Nuclear Heuristics: Selected Writings of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter; Thinking About Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Problems, Prospects

In This Review

Nuclear Heuristics: Selected Writings of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter
By Robert Zarate and Henry Sokolski, eds.
Strategic Studies Institute, 2009
679 pp. $29.99
Thinking About Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Problems, Prospects
By Michael Quinlan
Oxford University Press, 2009
184 pp. $49.95

In the world of U.S. strategic studies, the Wohlstetters have achieved almost legendary status, with due regard paid to Albert's achievement in recasting the entire nuclear debate by stressing the risks of first strikes and Roberta's seminal work on how background "noise" led U.S. intelligence agencies to miss what might have been critical signals of Japan's preparations for the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Apart from a sharp little piece by Roberta on India's nuclear program and a couple of papers co-authored with her husband, this first book is really a compendium of Albert's work. A series of essays by colleagues and admirers provide context and draw attention to the controversies in which he was engaged (and there were many). Although in many ways Albert Wohlstetter was an analyst's analyst, with a thorough, empirical, and imaginative approach to some of the most challenging issues ever faced in national policy, he came increasingly to contrast his methodological rigor with the sloppy or sentimental thinking found elsewhere. He found the latter to cause real and present dangers to be ignored and at times to be downright immoral, particularly in encouraging the mass targeting of civilians (as in the concept of mutual assured destruction). Thus, as time went on, the controlled prose of the systems analyst took on an increasingly polemic tone. Everything was written with a purpose; the aim was advocacy, and Wohlstetter was vigorous in marketing his ideas among policymakers.

Although the particular concerns being addressed can now seem dated, the forcefulness of the presentation still impresses. His argument that stable nuclear deterrence requires constant attention and hard work, reflected in his famous 1958 article "The Delicate Balance of Terror," shaped the approach of successive U.S. administrations, as did his early concerns about the dangers of nuclear proliferation. Although there are some post-Cold War reflections on Bosnia and Iraq, and the material on proliferation has sharp contemporary relevance, the bulk of the writings recall an earlier period in international history. Still, those with an interest in the development of strategy and the methodology of strategic studies will find this an invaluable resource.

Quinlan, who died just as his eloquent little book was being published, could also claim to have been a major influence on nuclear strategy. He was the architect of British nuclear doctrine and one of the architects of NATO's so-called dual-track decision of December 1979 on intermediate-range nuclear forces. He also wrestled with the tension between the willingness to commit genocide implied by deterrence and his strong Catholic faith. His prose is controlled and never polemic, as befitting a classically trained civil servant, but Quinlan is always rigorous when developing a case. This is as careful and persuasive a case for nuclear deterrence as there can be made, helped by Quinlan's readiness to engage with both critics and proponents of total abolition without dismissing either out of hand. Although he was the architect of the United Kingdom's nuclear doctrine, Quinlan accepts that in contemporary circumstances, the case for the country's remaining in the nuclear business is no longer "so plainly and unconditionally compelling" that it should not be challenged. The difficulties of managing nuclear relationships between two relatively new nuclear powers in an unstable political setting are also explored, in a thorough analysis of the tense situation between India and Pakistan.