Michael KreponBrodie’s Weakest Book

This space has periodically sung the praises of Bernard Brodie, but even All Stars occasionally go into slumps. Brodie was off his game in Escalation and the Nuclear Option (1966), in which he argued the case for tactical nuclear weapons. One cringe-inducing example:

Imaginative use of special types of nuclear weapons much earlier in the [Vietnam] campaign might have gone far toward defeating the Viet Cong without the commitment of large numbers of American ground forces.

Brodie argued that major U.S. adversaries could feel safer in carrying out conventional warfare unless Washington demonstrated readiness to use short-range nuclear weapons. At the time, he viewed countervalue, counterforce, and damage-limiting strikes as being unviable options for moral and as well as strategic reasons. This left a vast empty space for deterrence purposes, a space that Brodie provisionally filled with the battlefield use of nuclear weapons. To reconcile these views, he argued that the use of tactical nuclear weapons in a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union could prompt de-escalation, rather than escalation.

Here’s a sampler:

The dominant fact is that U.S. official pronouncements have for some time been committing us to the principle that local aggression on the part of our major opponents must at least initially be resisted locally. The possibility of further escalation will, to be sure, be unavoidably but also usefully present. It will induce caution on both sides, but it will more especially tend to dissuade the aggressor from testing very far the efficacy of a resolute local defense….

The existence of a nuclear stalemate on the strategic level may indeed favor rather than prohibit the use of nuclear weapons at the tactical level….

The best way, perhaps the only [way], for us to avert not only defeat but unnecessary escalation is to demonstrate clearly that our readiness to take risks is not less than theirs. How can we do that except by using the weapons demonstratively, few rather than many, and in as controlled a manner as possible, but nevertheless rather more abruptly than the Russians seem to have bargained for in launching their aggression?

During a visit to Pakistan last week, I heard strong echoes of Brodie’s reasoning, along with unconvincing assertions about command and control when nuclear weapons are deployed close to the forward edge of battle. My Pakistani colleagues rested their case on deterrence, which would override all other concerns.

Brodie’s arguments about escalation control were particularly weak. If nuclear-armed adversaries are on such different pages as to stumble into war, how realistic is it for them to find the same page after the detonation of one or more tactical nuclear weapons? J. David Singer put it this way in Deterrence, Arms Control, and Disarmament: Toward a Synthesis in National Security Policy (1962):

How reliable can commitments be between two enemies whose mutual trust even in peacetime is almost non-existent?… The point is that the dividing line between conventional and nuclear weapons is clear, obvious, and salient, while that between five and ten or between ten and twenty or between fifty and one hundred kiloton nuclear [detonations] is not. Escalation from the lowest to the higher would be not only tempting but easy.

The probability of miscalculation, accident, and loss of control grow as the range of a nuclear-capable delivery system shrinks. The central purpose of tactical nuclear weapons is to counter worrisome military asymmetries. Asymmetric responses are, however, the enemy of escalation control.

I recall that Brodie recanted the views expressed in Escalation and the Nuclear Option in a talk he gave, but I can’t locate the source. This is Alton Frye’s recollection, as well. Alton, who worked with Brodie at RAND, conveyed this memory:

Seyom Brown and I had been inside critics of his work on the likely utility of tactical or theater nukes… Seyom had the best line, though not one that won Bernard’s affection for us young whippersnappers: “It’s difficult to expect policymakers to have the courage of your convictions.”


  1. Scott Monje (History)

    So, what do you think of War and Politics?

    • krepon (History)

      Been a while since I looked at it. My recollection is that the book was pretty scattered with occasional nuggets. What did you think?

  2. joshua (History)

    Once again, Michael, I have to agree with your take on Brodie. “Escalation and the Nuclear Option” did not come across as either profound or original.

    “War and Politics” I found worthwhile, but thought it best understood in its post-Vietnam context. It’s been too long since I’ve read it, so I’ll stop there.

