We can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, but we do need to acknowledge that the planet is now covered with toothpaste.
After the bombs dropped at the end of World War II, the government encouraged scientists to create an even more destructive weapon using nuclear fusion, instead of fission. At first, they couldn’t figure out how to ignite the fusion bomb without obliterating the launch pad, but at last, of course, they got it. As we learned in Sheinkin’s earlier works, even deadly secrets don’t stay hidden for long, and so, the world moved rapidly from having zero nuclear weapons to a world where the two superpowers at the time— the United States and the Soviet Union— were armed to the teeth with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the entire planet many times over.
Transitioning from the Eisenhower administration through Kennedy’s presidency, Sheinkin details the confrontations between Nikita Khrushchev and the American leader, not in physical battles, but in the excruciating brinksmanship that dragged on over years in what is called the Cold War. He spends many pages explaining the Bay of Pigs disaster and the Cuban Missile Crisis, not only in the overt actions by both sides, but also in each leader’s political posturing and private considerations, showing that Khrushchev thought of the new American president as young and weak, while Kennedy struggled against both physical pain and his own bellicose generals. If it had been left to General Curtis LeMay or Cuba’s new dictator, Fidel Castro, the Cold War would have been short and catastrophic. It is sickening to read of the many close calls that took place just within the few days of the Missile Crisis: prank phone calls, US pilots straying into Soviet airspace accidentally, and misinformation falling into the wrong hands. Complete destruction was just a breath away.
Sheinkin is the master of young adult historical nonfiction. His previous books have won multiple awards, and I’ve reviewed Bomb, Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, and Most Dangerous in this blog space. To be honest, the 342 pages of this book are just about right for most adults who want to be conversant on the topic without slogging through excessive, tedious detail. Sheinkin’s writing is more like a spy novel than a textbook, and readers will gain context for why the Berlin wall was such a big deal and how building rockets for exploring the universe turned into the Space Race. Even though I was a child for some of these events, I learned a lot! My brother and I spent hours discussing this book. Not only is he ten years older than I am, he is also a historian, so I knew he would be up on all of it. He told me that Barbara Powers, the wife of the downed pilot/spy Francis Gary Powers, had lived in our hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia, while he was in a Soviet prison, and that our next-door neighbor, who owned the radio station where my brother worked, had interviewed her for national television. The federal government was openly encouraging citizens to dig bomb shelters in their backyards at the time, and he clearly remembered a few obvious ones in our town.
Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown is a thrilling nonfiction read for anyone twelve or older. The toothpaste is most assuredly out of the tube, and the most chilling thing about this book is that the world is far more fractured now than it was then, and there are even more nuclear bombs in many more hands today.
Very highly recommended.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.