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Scientists At War

July 2024
34min read

THE BIRTH OF THE RAND CORPORATION During World War II, America discovered that scientists were needed to win it—and to win any future war. That’s why RAND came into being, the first think tank and the model for all the rest.

ALONG THE jagged coastline of Southern California, past the hills and forests of Malibu, five miles down from the Santa Monica Mountains, just short of Muscle Beach and the town of Venice, there sits some of the most quaintly decrepit oceanside property in America. The Santa Monica beach hardly looks different from the way it did a few years after World War II: the same huge arch along the entryway, the same calliope with the lighthouse-shaped apartment on top, the same small seafood diner.

At the edge of this underdeveloped strip of land, between Ocean Park Avenue and Main Street, stand two adjoining pink-and-white buildings—one is two stories high, the other five—which, from the outside, appear to house nothing more startling than the business offices of the local telephone company. But inside, there is the security guard in the lobby, doors that open only with the flashing of a special pass, dimly lit corridors, offices with papers and books and reports piled on desks and strewn all about, blackboards crammed with diagrams and complex mathematical equations, the library with its top-secret section, the specialclearance room in the basement where war games are played.

This is the RAND Corporation, and during the peak of the Cold War, most of the men and women (mostly men) of RAND did little but sit, think, talk, write, pass around memos, and dream up new ideas about nuclear war. Isolated from the hurly-burly of the rest of the world, they nurtured an esprit de corps, a sense of mission, an air of self-confidence and self-importance. It was, in large measure, this atmosphere that gradually created a doctrine concerning nuclear weapons, nuclear deterrence, and nuclear war fighting, and that propagated the notion that the “RAND way” is the only legitimate way of thinking about the bomb.



RAND HAD ITS origins in the military planning rooms of World War II. It was a war in which the talents of scientists were exploited to an unprecedented, almost extravagant degree. There were all the new inventions of warfare—radar, infrared detection devices, bomber aircraft, long-range rockets, torpedoes with depth charges—and the military had only the vaguest of ideas about how to use them. Someone had to devise methods for assessing the most efficient way to employ these new weapons. It was a task that fell to the scientists.

The result was a brand-new field, called “operational research” in Britain, “operational analysis” when it was picked up in the United States. The questions its practitioners had to answer were crucial to the war effort: How many tons of explosive force must a bomb release to create a certain amount of damage to certain types of targets? Should an airplane be heavily armored or stripped of defenses so it can fly faster? How many antiaircraft guns should be placed around a critical target?

The operational research groups were composed of scientists from all fields—physics, astronomy, chemistry, physiology, zoology, economics, mathematics—and were called “mixed teams.” When P.M.S. Blackett, one of the founders of operational research (OR) explained the British experience to American officers early in the war, he told them that every type of profession had been tried for the job except lawyers. Misunderstanding the point of the remark, the U.S. Army Air Force hired as its first OR chief John Marshall Harlan, a lawyer who later became an associate justice on the Supreme Court.

The scientists working on OR carefully examined data on the most recent military operations to determine the facts, elaborated theories to explain the facts, then used the theories to make predictions about future operations. In assessing the air campaign against German U-boats, for example, they analyzed every possible detail of past campaigns. By calculating the effect and importance of each variable, the scientists could predict what effect a change in any one of them—a new kind of radar, better accuracy, better camouflage, different altitude—might have on the outcome of the campaign.

One example: When Blackett first joined the British coastal command in the spring of 1941, the air campaign against U-boats was proving curiously unsuccessful. Command officers had observed that as soon as a U-boat captain spotted an aircraft, he dived as deep as possible. Consequently the coastal command would set its depth charges to explode one hundred feet below the surface of the water, assuming that the U-boat could sight the airplane two minutes before the attack and could, in that period, dive one hundred feet. Yet they were damaging only a few submarines.

Blackett and some colleagues discovered from combat data that the command’s assumptions were true on average , but not nearly all the time. Furthermore, in those cases where the U-boat dived one hundred feet, the airplane pilot could no longer tell just where the submarine was and would, therefore, almost certainly miss. In some cases, however, the warning time was much less than two minutes, and the U-boat could descend only about twenty-five feet before the aircraft dropped its load: in those cases, the sub could still be located and hit. Therefore, if the depth charges were set at twenty-five feet instead of one hundred, the percentage of submarines actually damaged or destroyed would be much higher.

The coastal command followed the recommendations, and results were so spectacular that captured German Uboat crews thought that the British had started using a powerful new explosive. But of course the cause was simply a slight change in tactics, systematically calculated by OR scientists engaged in nothing more complicated than standard scientific methods of investigation—with the difference that they were being applied to military tactics in wartime.

Similar techniques were developed to show that, contrary to conventional military wisdom, large naval convoys are safer than small ones, that fighter planes should fly every day they are serviceable regardless of whether enough can be put up in the air to fly in large formations.

By the end of the war, every U.S. Army Air Force unit had its own operational analysis division. The scientists not only worked on calculations in the home office but also went out to the fronts to gather data and make suggestions on how new tactics might be applied to the new weapons. Toward the latter part of the war, scientists were not just asked for advice; they were invited to sit alongside the generals and colonels in Washington headquarters and to participate directly in war planning.


