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Books / book reviews on nuclear risk, WMDs, great power war?

by MichaelA1 min read15th Dec 202015 comments

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I’d be interested in: 

  • people’s thoughts on what books relevant to nuclear risk might be worth reading or worth skipping
  • links to good summaries/reviews/notes about relevant books

By “books relevant to nuclear risk”, I mean books that: 

  • are focused on nuclear risk specifically, or
  • are focused on WMDs or great power war more generally, or
  • have sections relevant to these things

(If you’re not sure whether something counts, please mention it anyway!)

I imagine such a collection could be useful for other people too. I’ll also share in an answer the relevant books and summaries/reviews/notes that I already know of.

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6 Answers

I liked Command and Control, The Doomsday Machine, and The Dead Hand, but didn't get many interesting ideas from The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

Only some parts are relevant to nuclear risk, but Spy Schools by Daniel Golden taught me some interesting stuff about science and espionage. 

I also (really) liked The Doomsday Machine and The Dead Hand, and felt that The Making of the Atomic Bomb  was a bit of a disappointment. Haven't read the other books Ryan mentions.

I also recommend American Prometheus, a biography of Oppenheimer (although it focuses too little on the science, relative to the politics). The author has just published another relevant book, Gambling with Armageddon, which I'm looking forward to reading.

Not a book, but the multi-part CNN documentary, Cold War, is excellent. So is The Day after Trinity.

I’ve recently begun researching nuclear risk for Rethink Priorities, but the views in this comment are just my personal views. These views are also pretty tentative, as I'm still at the early stages of learning about these topics. 

I’ve read two books focused on nuclear risk: 

  • Command and Control
  • The Doomsday Machine
    • I’d recommend this for someone who’s pretty interested in nuclear risk.
    • Has a narrative feel, which made it quite easy to read.
    • I’m somewhat skeptical of a decent portion of what’s in the book.
      • E.g., if I recall correctly, Ellsberg seemed to imply that there was scientific consensus that nuclear winter would be very likely in most nuclear exchanges, and would have very severe consequences (e.g., the death of the vast majority of the global population). But my impression - partly based on this Wikipedia article - is that there’s still substantial scientific debate on these points.
    • But I still think that reading the book was useful.
    • One of Rob Wiblin’s top 9 book recommendations.
    • See here for a review from an EA.

I’ve read one book focused on great power war:

  • Destined for War
    • I'd recommend this, including for people who are just generally interested in things like war and global catastrophic risk, rather than very specifically interested in nuclear risk.
    • Recommended by Rob Wiblin.

I’ve read one book focused on trends and drivers of violence more generally, with some parts on/relevance to great power war:

  • This is of course Better Angels of Our Nature
    • I think this is in general more useful than the above three books. But it’s very long, and much of it isn’t very focused on great power war or nuclear risk.
    • Highly recommended by Nick Beckstead and by Luke Muehlhauser, and recommended by Rob Wiblin.

And I’ve read one book focused on existential risks but with ~10 pages on nuclear risk (at the start of chapter 4):

  • The Precipice
    • This’d perhaps be my #1 recommended book for most EAs and EA-inclined people in general.
    • I think the ~10 pages on nuclear war was probably more useful for that topic per page than the above three books. So I might recommend reading those pages before reading the other books.
    • I list things I've written relevant to The Precipice, and some reviews/interviews about The Precipice by others, here.

I’m also aware of but haven’t (yet) read these books focused on nuclear risk, WMDs, and/or great power war:

  • The Dead Hand
  • Atomic Obsession
    • I learned of this via the post Notes on 'Atomic Obsession' (2009), which I think is itself worth reading, as are Max Daniel’s comments on that post.
    • Seems to be focused on nuclear risk.
  • After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000
  • Feeding Everyone No Matter What
    • I believe this is mostly focused on interventions to mitigate how bad nuclear winter would be, if it happened. 
  • Some of the books Luke Muehlhauser lists/recommends here

I think that all of the above books are available as audiobooks except Atomic Obsession. But I’d recommend reading The Precipice as an ebook or physical book rather than as an audiobook, as the audiobook doesn’t contain the (huge number of!) interesting footnotes.

(If you want a list of all the EA-relevant books I've read since learning about EA, in roughly descending order of how useful I perceive/remember them being to me, that’s available here.)

I’ve read one book focused on trends and drivers of violence more generally, with some parts on/relevance to great power war: This is of course Better Angels of Our Nature.

I would recommend Only the Dead and The Causes of War and the Spread of Peace over Better Angels.

Only the Dead is basically a pretty effective take-down of Pinker's analysis of trends in interstate war. Some key points are: (i) Pinker focuses on wars between European states, or wars between (typically European) "great powers," rather than interstate war generally. (ii) Pinker doesn't... (read more)

3MichaelA2moHey Ben, thanks for those recommendations! I hadn't heard of them, and both sound interesting and potentially useful. I've now downloaded Only the Dead, and made a note to maybe read The Causes of War and the Spread of Peace after that.
  • Feeding Everyone No Matter What
    • I believe this is mostly focused on interventions to mitigate how bad nuclear winter would be, if it happened.

