Military history

Chapter 12

Nuclear Games

We may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.

—J. Robert Oppenheimer

Wars normally conclude with calls for a new era of peace and justice, and the Second World War was no exception. Unfortunately, the developing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union and their ideologically opposed blocs provided few grounds for optimism. The possibility of a third world war became apparent almost immediately as the underlying antagonism between Britain and the United States on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other surfaced over the fate of the territories liberated from German occupation. Soon there was talk of a “cold war,” a term popularized in 1947 by Walter Lippmann in a book with that title.1 Lippmann recalled the term from the late 1930s when “la guerre froide” had been used to characterize Hitler’s war of nerves against the French.2 A cold war was therefore one in which two states weighed each other up, viewing each other warily like two boxers circling each other in the ring before the proper fight began. It was not used with any optimism, as if anticipating decades of antagonism that would never quite tip over into a hot war.3

The British essayist George Orwell actually used the term before Lippmann, in October 1945, as he tried to assess the impact of atom bombs on international affairs. He described the prospect “of two or three monstrous super-states, each possessed of a weapon by which millions of people can be wiped out in a few seconds, dividing the world between them.” He saw, however, that while such a war was possible, this might be avoided as a result of “a tacit agreement never to use the bomb against one another.” Use would only be threatened against those unable to retaliate. So this new form of supreme power might not only lead to an uneasy standoff between states but also to even more effective ways of keeping the exploited classes down. An end to large-scale wars perhaps, but instead “a peace that is no peace” between “horribly stable . . . slave empires.”4 The idea that atom bombs would rob the exploited “of all power to revolt” may not have appeared so far-fetched at the time, given recent evidence of the readiness of regimes to use instruments of mass slaughter against subject peoples.

The question of what strategic purposes these new weapons could serve was first addressed seriously by historian Bernard Brodie, who had previously specialized in maritime strategy. On hearing of the atom bomb, Brodie told his wife, “Everything that I have written is now obsolete.”5Established forms of strategic theory were inadequate. “Everything about the atomic bomb,” he observed, “is overshadowed by the twin facts that it exists and its destructive power is fantastically great. Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.”4 From the start, therefore, Brodie recognized the dissuasive character of the “absolute weapon.” Political communities would be wary about using a weapon against others that could also wipe them out if used against them.

The New Strategists

By his own career, Brodie defined the possibility of a field of strategy in which civilians took the lead. He already had a low opinion of the quality of military thinking—and made little effort to hide this—and regretted the extent to which the study of war had lagged behind other fields of human activity. “The purpose of soldiers is obviously not to produce books,” he remarked in a 1949 article, “but one must assume that any real ferment of thought could not have so completely avoided breaking into print.” Military training, he suggested, discouraged contemplation, was anti-intellectual, and focused excessively on practical matters and command issues. To the extent strategy was discussed it was with reference to the supposedly unchanging principles of war, along the lines first set down by Jomini. These were at best “a pointed injunction to use common sense.”

With military problems growing not only in complexity but also in the potential for utter disaster, Brodie insisted that strategy needed to be taken altogether more seriously. As an example of how this might be done, he pointed to economics. Just as the economist sought to utilize the total resources of the nation to maximize its wealth, the strategist sought to use the same resources to maximize the total effectiveness of the nation in war. As all military problems were about economy of means, a “substantial part of classical economic theory is directly applicable to problems of military strategy.” In particular “a science like economics” could show the way to a “genuine analytical method.”7 The idea that the resolution of strategic problems depended on intellect and analysis rather than character and intuition fit in with the trend to subject all human decisions to the dictates of rationality and the application of science. It was given more urgency by the potentially catastrophic consequences of misjudgment in the nuclear age.

The scientific method as a means of interpreting large amounts of disparate data had proved itself in Britain in the Second World War. It first made a mark when used to determine the best way to employ radar in air defense. As one of the key figures in the British program noted, the methodology used was closer to classical economics than physics, although economists were not directly engaged.8 During the course of the war, operations research—as the new field came to be known—made major strides in support of actual operations, including working out the safest arrangement for convoys in the face of submarine attack or choosing targets for air raids.9 Mathematicians and physicists made more of an impact in the United States, notably those who became involved in the Manhattan Project, the organization which had led to the production of the first atomic bomb.

