Michael KreponThe Well Read Wonk (cont.)

Quote of the week:

“When I was 34, I wanted bling, because it persuaded me that I was special. When I was 44, I wanted blinis, because they made me feel sophisticated. When I was 54, I just want martinis, because I’m certain of what’s in them and of what that potion can do.” — Frank Bruni

“A fine bourbon on the rocks will also do.” — MK

The “great books” of nuclear arms control were written early. Subsequently, the most influential pieces of writing in our field have usually been found in shorter form. Ten years ago, I compiled a list of articles for the well-read wonk for Foreign Policy magazine. In case you missed it the first time around, or were too young for wonkdom, I’m reprising my list below.

As I noted back then, my choices are keyed to the following questions: Did the article help lay the foundations of analytical work in these fields? Did the article tackle an enduring problem in a creative way? Did the article “order” our field in a significant way? That is, did it shape public thinking and influence policy decisions over an appreciable period of time? And last, did the article encapsulate the bruising debates that were waged over nuclear weapons and arms control?

There’s the here and now, and then there’s history. You can affect the here and now more by knowing the history of how we got here.

Here’s my suggested reading list, in chronological order:

1) “Atomic Weapons and American Policy,” by J. Robert Oppenheimer (Foreign Affairs, April 1960).

A meditation on the difficulty of making make wise choices about the Bomb amidst oppressive secrecy. For a great biography of Oppenheimer and his Faustian bargain, see American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. For just one article, try this one. It has a haunting quality, since Oppenheimer’s enemies used secrecy to destroy his influence. Oppie’s famous quote, “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,” appears here.

2) “Arms Control, Inspections and Surprise Attack,” by Henry A. Kissinger (Foreign Affairs, July 1960).

Kissinger, the academic, postulated how best to stabilize the arms race. His prescriptions: complicate the calculations of the attacker and facilitate those of the defender. The SALT I negotiations, in which he played such a key role, produced a different result.

3) The special issue of Daedalus, published in Fall, 1960.

These articles, which served as the first drafts of the practice of arms control, were mostly written by participants in Cambridge-based study groups. Among the authors were Donald Brennan, Robert Bowie, Thomas Schelling, Jerome Wiesner and Bernard Feld. Classic reading.

4. “To Cap the Volcano,” by McGeorge Bundy (Foreign Affairs, October 1969).

Written on the cusp of MIRV and ABM deployments, when the strategic arms control talks were about to begin. Bundy argued that a new wave of weapons would provide Washington and Moscow “neither protection nor opportunity,” and that “politically the strategic arms race is in a stalemate.” These arguments served as the basis of opposition to the Nixon administration’s choices, and many that followed.

5. “The Decision to Deploy the ABM: Bureaucratic and Domestic Politics in the Johnson Administration,” by Morton H. Halperin (World Politics, October 1972).

A great teaching tool, this article clarifies how important decisions for nuclear weapons and arms control are affected by competing executive, congressional, and public interests. For the longer version, see Halperin’s Bureaucratic Politics & Foreign Policy.

6. “Is There a Strategic Arms Race?” by Albert Wohlstetter (Foreign Policy, Summer 1974) and “Apes on a Treadmill,” by Paul C. Warnke (Foreign Policy, Spring 1975).

Think of Ali vs. Frazier, except with typewriters. The editors of Foreign Policy sparked an extended debate over what Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara called the “action-reaction” syndrome of nuclear competition. Wohlstetter’s autarky exceeded even the strict confinements usually imposed by Foreign Policy’s editors. Warnke’s rebuttal had a title that provided additional fodder for his opponents during his confirmation hearings to become Jimmy Carter’s SALT negotiator.

7. “Spreading the Bomb without Quite Breaking the Rules,” by Albert Wohlstetter (Foreign Policy, Winter 1976/77).

A long-winded and prescient analysis of new proliferation dangers, along with a compelling list of corrective measures. Wolhstteter’s policy prescriptions were adopted by succeeding administrations. George W. Bush’s civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India marked a sharp break with these practices.

8. “Why the Soviet Union Thinks it Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War,” by Richard Pipes (Commentary, July 1977) and “Victory is Possible” by Colin S. Gray and Keith Payne (Foreign Policy, Summer 1980).

Pipes’s article reflected the thinking behind the “Team B” analysis that savaged the Soviet strategic estimates of the U.S. intelligence community for presuming that the masters of the Kremlin thought like Robert McNamara. This critique, and many others like it, bedeviled the Carter administration and provided running room for President Reagan’s strategic modernization programs. The Gray/Payne article argued, in effect, that the Pentagon should mirror image Soviet nuclear war-winning ambitions. Payne later became a central figure in preparing the George W. Bush administration’s strategic nuclear posture.

