Essays & Reviews

First Nuclear Age Classics

Rod Lyon, a fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and executive editor of The Strategist, recently reflected on the concept of the “Second Nuclear Age,” and listed a number of notable books and writers who have analyzed it. The First Nuclear Age is generally taken to refer to the strategic competition between the American and Soviet blocs during the Cold War, which proved to be stable insofar as it did not lead to all-out nuclear war or even nuclear use, and in which proliferation remained fairly limited.

The concept is most closely associated with Yale University’s Paul Bracken (Fire in the East, 1999), who warned about the destabilizing proliferation of technology in the post-Cold War era. He was concerned especially with weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile that would be available to revisionist or rogue states, especially in Asia. (Keith Payne was one of the first to use the expression in his 1995 book, Deterrence in the Second Nuclear Age).

Lyon believes that the concept has shown some important variations over time, each more worrisome than the previous one.  In its first formulation, the prime danger was that of the failure of deterrence when nuclear weapons spread to ‘rogue states’ such as North Korea. Bracken’s Second Nuclear Age was characterized by nationalism rather than ideology; a willingness to use other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, like chemical weapons; impoverished nuclear weapon states; shaky command and control systems; difficulties in communicating and bargaining with the West; deliberate reductions in conventional capabilities to permit greater nuclear capacities; and less willingness to model deterrence policies upon the strict logic of game theory.

In the mid-2000s, according to Lyon, the focus began to shift somewhat to contemplate a “nuclear tipping point,” in which successful rogue-state proliferators set off a chain of reaction (as it were) that would also involve status-quo powers, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Germany, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, going nuclear.  Such proliferation chains might undo the broader global nuclear order, set at its core by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

We are now beginning to see a third variation, according to Lyon.  Nuclear weapons are beginning to return to relevance among the traditional great-power members of the nuclear club, while tensions among those powers have grown noticeably.  The Russians are increasingly behaving as they did during the Cold War (e.g., flying long-range bomber patrols near the airspace of what it regards as hostile countries).  The old nuclear debates in Europe are stirring again. In Asia, uncertainties resulting from the growth of Chinese power raise questions about the applicability of US extended nuclear deterrence.

Lyon’s analysis reminds us that a great deal of ink was spilled about nuclear policy in the pre-personal computer days of the First Nuclear Age, as public officials, military officers, and especially defense intellectuals tried to come to grips with the meaning of this apparently revolutionary technology. Had nuclear weapons forever severed the link between politics and military strategy, and thus made great power war impossible (or impossibly destructive if it did occur)? Or, could one side gain meaningful political or military advantages by some means short of all-out war without triggering Armageddon, whether through, for example, a successful first strike, escalation control, coercion, or arms-racing? Or, was there a different way of thinking about policy and strategy that made sense of it all?

Fortunately, we never had a real-world test of the first question, and the possibilities raised by the other two remained controversial. In any case the entire matter seemingly passed into the dustbin of history with the collapse of the Soviet Union, never to be of much concern going forward. But now we see that this may not be the case. Thus there may be value in recognizing those Cold War studies that had the greatest impact on thinking, at least in the West, on nuclear policy. The following is by no means a comprehensive list of First Nuclear Age Classics or Notable Books – or a judgment about who had what right – but a reminder of how quickly the major issues were developed and debated. I do not include important then-classified or unclassified Western government policy statements, such as NSC-68, NSC-162/2, the British Global Strategy Paper, etc.

  • For a comprehensive overview of official and scholarly analyses of nuclear policy, the standard remains Lawrence Freedman’s The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, third ed. (2003).
  • Bernard Brodie’s edited 1946 volume, Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order, with essays by Brodie, Frederick Dunn, Arnold Wolfers, Percy Corbett and William T.R. Fox – represent a remarkable first cut at the problem.; Brodie’s 1959 book, Strategy in the Missile Age, can also be regarded as a Classic because it explores the implications of the two revolutionary military technologies of the age.
  • Albert Wohlstetter and others, Selection and Use of Strategic Air Bases, RAND Corporation (1954). Although the report itself was classified, its basic argument was soon made known publicly, especially with Wohlstetters’ 1959 article in Foreign Affairs, “The Delicate Balance of Terror” – that even a large nuclear stockpile might be vulnerable to an enemy’s first strike.  Hence the balance of terror was inherently delicate, not robust.
  • William W. Kaufmann, ed., Military Policy and National Security (1954); Robert Osgood, Limited War: The Challenge to American Strategy (1957) and Henry Kissinger, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957), which were among the many studies to challenge the Eisenhower administration’s Massive Relation Strategy, as it was publicly understood, and to suggest limited alternatives in which America’s extended deterrence guarantees to allies remained viable.
  • Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (1960) and Arms and Influence (1966), which explored through game theory the interaction of nuclear actors, and developed such influential concepts as the “reciprocal fear of surprise attack,” “strategic stability,” and “threats that leave something to chance.”
  • Marshall V.D. Sokolovsky, editor, Military Strategy (first published 1962, with subsequent editions). The first major Soviet work on nuclear strategy, which, depending on one’s persuasion, embraced the certainty (and winability) of general nuclear war if a superpower conflict occurred; or allowed for some exceptions and limitations.
  • Pierre Gallois, The Balance of Terror: Strategy in the Nuclear Age (English translation, 1960-61), which argued that true alliances were not possible in the nuclear age and thus that national nuclear forces were the only solution to security, especially for a medium-sized power such as France.
  • Robert McNamara and the “Gang of Four,” writing in Foreign Affairs (1982) on “Nuclear Weapons and the Atlantic Alliance,” which called for a nuclear no-first use policy. This was perhaps the most influential “anti-nuclear” argument during this critical period of the Cold War. Others included the U.S. Catholic Bishops Statement on Nuclear Deterrence (1983) and the so-called TTAPS study, co-authored by Carl Sagan and published in 1983, which warned of a catastrophic nuclear winter resulting from even a very limited use of nuclear weapons.