In the 1980s I joined the crowds of anti-nuclear demonstrators, driven into a state of terror by the last years of the cold war. Ronald Reagan, a man we held to be a warmonger and a religious fanatic, had matched the deployment of short-range missiles in eastern Europe with short-range missiles in western Europe. We could imagine Armageddon coming by accident and design and describe how the world would die. Scientists did not warn of global warming 30 years ago, but of a nuclear winter falling as the debris from thermonuclear war blocked out the sun.
Then Reagan pulled off a miraculous achievement. The Soviet Union realised that it could no longer compete in the arms race he was running. Gorbachev took power. The west seized the moment and a conflict that had threatened to exterminate a large part of humanity stopped – just like that.
Worries about nuclear weapons have had a dusty feel to them since then – for Europeans at any rate. And at first glance, Eric Schlosser appears to have produced a history of the world we have lost. A brilliant history – anyone who has read his Fast Food Nation will have admired his ability to combine the patience of the scholar with the vigour of the investigative journalist – but a history nevertheless. His digging has already produced a scoop. The US news networks have followed up his discovery that the nearest America came to a nuclear catastrophe was not the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 but a hitherto unknown moment in January 1961, when a B-52 flying over North Carolina exploded. Every safety mechanism on the hydrogen bombs it was carrying failed, except a basic switch. If it had been set on the equivalent of "on", most of the citizens of Washington, Philadelphia and New York would have been wiped out.
If they had detonated, JFK's words in his inaugural address that Americans would "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship... to assure the survival and the success of liberty" would have been more than stirring rhetoric. (And Kennedy would not have been in a position to deliver any more speeches.)
Accounts of potential disasters, carefully reconstructed from the files and from interviews with old servicemen, punctuate Schlosser's grand narrative of the United States' attempts to manage nuclear weapons. The near misses are not a distraction from his account of high military strategy or an aside, however. They are all of a piece with the uncertainty the possession of nuclear weapons brings: an instability that the apparently rational phrase "the balance of terror" concealed.
What to do with the brutes? After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, General Henry H "Hap" Arnold, commander of the US army air force, warned that nuclear weapons made destruction "too cheap and easy". An air raid that had required hundreds of bombers now required one. Like many of his colleagues, he argued for a kind of world government that could stop their spread and use. But an international force with the power to disarm was as fanciful then as it is now, as the example of the world's response to the Iranian nuclear programme shows.
If they could not be abolished, could they be used in a winnable war? In the 1950s, the US organised vast civil defence exercises, which told credulous citizens that they might survive if only they learned to take cover. Americans would have been less cheered if they had known that President Eisenhower had watched the exercises and privately concluded that a nuclear war could never be won because "there aren't enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets".
No stable balance of terror followed from the threat of mutually assured destruction. Instead, the fear grew that a first strike by the Soviets could destroy the US command and control centres that would authorise a counter-strike – and vice versa. The reader's mind reels as we go through the dangers of political control breaking down in a conflict, the illusion that tactical nuclear weapons could be used in a conventional war without sparking a conflagration, the fallibility of computer systems, the risk of a rogue pilot or general starting a war on his own and the inability of American and Soviet leaders to talk to each other until well into the 1970s.
"We escaped the cold war without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion," said General George Lee Butler of the US strategic air command.
In his conclusion, Schlosser emphasises that the catalogue of close calls he records happened in the US, the richest nation on Earth, with the best scientists money could train. Now, not only do the US and Russia still maintain huge arsenals but North Korea, Israel, Pakistan and India have joined the old club; societies that may prove far less able to control demonic weapons. The speed of the arms race between India and Pakistan in particular is matched only by the absence of safeguards that might stop a cold war turning hot.
Schlosser breaks from his neutral tone only in the final sentences. "Right now thousands of missiles are hidden away,'' he says, as he allows himself one grim flourish. "Every one of them is an accident waiting to happen, a potential act of mass murder. They are out there waiting, soulless and mechanical, sustained by our denial – and they work."