In January 1997, President Boris Yeltsin opened his nuclear suitcase. Russian observers had mistaken a Norwegian weather satellite for an incoming missile, and his advisers told him that he had only minutes to launch retaliation. A catastrophic major war and a nuclear winter could have begun – by accident. Like other similar near misses, this epitomises the enduring terrors of nukes. It shows the susceptibility of a deterrence system to human error; the extremely short windows in which leaders must make decisions about the future of the species; and the hair-trigger alert status of these weapons. Such dangers are explored in Mohamed ElBaradei’s forthright The Age of Deception and Ron Rosenbaum’s more textured, idiosyncratic and interesting How the End Begins.
In different ways, both men argue that we can no longer live with nuclear weapons. Despite the technocratic, pseudo-scientific language and doctrines that cloak these systems, we must rely on dumb luck as much as rational design for our safety. This was true of the Cold War, with