    All that aside, it’s unsettling if not entirely surprising that your Pakistani colleagues are favorably disposed to ideas about tactical nuclear war-fighting. Perhaps they express confidence in a strategy of limited nuclear war for a lack of confidence in the alternatives. Or perhaps they believe that the use of tactical weapons is the key to a Schelling-style strategy of risk manipulation (e.g., “Nuclear Strategy in Europe,” 1962). One problem with applying that strategy, which is untested to begin with — and let’s be grateful for that — is the lack of a continent and an ocean intervening between the home territories of the primary combatants. What’s more, major cities, including capitals, are very close to the frontier. What can be identified as a bright line between the tactical and the strategic nuclear domains in South Asia? They blend into each other. The time and space that Schelling envisioned as part of America’s European nuclear strategy just aren’t available to Pakistan.

    • MK (History)

      Thanks, Josh.
      My sense is that our Pakistani colleagues hold the view that the added deterrent effect of short-range capabilities will foreclose proactive defense/Cold Start-type ground games. Ergo, western concerns are overstated.

    • joshua (History)

      There might be some merit to that perspective. Or not. A great deal depends on how the Indians react. For as long as it works, it works. On the day it fails, the consequences of this choice of strategy may be horrendous. Of course, that could be said of any strategy that leans heavily upon nuclear weapons.

  3. anon (History)

    Wow. Using tactical nuclear weapons early in a regional, or local war, with the specific intent of “de-escalating” the conflict (i.e. applying enough force so that you not only won’t lose the conventional war but that you’ll discourage your adversary from escalating if you start winning the conventional war.) Does that sound familiar to anyone else????

    Russia refers to its current strategy on the use of nuclear weapons in local/regional wars as a strategy of “de-escalation.” Maybe they’ve finally caught up on their Cold War reading….

  4. Peter Hayes (History)

    A year after Brodie wrote about “imaginative” uses of nuclear weapons to fight the NLF in Vietnam {note: Brodie reveals his partisan self when he refers uncritically to the “Vietcong”–a pejorative term verging on gook during the war for Vietnamese of all political colors who joined the NLF–for those with short memories, or too young to have memories on this score, see the dialogue at: http://www.lib.washington.edu/SouthEastAsia/vsg/elist_1999/vc1.html }
    to demonstrate US risk-taking propensity to the then-Soviets, four JASON experts studied exactly such imaginative uses in the context off the Vietnam War. This imagined usage included the creation of a radiological belt to divide Vietnam in one study; and massive ground and airbursts to sever the Ho Chi Minh trail by bringing down the rainforest in vast swathes of destruction. The Jason study was done at the request of then SecDef McNamara.

    It took us 19 (!) years to get the report released under the FOIA. Those interested can read the report, the reflections of the original authors, and other related materials, at:
    Here are the take-home excerpts from the Jason report, Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia:

    “If about 100 weapons of 10-KT yield each could be delivered from base parameters onto all 70 [US] target areas in a coordinated strike, the U.S. fighting capability in Vietnam would be essentially annihilated. In the more likely contingency that only a few weapons could be delivered intermittently, U.S. casualties would still be extremely high and the degradation of U.S. capabilities would be considerable.” (p. 6)

    “The use of TNW [tactical nuclear weapons] in Southeast Asia would be highly damaging to the U.S. whether or not the use remains unilateral.” (7)

    “The overall result of our study is to confirm the generally held opinion that the use of TNW in Southeast Asia would offer the U.S. no decisive military advantage if the use remained unilateral, and it would have strongly adverse effects if the enemy were able to use TNW in reply.” (7)

    “Insurgent groups everywhere in the world would take note and would try by all available means to acquire TNWs for themselves.” (46)

    “Any fallout barrier that is effective in stopping men walking across it at 3 miles per hour would constitute a lethal threat to a population living permanently within a distance of 200 miles on either side of it. If the people were “friendly,” they would have to be evacuated; if they were “enemy” the barrier would be primarily an anti-population, rather than a tactical, operation.” (18)

    “During the 1980s there will be vast quantities of fissionable material produced in many countries, and leakage into unauthorized channels will be difficult to prevent. It is therefore of tremendous long-range importance to avoid setting a precedent for use of TNW by guerilla forces.” (46)

    “the effect of first use on world opinion in general and on our Allies in particular would be extremely unfavorable. With the exception of Thailand and Laos, the action would almost certainly be condemned even in Asia and might result in the abrogation of treaty obligations by Japan.” (50)

    “The effect on public opinion in the U.S. goes beyond the scope of this paper. It is probably safe to assume that the use of TNW would be extremely divisive, no matter how much preparation preceded.” (51)

    “In sum, the political effects of U.S. first use of TNW in Vietnam would be uniformly bad and could be catastrophic.” (51)

    End quotes.

