Nuclear weapons, as Bernard Brodie observed in 1946, raised the stakes of international politics without clarifying how leaders should think about them. Their extraordinary destructiveness, he wrote, "underlines the urgency of our reaching correct decisions, but it does not help us to discover which decisions are in fact correct." To make the situation more difficult, experts--their ideas often counterintuitive and inaccessible--play an enlarged role in a situation characterized by decades of non-use. How can security be achieved in a situation of mutual vulnerability and mistrust? Who can be deterred? And how? How do we know? Whose views should we trust?
Six decades later, the fundamental questions haven't changed. These are some of the works that have guided or provoked my own attempts to find answers.
Many authors have addressed the perils of failing to heed warnings, but few have tackled the risks of heeding them. That is more or less the point of Drogin's searing, deeply researched book, which conveys more viscerally than any official report about how false information can work its way into the system, and how the resulting beliefs can become unshakeable.
Tetlock's remarkable achievement is to provide us with a portrait of good judgment about international politics, based on the acid test of accurate prediction. After inviting predictions from experts, probing their beliefs and worldviews, and waiting the necessary years (or decades) to test their forecasts against the real world, he has identified openness to complexity and a modest, non-deterministic way of thought as the hallmarks of the best predictors.
A fresh interpretation of the Cuban Missile Crisis seems to appear every few years, each making its own contributions. Sagan's special contribution is to have unearthed a remarkable variety of false alarms, compounded snafus, and decisions with unintended consequences involved in Strategic Air Command's heightened alert. These incidents kept the world closer to the verge of the unthinkable than any leader had intended or understood at the time.
Jervis dissects the "counterforce" strategy that even today, in a somewhat different guise, justifies keeping large numbers of nuclear weapons on high alert. The reality of mutual vulnerability remains unyielding; seeking to escape this bind by treating nuclear weapons as if they were conventional is understandable but futile and ultimately dangerous.
Kaplan's history of U.S. thought about nuclear war and deterrence also provides a lively introduction to the bright lights that gathered at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, in the early years of the Cold War, where many of the major ideas of nuclear-age strategy were hatched. Despite the author's unmistakable appreciation for this milieu, he doesn't scant its limitations and nearsightedness, including the failed application of coercive air-power strategy during the Vietnam War.
Along with its literary and historical merits, what distinguishes this work is its accidental claim to consequence. President John F. Kennedy read The Guns of August shortly after its publication and was seized by Tuchman's account of the start of World War I. At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy told his brother Robert, "I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time, The Missiles of October. . . . I am not going to push the Russians an inch beyond what is necessary."
Schelling distilled Cold War crises to a simple and profoundly uncomfortable idea: When two sides with drastically opposed interests nevertheless share a wish to avoid oblivion--and there is no assurance that limited conflicts will stay that limited--then the opponents can only compete by braving the risks of escalation. The side with greater determination can stomach more danger for longer periods, and thereby prevail. The awful knowledge that events aren't fully in anyone's control becomes an instrument of pressure.
This book is notable for two essays by Brodie that capture the essence of the situation introduced by nuclear weapons. The essential points are two: First, nuclear weapons allow a modern military establishment to "wipe out all the cities of a great nation in a single day." Second, no adequate defense exists, since even a single successful strike at any given point would be catastrophic. It follows that the primary concern of a nuclear-armed military facing a similarly armed adversary isn't to win wars but to avert them by presenting the other side with a credible threat of retaliation.
Only twice have a nuclear weapons been used against a city, and just a handful of accounts in the English language give a human perspective on either experience. As living memory of these events dims, this short and unflinching read, written soon after the event, becomes that much more important.