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Strategy or Romance?

The critical importance that the nuclear weapon was to assume in the relations of the US and the USSR after Hiroshima made it inevitable that the writing of books about so-called nuclear policy would become a thriving industry. It is, however, a regrettable fact that the books that now follow one another in so rapid a succession do nothing to dissipate the underlying suspicions that divide the two superpowers. Most of the books and articles that see the light of day come from the US, and the views that some have proclaimed have clearly exacerbated the worries of the USSR, which, in comparison with the US, contributes practically nothing to public discussion (with America’s NATO partners also in the main silent). The debate therefore becomes parochial, some might even say parasitic, when, as not infrequently happens, an academic in some university, or even a postgraduate student with no direct experience of the subject, picks up his pen to provide a digest, often politically and militarily naive, of what can already be read in other books. The ground has been worked over so thoroughly and so often that it is rare indeed for one to come across even the germ of a new idea.

Dr. Herken, a teacher of history at Yale, gave his book the title Counsels of War. It has the look of a scholarly work, and it ends not only with a lengthy list of the names of people whom the author interviewed (a few over the telephone, if that can be called interviewing), but with an even lengthier list of books and articles which were presumably studied, followed by nearly forty pages of notes, and then an adequate index.

I started to read with keen interest, hoping to learn things I did not know before. I soon did. On page xv of the prologue I read that Edmund Burke had commented on the views of “nineteenth-century advocates of prison reform,” the authority for this statement being given as a book by Michael Walzer. I paused. As an undergraduate, I had as one of my prize possessions a first edition of Burke’s Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, and that, I remembered, had been published in the middle of the eighteenth century. Burke died in 1797. Since Dr. Herken teaches history at Yale, I felt that this must have been a casual error on his part.

I read on, only to discover on page three that George Kistiakowsky designed the nuclear core of the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki (he reappears as a “physicist” on pages 129 and 183). In fact Kistiakowsky, who died only recently, was one of Harvard’s most distinguished chemists who, as is well known, was responsible for devising the chemical implosive system of the bomb—not the nuclear core. On the next page I learned that cyclotrons were used to enrich uranium. I could only suppose that Dr. Herken had been too busy to consult his scientific colleagues at Yale. Then a few pages on, I tripped over errors of a kind that even a hurried historian should not make. He tells us that William Borden, a young lawyer who became an “expert” in nuclear strategy immediately after he returned in 1945 from war service in Europe, had once been in a Liberator bomber when a “V-2 rocket destined to strike London hurtled past him.” Had Dr. Herken consulted a work of reference, he would have discovered that the supersonic V-2 rockets “hurtled” at well over 3,000 miles an hour (Liberators usually flew at around 250), and that it struck with absolutely no warning. Borden will be remembered less for his eyesight than as one of Robert Oppenheimer’s main accusers in the McCarthy-like inquiry that drove the distinguished physicist from government work. He must be the only man on earth to have followed a ballistic missile in what would have been the terminal part of its flight. Let us hope he is the last.

Then, only a few pages on came a personal shock in the shape of an indirect but incorrect reference to myself, this time a quotation from a book which in turn quoted from the official British survey of the results of the bombing of Germany. The reports of the survey were published anonymously in 1946. Dr. Herken writes that they were the work of a committee of “Bomber Command experts.” Had he taken the trouble to refer to the primary source, he would have discovered that Bomber Command had nothing to do with the survey. I happened to be its scientific director and, as is now on public record, the author of the particular volume from which the quotation came. Then, a few pages on, after a misleading reference to the bombing of Dresden, is the remarkable statement that of three US wartime Air Force generals, Vandenberg, Cabell, and LeMay, only the last had actually “commanded a large bomber force.” In fact Vandenberg commanded the Ninth Air Force—a formidable array of fighters, fighter bombers, and medium bombers, which in overall effective striking power could not have been far behind USAF’s Eighth Air Force and RAF Bomber Command.

