India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation

U. of Calif. Press
, 1999. $39.95 (597 pp.). ISBN 0-520-21772-1

George Perkovich’s India’s Nuclear Bomb is a remarkably good book. In addition to 15 chapters totaling 443 pages, however, it includes a 25-page addendum—labeled not as chapter 16 but as “Conclusion: Exploded Illusions of the Atomic Age”—that does not measure up.

The first paragraph of this addendum says,

The foregoing narrative chronicles the important developments, debates, and decisions affecting India’s nuclear weapons policy from 1947 through 1998. It provides answers to the three important questions formulated at the beginning of the study: Why has India developed its nuclear weapon capability when it has and the way it has? What are the factors that keep India from stopping or reversing its nuclear weapon program? What effects has the United States had on India’s nuclear intentions and capabilities? This is a very fair characterization of the book. And the next 11 lines of the addendum include conclusions that are generally well supported by Perkovich’s historical analysis.

From there on, however, the addendum goes downhill, and badly so, as Perkovich attempts to show that four more-or-less widely accepted theses about nuclear weapons proliferation are illusions.

His first “illusion” is that “security concerns decisively determine proliferation;” and he adduces persuasive evidence from the Indian experience in rebuttal of this statement. But this evidence hardly justifies his generalizing about the determinants of proliferation, as he does, giving little weight to what happened elsewhere. One cannot but doubt that his argument would have seemed less persuasive had he taken as his base case not India but the US, Russia, China, or Israel—or even Pakistan.

His second is that “nonproliferation is the flip side of the proliferation coin.” There is nothing really wrong with his rebuttal of this statement, nor with his coining the new term “unproliferation” to emphasize that, once acquired, a nuclear weapons capability may not be easily renounced, even if the original arguments for it are of diminished relevance or, indeed, are no longer relevant at all. But making something of a deal about this second “illusion” seems a bit banal, given that this effect is a characteristic of nearly all government programs—horse cavalry, battleships, tariffs, agricultural price supports, for example—once they acquire constituencies.

There are more general problems with his addendum. For one, he is seemingly unwilling to face up to the possibility that nuclear weapons serve as an equalizer for the weak in dealing with the strong. Relatedly, in his focus on proliferation, he seems to disapprove strongly of India and Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and their continued commitment to them but is not so disapproving of similar policies of the five permanent Security Council members. This view is particularly questionable with regard to China, considering that its current nuclear weapons acquisition program is the world’s most vigorous.

Finally, and sadly, in sharp contrast to his dispassionate approach in the 15 chapters of his book, Perkovich pontificates in his final paragraph about what India should do about nuclear weapons—a paragraph that will surely leave a bad taste in the mouths of most Indians and many other readers.

But the inclusion of these last pages ought not to deter people from buying India’s Nuclear Bomb and reading it carefully. For many—foreign service officers to be assigned to India, policy wonks interested in governance in the world’s largest democracy, or students of science and technology policies—it should be “must” reading.

Most readers are likely to find fresh and convincingly supported insights in the chapters that constitute the body of the book. For example, unlike other states that have acquired nuclear weapons, India from the very first really pursued two nuclear options: nuclear power and nuclear weapons—arguably three, if one counts peaceful nuclear explosions. That its weapons program has progressed as far as it has can be attributed in some measure to the appalling failures of India’s efforts to develop and exploit nuclear fission for the generation of electricity and to the strongly felt need in India’s nuclear establishment to somehow demonstrate competence and worth in the light of these failures.

In contrast to the policies of all other nuclear weapons states, thanks substantially to Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy, those of India have been significantly influenced by moral considerations. Indians have also been greatly influenced by their history under the yoke of British colonialism and by a widely felt need, after throwing off that yoke, to demonstrate that their country should be recognized for its ability to develop and exploit modern technology.

Those readers fortunate enough to be familiar with some of the people about whom Perkovich writes are likely to find his book easier going than those who are not. Given the advantage those more fortunate readers will have in being able to check his perceptions against their own firsthand knowledge, they are likely to be particularly impressed by the book.

For those readers unfamiliar with Indian political history and the Indian scientific and technical establishments, the book may not be easy reading. The cast of characters, past and present, making nuclear policy in India is a lengthy one, and Perkovich seems to have been diligent in exploring the roles, influence, and attitudes of a large fraction of them. He has done so with great sensitivity and in a generally nonjudgmental way, which is quite remarkable, considering his strong personal convictions about nuclear proliferation and many of the actions of India, Pakistan, and the US.

For anyone interested in India’s nuclear weapons history, there is no other account I know of that can offer as much as Perkovich’s. Read it (the first 443 pages, anyway), and at least thumb through the many endnotes.

Trained as a physical chemist, George W. Rathjenswas a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1968 until 1997. He served in Washington for 15 years, most recently as the deputy to Gerard Smith, President Jimmy Carter’s ambassador-at-large for nuclear nonproliferation matters. He has been the secretary general of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs since 1997.