Scientists At War

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At that time Brodie had concluded that indiscriminate bombing of cities would be militarily ineffective and would only prompt the Soviets to destroy American cities in return; that damaging some targets, while leaving their cities intact, could give the United States some bargaining power after a war had already started; that we could threaten the Soviets by saying, “Back off or we’ll hit your cities with our remaining weapons”; that those remaining weapons would not only serve to deter the Soviets from destroying American cities but might also compel them to come to the peace table.

The hydrogen bomb reinforced Brodie’s thinking and also extended it. At least with the A-bomb there were still a few restraints. To destroy some targets, the bombs would have to be fairly accurate, and that posed several problems. But the RAND team’s calculations revealed that the hydrogen bomb was so powerful that it could miss targets by two miles or more and still destroy whatever anyone might want to hit. With the A-bomb there was the problem of scarcity of fissionable materials. Even before the H-bomb this problem was gradually being solved by an acceleration in the production of these materials. But the H-bomb eliminated the problem entirely: just one bomb could destroy the largest Soviet or American city, along with every important industrial target in it.

Before this project Brodie had decided that the atomic bomb was “not so absolute a weapon that we can disregard the limits of its destructive power” and that, therefore, the “problem of target selection, for example, [was] still important.” The hydrogen bomb, however, “makes strategic bombing very efficient, perhaps all too efficient. We no longer need to argue whether the conduct of war is an art or a science—it is neither.” A theme that Brodie had composed during his Pentagon days emerged much more clearly: “The art of science comes in only in finding out, if you’re interested, what not to hit.”

A few months earlier Brodie had not understood the famous dictum of Karl von Clausewitz, the nineteenth-century Prussian warrior-philosopher: “War is a continuation of policy by other means. ” Brodie had thought, and had even written, that a war fought with atomic bombs would be “much too violent to fit into any concept of a continuation of diplomacy.” However, since learning of the H-bomb’s enormously destructive power, Brodie came to see that Clausewitz was saying something extraordinarily profound—“that war is violence … but it is planned violence and therefore controlled. And since the objective should be rational, the procedure for accomplishing that objective should also be rational, which is to say that the procedure and the objective must be in some measure appropriate to each other.”

Applying this to the new age of the hydrogen bomb, Brodie concluded that there could no longer be anything rational about the strategic bombing of any target that lies inside the Soviet Union. That would only spark Soviet retaliation, with monumentally destructive effect in the United States. Brodie realized that “national objectives cannot be consonant with national suicide”— and “there is no use talking about a mutual exchange of nuclear weapons, including the type of the [the H-bomb], as being anything other than national suicide.”

THERMONUCLEAR THINKING

STILL, IN THE evolution of his thinking over the past six years, Brodie came to see that war must have objectives, and while he was never among those who thought war with the U.S.S.R. imminent, he did think it was possible. In that case, how could a nation use something like the hydrogen bomb in such a way that the “procedure” would be commensurate with the “objective”? One thing seemed clear to Brodie and to nearly all his contemporaries at the time: “We seem to be destined or doomed,” as Brodie put it, “to a permanent inferiority [to the U.S.S.R.] in numbers of men on the ground in Western Europe.” One way of compensating for this inferiority was through superior firepower, and it was “quite clear that weapons of this sort plus the conventional nuclear weapons introduce a fantastic augmentation of firepower.”

“Strategic bombing has been defined as that action which destroys the warmaking capacity of the enemy,” Brodie said in a top-secret Air War College lecture delivered in April 1952. “But I have the feeling that burning up his armies, if you can accomplish it, does the same thing. One may be as easy as the other, and certainly we shouldn’t have to do both.” A problem with battlefield use of atomic weapons was trying to locate precisely where the opposing armies might be. With the H-bomb, the point became moot. You could wipe out entire rear areas of whole divisions. Thus, “if … nuclear weapons would actually enable us to break and burn the Soviet armies on the ground wherever they might commit aggression, we might decide that it was possible—I won’t say to win a war—but to secure our objectives without bombing enemy cities.”