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Sunday, April 11, 2010


Although my teaching absorbed a great deal of time and effort, it was not the primary focus of my emotional energies during my years as a Harvard Instructor. More and more, as time passed, I became caught up in intense political debates and activities. The first issue that engaged me was the burgeoning campaign to put some sort of limitation on nuclear weapons. I had been concerned for some time about the dangers of nuclear proliferation and the threat of an accidental nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. I even made reference to the subject in my letters home from Europe. Younger readers, who have lived their entire lives in the shadow of nuclear weapons, may find it hard to understand how urgent and overwhelming these threats appeared to those of us who were living through the first years of the nuclear standoff.

What frightened many of us was the danger of a miscalculation or misunderstanding leading to a full-scale exchange of nuclear weapons that would kill hundreds of millions of people and quite possibly end civilization as we knew it. A few words about the technical situation are needed to explain why we were so terrified. The weapons themselves, of course, were horrific. By the end of the fifties, both countries had large stockpiles of thermonuclear bombs, each of which had an explosive power equivalent to several millions of tons of TNT. By way of comparison, in the run-up to America's invasion of Iraq, the Army tested a huge bomb, dubbed "the mother of all bombs," carrying twenty thousand pounds of explosive, which is to say a mere ten tons. When it was dropped on an uninhabited portion of an island, it made the ground shake for miles around. That bomb, intended to frighten the Iraqi army into submission, had roughly one two-thousandth the explosive power of the atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and one one-millionth the power of the bombs in the American and Soviet arsenals. Nuclear weapons were more properly considered forces of nature than weapons of war. One of them could effectively obliterate a city the size of New York.

Initially, the thermonuclear warheads were loaded onto B-52 intercontinental bombers, which formed the backbone of the Strategic Air Command. Bombers are quite vulnerable when on the ground, which meant that if there were a crisis of some sort, Air Force protocol called for scrambling the crews and getting them up in the air as fast as possible, and then positioning them at forward points near the Russian border. But these planes could be kept aloft only for a limited number of hours before they had to be brought back for refueling, and even with mid-air refueling, the needs of the crews necessitated periodic landing. As soon as the bombers were down, they were vulnerable again. Should an international crisis, real or imagined, result in fleets of U. S. bombers circling near the Soviet border, and fleets of Soviet bombers circling near the U. S. Borders, it would take very little in the way of misunderstanding or miscalculation to trigger mutual attacks that would effectively destroy both nations. No one could even calculate the indirect effects of that much radioactive material being carried by jet streams across the face of the globe.

The experience with aerial bombing in World War II had made it clear that no anti-aircraft defense could possibly hope to achieve a kill rate of as little as fifty percent of an attacking force of airplanes. But even a ninety percent kill rate against a fleet of bombers armed with hydrogen bombs would be a catastrophe, for it would take only one bomber getting through to destroy an entire large city. Several years after the events I am now relating, in 1964, film director Stanley Kubrick captured the terrifying insanity of the situation with what is surely the greatest anti-war movie ever made, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb.

The next generation of weaponry - intercontinental ballistic missiles - made the situation even worse. The great attraction of missiles is that they are totally unstoppable and almost instantaneous by comparison with bombers. An IBM would take minutes to travel from the United States to Russia, and nothing could knock it down once it had been launched. But the first IBMs developed were fueled by chemically unstable liquid fuel. After the fuel had been pumped into the rockets, it had to be used quickly or pumped out again. Since it took hours for the pumping process to be carried out, if the fueled rockets were not launched, but were unfueled, there was a risk that they would be blown up on the ground before they could be refueled. The only saving grace was that the missiles were not terribly accurate, which meant that they could not be counted on to hit enemy missile installations. So they were aimed at enemy cities, which the Air Force could be pretty confident of destroying. These facts triggered a secret race between Russia and America to develop more accurate missiles, hardened missile silos, and solid fuels that did not have to be pumped into the rockets and pumped out again.

For a while, both nations experimented with missiles mounted on railroad cars and kept in perpetual motion so as to make them impossible to target, but the eventual solution, on which the United States relies to this day, was nuclear tipped missiles on submarines, powered by nuclear reactors, which are capable of remaining more or less permanently submerged. [For a schlock movie representation of this phenomenon, one can apply to NetFlix for a copy of Ice Station Zebra starring the always awful Rock Hudson.]

Nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles posed a problem for the military entirely new in the history of warfare. No one had ever fought a war using them; indeed, no one had even test fired an IBM with a live nuclear warhead. What was more, the only rational national goal was to avoid a nuclear war, not to win one. Under these conditions, battlefield experience, which is the principal strength of generals and admirals, was worthless.