9. “The President’s Choice: Star Wars or Arms Control,” by McGeorge Bundy, George F. Kennan, Robert S. McNamara and Gerard Smith (Foreign Affairs, Winter 1984/85).

As during the Nixon administration, President Reagan was faced with crucial negotiating choices. This powerful quartet took aim at Reagan’s beloved SDI, which they characterized as “a classic case of good intentions that will have bad results because they do not respect reality.” This article crystallized the terms of public debate, which lingers to this day. The alchemy of Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan produced results much like those advocated here.

10. “Nuclear Learning and U.S.-Soviet Security Regimes” by Joseph S. Nye, Jr. (International Organization, Summer 1987).

Nye has generated echoes on many different subjects. Here he tackles the profoundly important question of whether and how nuclear learning occurred during the U.S.-Soviet competition. Nye easily crosses the street between IR theory and public policy. His analysis might now be usefully applied to the India-Pakistan case (and perhaps others to follow).

11. “A Nuclear Third Way in South Asia,” by George Perkovich (Foreign Policy, Summer, 1993).

An ambitious attempt to deal with nuclear outliers, Perkovich advocated “non-weaponized deterrence” for India and Pakistan. Paradoxically, advances in global efforts to contain proliferation — the negotiation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the indefinite extension of the Nonproliferation Treaty — generated push-back in the form of nuclear testing on the subcontinent. But Perkovich’s concept remains in play for other tough cases.

The passage of time has not changed my choices. Fellow wonks, what would you add to this list?


  1. Michael A. Hardin ( CIA, retired) (History)

    I would like to add a book to your list…a book you will never forget.
    “Nuclear Hostages,” by Bernard J. O’keefe (Houghton Mifflin Company.Boston, 1983).
    O’keefe was an advisor and fan and contributor to Sen. Paul Tsongas (D MA), member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I met O’keefe one day in 1983, when he visited Sen. Tsongas in his office in the Russel Senate Office Building. I was there on the staff as a Congressional Fellow and O’keefe asked me to review a draft of his book, Nuclear Hostages. I made a few innocuous remarks a minor point and he dropped the entire subject in the final draft.
    At Tinian, in 1945, if O’keefe had not corrected a wiring mistake made during the assembly of the Nagasaki Bomb (FAT MAN), it would not have been dropped on schedule as the bomb would have had to have been disassembled and reassembled correctly (by the book). No one knows what a day or two delay in the dropping of the bomb would have made as Nagasaki was a secondary target selected because of weather over Kokura – the primary target, was overcast. There are a loy of ‘what ifs’.
    O’keefe went on to become CEO of EG&G, INC., and claims to have witnessed more atomic bomb tests than anyone as he specialized in the instrumentation of nuclear tests. Test ban treaties etc. are covered.
    This a book on nuclear proliferation from someone who was there at the beginning. O’keefe died in 1989.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Great list, Matt.
      Many thanks–

  2. Matthew Bunn (History)

    Great list! The Halperin piece is one of my favorites, with its description of how these kinds of decisions are actually made (as opposed to how they are supposed to be made in theory). A couple of thoughts on additions:
    * It seems surprising to have no Schelling. I would suggest “The Reciprocal Fear of Surprise Attack” (RAND, 1958, later incorporated in The Strategy of Conflict https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/papers/2007/P1342.pdf). That article laid the foundation for thinking about crisis stability.
    * Also, Schelling and Halperin, Strategy and Arms Control (1961). A remarkable fraction of the arms control debates that have happened since are previewed there.
    * More recently, Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine (2017). No matter how bad you thought the crisis stability and C3 situation was in the late 50s and early 60s, it was worse. Vivid descriptions of Ellsberg’s work on these issues at the time, and a remarkable list of the times the United States has threatened first use of nuclear weapons.
    * Also more recently, Eric Schlosser, Command and Control (2013). Again, vivid details — and even professionals will find some things they didn’t know in Schlosser’s accounts of the history of nuclear weapons and nuclear safety.
    * John McPhee, The Curve of Binding Energy (1974). Amazing early account of the dangers of nuclear terrorism — overstated in a few spots, but nothing better has been written on the topic since, IMHO. Again, vivid details from the man who is perhaps America’s greatest narrative journalist.

    Now, one on which I’m biased, as it was written by my father: George Bunn, Arms Control By Committee: Managing Negotiations with the Russians (1992). Outlines the multi-level game Presidents had to play to pursue nuclear arms control: they needed a deal the Soviets (later the Russians) would accept, but at the same time one they could get 2/3 for in the Senate, which inevitably meant they needed support from the Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of Defense, and the intelligence community, and usually from U.S. allies as well. Nice case studies of how different Presidents pulled this off for different treaties.

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