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Nuclear Heuristics: Selected Writings of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter

Edited by Mr. Robert Zarate, Mr. Henry D. Sokolski. | January 2009

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Given the quality of what has been recently written about Albert James Wohlstetter (1913-1997) and Roberta Mary Morgan Wohlstetter (1912-2007), it would appear that these late strategists have exerted immeasurably more influence on the history of the nuclear age than on historians. Nonetheless, Albert and Roberta (for the sake of brevity, this book excerpt shall sometimes refer to the Wohlstetters by their first names) emerged as two of America's most consequential, innovative, and controversial thinkers of strategy during the latter half of the last century.

They were controversial, in no small part, because their subjects of inquiry--questions of strategy, foreign and defense policy, and morality in the nuclear age--often lent themselves to deep disagreement. However, by engaging these questions, their research aimed above all at rejecting fatalism, at refuting what Albert described as "the belief that the holocaust will be on us unless by some desperate act we achieve some improbable immediate drastic change in the world order. "In their view, such fatalism underpinned not only Utopian responses to the nuclear age's dangers (e.g., "One World or None" calls for total disarmament, dissolution of national sovereignty, and world government), but also Dystopian responses (e.g., preventive nuclear war). As Albert explained in 1963:

We are in the dark about the future of science and technology, still more about the long-term future of military and political developments in the world arena. We should be extremely skeptical, therefore, if sweeping predictions on any subject come tied to a prescription, an exhortation for urgent and sweeping action. We have all heard the apocalyptic pairs of alternatives: "Destroy the Russians or they'll destroy us"; or "Disarm or face world annihilation." These are counsels of desperation, fear of the dark. They abandon not only patience, but intelligence.

As a remedy to nuclear-age fatalism and apocalyptic thinking, the Wohlstetters sought to identify--and, when needed, to invent and design--prudent, pragmatic alternatives to limit and manage nuclear risks: for example, to decrease nuclear war's likelihood by finding ways of improving the U.S. nuclear deterrent's survivability, controllability, and therefore credibility in the face of changing dangers. Nevertheless, some viewed their research agenda very differently. "He believes in learning how to fight with nuclear weapons," Paul Warnke, President Carter's Arms Control and Disarmament Agency director, said bluntly (if not also reductively) of Albert's work on nuclear deterrence in 1987. He continued, "I've never met a general or an admiral who really agrees with that."

Albert was also controversial because, in contrast to Roberta's decidedly more subdued yet nonetheless formidable approach to debate, he engaged in policy disputes, not in a partisan or ideological manner, but rather with an analytical tenacity and intellectual ferocity that gained many admirers as well as detractors. As the venerable military historian, Sir Michael Howard, would later recall of Albert's work on exposing arms race myths, "Wohlstetter tore to pieces the thesis of the arms control lobby, that the weapons policy of the Soviet Union was dictated simply by the perception of U.S. threat, rather than by their own very different agenda." But Sir Michael would hasten to add: "His exposure of muddled, if not wishful thinking, on this issue did a great deal of good, but in his pursuit of [intellectual] adversaries, Wohlstetter showed himself at his most Calvinistic: there was at times a distinct whiff of burning in the air."

Yet that which made the Wohlstetters controversial also helped to make them innovative. They belonged to a small circle of policy-oriented researchers--a group that included Andrew W. Marshall, Herman Kahn, William W. Kaufmann and others--that established the intellectual foundations on which the field of strategic policy analysis now stands. In particular, Albert, Roberta, and their immediate colleagues forever transformed how those who would later work on national security issues would think and talk by introducing concepts like "signal-to-noise ratio" in intelligence collection and analysis; the operational distinction between "first-strike" and "second-strike" capability in nuclear deterrence; "Fail-Safe" operations for nuclear-armed bomber aircraft; and the basing of intercontinental ballistic missiles in "hardened" underground silos. "To abbreviate drastically, Albert Wohlstetter all but invented a distinctly military approach to the military problems, or prudently presumed problems, of the security and utility of nuclear forces," wrote Colin S. Gray, a former adviser to the Reagan Administration. "Wohlstetter's work is on a plane of importance that is exceedingly thinly populated with convincing rivals."

And what made the Wohlstetters controversial and innovative also helped to make them consequential. Although they never officially served as government policymakers during their careers in strategy, they were nevertheless able--through the clarity of their thinking, the rigor of their research, and the persistence of their personalities--to shape the views and aid the decisions of those in government both during and after the Cold War. In turn, both Democratic and Republican Administrations recognized them for their many policy-relevant contributions. In February 1965, Albert received the Medal of Distinguished Service from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, becoming the first ever non-Pentagon employee to receive the Department of Defense's highest honor. In January 1977, he received that honor again, this time from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. And in November 1985, both Albert and Roberta were awarded Medals of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor, by President Ronald Reagan. As political scientist Richard Rosecrance, who served on the State Department's Policy Planning Council during the Johnson Administration, would write in 1991, "Probably no civilian strategic analyst has had more influence in the nuclear age than Albert Wohlstetter."

Contemporary Controversies and Continuing Relevance.

In the early years of the new century, there is renewed interest in the Wohlstetters. One reason why is that although Albert died four years before Al Qaeda's September 11, 2001 (9/11), surprise attacks and America's subsequent struggle against violent extremism, several of his former students emerged as figures of consequence during the presidency of George W. Bush. (It is worth observing, though, that formal and informal students of the Wohlstetters have served as policymakers in every Administration since the start of President Kennedy's.)

Paul Wolfowitz, whose dissertation committee Albert had chaired in the University of Chicago's political science department, served as Deputy Secretary of Defense during Bush's first term, and later chaired the Secretary of State's International Security Advisory Board. Richard Perle, who from his high school days onward was informally mentored by Wohlstetter, chaired from 2001 to 2003 the Defense Policy Board, a high-level panel of outside advisers to the Pentagon. And Zalmay Khalilzad, who also earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago under Albert's tutelage, served as the U.S. Ambassador to post-Ba'athist Iraq and, in his subsequent capacity as America's envoy to the United Nations, was the highest-ranking Muslim in the Executive Branch. Broadly labeled by some as "neoconservatives," Wolfowitz, Perle, and Khalilzad would join Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and others in being associated with President Bush's controversial arguments for war against Ba'athist Iraq.

Another reason behind the renewed interest in the Wohlstetters is the growing awareness of how their Cold War and post-Cold War writings still speak to key challenges that America and its allies are facing in the 21st century. With respect to Roberta's works, one obvious example is Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision (1962), her Bancroft Prize-winning study of the failures of American intelligence analysis and imagination that had preceded Imperial Japan's surprise attack on December 7, 1941--a study that has found new relevance in the tragic wake of Al Qaeda's 9/11 surprise attacks. In her meticulous analysis of the events and decisions prior to Pearl Harbor, Roberta found that the United States had failed to foresee the attack "not for want of the relevant materials, but because of a plethora of irrelevant ones."Decisionmakers and intelligence analysts--the latter of whom were, at the time, decentralized and dispersed among America's military services--all had failed to distinguish the small, faint signals warning of disaster in Hawaii from the larger, louder mass of background noise suggesting anything but. Only in retrospect did these warning signals become so obvious and so discernible. "Signals that are characterized today as absolutely unequivocal warnings of surprise air attack on Pearl Harbor become, on analysis in the context of December 1941, not merely ambiguous but occasionally inconsistent with such an attack," she wrote. "Indeed, at the time there was a good deal of evidence available to support all the wrong interpretations of last-minute signals, and the interpretations appeared wrong only after the event."

This perennial problem of intelligence collection and analysis--of identifying and pulling actionable warning signals from the vast morass of irrelevant background noise--has come to be known within intelligence circles as the "signals-to-noise ratio" problem or, more simply, "the Roberta Wohlstetter Problem. "The U.S. intelligence failures that preceded the attacks of 9/11 renewed public awareness of this problem, so it was therefore no surprise that Roberta's Pearl Harbor study was prominently cited by The 9/11 Commission Report.

