Book Excerpt: Albert Wohlstetter’s Approach to Strategic Analysis and Design

This week’s 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), looks at Albert’s approach to the analysis and design of strategic policy. For more, see the earlier Wohlstetter book excerpts on:

Excerpts exclude the supporting endnotes, but you can get them — and much, much more — if you view or download the PDF version of the book at

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By Robert Zarate

Albert Wohlstetter first entered the world of strategy in 1951, when at the age of thirty he began working at the RAND Corporation, a defense-oriented research organization based in Santa Monica, California. So new and so singular a place was RAND that the U.S. press would have to coin new terms–neologisms like think factory and the more familiar think tank–just to describe more succinctly, if not accurately, what this organization was.

RAND–the name is a contraction of the phrase research and development–was very much a product of the political, economic, military, and technological “cold war” competition between the West and the Soviet Union that began as World War II was ending. Recognizing the crucial roles that science and technology had played in the Allied victory over the Axis, the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) in October 1945 formed Project RAND, the think tank’s institutional predecessor, as an experimental organization to retain wartime scientific and technological expertise. Written at a time when the American military services were struggling to comprehend how the atomic bomb might affect the future character of war and peace, Project RAND’s mandate was framed to encompass “study and research on the broad subject of intercontinental warfare, other than surface, with the objective of recommending to the Army Air Forces preferred techniques and instrumentalities for this purpose.” This broad mandate enabled a well-funded, cutting-edge, and extremely flexible research agenda that helped to attract some of America’s brightest minds in economics, physics, engineering, mathematics, and the social sciences. Although RAND would gain institutional independence from the USAAF’s successor, the U.S. Air Force (USAF), after incorporating itself as a private not-for-profit entity in 1948, the USAF would remain RAND’s main client for many years to come.

During the 1950s, Albert’s research on America’s nuclear forces would help to establish the RAND Corporation’s reputation as the center of U.S. strategic thought. His own journey to RAND would be a circuitous one, however. Given his undergraduate and graduate education in mathematical logic, and his later work in manufacturing as well as prefabricated housing, it may seem perhaps incongruous–even surprising–that he would spend his remaining forty-six years immersed in questions of nuclear-age strategy and morality. Yet Wohlstetter would import lessons and insights from earlier disparate experiences into his defense-oriented research at RAND, and thereby shape his own unique approach to the analysis and design of strategic policy.

Road to RAND.

Born in New York City on December 19, 1913, Albert was the youngest of Philip and Nellie Friedman Wohlstetter‘s four children. Although Philip would die when Albert was four-years-old, a close-knit and cultured extended family–and the efforts of Albert’s eldest brother, who forsook university studies to work full-time–would help widowed Nellie to care for her children.

Raised in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, Wohlstetter attended DeWitt Clinton High School, where he showed an early and strong interest in mathematics, Latin, and modern dance. In 1930, as the Great Depression was descending upon America, 16-year-old Albert entered the City College of New York. As an undergraduate, he concentrated his studies on mathematical logic, and was particularly stimulated by the writings of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), a philosopher of science whom he would describe in later years as “probably the greatest American philosopher” and “a major influence” on his own work in nuclear-age strategy. On the side, Albert would participate in campus activities like the college’s R.O.T.C.

After graduating from City College, Wohlstetter earned a fellowship to Columbia Law School. There, he met a master’s degree student in psychology (whom he would marry in 1939) named Roberta Mary Morgan, the daughter of Edmund Morris Morgan, Jr., a distinguished Harvard Law School professor who would later help to modernize the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Although Albert would leave law school after only a year, he would remain at Columbia to pursue a Ph.D., studying mathematical logic and the philosophy of science, and working with some of the era’s great logicians, such as Columbia’s Ernest Nagel and Harvard’s Willard Van Orman Quine. While in graduate school, Wohlstetter would take on odd jobs to help support himself, and would even work for a time as art historian Meyer Shapiro‘s assistant.

After earning his M.A. in 1937, Albert received several fellowships to finish his doctorate–including one from the Social Science Research Council to introduce modern mathematical methods into economics, a prestigious fellowship that in turn enabled him to intern for a time at the National Bureau for Economic Research. However, when the United States entered World War II, he halted his studies to work initially for the War Production Board’s planning committee as an economic consultant, and later for the Atlas Aircraft Products Company as a factory and quality control manager at a plant manufacturing power-generating equipment for Allied forces.

After the war, Wohlstetter declined to complete his doctorate and instead moved with his wife, Roberta, to southern California. Except for a year spent in Washington, D.C., where he served as the National Housing Administration’s Director of Programs (his one and only official government position), Albert would spend the rest of the decade managing research and development at the General Panel Corporation of California. General Panel would attempt–but in the end fail–to help meet the postwar housing shortage by mass-producing the “Packaged House,” a modular prefabricated housing system designed by √©migr√© architects Walter Gropius and Konrad Wachsmann.

In February 1951, as General Panel was folding, Albert was already contemplating a change in career, and even considering a return not only to more academically-oriented research, but also to the East Coast. However, Roberta–who had been working part-time in the RAND Corporation’s social sciences division since late 1948 while at the same time raising her and Albert’s daughter, Joan–was intent on remaining on the West Coast. Toward that end, she set up a meeting for Albert with Charles Hitch, the head of the think tank’s economic division. A Missouri-born Rhodes Scholar, Hitch had served in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II before coming to RAND. Upon meeting, the two immediately clicked, and Hitch hired Wohlstetter on at RAND as a part-time consultant.

