Michael KreponHawks and Doves

Edward Teller, a refugee from Hungary, loved to play the piano. While at Los Alamos working on the H-bomb, he kept his colleagues awake at night playing Beethoven. Vaughn Williams penned symphonies. His “The Lark Ascending” contains the most pacific notes ever written, at least to my ear. Williams was an ambulance driver during World War I. Some innocent victims become hawks and some who served on the front lines become doves. But generalizations are usually short cuts for the simple-minded.

Why do we become Hawks or Doves? Graham Allison, Albert Carnesale and Joe Nye co-edited Hawks, Doves and Owls (1985), a book that worked better at defining the essence of these camps than explaining why individuals are drawn to them. Hawks and Doves in the United States are both missionaries at heart, proselytizing for the hearts and minds of the voting public. One camp is out to save the world from the scourge of nuclear arms control, the other from the scourge of nuclear weapons. They engage in a bloodless debate over abstract constructs on what could become a very bloody subject.

In most walks of life, authoritative views are based on real world experience. When it comes to the Bomb, anyone can sound authoritative because, thankfully, no one has had battlefield experience since 1945. Consequently, strongly held arguments can’t be disproven, since they are taken on faith. All of the central propositions on both sides of debates over nuclear weapons and arms control have been formulated by very authoritative civilians. Steven Cady neatly encapsulated this divide in “Saving the World,” an essay that appeared in the Air University Review (1981): “The first group looks at mankind and hopes for the best; the second group looks at man and plans for the worst.” Arms control treaties become the vessels in which optimists and pessimists play out their hopes and fears.

Henry Kissinger wrote retrospectively about these dynamics with respect to the policy of détente that he and President Richard Nixon engineered, in an Adelphi Paper essay published in 1982:

There was what may be called the ‘psychiatric school’ that dealt with the Soviet Union by the precepts of personal relations. This school believed that fundamentally the Soviet Union reacts to the American threat, that therefore reassurance is the answer and negotiations the mechanism. Then there was the ‘theological school’ that saw relations with the Soviet Union as an aspect of a general ideological liturgy and resisted any contamination represented by the implication of compromise inherent in negotiation. This school concentrated on pointing out the benefits to the USSR of any agreement that might be made, as if the USSR would ever make an agreement in which she had no benefits.

It’s striking how much these dynamics continue to play out over New START, two decades after the Cold War ended. Skeptics of the Treaty argue, with good reason, that Moscow can only be trusted to follow its own interests. But this assumes, unwisely, that nuclear dangers are a zero-sum game and that there are insufficient common interests in New START. Treaty opponents worry about verification – another sound instinct – but would weaken U.S. monitoring capabilities by shelving New START. They place their trust in nuclear weapons and national missile defenses, two declining instruments of U.S. strategic power in the 21st Century. One works only too well; the other very poorly against a sophisticated attack. The requirements of treaty ratification would shore up funding in both areas, but if irreconcilable Senators have their way, they would invite a coalition of liberal Democrats and deficit hawk Republicans to look harshly at these expenditures. Hawks and Doves actually need each other to calibrate deterrence and reassurance, but they are too busy arguing to notice.


  1. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Hawks see the salvation for the individual, and best expression of humanity, in combat and the institutions of combat. Doves are offended by combat, and tend to find salvation for the individual and best expression of humanity in the arts. An awful lot of humanity falls in between and for the most part devote an iota but not much more thought to the matter. My brother was in the portion of humanity who fell in the middle. After a 1.5 year long tour in Iraq, he’s a dove now. I only know a few combat vets who still think the military is the best reforming institution of humanity and combat rewarding for the individual (But I do know one. One.). However, for the most part both hawks, esp chicken hawks, and doves are left to their own devices with little feedback from anyone but each other. Of the two camps, damned few of them can look at themselves with an dispassionate eye and ask “What am I really doing?”.

  2. Coyote (History)

    Hawks and Doves are wasting too much energy on New START. I am surprised that it is generating so much discussion. New START has one huge selling point: It is not needed. The point is moot. There is no propellant towards war–especially nuclear war–between the US and the Russians. Neither side is interested in a renewed arms race. This should be easy.

    Doves should relax a bit because war is not imminent–quit being a bunch of drama queens. Hawks should relax a bit because New START doesn’t give up anything the US wasn’t willing to give up–face it, you weren’t going to use those nukes anyway. In the end analysis, New START is little more than a PR opportunity to win 15 minutes of fame on the international stage.

    From a security standpoint, there is no need to rush on New START, but then again, there is no reason to delay. The issue seems to depend on when our political leaders need the 15 minutes of fame. Of course, this rests on much needed negotiations between Republicans and Democrats, not Americans and Russians.

