Michael KreponHeroes of Arms Control: Tom Schelling and Mort Halperin

Lyric of the Week:

Now the darkness only stays at night time
In the morning it will fade away
Daylight is good
At arriving at the right time
But it’s not always going
To be this grey

All things must pass
All things must pass away
— George Harrison

Thomas C. Schelling and Morton H. Halperin wrote the most important book on arms control. Strategy and Arms Control (1961) sums up and synthesizes the new thinking that was afoot along the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the summer of 1960.

The Eisenhower administration engaged in talks on ending nuclear testing and on preventing surprise attack. These initiatives flamed out, but it mattered that an American President dipped his toes in these waters. Like Moscow, Washington offered plans for general and complete disarmament, but their sequencing was deliberately objectionable to the other side. New thinking was needed about how to tame the nuclear arms competition.

Big brains gathered to address this problem. Two other important volumes emerged from these deliberations. The first was a collection of essays that appeared in the fall 1960 issue of Daedalus, the American Academy’s journal. A larger collection of essays, edited by Donald G. Brennan, appeared as Arms Control, Disarmament, and National Security. Brennan lists only two women (Nancy Hoepli who became a central figure at the Foreign Policy Association and Miriam Salpeter from the Physics Department at Cornell) among the participants. The other participants were white males.

Schelling and Halperin pulled these strands together in Strategy and Arms Control. The pursuit of arms control was possible, they argued, because “our military relation with potential enemies is not one of pure conflict and opposition.” There could still be common approaches to achieve three core objectives: “the avoidance of war that neither side wants, in minimizing the costs and risks of the arms competition, and in curtailing the scope and violence of war in the event it occurs.”

Collaborative efforts were possible and advisable “to avoid false alarms and misundertandings.” Arms control could also help “in avoiding the kinds of crises in which withdrawal is intolerable” and in providing “reassurance that restraint on the part of potential enemies will be matched by restraint of our own.” Arms control, if properly pursued, could codify or implicitly reaffirm “a mutual interest in inducing and reciprocating arms restraint.”

Schelling and Halperin wrote that arms control wasn’t just a numbers game. Arms control could entail more or less of certain types of weapons, unilateral initiatives, tacit or negotiated arrangements. They suggested no end state or “ultimate goal.” The challenge at hand was to avoid catastrophe: “Man’s capability for self-destruction cannot be eradicated — he knows too much! Keeping that capability under control — providing incentives to minimize recourse to violence — is the eternal challenge.”

Schelling and Halperin summed up their proposed operating system this way: “arms control, if properly conceived, is not necessarily hostile to, or incompatible with, or an alternative to, a military policy properly conceived… The aims of arms control and the aims of a national military strategy should be substantially the same.” They recognized how difficult the practice of arms control would be: “Military collaboration with potential enemies is not a concept that comes naturally.” It would be simple to view arms control “as an alternative, even antithetical field” from military strategy. Avoiding this trap would require a sophisticated process of blending. Failing this, concepts of arms control and national security would be at loggerheads.

We’ve lost appreciation of the sophistication behind Schelling and Halperin’s approach. The loudest voices in the Republican Party consider  arms control to be antithetical to military strategy. And we are less secure as a result.

So who are these guys, the founding fathers of arms control? The most enjoyable aspect of writing about the rise of this body of work is to interview the players and those who knew them.

Tom Schelling’s father was a Naval Academy graduate; his mother received a Bachelor and Master’s degree. Teaching was one of the few professions available to accomplished women back then, so she taught. She stopped to become a homemaker, raising three children.

According to Schelling’s sister, Nancy Dorfman, the future Nobel Laureate was a quiet, unremarkable student until his mother said, “Tommy, it grieves me that you don’t get better grades. I would like you to get A’s.” Thereafter he did. She remembers that, in high school young Tom Schelling’s personality changed after reading How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie and other books of that ilk. He became outgoing, and was chosen a class leader. The family didn’t stay put for very long, moving around with his father’s postings. He went to Berkeley, majoring in Economics to learn tools to prevent another Great Depression. He couldn’t get into the Navy because of a stomach ulcer, so went to Harvard to pursue a doctorate.

