Essential Reading for the Apocalypse


After our two recent podcasts (one and two) on contemporary nuclear issues, we asked some of our guests to recommend a few books that they consider essential for understanding nuclear issues.  Here is what they came up with:

Elbridge Colby

Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence (Yale University Press, 1966). Obvious but essential. This book is the classic statement of the core principles of nuclear strategy (and, in key respects, of broader questions of “bargaining in conflict”). A must read for every aspiring nuclear strategist.

Robert Osgood, The Nuclear Dilemma in American Strategic Thought (Westview, 1988). An underappreciated gem that expertly and judiciously delineates the key debates in American strategic thought and the axes along which the varies debates fall.

Francis Gavin, Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age (Cornell University Press, 2012). An excellent summation of Cold War nuclear history, with wise insights drawn about the impact nuclear weapons have had – and haven’t had.

Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (Princeton University Press, 1960). Kahn at the peak of his powers. A supremely searching and incisive mind plumbing the depths of the problems of nuclear strategy. Long but skimmable in parts.

Klaus Knorr and Thorton Read (eds), Limited Strategic War (Princeton University Press, 1962). Essays by many of the giants on one of the most difficult – but contemporary – problems of nuclear strategy: whether one needs to be prepared to fight a limited strategic war and, if so, how to do so.

Elbridge Colby is a Regular Contributor at WOTR. He is a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), where he focuses on strategic, deterrence, nuclear weapons, conventional force, intelligence, and related issues.

William Rosenau

Peter Hennessey, The Secret State: Preparing for the Worst, 1945-2010 (Penguin, 2010). I’ll simply quote a representative passage from this rigorous but wonderfully readable history of British planning for Armageddon: Like all else to do with nuclear war, the degradation of the United Kingdom into eleven shriveled irradiated little fiefdoms filled with wretched and desperate survivors theoretically governed by men in bunkers and probably ruled, in reality, by armed soldiers and policemen with ultimate powers over life and death (give or take the occasional surviving judge to interpolate himself or herself) is too ghastly to contemplate.”

Kenneth Rose, One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture (New York University Press, 2004). A fascinating investigation of failed government efforts to persuade the American public to build private fallout shelters. A textured, nuanced study of civil defense that unlike many accounts of the domestic Cold War refuses to trivialize its subject.

Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, The Worlds of Herman Kahn (Harvard University Press, 2005). Herman Kahn–RAND Corporation strategist, civil defense salesman, and a model for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove—“did not just stand out from his cold-blooded brethren; he ballooned out from them. This ‘artless, sweaty man,’ wheezing and gulping down water, was almost cartoonishly fat, a rotund prophet giggling at the apocalypse” (Warren Bass, Washington Post).

William Rosenau is a Regular Contributor at WOTR. He is a senior research scientist at CNA’s Center for Strategic Studies, a not-for-profit federally-funded research organization.

Usha Sahay

Joe Cirincione, Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late (Columbia University Press, 2013). On the podcast, Ryan made the point that nuclear strategy is a much less prominent topic these days than it once was. Joe Cirincione’s book does a great job of laying out the unique modern-day challenges of nuclear issues, including tough proliferation challenges abroad, as well as the fiscal and strategic debates surrounding US nuclear posture (full disclosure: we receive grants from Joe’s foundation)

Richard Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race (Vintage, 2008)This book is an absolute classic – an informative history book that doesn’t read like one at all. Richard Rhodes certainly comes at this project with a very specific set of views on the Cold War and its architects, but that doesn’t keep this from being a fast-paced and fascinating look at Reagan, Gorbachev, and the other personalities and events that shaped the escalation, and eventual end, of the Cold War.

Jessica Mathews, “Iran: A Good Deal Now in Danger”, New York Review of Books. It’s not a book, but it is a thorough, balanced and historically informed look at how Iran’s nuclear program got to this point, where we go from here, and some of the political dynamics surrounding this issue.

Usha Sahay is an Assistant Editor at War on the Rocks. She is the Director of Digital Outreach at the Council for a Livable World, where she manages digital strategy and online advocacy in support of progressive national security policies.

Robert Zarate

Robert Zarate and Henry Sokolski, eds.Nuclear Heuristics: Selected Writings of Albert & Roberta Wohlstetter (Strategic Studies Institute, 2009). The Wohlstetters were two of America’s most controversial, innovative, and consequential thinkers of war and peace in the nuclear age.  (For example, Albert coined the term “second-strike capability” and clarified the operational meaning of the concept for the Strategic Air Command in the mid-1950s.) This volume, which Henry Sokolski and I co-edited, brings together, for the first time, seminal essays like “The Delicate Balance of Terror” (1959), “Nuclear Sharing: NATO and the N+1 Problem” (1961), and “Bishops, Statesmen, and Other Strategists on the Bombing of Innocents” (1983), as well as previously unpublished manuscripts and seven commentaries–including one by Andrew W. Marshall, the legendary founder of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment.

William Liscum Borden, There Will Be No Time: The Revolution in Strategy (Macmillan Company, 1946). Published a few weeks after Bernard Brodie’s more famous edited volume The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order, Borden’s book is far, far ahead of its time, forecasting the invention of what we call today nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched nuclear missiles, remotely-piloted unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and space-based warfare. Long out-of-print, it’s available as a used book and in many university libraries.

Alain C. Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith, How Much is Enough? Shaping the Defense Program, 1961-1969 (Harper & Row, 1971). Enthoven, a Wohlstetter protege, was one of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s “Whiz Kids” during the Kennedy Administration.  In this book, he and Smith chronicle the successes and shortcomings of the McNamara team’s attempt to bring objective, economically-driven analysis to the Pentagon’s military strategy and planning in the nuclear and conventional realms.  Republished by the RAND Corporation in 2005 at the urging of senior Pentagon leaders.

Robert Zarate is Policy Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.


Image: Nicolas Raymond, CC