Michael KreponBrodie Wonkathon

Great strategic analysts make the most of the opportunity to conceptualize the dawn of a new era. Bernard Brodie hit the jackpot twice, writing at a time when revolutions in military affairs came with dizzying frequency. As noted in an earlier post, The Absolute Weapon (1946) provided a prescient assessment of what the atomic bomb meant for international relations. Brodie anticipated the advent of intercontinental ballistic missiles in The Absolute Weapon, but didn’t dwell on this subject. In Strategy and the Missile Age (1959), he turned his considerable powers of analysis to the meaning of another new game changer.

Aspiring wonks: both of these books are on my top ten list. If you have the time for binge reading, try back-to-back Brodie. Here’s a sampler from Strategy and the Missile Age:

On preventive war:

It is somewhat bizarre to argue that it would be wise to choose now an infinitely drastic and terrible course mostly because the problem that would allegedly be liquidated in that way is one which we or our heirs would be too stupid to handle properly later…

A decision for “timely action” (as one euphemism has it) would require an extraordinary, indeed almost boundless, degree of conviction and resolution on the part of the President…

War is generally unpopular, and the public mood inclines to support really bold action only in response to great anger or great fright.

On the anatomy of deterrence:

The one great area in our public affairs in which romanticism survives is that of national defense policies… Romanticism exalts strong action over negotiation, boldness over caution, and feeling over reflection. It exalts dedication to a cause, with minimum consideration for the utility of the cause. It also prompts us to imagine ourselves more courageous, alert, and idealistic than sober appraisals of our behavior would confirm…

Deterrence now means something as a strategic policy only when we are fairly confident that the retaliatory instrument upon which it relies will not be called upon to function at all… We expect the system to be always ready to spring while going permanently unused. Surely there is something almost unreal about all this…

So long as there is a finite chance of war, we have to be interested in outcomes; and although all outcomes would be bad, some would be very much worse than others.

On the problem of stability:

Deterrence after all depends on a subjective feeling which we are trying to create in the opponent’s mind, a feeling compounded of respect and fear, and we have to ask ourselves whether it is not possible to overshoot the mark. It is possible to make him fear us too much, especially if what we make him fear is our over-readiness to react, whether or not he translates it into clear evidence of our aggressive intent. The effective operation of deterrence over the long term requires that the other party be willing to live with our possession of the capability upon which it rests…

What we have done must convince us that Thucydides was right, that peace is better than war not only in being more agreeable but also in being much more predictable. A plan and policy which offers good promise of deterring war is therefore by orders of magnitude better in every way than one which depreciates the objective of deterrence in order to improve somewhat the chances of winning.


  1. joshua (History)

    Both are classics. In his best work, Brodie had a remarkable way of anticipating ideas more fully developed later on. A chapter of Brodie is often worth a book or two (or more) by others. The word “prescience” is employed too casually nowadays, but if it applies to anyone, it’s to Brodie.

    I admit to having read plenty of Brodie’s work over the years…


    It’s been as influential as anything I’ve encountered.

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