Excerpt on nuclear deterrence in the 1950s from Wohlstetter book’s introduction

What follows below is a modified excerpt from “Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter on Nuclear-Age Strategy,” Robert Zarate’s introductory essay to Nuclear Heuristics: Selected Writings of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter (2009). This excerpt excludes supporting endnotes; to read the introduction in its entirety, along with the accompanying endnotes, click here.

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By Robert Zarate

At the RAND Corporation in the 1950s, Albert Wohlstetter would lead a series of highly classified studies on U.S. nuclear forces that would evince his unique approach to the analysis and design of strategic policy, and establish his reputation within government circles as one of America’s premier strategists. However, it was not until after the January 1959 publication of “The Delicate Balance of Terror” in Foreign Affairs — an essay on the stringent conceptual and technical requirements for nuclear deterrence that military historian Marc Trachtenberg would later describe as “probably the single most important article in the history of American strategic thought” — that Albert would be recognized as one of America’s preeminent and controversial public intellectuals of defense. Together, Wohlstetter’s RAND studies and Foreign Affairs article would challenge what decision-makers, military planners, and policy analysts had assumed about nuclear war and peace, and forever change how they would think and talk about nuclear strategy and operational policy.

The Base Study.

In May 1951 Charles Hitch, the head of RAND’s economics division, asked Wohlstetter whether he would be interested in researching a problem that the United States Air Force (USAF) had posed to the think tank: How should the USAF’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) base itself overseas? Initially, Albert saw this as a run-of-the-mill logistics problem, but after thinking things through over a weekend, he began to appreciate better how SAC’s basing choices for its force of medium-range, nuclear-armed, manned bombers raised interesting questions and could have important implications. Wohlstetter thus accepted Hitch’s invitation and began a research project that would later come to be known as the “Base Study.”

As the 1940s gave way to the 1950s, the political, economic, and military competition between the Western allies and the Soviet Union had intensified. Although Soviet intentions remained unclear, its behavior had appeared at times ominous. After World War II, Soviet-supported Communists had seized power in Poland and Czechoslovakia. In 1948, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had blockaded West Berlin. In August 1949, the Soviets had exploded their first atomic bomb. In 1950, the USSR not only had signed a defense treaty with the People’s Republic of China, but also had backed Kim Il Sung‘s Stalinist regime after North Korea invaded South Korea and thereby set in motion the Korean War.

Against this background, SAC’s bombers, when armed with atomic gravity bombs, constituted at the time America’s main military hedge against the prospect of “Central War” — that is, of a Soviet conventional military invasion of Western Europe, the nations of which lacked the political and military means to defend themselves. In time of war or crisis, SAC’s programmed system of basing for 1956 to 1961 envisioned relocating the bombers from approximately 30 bases in the continental United States (CONUS) to roughly 70 overseas installations. Half of these installations would be large, expensive “primary bases” from which SAC’s bombers would launch their offensive operations, and the other half, refueling bases, but in general, all of them would be geographically closer to the USSR than was CONUS. Moreover, this programmed basing system was viewed favorably by SAC, the USAF, and DoD, as well as by the Congress. Indeed, just for fiscal year 1952, the Congress had already appropriated $3.5 billion (roughly equivalent to as much as $30 billion in 2008 dollars) to construct domestic and overseas bases in accordance with the programmed system.

With a team that would feature economists Fred Hoffman and Henry Rowen, and aeronautical engineer Robert Lutz, Wohlstetter set out to understand the relevant economic, operational, logistical, technological, political, and military contexts in which to compare SAC’s programmed system of basing to possible alternatives. Working in interdisciplinary consultation with USAF airmen, as well as with engineers, physicists, economists, intelligence analysts, geographers, and other experts, the Wohlstetter team came to identify four critical factors for evaluating base selection: the distances of a given base (1) to predetermined targets in the USSR, (2) to favorable entry points into Soviet territory, (3) to supply sources in the CONUS, and (4) to Soviet offensive airbases. In turn, they examined how variations in these factors, when applied to the SAC bomber force planned for 1956 to 1961, would jointly affect:

  • the costs of extending the bomber force’s round-trip radius;
  • the Soviet military’s employment of active defenses, as well as the number of SAC bombers which Soviet fighters could intercept and destroy;
  • the logistical and operational costs for SAC’s bomber force; and,
  • the vulnerability of primary operating bases and bombers on the ground to attack by the Soviet’s small but growing stockpile of atomic gravity bombs.

