Reviewed by CAPT Chris Ratliff. USN
Captain Ratliff is a submarine officer currently on the staff of the Strategic Command. He has commanded both an SSBN and an SSGN.
The front jacket fold of The U.S. Nuclear Arsenal: A History of Weapons and Delivery Systems Since 1945, by Norman Polmar and Robert S. Norris, describes the book as a “comprehensive work .. . a complete and fully up-to-date history” of U.S. nuclear weapons and delivery systems. This is not the first book to tell this story. Other nuclear weapons fact books include the late Chuck Hansen’s US Nuclear Weapons: The Secret Hist01y (1988, Aerofax, Inc.) and James Norris Gibson’s The History of the US Nuclear Arsenal (1989, Brompton Books Corp.). Jn fact, Polmar and Norris express gratitude to Hansen in their Preface for whatever he contributed to their book, and the Polmar and Norris book bears a striking similarity in size, appearance, and format to Gibson’s coffee-table-style work.
Anyone interested in adding a book of this genre to his personal library is then bound to wonder whether The U.S. Nuclear Arsenal is more worthy of the investment than others, such as the Hansen or Gibson efforts. Polmar and Norris have the clear advantage that their book is over twenty years newer. A lot has happened in the ensuing years that must be included to claim up to date, including: the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union ceased to exist; the TRIDENT submarine class was completed and the D-5 missile replaced the C-4; the 8-2 stealth bomber entered service (shown only as an artist’s sketch in Gibson); the arsenal shrank and consolidated; and the U.S. subsumed the old triad into a new one.
While Polmar and Norris cover each of these developments and more, the reader will find only about a dozen pages (out of 259) that really update the story since Hansen and Gibson. If the potential buyer is most interested in the last 20 years, then he’ll need to decide if this scant coverage is worth the $35 to $50 cost of the book.
As well, to say a book is up to date that tells of history as it is still occurring is always hazardous. Perhaps Polmar and Norris expected a long static period- a virtual end of history- to allow their book’s marketing to run its course. These are hardly static times. With a new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) due out shortly and follow-on START negotiations with Russia nearing completion, The U.S. Nuclear Arsenal is likely to lose its currency in a very short time.
Other than up to date, Polmar and Norris commend their work as comprehensive and complete. If by comprehensive they mean broadly covering the topic, the reader will partially agree. So many weapons and delivery systems are described that there is far more information than the reader could absorb if he chooses to read the book once from cover to cover. If the writers’ and reader’s intent is that the book is kept handy as a quick reference, then it will serve this purpose.
Completeness, though, the reader will find Jacking. Given that people are the source of history, it is reasonable to expect that the individuals behind the history of U.S. nuclear weapons would have a more prominent- a more complete- portrayal. For sure, some names are mentioned, such as Groves, Tibbets (but, oddly, not Parsons), Eppley, LeMay, Power, and several others, but the first shortcoming is that each who is mentioned makes little more than a cameo appearance. For example, Power is rightly credited with devising and executing an airborne alert experiment but receives no attribution for, among many other things, defining (or, at a minimum, reflecting) the spirit of the times in his best-selling book Design for Survival ( 1965, Pocket Books, Inc.).
The second complaint is that so many prominent names are absent entirely. For example, in the discussion of ER warheads (in which ER- meaning enhanced radiation- is not defined, nor is it called by the better-known name of neutron bomb), neither President Carter nor President Reagan is mentioned. They should be, as the political debate on the moral limits of nuclear weapons that they engaged in from one administration to the next was a defining event of the late Cold War. As another example, any complete history of nuclear weapons must surely have a discussion of the Revolt of the Admirals. Polmar and Norris give it just one sentence, call it “the 1948-1949 debate between the Navy and Air Force,” and make no mention of the roles of Louis Denfeld, Arleigh Burke, Louis Johnson, and several others. And how can a history of ballistic missile delivery systems not mention Bernard Schriever? I would summarize these criticisms by suggesting that a history of U.S. nuclear weapons that would be called complete should perhaps have a section devoted to those who drove that history, presented in a format similar to the chapters that Polmar and Norris devote to nuclear warheads and delivery systems.
Setting aside these criticisms, the reader will feel shorted on the depth of the technical information. For instance, as I live and work within sight of the hangars where the B-29s Enola Gay and Bockscar were built and modified to deliver their nuclear bombs on Imperial Japan, I would have liked a more complete (and, I believe, more accurate) discussion of the Silver Plated Project. While the project is briefly mentioned in the book, my curiosity was not at all satisfied. As another example, Gibson’s discussion of Davy Crockett- the 1960s nuclear weapon under the tactical control of sergeants- is much more thorough and revealing than Polmar and Norris offer. If the reader is concerned about the prospect of a terrorist possessing a back-pack nuke, he will find Gibson’s description of SADM (special atomic nuclear demolition) more accessible, complete, and unsettling. As catalogued by Polmar and Norris, the reader would have to know enough about SADM to sleuth through the text before finding the abbreviated entries. Rather than call their work a complete history, Polmar and Norris would be more precise if they described it simply as a condensed history.
The US Nuclear Arsenal has a quirkiness that the reader might not appreciate. For instance, the discussion of the AIM-54 Phoenix missile points out that “no nuclear warhead was fitted to the missile.” Fortunately, Polmar and Norris chose not to discuss every delivery platform to which a nuclear warhead was not fitted. In another case, the brief discussion of the Mk 45 ASTOR torpedo includes the observation t”hat two of them were onboard USS Scorpion when the submarine sank in 1968. The ASTOR discussion ends with the statement that a malfunction of a Mk 37 conventional torpedo was ruled out as the cause of the SCORPION’s loss. Polmar and Norris neglect to reveal the purpose of these disparate non sequiturs, and the reader is left to wonder.
The question remains, is The U.S. Nuclear Arsenal the best investment for someone seeking a ready reference? I would say that Hansen’s US Nuclear Weapons: The Secret History still sets the unbeaten standard, but at a cost of up to $1500 for a new (i.e., never-before sold) copy, it is not realistically thirty to fifty times better. Gibson’s The History of the US Nuclear Arsenal, available used for less than half the cost of the Polmar and Norris effort, is a great bargain for a better book, yet it is twenty years out of date. If you must have an up-to-date (through 2009) fact book, that leaves U.S. Nuclear Arsenal: A History of Weapons and Delivery Systems Since 1945. But you’ll probably find yourself relying on Google to get the whole story.