The Wizards of Armageddon

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This is the untold story of the small group of men who have devised the plans and shaped the policies on how to use the Bomb. The book (first published in 1983) explores the secret world of these strategists of the nuclear age and brings to light a chapter in American political and military history never before revealed.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A fascinating account of a hidden elite and a hidden era in American politics, packed with inside stories that will be new to even the most seasoned specialists. The tale of the strategic 'Whiz Kids' has never been told in such detail or with such flair." —Les AspinChairman, House Armed Services Committee

"Fascinating. . . . It contains much that is not only new but stunning about the nation's official thinking and planning for nuclear war."
The Washington Post Book World

"Like most people, I know that nuclear strategy is a subject of crucial importance—but shy away from it as too forbidding. Reading Fred Kaplan, I understand and want to learn more. He brings the subject to life with human example and an understanding so sure that he can explain the unthinkable."
—Anthony Lewis,The New York Times

On the decisions of a small group that devised the plans and policies on the use of nuclear weapons. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804718844
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 8/1/1991
  • Series: Stanford Nuclear Age Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 456
  • Sales rank: 644,793
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Read an Excerpt


By Fred Kaplan


Copyright © 1983 Fred Kaplan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-1884-4

Chapter One


It was August 7, 1945, a cool but sticky Tuesday morning in Bethany, Connecticut, a sleepy suburb resting on the northwestern edges of New Haven. Bernard Brodie, a brilliant new addition to the Yale University political science faculty, went driving with his wife, Fawn, to buy The New York Times at a drugstore in the neighboring village of Woodbridge, roughly halfway between the Brodie home and the Yale campus.

Bernard Brodie was fascinated by the weapons of war, especially the weapons of naval warfare and how they affected the tactics and strategies of those great battles on the high seas that had proved so decisive to the outcomes of war over the past few centuries. For most of the present war, World War II, Brodie had worked for the Navy in Washington, D.C., where he had been given, among other assignments, the task of ghostwriting the biannual report of Admiral Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations and commander of the entire U.S. wartime fleet. Brodie's book, A Layman's Guide to Naval Strategy, first published in 1942, was in its third edition. The Naval War College had persuaded the Princeton University Press to drop the word "Layman's" from the title so that the school could assign the book as a standard text for officers without embarrassment. Now, at age thirty-five, Brodie was acquiring a solid reputation as one of the nation's foremost naval strategists.

Stepping inside the pharmacy, Brodie picked up a copy of the Times. The banner headline riveted his attention: "First Atomic Bomb Dropped on Japan; Missile Is Equal to 20,000 Tons of TNT; Truman Warns Foe of a 'Rain of Ruin.'" His eyes moved quickly down the right-hand column of the page, scanning smaller headlines reading: "New Age Ushered," "Day of Atomic Energy Hailed by President, Revealing Weapon," "Hiroshima Is Target," "'Impenetrable' Cloud of Dust Hides City After Single Bomb Strike."

Brodie read just two paragraphs of the story that followed, looked up for a few seconds, turned to his wife and said, "Everything that I have written is obsolete."

Brodie was not the only one for whom everything turned obsolete that morning. The whole conception of modern warfare, the nature of international relations, the question of world order, the function of weaponry, had to be thought through again. Nobody knew the answers; initially, not many had even the right questions. From these ashes an entire intellectual community would create itself, a new elite that would eventually emerge as a power elite, and whose power would come not from wealth or family or brass stripes, but from their having conceived and elaborated a set of ideas. It was, at the outset, a small and exceptionally inbred collection of men—mostly economists and mathematicians, a few political scientists—who devoted nearly every moment of their workaday thoughts to thinking about the bomb: how to prevent nuclear war, how to fight nuclear war if it cannot be deterred.

