September 20, 2008


Real Men of Genius: a review of SOLDIERS OF REASON: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire By Alex Abella (JACOB HEILBRUNN, NY Times Book Review)

Abella correctly focuses on the role of Wohlstetter, who made his name in the early 1950s with a study diagnosing the vulnerability of the Strategic Air Command’s nuclear bombers to a Soviet pre-emptive strike. As the decades went by, Wohlstetter never stopped emphasizing the importance of being prepared for a surprise attack (his wife, Roberta, had brilliantly chronicled one in a study of Pearl Harbor). His contribution was to argue for a version of deterrence that relied on what became known as a ­second-strike capability — the ability to absorb a first blow and retaliate. According to Abella, Wohlstetter believed that “it behooved someone with his knowledge to anticipate the worst eventuality, so that once ready for it, it might not happen at all.”

As Abella reminds us, Wohlstetter was at the forefront of the intellectual battle, in the 1970s, to knock the struts out from Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s (and later Gerald Ford’s) support for détente with the Soviet Union. Wohlstetter warned that both Democrats and liberal Republicans were underestimating the size of the Soviet arsenal.

One result was the government’s creation of “Team B,” made up of hawks who challenged the C.I.A.’s estimates of the Kremlin’s nuclear force. How influential Team B ­really was is questionable. But it did serve as a precursor of the Bush administration’s efforts to prod the C.I.A. into offering worst-case assessments of Sad­dam Hussein’s regime. (Indeed, earlier this year The New York Times reported that the Army had buried a 2005 RAND study that was highly critical of the planning for postwar Iraq.) Abella traces it all back to RAND analysts and neoconservatives, whose gloomy view of the cold war, he argues, triumphed during the Reagan years. But the truth is that the Reagan administration wasn’t simply the handmaiden of the RAND Corporation and the neocons. It was responding to a real threat.

Abella, co-author of “Shadow Enemies: Hitler’s Secret Terrorist Plot Against the United States,” is too quick to dismiss American apprehensions as “paranoia.” Also, some of his assertions lack context. He writes that the Reagan administration’s “cavalier attitude toward nuclear war and its insistence on placing new midrange missiles in Europe provoked a crisis in the Soviet Union.”

Just because the Soviets had produced a whole lot of really crappy weapons didn't make them a threat and the point was to provoke a crisis, which destroyed the USSR just as surely as a first strike would have, though waiting 50 years wasted millions of lives, trillions of dollars, and untold human suffering.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 20, 2008 8:21 AM
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