The center for the postwar application of such methods to practical, and particularly military, problems was the RAND Corporation, which became the prototypical “think tank.” The organization was set up under an air force grant to develop operational research. It soon became an independent nonprofit corporation addressing defense issues and other aspects of public policy using advanced analytical techniques. RAND began by recruiting natural scientists and engineers who expected to deal with hardware. Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi describes RAND as fashioning itself as a cold war avant-garde, self-consciously exploratory and experimental, with an “insouciant disregard” for traditional forms of military experience.10 Soon it was hiring economists and other social scientists. The steady improvements in computational power made mathematical approaches to complex problems more practical. Even economics up to this point had been more literate than numerate. Now quantitative analyses grew in strength and credibility. It is hard to overstate the importance of RAND, especially during its early years, in transforming established patterns of thought not only in the military sphere but throughout the social sciences. The resources and tools it had available, including the most advanced computers of the day, provided it with a capacity to innovate, which it did with a remarkable sense of mission and confidence.

The new universe that was explored at RAND was simulated as much as observed. Philip Mirowski describes what he calls the “Cyborg sciences.” These reflected the new interactions between men and machines. They broke down the distinctions between nature and society, as models of one began to resemble the other, and between “reality” and simulacra. The Monte Carlo simulations adopted for dealing with uncertainty in data during the Manhattan Project, for example, opened up a range of possible experiments to explore the logic of complex systems, discerning ways through uncertainty and forms of order in chaos.11 RAND analysts saw these new methods as supplanting rather than supplementing traditional patterns of thought. Simple forms of cause and effect could be left behind as it became possible to explore the character of dynamic systems, with the constantly changing interaction between component parts. The models of systems, more or less orderly and stable, that had started to become fashionable before the war could take on new meanings. And even in areas where intense computation was not required, there was a growing comfort in scientific circles—both natural and social—with models that were formal and abstract, not just based on direct observations of a narrow segment of accessible reality but on explorations of something that approximated to a much larger and otherwise inaccessible reality. Types of systems and relationships could be analyzed in ways that the human mind, left on its own, could not begin to manage.

As one of the first textbooks on operations research noted, work of this sort required an “impersonal curiosity concerning new subjects,” rejection of “unsupported statements,” and a desire to rest “decisions on some quantitative basis, even if the basis is only a rough estimate.” Although this approach started with a focus on problems of national defense, its most far-reaching impact was elsewhere. Because in the military, particularly the nuclear sphere, there were practical and consequential decisions to be taken, the research and analysis had to remain grounded in evidence even when it was conceptually innovative.

When faced with the possibility of nuclear war, an event for which there could be neither precedent nor experiment and which in its enormity challenged imagination, only simulation was possible. In areas which seemed to be wholly unique (“How many nuclear wars have you fought, general?”), experience counted for less than a sharp and disciplined intellect. When in 1961, Hedley Bull, a young Australian with a skeptical but discerning eye, considered the state of strategic thought, he observed how much of it assumed the “rational action” of a kind of “strategic man.” This man, Bull observed, “on further acquaintance reveals himself as a university professor of unusual intellectual subtlety.”12 The reason for the ascent of strategic man, he suggested, was nuclear weapons. Strategy could no longer be solely concerned with how to fight war as an instrument of policy but also had to understand how to threaten war. Studies of actual violence had to be supplemented by discussions of deterrence and the manipulation of risk. It was because of this that strategic thinking was no longer a military preserve. Civilian experts, Bull noted, overwhelmed the military with their publications and were the obvious people to consult on questions of deterrence and arms control. Now that John F. Kennedy had become president, civilian strategists had “entered the citadels of power and have prevailed over military advisers in major issues of policy.” Neither the military nor the civilians had any experience of the conduct of a nuclear war, so inevitably much strategic thinking was of an “abstract and speculative character,” which suited the civilians. They demonstrated “sophistication and high technical quality” in their work.13

The key people in this new approach had largely come from RAND. They were led at the Pentagon by a secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, who had pioneered the use of quantitative analysis while at the Ford Motor Company. He challenged the armed services to justify their budgets and programs in the face of intensive questioning. His agents in this were young analysts gathered in the Office of Systems Analysis. They were smart, brash, confident, and dismissive of the faltering attempts of military officers to block their ascent. McNamara’s right-hand man in the Pentagon, Charles Hitch, who was recruited from RAND, had observed with a colleague in 1960: “Essentially we regard all military problems as, in one of their aspects, economic problems in the efficient allocation and use of resources.”14 McNamara demanded data and insisted on quantitative analysis as the best way to assess the costs and benefits of alternative programs. Disregarding the preferences of the armed services, McNamara canceled favored programs and challenged cherished beliefs.