Wohlstetter and company’s Top Secret March 1953 staff report, The Selection of Strategic Air Bases (R-244-S), concluded that the preferred system of basing was one of a new — and much less expensive — design that would rely primarily on bases within the continental United States in both peace and war, and supplement that system mainly with austere overseas refueling bases and, to a lesser extent, aerial refueling. Although this alternative system was not optimal for all criteria, it was a clear, across-the-board improvement over the programmed system. When compared to alternatives, it excelled in extending the bomber force’s round-trip radius more cheaply; enabling bombers to bypass Soviet defenses and interceptors and reach enemy targets more effectively; decreasing logistical and operational costs; and increasing the quality and time interval of tactical warning, as well as lowering the vulnerability of bases and bombers on the ground to attack by the Soviet Union’s growing stockpile of aircraft-delivered atomic bombs.

Many in DoD, the USAF, and SAC initially and even reflexively resisted R-244-S’s conclusions. In response, Wohlstetter and colleagues embarked on a briefing campaign of several months to persuade policymakers and military planners of the validity of their findings. In April 1954, they completed the Base Study’s Top Secret, 400-page final report, Selection and Use of Strategic Air Bases (R-266), which not only detailed their findings, but also
recommended new measures and operations to increase tactical warning of Soviet attack, and to better protect bomber aircraft, nuclear weapons, and personnel within each base from the various effects of nuclear explosions. By that time, however, Wohlstetter and company’s campaign had already shown results. By late 1953, the USAF had accepted R-244-S’s main conclusion, and had begun plans to relocate SAC’s primary bases to the continental United States and to implement other key recommendations. In light of this success, the final text of R-266 was changed to describe SAC’s originally programmed system of basing as the formerly programmed system.

Although the Base Study had implications for nuclear deterrence’s stability, it is important to recognize that the study itself did not initially set out to focus on that issue. Rather, the effect of SAC’s choices for basing and operations on the survivability, controllability, and credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent became evident only as the Wohlstetter team developed and refined their study. Their follow-on Vulnerability Study, however, would examine the issue of nuclear deterrence explicitly.

The Vulnerability Study.

In September 1953, around the time Wohlstetter and company embarked in earnest on their follow-on study, the military-technological context had already begun to change dramatically. Both the United States and the USSR were increasing their stockpiles of atomic bombs, starting to introduce long-range bombers and more indiscriminately destructive hydrogen bombs, and working to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Although Soviet ICBMs were likely to be extremely inaccurate, a February 1954 paper by Wohlstetter and Hoffman projected that if ICBMs were coupled with hydrogen bombs, then the hydrogen bomb’s powerful blast effects and very large “lethal radius” could help to compensate for such inaccuracies, and enable even errant, imprecisely-delivered ICBMs to destroy intended military targets that were “soft” (e.g., airfields and aircraft, as well as unhardened buildings and structures) with ease and little warning. The Vulnerability Study thus would seek to understand how these and other technological changes would affect the stability of deterrence.

Prior to this study, U.S. military planners had assumed that if the Soviets were to attack, their nuclear strikes — in a continuation of World War II and Korean War strategic bombing doctrine — would be aimed at American economic and industrial targets, as well as cities, and would be so large and so direct as to generate considerable strategic and tactical warning. Even historian-strategist Bernard Brodie had shared this counter-city targeting assumption. In his essays in the edited volume, The Absolute Weapon (1946), he had called the urban city the “made-to-order target” for nuclear weapons, and concluded that “the ability to fight back after an atomic bomb attack will depend on the degree to which the armed forces have made themselves independent of the urban communities and their industries for supply and support.” Brodie did not think that U.S. strategic nuclear forces would be the primary targets of nuclear weapons.

Working again with Hoffman and Rowen, Wohlstetter examined not only these assumed “U.S.-preferred” Soviet methods of attack, but also other attack methods that he would later describe as lesser excluded cases. In particular, he considered the possibility of Soviet preclusive first strikes with nuclear weapons: that is, nuclear Pearl Harbor-style attacks in which small numbers of enemy forces would try to fly at low altitudes, circumnavigate America’s radar-warning networks, and use nuclear weapons to attack, not industrial targets or cities, but rather U.S. strategic nuclear forces themselves–with the explicit aim of precluding any substantial American retaliation or second strikes. (Albert and his colleagues coined the now taken-for-granted terms, first strike and second strike.)

