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Wednesday, March 22, 2017


I have been somewhat bemused by the comments on this blog lately.  Let me explain.  First, with regard to North Korea.  I am not entirely sure the readers who commented quite understand either what I was saying or the gravity of the situation.  Howie B, it is quite true that North Korea would have to develop sophisticated guidance systems to be confident of striking San Francisco [or any other specific target] with a nuclear armed ICBM, but the technology is what is sometimes called “old technology,” it has been around for several generations, and I am fearful that North Korea would be able to develop it.

S. Wallerstein, if North Korea develops nuclear weapons for the purpose of protecting itself against a U. S. attack, that is rational -- not good, not a positive development, not something to be hoped for, just rational, hence predictable.  But I am fearful that Kim Jung-un will behave irrationally, self-destructively, and hence in a manner that produces death and destruction on a massive scale in the United States or elsewhere.  That is the same fear that grips me when I see that the U. S. has nuclear weapons, or that Great Britain, France, Russia, China, Pakistan, India, and Israel have nuclear weapons.  Is North Korea more likely than those countries to behave irrationally, i.e., not in accord with its self-interest?  Well, that is hard to say.  John F. Kennedy behaved irrationally during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and we were saved by the fact that Nikita Khrushchev behaved rationally.  Thus far, India and Pakistan have behaved rationally in their dispute over Kashmir, but who is to say they will continue to do so.

Perhaps even more frightening is the possibility that Kim Jung-un will miscalculate, will think he can threaten nuclear attack as a way of getting the United States to back off and incorrectly estimate how much provocation he can get away with.  Is Trump less likely to respond rationally to such provocation than Clinton, Bush 1, Bush 2, or Obama?  I don’t know but my impression is that the answer is yes.

Short of an infallible anti-missile defense, which, Ronald Reagan to the contrary notwithstanding, seems not to be technically feasible, we are confronted with a constant threat as great in its magnitude as the threat of global warming.  That is what I thought sixty years ago when I agitated for nuclear disarmament, and that is what I think now.

With regard to the reactions to my lengthy post yesterday, let me address the rather odd comments of Robert Shore.  Here is what he wrote:  “Prof. Wolff, while you are exulting over March 20, 2017, you might want to recall October 28, 2016 as the day James Comey announced that the FBI was investigating Hillary Clinton's email server and its use. You know what came of that! And April 22, 1954, the day that Senator Joseph McCarthy began his hearing investigating the United States Army as being "soft on Communism" and you know what came of that! I know how much you hate President Trump but you might at least remember that a man is innocent until proven guilty and not go rushing headlong into your own premature judgment about Trump's possible collusion with Putin.”

I am mystified by these remarks.  I “exulted,” as Shore put it, over March 20, 2017, because I thought, and still hope, that it would cripple Trump’s presidency, which I view as malign, not benign.  [By the way, I was not exulting;  I was telling my readers to mark the day because in years to come they might look back on it as having been as consequential as the day Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of a taping system in Nixon’s Oval Office, but let that slide.]  I did not “exult” on October 28, 2016, because I was fearful that it would help Trump get elected.  I was right about that.  As for April 22, 1954, I actually watched some of that on the television set in the Graduate Dorm lounge at Harvard during breaks from studying for my doctoral exams.  I had no idea at the time what might become of that event, but as it happens it led directly to the diminution of Joseph McCarthy’s influence, so in retrospect I “exult.”

Robert Shore’s last sentence is fascinating.  I would never have known from his previous comments that he was such a prim and proper stickler for the rule of law.  But in fact, if you will go back and read what I wrote, I did not rush to judgment.  Instead, I laid out four logically discrete alternatives, made it clear I did not know which one was correct, and then engaged in the time-honored right, guaranteed under the U. S. Constitution, to speculate.  I am not sitting on the judicial bench in judgment on Trump.  I am just one of the spectators in the crowd, and I freely confess that I really hope Trump is found” guilty,” whatever that means, whether he actually is or not.  There, I said it, go sue me.

I wonder, as I have before:  What on earth is it about me that makes Bob Shore so mad?


I. M. Flaud said...

Did I write something that demonstrated some elementary misunderstanding? This is all obvious to me.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

No indeed, quite the contrary. I should have added a line acknowledging that. My apologies.

Robert Shore said...