It became a truism that McNamara’s methods were inappropriate for fighting a war, especially one as politically complex as Vietnam, and failure here sullied his reputation forever. Yet for the first part of his tenure in the Pentagon, McNamara was considered to be the most gifted and effective member of the cabinets of Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson. The military floundered in his presence, looking amateurish even when discussing operational issues. McNamara was described as an “IBM on legs.” Decisive and articulate, he was the epitome of the rational strategic man in his mastery of the evidence and analytical techniques.15 The mythology surrounding McNamara, and the opposition he faced, exaggerated the difference his methods had made. The military had not dominated Eisenhower’s budgetary process, nor had the civilians controlled Kennedy’s as much as was claimed. Nonetheless, senior officers viewed with alarm the civilians who lacked combat experience yet pontificated on military tasks. The arrogance that the civilians had nurtured at RAND, never doubting their intellectual superiority over their military paymasters, had left resentments that were now aggravated as programs and budgets were put at risk. One tirade, from a former chief of the air staff, was joyously quoted in a book by two members of McNamara’s staff against whom it was directed. General White complained about the “pipe-smoking, tree-full-of-owls” types, doubting that “these overconfident, sometimes arrogant young professors, mathematicians and other theorists have sufficient wordliness or motivation to stand up to the sort of enemy we face.”16

While Bull defended the new strategists against various charges of being uncritical, amoral, or pseudoscientific, he noted a conceit. Many were of the view that previously “military affairs escaped scientific study and received only the haphazard attention of second-rate minds.” He also noted an aspiration among the civilians to turn strategy into a science by “eliminating antiquated methods and replacing them with up-to-date ones.” If only, as some hoped, these new methods could get closer to economics they could help “rationalize our choices and increase our control over our environment.” Brodie also doubted the exaggerated ambition. Though White’s comments confirmed the stereotype of a narrow-minded and prejudiced military, Brodie also found the new analysts and their methods a mixed blessing. They improved decision-making in the Pentagon on such matters as the procurement of new weapons, but there remained limits to what could be achieved by applying economics to strategy. Economists tended to be insensitive to and intolerant of political considerations that got in the way of their theories. More worrying than their weakness in diplomatic or military history, and in contemporary politics, was their lack of awareness of “how important a deficiency this is for strategic insight.” The quality of the theoretical structures adopted by economists led to a disdain for other social sciences as “primitive in their techniques and intellectually unworthy.”17

Game Theory

The presumed signature methodology of the new strategy was game theory. As Chapter 13 demonstrates, the actual influence on nuclear strategy was slight. Nonetheless, game theory represented a way of thinking about strategic issues that was abstract and formal. Its influence on the social sciences eventually became significant. It emerged as the result of collaboration between two European émigrés working at Princeton during the war. From Hungary came John von Neumann. As a child he could astound with feats of memory and computation, and he was soon recognized as one of the mathematical geniuses of his age. He had developed the basic principle ofgame theory in the 1920s by contemplating poker. When Oskar Morgenstern, an economist from Vienna, got to know von Neumann at Princeton he saw the broader significance of his ideas and helped give them structure. Their formidable joint work, The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, was published in 1944.

Why poker and not chess, which had always been seen as the strategist’s game? The scientist Jacob Bronowski records von Neumann’s reply:

“No, no,” he said. “Chess is not a game. Chess is a well-defined form of computation. You may not be able to work out all the answers, but in theory there must be a solution, a right procedure in any position. Now real games,” he said, “are not like that at all. Real life is not like that. Real life consists of bluffing, of little tactics of deception, of asking yourself what is the other man going to think I mean to do. And that is what games are about in my theory.”18

In chess both sides are working with exactly the same, perfect information, besides what is going on in the head of the opponent. Chance is a factor in poker, but the game is not pure chance. It is possible to apply probabilities to assess the likely hands of other players. As there will always be a degree of uncertainty, the same hand can be played in different ways according to judgments about whether other players are bidding out of strength or weakness. It is possible to outthink the competition. Game theory was therefore about intelligent strategies in inherently uncertain situations.

