What Obama could learn from America's greatest unknown nuclear strategist.

What Obama could learn from America's greatest unknown nuclear strategist.

What Obama could learn from America's greatest unknown nuclear strategist.

Military analysis.
Dec. 15 2008 7:06 PM

What Obama Could Learn From America's Greatest Unknown Nuclear Strategist

Get out of the hothouse from time to time.

The phone call came this morning: My old professor, William Weed Kaufmann, who had been ailing for some time, died a few hours earlier, in his sleep, at the age of 90.

Kaufmann was one of those shadowy figures of the Cold War era, unknown to the public but deeply influential in the strange subculture of military planning and nuclear strategy.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and the author of Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power. His 1983 book about the nuclear strategists, The Wizards of Armageddon (which deals extensively with Kaufmann, among others), is still in print. He can be reached at war_stories@hotmail.com.

From 1961 to 1981, he spent two days a week teaching graduate students at MIT's political science department; the other three days he served as special assistant to every secretary of defense from John F. Kennedy's to Jimmy Carter's. Before that, in the late 1950s, he was an analyst at the RAND Corp., the Air Force-sponsored think tank where ideas about war in the nuclear age were coined—and Kaufmann did much of the coining.

But more to the point (for I don't mean to write a reminiscence or an obit), the evolution in Kaufmann's thinking, especially after he left the corridors of power, holds a lesson for those on Team Obama—including the president-elect himself—preparing to immerse themselves in the maze.

When Bill Kaufmann started thinking about the Bomb, Soviet-American tensions were near their peak. A lot of people seriously believed that a nuclear war was possible, even likely. And the U.S. Strategic Air Command's plan for such a war was, to put it simply, insane. If the Soviet Union invaded Western Europe, SAC's actual, official, and only plan was to launch its entire atomic arsenal—3,423 nuclear bombs, packing a total of 7,487 megatons of explosive power—against every major urban, industrial, and military target in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Communist China. The official estimate held that the attack would kill 285 million Russians and Chinese, severely injure 40 million more, and wreak incalculable casualties from radioactive fallout.

This was the plan, assuming that the Soviets invaded only with conventional armies, that they did not drop a single one of their atomic bombs first.

Quite apart from moral considerations, the plan made no strategic sense. The attack would almost certainly fail to destroy all of the Soviets' nuclear weapons. Facing such a huge (and quite visible) onslaught of bombers and missiles, the Soviets would strike back—perhaps pre-emptively—and kill millions in the United States and Western Europe. It wasn't just mass murder; it was suicide.

So, Kaufmann (along with a few others at RAND) came up with an alternative, which they he called a "counterforce" strategy. If the Soviets invaded Western Europe (a scenario for which the United States at the time had no conventional defense), we should drop a relatively small number of nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union—hitting only their strategic military targets (bomber bases, missile sites, submarine pens, etc.)—and keep the rest of our arsenal on alert but at invulnerable locations (on submarines at sea or in underground missile silos). The president should then tell the Soviet premier: If you don't retreat, we will fire these remaining weapons against your cities. The idea was to try to "manage" the nuclear war, to keep the damages "limited."

Some of Kaufmann's colleagues—most notably Herman Kahn, the intellectual model for Dr. Strangelove—adopted the counterforce logic with exuberance. (In his book Thinking About the Unthinkable, Kahn spelled out 44 "rungs of escalation" from "Ostensible Crisis" to "Spasm or Insensate War," with in-between rungs including "Harassing Acts of Violence," "Barely Nuclear War," "Local Nuclear War—Exemplary," and "Slow-Motion Countercity War.")

Kaufmann was the exact opposite of Kahn in style and temperament. He viewed counterforce as a strategy strictly of desperation—a possible way to keep things from getting totally out of control in case war broke out.

But then Kaufmann came into the Pentagon during the reign of Robert McNamara (who hired almost all of his "whiz kids" from RAND). McNamara had received SAC's briefing on the official war plan—which horrified him—before hearing Kaufmann outline counterforce. McNamara found Kaufmann's ideas positively liberal by comparison—and ordered SAC to incorporate them into its nuclear-war plan.

At this point, a different logic took over. It was one thing to propose the idea as a principle and another to translate it into policy. The more you deal with the details of a concept, the more real it seems. And the more secretive the details (and there were few documents more secret than the nuclear-war plan), the more this cloistered setting comes to resemble a hothouse, unexposed to the air of any outside scrutiny.