    Source: F.J. Dyson, R. Gomer, S. Weinberg, S.C. Wright, Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia, Study S-266, Jason Division, Institute of Defense Analyses, contract DAHC15 67 C 0011, published March 1967; released to Nautilus Institute on December 4, 2003.

    Perhaps Brodie was thinking of situations such as the contemplated use of nuclear weapons to save the French colonial force at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The US also apparently looked hard at using nuclear weapons in 1968 in the battle over Khe Sahn. We filed FOIA on the latter study reportedly done by CINCPAC on the White House’s order, but CINCPAC states that they can’t find it.

    Both battles were essentially artillery duels and use of nuclear weapons would have been vastly disproportionate. The French were eventually overrun at Dien Bien Phu; and the US backed off such usage at Khe Sanh for all the right reasons.

    In terms of the military utility, the study was intended to offset loose discussion about using nuclear weapons out of frustration at the failure of bombing to interdict the trail. As we wrote at the time of release:


    Despite the hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs that were dropped on Mu Gia and other strategic sections of the Ho Chi Minh trail, the Rolling Thunder campaign begun in March 1965 failed in its interdiction objectives for reasons that are still debated by military historians. As early as the summer of 1966, internal review and mounting congressional and public pressure to find coercive leverage over North Vietnam led to a reevaluation of the bombing strategy.

    It was against this backdrop of frustration over the inability to interdict the Trail that the possibility of employing nuclear weapons was discussed in Pentagon circles. The JASON study was a response to this loose talk and, although it did not specifically focus on Mu Gia pass, it did analyze interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh trail, including nuclear attacks on bottlenecks such as Mu Gia pass.

    The JASONs argued that tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) would be most effective in stopping the enemy from moving “large masses of men in concentrated formations,” against fixed and accurately located targets like bridges, airfields, and missile sites — conditions that were radically different from those that existed along the Ho Chi Minh trail.

    Moreover, although they conceded that the use of TNW for interdiction of lines of communication in North Vietnam could be effective under certain circumstances, they determined that it would have required a “huge number of weapons.” Using evidence from a RAND targeting study, which indicated that one TNW equaled on average about 12 non-nuclear attack sorties, they estimated that a completely nuclear Rolling Thunder campaign would have required about 3000 TNW per year. They concluded that such an attack would eventually result in a stalemate, “with the enemy forces retiring into the forests and the US nuclear bombardment running into the law of diminishing returns.”

    The JASONs did address the use of TNW to interdict passes in a generic fashion. They stated:

    “TNW can be used for interdiction of passes and trails, independently of tree blowdown–Effects of blast, heat, and fire will only be felt by men who happen to be on the trails at the time of the burst; these effects are subject to [certain troop target] limitations. In conclusion, it appears that the interdiction of passes and trails by TNW can be effective only against massive enemy movements on a short time scale, but not against dispersed movements extending over many months or years.”

    Balancing the moderate strategic advantages against what they characterized as the “catastrophic” political effects of TNW in Southeast Asia, the authors of the study concluded that the military advantages of unilateral use of nuclear weapons “are not overwhelming enough to ensure termination of the war, and they are therefore heavily outweighed by the disadvantages of eventual bilateral use.”

    Without prejudice to Brodie’s generic notion of the (dis)utility of early use of small nukes in small numbers on deterring the former Soviet Union in Europe, the idea of early first-use in counter-insurgency to send such a message to Moscow was and is bizarre. Brodie clearly never patrolled in the jungles nor waded across paddy fields of Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos.
    Those who did–and there were some important figures in the world of high nuclear theory and policy who did so–quickly realized that there was a huge disconnect between nuclear weapons and fighting real wars.

    We are still unravelling the linkage forged in the Cold War between nuclear and conventional forces, nearly two generations of warriors later, only this time, there’s no strategic nuclear adversary like the FSU to worry about, and therefore even less reason to think about nuclear warfighting in any of the conflict zones in the world than there was in 1966.