Wohlstetter’s Approach: Key Features.

During the 1950s, Albert would lead a series of highly classified studies at the RAND Corporation that revolutionized how the United States based and operated its strategic nuclear forces. These studies (which the next section of this essay examines in some detail) would also stand out as exemplary applications of his unique methodology, a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to the analysis and design of strategic policy. (Although Albert would write only a handful essays on methodology, his most accessible work on this subject is probably “Theory and Opposed-Systems Design” (1968), a version of which is included in this edited volume.)

First, Albert’s approach sought to identify, frame, and answer questions directly relevant to the decisions facing government policymakers. Such decisions encompassed not only choices among “means to accomplish ends that stand a good chance of being opposed by other governments,” but also choices among the ends themselves.

In Wohlstetter’s view, the ends of government policy could run into opposition in a number of ways. Such opposition, of course, could take the form of a conflict of aims between or among several governments. “The ends of any government,” he observed, “are multiple and only partially incompatible with those of other governments–even very hostile ones–and of course such conflicts may be resolved without fighting.” However, he added: “A peaceful resolution may depend in part on the risks involved in combat.”

Such opposition could also take the form of a partial conflict of aims within one government. He elaborated:

While we may talk about national purpose in the singular, the first thing to observe about our aims is that we have many of them. They are connected; some depend on others; many conflict. Obviously two aims may conflict when each represents the interests of a different group. But even ends which the nation as a whole can be said to share oppose other accepted national ends.

Albert thus highlighted the crucial importance of including “a careful critique of constraints and objectives” in any analysis of strategic policy, with particular attention to the cost-effectiveness of available choices to meet these objectives. He explained,

A government’s ends cannot be accepted as the final deliverances of authority or intuition. They are subject to revision as the result of an analysis that frequently displays incompatibilities with other ends of that government, or that indicates means so costly that the game is not worth the candle.

Second, Wohlstetter’s analytical approach used theoretical models, empirically-driven research, and interdisciplinary collaboration to wade through the complexity and uncertainty surrounding these problems of policy, and arrive systematically at some partial order among preferences and choices of means and ends.

Lessons from his pre-RAND experiences profoundly shaped this approach. On the one hand, Albert’s education in mathematical logic and the philosophy of science had given him an appreciation of the uses–and the limits–of quantitative and qualitative theoretical models in capturing and explaining real-world interactions and phenomena. On the other hand, his professional experiences in wartime and peacetime manufacturing had taught him the importance of moving away from the abstract and grappling with the concrete. Indeed, he repeatedly stressed the critical importance in his analyses of “grubby, highly specific empirical work on technologies, operations, costs, and potential interactions among states, factors that are plainly relevant for decisions of the governments of these states–or for citizens evaluating these decisions.” Drawing inspiration from the work of the philosopher of science Charles Sanders Peirce, Albert thus sought to use theoretical models and empirically-driven research in a heuristic manner: deductive theoretical models spurred further empirically-driven research, the findings of which helped inductively to refine and improve the deductive theoretical models, and so on, in a method of successive analytical approximation.

In addition, Wohlstetter’s professional experiences impressed upon him the need to collaborate with and draw upon the insights and creativity of experts in other relevant fields. Indeed, he expressed pride in how his approach “required the cooperation of several disciplines and, in particular, a kind of close working together of natural science and social science disciplines which remains very unusual, if it exists at all, in universities.”

Third, Albert’s approach aimed not only to weigh and consider the received range of possible choices, but also to invent and design new alternatives. He explained:

A central part of the inquiry must look at the current and impending state of the art and at feasible and useful changes. In the past two decades in which such inquiries have grown up, nuclear, electronic, propulsion, and transport technology have changed massively. The problem is not just to predict such changes, however. Since this is a work of design, it must explore how–in the light of interdependencies with military, political, and economic events–the changes may usefully be bent.

Indeed, he would remark in later years that invention and design figured heavily in his most successful analyses of strategic policy.

Fourth, Wohlstetter stressed the importance of being explicit about the limits of one’s analytical approach, including the uncertainties surrounding the study. Yet he also noted that certain kinds of uncertainty could be leveraged to make the inquiry, inferences, and conclusions of the analysis more robust and persuasive. He elaborated:

In comparing alternative systems with one programmed,one cannot eliminate uncertainty, but one can assume that they will be resolved favorably from the standpoint of a dubious programmed system. One cannot avoid theoretical simplification, but one can design a model to favor the programmed or other losing systems and to give them the benefit of the doubt. Then if the comparison shows that, even with all the favors bestowed by the model’s assumption, the system programmed or otherwise likely to be chosen is vastly inferior to an alternative, this offers substantial ground for choice. Moreover, it should not be surprising that bureaucrats exhibit enough inertia to make such a fortiori analyses possible and very useful, as some opposed-systems analyses have been.

In sum, Wohlstetter saw his approach as applying, in an essentially Peircean manner, the method of scientific investigation to the analysis and design of strategic policy. Moreover, he would argue that his approach stood in stark contrast to the practices of certain distinguished scientists, who would premise their arguments regarding the proper direction of nuclear-age strategy and policy less on the method of scientific investigation and much more on appeals to their own scientific authority. That said, Wohlstetter emphasized that his particular approach to analysis and design neither exhausted the possibilities, nor could substitute for a capacity for fruitful inquiry. “There are no methods certain of result in a complex field of research,” he cautioned. “None is proof against a dim awareness of interesting problems or incompetence in formulating manageable and significant questions.”

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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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