Michael KreponBrodie at the Beginning

Original Caption: “Professor Bernard Brodie conducting a class.” September 1946. Walter Sanders, photographer.

It’s been awhile since I’ve steered aspiring wonks and ACW readers to the virtues of reading Bernard Brodie’s first take about the Bomb. Brodie made some incorrect predictions, but on the whole, nobody was more prescient about the nuclear future, and no-one wrote more gracefully about nuclear dilemmas. Brodie used the word “deter” before it became common parlance. Check out his essays in in The Absolute Weapon (1946), from which these quotes are taken:

“Most of those who have held the public ear on the subject of the atomic bomb have been content to assume that war and obliteration are now completely synonymous, and that modern man must therefore be obsolete or fully ripe for the millennium… But in view of man’s historically-tested resistance to dramatic changes in behavior, especially in a benign direction, one may be pardoned for wishing to examine the various possibilities inherent in the situation before taking one of them for granted.”

“Men have in fact been converted to religion at the point of the sword, but the process generally required actual use of the sword against recalcitrant individuals. The atomic bomb does not lend itself to that kind of discriminate use.”

“If the atomic bomb can be used without fear of substantial retaliation in kind, it will clearly encourage aggression. So much the more reason, therefore, to take all possible steps to assure… that the aggressor who uses the bomb will have it used against him… Thus, the first and most vital step in any American security program for the age of atomic bombs is to take measures to guarantee to ourselves in case of attack the possibility of retaliation in kind.”

“The bomb may act as a powerful deterrent to direct aggression against great powers without preventing the political crises out of which wars generally develop.”

“There is no reason to suppose that a nation which has made reasonable preparations for war with atomic bombs would inevitably be in a mood to surrender after suffering the first blow.”

“A nation which is well girded for its own defense as is reasonably possible is not a tempting target to an aggressor. Such a nation is therefore better able to pursue actively that progressive improvement in world affairs by which alone it finds its true security.”


  1. Fred Miller (History)

    Professor Brodie understood the bomb’s power very well, but not it’s weakness. The Japanese, even after they became aware of the bomb’s ability to destroy a whole city, were undeterred: they didn’t care about their cities, only about their army, as Ward Wilson has so clearly shown. The Soviets valued their cities, apparently, and were deterred, but from the Vietnamese to Al Qaida to Putin’s Ukrainians, any force that can attack a nuclear power without providing it a nuclear target is undeterred.

    A nation that focuses on it’s strength, and ignores it’s weakness, is as doomed as Tolkein’s Smaug.

    Which is the point Brodie was making in the last sentence quoted, about “progressive improvement in world affairs”. We would do well to heed his advice in that regard, especially when considering our budget for military vs. civilian foreign aid.