A Disquieting Look at the History of Nuclear-War Gaming

A Titan II ICBM site, decommissioned in 1982, at the Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita, Ariz. (Nicole Neri/Reuters)
Fred Kaplan in The Bomb unravels the history of bureaucratic infighting over nuclear weapons.

Though Fred Kaplan’s new book The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War is, for the most part, a history of bureaucratic paperwork, it is, nevertheless, terrifying. It chronicles American war-gaming, as it played out on desks in the White House, the Pentagon, and Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha, Neb., with real-world stakes: the potential obliteration of life on this planet. And as Kaplan, Slate’s national-security correspondent, makes clear in his fine, impressively researched book, those stakes are still with us.

The bomb in this book’s title is the nuclear bomb, a weapon that has become increasingly powerful since relatively crude nuclear devices were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II. The subsequent Cold War was a catalyst for the evolving sophistication of nuclear weapons and nuclear-war strategies — this despite the fact that most of the civilians involved in nuclear policies, including presidents since Truman, even the so-called hawks, were horrified at the prospect of nuclear warfare. A grave lesson of this book is that possessing a huge nuclear stockpile creates a diabolical paradox: Adding to that stockpile might not deter an enemy state from starting a nuclear war; it could conceivably precipitate one.

It was members of the armed-forces elite, with some exceptions, who seemed determined to control nuclear strategizing — which for a very long time meant preparing to decimate the Soviet Union — and foster the creation of new, more-potent weaponry. Some of this was rooted in old-fashioned turf battles between the military services: In the 1950s the Navy wanted its own nukes, in the form of the Polaris ballistic missile, “tipped with a half-megaton nuclear warhead,” to be fired from submarines. Even personal petulance played a role in this feuding: Admiral Arleigh Burke, the chief of naval operations in the 1950s, “hated the Air Force with a passion,” according to Kaplan. The Bomb doesn’t indicate whether any Air Force generals similarly despised the Navy; I suspect there was no pressing need to, because their branch of the military did very well for itself when it came to influencing — in effect, dominating — nuclear-war policy and tactics. In 1946 the Air Force created a component called the Strategic Air Command (SAC), “which planned the missions for the planes that would drop atomic bombs in the next war,” writes Kaplan. “SAC came to dominate not only the Air Force but the entire military establishment: its thinking, its culture, its war plans, its budgets.”

General Curtis LeMay became SAC’s second commander in 1948, and, true to form, he turned it into a first-class detachment. (He had been America’s “top bombardier” during World War II.) LeMay eventually became the Air Force’s chief of staff — its top officer — in the 1960s and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. There is no denying LeMay’s superior talent for organizing the men under his command into crack units, and Kaplan gives him his due (Kaplan is fair to everyone, which is not to say uncritical). He was also a genius at bureaucratic infighting, whether his opponents were the Navy, the Army, civilian officials in the Pentagon, or politicians and their aides. It’s hard to think of another member of the military who exercised such authority in peacetime, and it is that authority that Kaplan finds unsettling, even sinister.

Early in his tenure at SAC, influenced by his central role in the fire-bombing of Japan during World War II, LeMay concluded that “the quickest way to destroy the Soviet war machine was to destroy the Soviet Union — especially its large cities where the political leaders and military commanders and factory workers lived.” LeMay was very confident of the impregnability of his autonomy: “SAC headquarters was located at Offutt Air Force Base, just outside Omaha, Nebraska. . . . This remoteness from the center of political power would have put many commanders at a disadvantage, but LeMay turned isolation into a strength. It allowed him to ignore orders when they contradicted his ideas about modern warfare.” LeMay was succeeded as the head of SAC by his loyal subordinate, General Thomas Power. “There was a cruelty to Power’s zest for bombing cities,” Kaplan writes. “Even LeMay privately referred to his protégé as a ‘sadist.’” (It is amusing, in a rather surreal way, that LeMay denounced Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, a satire of nuclear mayhem, for depicting impossible — he alleged — cataclysmic events, since, according to a 2004 article by Kaplan in the New York Times, the loony general, portrayed by Sterling Hayden, who initiated the movie’s apocalyptic high jinx, was based on LeMay.)

To present the complete complex history of nuclear-war planning and armaments would require a review the length of The Bomb. Therefore, I will concentrate on one motif of the book that reflects many of the author’s concerns: bureaucratic machinations. The Navy obtained its Polaris missiles and the Air Force had its bomber fleets (and even America’s land-based long-range missiles) because the military’s leaders were virtuosos at exploiting bemused politicians’ fears of what the Soviet Union could do with its nuclear arsenal (for at least the first decade of the Cold War, not much as it turns out; the real arms race began in the 1960s), and also at interpreting government documents: The documents might initially be at odds with what the generals and admirals wanted, but the reports, memorandums, etc. were invariably transformed into what the Pentagon — or a particular service branch — did want (or the paperwork was simply quietly neutralized). Consider the strange history of the Single Integrated Operational Plan, SIOP, which was established in 1960. (This seems like a good time to point out that if you’re a lover of government, and particularly Pentagon, acronyms, this book will satisfy your funky hunger.) “Officers from all the services . . . would combine their individual nuclear war plans — their lists of what weapons would be fired at what targets — into” the SIOP, Kaplan explains. However: “The catch was that [the non-Air Force officers] would be located inside SAC headquarters, and the Director of Strategic Targeting would be the same four-star Air Force general who served as SAC commander. In short, the SIOP would be a multiservice war plan, but SAC would plan the war.” Score one for the Air Force: “Control of the bomb was thus transferred from the Pentagon to Omaha.”

