The Bomb’s Incitement
By Samuel Gardner
“The blade itself incites to deeds of violence.”
― Homer, The Odyssey
Perhaps nothing so clearly illustrates the gap between abstract wargames and the world in which we live than nuclear strategy- a fact made abundantly clear in Fred Kaplan’s “The Bomb”. A close look at American military planning around nuclear weapons since Harry Truman, Kaplan’s book follows closely after his 1983 book “The Wizards of Armageddon”, which covered much of the same ground. “The Bomb”, however, dives deep into recently declassified documents to give an unprecedentedly clear view of the internal debates, failed policy shifts, and bureaucratic politics that have defined American nuclear strategy since the earliest days of the Cold War. And perhaps the clearest lesson to be drawn are the many ways that what Kaplan calls the “rabbit hole logic” of nuclear weapons have shaped, and at times twisted, American strategy and policy for decades.
“The Bomb” reveals how, again and again, policymakers, generals, and analysts have attempted to reshape American nuclear policy, to render it less inhumanly destructive. Yet, over and over, these attempts have been thwarted by the necessities of intra-service bureaucratic infighting, the quiet resistance of militaries to civilian reform, and the absurdist logic of deterrence and mutual destruction. Perhaps most perniciously, the mere existence of the weapons invites their use, an insight Homer warned of nearly three millennia ago. In Kaplan’s words “as the labs churned out more bombs...intelligence officers came up with more targets. The work took on a self-serving circular logic: more weapons drove the need to find more targets; more targets propelled a need to buy more weapons.”
Perhaps the chief criticism of “The Bomb” is that it is overly focused on the American experience. Of course, it is hardly Kaplan’s fault that deep, private policy conversations are simply not available from the Soviet side. But, somewhat more focus on American allies and the ways that they relate to, desire, or resent the American nuclear umbrella would help paint a more complete picture. Nevertheless, Kaplan does succeed in painting a compelling portrait of American thinkers and their particular understanding of the weapons they pioneered.
Kaplan is not just an able historian, he’s also a clear, talented writer drawing on the stuff of high drama- internal backbiting, international crises, betrayals of confidence, war and the threat of war. This gives the book a propulsive character, complimented by Kaplan’s deep understanding and elegant explanations of the central dilemmas of nuclear strategy: that weapons designed to defend against weapons lead inevitably into arms races, while weapons designed for unthinkable atrocity might deter an enemy, or might be considered too monstrous to be used-defeating their purpose. “The Bomb” portrays, in remarkable detail, the thoughts of American presidents and their advisors from Truman to Trump, and suggests that the only sane course to ensure global safety is not to brandish our blades, but to blunt them.
Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War
By Fred Kaplan
Samuel Gardner is a research fellow at APLN. He is pursuing a Master's Degree in International Relations at Yonsei Graduate School of International Studies, focusing on International Security and Foreign Policy and East Asian Studies.