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The Cold War They Made: The Strategic Legacy of Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter

The Cold War They Made: The Strategic Legacy of Roberta and Albert Wohlstetterby Ron Robin. Harvard University Press, 2016, 376 pp.

Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter were two of the most prominent architects of the Cold War intellectual edifice. Their influence emerged from their dual intellectual partnership which centered first around the RAND Corporation, where both worked on strategic issues of the nuclear age, and later, at the University of Chicago. It was there where Albert became an advisor and intellectual mentor to several Department of Defense insiders who occupied the political stage in the 1990s and the early years of the third millennium.

The Cold War They Made, Ron Robin’s historical biography of the Wohlstetters and their acolytes—Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Richard Perle—is redolent of other Cold-War era personality-driven historical/biographical works, such as Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas’ The Wise Men (about Dean Acheson, Charles Bohlen, Averell Harriman, George Kennan, Robert Lovett, and John McCloy), Nicholas Thompson’s The Hawk and the Dove (Paul Nitze and George Kennan), and the more contemporary Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet by James Mann, (which costars Paul Wolfowitz, along with Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Richard Armitage).

In contrast with the other works, Robin is much more critical of the Wohlstetters and particularly so of his students Wolfowitz, Khalilzad, and Perle, who went on to occupy important positions in the George W. Bush administration as architects of the neoconservative movement.

[These] three close collaborators. . . were, in essence, institutional gate-crashers proclaiming questionable omniscience: an academic bereft of the trappings of peer-reviewed publications, a sword bearer who cowed opponents through scare tactics, and an ambitious immigrant from the ethnic peripheries of American society who skillfully rode the coattails of his mentor to the center of American power.

They filled the public sphere with predictions about the impact of their mentors’ discoveries on the future of humankind, affecting an air of knowledge while constantly courting disaster. Showing little concern for empirical evidence aside from the odd historical anecdote, the Wohlstetters’ mentees promoted an arbitrary and contested construction of the enemy (p. 301).


Robin shows how the Wohlstetters promoted two strategic themes which dominated both their writing and their intellectual musings—musings that were frequently attended by other RAND colleagues at the Wohlstetters’ famous and opulent Laurel Canyon, California home. One of those themes came from Roberta’s best-selling book, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision (Stanford University Press, 1962), Introduced in this book, and echoed in both Roberta’s and Albert’s later writings, Roberta warned the US national security apparatus that it should maintain vigilance and preparation, lest another surprise attack be mounted against the United States. Such an issue became of prime importance in the nuclear age, where our very existence as a nation could be in doubt if caught by surprise. Vigilance, for the Wohlstetters, always carried the additional meaning of substantial increases in spending on national defense.


Another recurring theme was from Albert’s magnum opus, The Delicate Balance of Terror, a RAND document published in 1958, one of whose effects was the elucidation of the Wohlstetter doctrine. In short, the Wohlstetter doctrine was a refutation of mutually assured destruction and promoted the notion that the combination of “an offensive nuclear strategy and . . . military spending spree aimed at hemorrhaging a flawed Soviet economic system (p. 5)” were likely to be more effective as a Cold War strategy.

Albert was equally known for his famous feuds with other defense intellectuals of the time—feuds with luminaries as bright as they came—Bernard Brodie, Henry Kissinger, and Robert McNamara, among others. In fact, his feud with Bernard Brodie led to his dismissal from RAND, and to his later career at the University of Chicago where he came to have an influence on a new generation of combative intellectuals.

This combativeness was summarized by the author in stark terms:

Albert did not shrink from confronting those he deemed either fainthearted or lacking in rigor, often choosing to ridicule, hector, and denounce. He usually placed his intellectual rivals on the defensive through the sheer weight of his argumentation. Failing that, he found other means to win the day. He had no qualms about transforming the principle into the personal or belittling his opponents. He was a prolific and persuasive writer, a formidable debater, and a compulsive verbal brawler (p. 283).


Albert would employ a full armada of diverse methods to fight his intellectual battles, and whichever method that suited his end goal would be the one that he would choose. He is celebrated as one of the fathers of the science of operations research analysis, though he was not above twisting these methods to his own ends.

Robin writes:

By hinging his defense of Safeguard (ballistic missiles) on the esoteric calculation of theoretical possibilities that could not be disproved, Albert had successfully reframed the debate. The issue was now integrity and mathematical competence. To bolster his case, Albert mobilized his extensive network in the burgeoning professional field of Operations Research (OR). He successfully demanded that an ad hoc committee of the Operations Research Society of America (ORSA) be convened to adjudicate the conflict of opinions over the question of Minuteman’s theoretical survivability rates. At stake, Albert urged ORSA, was the professional misconduct of his debating rivals, who had transgressed fundamental academic norms of transparency and objectivity in pursuit of ideological goals (p. 184).


Fully one-fourth of the book is dedicated to the Wohlstetters’ intellectual successors, with a separate chapter for each one. The titles of these chapters are revealing in and of themselves: “Paul Wolfowitz: Fin de Siècle All Over Again (Chapter 9);” “Zalmay Khalilzad: The Orientalist (Chapter 10);” and “Richard Perle: Prejudice as a Cultural Weapon (Chapter 11).”

An epilogue, entitled “The Hamlet of Nations,” refers to Roberta and Albert’s fixation with the hesitant avenger’s character as a metaphor for what they considered to be what is wrong with American defense policy—a hesitance that could have dire consequences in the nuclear age.

Overall, the book is an informative history of a fascinating couple who framed the debate about America’s nuclear and Cold War policy, and who influenced a new generation of defense intellectuals who continue to have influence today.


Clark Capshaw, PhD

 Military Sealift Command
  Norfolk, Virginia

"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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