In September 1956, the Wohlstetter team completed the Vulnerability Study’s Top Secret staff report, titled Protecting U.S. Power to Strike Back in the 1950s and 1960s (R-290). R-290 found that, even given the then-current range of low-to-medium intelligence estimates of existing and future Soviet military capabilities, U.S. nuclear forces could be highly vulnerable to attacks, especially Soviet attempts at a preclusive nuclear first strike, because of four central weaknesses:

  • inadequate strategic and tactical warning before Soviet bomber attacks, and almost no warning before Soviet ICBM attacks;
  • painfully slow and uncoordinated responses to any warning because SAC required hours — sometimes many days — to assemble flight crews, aircraft, and munitions for combat or evacuation;
  • ineffective active and passive defenses because forces, personnel, and command centers were too locally concentrated, and because facilities (e.g., existing aircraft shelters and depots storing nuclear arms) could not structurally resist even an errant atom bomb’s blast effects, let alone a hydrogen bomb’s; and,
  • a degraded or negated “second-strike” capability because Soviet first strikes could destroy or disable many SAC bombers on the ground, could disrupt post-attack communications and retaliation coordination, and could easily level planned above-ground ICBM launchers.

R-290’s findings were startling and provocative, but Albert and colleagues were careful to attach explicit and crucial qualifications. They wrote:

The attacks described here, and many others studied, clearly indicated the present vulnerability of our strike force. They do not, of course, imply that a Russian attack is imminent. Nor do we think it is. That is a matter of Soviet intention rather than Soviet capability, and such intent would be affected in the first instance by Soviet knowledge of our vulnerability and in the second place by the comparative gains and risks of alternatives to central war. [Emphasis in the original.]

Conventional wisdom in the United States held that by simply possessing nuclear weapons, a government necessarily acquired an ironclad deterrent. The Wohlstetter team took aim at the conventional wisdom by arguing that mere possession of what the historian-strategist Bernard Brodie had once famously called “the absolute weapon” was not sufficient. Their worry was that if the weaknesses of America’s strategic nuclear forces remained unaddressed, and if the USSR perceived these vulnerabilities, then in a time of extreme crisis the Soviets might come to view an attempt at a preclusive first strike as a not wholly unreasonable risk. As they explained in R-290:

Deterrence is hardly attained by simply creating some uncertainty in the enemy’s attack plans, that is, by making it somewhat of a gamble. The question is, how much of a gamble? and what are his alternatives? On the basis of past experience, we would be taking a very large gamble if we assumed that under no circumstances would the enemy take risks. If this were so, the matter would be easy and, for us, substantially costless.

In short, although a nuclear Pearl Harbor was far from inevitable, in a time of acute crisis U.S. carelessness and complacency could conceivably invite such an attack.

However, Wohlstetter and company stressed that, in efforts to address these serious vulnerabilities, simply numerically increasing the size of U.S. strategic nuclear forces would provide neither an affordable nor an effective solution. “National defense programs do not now give adequate consideration to the problem of protecting the strategic force as distinct from the problem of force size,” they argued. “The criterion for matching the Russians plane for plane, or exceeding them is, in the strict sense, irrelevant to the problem of deterrence.” Rather, Albert and his compatriots maintained that the problem of establishing a deterrent that was survivable, controllable, and therefore more credible in the face of changing dangers required U.S. strategic nuclear forces to be not only capable of riding out and operating coherently after an actual preemptive attack against them; but also completely controllable in times of peace, crisis, and war — and especially in the face of ambiguous warning — so as to avoid unauthorized operations, accidents, and war by mistake.

In turn, such controllability in the face of ambiguous warning required that strategic nuclear forces be able to cope with the operational dangers that attended false alarm, the belief that there is a nuclear attack underway when there actually is not, which could commit America to war accidentally; and false reassurance, the belief that there is not an imminent nuclear attack when there actually is, which could facilitate an enemy’s preclusive first strike.

Wohlstetter and colleagues held that if U.S. strategic nuclear forces could meet these requirements for a survivable, controllable, and credible deterrent, then this would increase the likelihood that the Soviets would tend to view the choice of a preclusive first strike as the riskiest of alternatives even if Moscow should somehow stumble into potentially calamitous circumstances. To meet these ends, they identified over 50 operational measures to limit and manage the many risks facing U.S. strategic nuclear forces. In particular, they recommended that the United States should:

