Meet the Couple Who Helped Shape America’s Nuclear War Policy
By PHILIP TAUBMAN
THE COLD WORLD THEY MADE
The Strategic Legacy of Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter
By Ron Robin
The theories of Cold War defense intellectuals now seem the stuff of a surreal madness that seized Washington during the last half of the 20th century. The core doctrine of nuclear deterrence was Mutual Assured Destruction, aptly known as MAD. It postulated that the best way to prevent a nuclear war with the Kremlin was to build an enormous atomic arsenal that would annihilate the Soviet Union if it dared attack the United States. Effective, yes, but a White House or Kremlin miscalculation would have left millions dead, nations destroyed and the planet reeling.
Albert Wohlstetter, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, was one of the most formidable of the nuclear policy savants. A combative champion of defense spending, he argued that the balance of terror inherent in MAD was unstable. Instead of assuming the MAD standoff would assure a durable cold peace, he feared a Pearl Harbor-like Soviet attack outside the imagined scenarios of defense planners, and he pressed for a nuclear war-winning policy. His ideas coursed through American defense strategy for decades, swaying presidents, attracting acolytes, infuriating opponents and igniting furious debates that ricochet through official circles to this day.
Ron Robin’s provocative, sometimes recondite examination of Albert Wohlstetter and his wife and fellow strategist, Roberta, is certain to fuel the debate. Robin confesses at the outset that he is horrified by the Wohlstetters’ nuclear brinkmanship, but says he has made a diligent effort to provide a balanced, nonjudgmental account of their work. In reality, “The Cold World They Made” is a withering indictment of the Wohlstetters and their influence on defense policy.
Robin, president of the University of Haifa in Israel, recalls many of the thinkers and baroque theories of the nuclear age. Some attracted national attention at midcentury, including Henry Kissinger, whose 1957 book, “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy,” became an unexpected best seller, and Herman Kahn, whose chilling ruminations on winning and surviving a nuclear conflict made him an oracle of the unthinkable. Bernard Brodie, the intellectual father of nuclear deterrence theory, played a pivotal role in shaping Cold War nuclear policy.
Robin reports that the Wohlstetters dabbled with leftist groups while college students in New York, then later flipped, becoming hard-line Cold Warriors. He devotes nearly equal time to Roberta’s work (including her groundbreaking study of Pearl Harbor), freeing her from Albert’s imposing shadow. But Robin’s overall treatment of both Wohlstetters is unforgiving. While his discussion of their thinking is often informative, his scorn for them and their legacy grows by the page. By the epilogue, even a reader skeptical of Wohlstetter theories can’t help feeling some sympathy for Albert and Roberta.
The last part of the book is an extended broadside against three men who helped forge the expansive ideology behind George W. Bush’s foreign policy and misguided 2003 invasion of Iraq: Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Zalmay Khalilzad. Wolfowitz was a primary architect of the invasion as Bush’s deputy secretary of defense. Perle was an adviser to the Pentagon, and Khalilzad became the American ambassador first to Afghanistan and then Iraq. The three unquestionably owed an intellectual debt to the Wohlstetters, especially Albert. Still, holding Albert Wohlstetter indirectly accountable for the Iraq invasion is a reach. He died in 1997. (Roberta died a decade later.)
What’s more, Robin too easily dismisses Albert Wohlstetter’s view that heavy American defense spending and new weapons technologies could force the Kremlin into crippling military investments. Although Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup was not primarily responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union, it squeezed the Soviet leadership. Just days before meeting with Reagan in 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, said that if a new round of the arms race developed, “the pressure on our economy will be unbelievable.”