At this point I began to wonder what errors other readers would discover. But I determined to read on and not be pulled up by any more that I myself might spot. But this did not work out. Every now and then I found myself tripping over yet another. For example, I was bemused to learn that the wartime headquarters of the Research and Development department of the Ministry of Home Security, the British Government department which had been responsible for civil defense, were located in buildings taken over from the Road Research Institute at “Princes Risborough, near High Wickham.” According to Dr. Herken it was there that Walt Rostow and Carl Kaysen worked as “advisers.” Apparently he believes they served as advisers in a unit of the Research and Development department called RE8. I was one of the two founders of RE8, which had the task of assessing the relationship between the physical damage caused by bombs falling in the UK and their economic and social effects. With this knowledge as a somewhat crude yardstick, we made it our job to try out corresponding assessments from photographs of the effects of the British bombing of Germany. At first Bomber Command refused to accept the conclusions that came out of this work, but this had changed well before the last months of the war, when the unit was taken over by the RAF.

A number of officers from the United States Eighth Air Force, which started operating in the latter half of 1942, and whose headquarters were at High Wycombe (there is no such place as High Wickham, and the institute in question was concerned with research on forest products, not on roads), were trained in the methods that were already in use by RE8 at Princes Risborough, some ten miles away. Contrary to what Dr. Herken implies, these methods had been devised well before either the Eighth Air Force officers or the group of civilians whom he names ever saw Princes Risborough. Walt Rostow, I have ascertained, was not one of them, and Carl Kaysen was there in early 1943 for only two months.

More than that, had Dr. Herken done his homework properly, he would have read in many an official history that the British government was fully aware of Bomber Command’s inadequate performance in navigation and bombing well before the US had joined the war. More important, and again contrary to what Dr. Herken implies, neither RE8 nor any other branch of the Ministry of Home Security’s Research and Development department had any direct involvement in the planning of air operations. I do not know when they joined it, but from the beginning of 1943 Carl Kaysen and Walt Rostow were certainly members of the Enemy Objectives unit of the US Economic Warfare Department which had its headquarters in London. Dr. Herken’s picture of what he calls “Pine Tree,” the name he gives to the Princes Risborough establishment, is mainly romance. (In fact “Pine Tree” was the code name for the US Eighth Air Force Bomber Command at High Wycombe.)

And romance, I fear, is what his book really is—assuming, of course, that I am not mistaken in the belief that Dr. Herken’s purpose was to present an account of the events and counsels that have led the United States, and with it the Western world, into its present hazardous state. The book is peopled by “experts,” “strategists,” “academics,” and members of think tanks. Anyone who has picked up a pen to write about nuclear matters, however wisely or trivially, seems to qualify as a strategic “expert.” He may have spent his life peacefully, far from the upper reaches of military and public life, but in Dr. Herken’s world he seems to become an “expert” overnight, whether or not his “counsel” has had any effect whatever on nuclear arms policy, or on any other kind of policy. The “counsels” about which Dr. Herken writes, such as “counterforce strategy” and “first strikes,” are either post hoc rationalizations of what had come about through the momentum of the nuclear arms race, or part of conventional military thinking.

Bernard Brodie figures prominently in the book. As a postgraduate student at the University of Chicago just before the start of the Second World War, Brodie had had his interest directed to military history and, after Pearl Harbor, he was given a job in the Navy Department in Washington, where he remained until the summer of 1945, when he joined the Institute of International Studies at Yale. That was where he was when the atom bomb fell on Hiroshima. Like scores of others, he soon became immersed in discussions about the significance of what had happened. It is on record that one of Brodie’s old Chicago mentors, Jacob Viner, convinced him that the enormous destructiveness of the “bomb” made it “the absolute weapon,” in the sense that its existence was a deterrent to future war.

This was a concept that was widely current at the time, and Brodie was called upon by his colleagues in the institute to edit a book, which appeared in 1946 under the title The Absolute Weapon. Brodie contributed two chapters, in one of which he wrote that from now on the chief purpose of the US military establishment was to avert wars—“it can have almost no other useful purpose.” The latter proposition is no doubt far more sweeping than Brodie intended, but what he had in mind was what the ordinary thinking man also no doubt believed, that is to say, that no country would dare to go to war if by so doing it risked having inflicted on it another Hiroshima.

