Michael KreponEssential Reading?

Michael Krepon here …

Last month, Foreign Policy magazine’s website ran a series of top ten best and worst book lists drawn up mostly by policy-oriented academics. I tried my hand at the best books ever written on arms control and nuclear weapons, drawing from the courses I teach at the University of Virginia. My list consists entirely of US authors, a decision that can be defended in part because the founding fathers of deterrence and arms control were largely home grown. But there’s plenty of room for disagreement here, and I would be interested in keeping the conversation going with your additions and subtractions.

The classics in this field came early on, as might be expected: How often do strategists have the opportunity to work on a blank canvas? Most of the books listed below are therefore quite dated. By the late 1960s, nuclear weapon and arms control strategists began to lob most of their heavy artillery via journal articles. (More on this later.) Those who are curious about how these debates started might check out the following volumes:

1. The Acheson-Lilienthal Report (1946).

OK, it’s not exactly a book, but it is an extraordinary analytical effort, completed in only two months, laying out a plan for international control of atomic energy. Current hopes for abolition and the activities of the International Atomic Energy Agency draw from this remarkably bold and politically untenable report, which acknowledged that, “Inherent in the adoption of any plan of international control is a probable acceleration — but only an acceleration — of the rate at which our present monopoly will inevitably disappear.” The principal author was J. Robert Oppenheimer.

2. Dexter Masters and Katharine Way, editors, One World or None (1946).

Those wanting a sense of how policy “influentials” reacted to the shock of the atomic bomb can find no better text. Essays by the likes of Albert Einstein, Oppenheimer, and General “Hap” Arnold explained the Bomb to a stunned and frightened public. Some of the contributors became central in efforts to ban the Bomb. This book was reissued in 2007.

3. Bernard Brodie (editor), The Absolute Weapon, Atomic Power and World Order (1946).

Some of my choices are arguable; this one isn’t. Brodie and a group of political scientists at Yale’s Institute of International Studies took a first cut at the implications of the Bomb and predicted, among other prescient calls, that nations would “be eager to make political capital” out of a superiority in numbers. This slender volume was the source of the much-repeated maxim regarding conflicts between major powers: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them.”

4. Henry Kissinger, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957).

Kissinger’s launching platform was the outgrowth of a Council on Foreign Relations study group. He called for embroidering nuclear deterrence with limited war fighting options. Kissinger took on an easy target in the doctrine of massive retaliation, but this is nonetheless an ambitious book — and one that opened up a Pandora’s box of nuclear weapon requirements.

5. Bernard Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age (1959).

Brodie moved to the RAND Corporation, where he wrote this work seeking to counter the prevailing winds of nuclear policy on which Kissinger had set sail. Brodie’s background as a naval historian provided an excellent vantage point to assess nuclear matters. Brodie resisted enthusiasms on almost every page. This book continues to offer rewards. For example, he warned against preventive war which required “an extraordinary, indeed almost boundless, degree of conviction and resolution on the part of the President.”

6. Thomas C. Schelling and Morton H. Halperin, Strategy and Arms Control (1961).

This spare volume mapped new terrain that would become the practice of arms control, a much needed alternative to sterile U.S. and Soviet rhetorical volleys calling for general and complete disarmament. Another outgrowth of a study group, this volume couldn’t have been better timed: several of the Study Group participants, including Halperin, moved from Cambridge to Washington to help Presidents Kennedy and Johnson enact their ideas.

7. Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (1960) and Thinking About the Unthinkable (1962).

A two-fer. These books, which bracketed the Cuban missile crisis, put Kahn’s fertile and febrile brain on display to the delight of a long procession of Hollywood screenwriters — even after the Cuban missile crisis seriously depressed box office receipts for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Kahn fearlessly took Kissinger’s reasoning to its logical conclusion, which resonated with some military minds, but not with those in the Oval Office.

8. Raymond L. Garthoff, D├ętente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan (1985) and The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War (1994).

A two-volume history of nuclear arms control written by a practitioner with deep knowledge of Washington and Moscow. Garthoff, a meticulous researcher and restrained commentator, performed a rare feat: his many books are as accomplished as his many years of public service.

9. McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival, Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (1988).

Bundy’s mind worked like a jeweler examining all facets of the policy dilemmas associated with the Bomb. An elegant writer, he came to the subject honestly: His father was Henry L. Stimson’s assistant at the War Department, and he helped Stimson write his memoirs.

10. Strobe Talbott, The Master of the Game, Paul Nitze and the Nuclear Peace (1988).

Talbott chronicled machinations of nuclear negotiations from his perch at Time magazine. Like Bob Woodward, he gained great access to decision makers. Unlike Woodward, he provided context and depth to blow-by-blow descriptions. This book rises above its companions because, in addition to focusing on the turmoil within the Reagan administration, Talbott provides a biography of Nitze, a complex figure whose tenacity helped negotiate or block arms control agreements.


  1. Major Lemon (History)

    Herman Kahn’s other classic ‘On Escalation’ is ideal reading for anyone with a mother-in-law problem.

  2. bradley laing (History)

    Could you make up a seperate list of documents that actually determined nuclear policy?

    Why, for example, did the public agree to pay for the MX Missile in 1987, the same year that Reagan made massive cuts in the nuclear arsenal?

    Or again, did any book by the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament get published that the public read?

  3. anon (History)

    A nice list for a little light summer reading (or re-reading as the case may be). I’d add John Newhouse’s Cold Dawn: The Story of SALT, because, for some of us, it was the first great read linking the theology of nuclear deterrence with the practice of arms control negotiations.

  4. ASDF (History)

    Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Dark Sun, also. But not Arsenals of Folly.

  5. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Command and Control of Nuclear Forces, Paul Bracken.

    Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, Edited by Pavel Podvig.

    How about some short Wonker reading for the toilet, or just before bed? I humbly list these two short ditties.

    The Uncertainties of A Preemptive Nuclear Attack, Matthew Bunn :Scientific American, November 1983 pg 38.

    The Dynamics of the Arms Race, George Rathjens : Scientific American April 1969, pg 15.

  6. Nick Black (History)

    There ought be a collection of literature from the physicist community approachable by the lay reader, a “Portable Nuclear Physics”. Hans Bethe’s unclassified analytic work (collected or at least referenced in some Dyson books), especially the article with Garwin. For that matter, Dyson’s got some great stuff on the subject himself, along with project orion and all that atoms-for-piece stuff. Teller’s autobiography has some insightful passages, as do Oppenheimer’s (rare and slim) popular offerings and for that matter Kai+Bird. Excerpts from McPhee’s The Curve of Binding Energy, preferably where Taylor’s doing most of the talking.

  7. Bill (History)

    Great list — thanks Michael!

    One book I would add for is Fred Kaplan’s “Wizards of Armageddon” – a good look at the development of US nuclear policy with some interesting background on many of the key players

  8. Matthew Hoey (History)

    I like Major Lemon’s comment regarding Kahn’s On Escalation. Nice one! If I have a single book that I refer most here at home it is On Escalation – a great read. One of these days I am going to return it to the Widener Library at Harvard – honest.