Jeffrey LewisAlbert Wohlstetter on Proliferation

A belated posting from Michael Krepon’s shoebox but, I am sure Bob Zarate will agree, one worth the wait:

Albert Wohlstetter worked at the RAND Corporation in the 1950s and 1960s where his analyses of surprise attack scenarios and the “delicate balance of terror” drew considerable attention. He later complemented his consulting work by teaching at the University of Chicago, where he mentored Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalilzad and Henry Sokolski, among others. In the Winter 1976/1977 issue of Foreign Policy, he wrote a prescient article on proliferation, “Spreading the Bomb without Quite Breaking the Rules,” from which this quote is drawn:

Using the eighteenth century language of natural law from our Declaration of Independence, the NPT asserts the ‘inalienable right’ of all countries to peaceful nuclear energy – which includes, some exporters apparently feel, reprocessing. We have a new natural right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Plutonium.

You can read the entire essay online in Nuclear Heuristics: The Selected Writings of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter, Henry Sokolski and Robert Zarate, eds.


  1. AWR (History)

    The Wohlstetter’s work is a treasure trove. This essay did much to spur INFCE and the NNPA, which despite the obvious limits to their success, have informed nonproliferation policy for 30 years. We owe them a debt of gratitude, also to Henry and Robert for curating their writings. I hope the Obama folks and everyone else here are taking their limited time to go back and read this stuff. The first thing on n-p I ever read was Roberta’s “The Buddha Smiles…,” still the best treatise on India’s strategic calculations, written only 2 years after 1974. They were some of the most gracious and encouraging people I ever met, even for a 22-year-old sent into their New Alternatives Workshop in the early Reagan administration. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Robert Zarate

    Jeffrey, thank you for writing this “Michael Krepon’s shoebox” blogpost on Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter’s work in nuclear nonproliferation. I must also hasten to thank Mr. Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center, for citing Albert Wohlstetter’s ‘Spreading the Bomb without Quite Breaking the Rules’.

    For anyone interested, has a post excerpting the book’s intro on section the Wohlstetters’ work to nuclear nonproliferation.

    Other Wohlstetter nonpro writings that are worth revisiting:

    (1) Albert Wohlstetter, “Nuclear Sharing: NATO and the N+1 Country.” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 39, No. 3 (April 1961), pp. 355-387. PDF version available online via Nuclear Heuristics: Selected Writings of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter (Strategic Studies Institute, 2009).

    (2) Albert Wohlstetter, Thomas Brown, Gregory Jones, David McGarvey, Henry Rowen, Vincent Taylor and Roberta Wohlstetter, Moving Toward Life in a Nuclear Armed Crowd?, final report prepared for the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in fulfillment of ACDA/PAB-263, PH76-04-389-14 (Los Angeles, CA: PAN Heuristics, December 4, 1975 [Revised April 22, 1976]). This 1975 ACDA study was published by the University of Chicago Press in slightly revised form as Swords from Plowshares: The Military Potential of Civilian Nuclear Energy in 1979.

    As AWR points out,

    (3) Roberta Wohlstetter, The Buddha Smiles: Absent-Minded Peaceful Aid and the Indian Bomb, in Albert Wohlstetter, et al., Can We Make Nuclear Power Compatible with Limiting the Spread of Nuclear Weapons?, Vol. II-1, draft final report prepared for the US Energy Research and Development Administration in partial fulfillment of E(49-1)-3747, PH-78-04-370-23 (Los Angeles, CA: PAN Heuristics, November 15, 1976; Revised November 1977). A condensed version of that 1976 ERDA study is available online in Nuclear Heuristics (2009).


    (4) Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter, Gregory S. Jones and Henry S. Rowen, Towards a New Consensus on Nuclear Technology, Vol. 1 (of 2), a report prepared for the Arms Control Disarmament Agency in fulfillment of AC7NC106, PH-78-04-832-33 (Los Angeles, CA: Pan Heuristics, July 6, 1979).

  3. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    … Speaking of proliferation I could not but take notice of this on Sunday morning. Former VP Dick Cheney says that universal wiretapping and torture probably saved thousands to hundreds of thousands of lives. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe him. I’m more inclined to think that he’s invoking a fiction along the lines of the ‘credible intelligence’ about the second Iraqi nuclear program.

    But if he’s not telling a lie, has he not admitted that a nuclear attack against the U.S. or an ally has been thwarted? What else could give such a large body count?

  4. Anya L. (History)

    Another great line from “Spreading the Bomb…” is on the spread of HEU-powered research reactors:

    We dispersed “research” reactors in the Third World as a substitute for sending a symbolic “atomic peace ship” around the world rather than as a matter of hard economics for development, and were embarrassed to find that we had made it a matter of international prestige to have a research reactor, even for countries that had no trained personnel to use it.

    P.S. Nuclear Heuristics is amazing!

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