But that, as Brodie soon discovered, was not the way the military saw it. In 1950 General Vandenberg, who by now had become the Air Force Chief of Staff, invited him to comment on the target list of the US Air Force’s war plan. It took Brodie no more than two weeks to write a first report condemning the plan, and less than six months to write his second—and last. Brodie was not opposed to the idea of using nuclear weapons against the USSR, but he did not like what the air planners were proposing. And they did not like what he put forward as an alternative, since for at least one good reason his ideas appeared to be devoid of any sense of the realities of air warfare. The result was Brodie’s summary dismissal. He did not even know whether Vandenberg had read his report. So much for the first of the “counsels of war” about which Dr. Herken writes.

Very soon after his few months with the Air Force, Brodie joined the Rand Corporation, where he met Albert Wohlstetter, a logician, who was also a new recruit to the institution, and who at first was to fare no better at the hands of the military. Wohlstetter had dealt neither with military strategy nor with tactics before joining the “think tank,” but it did not take him long to become an “expert” on the vulnerability of the USAF’s bomber forces. According to Dr. Herken, Wohlstetter was convinced that the USAF “strategists,” by whom I presume he means its planning staff, had forgotten the lesson of Pearl Harbor; and he also believed that the Allied bomber bases during World War II had been “relatively secure from enemy attack,” and therefore both concentrated near one another and unprotected. Wohlstetter’s fear was that the Russians might begin a new war with a “first strike” against the bases. And then what?

The fear became an obsession. He wrote a 426-page report, and in the winter of 1952 gave, so we are told, ninety-two briefings on the subject to his Rand colleagues (one wonders whether they had nothing else to do). He also took every opportunity that offered to brief Air Force officers, carrying with him a model of an aircraft shelter which a Rand engineer had designed. Then, in 1955, he succeeded in arranging a briefing at which General LeMay was present. Not surprisingly, the general exploded after a few minutes, and the briefing came to an abrupt end. The Rand “strategists” were not saying much that was new, for “contrary to Rand’s assumptions, the problem of strategic vulnerability had not been entirely ignored in the Air Force.” That it might have been is, however, the impression that Dr. Herken leaves.

But I simply cannot believe that the Rand “strategists” had been so naive as his story would suggest. Before he started out on his studies, Wohlstetter must surely have inquired about the Battle of Britain, or about the way the squadrons of RAF Bomber Command and of the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces were dispersed in literally hundreds of airfields. Were the Rand people and Dr. Herken unaware that well before the LeMay briefing, the Air Force had considered serious proposals for building entire air bases underground? Did Wohlstetter and his colleagues really assume that a fighting general like LeMay did not know, had not learned, that offense and defense go together? Did they not realize that air commanders are acutely conscious of the dangers their men face when they fly into enemy air space? And had they not been told that LeMay had been the commander of one of the two divisions of the Eighth Air Force which had attacked targets in Regensburg and Schweinfurt on August 17, 1943, with the loss of sixty bombers out of 315?

LeMay was not known for his tolerance, and I am surprised that after that particular presentation he did not use his influence to end the Air Force’s contract with Rand. Presumably Rand had on its staff men other than the strategists about whom Dr. Herken writes, whose work on research and development projects justified the money that the US Air Force spent to keep the institution going, men who appreciated the military adage that anyone can write airily about strategy, but that what really matters to commanders in chief is a knowledge of logistics, an experience in tactics, and an awareness of the characteristics and limitations of weapons systems.

Try as I might, I could find no purpose or message in Dr. Herken’s book. Most of the people about whom he writes—and whom he glamorizes—seem to have lived on an island of their own, where they argued with one another and sometimes quarreled bitterly, and where it would seem they were often not privy to what was being planned within the world about which they were writing. In my own experience, little, if anything, of what Dr. Herken’s academics, strategists, or think-tank “experts” wrote had any direct influence on developments in the nuclear field—although, as the blind leading the blind, they influenced American public opinion. More and more warheads continued to be made without the authorities waiting to be told by armchair strategists how many and what kinds were needed. “Small” nuclear weapons for possible use in field warfare were devised before the theorists at Rand had played out their games of a land battle with such weapons. The hydrogen bomb and the ballistic missile came on the scene without their help, as did MIRVs some years later. Even arguments about the strategic merits of ABM defense systems, about which Wohlstetter was so passionate, have proved to be more fruitful when carried out by technical people, who know the limitations of the hardware, than by “experts” who do not.

