Jacques Hymans begins Achieving Nuclear Ambitions by asking why, during the nearly seventy years which have elapsed since the United States quickly succeeded in building and testing nuclear weapons, other states apparently needed much more time to replicate the achievement of the Manhattan Project, and still others failed.
Hymans provides answers illustrated by empirical evidence from four historical case studies. These narratives suggest that how a state's leaders go about organizing and managing their nuclear assets will make all the difference between getting the bomb and failing miserably.
The evidence Hymans presents from Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Argentina leads to the conclusion that, when a nuclear program is not organized and directed to achieve specific, realistic outcomes, it is more likely to fail.
In Iraq, a nuclear weapon project that, Hymans argues, slowly began making headway during the 1980s was suddenly throttled when it was taken over by Hussein Kamel, a cousin of Saddam Hussein. Beginning in May 1987, Kamel unleashed bureaucratic disorder on the program, and abruptly overturned Iraq's program to enrich uranium using electromagnetic isotopic techniques in favor of gas centrifuges. To make up for lost time, Kamel exposed Iraq's centrifuge program to foreign scrutiny by relying on black market equipment suppliers, and he intimidated scientists with unrealistic deadlines. Two weeks after Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Kamel returned from the war front to launch a crash program to build a nuclear bomb. By the end of the conflict in 1991, however, Hymans writes, “the centrifuge effort had not yet accumulated any enriched uranium at all” and Iraq's ten-year nuclear weapon effort, notwithstanding an expenditure of a billion US dollars, came to naught.
Argentina and Yugoslavia likewise never acquired nuclear weapons. Juan Perón, who ruled Argentina after World War II until 1955, desired the bomb out of what Hymans calls a “grandiose conception of Argentine nationalism,” but Perón alienated the country's scientific establishment and trusted an Austrian fraudster, Ronald Richter, who had convinced Perón that he possessed precious nuclear secrets. Instead of nuclear weapons, Hymans says, Argentina reaped embarrassment. In Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito launched a nuclear energy program in the 1940s, but it suffered from poor organization and brain drain to the West. After India tested a nuclear explosive in 1974, Tito ordered his generals to follow suit, but they didn't deliver.
Hymans's foil to the above examples of mismanagement is China, where Mao Zedong had pushed hard for the bomb program, and an organizational “genius,” Nie Rongzhen, had the freedom to effectively harvest his cadre's nationalism and professionalism to successfully test a nuclear explosive device after about half a decade. It would thus appear from this example that nuclear weapon projects stand the best chance of success if they enjoy high priority, are guided by gifted managers, and if political leaders do not interfere with the work in progress.
The narrative of Achieving Nuclear Ambitions illustrates that good management matters. But the book aims to demonstrate a far more ambitious thesis, namely, what Hymans calls his “theory of nuclear weapons project efficiency.”