COUNSELS OF WAR by Gregg F. Herken
Kirkus Star

COUNSELS OF WAR

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

It's only one of the ironic reversals in the history of nuclear strategy that Edward Teller, the father of the nuclear bomb, has become a proponent of ""defensive"" weapons--the exotic star-wars weaponry. Thirty years ago J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, was hounded by Teller and others for advocating a defensive strategy. Yale historian Herken handles the history of these men and doctrines with the same thoroughness he demonstrated in The Winning Weapon, an account of the political and military uses of the first atomic bomb. In style, Herken's treatment falls between Lawrence Freedman's Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, with its no-frills history of doctrine, and Fred Kaplan's Wizards of Armageddon, a hyped-up account of the strategists. Without being particularly new, it has the merit of acknowledging the role of personal friendship and competition in the struggle over theories. Besides the Teller/Oppenheimer rivalry, there is, for example, the animosity between Bernard Brodie, the first and perhaps greatest of the nuclear strategists, and his Rand Corporation colleague, Albert Wohlstetter. Brodie, steeped in a tradition of historical analysis, decried the ""scientific strategists"" who thought they could use mathematical techniques to dispassionately analyze warfare, while Wohlstetter, a logician, contemptuously referred to Brodie's nonquantitative approach as ""in the essay tradition."" What Brodie grasped is the ""political sense"" that had quickly disappeared from view--i.e., the realistic analysis of a potential opponent's intentions. By focusing instead on hypothetical capabilities, the nuclear strategists fell into the trap of worst-case scenarios, persistently overestimating Soviet armament levels and feuling our own arms build-up. Among the crucial actors in this story is the Air Force, and particularly the Strategic Air Command and its first leader, Curtis LeMay. Brodie had been appalled at the Air Force's early commitment to massive bombing; and, in the face of LeMay's alleged desire to find a single bomb powerful enough to totally wipe out the USSR, he was moved to coin a new term: overkill. Reflecting on the past, Isidor Rabi, one of the Los Alamos atomic scientists, said to a 1983 reunion of that group, ""we meant well, and we sort of abdicated""--turning over the responsibility for a new era to people for whom calculation is the essence of reasoning. This is the best version yet of what happened after that.

Pub Date: March 4th, 1985
Publisher: Knopf