Michael KreponBrodie’s Brain

Quote of the week:

“Deterrence now means something as a strategic policy only when we are fairly confident that the retaliatory instrument upon which it relies will not be called upon to function at all… In short, we expect the system to be always ready to spring while going permanently unused. Surely there is something almost unreal about all this.” — Bernard Brodie

Long-time readers of these posts know that I’m a big fan of Bernard Brodie. Strategy in the Missile Age (Princeton University Press, 1959) captures his gifts of analysis and writing style, as well as his conceits. Brodie had little regard for popular enthusiasms. The quote he selected by Clausewitz opposite his title page was: “[M]an, who in great things as well as in small usually acts more on prevailing ideas and emotions than according to strictly logical conclusions, is hardly conscious of his confusion, one-sidedness, and inconsistency.” Nor did Brodie hold in high regard many of the heavy hitters who wrote about the Bomb. He presented an interesting mix — a man sure of himself, while acknowledging dilemmas more than most of his fellow strategists.

Here are some excerpts from his chapter on “The Anatomy of Deterrence:”

“The one great area of our public affairs in which romanticism survives is that of national defense policies… These attitudes and moods have, however, a common tendency to depart reality in favor of certain fantasies about ourselves and the world we live in. Romanticism exalts strong action over negotiation, boldness over caution, and feeling over reflection. It exalts dedication to a cause, with minimum consideration for the utility of the cause. It also prompts us to imagine ourselves more courageous, alert, and idealistic than sober appraisals of our behavior would confirm.”

“[P]reventive war, preemptive attack and massive retaliation reflect an idea congenial to modern military thinking, that of seizing the initiative and carrying the fight to the enemy. These approaches also reflect an abiding faith in the ritual of liquidation — the idea that some convulsive and fearfully costly act will justify itself through the elimination of the evil enemy and the need to live in the same world with him.”

“[T]otal nuclear war is to be avoided at almost any cost. This follows from the assumption that such a war, even if we were extraordinarily lucky, would be too big, too all-consuming to permit the survival even of those final values, like personal freedom, for which one could think of waging it. It need not be certain that it would turn out so badly; it is enough that there is a large chance that it would.”

“The philosophy of deterrence takes account above all of the enormous American cultural resistances to our hitting first in a period of threatened total war… In other words, our rejection of the idea of ‘preventive war’ has committed us completely and inevitably to the policy and strategy of deterrence.”  Brodie doesn’t reflect on the possibility of preventive wars for less than total stakes — a notion that wasn’t entertained in the 1950s, but gained currency after the 9/11 attacks.

On matters of deterrence, Brodie had the capacity to entertain seemingly contradictory conclusions without informing his readers how the application of reason and logic could sort out these matters. Take for example:

“So long as there is a finite chance of war, we have to be interested in outcomes; and although all outcomes would be bad, some would be very much worse than others.”

“To be willing to accept enormous destruction only for the sake of inflicting greater destruction on the enemy (which may be all that some mean by ‘winning’) argues a kind of desperation at the moment of decision which rules out reason.”

How much assured retaliatory destruction is enough? Brodie, unlike Robert McNamara, didn’t say — only that “The overriding considerations should be that the nation is committed to a deterrence policy and that such commitment dictates primary concern with the survival of a retaliatory force of adequate size following enemy attack.”

But here’s the rub: Brodie acknowledges that “A force which fulfills that requirement is likely to be also a good first-strike force.” What, then, to do? Brodie was dismissive of calls for nuclear disarmament. Instead, he was drawn, like Thomas Schelling and others, to “The kind of measures… which could seriously reduce on all sides the dangers of surprise attack.” 

In this regard, he warned that “Our overriding interest, for the enhancement of our deterrence posture, is of course in the security of our own retaliatory force. But this does not mean that we especially desire the other side’s retaliatory force to be insecure. If the opponent feels insecure, we suffer the hazard of his being trigger happy.”

Brodie’s brain was unable to sort out the dilemmas of deterrence and what to do if deterrence failed, as was periodically the case. Nobody’s brain was able to figure out the dilemmas of nuclear deterrence which led to the default position of having more killing capacity than reason and logic presumed necessary. And if “total” war was abhorrent, how could sharp reasoning and logical conclusions be applied to limited nuclear war? Here Brodie stumbled, as did his fellow brainiacs. But he captured these dilemmas far better than most, and is worthy of a first or second reading.


  1. Roberto Zadra (History)

    Hello Michael, it would be interesting to find out more about personal relationships, including chemistries and competitions, between some of the strategic thinkers of those times. How did Brodie and Kahn, Shelling and the Wohlstetters get along with each other? You have been around for some time, perhaps you picked up some stories worth sharing. Thanks. Roberto

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Brodie was an outsider by temperament, which meant that he often took issue with fellow intellectuals who chose to go into government to make policy, as well as those those who advised insiders. He never thought that deterrence was “delicate” or endangered once the U.S. acquired a sea-based deterrent, which led to clashes with those who fretted deeply about Minuteman survivability.

  2. krepon (History)

    From David Santoro’s essay in the current issue of The Nonproliferation Review:

    The stove-piping of expertise is not new. It was an issue during the Cold War. Back then, however, the challenge was embracing interdisciplinary approaches to address the nuclear problem. It was not, like today, about integrating the field’s numerous dimensions into a strategy tailored to different geographical areas. In the United States, this is best exemplified by Bernard Brodie’s 1966 career decision. In search of a model to address the challenge of the nuclear revolution, Brodie was in the 1940s a strong advocate of scien- tific (economic) conceptualization, as laid out in his influential 1949 World Politics essay “Strategy as Science.”14 Brodie wrote his paper at Yale University, but he was beginning his affiliation with the RAND Corporation, which quickly became the hot spot for “nuclear strategists.” Seventeen years later, however, he left RAND for the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) because he was outraged by the “astonishing lack of political sense” and “ignorance of diplomatic and military history” that he saw among economists who had become famous nuclear strategists.15 Brodie’s outrage reflected the failure of strate- gists to integrate the analytical power of economics with other disciplines or, to put it differently, to interact with and learn from experts in other fields.

  3. Joshua Pollack (History)

    And yet, interestingly, the chapter you quote could be understood as Brodie’s effort to weave together different strands of thought then current at RAND. The bit about being “interested in outcomes,” for example, is purest Kahn.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Thanks, Josh. See your point. When Brodie found this tiresome, he headed for UCLA.

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