In the first months following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Yale University would become a prime mover on the thinking about how to live with the bomb, and Bernard Brodie was at the center of that movement. When the Yale group started to split up around the end of 1950, Brodie spent a few months near the heart of the war machine, in the Air Staff of the United States Air Force, where he examined the nation's war plans, the targets inside enemy Russia that the U.S. would incinerate in the event of another war. From there, Brodie moved to Southern California, to the RAND Corporation.

RAND was where the ideas came together. It was an Air Force creation, independent in title but contracted to do research for the Air Force. The Army and Navy had their bands of hired intellectuals too, but through the 1950s American military policy and defense budgeting emphasized nuclear power, and the Air Force had the big bomb. The Air Force was where the money was funneled and the thinking was concentrated; RAND was where the thinkers coalesced.

They were rational analysts, and they would attempt to impose a rational order on something that many thought inherently irrational—nuclear war. They would invent a whole new language and vocabulary in their quest for rationality, and would thus condition an entire generation of political and military leaders to think about the bomb the way that the intellectual leaders of RAND thought about it.

The themes of such classic films of the nuclear age as Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, the catch phrases of the popularized strategic debates of the 1960s and 1970s—"counterforce," "first-strike /second-strike," "nuclear war-fighting," "systems analysis," "thinking about the unthinkable," "shot across the bow," "limited nuclear options"—would all have as their source the strategists of the RAND Corporation in the 1950s.

In the sixties, with the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy and the appointment of Robert S. McNamara as Secretary of Defense, the new "defense intellectuals" would move into positions of power, either as administration officials or as influential consultants. One British journalist would describe them in the London Times Literary Supplement as men who "move freely through the corridors of the Pentagon and the State Department rather as the Jesuits through the courts of Madrid and Vienna, three centuries ago, when we in Europe were having our own little local difficulties."

By the 1970s and especially into the eighties, the ideas of these thermonuclear Jesuits would have so thoroughly percolated through the corridors of power—and through their annexes in academia—that, at least among fellow members of the congregation, their wisdom would be taken almost for granted, their assumptions worshiped as gospel truth, their insight elevated to an almost mystical level and accepted as dogma.

Throughout this period, most of the defense intellectuals—with a few notable exceptions—would stay out of the limelight, preferring the relative anonymity of the consultant, the special assistant. Yet this small group of theorists would devise and help implement a set of ideas that would change the shape of American defense policy, that could someday mean the difference between peace and total war. Though virtually unheard of by most of even the very well read among the general population, they knew they would make their mark—for they were the men who pondered mass destruction, who thought about the unthinkable, who invented nuclear strategy.

Bernard Brodie hardly seemed the type to become the pioneer of nuclear strategy when he walked through the portals of the University of Chicago in 1933. He was twenty-three, the product of an upwardly mobile but still quite poor Jewish family on Chicago's South Side. He was rather short, with glasses and wavy hair, very bright but awkward, unmannered, badly dressed.

Brodie had gone to work for the Weather Bureau, which had barometers stationed in the University of Chicago quad. He had thought he would make a career of meteorology, but after one look at the grandeur of that campus, he changed his mind. Still working for the Bureau to support himself, he made plans to enroll at the University of Chicago. The early years of Robert Hutchins' influence as university president were heady ones and during them Brodie inaugurated a lifelong love of classical music, art, fine literature and history. He courted a fellow student, Fawn McKay, a Mormon girl from the backwaters of Utah, for whom the university was equally liberating.

Brodie loved horses and at sixteen lied about his age to join the National Guard, which trained its soldiers on horses. ("Horses will always be used to tow the artillery," his officers proclaimed.) While there, he grew increasingly fascinated with the technology of weapons, particularly firearms, and read as much about their history as he could find.

Brodie graduated in 1938 with a degree in philosophy, high marks and a reputation as an outstanding student. In March, two months before Brodie received his baccalaureate, Hitler's troops crossed into Austria. Earlier in the decade, Japan had invaded Manchuria and fascists had taken over the republic of Spain. Like many aware young men of the day, Brodie grew concerned about world affairs. That, combined with his military interests, led him to enter the university's graduate school of international relations.

