Oppenheimer and other scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project recognized that atomic bombs would change warfighting. Many of them worked toward world government in response. Lewis Strauss and Edward Teller saw a future of more and bigger weapons. The film dramatizes this conflict.
But a third group wanted to work out how wars might be fought with theoe weapons. The dust jacket of my copy of Wizards of Armageddon says “For thirty years [publication date 1983] a small group inside the U.S. strategic community has devised the plans and shaped the policies on how to use the bomb.”
Some who would join that community began to think about strategy as soon as they heard of the dropping of the bombs on Japan. The principles of warfighting strategy with nuclear weapons are incredibly simple. Bernard Brodie enunciated them by 1946:
Wars would be too brief to allow adaptation
Defenses are useless
The most valuable targets are cities
A nation must be constantly prepared for war
A second strike could be as devastating as the first
Surprise becomes an unimportant element of warfare
Deterrence is the only use
Two more points that aged poorly but were influential early on:
Strategies would depend on how many atomic bombs a country held
Fissile materials were inherently in short supply
This was similar to Oppenheimer’s analysis, but the scientists focused on ways to control the fissile materials and agreements among nations. Brodie and others went in a different direction.
The people who came to be the “Wizards of Armageddon” included many economists along with some foreign policy and mathy types. Most of them had contributed to the air war in World War II or looked to the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, an after-action report, as the basis for thinking about nuclear war. Curtis LeMay, designer and executor of the Japanese firebombings, held high positions relating to nuclear bombing throughout the 1950s.
The Air Force was formed in in 1947, and the Strategic Air Command, whose mission is delivering nuclear weapons, in 1953. The Air Force early took the lead in developing nuclear strategy because in a war, nuclear weapons would be delivered by airplane. RAND Corporation, home of many of the wizards, was formed in 1948 by the Air Force.
Missiles came later, along with submarines. The USS George Washington went into service in December 1959. By the end of the fifties, a second strike capability was being developed, essential to preventing a first strike by the enemy.
That is the very small pot in which the basics of nuclear strategy were cooked up. White guys in a couple of professions, Air Force, lessons from the air war part of World War II. Their assumption, once the Soviet Union had a large enough nuclear arsenal, was that they might attack us at any time, and the Soviets held the reciprocal assumption, which led to absurdities like bombers with nuclear weapons on board circulating around the globe 24 hours every day.
How much of that is transferable to today?
The list of basics remains. But path dependence is a thing, and we maintain expectations and activities from the strategies that that small group developed in a different world. Within today’s equivalently small world, knowledge of the ancient mysteries is necessary for admittance of novices. The ancient texts are revered.
This morning’s panels at the 2023 #DeterrenceSymposium featured experts on two topics: “The Threats that must be Deterred” and “#IntegratedDeterrence across the Whole of Government.” They discussed crucial deterrence challenges and comprehensive approaches to overcoming them. pic.twitter.com/2Y6wPvWrxp— United States Strategic Command (@US_STRATCOM) August 16, 2023
That small world includes many of those who would argue against the conclusions of the priesthood. The arguments between the two factions are arcane and not easily accessible to the public.
To indicate some of the problems, I’ll lay out some questions. More are possible.
Why are we using a set of concepts developed by economists who believed in “rational economic man”?
Is game theory (from the economists) an appropriate way to think about nuclear destruction?
Why are we using a theoretical framework developed by a group funded by the Air Force?
Are this theoretical framework and its terminology too obscure for the public and most of the military to understand? Is there a way to broaden understanding?
Previous posts in this series
Giving Up A Myth
Truman Establishes Sole Presidential Authority
After The War
Today in 1949: Nuclear War Becomes Possible
Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner