Read The Wizards of Armageddon by Fred Kaplan Free Online
Book Title: The Wizards of Armageddon|
Date of issue: August 1st 1991
ISBN 13: 9780804718844
The author of the book: Fred Kaplan
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 518 KB
Edition: Stanford University Press
Read full description of the books The Wizards of Armageddon:“An all-out nuclear war between Russia and the United States would be the worst catastrophe in history, a tragedy so huge it is difficult to comprehend. Even so, it would be far from the end of human life on earth. The dangers from nuclear weapons have been distorted and exaggerated, for varied reasons. These exaggerations have become a demoralizing myth, believed by millions of Americans.”
- The first lines of Nuclear War Survival Skills, by Cresson H. Kearny.
This introduction to Cresson Kearny’s nuclear war survival manual, which helpfully attempts to impart “lifesaving nuclear facts and self-help instructions,” pretty much encapsulates the absolutely, 100% f—cked up nature of nuclear war planning.
Just unpack the paragraph a bit. It begins by stating, rightly, that an all-out war would be so huge as to be beyond human comprehension (“the worst catastrophe in history”). Okay, so far. But then, within the next dozen words or so, Kearny states that the danger has been “distorted and exaggerated.”
You don’t have to be a pedantic textualist to recognize that Sentence #1 and Sentence #3 directly contradict each other. How, after all, can “the worst catastrophe in history” possibly be “distorted and exaggerated”? Then, just in case you weren’t confused as to whether you should fear or welcome the bright suns of a nuclear apocalypse (I got a nice tan! No more taxes!), Kearny chides you for believing a demoralizing myth.
The unspoken message here: Rather than question your Government’s policies towards Communism and Russia, just get in your homemade fallout shelter, drink some powdered milk, and shut the hell up. Don't worry, everything should clear up in two weeks.
Fred Kaplan’s The Wizards of Armageddon does not mention Cresson Kearny, but it tells the story of a bunch of (mostly) men who were just like him. Men – some of them scientists, others just thinkers – who thought they could massage the idea of nuclear war into something palatable. Men who devised policies and plans on how to use the Bomb (and also, the ICBMs, nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, nuclear torpedoes, and nuclear artillery shells). Men who, despite Ivy League pedigrees, top-secret clearances, and chart-busting IQs never quite recognized that you can’t sow the wind without reaping the whirlwind. That the nuclear option is, by definition, the final option, after which there will be no more decisions.
The Wizards of Armageddon is a book I liked, but which never quite lived up to the expectations I set for it.
Kaplan is trying to tell the story of the “nuclear priesthood,” guys like Albert Wohlstetter, who authored the paper The Delicate Balance of Terror that proposed the precariousness of “mutually assured destruction”; the mathematician and physicist John von Neumann, who brought game theory to nuclear war; Bernard Brodie, a military strategist among the first to recognize the potential of deterrence; and William Kaufmann, an adviser who tried to shift the U.S. strategy from one of full retaliation to proportional response. The problem is not with this material, which is fascinating (at one point or another, I’m sure every one of these guys was credited with being the inspiration for Dr. Strangelove), it’s in Kaplan’s uncertain approach.
Maybe it's best to frame my critique in the negative. That is to say, to describe what The Wizards of Armageddon is not. This is not a traditional biography, in which we get to understand what made each of these men tick. It is not a history of the Cold War, since it is narrowly focused on nuclear strategy, most of it centered around the men working for the RAND Corporation, a private think tank funded by the Air Force. It is also not a detailed look at what America’s nuclear posture actually was. Instead, Kaplan focuses on the theory behind the theory. He takes the hypothetical of nuclear war planning and adds another later of abstraction. The result is something that is needlessly esoteric, lacking in concrete details and discussion of real-world consequences.
