Why aren’t we all atomic ash?

The Wizards of Armageddon — Fred Kaplan


l1983’s The Wizards of Armageddon documents America’s1 long struggle to come up with a conceptual framework for the effective conduct of nuclear war. An awful lot of people, including a number of the people who were actually the ones who would be calling the shots during WWIII, assumed that nuclear war would be a matter of throwing as many nukes at the other guy as possible while trying to survive what the enemy tossed back, However, at least one community of intellectuals yearned for something more nuanced. Many of these people ended up at a think tank called RAND and had a hand in shaping the Cold War that those of us from the Before Times lived through.

But first: typing “megadeath” over and over gets tiring so I am going to use a unit of mass death, where one Hitler equals about ten million dead (very roughly the number of people murdered in the Konzentrationslager; people who prefer more precision should set h=12 million). An atomic bomb exploded over a town like Kitchener might kill 0.01 H, whereas a 10MT device exploded over New York might kill a Hitler or two, depending on targeting choices. A full-scale thermonuclear war that left the Northern Hemisphere temporarily uninhabitable might kill a few hundred Hitlers.

I don’t want to do a chapter-by-chapter review but it’s possible to divide the content of this book into various periods.

In the very early days, the atomic bomb was an astounding thing, able to level a city in one quick kaboom. Although they would not have used the term, for war theorists like Bernard Brodie the atomic bomb was a singularity that appeared to render all of their models obsolete. They struggled to invent from scratch an entirely new doctrine, one shaped by the facts that very few nations possessed the plans or technology to produce such bombs. Moreover, bombs could not be quickly produced in great numbers. Although production issues did get tackled eventually, it took some time for the implications to filter into the theoretical world.

As terrible as the atomic bomb is, it only kills cities … and medium-sized ones at that. As shown on 9/11, a city the size of New York can absorb kiloton or sub-kiloton releases of energy and continue functioning, admittedly with some short-term loss of function. Hydrogen bombs release orders of magnitude more energy, enough to eliminate entire counties. A US/SU exchange in 1950 could have conceivably left most of both countries intact and functional2. Once weaponizable designs for thermonuclear weapons appeared, the scale of the energy involved meant that it was really difficult to have an exchange without killing many Hitlers worth of people — even if one is trying to limit casualties (and not everyone thought that was a reasonable goal).

The general rule demonstrated by this book is that few new technological tricks make the military situation any better and those that do, like hardened silos and solid-fueled rockets, invite countermeasures that often make a bad situation worse. To date, our main defensive shield against thermonuclear was is the surprising degree of reluctance nuclear warriors have to being the one responsible for kicking off a war that kills one hundred Hitlers.

Kaplan interviewed hundreds of people involved in nuclear arms policy, using the results to paint an image of how US doctrines (plural because there was never a time when everyone with any say agreed which doctrines were correct, not even within RAND) evolved, as models were considered and reconsidered, and as the facts on the ground evolved in the years between 1945–1981. Or, as in the case of people like LeMay or Powers, whose experience was in WWII strategic bombing campaigns, the doctrines didn’t evolve.

While texts on nuclear war theory are comfort reading for me, stepping back and looking at the big picture the way Kaplan did reminds me of string theory. Like string theory, most of the conceptualization of nuclear war involves scenarios where experimentation is impractical and it is all too easy to wander off into fields of beautiful theory with no possible application to the real world,however much theorists kid themselves3. This raises the dreadful possibility that the nuclear powers might be forced to carry out a hundred Hitler war in the absence of a rigorous theory.

Happily, not all the policy was made on the basis of models that could not by their nature be tested. Self-interest, hypocrisy, and blatant lies also played an important role. The US spent trillions arming itself. You might think such riches were enough that there to be enough for everyone, but you’d be wrong. The jolly psychopaths over in the Air Force certainly didn’t want to share the fun inherent in turning the Northern Hemisphere into a parking lot with the Navy or other, lesser branches. Some of the more curious design spaces the US explored make more sense if one looks at the devices not as weapons designed to be used, but as trinkets intended to mark status. Sure, handing Davy Crocketts out to untrained lieutenants promises all kinds of hilarity, but the important thing is the Army got its hands on atomics.

The Marines seem on occasion to have been forced to play referee between the other branches because they were the only ones who didn’t try to incorporate nuclear weapons into their toolkit.

It made sense to me that the Americans wouldn’t have talked to other nations about doctrine, since those other nations were either lesser allies slated to be consigned to the furnace during an exchange, or the Great Enemy, who could be lying. What did surprise me was how often it turned out that many influential Americans had no idea what other influential Americans believed regarding correct nuclear doctrine, or even what the official government doctrines were. The geniuses at RAND could produce enchanting stories about Ladders of Escalation without affecting US operational structures in any way. Those structures were so rigid that (for example) it was not clear that if there were an exchange in which China was neutral, the US could refrain from nuking it anyway. Senior officers seemed to be perfectly comfortable with, perhaps even enthusiastic about, with such pointless collateral damage given that the SAC term used for civilian collateral damage was “bonus”.

There was one element that caught my eye because it was absent. Many of the Wizards of Armageddon were people who were profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of actively trying to kill fifty or a hundred Hitlers. These theorists looked for doctrines that would take into account the fact that nuclear weapons existed while allowing a war to carried out to a successful conclusion4 and in a way that would keep casualties to acceptable levels. What I couldn’t work out was what strategy the US contemplated after a successful nuclear war. It’s fine to assume that “our magnificent first strike cripples the Soviet ability to fight a war but leaves most of the population alive and largely unmutated. We use the threat of a hundred-Hitler strike on the remaining cities to force the Soviets to surrender.” What comes after the surrender? Leaving the Soviets alone just lets them prepare for WWIV; occupying them would be challenging; and while exterminating a defeated foe would have been within behavioral norms for humans, many Americans (with the possible exception of the boys running SAC) would have been reluctant to carry out such a policy5. It seems strange to say this in the context of nuclear weapons but I don’t see an easy answer here.

Kaplan’s work is an illuminating examination of the first four decades of American nuclear policy. We are now thirty years past those years and live in an excitingly multi-polar world far more complex than the one where two great powers and their allied redshirts glowered at each other. I would love to see a follow-up volume to this work.

Or I would had I not been informed in email that the intelligence services jumped on the chance to reclassify a lot of information, I guess on the idea that if suppressing information worked so well for Barbara Streisand, it should work for them. All that information being dragged back into the dark could make research difficult. There might even be a chance that the material in The Wizards of Armageddon was reclassified. If so, don’t read any of the preceding or at least leave out a plate of cookies for the goons who will be coming to black-bag you before dragging you off to Gitmo. 

1: Although the book occasionally references what other nations thought on the matter, those issues are never discussed in detail. In fact, if the other nuclear-armed powers ever produced their own On Thermonuclear Wars, I have yet to encounter them.

2: Obviously the Europeans caught between the two cannot be saved and so can safely be left out of calculations since their fate is always the same. Europeans get surprisingly pissy about this, even though this consistent detail makes modeling that much easier.

3: I am being a little unfair here because as the book points out, some of the ideas the RAND theorists came up with for nuclear wars, like counter-force strikes, were applied to conventional conflicts with mixed results.

4: Theorists who don’t think nuclear war can have a successful conclusion tend to be forced into arms control, itself a fraught field and one that does get some discussion in this book.

5: Consider that the US had experience with an entire family of nuclear wars where success was very obviously possible, the family of wars where only one side has nuclear weapons. With the exception of Japan, the US has to date refrained from using nuclear weapons on its enemies — even during the period when they had a monopoly and so didn’t have to fear Soviet reaction.

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