Mastery of technical detail without an understanding of history is like learning to ride a bicycle without wheels. Ergo, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy by Lawrence Freedman is must reading for aspiring wonks. The paperback on my bookshelf dates back to 1983; help yourselves to the third edition.

Freedman acknowledges that “strategy” and “nuclear weapons” fit uncomfortably in the same sentence. If we use Basil Liddell Hart’s definition of strategy, as Freedman does – “the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill ends of policy” – then we find ourselves in a quandary. When an adversary also possesses nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, even after absorbing terrible blows, strategy becomes a hostage to devastating retaliation.

Freedman’s history of attempts by brilliant strategists to escape from being pinned on the horns of this dilemma is essential reading because escape attempts are never-ending – whether by missile defenses, futuristic space-based fixes, limited applications of force, or abolition.

Shorn of iron-clad solutions to the Bomb, we are left with what Freedman calls “the muddle of nuclear strategy itself.” In the introduction to the first edition, he asks whether “’nuclear strategy’ is a contradiction in terms.” What does it say, fellow wonks, when you dwell in an oxymoron?