The Bomb

June 29, 2020
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The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War. Fred Kaplan. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2020.

“Everything about the atomic bomb is overshadowed by the twin facts that it exists and that its destructive power is fantastically great.”
—Bernard Brodie, 1946

From the bomb's inception, presidents, policy-makers, and generals have grappled with the twin facts of the sheer destructive power of nuclear weapons coupled with the understanding that the technology exists and is here to stay. Fred Kaplan’s The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War walks us through this history, showing how U.S. presidents and generals alike have “figur[ed] out the best way to maneuver around them or to reconcile with them.”[1] The book weaves together rich archival material and first-source interviews to allow the reader to feel as though they are in the White House Situation Room or in the bowels of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) alongside major historical players. At the same time, Kaplan seeks to offer an analytical framework that highlights patterns of a push and pull between military and presidential interests, and of how institutions create continuity in perceptions of U.S. nuclear weapons while individual personalities can sometimes upset the status quo.

In fact, Kaplan notes in the introduction that it was concern over one such individual personality that was the impetus for the book, calling out President Donald Trump's 2017 threat to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea. For the first time in several decades, American citizens were concerned about nuclear war, though their fear took “the form of a vaguely paralyzed anxiety. Because of the long reprieve from the bomb's shadow, few people know how to grasp its dimensions; they've forgotten, if they ever knew.”[2]

In part, this lack of understanding has been by design. From the very beginning of the atomic age, U.S. nuclear policy has been shrouded in secrecy. One of The Bomb's greatest contributions is to shine a light on this secret history. Kaplan takes the reader from the Truman administration through the Trump administration, highlighting key players along the way, including RAND strategists, Air Force officers, low-level staffers, and Congressional members. What emerges is at the same time terrifying and oddly comforting—terrifying in how close the U.S. has come to starting a nuclear war and comforting in putting what seems like a unique presidency into a broader context that shows President Trump has not been the first American president to both know very little about nuclear weapons upon entering office and to threaten their use seemingly cavalierly.

Kaplan takes the reader from the Truman administration through the Trump administration, highlighting key players along the way, including RAND strategists, Air Force officers, low-level staffers, and Congressional members.

One concerning revelation to come from the book is how little U.S. nuclear strategy, particularly during the Cold War, seems to have been based on determining the best methods of deterrence, but rather came together as a product of competing bureaucratic interests. Kaplan shows how the U.S. nuclear war plan has always called for overkill, a condition created from several factors. In one sense, the overkill was based on heavily siloed information. For instance, in describing the first civilian investigation into nuclear targets and planning by Franklin Miller in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was discovered that three separate USSR targets were all within range of one weapon; but due to the nature of the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), a bomber, missileer, and analyst were each given separate instructions to destroy a factory, the Ministry of Defense headquarters, and a railroad yard all in the city of Moscow. Further, the war plan specified that there must be ``high confidence'' in the targets being destroyed, and each target thus had several weapons aimed at it.[3] In total, Miller and his aides found that there were 689 separate weapons aimed at a fifty-mile radius surrounding Moscow.[4]

In another sense, overkill was borne out of ensuring that funding continued for weapons development. Strategic Air Command had an office devoted to safeguarding nuclear weapons funding and development, which led to a dangerous cycle—justification of funding coming from the number of targets to be hit and the number of targets to be hit coming from the number of weapons in the arsenal. As one general, a former commander of Strategic Air Command, told a Senate committee, “I need 10,000 weapons because I have 10,000 targets.”[5] Essentially, the nuclear war plan was a product of supply, not demand, for nuclear weapons.

While I found this discussion of the major players and strategic war plans interesting, I was disappointed to discover little space given to exploring the trajectory of deterrence theory that grew out of, and in conjunction with, changes in U.S. nuclear strategy. I expected to see explicit references to scions such as Thomas Schelling, Hermann Kahn, Glenn Snyder, and Robert Jervis, as well as a discussion of how academia and policy interacted in real time to explain some of the divergences in thinking between presidents and generals.

Beyond highlighting how strategy has evolved, Kaplan offers several examples of how presidents and generals interacted to form policy. Famously, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 saw President Kennedy striking a deal with Nikita Krushchev to remove missiles from Cuba (publicly) and Turkey (secretly). The Bomb shows that U.S. civilian and military advisors alike opposed this plan, advocating instead for a direct bombing of missile sites and invasion of Cuba—an action that most probably would have resulted in World War III. Nixon's administration, like several of his successors, seriously attempted to figure out a way to include a ``limited nuclear option'' that would make nuclear weapons more usable, but failed in the attempt.

President Kennedy meets with members of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council about the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 29, 1962. (JFK Library)

Interestingly, Kaplan provides examples of several presidents changing preferences for nuclear weapons as they became more settled in their presidencies. For instance, as Kennedy grew more comfortable in his role, he began to rely on his own judgment more, feeling that both his civilian and military planners were too enmeshed in their organizational ethos to provide sound judgment. President Carter came into office strongly opposing nuclear weapons, believing them to be immoral and costly. However, in attempting to push an arms-control treaty through, he ended up funding a first-strike missile as a concession.

This bargaining is not unique to Carter's administration, Kaplan shows how in many cases of arms control, the Joint Chiefs leveraged funding for new or improved weapons. Similarly, President Reagan campaigned on, and entered office as, a foreign policy hawk. His first term saw an escalation of rhetoric and policy towards the Soviet Union. However, as he began his second term, he became less bellicose and more interested in creating peaceful relations with his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. Though each administration since the bomb's inception has grappled with the existence of nuclear weapons and whether there may be a way to use them in battle, no U.S. President since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has used this option. Instead, each has shown restraint and sought a diplomatic solution. How long this trend will continue is unknown; should the nuclear taboo lift, the effects will be devastating.

At times, the political scientist in me wanted Kaplan to go deeper, to offer implications on what it means when presidential and officer interests compete or converge; when presidents juggle conventional crises that may take focus away from nuclear deterrence; how personality, past experience, and other individual level factors affect leaders' views towards nuclear weapons; and how competing bureaucratic interests make nuclear policy a two-level game. While I realize this book is generally a more popular read, I often felt like I wanted more out of it. For instance, in several chapters Kaplan mentioned a particular president was facing reelection or had to juggle a conventional crisis in Vietnam or Afghanistan, but did not take this observation further to make a real contribution to deterrence theory. It would have been a unique angle to seriously explore when and how goals of deterrence impede or complement other U.S. foreign policy aims. Similarly, the book’s subtitle hints at a deep dive into presidential and military interests and their effects on nuclear conflict. Here too, the book fell short of the mark.

Kaplan does a wonderful job of historically tracing many of the interactions and viewpoints of presidents and key military officers, but he does not make a serious attempt to theorize how certain sets of interactions, personalities, and/or experiences will conditionally affect nuclear deterrence. Still, The Bomb is both timely and classic, a joy to read, and rich in information for students of military history, American political bargaining, and nuclear strategy.

Paige Cone is an assistant professor at the U.S. Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS) where she teaches and researches on issues of nuclear deterrence and nonproliferation. Her work has been featured in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Strategic Studies Quarterly, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics, and commentary featured on CSPAN. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the official opinion of Air University, SAASS, the U.S. Air Force, or the Department of Defense.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Kaplan, Fred. p. 297

[2] Ibid. p. 1

[3] Ibid. p. 187

[4] Ibid. pp. 186-187

[5] Ibid. p. 188

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