  • Extend the continental radar net’s perimeter; relocate and disperse bases deep within it; and install a “bomb-alarm system” to warn immediately all SAC bases and America’s Continental Air Defense forces of an enemy’s nuclear warhead detonation anywhere within the basing system.
  • Establish better alert procedures; increase SAC’s flight crew and aircraft readiness for evacuation or combat; and implement “Fail-Safe,” a set of protective actions in which combat-ready SAC bombers would evacuate and
    disperse in response to ambiguous warning, fly along predetermined routes, and return to base after arriving at predesignated locations, unless given an explicit order to continue on and attack enemy targets.
  • Shelter personnel, bombers, fuel, and nuclear bombs in facilities more structurally resistant to atomic and
    hydrogen bomb blast effects; locally disperse and protect these facilities within bases to take better advantage of
    ICBM inaccuracies; and shield planned ICBM launchers in hardened underground silos to make active and passive defenses more effective.
  • Secure backup civilian and military airfields in the continental United States; and develop robust, survivable command, control, and communications systems to protect post-attack communication and coordination with surviving forces.

Although the Vulnerability Study’s findings ran into some initial institutional resistance within the U.S. Government, the earlier Base Study’s successes made policymakers and military planners much less inclined to dismiss the Wohlstetter team’s conclusions. Indeed, many of R-290’s recommendations were eventually adopted — though some recommendations, such as Fail-Safe, took much longer than others for SAC, the USAF, and the Defense Department to accept and implement.

Moreover, Wohlstetter and company’s Vulnerability Study inspired or helped to inspire others to develop technological innovations that would later have dramatic, and even revolutionary, impact. To take one example, the conventional wisdom prior to R-290 was that structures could be designed to resist — at most — peak overpressures of 30 or 40 pounds per square inch (p.s.i.). Working with Paul Weidlinger, a Hungarian-born engineer whom Albert had met in the 1940s at the National Housing Administration, the Wohlstetter team disproved the conventional wisdom: Weidlinger designed an underground missile silo, the concrete and steel structure of which could resist peak overpressures of as much as 200 p.s.i. In addition, he showed that it was possible to design structures of even greater blast resistance.

To take another example, in the late 1950s RAND political scientist Fred C. Iklé, psychiatrist Gerald Aronson, and statistician Albert Madansky developed the concept of what would later come to be known as Permissive Action Links (PALs), with the aim of preventing the accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. In brief, PALs require not only the installation of coded safety locks on nuclear weapons and missiles, but also the positive assent of two people to carry out and execute sensitive nuclear operations. PALs remain widely used by the United States to this day.

Yet another important example is the work of a brilliant RAND engineer named Paul Baran. Wohlstetter’s R-290 report had helped draw attention to the Defense Department’s severe command, control, and communications weaknesses: for instance, in the 1950s SAC communicated using extremely vulnerable civil telephone lines that could be easily disrupted by a nuclear-armed adversary in time of war. To remedy this problem, Baran in the early 1960s invented the concepts of “distributed networking” and “hot-potato routing” (the latter is commonly known today as “packet-switched networking”), with a view toward creating more robust, secure, and survivable systems for command, control, and communications. Baran’s concepts would prove essential to later efforts by the Advanced Research Projects Agency and other organizations that would eventually lead to the creation of the Internet.

The Delicate Balance: Deterrence as a Matter of Comparing Alternative Risks.

Drawing conceptual insights from his classified and empirically-driven RAND studies, Albert Wohlstetter published the article, “The Delicate Balance of Terror,” in the January 1959 issue of Foreign Affairs that publicly took aim at the conventional wisdom surrounding nuclear deterrence. (The unabridged version of this article is available online in PDF format as a RAND Corporation monograph or as one of the writings in 2009 book Nuclear Heuristics: Selected Writings of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter.) His targets were two-fold: (1) the widespread belief in what his article described as automatic deterrence, the view that an always-reliable deterrent is an inevitable consequence of a government’s mere possession of nuclear weapons; and (2) the belief in what was popularly known as minimum deterrence, a more sophisticated version of automatic deterrence conceding that nuclear forces require the capability to survive the sort of attack they are meant to deter, but maintaining that such capability is easily achieved with only a few technologically crude and indiscriminately destructive nuclear weapons. The article noted that these views were held by many members of America and Europe’s foreign policy elite: “In England by Sir Winston Churchill, P. M. S. Blackett, Sir John Slessor, Admiral Buzzard, and many others; in France by such figures as Raymond Aron, General Gallois, and General Gazin; in this country by the titular heads of both parties, as well as almost all writers on military and foreign affairs, by both Henry Kissinger and his critic, James E. King, and by George Kennan, as well as Mr. [Dean] Acheson.”

