In this work of history, science and politics, Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, tells for the first time the secret story of how and why the hydrogen bomb was made; traces the path by which "the Bomb," the supreme artifact of twentieth-century science and technology, became the defining issue of the Cold War; and reveals how close the world came to nuclear destruction before the United States and the former Soviet Union learned the lesson of nuclear stalemate - a stalemate, Rhodes makes clear, that forced the superpowers to tenuous truce for more than four decades, in the end bankrupting and destroying the Communist state and foreclosing world-scale war. From the day in September 1941 when the first word of Anglo-American atomic-bomb research arrived in Moscow via Soviet espionage to the week of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when Curtis LeMay goaded President Kennedy to attack the USSR with everything in the US arsenal, this book is full of unexpected - and sometimes hair-raising - revelations based on previously undisclosed Soviet as well as US sources.
I would have preferred something more technical, but, to be fair, it was about as technical as one would expect in a popular book.
My second disappointment was that it really covered only the US, and only up to the first dry bomb; I would have preferred much more coverage of other countries, and of post-invention technical developments. But, again to be fair, the author wrote the book he wanted, not the book I wanted.
A fair amount of the book focuses on the post WWII espionage efforts of the USSR to catch up on bomb making by stealing all the secrets from the US. They mostly succeed in that department and the book often reads like a top notch spy thriller.
Another focus is the political machinations around getting the thermonuclear bomb built. Scientists with egos invested in the process had differing opinions of how best to go about it. Some scientists, upon seeing the devastation in Hiroshima, had second thoughts about building an exponentially more powerful bomb. And some thought we should build the bomb, but that just one nation having it was a destabilizing influence in the world. Not surprisingly, these differing factions didn’t get along with each other.
The final third of the book is a somewhat quickpaced history of the beginnings of the cold war. There are accusations online that Rhodes' history is not entirely accurate through this part of the book. Details aside, what I took from it is that we were much closer to nuking Korea during that war than I had ever imagined, and that elements within SAC strongly believed that a preemptive nuclear strike on the USSR (before they got their bomb program rolling) was a really fine idea. Also, and this really isn’t news, the CIA was generally widely inaccurate with their estimates of Soviet capabilities. Also interesting to me was just how much of the US economy was going into the bomb program in the 50s. Those glory days of free market capitalism in mid-century didn’t really exist. The economy was booming in big part to all the money the government was spending building bombs. Overall, the book is highly recommended as a richly detailed look at the early years of the cold war and the political machinations surrounding The Bomb.