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To Kill Nations: American Strategy in the Air-Atomic Age and the Rise of Mutually Assured Destruction

To Kill Nations: American Strategy in the Air-Atomic Age and the Rise of Mutually Assured Destruction by Edward Kaplan. Cornell University Press, 2015, 260 pp.

In To Kill Nations: American Strategy in the Air-Atomic Age and the Rise of Mutually Assured Destruction, Edward Kaplan skillfully examines the conceptual context behind an overlooked period of American strategic thought: the air-atomic age where the United States Air Force explored how to fight and win a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. A shocking concept today where nuclear war is assumed to be the end of civilization, Kaplan’s study of air-atomic strategy traces the evolution of the ideas, technology, personalities, organizations, and policies from 1945–1963. In eight thematic chapters, Kaplan analyzes the evolution of strategic thought from early air power theory, the World War II bombing campaigns that forged the United States Air Force, the era of American atomic monopoly, and the fundamental changes generated by increasing nuclear stockpiles, growing Soviet threat, and altering perceptions where deterrence and stability replaced victory. Kaplan argues that air-atomic strategy (the term used in early Cold War planning documents) formed the core of Air Force thinking, organization, and identity: “Atomic weapons first enabled airpower and the Air Force and then enslaved them” (p. 3).

Although Kaplan resists the urge to paint legendary air leaders as Strangelovian stereotypes, he critiques their ironic vision of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), a finely tuned instrument for a blunt annihilation mission. Stressing SAC’s pragmatism, the author explains the incremental changes to emergency war plans, initially based on atomic scarcity, eventually resulting in the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP 62), the penultimate overkill that shocked the Kennedy administration with its “go/no go” inflexibility and lack of policy options. In Kaplan’s analysis, the Air Force focus on providing a war-winning force fit the policies of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. SAC’s goal of limiting American casualties by rapidly destroying Soviet industrial, and later nuclear, capability enhanced early concepts of deterrence. Conversely, fundamental changes in the strategic environment rendered the Air Force vision unacceptable, morally objectionable, and absurd to the realities faced by Pres. John F. Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

Strong in examining the policy and political rationale of early Cold War presidential administrations, Kaplan adds a nuanced look at the organizational dynamics of the US armed services competing for influence and budgets. He provides a fresh look at the “Revolt of the Admirals” over the B-36 and a fascinating chapter, “The Compression of Time,” where SAC struggled with Soviet advances in atomic and missile technology: “By the end of the 1950s, SAC was well positioned to launch a first strike, but not to absorb one. Its efforts to overcome this dilemma led it to a razor edge of preparation and a policy which required politicians to be willing to destroy the world on a hair trigger”(p. 77). With its experienced-based, problem-solving mind-set, SAC focused on specific technical challenges and missed the greater political and social implications of overkill. Kaplan shows SAC unable to respond conceptually to challenges raised by civilian theorists (Bernard Brodie, Herman Kahn, Henry Kissinger, and others), the Navy’s finite deterrence embodied in the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile, and the Army’s ideas of limited war voiced by Maxwell Taylor. Kaplan credits the McNamara and Kennedy team for recognizing a different world of the 1960s; he also credits Pres. Dwight Eisenhower’s shrewd manipulation of the existing SAC deterrent for actual crises faced in the 1950s. Although not shy to point out flaws of logic and imagination, Kaplan concludes: “In the end the system worked. Between 1945 and 1963, Americans made rational decisions about nuclear forces which were well suited to their time and emerging trends. Responsible men made good decisions about hard issues” (p. 223).

To Kill Nations features superb research combining astute summaries of nuclear deterrence literature with extensive, pioneering primary sources drawn from the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Air Force Historical Research Agency, and the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson presidential libraries. Edward Kaplan mines the personal and professional correspondence of Curtis LeMay, Thomas Powers, Nathan Twining, Robert McNamara, and other senior leaders to great effect. Balanced and fair, the author captures their perspectives and shows senior leaders capable of serious thought, if not always open to new paradigms. Carefully documented, useful footnotes aid the reader, but the publisher’s decision to not provide an academic bibliography punishes the serious researcher.

Edward Kaplan’s To Kill Nations is bold, thoughtful, and fills an important gap in strategic studies of the Cold War. It complements Lawrence Freedman’s classic The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy and extends the fine work of Conrad Crane, Tami Davis Biddle, and Mark Clodfelter. Drawing upon his career as an Air Force intelligence officer and associate professor in the Department of History at the Air Force Academy, Kaplan achieves a rare balance of perspectives—civilian and military, academic and practitioner, and policymaker and commander. This book is a must read for the serious student of the Cold War, airpower history, military innovation, and interservice rivalries. Kaplan not only explains the thinking of a vital era of strategic history but also suggests parallels for today. To what extent does a version of air-atomic thinking pervade strategic thought in emerging nuclear powers?

Dr. John T. Farquhar, Lt Col, USAF, retired
Associate Professor, Department of Military and Strategic Studies
US Air Force Academy

"The views expressed 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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