I have no idea why you are mystified by what I wrote. Other than expressing my agreement with Jerry and Chris, all I was trying to point out with my two examples in support of what they wrote was that the fact that an investigation has started is no indication that that it will end with the guilt of the party investigated.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Come on. Go back and take a look at what you actually wrote, at the language used ["exulted"], at the tone. You sound like Miss Piggy when she says, with mock surprise, "Moi!"

Robert Shore said...

BTW, Prof. Wolff, my three links posted March 6 are still relevant so I'll re-post them in the hopes that you'll read them:

1) Robert Parry:

2) Stephen Cohen:

3) Glen Greenwald

Chris said...

Professor Wolff,
Not too long ago, maybe a week or two, you did "rush to judgment" in that the only possibilities you considered were all variations of Trump or his lickspittle are guilty.

Link here:

Every time I, or Shore, or others have raised REASONABLY SKEPTICAL issues regarding your stance you 1) malign or straw man the position (e.g., we want NATO to fall apart so Putin can have a stronger reach over Europe), and then 2) say "come on I don't need to be told X" and then silence a continued conversation on said issue.

Some of us have REAL fears that this MAY BE a witch hunt, which MAY blow up in the face of the Democrats, which MAY embolden Trump. Those are legitimate fears, they share with you a fear of Trump, and they needed to be considered with disdain, straw man representation, and silencing of diversity in opinion.

Shore, Jerry, and myself, have posted some reasonable links but reasonable commentators that go entirely ignored.

If we want Trump out of power that means we MAY want Democrats in power. If we want Democrats in power there has to be a strategy to do that, and right now we fear this is not a tenable strategy. CRITICISM OF DEMOCRATS IS NOT SUPPORT FOR TRUMP IT'S PREDICATED ON FEAR OF TRUMP OR THE NEXT CHARISMATIC RIGHT WING ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT TRUMP (not yelling just emphasizing).

There has been literally ZERO criticisms of Obama in his entire 8 years of office on this blog, and minimal - maybe 1 - posts criticizing the democratic party. Again, we criticize so there is a viable altnerative to Trumpism, not because we "hesitate to acknowledge the importance of anything that so nakedly benefits Democrats and harms Republicans."

Chris said...

and they need NOT be considered with disdain*

s. wallerstein said...

Professor Wolff,

I didn't imply nor did I mean to suggest that North Korea having nuclear weapons is good or positive in any sense of the word. In fact, I think that nuclear weapons should be banned.

I don't have a good opinion of North Korea nor would I defend its policies, either domestic or foreign. For the record, I do not identify with any known government in the world.

All I was doing in my comments to your previous post is to try to put myself in shoes of the North Korean communist leadership and to see why from their point of view, it is sensible to develop a nuclear capacity. I converse a fair amount with Latin American hard leftists who generally consider the U.S. to be the chief threat to world peace and that any strategy which resists U.S. imperialism is good. In the case of North Korea, I suppose that the North Korean communist leadership sees the world as Latin American hard leftists, especially members of the Chilean communist party, do. The Chilean communist party still has fraternal relations with the North Korean communist party, and Chilean communists do travel there, so I suppose that there is some common ground of opinion between both parties.

LFC said...

John F. Kennedy behaved irrationally during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and we were saved by the fact that Nikita Khrushchev behaved rationally.

Not my impression, at least not the first part of the sentence in this strong a form. Recall that there were those urging JFK to launch an air attack on Cuba to take out the Soviet missiles. He declined, going with a naval blockade instead. Not clear what an air attack would have led to, but it probably would not have been anything good and the consequences might well have been catastrophic. JFK should be given credit for rejecting that option.

There is an enormous mountain of detailed literature on the Cuban missile crisis. On my shelf is a paperback copy of Michael Dobbs's thoroughly researched, virtually hour-by-hour account: One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War (Vintage Bks, 2009). I can't claim to have done more than dip into the book here and there, but it is not my impression that Dobbs wd agree w/ the statement in the post.

howard b said...

Yes but do they have a track record and however determined do they have the resources?
Do you suppose the Chinese would help their efforts? Somehow they don't seem to have the wherewithal of the Pakistanis. They are not on the level of your typical James Bond villain

LFC said...

...the possibility that Kim Jung-un will miscalculate, will think he can threaten nuclear attack as a way of getting the United States to back off and incorrectly estimate how much provocation he can get away with. Is Trump less likely to respond rationally to such provocation than Clinton, Bush 1, Bush 2, or Obama? I don’t know but my impression is that the answer is yes.