AKEY PLAYER in this new phase of civilian involvement was Edward Bowles. Bowles had come to the Office of Scientific Research and Development from the MIT Radiation Lab at the start of the war, then transferred to the War Department to serve as special consultant to the secretary of war, Henry Stimson, and to Gen. George Marshall. Starting in 1943 he worked on adapting techniques of air warfare to the possibilities offered by the new scientific devices. Bowles had a tremendous faith in the power that comes from the fusion of military might with scientific brilliance.


But Bowles was practically a skeptic in this faith compared with Gen. Henry Harley Arnold. Everyone called Arnold “Hap” because he was steadily amiable and nearly always wore a broad smile. Yet behind the smile was a mind obsessed with destructive power and with the role that scientists might play in making future weapons still more destructive. When he heard that Secretary of War Stimson had doubts about the bombing of Dresden, Arnold wrote a memorandum: “We must not get soft. War must be destructive and to a certain extent inhuman and ruthless.” He wanted his scientists to invent “explosives more terrible and more horrible than anyone has any idea of. ”

Arnold considered himself a visionary. Four months before Germany was defeated, seven months before Japan surrendered, he called in his top officers and said: “We’ve got to think of what we’ll need in terms of twenty years from now. For the last twenty years we have built and run the Air Force on pilots. But we can’t do that anymore.” Arnold said he foresaw an age when intercontinental missiles would dominate warfare and that the Air Force would have to change radically to confront the challenges of this new age. His small audience sat in stunned silence. Every man in the room was a pilot.

Hap Arnold was worried. He was fifty-five when the war began. He was among those responsible for making something of air power, and he wanted to leave a legacy. The future he saw would be an age of intercontinental missiles, robots, super destructiveness; but what would happen, he wondered, to all the scientists who were proving so valuable to the present war effort? After the war, peacetime demobilization would quickly spread to their ranks as well; they would go back to lucrative jobs in universities and industry; certainly the meager salaries of civil service would hardly serve as incentive for them to stay in and help their country prepare for World War III.

On November 7, 1944, Arnold wrote a memo to his chief scientific adviser, a brilliant Hungarian refugee named Theodor Von Kármán. “I believe,” it began, “the security of the United States of America will continue to rest in part in developments instituted by our educational and professional scientists. I am anxious that the Air Force’s post war and next war research and development programs be placed on a sound and continuing basis …

“I am asking you and your associates to divorce yourselves from the present war in order to investigate all the possibilities and desirabilities for post war and future war’s development.”

Over the next thirteen months Von Kármán and his Army Air Force Scientific Advisory Board produced—and distributed piecemeal—a multivolume report called Toward New Horizons. It was music to Hap Arnold’s ears. “The scientific discoveries in aerodynamics, propulsion, electronics, and nuclear physics open new horizons for the use of air power,” the report declared. Even greater advances, including the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, lay just over the horizon. Therefore the air staff must “be advised continuously on the progress of scientific research and development in view of the potentialities of new discoveries and improvements in aerial warfare.” The important thing was to maintain “a permanent interest of scientific workers in problems of the Air Forces.”

Thus Von Kármán laid out the blueprint for what would be called Air Force Project RAND.


VON KÁRMÁN was reinforcing a movement already afoot under the sturdy guidance of Arnold, Bowles, and a few others, most notably Arthur Raymond, chief engineer at the Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica, and his assistant Frank Collbohm.

Collbohm had met Arnold in 1942, when Douglas Aircraft was building A-20 airplanes for the British. The British wanted some night-flight capability but had only primitive radar installations, which could barely make out the targets. Collbohm, who had heard something about a radar project going on at MIT, visited the school’s Radiation Lab in Cambridge. ld Bowles and another scientist at the lab took him up on the roof, where they had the radar operating. The day was extremely foggy. All pilots were grounded, except for a physicist at the lab who owned a private plane and had been given an exemption. At the moment, he was flying over the MIT campus. Collbohm could not see him, but the radar was tracking him perfectly.

Collbohm repeated the tale to Donald Douglas, president of the aircraft company, and General Arnold; both men were highly impressed. From that point on, Ed Bowles and the MIT Rad Lab were in with the Army Air Force, and so was Frank Collbohm. He was already a dollar-a-year consultant to the secretary of war. Now he started to consult for Arnold, too, mostly on tactics and economics.


As Collbohm gained a broader perspective on war planning, he grew disturbed that many high-ranking military officers were winning the military phase of the war but losing sight of the larger objectives. For example, in their obsession with measuring effectiveness by gauging damage of production facilities, many officers wanted to bomb the coal mines of the Ruhr Valley. Collbohm and many other civilian consultants argued that, with the Germans practically defeated, such rich resources should now be protected, not destroyed. Collbohm talked tlhe situation over with Ed Bowles and others. They all agreed that the military could not afford to lose the technical and scientific community they would so much need after the war.

When Collbohm aired his concerns to Arnold, the general agreed. “We have to keep the scientists on board,” he said. “It’s the most important thing we have to do.” Arnold immediately sent Collbohm back to Santa Monica to calculate how much money and what sorts of facilities and personnel would be needed for a new organization of scientists, similar to the one urged by Von Kármán, that would work for the military.