Into the gap opened up by this unique situation stepped a horde of civilians who claimed to know better than the generals how to plan for nuclear war. Leading the pack were economists, who argued that their techniques for analyzing the competition between two firms in the marketplace was just what the Defense Department needed. They were followed by mathematicians, sociologists, physicists, anthropologists, philosophers, and psychologists. Among the most prominent of these new Defense Intellectuals, as they came to be called, were a brilliant economist in the Harvard Economics Department, Thomas Schelling, and a flabby gasbag of a pseudo-physicist named Herman Kahn, located at the Rand Corporation. In 1960, Kahn published a big, fat, pretentious book called On Thermonuclear War [a bow to von Clausewitz's famous work], in which he purported to show that a vigorous civil defense could enable the United States to "prevail" in a nuclear war with an "acceptable" level of dead Americans - somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty million or so, if the wind was blowing in a favorable direction that day.

The book was an intellectual fraud, filled with scenarios and impressive looking charts and figures "for illustration only" that proved nothing at all. Kahn became a major figure in American debates about military strategy, funded by government contracts and gathering about him at the Rand Corporation an array of pseudo-intellectuals who had done well on the mathematics part of the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

The debates carried out by the new breed of defense intellectuals gave every appearance of being serious theoretical disputes, complete with footnotes, technical disquisitions, and mathematical calculations, but if fact they were thinly veiled turf battles among the three branches of the military establishment. The first generation of nuclear weapons were delivered by bombers, which meant that they were under the control of the Air Force, with all the defense appropriations and associated status that implied. For a while, the Strategic Air Command, or SAC, was the belle of the ball, the premier unit in the entire military establishment.

The Army and Navy fought back bitterly to seize their share of the annual defense budget. When the first intercontinental ballistic missiles became operational, the Army gained control of them. An enormous effort was then made to secure the missiles against a surprise first attack, which meant burying them deep in concrete hardened missile silos positioned in the empty plains of the Dakotas and surrounding territories. This left the Navy in a seriously disadvantaged position, stuck with battleships and aircraft carriers that were now distinctly second-class weapons systems. So nuclear submarines were developed, each capable of carrying sixteen or more intercontinental ballistic missiles. The nuclear warheads on these missiles were small by comparison with those loaded into the ICBMs or carried by the SAC bombers -- half a megaton or a megaton at the most. But since the missiles, when fired from underwater positions, were only accurate enough to destroy cities, not hardened missile silos, that was more than enough destructive power.

Each of the armed services had think tanks of defense intellectuals in tow whose job it was to develop theories demonstrating that the weapons controlled by their employers were the essential components of the proper nuclear deterrence strategy. Kahn was a bought and paid for Air Force intellectual, which meant he had somehow to show that the ICBMs under their control could plausibly and not insanely be used to launch a first strike against Russia. This in turn required defending two manifestly implausible theses: First, that the ICBMs could knock out almost all of Russia's nuclear tipped missiles; and Second, that with proper air raid shelters, multiple command and control centers, and other preparations, America could survive the inevitable retaliation from Russia's remaining armory with no worse than "acceptable" death and destruction.

The Navy, with its submarine based nuclear missiles, could not plausibly adopt a first strike policy because its weapons were not accurate enough to seriously degrade Russia's ICBM capacity. Its defense theorists, of whom Schelling and his co-author Morton Halperin were far and away the most intellectually impressive, therefore developed a second-strike deterrence strategy. The idea was to make the Navy's missile force impossible to attack, by endlessly moving it about under water. A Russian first strike on America, even though it would completely obliterate the entire country, would then trigger a retaliation against Russian cities by the surviving fleet of nuclear submarines. To guard against Soviet nuclear submarines, underwater networks of sensing devices were laid down in the oceans and seas of the world. All of this, the Navy's defense intellectuals argued, would deter the Kremlin from doing anything self-destructively impulsive.


Unknown said...

Re: Rock Hudson. Yes for the most part, but there is this one film worth checking out: "Seconds." Worth a screening. On another point in an earlier memo. How do you square some of your memories of a lot of folks at Harvard (and Yale) grad students, instructors, and esp. McGeorge Bundy with Sigmund Diamond's, well documented book "The Compromised Campus." It strikes me that a lot of the people involved w/Harvard were spying on one another--and at Harvard, mostly at the bequest of Bundy: who, in retrospect, seems like some pretty poor human material, no? Did you run into any of this stuff, hear rumors, etc, while you were there? Great Blog. Thanks.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Bundy was a genuinely sleazy character. I know of Diamond's account, of course, but at the time I did not know what was going on. Years later, after Bundy had left the government, he took over the Ford Foundation. He wrote to me to invite me to take part in some sort of round table or panel. I replied that since he had lied to me [about Cuba] the last time I saw him, I did not think I could have a civil conversation with him. Needless to say, I did not hear from him again. Bundy, Kissinger, and the rest wanted to be treated as honorable members of the Academy while simultaneously exercising great power in underhanded and dishonorable ways.

Unknown said...

I don't doubt your experience with Mac Bundy, but he gave a fascinating course on revolutions and Russian history. If it was biased, I was too young and naive to recognize that.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Brenda, I don't doubt that Bundy gave a good course. He was very smart -- easily able to hold his own in the Harvard faculty he headed, which was no mean feat. He was just not someone I could reply on to tell the truth.