This is a legitimate concern, I think. Things probably won't come to this, but in this context "probably" is not comforting enough.

Deterrence rests partly on what the late Thomas Schelling called "a threat that leaves something to chance" -- which is a way of saying one wants 'the adversaries' to be less than totally certain about one's likely actions. There is some ambiguity, some deliberate vagueness and uncertainty, pretty much built into the notion of nuclear deterrence. The players have to assume they can't know for certain what each will do in a given set of circumstances, because on balance it's the safest assumption. But at the same time they have to assume a baseline level of rationality, b/c if they don't assume that the whole structure becomes less likely to attain its object -- i.e., the deterrence/prevention of a nuclear exchange.

The opacity of the N Korean regime means that even expert observers don't really know that much about what Kim Jong-Un is thinking, and if it weren't for the occasional high-level defector they would know even less. For that and other reasons, the possession, or apparently soon-to-be-possession, by N Korea of an ICBM capacity is an objectively (if I may use that word) destabilizing development that should be viewed w some considerable concern bordering on and perhaps reaching alarm. And having the Trump admin in the White House in this context is not especially reassuring.

That's not to say something bad is likely to happen -- nothing at all may actually happen. But the situation as a whole is not what one would want.

I. M. Flaud said...

Is it so rational though for a country to decide to develop and deploy nuclear weapons? A country takes on a significant liability developing, maintaining and defending them. Even if the technology of ICBMs isn't new, you still need scientists in several fields, engineers, technicians, sufficient economic wherewithal, high-performance computing capabilities, early warning systems, intelligence networks, cybersecurity--the list goes on. I once attended a talk at a supercomputing conference given by an appropriately ghoulish nuclear physicist, who spoke about running quantum chemistry calculations on the six states of plutonium, which is a difficult element to analyze in the lab. Physicists and quantum chemists

Your launch facilities, which may be accessible through the Internet (with or without additional connections), are under constant threat by by adversaries who would be happy to launch, at the targets of their choice, the missiles you developed at great expense. If that happens, retaliation is assured. If your launch facilities aren't on the net, the non-stop penetration efforts against your computing and communications facilities can only escalate once you go the nuclear route. This is axiomatic.

Also, once you develop nuclear weapons, there's really no question of not using them, at least in the sense that nuclear weapons are being used all the time, the way a robber might use a loaded gun without firing it.

These kinds of liabilities are systemic and largely uninsurable--and they might be enough to induce an adversary to negotiate--assuming the parties are rational and willing to negotiate...

LFC said...

Is it so rational though for a country to decide to develop and deploy nuclear weapons?

Depends on the country and on its particular geopolitical and other circumstances, but for most countries that don't currently have nuclear weapons, probably no it isn't rational to develop them, and that's probably an understatement. (It may oversimplify, but for a short answer will do.)

North Korea, however, is in an unusual position for various reasons, and it already has nuclear weapons. W/o going into the whole history, the chances of a denuclearization deal for the Korean peninsula don't seem good at this point. So the situation of a nuclear N. Korea w (possible) long-range missile capability doesn't seem likely to change soon.

in the sense that nuclear weapons are being used all the time, the way a robber might use a loaded gun without firing it.

This is not what's usually meant by nuclear "use." That word usually (indeed, always in discussions of the issue, afaict) refers to the equivalent of firing.

I. M. Flaud said...

Then I suggest taking note of the qualification of this sense of "use" that I was careful not to omit, precisely to blunt this obvious objection, and which was borrowed from philosophers and military strategists who study nuclear deterrence. Close calls between submarines and bombers loaded with these weapons are a routine occurrence. It isn't necessary to multiply the examples. That was the sense of "use" intended. These weapons don't just get stockpiled somewhere.

LFC said...

It's certainly true that, for example in the case of the U.S. nuclear posture, a lot of nuclear weapons are on submarines and bombers (ditto, no doubt, Russia). Of course there are technicalities involved in the exact state of activation of the weapons that I will likely get wrong if I wing it w/o looking it up.

As far as the sense of the word "use" goes, all I can say is that in the lit. I am familiar with it's not given this meaning. My knowledge of the lit is far from exhaustive and thus I certainly can't and won't exclude the possibility that there are some writers who do use the word "use" in the sense you are giving it. In the absence of specific refs or citations from you, I'll leave it at that.