On September 30 Collbohm came to Arnold with a proposal from Donald Douglas: Douglas Aircraft would agree to house an independent group of civilians to assist the Army Air Force in planning for future weapons development. Arnold was excited by the idea. Douglas had served the nation well in war, and he was a man Arnold could trust. They were longtime huntingand-fishing friends, and two years earlier Arnold’s son had married Douglas’s daughter. Arnold had already concluded that this new scientific organization probably could not be set up at a university, owing to the need for classified information; nor could it be inside the government, due to the relatively low pay scales of civil service. He had thought industry was out of the question too; possible conflicts of interest would make life difficult for the fledgling outfit. But if Don Douglas was willing and eager to take this thing on and get it moving, then maybe an industry connection would work after all. (In the end the relationship did not work out, and in May 1948 RAND became an independent nonprofit corporation.)

Arnold called for a lunch meeting to be held the very next day at Hamilton Field, an Air Force base just outside San Francisco. There he joined Frank Collbohm, Ed Bowles, Don Douglas, Arthur Raymond, and a few other representatives of Douglas Aircraft. The meeting was to the RAND Corporation what the Continental Congress had been to the United States. Years later, in fact, the group that met at Hamilton Field would be referred to in RAND folklore as the “founding fathers.”

Arnold announced to those assembled that he had thirty million dollars left over from his wartime research budget. He wanted to divide that into three packages of ten million dollars each for projects that would study techniques of intercontinental warfare. He pledged one of the packages to Douglas: that would be enough to finance the new group and to keep it going for a few years, free from pressures to exhibit its achievements prematurely. Douglas wanted to start quickly, before the inevitable peacetime economy measures drastically reduced his company’s output. Frank Collbohm said that he would hunt around for someone to direct the outfit and would lead it himself in the meantime. Arthur Raymond came up with the name RAND, standing for “Research and Development.” Later, Gen. Curtis LeMay, noting that RAND never produced any weapon, would say that it should have stood for “Research and No Development.”


BY THE FALL OF 1947 the RAND staff had grown to one hundred and fifty. For anyone interested in some vague combination of mathematics, science, international affairs, and national security, RAND offered an ideal setting. There was an intense intellectual climate but no teaching obligations or boring faculty meetings. There was access to military secrets but no military officers from whom to take direct orders. There were brilliant minds working to solve fascinating problems. It was freewheeling, almost anarchic, virtually without hierarchy or separation among disciplines. One man invited to RAND in 1947 wrote in a memo: “I have been at RAND for three exciting days and I would like to become part of it. Right now RAND is part solid, part liquid, and part gas.…” It was run under Air Force contract, but that was all right. The Air Force was the only service that had the atom bomb; American security policy was based almost entirely on the bomb; therefore, the Air Force policy IDOS essentially national security policy, and RAND was the Air Force center of ideas.

Early in 1947 Olaf Helmer of the RAND mathematics division came up with an idea that would change the complexion of the project. Helmer was a German refugee with two Ph. D.’s, in mathematics and in logic, who emigrated to the United States in 1936, taught mathematical logic at the New School for Social Research and City College of New York, and during the war worked for a group on Fiftyseventh Street in New York called the Applied Mathematics Panel, the OR unit of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Helmer had been at RAND for a short time when he reflected on the possibility that the organization might be too limited in its outlook. Military problems, after all, were not just engineering or mathematical or physics problems; they involved questions that might better be investigated by economists or political scientists as well.

John Davis Williams, head of RAND’s math division and a former colleague on the Applied Mathematics Panel, particularly liked Helmer’s idea and made it his own. Williams, who had come to RAND in 1946—he was the fifth employee—weighed close to three hundred pounds. Trained as an astronomer, he was also an excellent pool shark; he would later write an article on TV wrestling for the promotional issue of Sports Illustrated, and he loved to supercharge and drive fast cars. He had loaded a Cadillac engine into his brown Jaguar sports coupe and relished few things more than taking it out on midnight test runs at 155 miles per hour. (Williams might also be credited with being the man who first applied radar to automobiles, building his very own “fuzz-buster.”)

Williams had for some time been particularly keen on a mathematician named John von Neumann. One of the broader intellects of the twentieth century, von Neumann was a cheery, roly-poly man, short and round-faced as a cherub. As a teen-ager, he was known to his friends as “Mr. Miracle” because of his great love for inventing mechanical toys. During World War II he was chief mathematical wizard at the Manhattan Project. After the war he taught at Princeton but still served as a consultant at Los Alamos in the Theoretical Division, or T-division, where—along with Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi, Lothar Nordheim, and others—he became enraptured with the problems and principles of fusion energy and the hydrogen bomb.

At one point fusion experiments were bogged down by the almost impossibly complicated mathematical calculations that the scientists had to work out. For assistance, they had only the ENIAC computer, whose memory could hold a mere twenty-seven words and which was constantly on the blink. Von Neumann invented a new electronic computer that could hold forty thousand bits of information, recall them later, and identify errors in the instructions that anyone fed it and then correct them. When von Neumann displayed the machine to the Atomic Energy Commission, he gave it the high-sounding name of Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator and Computer. Only later did officials see that von Neumann, forever the practical joker, had dubbed the machine with a picturesque acronym.

