the role of peacemaker—really? 
But I weary of correcting Professor Eisenberg.  she has accomplished the aim of a review in a back handed way—she has made me curious enough to read the book.

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By Lana K, September 19, 2008 at 3:22 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I enjoyed reading the article.  Even though the book has flaws, it is the most objective book I have heard of in years.  I am really shocked with the hatred toward RUssia that showed up in AUgust.  If anything, please, remember RUssia was just one of the 15 republics in the USSR.  WHile other republics had their own head of state, RUssia was “fortunate” to have the head of the whole USSR sit in MOscow.  The USSR was run by Georgian (Stalin), Ukranian (Khrushev), Kazakh (Brezhnev) and for the first time in its history in 1980s by RUssian (Gorbachev).

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By Per Fagereng, September 19, 2008 at 9:00 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Carolyn Eisenberg states that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan “froze (President) Carter’s heart and seemed to kill any prospect of reviving detente.”

Yet we have Zbigniew Brzezinski’s boast that he goaded the Soviets to invade in order to get them bogged down in their own Vietnam. Did he do this without Carter’s knowledge and approval? Highly unlikely.

It’s more likely that Carter’s heart was already frozen.

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By oldog, September 19, 2008 at 5:28 am Link to this comment

The majority of the populations of South Ossetia and Abkhazia do not want to be ruled by Georgia. They have defied Georgia’s attempts to bully them into submission with economic sanctions and isolation for years.

Russia has provided support for these communities by providing Russian passports and trading partnerships (in exchange for access to Abkhazia ports on the Black Sea.)

Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili decided to use military force to compel obedience to Georgian authority.

Russia responded (it said “to protect Russian citizens”) by overpowering the Georgian forces (with far fewer casualties than that amount of Russian fire power was capable of inflicting) and, after driving them out, launched a punitive mission into parts of Georgia, destroying mostly military bases and equipment.

I will leave the judgment of the morality of the participants in this conflict to History. On a practical level, the Russian’s have shown an admiral strategic restraint which the US has sadly lacked in its conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.

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By eileen fleming, September 19, 2008 at 4:56 am Link to this comment

During my first interview in June 2005 with Mordechai Vanunu, the whistle blower of Israel’s WMD Program he told me:

“Did you know that President Kennedy tried to stop Israel from building atomic weapons? In 1963 he forced Prime Minister Ben Gurion to admit the Dimona was not a textile plant as the sign outside proclaimed but a nuclear plant. The Prime Minister said, ‘The nuclear reactor is only for peace.’

“Kennedy insisted on an open internal inspection. He wrote letters demanding Ben Gurion to open up the Dimona for inspection. The French were responsible for the actual building of the Dimona. The Germans gave the money; they were feeling guilty for the holocaust and tried to pay their way out.  Everything inside was written in French when I was there, almost twenty years ago. Back then the Dimona descended 7 floors underground.

“In 1955 Perez and Gurion met with the French to agree they would get a nuclear reactor if they fought against Egypt to control the Sinai and Suez Canal. That was the war of 1956.

“Eisenhower demanded that Israel leave the Sinai but the reactor plant deal continued on.  Kennedy demanded inspections. When Johnson became president he made an agreement with Israel that two senators would come every year to inspect. Before the senators would visit the Israeli’s would build a wall to block the underground elevators and stairways. From 1963 to ‘69, the senators came but they never knew about the wall that hid the rest of the Dimona from them.

“Nixon stopped the inspections and agreed to ignore the situation. As a result, Israel increased production. In 1986 there were over 200 bombs. Today they may have enough plutonium for 10 bombs a year. Who knows?”

Only the Israeli authorities do as Israel has NEVER allowed IAEA inspectors into the Dimona.

Learn MUCH More:
The Vanunu Saga:

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By norman birnbaum, September 19, 2008 at 2:03 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A review that makes one wish to read the book. I’m curious as to how the author deals with three matters. (1) There was an opposition to the Cold War in the US, with the most varied elements, often totally without communication with one another (Kennan had nothing to do with the pacificists and did not like the student movement of the sixties, Mills had no contact with the bureaucratic and political insiders who opposed not only Vietnam but the entire complex of Cold War projects—many scientists amongst them.) In Europe, movements like the British protest against nuclear weaponry and its later but very vocal and visible German counterpart
contributed to the European notion that the Old World should reclaim its sovereignty——also encouraged by Pope John and De Gaulle. (2) The special case of Germany entailed a union of forces in West Germany in favour of overcoming division: the Protestant Church as well as Willy Brandt and the Social Democrats, and no small number of army officers who were not prepared to use the nuclear weapons we so generously gave them. (3) The Nixon-Ford-Kissinger efforts at detente were opposed by the groups united in the Committee on the Present Danger, and these included the Israel lobby with its demand for Jewish emigration from the USSR and its carefully cultivated memories of Russian anti-Semitism. To what extent did the alliance with Israel make agreement with the USSR difficult?
There are obvious contemporary continuities, in policy toward Iran as well.

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