Von Neumann watched how in poker all the players encouraged uncertainty about the quality of their cards. Bluff was essential and unpredictability in their play helpful. He identified the optimum outcome for one rational poker player playing against another as the “minimax” solution, the best of the worst outcomes. His 1928 proof of this solution gave game theory its mathematical credibility, moving it away from a representation of how a game might be played to a suggestion of how it should be played. By showing how to proceed rationally in an irrational situation, game theory demonstrated why it might be logical to bluff for both offensive and defensive purposes, and how the occasional random move could make it difficult for an opponent to discern a pattern of play, thereby adding to his uncertainty.19

The book von Neumann co-authored with Morgenstern was described as “one of the most influential and least-read books of the twentieth century.” At 641 pages of dense mathematics, it barely sold four thousand copies in its first five years in print.20 After extensive but mixed reviews, and though some enthusiasts began to spread the word, the economics profession gave every impression of being underwhelmed. Where it initially took root was in the operations research community, to the point that it was described in an early postwar survey as a branch of mathematics special to this field. Here von Neumann appears to have been particularly influential. As one of the government’s top scientific advisers until his premature death from cancer in 1959, he encouraged all means, including linear programming and the increased use of computers, of raising the quality of the scientific input. He saw RAND as an institution that could showcase the new techniques.21

Von Neumann and Morgenstern also found their popularizer.John McDonald’s Strategy in Poker, Business and War is curiously neglected in the histories of game theory. In 1949, McDonald came across von Neumann and Morgenstern when researching an article on poker for Fortune Magazine. Then McDonald wrote another article on game theory for the same magazine, before turning both articles into a book. The reason for the neglect of McDonald’s book may be that it did not take the theory forward and was geared to a popular exposition. But the author had extensive conversations with the academics and provided a clear statement of what they thought they might achieve. McDonald acknowledged that the mathematical proofs would challenge any lay reader, but he promised that the underlying concepts could be readily grasped. Game theory offered insights not just into military strategy but strategy in general. It was relevant whenever relationships involved conflict, imperfect information, and incentives to deceive. Because the theory was “formal and neutral, non-ideological,” it was “as good for one man as for another.” It would not help with assessing values and ethics, but “it may be able to tell what one can get and how one can get it.”

In terms of the shift in strategic thinking prompted by game theory, the critical insight was that acting strategically depended on expectations about the likely actions of others over whom one has no control. The players in a game of strategy do not cooperate, yet their actions are interdependent. In such restrained circumstances the rational strategy was not to attempt to maximize gain but instead to accept an optimal outcome. Minimax, McDonald observed, was “one of the most talked about novelties in learned circles today.” When he moved on to consider its applications, paying particular attention to the importance of coalitions, he saw a number of possibilities. “War is chance,” he concluded, “and minimax must be its modern philosophy.” Yet he also described this as a theory with “imagination but no magic.” It involved “an act of logic with an unusual twist, which can be followed to the borderline of mathematical computation.”22

The presumption behind the pioneering work on game theory, enthusiastically encouraged at RAND, was the conviction that there could be a scientific basis for strategy. Past endeavors to put these matters on a properly scientific basis had supposedly faltered because the analytical tools were not available. Specialists in military strategy lacked the mathematics, and the mathematics lacked the concepts and computational capacity. Now that these were available true breakthroughs could be made. Game theory was exciting because it directly addressed the problems posed by the fact that there was more than one decision-maker and then offered mathematical solutions. It was soon generating its own literature and conferences.

In 1954, the sociologist Jessie Bernard made an early attempt to consider the broader relevance of game theory for the softer social sciences. She also worried about an inherent amorality, “a modernized, streamlined, mathematical version of Machiavellianism.” It implied a “low concept of human nature,” expecting “nothing generous, nothing noble, nothing idealistic. It expects people to bluff, to deceive, to feint, to withhold information, to play their advantages to the utmost, to make the most of their opponent’s weaknesses.” Although Bernard acknowledged the focus on rational decision, she misunderstood the theory, presenting it as a mathematical means of testing rather than of generating strategies. The misunderstanding was perhaps not unreasonable for she assumed that different qualities were required to come up with strategies: “Imagination, insight, intuition, ability to put one’s self in another person’s position, understanding of the wellsprings of human motivation—good as well as evil—these are required for the thinking up of policies or strategies.”23 For this reason, the “hardest work, so far as the social scientist is concerned, is probably already completed by the time the theory of games takes over.” In her grasp of the theory’s claim, she missed the point, though in her appreciation of the theory’s limits she was ahead of her time. The theory assumed rationality, but on the basis of preferences and values that the players brought with them to the game.

