"We knew the world would not be the same," said Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, recalling his feelings at overseeing the world's first nuclear explosion at a test site in New Mexico in July 1945. He was also reminded of a line by Vishnu in the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
So far, the doctrine of mutual assured destruction has prevented a nuclear apocalypse, but it is, says Langewiesche, "a temporary answer to a permanent threat". What Oppenheimer and his colleagues grasped, and Langewiesche thinks important to reiterate, is that once this awesome destructive power had been discovered and demonstrated, global nuclear proliferation became inevitable.
The assurances and alliances in place during the Cold War are dissolving, so nuclear armament becomes an ever more attractive option to an increasing number of the world's developing states: the fast-track to "nation-equalising" power. In an age of free-flowing information, the barrier of technological requirements is lowered. And, of course, the doctrine of mutual destruction holds no sway over a stateless jihadist.
But the good news is that weapons-grade fissionable material is not at all easy to come by, store or transport. So the picture that Langewiesche paints in this lucidly written and coolly argued piece of investigative journalism is of a world in which the risk of all-out nuclear war has been slightly reduced, and the logic of deterrence will continue to apply to even the most ideological countries. Which means that nuclear proliferation "certainly does not meet the category of threat that justifies the suppression of civil liberties or the pursuit of pre-emptive wars."