The social science departments at Chicago were widely considered to be among the nation's finest, certainly the most innovative. And in the interwar period, they were virtually an anomaly on the American intellectual scene. It was a time of isolationism for the United States, a sentiment embraced by masses, politicians and intellectuals alike. The European war of 1914–1918 had been a bleakly disillusioning experience. Woodrow Wilson had sent American boys off to fight for democracy and freedom; they helped win the war for the Allies, but the aftertaste was sour. War had not been the glorious affair it was promised to be. After the war, the Senate voted down American entry into the League of Nations, refusing to soil once more the country's unique brand of democracy in the brutish dirt of the Old World's balance-of-power politics.

In the 1930s, when war loomed again on the European horizon, most Americans wanted no part of it. In 1928, Secretary of State Frank Kellogg and French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand were the first to sign the Kellogg-Briand Pact, a multilateral agreement that outlawed war.

In the years between the two world wars, most American universities reflected the popular notion that America was a unique creation, something apart from and beyond the politics of its European ancestors. Political science was taught as if politics were composed of organization charts, venerable static institutions and the Articles of the Constitution. International relations was considered synonymous with international law, its curricula crowded with summaries of peace-treaty provisions and the message that peace and world order were essentially the products of well-drafted international legislation and mutual good will.

Against this rather bland and abstract tradition that contradicted everything that was going on in the world, the Chicago school splashed a bracing tonic of realism. Charles Merriam led the way with his provocative discourses ón American politics, expounding on the now common but then utterly earthshaking thesis that the essence of all politics lay not in structures of organizations or the Bill of Rights or the Electoral College, but in power—who uses it, for what ends, in what political context, against whom.

The Merriam school of thought carried over into Chicago's department of international relations, mainly through Professor Quincy Wright, an institution all to himself. In 1926, Wright commenced a study on the causes of war that would not be published for sixteen years. The very existence of such a project at a major American university was astonishing. Even at Chicago, there were, as late as the mid-1930s, professors of international relations who would not allow war to be discussed in class because its very mention as a serious topic violated the spirit of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, implied that war might not be illegal.

The Wright project was a major departure, a huge endeavor entailing a vast collection of data not just from international law but from every field of scholarship imaginable—anthropology, economics, sociology, psychology, geography, biology, data on technological change, the balance of power (loathed phrase of the day), the history of armaments, public opinion and the press. Wright liked numbers: public-opinion poll data, excursions on a quantitative model of the arms race developed by mathematician Lewis Richardson, quantitative analyses of the contents in mass media.

When completed, the two-volume work, called A Study of War, had about it a dazzling sense of unity. It was heavy going and turgid, but it was so comprehensively interdisciplinary that it represented a quantum leap for the study of international relations.

Bernard Brodie was Quincy Wright's star student in his graduate-school days. In 1939, the year that he began his dissertation, Brodie won the department's only fellowship, an award of $350, and was assigned to assist Professor Wright, then in the final phase of his leviathan. The next year, when Brodie was about to face the job market, Wright sent well over a dozen letters to acquaintances in top-notch colleges across the country advertising "an A-number-one man, Bernard Brodie."

Brodie also greatly admired Jacob Viner of the economics department, another new thinker. Viner was physically small but intellectually towering. Once a star student at McGill in Canada, then at Harvard, he joined the Chicago faculty and introduced a course new to the field of economics—the politics of international economic relations. Viner had been a consultant in Franklin D. Roosevelt's first Administration, and was profoundly struck by how rare it was that economic theory alone provided an answer to any serious problem. As a scholar, he was interested in the history of pamphleteering, which naturally led him to a study of mercantilism, the relations between the free market and the state. This interest, combined with his Washington experience, inspired Viner to see the true nature of economics as an interdisciplinary subject—and one dominated by considerations of political power. While many of his colleagues went thrashing about in the newfangled field of econometrics—an attempt to predict economic behavior by the imposition of vast mathematical models—Viner, in part because he never was much of a mathematician, liked to say, "After all, this subject was originally called political economy."

