Written in 1951, though rendered technically by obsolete by the passage of time and the development of new nuclear weapons delivery systems (e.g. ICBMs and SLBMs) this timeless working paper by Bernard Brodie (known colloquially as the founding dean of American nuclear strategic thought) explored the so-called “Sunday Punch” approach towards striking the Soviet Union that so horrified the halcyon cadre of early American civilian nuclear strategists by its . This expose provides invaluable and penetrating insight into the quasi-absurd nature of the United States’ early Cold War nuclear targeting regime, while also providing sober commentary on the contemporary state of nuclear strategy.
As a working paper, this document was never released publicly or published by the RAND Corporation, and upon reading this document it’ll become pretty clear why this analysis was kept pretty close to the chests of many and varied nuclear strategic analysts — almost in spite of its luminary insights. When Strategic Air Command (SAC) — predecessor to today’s Strategic Command (STRATCOM) — was left up to their own devices by the Department of Defense (DoD) and the US government (USG), SAC developed a, quite frankly perverse methodology and philosophy towards choosing and servicing various targets in the USSR and its satellite countries.
This document also broaches the pronounced (and childish) tendency towards maximizing the number of people killed with every nuclear strike among US nuclear war planners (both uniformed and civilian), this particular excess was popularly stylized as the “Bonus problem.” Even years after the completion of this working paper, despite pleas from soberer planners within the Air Force and DoD for them to “knock it-off” and focus on destroying the USSR’s defense industrial base, .
In lieu of presenting a woefully inadequate biography and bibliography of Dr. Brodie, we would rather share words from a brief Gedenkschrift prepared for him by the titan of political science and strategic theory Thomas Schelling:
The 1950s were the first time in at least a century that Americans became professionally concerned, in peacetime, with military strategy. The germination date was August, 1945; and the movement reached a kind of maturity from which it never recovered, when it moved in 1961 to the Establishment, the Departments of State and Defense. Among the originators of that academic profession, Bernard Brodie was first — both in time and in distinction. He was one of the very few whose training was professionally oriented towards the study of war and peace, and he had published two excellent books by 1942, years before any of the familiar names of later years were associated with strategy. His Layman’s Guide to Naval Strategy (from which the first word in the title was deleted so that the Navy could assign it to officers without embarrassment) contains some of the best early “systems analysis” I ever saw, all presented in straightforward English. As editor and one of the chief contributors to The Absolute Weapon (1946), he set standards for thinking about nuclear strategy and made predictions that could actually be falsified or verified by later events, an unfashionable kind of prediction then as now. Anyone who, nostalgically or in search of wisdom takes one of Bernard’s books from the shelf will be quickly reminded of the depth of Bernard’s thinking, his use and enjoyment of history, and the taste with which he wrote English. He, more than anyone else, helped us learn to think about how to survive in a world with nuclear weapons.
If you’re interested in reading about his life and his work, you can check out biographies of him written by Barry Howard Steiner, and Barry Scott Zellen.
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