Wohlstetter countered that a survivable, controllable, and therefore credible deterrent against nuclear attack is neither automatically nor easily achieved. “[M]uch of the contemporary Western confidence on the ease of retaliation is achieved by ignoring the full range of sensible enemy plans,” he wrote. Automatic deterrers had assumed nuclear attacks against the West that would target cities and civilians, not nuclear-armed military forces themselves; thus, their image of a nuclear attack was that of a nuclear-age extension of World War II strategic bombing campaigns or a repeat of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not a nuclear Pearl Harbor. Minimum deterrers conceded that an opponent’s nuclear attack might target strategic nuclear forces, but failed to appreciate how deeply-rooted systemic weaknesses and operational difficulties in the face of a preclusive nuclear first strike could severely complicate attempts at retaliation.

The fundamental conceptual point of “The Delicate Balance” was that the credible deterrence of a preemptive nuclear attack hinges on the would-be attacker’s comparison of alternative risks — that is, what specific circumstances a potential aggressor faces, what alternatives to attack it perceives, and how it compares the risks of attack to the risks of perceived alternatives in those circumstances. “The balance is not automatic,” Wohlstetter explained. “It should be clear that it is not fruitful to talk about the likelihood of general war without specifying the range of alternatives that are pressing on the aggressor and the strategic postures of both the aggressor and the defender.” His crucial insight was that, even despite the horrors of nuclear weapons, the prospect of catastrophic circumstances could make the seemingly sturdy nuclear-age “balance of terror” fragile, and thus make a normally unthinkable course of action (e.g., nuclear preemption) potentially thinkable.

To increase the likelihood of adversaries always viewing a nuclear attack — in particular, a preclusive first strike — as the riskiest of choices requires a nuclear-armed government to acquire and communicate to would-be aggressors the acquisition of what Wohlstetter stringently defined as second-strike capability. Such capability demands much more than possession of nuclear arms. It also requires the establishment of a system of strategic nuclear forces — a system composed not only of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles, but also of personnel; command, control, and communications; reconnaissance and radar warning; supporting physical and operational infrastructure; and active and passive defenses. This system would have to be capable of clearing the following six operational hurdles:

  • The system of strategic nuclear forces must operate safely and stably in peacetime and, in particular, overcome problems associated with false alarms, accidents, and unauthorized operations.
  • It must be able to survive and operate coherently after a preclusive first strike–that is, after a preemptive nuclear attack attempting to degrade, disable, or destroy it.
  • It must be able clearly to identify the aggressor, and to receive orders to retaliate from the political leaders after an attack.
  • Delivery vehicles must be able to reach targets on the aggressor’s territory.
  • Delivery vehicles must be able to survive attempts to intercept them by the aggressor’s active defense.
  • And delivery vehicles must be able to deliver nuclear warheads with accuracy appropriate to the warhead’s explosive yield in order to overwhelm the aggressor’s passive defenses (e.g., structural hardening, geographical dispersal, and deep underground emplacement of facilities) and destroy intended targets.

Moreover, such second-strike capability needed to be maintained in relation to — and in competition with — the potential aggressor’s own changing offensive and defensive military capabilities.

Finally, Albert stressed that even if a government could credibly deter a preclusive nuclear first strike, that did not mean it could also therefore credibly deter limited nuclear or less-than-nuclear aggression in all circumstances. (Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter‘s work on Cuba during and after the Cuban Missile Crisis would examine this issue further.) In other words, a survivable, controllable, and credible deterrent against nuclear preemption could not substitute for a holistic approach to national security, including efforts to improve conventional non-nuclear military capabilities.

The essay’s argument was controversial. “Wohlstetter puts much emphasis on the circumstances in which nuclear aggression would be, in his view, both rational and sane,” wrote P. M. S. Blackett (whose views “The Delicate Balance” had criticized) in 1962. “Wohlstetter’s argument suggests to me that he has neither thought very deeply or imaginatively about the consequences of the nuclear war, nor has he ever imagined himself in the position of taking the action which he seems to think it sane for the Soviets to take.”