Things I wanted to know: the details, for instance, of the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). Developed first in 1963, the SIOP was America’s general plan for nuclear war. I wanted to know what it entailed; what cities it targeted and why; and the various contingencies that were contemplated. I wanted some of the scientific and technical details regarding America’s shifting nuclear arsenal, as we moved from bombs to silo-based ICBMs to submarine launched missiles. I wanted to know the human cost, the numbers our government reckoned “expendable” in the event of an atomic exchange. Kaplan has an irritating tendency to get close to the heart of a subject, but then leave it, having only scratched the service. For instance, he starts to talk about the development of a Civil Defense System, but eschews any details of that plan. He only brings it up to discuss the effect of Civil Defense on all that theorizin’ going on at RAND.
Kaplan is neck-deep in the conceptual. He traces the differing strategies, from first strike to massive retaliation to counterforce (the targeting of enemy military targets, rather than cities; of course, with nukes, it often doesn’t make a difference). The general arc among the strategists is a drift from full-blown nuclear globe-razing to measured escalation. This change in thinking seems to occur as the individual strategist gets older, perhaps recognizing that his meticulous paper calculations might actually translate into a presidential decision to launch.
The Wizards of Armageddon is hampered by its 1983 publication date. Like every Cold War book published before the fall of the Soviet Union, it lacks access to Soviet-Warsaw Pact archives. Kaplan similarly did not have the clarifying benefit of post-Soviet hindsight.
This did not deliver what I wanted. What it covers, though, is interesting, especially for students of the Cold War period. You get some insight into the minds of these apocalyptic plotters. Take Herman Kahn. This delightful fellow wrote the 652-page treatise (including appendices) On Thermonuclear War. This cinderblock contains cheerful chapters like “Will the Survivors Envy the Dead?” and Kahn’s “Escalation Ladder”, a 44-stage process that ends in obliteration. (Step 4 is a “hardening of positions” and Step 44 is “spasm” war. As others have noted, the Escalation Ladder is a psychosexual therapist’s goldmine). Kahn talks about the stuff that Kaplan avoids, so of course I had to find a used copy immediately. When my wife saw this sitting on my bedside table, smelling like it sat in a leaking library basement for 50 years, she undoubtedly added another line to the prefilled divorce decree she has in her desk.
Overall, though I enjoyed the read, I was faintly disappointed with The Wizards of Armageddon. It has been helpful, however, as I’ve started to branch out in my Cold War/Nuclear Strategy reading. It provides a good overview of the intellectual framework within which our Cold Warriors were operating. Kaplan is also, it should be noted, an engaging writer. I only wish he'd dug a little deeper.
I’ve been reading Kearny’s Nuclear War Survival Skills (which I quote at the outset) off and on for the past couple weeks. It is way too dense and turgid for me to ever complete, or even to spend more than a few minutes on at a time. Nevertheless, it makes a fine companion to the thinkers profiled in The Wizards of Armageddon. The purpose of the manual is to convince the American public that nuclear war is survivable, and therefore, a viable military/political option.
(If it doesn’t exactly welcome the prospect of airbursts, mushroom clouds, and vaporization, the manual is incessantly, almost violently insouciant about the prospect. Some words of wisdom from Kearny: “Fear often is a life-saving emotion. When we believe death is close at hand, fear can increase our ability to work harder and longer. Driven by fear, we can accomplish feats that would be impossible otherwise.” Well, hell, why didn't I think of that? Nuclear war as an increase in my productivity! All you need to do to realize the workability of your dreams is to start imagining ICBMs with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles popping over your city).
The strategists at RAND were doing the same thing as Kearny. Trying to turn nuclear war into an alternative, rather than an abomination. At times, it’s hard to know whether these guys were just schilling for higher military budgets, or whether they actually believed that you could contain a war once the first atoms started splitting. In either case, Kaplan provides a good – if perhaps unintended scare – and reminds us of all the dubious things that are done without our knowledge and allegedly on our behalf.
Read information about the authorFred M. Kaplan (b. 1954) is an American author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His weekly "War Stories" column for Slate magazine covers international relations and U.S. foreign policy.
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