Jonathan Stevenson's Thinking Beyond the Unthinkable: Harnessing Doom from the Cold War to the Age of Terror is a tough one to get a fix on … the dust jacket claims that it “traces the recent evolution of constructive apocalyptic thinking from its zenith in the early nuclear era”, and more-or-less on up to its 2008 release date … but it's fairly narrowly focused on a class of think-tank and related elements than would be of significant interest to most readers. The author is a professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College, and it's tempting to chalk this up to being something of a text book for classes in that context, but it's not really structured that way.
The book starts with a question: “What was it about the strategic thinking of the Cold War that worked? How did we manage not to incinerate ourselves with nuclear weapons?” and goes into a rather grisly, if brief, run-down of the military horrors of the past century … such as:
… along with the “feel good” sentiments of Joseph Stalin who famously remarked: “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic”. Despite being less deadly than their pre-atomic predecessor technologies, the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki created a decided shift in military thinking. Using the A-bomb on Japan (and bluffing that we had a stockpile of 'em), prevented a long and massively deadly ground/air/sea war on their home islands … “the reaction of most of the men who would become leading nuclear strategists was profound relief” … and the author quotes later nuclear abolitionist Freeman Dyson (then with the RAF) as saying “it was a fantastic relief that the killing was going to stop”.the British firebombing of Hamburg in 1943 … resulted in a fireball two kilometers high that imploded the oxygen in the air and raised windstorms strong enough to uproot trees; household sugar boiled, glass melted, and bubbling asphalt sucked people into the streets; in one night forty-five thousand civilians were killed
Books discussing the new realities of nuclear weapons started appearing as early as 1946, and things only got more complicated with the development of the H-bomb in 1952. Of course, the tenor of the discussion/debate was in the context of a “titanic struggle between Western capitalism and Soviet communism” which pushed out other considerations of conflict (which made later situations such as Vietnam and non-state terrorist actors so difficult to merge into existing frameworks). The first parts of the book look, in fairly expansive detail, at how the Truman and Eisenhower administration addressed this, the committee/commission reports generated, and the major players emerging from the various universities, government departments, and military organizations.
Of course, one of the key elements was Project RAND (which was simply R&D written differently), whose
Most notable of that crew in terms of nuclear strategy was Albert Wohlstetter, a key figure in the book, along with Thomas C. Schelling, Herman Khan, Bernard Brodie, William Kaufmann, and Henry Kissinger.first hirees were mathematicians, engineers, statisticians, and physicists. By 1947 it became clear that RAND needed to be a broader church, and political scientists, historians, sociologists, psychologists, and economists were brought on.
I need to make a bit of a snarky comment at this point. I read a lot. I have an excellent education. So, I want to ask who is Stevenson writing for when he uses words like “eviscerating”, “escalatory”, “lugubrious”, and “hortatory” … in a single paragraph? It's rare for me to have to look up two words out of a dozen books, so it sort of stands out here. Again, what audience is familiar with those last two? Students at the Naval War College (we could only hope)? Anyway …
One of the profiles which stood out for me in the book was that of Herman Kahn, whose book Thinking About the Unthinkable was obviously the inspiration for this book's title. The author notes:
When being accused of “icy rationality”, Kahn responded “Would you prefer a warm, human error? Do you feel better with a nice emotional mistake? We cannot expect good discussion of security problems if we are going to label every attempt at detachment as callous, every attempt at objectivity as immoral.”One of Kahn's essential convictions was that an apocalyptic war could be won, and it stemmed from his refusal to divorce human fallibility from strategic calculations. For him, the scenarios that governed policy had to take account of the irrationality of people and their subsequent unpredictability.
The book progresses from the 40's to the 50's and into the 60's, primarily focused on the Cold War nuclear stalemate, but other conflicts were on the horizon … unfortunately “Nuclear strategists in general were not inclined to grapple with the vicissitudes and complexities of nationalism, religion, and ideologies other than those falling under the broad contours of communism and democracy.”, and Stevenson quotes one as saying “Vietnam crept up on me like everyone else.”
A figure that surfaces here is the somewhat notorious Daniel Ellsberg, who was with RAND from 1959 to 1970.
The debacle of Vietnam “tainted RAND and the community of civilian strategists and knocked them from the perch to which they had ascended on the strength of the contributions to nuclear strategy” … and “Over the course of the Vietnam war, RAND, on balance, promoted U.S. policy in Vietnam without informing or challenging it much.” This allowed another old RAND hand to move to the forefront of strategic thought, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger steered the Nixon administration through decoupling from the Vietnam conflict, and building detente with the Soviets.He embodies both thesis and antithesis of RAND's underperformance in the area of conventional war, having evolved from a hard-nosed strategic thinker, to in-country Pentagon adviser in Vietnam, to antiwar activist and revealer, in 1971, of the Pentagon Papers.
The rise of the “neo-cons” was largely in reaction to the “cautious” Kissinger-era moves, and this was coupled with a strong anti-Western “Orientalism” emerging from the Islamic world. The Vietnam conflict had driven a wedge between camps in the U.S., and “The absence of synergy between government and academia on strategic matters involving Islam also failed to spur the U.S. government to enhance its collective understanding of Middle East political, ethnic, and religious dynamics.” … while “Arab paperback apocalyptics had conjured visions of devastating attacks on New York and visiting mass destruction on the United States.”
Obviously, these are just the broad strokes. Thinking Beyond the Unthinkable has a great deal of detail on the figures, the stances, the challenges, etc. I was somewhat surprised that it was as “Cold War” heavy (given that “to the Age of Terror” in its subtitle) as it is, but the logical arc of the telling makes sense by the time it gets to where it's going (in the last year of the GWB administration), albeit with less detail for the Vietnam, and post-Vietnam eras. I have to admit that this was a bit of a chore to read, and again I'm left wondering what the target audience is for the book. Needless to say, if one is a fan of military/political strategy, this will be in your wheelhouse, but it's otherwise pretty much a look at fairly rarefied zones of what could be called “cultural philosophy”, and might not be particularly appealing to many. I did learn quite a lot about many things in reading it, so I think that was worth the effort … but “your mileage may vary”. This does appear to be currently out of print (suggesting that it's not a textbook), and it seems to have never had a paperback edition; but you can get “very good” copies from the online big boys' new/used vendors for as little as $4.00 (1¢ plus $3.99 shipping), so it's not going to set you back much if you want to have a go at it.