    Note to Michael: It’s going to pass. Slow, but sure. No worries. Be well.



    • FSB (History)

      I agree.

      In fact, I think caving-in on missile defense to promote New START was a mistake.

      I think we should suspend missile defense and, if Republicans want to hold their breath, also suspend ratification of New START.

      What the dems have given up to sell START is not worth it.

  3. Scott Monje (History)

    “Why do we become Hawks or Doves?”

    Some folks in political psychology have been looking to personality for an explanation in recent years. Personality traits, they say, affect partisan attitudes and voting behavior in predictable ways even after controlling for sociodemographic characteristics. This has renewed interest in the “authoritarian personality,” which was popular back in the 1940s and ’50s. See, e.g., Detlef Oesterreich, “Flight into Security,” Political Psychology (April 2005).

    • krepon (History)

      Thanks, Scott.

      Here’s Bernard Brodie’s take on hawkishness (in War & Politics): “The reasons for this are undoubtedly deeply psychological, probably having to do with unconscious urges that include a strong compulsion to punish.”

      Herb York (in Race to Oblivion) had this to say:

      “The various individual promoters of the arms race are stimulated sometimes by patriotic zeal, sometimes by a desire to go along with the gang, sometimes by crass opportunism, and sometimes by simple fear of the unknown. They are inspired by ingenious and clever ideas, challenged by bold statements of real and imaginary military requirements, stimulated to match or exceed technological progress by the other side or even by a rival military service here at home, and victimized by rumors and phoney intelligence. Some have been lured by the siren call of rapid advancement, personal recognition, and unlimited opportunity, and some have been bought by promises of capital gains. Some have sought out and even made up problems to fit the solution that they have spent much of their lives discovering and developing. A few have used the arms race to achieve other, often hidden goals.

      “Nearly all such individuals have had a deep, long-term involvement in the arms race. They derive either their incomes, their profits, or their consulting fees from it. But much more important than money as a motivating force are the individuals’ own psychic and spiritual needs; the majority of the key individual promoters of the arms race derive a very large part of their self-esteem from their participation in what they believe to be an essential — even holy–cause.”

      I suspect Hawks would level a comparable bill of particulars (minus the lure of profits and capital gains)against Doves — but I’ve yet to read one that matches Herb York’s characterization. Hawkish contributors to ACW: feel free to do so.

  4. Mark Gubrud (History)

    “The first group looks at mankind and hopes for the best; the second group looks at man and plans for the worst.”

    I can’t agree. Doves are often those who look at the state of the world and fear the worst, while hawks are often those who place an unreasonable faith in fallible human leaders.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      At times I get the impression that some hawks live in a constant state of fear–always afraid that someone is about to attack; afraid that we won’t have enough guns, regardless of how many we have; afraid that our relative advantages, whatever they are at the moment, won’t be the ones that matter in crunch (now it’s suddenly the tactical nukes that really count); afraid that those diplomats will sell us out the first chance they get.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      Yes, and the flip side of fear is anger and aggression, and both are controlled principally by the amygdala, so you could argue that hawks have hyperactive amygdalae, but having met plenty of both angry war protesters and calm soldiers, I doubt it.

      Rather, I think hawk and dove are particular cases of right and left, the divide between those loyal to the ideologies propagated by the rich, the powerful, and the state, and those who see through those ideologies.

      Hawks believe that their state is righteous and good and its enemies evil, that force and violence are often necessary, and that the only way to avoid war is to prepare for it. Doves see that right and good are subjective and often false all around, that force and violence beget anger and response in kind, and that preparation for war leads to war, over and over.

      Hawks point out that weakness encouraged Hitler and war was necessary to defeat him. Doves point out that war created Hitler.

    • Anon (History)

      Good soldiers are not necessarily hawks. My experience is the opposite.

      Angry protesters are not representatives of all doves, and may in any case have justification for their anger whereas hawks may have no justification of their paranoia.

      There may be more to your theory than you think.

  5. Nick Black (History)

    Are you familiar with the wonderful story Freeman Dyson tells about Teller? It’s in “Disturbing the Universe”, and well worth looking up:


    • krepon (History)

      Thanks for posting this, Nick–

  6. A Complete Stranger (History)

    I am in the middle of reading Etel Solingen’s “Nuclear Logics: Contrasting Paths in East Asia and Middle East,” which—if I may be permitted to paraphrase—says something like “sure, security issues are important for deciding who goes for the bomb, but they are viewed through the lens of domestic politics etc.” After viewing the Senate’s process of New START ratification, who can doubt this? As you point out, Hawks and Doves are missionaries; but they are trying to save votes, not souls.

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