Yes, there is more detail on the nuclear risk in this paper. And this paper on a fault tree model of the chance of nuclear war.

Oh, and I think one chapter of Global Catastrophic Risks is on nuclear risk, but I haven't read it.

John Lewis Gaddis' The Cold War: A New History contains a number of useful segments about the nuclear tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., insightful descriptions of policymakers' thinking during these moments, and a consideration of counterfactual histories in which nuclear weapons might have been deployed. I found it pretty useful in terms of helping me get a picture of what decision-making looks like when the wrong decision means (potentially) the end of civilization.

On the topic of nuclear warfare, I have also read and can recommend The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War by Fred Kaplan. The book provides a deep dive into the development of the US nuclear doctrine over time , covering all administrations across 70 years and outlining in great detail many issues and arguments around nuclear policy.

If you're also interested in books on biological weapons, I particularly recommend (HT Chris Bakerlee):

 1. Bioterror and Biowarfare: A Beginner's Guide by Malcolm Dando

2. Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs by Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker

On the rise of China (relevant to Great Power Competition), I have found it interesting to read Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World by Michael Schuman. However, I am not too excited to recommend it, because the great majority of the book covers developments in ancient China for which the level of "insights per page" was fairly low for me.

All of the above books are also available as audio books on Audible.

Thanks for your recommendations!

I've now listened to The Bomb. I found it interesting and useful, and would likewise recommend it to others. I also wrote some notes on it here.

(And your other recommendations are on my list of books to consider reading in future.) 

ETA: I've now also listened to Bioterror and Biowarfare, found it useful as well, and posted some takeaways and notes.

The Pentagon's Brain (history of DARPA) talks about the development, testing and deployment of various military technologies

Another book which should be added to the list is The Great American Gamble: Deterrence Theory and Practice from the Cold War to the 21st Century. This book is notable because it covers the case for deterrence pessimism.

It does this because Dr. Keith Payne, the author, was a student of Herman Kahn's, who was the other side of the deterrence conversation from Schelling. The central argument is that strictly offensive deterrence is not very credible and so poses an unacceptably high risk; the core difference in policy recommendations is to take deliberate steps to reduce the damage for your side, which they argue simultaneously reduces risk and increases the credibility of deterrence.

As a consequence, I think it speaks very directly to EA concerns about nuclear war.

3 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:46 PM

From the 80,000 Hours interview with Daniel Ellsberg:

Robert Wiblin: Just before we move on from the book, what do you think are the other best sources that people who want to pursue a career in nuclear security should read. I guess Eric Schlosser’s “Command and Control” often comes up as a good read. Is there anything else that you’d recommend?

Daniel Ellsberg: Well, by the way Schlosser’s book is so good that when I read it I thought, “Gee. Well, now I don’t have to write mine.” You know, it’s all out there. And then when I reread it some more, I said, “No, I have a number, a few points to make that he doesn’t.” He did get some things that almost nobody else had. The delegation issue for example is in there. I alone was the person talking about that for decades. And he has a number of, he’s much more on the accident problem and the false alarm problem than I have. In my book I just referred to his to a large extent and to Bruce Blair and Scott Sagan and a few others. So, that’s an excellent book to read.

Helen Caldicott, a former head of the Physicians for Social Responsibility here, the American part of the group that got the Nobel Prize in the 90s for nuclear war, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Helen Caldicott edited in Australia a book called “Sleepwalking to Armageddon”, which is very, very good last year on where we are right now. More up to date than mine is. In fact, it came out just after mine had been printed or I would have referred to it more.

Those are two good ones. But I would put my book as one definitely worth reading in that trio. So, on the question there are of course many others going back in history. Fred Kaplan’s the “Wizards of Armageddon” is very good. On the Cuban Missile Crisis, I think it’s called “One Minute to Midnight” or something a very good one on the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Links to these books:

(The only one of these I've read myself is Command and Control.)

In the post One Hundred Opinions on Nuclear War, Jeffrey Ladish writes:

22) The Strategy of Conflict and On Thermonuclear War are both worth reading for those interested in nuclear deterrence theory & risks of nuclear war. On Thermonuclear War, though dated, is the most serious attempt I have seen to model what might happen in a real nuclear war.

23) The Doomsday Machine and Command and Control are excellent reads. The former for understanding the insanity of early nuclear war plans and the bias towards nuclear readiness over safety, and the latter for mistakes in weapons risk management.

24) The Making of the Atomic Bomb is excellent if you don’t mind excessive detail. It’s not just about the bomb–it also covers the fascinating history of physics as we learned WHAT THE UNIVERSE IS MADE OF

I've now read The Strategy of Conflict, and posted some notes on it here.