A problem that previously would have taken three people three months to solve could now be worked out by the same three in ten hours. The research on the H-bomb was, thanks to MANIAC, lifted out of its slump.

Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s von Neumann made frequent trips to RAND. John Williams adored him and was “delighted” when, in December 1947, he convinced von Neumann to join the organization as a part-time consultant. Williams, who loved games, would try out immensely difficult math problems on von Neumann but never stumped him. Von Neumann could solve in his head the most elaborate calculations to the second or third decimal point.


VON NEUMANN liked games, and in 1928, when he was twenty-four, he had sat in on a fateful bout of poker that set in motion a remarkable train of logical observations. First, he noted that a player’s winnings and losses depended not only on his own moves but also on the moves of the other players. In devising a strategy, he had to take into account the strategies of the other players, assuming that they, too, were rational; that, therefore, the essence of the good strategy was to win the game, regardless of what the other players did, even though what the other players do determines, in part, the playing of the game.


Von Neumann then realized that the game of poker was fundamentally similar to the economic marketplace. Economists had been attempting to impose mathematical models on classical economic theory, but with no success. The reason for their failure, von Neumann reflected, was that the theory assumed an independent consumer trying to maximize his gains and independent sellers trying to maximize theirs— whereas, in fact, just as in the game of poker, the consumer and the seller formed a unit, competing but interdependent, and the moves of one could not be systematically analyzed or strategically planned except in the context of the other’s. So it goes with any situation in which two or more players have a conflict of interest and in which a good deal of uncertainty is involved.

Von Neumann developed what came to be called “game theory” as a mathematically precise method of determining rational strategies in the face of critical uncertainties. The classical case of game theory is the Prisoners’ Dilemma. Two prisoners, arrested on suspicion for the same crime, are kept in separate cells with no chance to communicate. They are separately approached by guards and given the following proposition: If neither squeals on the other, they will both serve brief sentences; if Prisoner A tells on B, but B keeps quiet, then A will be let free and B will serve maximum sentence; likewise, if B talks but A remains silent, then B will be freed and A forced to serve full sentence; if both A and B rat on each other, then they will serve half sentences. On the surface, it seems that it would serve both their interests to remain silent. However, there is a great deal of uncertainty: Prisoner A worries that Prisoner B might feel compelled to talk, since it would be to B’s advantage to do so; if, under such circumstances, A does not talk, A serves a full jail sentence. Prisoner B is, of course, thinking similar thoughts about Prisoner A’s possible moves. Therefore, both prisoners will talk and both will serve half jail sentences, even though both would have been better off keeping quiet.

According to game theory, moreover, both prisoners would be perfectly rational if they did talk. Both have to assume that the other prisoner, the other player, will play his best move; thus each has to play the move that would be best for himself given the best move of the other player. That is the essence of game theory: find out your opponent’s best strategy and act accordingly. Such a strategy may not get you the maximum gain, but it will prevent you from taking the maximum loss.

Von Neumann wrote a scholarly paper on game theory in 1928 and created a minor sensation in the scientific and mathematical communities of Europe. The sensation exploded in 1944 when he and a Princeton economist named Oskar Morgenstern collaborated to write an enormous volume called Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, offering mathematical proofs and suggesting applications of the theory to economics and the entire spectrum of social conflict.

It was a conservative theory and a pessimistic one as well. It said that it was irrational behavior to take a leap, to do what is best for both parties and trust that one’s opponent might do the same. In this sense, game theory was the perfect intellectual rationale for the Cold War, the vehicle through which many intellectuals accepted its assumptions. It was possible to apply the Prisoners’ Dilemma, for instance, to the Soviet-American arms race—substituting “build more” for “talk” and “stop building” for “silence.” It made sense for both sides to stop building arms, but neither could have the confidence to agree to a treaty to stop, suspecting that the other might cheat, build more, and go on to win. Distrust and the fostering of international tensions could be elevated to the status of an intellectual construct, a mathematical axiom.


GAME THEORY caught on in a very big way at RAND in the late 1940s. John Williams was particularly entranced with it and wrote a lively compendium of dozens of cases—pulled out of real life—in which game theory could play a valuable role in guiding decision makers. But there was a major limitation to game theory. For it to be used precisely, as a science, the analyst had to have some way of calculating what numbers represented the probabilities. And what about those games that involve not just two players but three or four or more? Then there were games where certain moves might be optimal 60 percent of the time, but other moves 40 percent of the time. In these cases the players would have to play according to a mixture of random selection and the laws of probability, just as a good poker player bluffs systematically but randomly, so that his strategy is not discovered.

In brief, Williams realized that if game theory were to grow and have true relevance to economics problems or international conflict, and if RAND were to lead the way, then RAND would have to hire social scientists and economists who could study the “utility functions” of consumers and the actual behavior and values of various nations. The mathematicians, who certainly knew nothing of such things, could then make use of the findings.

