Tuesday, June 21, 2016


By Ronald T. Fox

Dr. Strangelove
Dr. Strangelove

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
-- Albert Einstein

“A nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.” The speaker of these words was not an anti-war activist or a utopian dreamer. He was none other than Ronald Reagan, who uttered these words in 1985 in a face-to-face meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev.

Reagan was not an expert on nuclear weapons--far from it. He came to this conclusion through simple common sense. So did a number of notable scientists who were experts on atomic weapons. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the widely-acknowledged “father of the atomic bomb,” mused after watching the explosion of the first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Noted physicist Albert Einstein famously said: "Our world faces a crisis as yet unperceived by those possessing power to make great decisions for good or evil. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

What these men shared in common was an understanding that nuclear bombs were not weapons that could be used to fight wars.  Unfortunately the brilliant men who have shaped US nuclear weapons policy did think of atomic bombs as usable weapons; apparently so do our current crop of strategic planners.  We are living -- at least for now--the consequences of their folly.
The fundamental truth about atomic weapons was stated early in the nuclear age by the pioneering Rand Corporation nuclear strategist Bernard Brodie, who wrote in 1946: “Everything about the atomic bomb is overshadowed by the twin facts that it exists and that its destruction power is fantastically great.” The story of the nuclear age from that moment on has been a story about intellectuals trying to outmaneuver this fundamental truth, trying to make nuclear bombs manageable, controllable, usable for military purposes. They developed esoteric theories and war-fighting strategies that belied common sense, and in the process moved the United States closer to Armageddon.  

The nuclear age dawned on August 6, 1945 when the Enola Gay, opened its bomb bay and dropped a uranium atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. Three days later a plutonium bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. While some Americans were horrified by visuals of the destruction, most were elated:  the long, terrible war was over--the atomic bomb appeared to have ended it.  Most people didn't pause to reflect on what atomic bombs would portend for human civilization, but everyone seemed to understand: the world would never be the same.
Many of the scientists who worked on the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos were ambivalent about it. Some thought that working on a weapon of such mass destruction was profoundly immoral; most, though, thought that they were engaged in a legitimate scientific enterprise to build a bomb that would end a horrible war. Many opposed dropping it without warning on human beings in Japan, but most, including Oppenheimer, reasoned that mankind needed to be shocked by the destructiveness of these ghastly devices so they would understand they should never be used again.
Estimated are that 150,000 people in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki died within two to four months of the bombings.  This amounted to about one-third of their populations.  Many more would die in the following months from the effect of burns, radiation sickness, and other injuries, compounded by illness and malnutrition.  Given this mass destruction, one would think that reasonable men would have worked tirelessly to bring about international control of atomic energy, or at least devise strategies aimed to prevent nuclear war from ever occurring. This wasn’t to be. Bright minds set to the task of incorporating the bomb into our arsenal of weapons, and, devising plans for how they might be used.  
A small group of “defense intellectuals,” comfortably sequestered in prestigious universities and private think tanks, where, in their splendid isolation, they could think abstractly about nuclear weapons and war, became pivotal in bringing ideas about how nuclear war might be fought, and won, to nuclear policy-making circles. This wasn’t harmless intellectualizing, as bright minds are want to do, their thinking touched on serious questions of nuclear peace and war, questions whose answers could have life and death consequences for mankind. These were the men that invented nuclear strategy; they germinated the ideas and created the war plans that shaped and continue to shape US nuclear strategies. Political scientist Robert Kaplan, who has written volumes on defense policy, refered to them as “The Wizards of Armageddon.” It is an apt description.
Working anonymously behind the scenes, the nuclear wizards exercised their brains to come up with ways to make nuclear weapons “relevant.” They crunched numbers and generated mathematical models calculating multiple ways nuclear war could be fought, and terminated, to the advantage of the US. They didn't plan for a total nuclear war, where in the aftermath if two Americans were alive and only one Russian, then we won, as the sick joke went, they devised ways in which the U.S. could prevail in a limited nuclear war. This afforded near limitless theoretical modeling. Herman Kahn, one of the early Rand strategic thinkers, wrote a book, On Thermonuclear War, in which he posited over 160 different nuclear war scenarios. (He would later become the model for Stanley Kubric’s Dr. Strangelove). It didn’t matter that Kahn and other intellectuals probably didn’t really believe a nuclear war could be kept limited; what was important, they reasoned, was that the Soviet Union believe we were willing to cross the nuclear threshold. If they believed it, then our threats would be credible. Besides, the esoteric theorizing was too much fun—it was seductive.
MX MissileThe sophisticated mathematical models they developed, esoteric language they employed, catchy acronyms they created (ICBM, SLBM, MIRV, TNW . . . .) the nice sounding euphemisms they coined (the peacekeeper for the biggest, bad-ass missile of all, the MX; Minuteman missiles for our ICBMs; projectiles for bombs, throw weight for megatons of yield), and the sexual references they used in references to types of weapons (penetrating devices, re-entry vehicles) served to divert attention from the ghastliness of what they were contemplating. The complicated technical jargon they employed protected them further from the scrutiny of the general public.

