Michael KreponHeroes of Arms Control: Thomas Schelling

Quote of the week:

“There has never been any doubt about the military effectiveness of nuclear weapons or their potential for terror. A large part of the credit for their not having been used must be due to the “taboo” that Secretary of State Dulles perceived to have attached itself to these weapons as early as 1953, a taboo that the Secretary deplored. The weapons remain under a curse, a now much heavier curse than the one that bothered Dulles in the early 1950s. These weapons are unique, and a large part of their uniqueness derives from their being perceived as unique.” — Thomas Schelling Nobel Prize lecture, 2005

In writing my impressionistic account of the rise, demise, and revival of nuclear arms control, I’ve read and reread lots of books and essays. Many brilliant people contributed to the field. Among the brainiacs who conceptualized the field of arms control, one stands out: Thomas C. Schelling.

Re-reading Schelling’s writing is always rewarding. The man’s mind was a steel trap. He had a knack for getting to the heart of the matter and expressing his ideas in ways that put your mind to work. Schelling won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2005 for having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis. Fair enough. But for my money, he deserved a Nobel for pointing us in the direction of nuclear arms control.

His razor-sharp mind and succinct powers of analysis were hallmarks of a career that began with the Bureau of the Budget and the Marshall Plan, ending at the University of Maryland, with stops at Yale, RAND and Harvard along the way. After Schelling’s death in 2016, his family auctioned off his Nobel Prize to raise money for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

I barely knew the man but got to know him better by interviewing his sister, Nancy Dorfman. Schelling’s father was a Naval Academy graduate; his mother earned undergraduate and graduate degrees – no small feat at the time. Teaching was one of the few professions available to accomplished women back then, so she taught, stopping to become a homemaker and to raise her three kids.

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. The family didn’t stay put for very long, moving around with his father’s postings. He began college at San Diego State and then transferred 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.

Schelling took Mort Halperin, then adrift at Yale working on a doctorate without a mentor, under his wing. At Halperin’s urging, they wrote a primer, Strategy and Arms Control, published by the Twentieth Century Fund in 1961, that remains a classic. Arms control ought to be about stabilization and reassurance, they wrote. They were open minded about numbers; depending on the type of weapon and its means of delivery, some ought to be reduced, others might be increased. Adversaries needed to know one another better and to have meaningful exchanges in order to avoid false alarms and misunderstandings. Our concept of national security, they wrote, needed to be enlarged by making room for arms control.

Schelling later reminisced that “Holding off disaster was what most of us aimed for.” In this, he and his “Charles River Gang” colleagues succeeded. Deterrence alone was dangerous. Deterrence needed reassurance to succeed, and arms control, despite its ups and downs, provided the reassurance.

Schelling applauded the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty as one precondition to slowing down the arms race. He quipped, “Most of what we call civilization depends on reciprocal vulnerability.” You have to love a brain that frames the ABM Treaty in this way.

Even with the ABM Treaty, it took the better part of two decades of negotiations to control and reduce offenses — and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Schelling became disenchanted with arms control and the horse trading needed for treaty ratification. The epitome of foolishness, in his view, was trying to find a survivable, mobile basing mode for the MX /Peacekeeper missile on land when the obvious alternative was at sea. Writing before the Reagan-Gorbachev breakthrough, he concluded that arms control had become too much of a numbers game. The character of the weapons mattered more than their number. Their character resided in their means of delivery and deployment.

Then came the breakthrough of the INF Treaty in Reagan’s second term, followed by the extraordinary accomplishments of the George H.W. Bush administration. Bush, Brent Scowcroft, Dick Cheney (that’s right, Cheney) and the extraordinarily gifted James Baker operationalized Schelling. Their piece de resistance was START II, which banned land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads to accompany deep cuts.

The ban on MIRVed ICBMs and the ABM Treaty established long-term conditions for the strategic stability that Schelling and others had conceptualized.These two great accomplishments were dispensed with in 2002 by George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. Had Bush 43 & Co. followed Schelling’s playbook, they would have used their immense leverage in 2001 to adapt to ABM Treaty to deal with new missile threats in return for Russian implementation of START II. The option to withdraw from the ABM Treaty could have been used to keep Putin from flight testing new ICBMs with multiple warheads. It was not to be: Putin couldn’t live without MIRVed ICBMs and Bush couldn’t live with the ABM Treaty.

Bush had made up his mind to withdraw from the ABM Treaty before being elected, as he wanted to be unencumbered to deal with missile threats from outliers and he wanted to avoid endless haggling with Putin. Putin set about to deploy missiles prohibited by START II in the worst way imaginable in Schelling’s universe, with liquid-fueled MIRVed missiles based in silos.

What began with Putin and George W. Bush accelerated with the toxic pairing of Putin and Donald Trump. Strategic arms control is now on a ventilator. John Bolton may be gone from the Trump administration, but his plan to shorten the life of New START remans in place.

Schelling, for all his brilliance, did not foresee the most important accomplishment of arms control when he and Halperin wrote the script. Arms control negotiations and the treaties they produced served to set nuclear weapons apart from other instruments of warfare. They were so different that they aren’t even tested. Their destructive power made them a breed apart. Every negotiated agreement confirmed the taboo against use. This was the subject of his Nobel Prize lecture, which I recommend reading.

Deterrence plus reassurance worked, as Schelling envisioned. Once Trump leaves office, we’ll need to think creatively about how to retrieve reassurance.


  1. AEL (History)

    Schelling is flat out wrong. Nuclear weapons have been used. Multiple times in fact. They have even been used against people twice.

  2. Gregory Matteson (History)

    Isn’t Truman’s refusal to use Nukes in Korea at the root of the taboo lamented by Dulles? The man who authorized them against Japan, who fired MacArthur and accepted a grudged draw in Korea and refused to fight World War 3, with Nukes, in 1951.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      This was huge. Eisenhower’s decisions not to use in Korea and Vietnam also huge. Had either one used the bomb in warfare,.. Just imagine the consequences.

  3. Pavel (History)

    I’m not sure I understand this part – “Bush 43 & Co. [could] have used their immense leverage in 2001 to adapt to ABM Treaty to deal with new missile threats in return for the Duma’s ratification of START II”. The Duma was against an adaptation of the ABM Treaty and very much against START II. How could you possibly have an “in return” here?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Yeltsin kept Clinton waiting for his entire two terms on START II ratification. Putin tried reverse leverage– conditional ratification. Bush could have adapted the AVM Treaty to suit his purposes — Putin said he was amenable, no? — and secured the Senate’s consent to treaty amendments with conditions of his own. A pipe dream, I know.
      Best wishes,

    • Pavel (History)

      Russia did ratify START II (with its ban on MIRVed ICBMs that a lot of people didn’t like). But the condition was that the ABM Treaty remains intact (i.e. without modifications). So, I’m not sure there was a deal there that included an adapted ABM treaty.

  4. Michael Krepon (History)

    Pavel: have reworded the post to clarify. Thanks for calling my attention to this–

    • Pavel (History)

      It was a complicated story, that’s for sure

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