Hadley on Kaplan, 'The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War'

Fred Kaplan
David Hadley

Fred Kaplan. The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020. 384 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-982107-29-1

Reviewed by David Hadley (Ashland University) Published on H-War (January, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55841

Veteran national security journalist Fred Kaplan’s The Bomb examines the development of US nuclear war planning and policy from the first use of the bomb to the presidency of Donald Trump. Kaplan focuses on the efforts to fit nuclear war within a rational, logical system. He argues that such efforts produced an often-horrifying logic that, “once its premises are accepted, hurls its adherents—and the rest of us—into a rabbit hole of increasingly bizarre scenarios that seems increasingly, if strangely, rational the deeper they’re probed” (p. 3). Kaplan also demonstrates that the effort to develop a sound, logical doctrine was complicated by bureaucratic rivalries, with different military branches and civilian departments focusing on particular philosophies based primarily on issues of funding and preeminence within the US national security establishment. This history is especially important, Kaplan argues, because it explains the development of the situation the United States and the world confront: that the United States retains massive nuclear capability and there is no constitutional limit on the ability of the president to order its use. A critic of Trump, Kaplan sees the Trump presidency not as changing any of the fundamental issues with nuclear war policy but as having exposed weaknesses that were always there.

The Bomb is organized chronologically, following as each presidential administration, from Harry Truman to the present, tries to establish its own nuclear policy, often meeting resistance from nuclear war planners. Truman and his advisors determined that due to the bomb’s destructiveness, it could not be a “normal” weapon; nevertheless, Truman oversaw the creation of defense policy that assumed the use of nuclear weapons in the event of a major war due to the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Dwight Eisenhower’s plan to use a massive nuclear retaliatory deterrent to avoid a larger conventional build up only increased the importance of nuclear planning even as the leaders in control of the bomb feared its use.

Within the US military, meanwhile, the creation of policy to serve the deterrent needs of the president was dictated by the demands of the different services, most important, the air force and the navy. The air force, specifically the Strategic Air Command (SAC), called for more bombs and more bombers to be able to reliably deliver massive damage on the Soviet Union. Lieutenant General Curtis LeMay, SAC’s most influential leader, strove to create and maintain extraordinary independence for SAC from Washington. The navy, meanwhile, first opposed widespread reliance on nuclear weapons but, after losing that battle, came to argue for a smaller number of missiles, launched from nuclear submarines, that could still deliver sufficient damage to create an assured deterrent. Efforts to coordinate the different services’ weapons eventually produced the SAC-dominated Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) that identified an ever-expanding number of targets in the Soviet Union, and thus an ever-expanding need for more nuclear weapons.

After the election of 1960, John Kennedy, Robert McNamara, and a group of “whiz kids” brought in by McNamara came to view the total devastation envisaged by the SIOP to be both ineffective for potential flexible response to the Soviet Union and morally horrifying. McNamara came to support a theory of counterforce, focusing on Soviet military targets, to try and keep a nuclear war limited. However, the contradiction of this approach was inescapable, as counterforce meant more targets were available, meaning more bombs were needed to assure destruction, and given the location of these targets, there would actually be no effective limit. Kaplan provides some extraordinary examples of the kinds of targets counterforce came to adopt, such as what was essentially an empty field that would serve as a secondary landing site for Soviet bombers as they returned from delivering bombs against the United States. Despite demands to create gradations in the SIOP, as Kaplan demonstrates, there was never really an effort to produce a limited US attack plan.

The Kennedy administration’s experience set a pattern for succeeding administrations: initial horror at the SIOP, efforts to provide the president more options for responding to a nuclear crisis, and resistance within the bureaucracy to such decision-making. Even as it became increasingly apparent that the idea of “winning” a nuclear war was unrealistic in any meaningful sense of the term, a variety of different pressures continued to promote a counterforce strategy that necessitated thousands of bombs across bombers, nuclear submarines, and ICBM missile silos. In addition to the interests of the services, the United States’ role in providing the defensive umbrella in the transatlantic alliance limited flexibility. A minimum deterrent, consisting of a few hundred weapons on nuclear submarines, did little to assure European allies that the United States would be willing to trade New York for Paris or West Berlin, as the classic calculation went. However illusory, the idea of counterforce promoted the idea that the United States would be more active in defending the Western alliance.