LFC said...

P.s. The semantic thing is not really that important as long as two people in a discussion agree on exactly what they're talking about, and I have no problem agreeing that there are indeed nuclear weapons on submarines and bombers (as well as on land-based missiles, as well as in some other contexts that would take too long to go into rt now).

I. M. Flaud said...

Perhaps it would be better to say they are used to project power. This is more than just noting that they are deployed on submarines and bombers, and at least to me and an NYU philosopher who made the argument, are used in the active sense that someone threatening to use a gun is using it, even if he doesn't fire it. It's conceivable that they could be loaded on to submarines that never leave their docks, or on planes that never leave the runway. These would be sitting ducks. The bigger point was that the decision to develop and deploy these weapons leads ineluctably to power projection, which I would assign to a kind of use, but you might not.

I. M. Flaud said...

Here are some remarks on the use of "use" from the Los Alamos Study Group.

By itself a NFU [No First Use] statement or policy is just a piece of paper, ephemeral, subject to reinterpretation and modification, while nuclear weapons are “used” all the time, 24/7, to condition foreign relations, affect domestic politics, and so on.

OK fine, next time I'll quote "use". To my mind this usage reflects the sober attitude of at least some scientists, policy makers, philosophers and others toward these weapons.

I. M. Flaud said...

Then there's Chomsky:

Like other potential targets, the crazed North Korean leaders can also read high-level documents which are public, declassified, which outline U.S. strategic doctrine. One of the most important is a study by Clinton's strategic command, STRATCOM. It's about the role of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War era. Its central conclusions are: U.S. must retain the right of first strike, even against non-nuclear states; furthermore, nuclear weapons must always be available, at the ready, because they "cast a shadow over any crisis or conflict". They frighten adversaries. So they're constantly being used, just as if you're using a gun, going into a store pointing a gun at the store owner. You don't fire it, but you're using the gun. STRATCOM goes on to say planners should not be too rational in determining what the opponent values the most. All of it has to be targeted.

One doesn't need an internationally recognized scholar to state the obvious, but it helps to have their endorsement. (Apologies, I couldn't resist.)

LFC said...

Ok, I get your point. I don't think we have any big disagreement here.

LFC said...

On the Chomsky quote (which I saw after posting the above comment):

Yes, but I'd note that a study by Clinton's STRATCOM (strategic command) is not synonymous w official US nuclear doctrine, which is contained in a differently titled document... also, it's old. But these are more or less quibbles.

Nuclear weapons do "cast a shadow." That's one reason among several that existing nuclear states have been loath to move rapidly toward nuclear disarmament. If you want to think about it in the pointing-a-loaded-gun sense, I suppose you can -- I'm not sure I find the metaphor all that useful, but it's arguable.

Official US policy under the Obama admin, iirc, was to aim as a goal at a world without nuclear weapons. It was aspirational, to be sure, but it was the official policy. The Trump admin, I heard on some newscast the other day, is now reviewing this particular aspirational commitment with a view to removing it from policy documents.

LFC said...

It's interesting -- they're being "used" all the time but haven't actually been fired (except in testing) since 1945.

LFC said...

I'll qualify (or partly retract) my comment about the Cuban Missile Crisis, upthread.

At least one writer has argued that emotions ('emotion-based pattern recognition') played a significant role in U.S. decision-making and policy during that crisis: see Stephen P. Rosen, War and Human Nature (Princeton U.P., 2005), pp.58-64.

I. M. Flaud said...

If you want to think about it in the pointing-a-loaded-gun sense, I suppose you can -- I'm not sure I find the metaphor all that useful, but it's arguable.

Now I'm inclined to agree with you, if only because the metaphor leaves too much to interpretation. It could be taken to mean that nuclear weapons are being used to threaten countries that cannot retaliate, for the control of their natural resources. There is the case of Thatcher threatening the Falkland Islands. But this is insufficient.

At least this much is true: nuclear warheads are generally conceived and implemented as projectile weapons used to kill conspecifics from a (considerable) distance. This commonality with guns is more interesting than it sounds--it relates to the question of "use" and the "long shadow" cast by nuclear weapons, e.g., their effect on geopolitics.

It's also a long story that I am unable to take the time to summarize concisely--I will at some point. But I want to suggest that the question of "use" relates to an evolutionary development from two million years ago, up until the present.