So it was that John Williams—through the combination of Olaf Helmer’s original suggestion and his own fascination with game theory—proposed that two new divisions, one for social science and the other for economics, be created that would broaden the range and scope of RAND. At first Collbohm failed to see much use in having such things, nor could many of the other RAND scientists, especially the engineers, to whom the social sciences represented something soft and unscientific. But Williams was brilliant, no doubt about that, so Collbohm became convinced. Williams eventually won approval for his new division from RAND’s immediate Air Force boss, Gen. Curtis LeMay.

A turning point in the progress of Williams's new departments, and of RAND in general, came in 1947 when Williams arranged a conference of social scientists to be held in New York from September 19 to 24. It had become clear that even fairly crude economic and statistical computations could contribute substantially to the formulation of strategic military policy, and there was a good turnout at the New York Economic Club the first day of the RAND conference.

John Williams’s mentor and idol, Warren Weaver, who was social science chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation as well as a RAND consultant, delivered the opening address. He talked about his having spent nearly one-fourth of his life working for the military in two world wars. He talked about the work in operational research during the last war. He explained that RAND was greatly interested in the concept of “military worth,” in seeing “to what extent it is possible to have useful quantitative indices for a gadget, a tactic or a strategy, so that one can compare it with available alternatives and guide decisions by analysis …”

At the conference, Warren Weaver made a particularly revealing remark early in his opening address. “I assume that every person in this room is fundamentally interested in and devoted to what can broadly be called the rational life,” he said. “He believes fundamentally that there is something to this business of having some knowledge … and some analysis of problems, as compared with living in a state of ignorance, superstition and driftinginto-whatever-may-come. ”

The “rational life” might have served well as an emblem of the RAND style. And with a social science and an economics division, RAND was about to start pursuing it along slightly different lines. Before, RAND had confined itself essentially to studying the technical aspects of the instruments of warfare. Now, some of the people at RAND would start to study the strategy of warfare, would try to impose the order of the rational life on the almost unimaginably vast and hideous maelstrom of nuclear war.



LATE IN 1951 a very small number of physicists at the RAND Corporation started to learn a great deal about a new and fantastic weapon that would dwarf all weapons before it. Some called it the Super, because it could release one thousand times as much explosive energy as the atomic bomb that was dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the war. It was a thermonuclear weapon, the hydrogen bomb.

Only through a great deal of effort and a bit of luck did RAND learn of this development at all. Information about anything related to atomic weapons was tightly held. A Q clearance—the very restrictive Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) code word for all atomic energy data—was required before one could even hear the magic phrase “intercontinental ballistic missile.” Special subsets of Q were needed to learn much more. Before 1947 the AEC denied these special clearances to anyone at RAND, a state that would have made atomic bomb research impossible. In July of that year, however, after General LeMay turned on some pressure, the AEC gave in and granted clearances to a few analysts. By October the Air Force made it clear to the AEC that RAND would be increasingly active in studies on weapons design, weapons effects, and targeting. The restrictions were loosened still further.


Early in 1948 a physics division was set up at RAND, with a staff of three—the director, David Griggs, Ernst Plesset, and Sam Cohen. Shortly after, Griggs went to teach at UCLA (though he stayed at RAND part-time), Plesset took over the division, and others joined. During the war Plesset had done instrumentation work at Douglas Aircraft and was the only physicist in the company. He joined RAND in its early days. In 1949 he took some time off to work at the JCS Weapons Systems Evaluation Group in Washington. Piesset was in Washington the day the Russians exploded their first atomic bomb. By coincidence, so was Edward Teller, a brash, brilliant Hungarian émigré who had been a physicist on the Manhattan Project and who was devoting most of his time to trying to convince people that the United States should pursue research on fusion technology, the process that would make a hydrogen bomb implode. It was Plesset who brought Teller in touch, just after the Soviet explosion, with several high-ranking Air Force officers to talk about atomic energy and the Super.

Plesset remained close friends with Teller, and—like most of the RAND physicists—had fairly close contacts at the Los Alamos weapons laboratory. Through these connections, and especially through Teller, Plesset learned in 1951 that the H-bomb appeared feasible; that Teller and another physicist, Stanislaw Ulam, had worked out its physics and its design, at least theoretically; that certain implosion devices had been tested; that it would almost certainly be only a matter of time (and money) before an operational Super bomb became a major part of the U.S. Strategic Air Command arsenal.

Plesset knew that Frank Collbohm, RAND’s president, loved a good secret, and this was the greatest of the decade, maybe the century. Plesset told Collbohm that the H-bomb was soon to be a reality. Then he made a proposition. What if a few RAND analysts got together and analyzed the implications of such a weapon—its physics, its destructive magnitude, its technical and strategic and military implications? RAND could time the study so that it would be ready for briefings at just the moment that Los Alamos officially announced the weapon’s feasibility to the administration. Everyone would be interested in hearing the briefing—the air staff, the secretary of war, the secretary of state, probably the President of the United States.

Plesset had already arranged such a deal with Los Alamos director Norris Bradbury, using a similar appeal. When you announce the bomb’s feasibility, Plesset had told Bradbury, Los Alamos should be in a position to interpret its implications, and that’s where RAND comes in. Bradbury had agreed. So, predictably, had Collbohm.

