But there was another side to the debate, led forcefully by Herman Kahn and his cronies at the Hudson Institute, based on the notion of "victory" in a nuclear war. The basic idea enjoyed the full cinematic treatment in my favorite scene from Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove -- the one where Gen. Buck Turgidson presses the president to follow the unauthorized attack with a much larger effort to catch the Russians "with their pants down."
Turgidson: Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now truth is not always a pleasant thing, but it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless distinguishable, postwar environments: one where you got 20 million people killed, and the other where you got a 150 million people killed.
President: You're talking about mass murder, general, not war.
Turgidson: Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say, no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.
The amazing thing about this comedic dialogue, as well as much of the film, is that it comprises actual quotes attributable to Kahn and other Cold War strategists. The phrase "two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless distinguishable, postwar environments" for example, is lifted almost verbatim from a chart on page 20 of Kahn's tome On Thermonuclear War. And Turgidson's reference to casualties takes surprisingly few liberties with Kahn's argument that "If, on the contrary, by spending a few billion dollars, or by being more competent or lucky, we can cut the number of dead from 40 to 20 million, we have done something vastly worth doing!"
Some policymakers sought to impose some sort of limitations on the nuclear arms race, which seemed to be spiraling out of control by the early 1960s. In 1963, then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara championed a thought experiment to size U.S. nuclear forces. Imagine the United States has a force of 1-megaton nuclear bombs that we begin dropping on the Soviet Union, starting with Moscow. (Of course the United States did not have a force of uniform 1-megaton bombs, nor do we target cities. This was a thought experiment.) McNamara's Whiz Kids observed that the damage to the Soviet Union started to level off around the 400th bomb. McNamara didn't know whether 400 1-megaton bombs would deter another Joseph Stalin, but it was damn clear that if 400 didn't do the trick, flattening Perm with number 401 was a fool's errand.
The resulting policy was called "assured destruction" -- the idea that once the United States had a survivable force capable of about 400 equivalent megatons that could kill much of the Soviet Union's population and destroy its industry, there wasn't much point in making the rubble bounce. Say what you will about the tenets of assured destruction -- at least it was a ceiling.
Kahn and others did not like "assured destruction" because it did not hold out the possibility of prevailing in a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, something they believed was possible with bomb shelters, missile defenses, and hard hearts. (Decades later one proponent of victory summarized the argument by saying, "If there are enough shovels to go around, everyone will make it.") They went after assured destruction.
Donald Brennan, Kahn's colleague at the Hudson Institute, famously added the word "mutual" to "assured destruction," creating the acronym MAD, as though it were American policy to accept destruction in a nuclear war. Instead, Brennan and others urged the United States to fight and win a nuclear war. (Liberals tried to fight back by calling Brennan's approach "nuclear utilization target selection," or NUTS, but the left seemed to have permanently misplaced its funny bone until Jon Stewart found it a few years ago.) MAD lost some of its original bite by entering into mainstream discourse -- apparently nuclear strategy is so bizarre that parody can be mistaken for policy. Brennan then picked up the pejorative phrase coined by Steuart Pittman, who called the policy "assured vulnerability" instead of assured destruction. After all, who is for vulnerability?
This debate proceeded through the Cold War with surprisingly little modification. Over time, hawks did subtly improve the argument by asserting -- on the basis of no evidence at all, I might add -- that the Soviet Union planned to fight and win a nuclear war, leaving the United States with no choice but to jump off the same bridge. It is this contested history that explains the current battle over whether to admit what many people believe is obvious: The United States and China are mutually vulnerable.