Improving the numbers, accuracy, range, and yield of weapons and weapons systems is a process that will go on so long as the civil power remains convinced that it should, and so long as armament manufacturers exist. Up to now, the armchair strategists whose counsels appear to have found acceptance are usually those who have proclaimed what their military or political masters or their industrial friends wanted to hear. There were always people like Richard Perle or Edward Teller around to argue that more and better nuclear weapons systems were needed to keep the Russians at bay.

The Chiefs of Staff were opposed to a ban on nuclear testing. Rand had the “experts” who could show how the Russians could evade such a ban. And of course there was always Herman Kahn and his disciples with their super-sophisticated talk about “thinking the unthinkable,” about the capacity of a society to resurrect itself quickly after suffering tens and tens of millions of deaths, and a degree of devastation well beyond either human experience or comprehension. Kahn’s messages struck fear not only in the citizens of the Western alliance but, more important perhaps, in those of our potential enemy, so spurring the Soviets on—if they needed spurring—in the arms race.

If I was not surprised to learn from Dr. Herken’s book how little his so-called strategists and experts have in fact influenced events as opposed to public opinion (and how, while many of them knew on which side their bread was buttered, others discovered that being a strategic consultant was a lucrative business), I certainly was when I discovered how parochial his world is. In his book, the battle is only between the US and the USSR. Countless nuclear warheads could be exploded in war games played on a presumed European battlefield before the American players realized that Europe, “a place concentrated with people,” should not be treated “just as a place to drop bombs on.” The Geneva technical talks of the late Fifties about a ban on nuclear tests are described by Herken as though they were a bilateral exchange between the US and the USSR, whereas the fact is that the UK, France, Canada, as well as some of the USSR’s Warsaw Pact allies, were also involved.

We are told that the question of a test ban was “an almost consuming interest” for Kennedy and McNamara in the fall of 1963 when, in fact, a Partial Test Ban Treaty had been formally and jointly agreed on in July of that year, by the US, the USSR, and the UK. Dr. Herken does not tell his reader that a great deal of the impetus to reach that agreement came from Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister. Nor does he seem to realize that it was not just the UK which was determined to see that the two major powers slowed the nuclear arms race. This was a matter that involved, and still involves, the entire world.

As Daniel Ellsberg, whom Herken mentions, was to learn, his one-time colleagues at Rand, with whom he had worked as a “strategic analyst,” lived mostly in a world of fantasy, one which they shared with other, like-minded academic “experts” who were equally devoid of practical military experience. Bernard Brodie, too, is quoted as writing after Vietnam that “we realize how puerile was our whole approach to our art.” The application of game theory and probability calculations to theoretical situations which they had usually invented for themselves brought them very much into the public eye. It was all heady and glamorous stuff. But bringing sense to bear on so many of their sweeping generalizations was to prove an uphill fight for pragmatic scientists who knew the hard nuclear realities—men like I.I. Rabi, George Kistiakowsky, Richard Garwin, Hans Bethe, Herbert York, Jerome Wiesner, Jack Ruina, and George Rathjens. They and others of parallel experience have done their utmost to explain that instruments of destruction with virtually limitless power cannot be treated as controllable weapons of war; that with both sides in possession of a triad of nuclear forces, neither can effectively disarm the other; that it is in the highest degree unlikely that an effective defense against a nuclear assault could ever be devised—indeed, that it is illogical to suppose that one ever could be; and that in consequence the only purpose that a nuclear armory serves is to deter an opponent from using his.

The pragmatists also know that value judgments, the political behavior of national populations, the possible reactions of an enemy, indeed of one’s own political and military leaders, are not issues that can be dealt with by analytical methods which were devised to deal with the neatly defined variables of precise laboratory experiments. That Mr. Herken did not treat their views with the weight they deserve is another reason to distrust his book—which, in any case, should be a warning to those who allow themselves to be interviewed without checking the result

This is the first of two reviews of recent books on nuclear policy.

Letters

Nuclear Convictions December 5, 1985

Counsels of War’: An Exchange November 21, 1985

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