Another example of the Wohlstetters' continuing relevance is The Buddha Smiles: Absent-Minded Peaceful Aid and the Indian Bomb (1976), Roberta's incisive study of how U.S. and Canadian civil nuclear assistance to India during the 1950s and 1960s had unwittingly furthered New Delhi's secret construction and detonation in May 1974 of a nuclear explosive device, sometimes referred to as India's "Smiling Buddha" bomb. The Indians had obtained plutonium for their bomb by using a reactor that Canada had built for them to use (in the words of their bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement) "for peaceful purposes only," as well as heavy water to moderate the Canadian-origin reactor that the United States had given to them (according to the terms of their bilateral agreement) only "for peaceful purposes. "Indian government officials subsequently explained away "Smiling Buddha" by claiming that the bomb's purpose had been "peaceful," and that their construction and detonation of this "peaceful" nuclear explosive device had therefore not violated their understanding of the respective terms of the Indo-American and Indo-Canadian nuclear cooperation agreements.

To Roberta, this episode plainly illustrated the need for the Executive and Legislative Branches either to obtain unequivocal terms and bilateral understandings regarding not only what is prohibited in any agreement for nuclear cooperation, but also what consequences shall follow in the event of a violation--or else to decline an agreement altogether. Such insights from The Buddha Smiles are worth taking seriously today, given that Washington has concluded a new nuclear cooperation agreement with New Delhi that would carve out an exception in U.S. and international law in order to lift the decades-long prohibition against nuclear exports to India that arose after Smiling Buddha's detonation; and the Executive Branch is now looking to conclude new civil nuclear deals with Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and other governments.

In contrast to Roberta's works, many of Albert's writings have remained dispersed and often difficult for all but the most determined and resourceful to find. As a result, those interested in learning more about this late strategist--a group that includes not only government decisionmakers and policy analysts, but also journalists, scholars, and students--have not been able to read his works first-hand. Rather, they have had to turn to books and articles that offer second-hand (and, in some cases, even third-hand) accounts of his writings. Such accounts, however, have generally been incomplete, and sometimes have misunderstood or even consciously misrepresented Albert's arguments.

In particular, when recent books and articles on "neoconservativism" in the 21st century have discussed Albert (who never identified himself as a "neoconservative," nor was ever labeled one by the secondary literature before 2001 or 2002), the authors of these accounts typically have neither read carefully nor analyzed closely his works. Instead, they have tended merely to cite passages from his writings out of textual and historical context in larger efforts to lionize or demonize today's "neoconservatives. "In turn, these books and articles, and those who read them, frequently are drawing distorted and ahistorical conclusions about Wohlstetter and his work.

"Is it too much to ask," wrote Sir Michael Howard (a military historian who describes himself as a critic of Albert's), for someone "to bring together [the Wohlstetters'] widely scattered articles and publish them in a solid lasting form" as part of "the indispensable nucleus of a strategic studies library when all else has been swept away? "Nuclear Heuristics: Selected Writings of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter aims to help answer that call.

Edited by Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) research fellow Robert Zarate and NPEC executive director Henry Sokolski, Nuclear Heuristics demonstrates both the historical importance and the continuing relevance of the Wohlstetters' work in national security strategy and nuclear policy. It is the first book to give readers first-hand access to over twenty of Albert and Roberta's most timely and enduring essays on:

  •  methods of policy analysis and design;

  •  nuclear deterrence through survivable, controllable and therefore credible strategic forces;

  •  nuclear proliferation and the military potential of civil nuclear energy;

  •  spiraling arms-race myths versus the real, observable dynamics of strategic competition;

  •  the revolutionary potential of non-nuclear technologies of precision, control, and information; and

  •  the continuing need for prudence and pragmatism in the face of changing dangers.

In addition, Nuclear Heuristics offers an introductory essay on the Wohlstetters' work by editor Robert Zarate, as well as short commentaries on the selected Wohlstetter writings by Henry S. Rowen (2005 WMD Commissioner and former Assistant Secretary of Defense), Alain C. Enthoven (former Assistant Secretary of Defense), Henry Sokolski (2008 WMD Proliferation and Terrorism Commissioner and former Pentagon official), Richard Perle (former Assistant Secretary of Defense and emeritus Defense Policy Board chairman), Stephen J. Lukasik (former Director of the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency, now DARPA), and Andrew W. Marshall (Director of the Office of Net Assessment).

Nuclear Heuristics: Selected Writings of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter is a must-read and an indispensable resource for policy makers, military planners, and strategic analysts, as well as for students who aspire to these positions.

For more, visit Albert Wohlstetter Dot Com (www. Albertwohlstetter.com).