Kaplan reflects on the cyclical nature of these issues apparent in the Carter presidency. With Jimmy Carter, “yet another new administration rolled out yet another set of documents, slogans, and acronyms in yet another stab at revising the nuclear war plan” (p. 125). When Carter proposed dropping the US arsenal to two hundred missiles, his military advisors threatened to publicly oppose him and West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt lobbied for the deployment of a counter to the Soviet deployment of SS-20s.

In Kaplan’s telling, the serendipitous combination of Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension with Ronald Reagan’s self-assurance in pushing for nuclear limits is what allowed for sufficient diminution in tension to produce actual changes to the SIOP and the nuclear arsenal. During the George H. W. Bush presidency, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell finally came to the realization that “the United States’ nuclear war plan was based on supply, not demand—how many the warriors happened to have, not on how many they needed” (p. 188). This reality had resulted from decades of an SIOP that defined so many targets, with each needing sufficient assured destruction to require multiple bombs. It was built to provide a first strike capability and, long after such a capability was no longer seriously considered possible, could not be pulled back from during the Cold War due to alliance politics and opposition from within the military.

In the last third of the book, Kaplan follows the more limited, but still very significant, US arsenal, as ideas for further limitation, such as adopting no first use or paring down to minimum deterrence, fell victim to the same logic as was seen in the Cold War. The nuclear threats of North Korea and Iran, entirely different in scale from the Soviet Union, still influence thinking on the arsenal. In assessing the Obama administration’s approach to nuclear weapons, Kaplan quotes Barack Obama aide Ben Rhodes, who observed that Obama “paints within the lines” and would not push for more dramatic change than the system could bear (p. 232). The comment could easily apply to most of the political leaders Kaplan includes in this narrative. Bureaucratic imperatives, allied relationships, and the logical challenge of convincing enemies of a willingness to use weapons that exist in order to not be used overtook any effort to fundamentally change the nuclear balance. Those challenges thus make Donald Trump, Kaplan argues, “a symptom, not a cause, of our common nuclear problem.” Trump’s behavior toward North Korea or Iran might seem more disturbing or destabilizing than normal activity, yet it reflects the risks always posed by the presence of nuclear weapons. The issue, Kaplan argues, is the “rabbit hole logic” ­that “involved convincing adversaries that you would really use the bomb in response to aggression; part of that involved convincing yourself that you would use it, which required building certain types of missiles, that would enable you to use them—and, before you knew it, a strategy to deter nuclear war became synonymous with a strategy to fight nuclear war” (p. 297).

Kaplan draws on interviews, declassified documents, and an impressive array of archival research to support these points. Readers of his previous work on nuclear war planning, Wizards of Armageddon (1983) will find the earlier section of the book familiar, as he brings in some of the interviews he conducted for that work into this one. The Bomb complements that previous work, offering a more holistic view of the development of nuclear war policy and bringing the topic to the present-day.

Those familiar with the history of nuclear weapons will not be surprised by much of what Kaplan relates. One can see a similar narrative of SAC’s evolution in Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (2014), for example. Kaplan also further contextualizes Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons since 1940 (1998), a Brookings Institute study estimating the cost of building the nuclear deterrent. Since massive nuclear retaliation was, in part, an effort to avoid a costly conventional arms race, the gargantuan price tag estimated by Atomic Audit suggests that effort failed. The skyrocketing costs, however, make sense in the context of the development of counterforce strategy, which demanded ever more weapons, and more important, more and more delivery systems, than a pure deterrence strategy that could rely on a fixed, limited number.

By examining the bomb across such a large period of time, and fairly briskly at a length under three hundred pages, Kaplan does flatten some of the figures and issues involved; he does not give much credence to the intentions of military planners as he emphasizes the bureaucratic causes of the arms race. However, the long timescale is worth such downsides as it allows him to truly capture the recurring dynamics in nuclear war planning and policy that emerge and reemerge since 1945.

Ultimately, this is a valuable work for both scholarly audiences and the general public, providing a clear, concise consideration of the logic puzzle at the heart of nuclear policy. One hopes that it finds a broad audience to help bring these issues into greater consideration, given the stakes involved in the continued existence of nuclear weapons.

Citation: David Hadley. Review of Kaplan, Fred, The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War. H-War, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55841

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.