Some reading about atomic bombs

Trump nuclear tweet
Bold new ideas from the 1950’s

Now that our president-elect has opined that we should be increasing our nuclear arsenal, I thought I’d bring up a couple residents of my bookshelf on the subject. I’ll skip over the books about the technology itself and look at 2 books about what they mean for defense and humanity.

I remember as a kid, being told not to eat snow because it contained radioactive by-products of atmospheric tests. By the early 1960’s, they weren’t showing the “Duck And Cover” turtle cartoon anymore, but we did receive occasional instruction on atomic survival, which was similar to tornado instruction with post-apocalyptic radiation safety thrown in. A few of our neighbors had bomb shelters, fully stocked. There were Civil Defense shelters downtown, but nobody thought it would be possible to reach them if the worst happened.

As horrific as nuclear weapons are, they are science and technology and history all wrapped up in one. Little kid-me read about them incessantly, and later turned into adult-me, who read about them with increasing concern. So as they say in sandwich shops, “Pick two”. In this case, two books.

Book cover looks vintage, but this is a new book on the management of a nuclear arsenal
Book cover looks vintage, but this is a new book on the management of a nuclear arsenal. Click to order, or visit your local library.

Creating nuclear weapons is only the start of making them part of national defense. Such devices need to be designed to prevent accidental detonation, protected from theft, and aligned with a chain of command and control that reflects well-conceived strategy.  There is no room for error.

Command and Control tells that story, woven in with accounts of a great many errors, including an investigative narrative about an accident in a missile silo in Arkansas. The smallest mishap, in this case a technician dropping a tool in the silo, led to escaping rocket fuel and eventually a mammoth explosion with the actual warhead ending up some distance away. One person was killed and twenty-some were injured. And while it is the most detailed mishap in the book, it not the most… nerve-wracking.

John Hersey, Hiroshima
Click to order, or visit your local library.

Then there’s John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Originally published serially in The New Yorker magazine, it is journalism applied to a man-made catastrophe. It will shock you – it should shock you! – and in places it is very unpleasant reading. But if we’re going down that road again, everyone should read it. Again.

The United States is the only nation to have used nuclear weapons in war. I’m not going to waste any time arguing whether their use was ‘justifiable’ or not. Such discussions seldom go anywhere. But everyone needs to know what our president-elect apparently does not: that the development and management of such weapons is fraught with peril, and the human cost of their use is almost impossible to imagine.

Please, share.


  • This animated video does a pretty good job of portraying atomic-bomb damage and injuries. It does not exaggerate, but it does not pull any punches either. Consider yourself warned.  Barefoot Gen
  • The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were tiny in comparison to modern nukes.
  • Trump was not kidding. “Let it be an arms race,” he said.
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Older technology guy with photography and history background