For security reasons, an electronic door separated the physicists from all the other divisions, and the physics division was generally not on good terms with much of the rest of RAND. Physicists looked down on social science and economics: their attitude was that designing a bomb was real science and that the business about analysis was peripheral at best. In return, many in the social science and economics divisions looked upon the physicists as arrogant elitists who knew nothing about politics, who foolishly thought that all problems could be solved by hardware, and whose inbred tendencies and extreme secrecy were inimical to the pursuit of scholarship and to the very purpose of RAND.

Still, for this project on the implications of the hydrogen bomb, Plesset knew that the other divisions of RAND would be of invaluable assistance. He picked three other analysts to work on the project with him: Charlie Hitch, head of the economics division; Jim Lipp, head of the missiles division; and Bernard Brodie, a new employee with social science.

The choices were obvious ones. Hitch had assessed bomb damage in World War II for an Anglo-American unit of the OSS called RE-8. He would be ideal for calculating how much damage the hydrogen bomb could do to the Soviet economy. In 1946 Brodie had written the book on the strategic implications of the atomic bomb, The Absolute Weapon, and in 1950-1951 had done targeting analysis for Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg, the Air Force Chief of Staff. He would be best for thinking through this new weapon’s strategic impact. Lipp, a highly competent scientist who had directed RAND’s project on earth-circling satellites, was assigned the task of figuring out the tactical implications of the H-bomb in a European war. Plesset gave himself the job of presenting details on the Super’s technical aspects, with assistance from others in the physics division who would do some calculations for him without knowing of this particular project’s existence. It was a very secretive affair.


IN DECEMBER 1951 the four-man team began work. At the beginning it was a rather mechanical task. Plesset knew from Los Alamos scientists that the H-bomb could release the explosive energy of one million or five million or ten or twenty million tons of TNT. The Nagasaki bomb, by comparison, had released the equivalent of twenty thousand tons—or twenty kilotons. A new term had been invented for the grander scale of the H-bomb: megaton . Plesset and some others in physics drew some “lay-down” circles, indicating the radius of various types of damage—blast, heat, prompt radiation—produced by bombs of one to twenty megatons. Hitch, Brodie, and Lipp took these circles and laid them over maps of various kinds of targets—cities, built-up industrial complexes, battlefields—scaled to the same dimension as the circles.

Suddenly the job was not so mechanical. It became, for some on the project, the most unsettling and gruesome work they had ever encountered.

Charlie Hitch had grown somewhat inured to looking at the consequences of strategic bombing while working at RE-8 in England during World War II. But the analysts at RE-8 had measured the damage in terms of thousands of square feet. Plesset’s damage circles showed that a five- or ten-megaton hydrogen bomb would kill people within fifty square miles of ground zero and would severely burn people and topple buildings within three hundred square miles. At RE-8 Hitch had dealt with bombing raids involving hundreds of airplanes, producing thousands—at the very most, tens of thousands—of civilian casualties. Laying Plesset’s circles on various maps revealed that a mere fifty-five H-bombs of twenty megatons each would completely wipe out the fifty largest cities of the Soviet Union, killing thirty-five million Russians, all in a matter of minutes. And that assumed that the urban population would have the protection of World War II-type shelters. Even when Hitch, along with Brodie, tried to simulate attacks that would damage the most important industrial complexes while minimizing casualties, ten or eleven million Soviet civilians would die.

A later generation of defense analysts would toss these figures around with casual aplomb; but in early 1952 nobody had ever dreamed of such massive destruction. Nobody had ever killed thirty-five million people on a sheet of paper before. To those who did it for the first time, the experience was shocking.

Charlie Hitch’s wife called John Williams’s wife one morning and asked, “What’s happening at RAND? Charlie comes home, he barely says hello, he is uncivil, and after dinner he just locks himself up in his study. Something terrible is going on there.”

For Jim Lipp it was too much to bear. He was a gentle man, the sort of person who told friends that, when it came to nuclear weapons, he cared about his grandchildren and his grandchildren’s grandchildren. Lipp laid Plesset’s damage circles over a map of Western Europe to see how many soldiers and civilians would be killed if H-bombs were used on the battefield. After doing some calculations, he discovered that, even under the best of circumstances, nearly two million people would be killed. He nearly threw up. After three weeks of this sort of work, lasting late into the night nearly every night, Lipp dropped out of the project.

Bernard Brodie was supposed to think about the strategic implications of all this. The calculations of bomb damage done by his colleagues pushed Brodie even further along a line of thinking that he had begun to pursue one year earlier while examining the U.S. targeting plans for Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg.


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.”


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.”

It wasn’t that Brodie was enthusiastic about the prospect of fighting a thermonuclear war in Europe. Who could be after examining the circles of damage Jim Lipp had laid down on a map of the continent? Brodie’s advocacy was more an argument of desperation. The Soviet Union appeared to have preponderance in non-nuclear forces. If the Red Army did start moving across the plains of West Germany, there was, to Brodie’s mind, nothing to be done except to start dropping nuclear bombs.

