How Logical is Nuclear Deterrence? Part 7

Military officers are trained to fight wars, while the only rational use for nuclear weapons would be to prevent war. Putting nuclear weapons under the command of military officers therefore introduces the risk that logic which applies to conventional weapons will be misapplied to nuclear weapons. General Thomas Power, Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) from 1957 to 1964 appears to have committed exactly that error.

In 1960, the Air Force was debating whether the U.S. should move from a countervalue nuclear war fighting strategy (which targeted Soviet cities) to a counterforce strategy (which initially targeted their military installations, and only attacked their cities if they did that to us, after our initial attack). During a briefing recommending this shift, General Power, is reported to have objected:

Why are you so concerned with saving their lives? The whole idea is to kill the bastards. At the end of the war if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win! [1] 

While not intended literally, this outburst by General Power – at the time, the military officer in charge of all of our strategic weapons – demonstrates a mindset that would be regarded as irrational by many.

The above incident is particularly disturbing given the following statements about General Power, made in 1978 (eight years after he died) by General Horace Wade who served under Power as commander of SAC’s 8th Air Force:

General Power was demanding: he was mean; he was cruel, unforgiving, and he didn’t have the time of day to pass with anyone. A hard, cruel individual … I used to worry that General Power was not stable. I used to worry about the fact that he had control over so many weapons and weapon systems and could, under certain circumstances, launch the force. [2]

Martin Hellman


This is part of a series on “How Logical is Nuclear Deterrence?” Here are links to each post: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, and Part 8.

How You Can Help If you agree that society’s complacency concerning nuclear may be unwarranted, please sign our petition asking Congress to authorize a National Academies’ study of that risk, and encourage friends to do the same. My paper, “How Risky is Nuclear Optimism,” provides a brief, but more complete summary of the reasons such a study is needed.

Footnote 1: Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1983, page 246.

Footnote 2: Scott D. Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1995, page 150.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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