However, Wohlstetter — who had derived his arguments from nearly a decade’s worth of highly classified research on U.S. strategic nuclear forces at the RAND Corporation — worried about the extent to which government decisionmakers would always act in an objectively “sane” or “rational” manner. Drawing on his wife Roberta’s work on Pearl Harbor, he came to view Imperial Japan’s December 1941 surprise strike as highly instructive. On the one hand, Tokyo, when faced with the prospect of eventual but almost certain defeat, had reasoned that a daring surprise attack on what it had correctly perceived to be vulnerable American naval forces in Hawaii was the less risky choice. As Admiral Osami Nagano, Chief of Japan’s Naval General Staff, had explained in 1941:

The current relations between Japan and the United States might be compared to an illness in which a decision was necessary on whether to perform an operation. Avoiding surgery would [threaten] a gradual wasting away of the patient. Great danger would attend the operation, but it could not be said that surgery offered no hope of saving the patient’s life.

On the other hand, U.S. and allied leaders had tragically failed to appreciate the alternative risks that were pressing down on Japan and making arguably insane strategic gambles seem less-and-less unreasonable. In a footnote to “The Delicate Balance,” Wohlstetter recalls how:

. . . in an interview with the press on December 3, 1941, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, Commander-in-Chief, Far East, for the British forces stated, “There are clear indications that Japan does not know which way to turn. Tojo is scratching his head.” As Japan did not have a definite policy to follow, irrevocably, step-by-step, said Sir Robert, “there is a reassuring state of uncertainty in Japan.”

Although Albert did not believe the Soviets were imminently bent on a nuclear Pearl Harbor, he could not exclude the possibility that, given the Cold War’s vicissitudes, Moscow might someday blunder into a calamitous situation, and find itself contemplating a preemptive nuclear attack. As he elaborated during a private high-level dinner seminar at the Council on Foreign Relations in March 1960:

The point is that deterrence should not be viewed as an absolute. It is a matter of comparative risks. Under some circumstances an aggressor might be faced with several unpleasant alternatives, and we want to guarantee that the most unpleasant always appears to be the risk of making a direct attack on the United States. There are, moreover, many foreseeable contingencies which will put a great strain on the deterrent. For example, the Russians may be faced with a catastrophic defeat in a peripheral war. Or they may fear allied intervention and support for a revolt spreading in the satellites or in Russia. Or, possibly, even more dangerous, we may have suffered some catastrophic defeat on the periphery, and they may doubt that we will accept such a loss.

Thus, in his view, a clear and evident second-strike capability would increase the likelihood that the USSR and other future nuclear-armed adversaries would view, under almost any and all circumstances, a preclusive first strike as the riskiest of available alternatives.

In Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision (1962), a Bancroft Prize-winning book which was published in the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Roberta would describe major practical lessons that had emerged from her study of Imperial Japan’s December 1941 surprise attack:

We cannot count on strategic warning. We might get it, and we might be able to take useful preparatory actions that would be impossible without it. We certainly ought to plan to exploit such a possibility should it occur. However, since we cannot rely on strategic warning, our defenses, if we are to have confidence in them, must be designed to function without it. If we accept the fact that the signal picture for impending attacks is almost sure to be ambiguous, we shall prearrange actions that are right and feasible in response to ambiguous signals, including signs of an attack that might be false. We must be capable of reacting repeatedly to false alarms without committing ourselves or the enemy to wage thermonuclear war.

In an application of his wife’s insights, Albert’s work in nuclear deterrence had sought to identify the sort of posture, operations, and technologies that would enable America’s strategic nuclear forces not only to function stably in peacetime, but also to ride out and survive a nuclear-armed adversary’s attempt to preclusively degrade, disable, or destroy them — and by so doing, help the United States deter safely and credibly a nuclear-age Pearl Harbor-style attack against it. In “The Delicate Balance,” however, he stressed that maintaining such capability in the face of changing nuclear dangers would not be easy. It would require “sustained intelligent effort, attainable only by continuing hard choice.”

In later years, some authors and journalists would erroneously associate Wohlstetter with “bomber gap” arguments, and even Senator John F. Kennedy‘s “missile gap” arguments. However, through outreach like General Comments on Senator Kennedy’s National Security Speeches (circa 1960), a memorandum to JFK’s presidential campaign, Wohlstetter would try to clarify how his work on nuclear deterrence had not only explicitly rejected “bomber gap” and “missile gap” claims, but also refuted arguments for brute numerical increases in U.S. nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles as a feasible, economic, or sensible way of preserving second-strike capability.

“The Delicate Balance of Terror” would be the first of many Wohlstetter writings to publicly challenge developing doctrines of automatic and minimum deterrence, as well as policies derived from these doctrines. In the early 1960s, one such policy would be a contentious U.S. proposal to share nuclear weapons with America’s allies in Europe.

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To read more of Robert Zarate’s introduction to Nuclear Heuristics: Selected Writings of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter (2009):

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