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21st Century Power: Strategic Superiority for the Modern Era

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21st Century Power: Strategic Superiority for the Modern Era, edited by Brent D. Ziarnick. Naval Institute Press, 2018, 208 pp.

“Deterrence,” states Peter Sellers’ titular character in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, “is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack.” In Kubrick’s black comedy, the observation cynically underpins the film’s satirical attack on Cold War nuclear policies in general and the USAF’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) in particular. But for a man like Gen Thomas S. Power, SAC’s commander from 1957 to 1964 (the year of Dr. Strangelove’s release), deterrence and nuclear war were matters of deadly seriousness. As the SAC commander during some of the most significant nuclear events of the Cold War, including the Soviet development of the “Tsar Bomba” (the RDS-220 hydrogen bomb and largest nuclear weapon ever tested) in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963, General Power was responsible for preventing—but, ultimately, preparing to win—a nuclear war.

With 21st Century Power, Ziarnick has curated a collection of writings and speeches from Power, who succeeded Gen Curtis E. LeMay as the third SAC commander. Even more so than the legendary LeMay, Power crafted SAC into the world’s preeminent nuclear fighting force, modernizing air and ground nuclear alert systems, incorporating intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) into America’s nuclear arsenal, and establishing the around-the-clock crew schedules that provided SAC the ability to launch manned nuclear counterstrikes within 15 minutes of a nuclear alert. Power’s innovations were extremely important. Indeed, they not only prevented nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the US, but may also have been instrumental in the West’s ultimate victory in the Cold War. Ziarnick’s aim in 21st Century Power, however, is not merely to celebrate Power’s achievements; it is to illustrate the SAC commander’s strategic thought. Even more specifically, it is to argue that Power’s ideas related to nuclear grand strategy have renewed significance in addressing what some scholars have begun calling the “Second Nuclear Age”—a time when proliferation has allowed even smaller, less stable nations to develop and maintain nuclear weapons. 

Ziarnick organizes his book into five chapters, each collecting writings or transcriptions detailing various facets of Power’s strategic thought. The first two chapters provide overviews of Power’s thoughts on nuclear deterrence generally and the development of the ICBM as a strategic weapons system specifically. These chapters collect examples of Power’s shorter writings, including multiple pieces from Combat Crew (SAC’s official magazine), a journal-length article from the Air University Quarterly Review, a declassified memorandum to the SAC Alert Force, and several other pieces. Chapters 3–5 each provide a more singular focus. Chapter 3 collects, in its entirety, Power’s testimony to the US Senate in opposition to the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963; chapter 4 provides a verbatim transcript of the general’s remarks to one of the many civic groups that visited Offutt AFB, Nebraska, during the mid-1960s to learn more about SAC’s mission; and, finally, chapter 5 reproduces Power’s last public speech while on active duty. 

Ziarnick’s organization is among the great strengths of his work. By offering examples of Power’s advocacy for SAC’s mission in a variety of situations, Ziarnick allows the reader to see Power as he was: a man with an unshakable belief in the importance of the American nuclear enterprise, with the wit and skill to adapt his message to advocate for that mission no matter his audience. Each of Power’s many facets—Power as a steely-eyed SAC commander, urging his Airmen to be vigilant and mission-ready; Power as a respectful but vehement Cassandra, arguing in vain against the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; Power as a public advocate, explaining SAC’s role to a public increasingly incredulous of the importance of nuclear deterrence—overlaps with the other, demonstrating Power’s conviction that, in a nuclear world, the US must maintain both the military strength and the ideological resolve to protect the Free World from Soviet encroachment.

Perhaps the most interesting, although largely unexplored, aspect of 21st Century Power is how Power’s ideas regarding nuclear deterrence and strategy apply to modern warfare beyond the nuclear realm. Time and again in his writings, he returns to the themes of advancing technology, the compression of time in the winning or losing of war, the futility of the search for an “ultimate weapon,” and the importance of resolve, preparation, and readiness in deciding future conflicts. All of these topics remain pressing in twenty-first century conflict, particularly within the new vistas of warfare to be found in space and cyberspace.    

Given the emphasis on the renewed importance of Power’s strategic thought to the Second Nuclear Age, this reviewer would also have liked to see a more complete explanation of how his writings regarding nuclear warfare specifically apply in the twenty-first century. Power planned to “win” a nuclear war (although he believed such a war would result only in losers to varying degrees) through the use of early warning systems, ICBMs, and around-the-clock alert crews ready to counterstrike in the event of a detected nuclear attack. But what does “confront[ing] the problem of fighting, not just preventing, nuclear war” look like in the modern era—particularly when, as Ziarnick points out in his introduction, a modern nuclear war is more likely to occur between “secondary” nuclear states?

21st Century Power is an excellent book for any scholar or casual reader interested in the history of US nuclear policy or the strategic underpinnings of nuclear warfare. It provides a fascinating and welcome insight into the mindset of a man who, in an almost literal sense, held the fate of the world in his hands. Although only about 200 pages in length, it is a wide-ranging volume that illustrates the passion of a military commander for his craft and his country.  Finally, 21st Century Power serves as a useful reminder that, far from being one of the self-aggrandizing madmen of Dr. Strangelove, General Power was a man who believed firmly that nuclear conflict must be prevented at all costs. Indeed, the man who, in October 1963, came closer to actually fighting a nuclear war than any of his predecessors or successors, did not think that American power was to be measured merely in megatons and nuclear stockpiles. For Power, true deterrence lies in “a sound economy,” “prosperous industry,” “scientific progress,” “good schools,” and “[m]ost of all. . . the determination of the American people to prevent and, if necessary, fight and win any kind of war, whether hot or cold, big or small” (p. 36). 


Capt Jeremy J. Grunert, USAF
RAF Lakenheath, United Kingdom

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.

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