By Fred Kaplan
For decades, American presidents have found themselves in a similar predicament, as revealed with bracing clarity by “The Bomb,” Fred Kaplan’s rich and surprisingly entertaining history of how nuclear weapons have shaped the United States military and the country’s foreign policy. It is the story of how high-level officials, generals and presidents have contended with what Kaplan calls “the rabbit hole” of nuclear strategy, whose logic transforms efforts to avoid a nuclear war into plans to fight one, even though doing so would kill millions of people without producing a meaningful victory for anyone. As President Barack Obama once put it before weighing in during a meeting on nuclear weapons: “Let’s stipulate that this is all insane.”
Owing to the spread of those weapons and to the inevitability of competition between powerful countries, generations of policymakers have leapt into the abyss again and again. Nuclear strategy is an exercise in absurdity that pushes against every moral boundary but that has likely contributed to the relative safety and stability of the contemporary era, during which nuclear weapons have proliferated but major war has all but vanished. Apparently, we need the eggs.
The early years of the American nuclear program were dominated by men in the mold of Curtis LeMay, the Air Force general who had overseen the firebombing of Japan during World War II as commander of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). His philosophy of how to win modern wars, Kaplan writes, was simple: “Bomb everything.” For many years, LeMay exercised remarkable influence over nuclear policy by maneuvering to secure SAC’s near-total control of the arsenal while avoiding any meaningful civilian oversight. By 1960, he had put an enduring stamp on the atomic age through the Single Integrated Operational Plan, or SIOP, SAC’s list of all the nuclear weapons in the American arsenal and their intended targets. Reflecting LeMay’s maximalist approach to firepower and minimalist approach to sparing civilians, the SIOP called for the president to fire thousands of nuclear weapons in the event of an armed conflict with the Soviet Union. Nine would strike Leningrad; 23 would hit Moscow. A Soviet city similar to Hiroshima in population and density would be struck with four bombs that would together yield more than 600 times the blast power of the atomic bomb that the United States dropped on the Japanese city in 1945. (“The Bomb” lacks an account of the decision-making behind that attack — an unfortunate omission, given the insight that Kaplan could likely bring to bear.)
Shortly after the SIOP was completed, President John F. Kennedy took office. The new secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, received a briefing on the targeting plan from Gen. Thomas Power, a protégé of LeMay, who privately described Power as a sadist. One target was a radar field in Albania. “Mr. Secretary, I hope you don’t have any friends or relations in Albania,” Power said at one point to McNamara with a chuckle, “because we’re going to have to wipe it out.” McNamara was not amused. He came away “as shocked and appalled as he’d ever felt in his life,” Kaplan writes.
Today, McNamara is best remembered for his leading role in the bloody escalation of the war in Vietnam. Before that debacle, however, he was one of the first senior officials to embrace the idea of a smaller nuclear arsenal governed by a less grotesque doctrine. But McNamara — and everyone who has tried since him — failed to solve what Kaplan reveals as a basic puzzle of nuclear strategy: “how to plan a nuclear attack that was large enough to terrify the enemy but small enough to be recognized unambiguously as a limited strike, so that, if the enemy retaliated, he’d keep his strike limited too.” The truth is that by the time the Soviets had developed a sizable arsenal of their own, “there was no scenario in which using nuclear weapons would give the United States — or any country — an advantage.” In order to deter the Soviets, however, the president and everyone around him had to pretend otherwise. And so a staggering cycle — arms race, stalemate, arms race — carried on.