The defense professionals contrived nuclear utilization options (NU-OPTs) (I preferred the acronym, NUTS) because without them nuclear weapons would appear too starkly as the thing they refused to acknowledge, that they tried to keep the public from understanding, which would be exposed if they were ever used again: devices that would unleash pure havoc, weapons of such cataclysmic power no one, least of all the defense intellectuals themselves, had the faintest idea how to control. Nuclear strategists have endlessly tried to impose order on the inherent disorder of atomic weapons. For all their striving, chaos still prevails.

What follows is a two-part essay on nuclear weapons and strategy and the men (yes, they were almost entirely men) who have tried to make them rational instruments of warfare. What I’ve written here will serve as an introduction. It will be followed by an historical overview of the emergence of the U.S. doctrine of deterrence, which sought to prevent nuclear war, and its subsequent transformation into a strategy that planned how to actually fight and win them. The second part of the essay will focus on America’s latest nuclear fixation: the development of an arsenal of small, stealthy, precise atomic devices that can be used selectively in multiple theaters of war. These weapons may be new, state-of-the-art, but the thinking behind them is old school. It reflects the nuclear war-fighting mindset that has enthralled defense intellectuals since the dawn of the nuclear age.  This enduring delusion motivated me to write these essays.  


  1. I am appalled at all the theorizing but one thing acronym summed all the non-sense up perfectly.... MAD. The acronym was perfect but what it said was also instructive - mutual assured destruction. Well, yeah! To me, this summed it up perfectly. No amount of theorizing could escape that idea.
    I am looking forward to part #2 because it seems like we are trying once again to make these weapons acceptable for use. I expect that will reveal even more folly.

  2. If you consider the world-wide attacks of terrorists and military adventures of the US, Russia, the Saudis, Iran, etc. our current WWIII, Einstein was wrong...so far. Also, it is my recollection that most scholars during my studies of the subject of war and peace in the late 60s and 70s had generally rejected Kahn's (and early Kissinger's) theorizing on limited nuclear war and the use of "tactical" nuclear weapons. The consensus, among academics at least, was that once the line was crossed between the use or non-use of nuclear weapons in battle -- tactical or strategic -- there no longer existed any clear means to limit escalation. Yet, all had to agree that risk-taking that in the past had led to major wars continues to exist. I guess I should not be surprised that there continues to be those still considering new designs and possible use of nuclear weaponry, but I look forward to you thoughts on just how influential these nut jobs are. BTW, the only example of a battle plan that actually was underway to employ a nuclear weapon since 1945 that I've heard of is the very recent revelation that Israel was making preparations for setting off a nuclear device in the Sinai to scare off the Egyptians in the Six-Day War but didn't have time to put it in place because their victory was achieved so quickly. But then, the Israelis feared that their nation's survival might be at risk. Not sure what we can learn from this.


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