Michael KreponThe Well Read Wonk

Reading takes mere opinion to the next level. So what are the best articles ever written on nuclear weapons and arms control? I tried my hand at this for ForeignPolicy.com a while back, but my submission was buried and received no feedback. Maybe this time, I will receive additions and corrections.

With so many articles to choose from, you will have no difficulty making different choices. Most journal articles dealing with nuclear weapons and arms control deal with tactical considerations that were very important at the time of publication, but that were quickly overtaken by events. 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” these fields 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?

My list does not include important articles that shed light on historical chapters. This is why two important pieces published by International Security — David Alan Rosenberg on the origins of U.S. nuclear targeting and Ray Gartoff on the genesis of the Outer Space Treaty — are not included. And I hereby confess to not following the literature in Political Science journals.

With these criteria in mind, here, in chronological order, are my choices:

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. One or more of these essays surely belongs on this list.

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, who saddled Warnke’s rebuttal with a title that provided additional fodder for his opponents during the Carter administration.

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’ 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: Start 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 “nonweaponized deterrence” for India and Pakistan. Paradoxically, advances in global efforts to contain proliferation – the negotiation of the CTBT and the indefinite extension of the NPT – generated push-back in the form of nuclear testing on the subcontinent. But Perkovich’s concept remains in play for other tough cases.


  1. Alex W. (History)

    In Oppenheimer’s papers in the Library of Congress, there is a letter from I.I. Rabi forwarded Oppenheimer a newspaper clipping about an instance where a television host attempted to actually replicate Oppenheimer’s famous “scorpions in a bottle” image, and the host ended up getting stung on his hand in the process. Rabi joked that Oppenheimer ought to watch out, they could come after him all over again.

  2. Scott Wedman

    That is a fantastic list. Does it strike anyone else as curious how old most of the articles are? It suggests there has not been much progress in thinking about nuclear weapons in the last 30 years. Is that true?

  3. Annelise Anderson (History)

    You could try the book “Reagan’s Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World From Nuclear Disaster,” Crown, on sale June 2, 2009. Reagan’s strategy—in correspondence, public statements, his own diary, and his statements in National Security Council meetings (minutes recently declassified) for insight into his approach to strength, detente, negotiations, offense vs. defense (SDI), leading to the INF treaty and getting START I well underway.

  4. Miroslav Kalous (History)

    From my experience (that of a student of Strategic Studies subject at university) many insightful articles could be found in the book Alternative Nuclear Futures by Baylies and O’Neill.

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