The argument was similar to the one made by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the wartime Manhattan Project, the father of the atom bomb, as he was often called. In the fall of 1951 Oppenheimer had been involved in a study at the California Institute of Technology called Project Vista. Its basic conclusion was “bring the battle back to the battlefield,” essentially for the same reasons that Brodie outlined in his H-bomb study the following winter. With something so powerful as the H-bomb, strategic bombing of Soviet cities made no sense, it was immoral, and it was probably also suicidal.

Brodie knew Oppenheimer. They first met in September 1947 when Oppenheimer delivered a lecture at the National War College in Washington, D. C., and Brodie introduced him. In February 1951, while Brodie was working for General Vandenberg, he and Oppenheimer talked at least three times, mostly about the nation’s nuclear targeting plans and how they might be changed. It is unclear whether either of the two influenced the other, but they were certainly thinking along the same track.

Brodie would later change his views on the feasibility of battlefield nuclear war—and then he would change them again for a variety of intellectual and personal reasons. But one problem that Brodie would continue to grapple with, and one that would come to preoccupy the minds of other RAND strategists a few years later, was the dilemma of how, in the thermonuclear age, to integrate the enormous power of the hydrogen bomb with a set of sensible war aims and national objectives, how to impose force effectively without committing “national suicide,” how to use the H-bomb rationally .


FOR ALL THE horror surrounding the hydrogen bomb, Brodie, Hitch, and Plesset all agreed that the nation had to go ahead and build the new weapon. There was hardly any discussion of the issue. The Russians had the atom bomb; they could probably build the hydrogen bomb at some point if they wanted to do so; we had to get it first. That was the basic line of thinking. The Cold War was heating up; the Korean War was being waged (and almost everyone assumed at the time that it was being directed from the Kremlin); and not very many people, in this environment, were thinking about starting disarmament talks or unilaterally holding back on developing a major new weapon of unprecedented power.

The Plesset-Hitch-Brodie briefing entitled “Implications of Large-Yield Nuclear Weapons” was a hit on the Washington national-security circuit. As Plesset had predicted, nearly everyone with a “need to know” wanted to hear it. In March 1952, after the briefing had been delivered a few times, Brodie discreetly wrote to Gen. Roscoe Charles Wilson, of the Air Force, who knew about the project: “Ernie Plesset and I have been on the road with a show advertising the merits of Supersuds Soap. There has been a large demand for both our act and our product among those who need the latter for polishing considerable brass fittings. ”

That month, without the presence of Hitch or Brodie, Ernie Plesset briefed Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett and, after that, Secretary of State Dean Acheson and AEC Commissioner Gordon Dean. Plesset gave them the entire briefing and then told them something that made the H-bomb more desirable still: he explained that the weapon did not require tritium, the heavy hydrogen isotope, H3, which was at the time so difficult and expensive to squeeze out and which most people with some knowledge of the H-bomb thought was absolutely critical to its workings.

Acheson had previously opposed the .H-bomb, but now—after realizing the magnitude of it and hearing that it would work and be relatively cheap to manufacture—he changed his mind. Later that month Larry Henderson, RAND’s vice-president in Washington, who had sat in on several of the briefings and by now knew it very well, delivered it to President Harry Truman.

Few who heard the briefing took to heart Bernard Brodie’s deepest point—that strategic bombing no longer had any purpose. However, many were quite taken with his idea that the thermonuclear weapon could be invaluable in stopping the Red Army on the battlefield. The portions by Plesset and Hitch were seen as nothing less than stunning: the calculations revealing the immense blast damage, the fireball that could burn up an entire city, the intense heat, the incredibly massive damage that could be done to a modern industrial economy by just a few dozen bombs in a few short seconds.

The briefings constituted a major coup for the fledgling RAND Corporation. They helped muster a great deal of support for a go-ahead decision on the H-bomb and also helped to overcome a major obstacle. The obstacle, curiously, was Los Alamos. The scientists at the weapons lab were unenthusiastic about the H-bomb. They held Robert Oppenheimer in almost godlike awe, and Oppenheimer, as head of the AEC’s General Advisory Council, had recommended halting the hydrogen-bomb project, believing that the H-bomb would be far more destructive than any military considerations might require and that it might prompt the Soviets to build one too.

In battle with Oppenheimer was Edward Teller, pushing the case for the H-bomb as if his life depended on it. Teller was a passionate anti-Communist with particular loathing for the Soviet Union. He was an ingenious man, impatient, furious, driven, constantly seeking the bigger-than-life problems, the ultimate mind-bending puzzle. In the early 1930s, when Teller was in his twenties, he and his fellow physicist and friend Otto Frisch spent a weekend in the country with the physicist Niels Bohr. On the train back Teller—not having worked for two days—grew extremely restless. He kept pestering Frisch: “Have you got a problem for me to solve?” Finally Frisch gave him a problem: Put eight queens on a chessboard in such a way that none could take another. Teller thought for twenty minutes, then called out the squares on which the queens should be placed. “Do you have another problem for me?” he asked. Then another and another.


