Michael KreponBirthing a Book

Note to readers: This writer usually succeeds in focusing on issues in this space, leaving the first person singular to others. Not this time around. I’m a proud pappa. Again.

Lyrics of the Week:

“Gonna pack my lunch in the morning
And go to work each day

And when the evening rolls around
I’ll go on home and lay my body down
And when the morning light comes streaming in
I’ll get up and do it again. Amen.” — Jackson Browne, “The Pretender”

“Now the darkness only stays at night time
In the morning it will fade away
Daylight is good
At arriving at the right time
But it’s not always going
To be this grey” — George Harrison, “All Things Must Pass”

The package arrived at home while my wife and I were in New York City, looking after our grand-daughters and their family dog. Waiting a couple more days to cradle the new offspring in my hands was OK. After all, it took about ten years for it to arrive. If you’re a long-term reader of my posts, you’ve been present at the creation.

Books are offspring, too. Gestation times vary. Birthing a book can’t be rushed. Some authors are so gifted that they can churn out books annually without seeming to break a sweat. Not me. The commitment phase takes time, when a book idea floats around in my head seeking acknowledgement.

After I’m committed, the writing process begins in the toolshed behind our house that was transformed, at the insistence of the wisest member of the family, into an office with windows and bookshelves. She knows me too well and didn’t want our house in the woods contaminated with thoughts about nuclear weapons.

For me, writing a book is an act of communion as well as commitment. It means going to that toolshed, finding a comfortable place in the ether, and tapping away. It’s a satisfying ritual, where I can find relief from work-related resistance. When I get stuck with how to tell a particular story, or with a single paragraph, I get up, go outside, walk the paths in the woods, or pick weeds, or sit by Infinity Springs, come back, and … whoa, like magic, I’m unstuck.

Everything that gets tapped gets edited. More times than you imagine. If I’m against nuclear excess, I am obliged to be against excess verbiage. Editing is not just about finding better places for thoughts and sentences. It’s about paring, paring, and paring some more.

I’m naturally inclined to like what I write – until I re-read it. Then I notice weak trains of thought and simplistic arguments that need to be torn down and reconstructed so that they are more defensible. Tapping, tapping, and more tapping. The letters O, I, N, and T on my keyboard have become hard to identify.

I knew that this book would be different and harder. It would repay a debt and constitute a baton pass – heavy responsibilities. This time around, I would try to write a readable history book and, in doing so, pass along the lessons that history can teach – but only to those who aren’t completely sure of themselves.

Here’s what I wrote on the dedication page:

This book is dedicated to all those who pushed the boulder uphill, and to those who will do so again.

The more we know of our nuclear history, the harder it will be to lose our way.

I felt that I owed this book to all those who sought and still seek abolition, and who fought and still fight for nuclear arms limitations. To the treaty makers and treaty supporters. To those who turned wretched excess into deep reductions. To those who fought to end atmospheric nuclear testing, and then all testing. To those who created regimes to prevent nuclear proliferation and to prevent possession and use of chemical and biological weapons. To those who faced the monumental challenge of preventing “loose nukes” and “dirty” bombs after the Soviet Union dissolved, leaving behind 35,000 nuclear weapons and enough fissile material to make approximately twice that number. To those who failed but tried mightily, and to those who achieved great success. And to all those who helped establish and lengthen the norm that we all live by – the norm of no use of nuclear weapons in warfare.

This norm isn’t enshrined in a treaty among nuclear-armed states and it isn’t found in doctrinal documents that we fight over. Even so, our lives depend on this norm. Despite the manufacture of over 125,000 nuclear weapons since 1945 – each and every one of them a potential mushroom cloud – none have been used in war since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

If you think that deterrence alone is to thank for this amazing feat, please read my book.

My newest offspring is large. Sorry about that. But how do you do justice to a story that includes all of the above and much more – a story of rise, demise, and revival — in less than one inch of the printed page? My book, Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control, is one and one-half inches thick. I measured it.

I’ve tried to make this long book accessible, but the hard, inescapable truth is that my book requires commitment from, and places demands upon the reader. So please consider this: What I ask of you, dear reader, is slight compared to the commitment of those profiled in my pages.

Arms control was a product of the Cold War. This product became dated after the Cold War ended. Tear downs followed. Our story doesn’t end there, however. It can’t. The arc of my story ends with revival.

Conditions are not yet ripe for the rebuild, but extending the nuclear peace remains very much in our grasp. Some of the basic building blocks of revival remain in place. Every day that crucial norms of no use and no testing are extended, they become harder to break. Deterrence remains very much in place. National vulnerability remains an inescapable fact of life for nuclear-armed rivals, no matter how much money they spend on national missile defenses. We can build on these foundational elements, just as previous generations did.

Revival will employ some familiar forms and require some new approaches. There will be less formality and more seats at the table. Because arms control challenges are way more complex than they were for previous generations, and because most nuclear-armed rivals are new to negotiations, this will take time. The rebuild, like the build, will be a multi-generational effort.

The future of arms control depends on those who will take up this cause with energy and talent, and those who stick with it. They will need good fortune, geopolitical conditions conducive to success, and great leadership.

Revival will happen. Arms control has always reflected Archimedean principles and Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion: it’s always darkest before the dawn. For every action there is reaction. Surprise happens, and surprise isn’t always bad.

Leaders change, political parties change, and unexpected openings lie ahead. Arms control will revive because, sooner or later, U.S., Chinese, and Russian leaders will recognize that deterrence is becoming increasingly dangerous, and that reassurance is lacking. Responsible Indian and Pakistani leaders will reach this conclusion, too. Perhaps they will will do so after a close call, or perhaps after something worse than a close call.

The best-case scenario is that leaders will be farsighted and wise enough to act before bad stuff happens, recognizing that all of us, regardless of nationality, party and religious affiliation, depend on the revival of arms control. Arms control will make a comeback because our lives depend on it.

For particulars, show some commitment and read the book!


  1. Elizabeth Talerman (History)

    All 1-1/2 inches of your new baby have arrived on my doorstep. The reading begins this week! Thank you Michael for making this accessible enough to those of us who are new to the community – and very committed.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Elizabeth, no pop quiz. I promise.

  2. Andrew Pierre (History)

    Bravo, Mike, for all your years of profound wisdom and intellectual bravery. You have made an extraordinary contribution to the maintenance of peace and the entire field of arms control.
    Andrew Pierre

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Your kind words are much appreciated, Andrew.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Andrew: Strategic Stalemate: Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control in American Politics. A Council on Foreign Relations Book, 1984. You were the Director of Studies at the CFR, right? We go back.