Aspiring Wonks: The Absolute Weapon (1946) is required reading. It’s a slim book of essays written by an exceptional group of analysts based at the Yale Institute of International Studies. In these pages, you will find the most prescient, earliest forecast of the implications of atomic power for world order (the book’s subtitle), as well as the origins of the strategy of deterrence.
The best essays and the best quotes come from the book’s editor, Bernard Brodie. Brodie was interested in naval history and in reaching a broader audience, having written two books –Sea Power in the Machine Age (1941) and A Layman’s Guide to Naval Strategy (1942) — before the Bomb’s sudden appearance. Naval history turned out to be a fine prism through which to reflect upon the meaning of atomic weapons.
Here’s a sampling of Brodie’s writing:
How can we enlarge our opportunities? Can we transmute what appears to be an immediate crisis into a long-term problem, which presumably would permit the application of more varied and better considered correctives than the pitifully few and inadequate measures which seem available at the moment?
No adequate defense against the bomb exists, and the possibilities of its existence in the future are exceedingly remote… [long break] Neither military history nor an analysis of present trends in military technology leaves appreciable room for hope that means of completely frustrating attack by aerial missiles will be developed.
The new potentialities which the atomic bomb gives to sabotage must not be overrated… The FBI or its counterpart would become the first line of national defense, and the encroachment on civil liberties which would necessarily follow would far exceed in magnitude and pervasiveness anything which democracies have thus far tolerated in peacetime.
Everything about the atomic bomb is overshadowed by the twin facts that it exists and that its destructive power is fantastically great.
A world accustomed to thinking it horrible that wars should last four or five years is now appalled at the prospect that future wars may last only a few days.
It is a weapon for aggressors, and the elements of surprise and of terror are as intrinsic to it as are the fissionable nuclei… [long break] If the atomic bomb can be used without fear of substantial retaliation in kind, it will clearly encourage aggression.
Thus, the first and most vital step in any American security program for the age of atomic bombs is to take measures to guarantee to ourselves in case of attack the possibility of retaliation in kind.
Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them.
The bomb may act as a powerful deterrent to direct aggression against great powers without preventing the political crises out of which wars generally develop.
The atomic bomb will be introduced into conflict only on a gigantic scale. No belligerent would be stupid enough, in opening itself to reprisals in kind, to use only a few bombs.