Prisoners’ Dilemma

The values attached to alternative outcomes of games were payoffs. The aim was to maximize them. Players were aware that in this respect they all had the same aim. In card games they accepted that their choices would be determined by the established rules of the game. As the application was extended, the choices could be shaped not only by mutually agreed upon and accepted rules but by the situation in which they found themselves. The theory progressed by identifying situations resembling real life that created challenging choices for the players. For the theory to move on, it was necessary to get beyond the limits of the von Neumann and Morgenstern analysis involving two players and “zero-sum payoffs,” which meant that what one won the other must lose. The normal approach for a mathematician having solved a comparatively simple problem was to move on to a more complex case, such as coalition formation. But this process turned out to be difficult in the case of game theory, especially if mathematical proofs were going to be required at each new stage.

The key breakthrough came in the exploration of non-zero-sum games, in which the players could all gain or all lose, depending on how the game was played. The actual invention of the game of prisoners’ dilemma should be attributed to two RAND analysts, Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher. The most famous formulation, however, was provided in 1950 by Albert Tucker when lecturing to psychologists at Stanford University. Prisoners’ dilemma involved two prisoners—unable to communicate with each other—whose fate depended on whether or not they confessed during interrogation and whether their answers coincided. If both remained silent, they were prosecuted on a minor charge and received light sentences (one year). If both confessed, they were prosecuted but with a recommendation for a sentence below the maximum (five years). If one confessed and the other did not, then the confessor got a lenient sentence (three months) while the other was prosecuted for the maximum sentence (ten years). The two players were left alone in separate cells to think things over.





1 Silence

2 Confess

1 Silence







2 Confess







Figure 12. I The figures in the corners refer to expectation of sentence.

It should be noted that the matrix itself was a revolutionary way of presenting strategic outcomes and remained thereafter a fixture of formal analysis. This matrix demonstrated the prediction for prisoners’ dilemma (see fig. 12.1). They both confessed. A was unable to conspire with B and knew that if he remained silent he risked ten years’ imprisonment; if he confessed, he risked only five years. Furthermore, if B decided on the solution that would be of the greatest mutual benefit and so remained silent, A could improve his own position by confessing, in a sense double-crossing B. Game theory predicted that B would follow the same reasoning. This was the minimax strategy guaranteeing the best of the worst possible outcomes. A key feature of this game was that the two players were forced into conflict. They suffered a worse result than if they could communicate and coordinate their answers and then trust each other to keep to the agreed strategy. Prisoners’ dilemma came to be a powerful tool for examining situations where players might either work with or against each other (normally put as “cooperate” or “defect”).

Game theory gained a boost during the early 1960s because it was presumed to have shaped nuclear strategy, although its actual influence was fleeting. It seemed to be of value because the core conflict could fit into a matrix as it was bipolar and between two alliances of roughly equivalent power. The conflict was clearly non-zero sum in that in any nuclear war both sides were likely to lose catastrophically. Thus they had a shared interest in peace, even while pursuing their distinct interests. There was no obvious way that the conflict would end, as the two alliances reflected opposing world views. There was a degree of stability in the relationship in terms of both the underlying antagonism and a fear of pushing matters to a decisive confrontation.

The theory helped clarify the predicament facing governments. The challenge was to use it to generate strategies for dealing with the policy dilemmas it created. Formal methodologies were favored by some analysts as a means of engaging in systematic thought in the face of the otherwise paralyzing contingency of nuclear war. It was easier to cope with the awful implications of any move if the discussion was kept abstract and impersonal. Yet when contributing to policy, analysts had to move beyond the theory. It soon reached its limits when it came to addressing such questions as to how vital interests could be defended without disaster when war was so dangerous, or whether it was possible to fight wars limited to conventional capabilities without escalation.

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