The SIOP also became the battleground on which civilians and the armed forces fought like biblical exegetes warring over their sacred book. Frank Miller, a high-level civilian in the State Department and Pentagon, and one of this book’s good guys (he wasn’t, incidentally, “a dove or an advocate of disarmament”), was assigned in October 1981, during the Reagan administration, to be the Pentagon’s director of strategic-forces policy. He discovered that while formal U.S. policy at that point contained options for “controlling [nuclear conflict] escalation and limiting damage in case deterrence failed,” those options “were fiction; the officers in the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff, the branch of SAC that actually wrote the war plans, ignored the [relevant] documents. Sometimes the Joint Chiefs helped the officers cover their tracks.” Implicitly but essentially, America’s only nuclear-war policy was annihilation of the USSR.

Miller and some colleagues worked assiduously to make the official policy the actual policy: “The old all-out attack option, which unleashed every weapon against every target, was removed from the SIOP.” It did no good, Miller would learn when George H. W. Bush was president and Dick Cheney was his secretary of defense. In 1989, Cheney, who was puzzled after a briefing about the disparity between what he thought was in the SIOP and what SAC intended to do in the case of nuclear war, ordered the military powers-that-be to cooperate with Miller’s new “SIOP Review.” Miller and his associates came to understand that SAC’s plan for nuclear war involved what technocrats called “redundancy” — massive “overkill” (to quote Kaplan) that involved blasting targets with far more nukes than were needed. “Much at SAC had changed in the 30 years since LeMay’s command; but . . . in its most mechanical and secret compartment, where the flight paths of doom were plotted, the old cylinders were roaring full blast on autopilot.” (Miller’s investigation revealed that even many of the officers involved in nuclear strategizing didn’t realize the full implications of what they were doing.) Kaplan sums up: “The SIOP was a broken machine, the discombobulated aggregate of compartmentalized calculations.”

In 1991,Miller and his colleagues, with backing from Cheney and General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “wound up cutting the ‘required’” — to destroy given targets — “number of U.S. strategic nuclear weapons by half — from about 12,000 to 5,888.” A victory for common sense? Readers will have to read The Bomb to find out what was ascertained when the Obama administration scrutinized the SIOP, and to learn how once again the hardliners successfully protected their turf.

The plans laid out in the SIOP intersected a welter of other issues, many of which forced American civilian and military officials to become analysts of the psyches of the Soviets, the Chinese, the North Koreans, the Iranians, and even America’s allies. Would using tactical nuclear weapons — relatively small-scale weapons designed for discrete battlefields — trigger an all-out attack by an enemy on the American mainland? Would relatively limited attacks on the Soviet heartland, or on rogue nuclear states such as North Korea and Iran, circumscribe a conflict before the whole planet was destroyed? How did one calculate the number of nuclear weapons required for secondary strikes? Kaplan maintains that the Pentagon’s “top officers weren’t necessarily founts of ultimate wisdom.” Then again, who is?

Some of the attempts to scale back from the military’s redundancy fixation are painful to read about, such as the account of a 1987 summit between President Reagan (“Dating back several decades, Ronald Reagan detested nuclear weapons and . . . wanted to see them abolished”) and the Soviet general secretary of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, a summit that almost led to the elimination of strategic nuclear weapons. “A tragicomic denouement,” Kaplan calls the end of the affair. (Reagan and Gorbachev did subsequently sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty “banning all U.S. and Soviet missiles of that type, not just in Europe but worldwide.”)

Nuclear decision-making didn’t always incubate in offices or leadership parleys. There were a number of near real-world disasters. Most famously, the U.S. and the Soviet Union could quite conceivably have gone nuclear during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Less well known are the “false alerts” that occurred in the United States and the Soviet Union — erroneous technological warnings of impending nuclear attacks. During President Carter’s last year in office, there were three such alerts in the United States during a two-week span. An especially chilling false-alert incident occurred on September 26, 1983. The USSR was the recipient of this alert, and Kaplan notes that if the Soviets’ chief air defense officer hadn’t concluded “that the radars had to be mistaken . . . World War III might have started that day.”

Kaplan is the author of five previous books, including Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, which is also quite good. The Bomb’s subject is convoluted, but Kaplan has done an admirable job of unraveling the minutiae and esoterica and writing a lucid, absorbing narrative. I have two cavils. I think the author ought to have devoted some space to scrutinizing a possible (not-implausible) future scenario: hackers — a government, terrorists, criminals — infiltrating a nuclear-launch system and commencing a war for any or no reason. And he ought to have discussed how the possibility of nuclear cataclysm has pervaded American society. (I’m old enough to remember how, when I was a kid in elementary school, students were drilled to prepare for a Soviet nuclear attack by ducking under desks and into halls. Naturally, the drills were a fatuous waste of time.)

A recent New York Times article (“Trump Budget Calls for New Nuclear Warheads and 2 Types of Missiles”) reports that the Trump administration wants to “create a new submarine-launched nuclear warhead” and “another new nuclear warhead,” “a redesign of a 40-year-old thermonuclear weapon,” for ground-based missiles. The disquieting game continues.

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