From Wright and Viner, Brodie learned some valuable lessons that Brodie's contemporaries in other universities were, in the main, not getting even by the end of the 1930s. From Wright, Brodie learned about the multiple causes and complexities of war. He picked up a well-blended mix of realism and idealism: a view that peace relies on more than provisions of international law, but also that, as Wright said, "opinions and ideas are an element in political power no less, and perhaps more, important than armies, economic resources and geographic position."

Wright founded the Study of War project on the belief that by better understanding war one could better ensure the keeping of peace. At the same time, he had a Realpolitik view of national security and was no pacifist when it came to defending what he saw as national interests. He was a major figure in the Hyde Park branch of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, an anti-appeasement organization of some influence in 1939 and 1940 that favored repealing the Neutrality Act so that the United States could ship arms to Britain and France. Wright petitioned several senators on this cause.

The lessons from Jacob Viner reinforced those of Wright's and added a new dimension. Power, thought Viner, could be surrendered only to something more powerful still. Governments will not lay down their swords before a world government simply out of good will or in the name of international cooperation. Doing so would violate their sovereign interests, and no nation could be expected to submit voluntarily to so clear a request of surrender.

In 1938, his senior year as an undergraduate, Brodie wrote a term paper for Quincy Wright titled "Can Peaceful Change Prevent War?" The paper was prompted by a popular thesis held by many political scientists and statesmen of the day: that, given the decay of the postwar settlements of 1919 and a resurgence of international violence, a method must be devised of establishing procedures for allowing changes in the international system, of avoiding war by accomplishing peacefully the ends for which nations might otherwise despairingly resort to war. This would serve the cause not only of peace but also of justice.

In a particularly Viner-esque passage, Brodie responded: "If change is to be effected to correct an injustice, or to rectify disequilibrium, it necessarily follows that states will find themselves called upon to make material concessions without receiving any material compensation, which they cannot be expected to do willingly.... Are we to expect the state yielding its territories to be entirely appeased by the proud contemplation of the generosity of its contribution to world order? These are questions which cannot be glossed over. If the problems they entail cannot be satisfactorily solved, we need concern ourselves no further with the idea of peaceful change."

Brodie absorbed from the University of Chicago two great lessons: that political change in international relations is likely and, therefore, so is war; that there are ways to reduce the chance of war, but short of drastic and unprecedented changes in the distribution of global power, a world government is destined to remain a feckless and ephemeral vehicle. These were new lessons in the study of politics in America, and their impact would be deeply felt when, a few years later, Brodie began to ponder the consequences of the atomic bomb.


Excerpted from THE WIZARDS OF ARMAGEDDON by Fred Kaplan Copyright © 1983 by Fred Kaplan. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Foreword by Martin J. Sherwin....................4
1 Year Zero....................9
2 Living with the Bomb....................24
3 Planning for War....................33
4 On the Beach at RAND....................51
5 The Superbomb....................74
6 The Vulnerability Study....................85
7 The Hydra-Headed Monster....................111
8 The Gaither Committee....................125
9 The Report of Maximum Danger....................144
10 The Missile Gap....................155
11 The Massive-Retaliation Speech....................174
12 The Limited-War Critique....................185
13 Counterforce....................201
14 Dr. Strangelove....................220
15 The Real Rivalry....................232
16 The Whiz Kids....................248
17 Two Briefings....................258
18 The SIOP and the Road to Ann Arbor....................263
19 The Gap That Never Was....................286
20 The Crises....................291
21 Shelter Mania....................307
22 Damage Unlimited....................315
23 Vietnam: Stalemate....................328
24 The ABM Debate....................343
25 The New Generation....................356
26 Dancing in the Dark....................385
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