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

  • Published

To Kill Nations: American Strategy in the Air-Atomic Age and the Rise of Mutually Assured Destruction by Edward Kaplan. Cornell University Press, 2015, 272 pp.

In To Kill Nations, Edward Kaplan, a history professor at the US Air Force Academy, covers the history of American strategy during the first 20 years of the Atomic Era--roughly the period from 1945 to 1964. The author poses two key questions. First, in light of the usability of atomic weapons, demonstrated on 6 and 9 August 1945, Kaplan asks how nuclear weapons came to be unusable through a strategy of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Second, he asks what the rise of MAD did to the Air Force and airpower thought in the United States. His answers lay out a number of key arguments. First, Strategic Air Command (SAC) planned to win a war with the USSR by using atomic weapons--a strategy that made sense, according to Kaplan. The Air Force's experiences during World War II suggested that nuclear weapons were the logical extension of a winning strategy--in other words, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Additionally, the author contends that during the early to mid-1950s, meaningful victory through nuclear war was possible because of numerous advantages that the United States enjoyed over the USSR. Finally, he points out that after 1960, the civilian leadership realized nuclear war was not winnable in any meaningful way and that SAC reluctantly acquiesced, trying to preserve the idea of such a strategy.

Kaplan outlines his argument in three parts, based on presidential administrations (those of Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy). In each one, he explores the operational/tactical realities and resulting military plans; US-declared and action policies; and the interservice politics or rivalries dealing with atomic policies, plans, budgets, and acquisitions. The book's organization is one of its key strengths insofar as it helps bring both clarity and simplicity to a complex and intellectually challenging subject.

The thesis and narrative of To Kill Nations lead Kaplan to a number of wide-ranging conclusions too numerous to mention here. However, it is important to note that his findings address airpower thought, Air Force identity, strategic studies, civil-military relations, Cold War history, and nuclear theory and strategy.

Broadly speaking, the focus of the study is US nuclear planning at the strategic and operational levels. Although some people may think that nuclear weapons are relics of the Cold War, that notion is far from reality. Given current developments both domestically and abroad, the historical analogies such as those provided by Kaplan are critical to Air Force officers serving in almost any capacity. At home, America's civilian military leadership wishes to reinvigorate the nuclear enterprise. Abroad, Iran, Russia, and North Korea offer compelling reasons for officers to think about nuclear strategy, operations, and planning. Nuclear deterrence will certainly remain an important part of any US strategy for dealing with Iran's nuclear program, and Russia's modernization of its nuclear arsenal in a bid to achieve superiority demands a response from the United States. Lastly, North Korea has not only tested nuclear weapons but also claims to have the means to deliver them to the American homeland. Kaplan's discussion of the US strategy for the USSR in the early to mid-1950s is an excellent analogy for the United States' situation with North Korea today.

Officers in both the Air Force and the joint force should read this book. For those serving in the Pentagon or at Strategic Command, its examination of the formation of US nuclear strategy is essential to an understanding of that strategy. Similarly, planners in the Middle East, Pacific, or South Korea will find To Kill Nations useful in comprehending the emerging Iranian and North Korean nuclear strategy. Additionally, it offers critical insights into how the Air Force might counter either Iranian or North Korean nuclear capabilities. Finally, all Air Force officers, as well as Air Force Academy cadets, will benefit from the book's presentation of a foundational part of the service's culture and thought, such as the ideas and actions behind strategic bombardment as embodied in SAC for 20 years.

Maj Matthew L. Tuzel, USAF
Osan AB, Republic of Korea

"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."