His razor-sharp mind and succinct powers of analysis were hallmarks of a career that began with the Budget Bureau and the Marshall Plan, ending at the University of Maryland, with stops at Yale, Rand and Harvard along the way. Schelling was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2005 for applying game-theory analysis to problems of conflict and cooperation. After his death in 2016, ACW Founding Father Jeffrey Lewis, who studied under Schelling, tells me that his family decided to auction off the Prize to raise money for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Mort Halperin was born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn to first generation Jewish immigrants from Ukraine and Hungary. His father was a trained lawyer who chose to be a title examiner — an occupation that appeared to be Depression-proof. His mother was a homemaker. Far-away places and politics captured his imagination early on. He excelled at school and entered Columbia at sixteen — which seemed like a distant land from Bensonhurst. At Columbia, he had the good fortune to take courses from two extraordinary, young professors, Warner Schilling and Kenneth Waltz. As a senior, he took a course from a graduate student, Glenn Snyder, filling in for Waltz who was enticed away from Columbia. The course was on the theory of nuclear deterrence. Mort was hooked.

From Columbia he went to study and write about nuclear strategy at Yale, which boasted not only a great Political Science faculty, but also an institute of international affairs. To his dismay, the international relations stalwarts he hoped to study with left in a dispute with the President, leaving him marooned. Thomas Schelling came to his rescue. Visiting Yale to give a talk, they met, and Schelling brought him to Harvard where he introduced him to Henry Kissinger — another future boss. One plum assignment fell into his lap after the next.

Mort badgered his mentor about the need for a primer on arms control — a holistic picture rather than detailed essays about parts of the problem — and Schelling eventually consented to a collaborative work. It remains required reading to this day.


  1. Jonah Speaks (History)

    Schelling’s two books on nuclear strategy are a very useful starting point for a rigorous analysis of nuclear strategy. His co-authored book on arms control was a lengthy slog: too much on the one hand, but on the other hand, and on the third hand, as well as on the fourth hand. There was a lot of qualitative description of possible ways to go on arms control, but not the deep insights on how best to go about it that I was hoping for.

    So far as I am aware, Schelling never endorsed no first use of nuclear weapons, despite discussing the nuclear taboo and the clear fire break between conventional and nuclear war. He was apparently convinced that chancy nuclear threats were needed to defend Europe from Soviet invasion. Also, he opposed global nuclear zero, because he opined that every major conventional war would then become a race to see who could first re-manufacture, re-deploy, and threaten or use nuclear weapons to end the war. On both points I disagree.

    It is important to note, of course, that arms control can be highly useful, even if it never leads to complete disarmament. With respect to arms control of ships, planes, tanks, or robots, zero might not be the right answer for global stability. Nuclear weapons are in a different category. If we would follow Schelling’s opinions, the world will be always poised on the brink of nuclear catastrophe. This is not such a good bet, in either the short run or the long run.

  2. Tire_Fire___ (History)

    The goal of arms control, especially initial arms control, was to continue Wilson’s goal of ending secret treaties that started WW1. It was obvious then, from a generation that experienced WW1 and it’s consequences (WW2) personally, that diplomacy would have to be open and transparent for there to be any hope of avoiding catastrophe.

    Jump ahead a half century to Trump’s attempts to get secret deals out of North Korea and the Taliban, while openly refusing transparent deals like the JCPOA and the INF. Even though these are fluttering out, the world has taken notice which is how Russia and China are able to negotiate secret deals in Italy and Cambodia. Britain’s new leader makes secret deals within his own party to ensure he remains PM as China makes secret deals with gangs to suppress dissent in Hong Kong, a tactic that Russia took notice of. Macron’s Benalla Affair casts a shadow over “safe” European countries. Only Merkel is left out, and she’s retiring.

    To call back to the 7/8/19 article, we truly are in a new era. Foreign policy is now about what people can get away with, and not a shared notion of not accidentally killing people. The American Century is over, even if the great decoupling takes a decade to really shape up. First economies will be split apart then political systems. Climate change will accelerate this.

    On a more positive note, perhaps a war with Iran would spawn another gas crisis (itself borne from secret dealings between King Salman and US oil companies) and force domestic nukes for peace.