Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War
New York: Simon & Shuster, 2021
Paperback 372 pp RRP $18.99
Reviewer: Robert Dixon, November 2022
Subtitled ‘Presidents, Generals and the Secret History of Nuclear War this is a comprehensive and extremely well written review of American nuclear policy from the Truman administration through to the Trump administration.
US administrations, regardless of the which party the President is a member of, have long claimed that their nuclear policy is to deter and if it cannot deter then to retaliate in kind to a nuclear attack, “so called second-strike deterrence”. However, Kaplan shows that in reality it has been the policy of successive administrations to strike first pre-emptively to the credible threat of a nuclear attack on the US - and possibly strike first with all nuclear weapons available on the basis of the ‘use them or lose them when the enemy retaliates’ philosophy. Over time, as civilian influence grew and information about the number of missiles and warheads in the USSR became more reliable (and the claim of a ‘missile gap’ was shown to be false), the key issues became: (i) How to reduce the number of warheads whilst maintaining a credible deterrence, that is, retain the number required to ensure no one would gain an advantage from launching a first strike, regardless of who went first; (ii) How to plan a nuclear attack that was large enough to terrify the enemy but small enough to be recognized unambiguously as a limited strike, so that, if the enemy retaliated, he’d keep his strike limited too; (iii) Are civilian areas as well as military bases to be targeted? and (iv) what number of warheads are to be directed at the same target in order to achieve a certain probability of destroying that target and how high should that probability be? Kaplan demonstrates that opinions on these issues differed not only between the military and the civilians in the defence and foreign policy areas, but also within the branches of the military and especially between the US Navy (hoping to increase the number of nuclear armed submarines) and the US Air Force (hoping to increase the number of land-based missiles and bombers).
The final chapter is itself most interesting as it deals with issues relevant to the current conflict involving Russia and the Ukraine. Until recently it has always been taken as a given that if Russia or some other enemy used nuclear weapons against an allied country, the US would respond with nuclear weapons. Kaplan sets out an interesting discussion of a National Security Council wargame first held at the time of the Obama administration. The game began with a Russian attack on a Baltic nation with the Russians resorting to the use of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons when they found themselves overwhelmed by NATO’s superiority in highly accurate long-range conventional weapons. The resort to low-yield nuclear weapons would be based on a belief on the part of the Russians that NATO’s leaders, fearing further catastrophic escalation, would stop the war and negotiate a peace. The scenarios considered by US policy makers in the wargame took a different path and focused on this: once the Russians began to use nuclear weapons the decision was whether NATO should retaliate by also using low-yield tactical nuclear weapons (even in the absence of a direct nuclear attack on the continental US or Europe) or instead simply ramp-up the use of conventional weapons (which was obviously succeeding as otherwise the Russians would not need to resort to using nukes). The new twist in that U.S. officials are thinking that they might respond to a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine not with a nuclear attack of their own, but rather with a more intense and direct version of the non-nuclear offensive that they’re helping the Ukrainians wage now. Kaplans most recent publication on this topic (dated October 7, 2022) may be found here Why the U.S. might not use a nuke, even if Russia does. (slate.com)
While the book is a good-read and is very informative, I have two criticisms. First, the text is organized chronologically. While this seems a natural way to write a history it leads to much repetition as each administration is faced with the same dilemmas: How to deter nuclear war? How to fight a nuclear war? If nuclear war cannot be deterred how to win it? Secondly, I am surprised that there is no mention anywhere in the book of John von Neumann, said to be one of the people who Dr Strangelove represents in the movie by that name. A distinguished mathematician and one of the early developers of Game Theory, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Eisenhower for his contributions to the development of nuclear weapons and policy. Von Neumann believed full-blown war with the Soviet Union was imminent and his application of game theory to that scenario led him to advise Eisenhower to launch a surprise, pre-emptive attack by the United States. ‘If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today?’ he said in 1950. ‘If you say today at 5 o’clock, I say why not one o’clock?’ Fortunately for all of us, Eisenhower did not follow his advice.
The book includes twenty-one photographs (mostly of US Presidents, their national security advisers, and defence secretaries); thirty-three pages of endnotes, and a very comprehensive twenty-six-page Index.
Fred Kaplan is the national-security columnist for Slate, a popular online magazine that covers current affairs, politics, and culture in the United States. He is author of a number of books on US nuclear strategy and the Cold War. In 1983 Kaplan won a Pulitzer Prize while working as a reporter for the Boston Globe.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.