According to some anthropologists, the ability to kill conspecifics from a distance with projectile weapons was acquired by hominids two million years ago. This is by now unique in the animal kingdom, having become a defining characteristic (at least for me) of homo sapiens.

I'll provide a couple references. The first is a talk by Duke University anthropologist Steven Churchill.

Churchill refers to a study relating the likelihood of injury given the relative proportions of opposing combatant groups in close-range combat versus the use of projectile weapons. In the case of close-combat (e.g., spears or bayonets), your risk of injury is proportional to #them/#us. In the case of combat projectile with projectile In 2 of "us" against 1 of "them", the risk of injury is proportional to (#them/#us)^2. Example: in close-combat with 2 of "us" against 1 of "them", our relative risk is 1/2 of that of 1-to-1 combat. With projectile weapons on both sides, the risk to "us" is 1/4. With three against one, the risk is 1/9. Churchill concludes recruiting help in combat is easier with projectile weapons than in close combat.

As for the effect on evolution, Churchill says, "The presence of projectile weapons creates intense selective pressure against aggressive individuals. Part of the human package of being socially tolerant, and transmitting culture may be related to the development of projectile weapon systems."

I. M. Flaud said...

(Rambling continued...)

Herbert Gintis argues that developments in projectile weapons (used to kill conspecifics) "co-evolve" with changes in human political organization and cooperative behavior.

In Human Evolution: A Behavioral Synthesis, on the hypothesized origin of human cooperative social intelligence, Herbert Gintis writes, "Because of ... lethal weapons, there was no possibility of maintaining a political hierarchy based on physical prowess alone. The political organization of ape society was destroyed by the presence of primitive lethal weapons."

Also, Gintis writes:
"...chimpanzee hunting is restricted to capturing small monkeys that can be consumed on the spot. Hominid groups fared better in cooperating because they devised a way of countering the hierarchical power of the dominant male, and developed social norms for the division of the kill that did not undermine the incentives for individuals to develop their hunting skills and to participate in collective hunting activity. Paul Bingham (1999), appears to be the first to propose this model of early human cooperation, using the general term coalitional enforcement. "Coalitional enforcement," he writes, "arose uniquely in humans when the animals that founded the Homo clade acquired the ability to kill or injure conspecifics from a substantial distance. This developed from the evolution of hominid virtuosity at accurate, high momentum throwing and clubbing... This ability dramatically reduced the individual cost of punishing noncooperative behavior by allowing these costs to be distributed among multiple cooperators." (p. 133)

Elsewhere (an Amazon review of Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man, of all places--I recall having seen other references, but for desultory commentary this will do) Gintis argues that political organization has historically tracked technological developments in projectile weapons.

I'll quote a couple sections of Gintis's review:

"The hegemonic aspirations of states peaked in the thirteenth century, only be driven back by the serious of European population-decimating plagues of the fourteenth century. The period of state consolidation resumed in the fifteenth century, based on a new technology: the heavily armed cavalry...."

"The history of warfare from the Late Middle Ages to the First World War was the saga of the gradual increase in the strategic military value of infantry armed with longbow, crossbow, hand cannon, and pike, which marked the recurring victories of the English and Swiss over French and Spanish cavalry in the twelfth to fifteenth centuries."

Gintis suggests that technological developments in projectile weapons led from European feudalism to the modern democratic state.

"The true hegemony of the foot soldier, and hence the origins of modern democracy, began with the perfection of the hand gun, with its improved accuracy and greater firing rate than the pistols of a previous era. Until that point, infantry was highly vulnerable to attack from heavy artillery. By the early twentieth century, the superiority of unskilled foot soldiers armed with rifles was assured. World War I opened in 1914 with substantial cavalry on all sides, but mounted troops were soundly defeated by men with rifles and machine guns, and thus were abandoned in later stages of the war."

Gintis doesn't mention the ICBM at its effect on human political organization in this narrative. It may be too soon to tell. But it seems to me the question of the "use" of nuclear weapons is related to this larger picture...

I. M. Flaud said...

I should have edited -- the statement about the relative risk of injury in combat with projectiles weapons is that the risk of injury is proportional to (#them/#us)^2. If there is one of "them" and two of "us", the risk to "us" is (1/2)^2 = 1/4. I can more easily convince another participant to join "us" because the risk of a hit will drop to 1/9. In the case of close combat, the risk at two of "us" against one of "them" is 1/2.