Teller was greatly attracted to the grand problem of fusion, the process that would make a bomb of theoretically limitless size implode. He had worked on the Manhattan Project. By 1944 the physics of the A-bomb had essentially been solved; the rest was an engineering problem. That held no fascination for Teller. At his own initiative, against the wishes of his colleagues, Teller started a project experimenting with fusion, many months before even the fission bomb had proved successful.

After the war Teller continued to lobby hard for fusion, making important connections within the Air Force and key congressional committees. Teller was still at Los Alamos but finally quit, disturbed by the lab’s slow progress on the H-bomb. Teller decided to launch a second weapons lab, one that could competitively force Los Alamos into the H-bomb business or, failing that, develop the H-bomb on its own.

Ernie Plesset was an ally of Teller in this endeavor, as were many in the RAND physics division. A split was rupturing the entire nation’s scientific community—big bomb versus small bomb, Teller versus Oppenheimer. The RAND physicists, respectful as they were of Oppenheimer, sided with Teller. The rupture came to a climax in 1953, when Oppenheimer was declared a “security risk” and had his clearances stripped. This scandalous blackballing was initially set in motion by Air Force reaction to Oppenheimer’s stance against the H-bomb and his opposition to bombing Soviet cities—in short, his opposition to the mission of the U.S. Air Force.

When Oppenheimer demanded hearings the following year and the Atomic Energy Commission obliged, two of the main witnesses testifying against him were Edward Teller and David Griggs. Griggs was the Air Force’s chief scientist by that time, but he had been the first director of the RAND physics division. It was Griggs who had first found out about what Oppenheimer’s Project Vista was up to (“bring the battle back to the battlefield”), a discovery that—as Griggs testified at Oppenheimer’s hearings— prompted him to entertain “serious questions as to the loyalty of Dr. Oppenheimer.”

Plesset, Hitch, and Brodie were horrified by the implications of this new weapon, which they were the first to analyze systematically. Yet their study and their briefings helped to build and solidify political support for the approval of the H-bomb and of Teller’s proposal to build a special laboratory to manufacture it. If, as Robert Oppenheimer had remarked, “the physicists have known sin,” the social scientists now became active collaborators.

In September 1952 the new lab was established in Livermore, thirty miles south of Berkeley, under the auspices of the University of California. On November 1 the first hydrogen bomb— produced at Los Alamos—was exploded off the Eniwetok atoll in the Pacific. They called the bomb Mike. It exploded with the power of twelve megatons, causing the tiny island of Elugelab, the site of the blast, to vanish from the face of the earth.

Teller “watched” the explosion on a seismograph at Berkeley. In a fit of joy he sent a three-word telegram to Los Alamos: “It’s a boy.”


IN RECENT YEARS hundreds of national-security think tanks have sprouted up along the American political landscape. RAND itself has branched out to cast its analytical net over not only the imponderables of nuclear war but also the lucrative study of urban affairs, energy problems, alcoholism, and other bits of social science. But it was in the military realm that RAND had its heyday, and there it was first, the trend-setter, the most influential.

The RAND analysts fabricated the technique of systems analysis—with the conviction that all problems can be solved through quantitative means, that the mathematical models of econometrics and game theory can be applied to all aspects of life, including the greatest man-made threat to life, nuclear war.

Throughout the 1950s an explosion of conceptualizing took place at RAND. Bernard Brodie’s tentative thoughts on using nuclear weapons to exert leverage over an opponent during a war grew into sophisticated treatises—though more often written by his colleagues than by Brodie himself—on “counterforce/no-cities targeting,” on limited “tit-for-tat” gamesmanship, on the art and (presumed) science of fighting a nuclear war.

The strategists of RAND rose to power in the 1960s. When John F. Kennedy was elected President, his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, hired a handful of RAND analysts to be his top aides—most notably Charles Hitch as comptroller and Alain Enthoven as head of systems analysis—and, at least in the first few years, adopted their ideas completely. In the 1970s a RAND alumnus, James Schlesinger, was appointed secretary of defense. Others from RAND—including Andrew Marshall (an original articulator of nuclearwar fighting theories from the early 1950s) and Fred Iklé—hold high positions in the Pentagon today and have coauthored the highly controversial “Defense Guidance” document of early 1982, which called for the strengthening of forces and strategies that would allow the United States to fight a “protracted” nuclear war.

In one sense these strategists of the nuclear age have engaged in a legitimate exercise in rational analysis, an honest attempt to impose rational order where others had envisioned only chaos. (One of RAND’s most famous strategists, Herman Kahn, called this task “thinking about the unthinkable.”) However, in doing so, they created a vocabulary, a style of thinking that tended to make nuclear war appear more like a chess game than an unprecedented castastrophe. The method of mathematical calculation gave the strategists a handle on the colossally destructive power of the weapon they found in their midst. But over the years the method became a catechism, the first principles carved into the mystical stone of dogma. The precise calculations and the cool, comfortable vocabulary were coming all too commonly to be grasped not merely as tools of desperation but as genuine reflections of the nature of nuclear war.

And yet every time that, in the real world, policy makers or advisers contemplated applying the theories to an actual crisis at hand, they shrank from doing so, finding the uncertainties all too great and the risk of obliteration too awesome. And with good reason. The nuclear strategists had come to impose order—but in the end, chaos still prevailed.

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