Dan Carlin's Hardcore History: Addendum - Strangelove Whisperings

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Today’s show is sponsored by the multi-academy award-winning first world war themed film

1917 which is available to own starting March 10th on digital streaming and on March 24th on 4k ultra HD and blu-ray

More on what’s available then at the end of our upcoming interview with Fred Kaplan

It’s hardcore history

You may not be interested in war the war is interested in you

That is a wonderful quote by

What would you call him founding father of modern Soviet communism, maybe Leon Trotsky

The guy Stalin had an assassin go halfway around the world

To assassinate with an axe pick so dangerous was he?

It’s a great line though, isn’t it? You may not be interested in war but war is interested in you says a lot

Doesn’t it?

It says basically that it doesn’t matter if you want to go think about happy things or focus on other

Pursuits and things maybe that you have more control over after all

What do I have to do with a giant war that may start with government somewhere?

I’ll just go about my life and and and do my own thing and let those people worry about their own things

Except their own things will turn into your own things at some point, right? The war will be interested in you

I thought about that

when I thought about

What would happen if we could rationally?

divide our thinking energy based on threat level and triage and

Try to come up with an idea of how much time we should spend on this or that given issue, right?

How much time how much mental energy?

In a realistic sense should an educated individual in a modern society devote to thinking about


in this case

I’m going to talk about nuclear war

Something that I think a rational person

Would have to admit if you thought about it for five seconds belong somewhere up near the top of your triage list

It used to be there

People used to think a lot about this when they thought it could happen at any minute

The funny part is it could still kind of happen at any minute

You’d be surprised how quickly the tensions could ramp up and we could be in a situation

Where everybody forgets about that virus that mutated that might be coming over here and might give you a flu-like

symptoms might kill millions of people like the

1919 flu all of that starts to fade into the background when you start talking about people using

You know serious mega tonnage on your fellow, man

It is also funny to me in a triage sense that when we think about

The use of nuclear weapons today we think about an

infinitely less dangerous scenario than the one I grew up with we think about some rogue state somewhere getting a few nuclear weapons and

And using them somewhere and it’s dangerous because we think about this as a much less controlled

System so the likelihood of something happening is much worse

Even if the worst-case scenario is nowhere near as bad as what would happen if you know

Superpowers lobbed missiles at each other with

Merved warheads on the you know, it’s one of those things where you think okay

North Korea is a bigger nuclear thing to worry about then

Russia is because North Korea might use their weapons and Russia’s pretty safe right now, but right now is the operative phrase

Things change on the dime

History doesn’t teach lessons, right?

but it teaches that things change on a dime doesn’t teach you when the next thing that will change on a dime is

But there’s plenty of examples that show the pattern, right?

You might be worried about this coronavirus today

two weeks of saber-rattling and a

Degeneration in world tensions and all of a sudden you’re thinking about what we probably should have been thinking about the whole time

Given where it probably belongs in the triage level

the possibility

In fact that the fact that it’s easier than you might think to have happen

Nuclear war not a nuclear bomb being used on a minor exchange from some third

World rogue state that doesn’t know how to handle these things

but a true threat

from one country to another involving states that do know how to handle these things and

Have thought about what you would do if you needed to handle them for decades now

One of the best writers that you’ll ever read

Talking about this question of thinking about how you would use or prevent the use of these weapons is a guy named Fred Kaplan

I should probably call him. Dr. Fred Kaplan’s got a doctorate, but he’s he’s an author who wrote a book called the Wizards of Armageddon

among others

We use that book as source material for our destroyer of worlds podcast

And it’s fantastic stuff the people who had to try to get their mind around the mental challenge of human beings living with that kind

of weapons power

The whole thing is fascinating and then getting them together in groups to just I mean, it’s it’s it’s interesting stuff

And he’s just come out with a new book called the bomb

presidents generals and the secret history of nuclear war

so it takes like what we did or what he did in the earlier books or what we did in the

Destroyer of worlds and brings it up to modern times which in a really weird way makes it more chilling

Because you can’t just say wow things got really hot during the Cuban Missile Crisis

It must have been heavy right because

Kaplan’s bringing you up to the way the situation kind of is currently and that doesn’t just make it heavy

It makes it scary and real and current

These weapons have not only not gone away they’ve become much more accurate much more deadly is a better way to put them

We haven’t necessarily gotten any more intelligent about how to use them I


Love the phrase and this is how we’ll start the interview we did with Kaplan today

I love the phrase that was used as a blurb on his book

You know what?

The blurbs are the comments on on the back or in the flaps and Chuck Klosterman gave me when I liked in my book

He called it. He called it an apocalyptic

Discotheque, which I thought was a really wonderful turn of phrase, but I love

somebody called Kaplan

The preeminent dr. Strangelove

Whisperer and

So I started by asking him that that’s a heck of a nickname, isn’t it?

Or a heck of a blurb

Anyway, without further ado my conversation with Fred Kaplan author of the bomb presidents generals and the secret history of nuclear war

You can read Kaplan’s regular column by the way war stories in slate. He’s written for everyone. So

without further ado

Fred Kaplan


First thing is I have to tell you I absolutely think it is one of the best blurbs

I’ve ever read on the back of the book the one that calls you the world’s preeminent. Dr. Strangelove whisperer

How do you feel about that? It’s an interesting thing to be considered an expert on

Well, I I guess what he meant by that. This was from Tim Naftali. The the presidential historians is that



Get the kind of dr. Strangelove types nuclear strategists that sort of thing

to talk to me about stuff now one reason for this is that

Many years ago. I I studied in graduate school at MIT with William Kaufman who was one of them and

also with a couple of other people who were involved in nuclear policy in the

Late 50s to mid 60s George Rath Jones and Jack Rowena

So I could ask people questions sort of speaking their tongue. I understood how the analysis

Of you know, it’s the exchange calculations as they were called were done

So, you know, I seem to be one of the tribe and they could open up to me better


So if we talk about a personality type certain kinds of personality types make good

Actors and actresses certain types of personality people make, you know

Titans of business if you had to sort of give us a short description of and obviously there’s probably not one size fits all

But is there a type that’s attracted to this sort of Wizards of Armageddon?

job description

Well, you know in the early days and we’re talking about in the in the 1950s through the 19 early 60s

Let’s say I mean there really was a Cold War

I mean, you know, you know as well as anybody that this wasn’t some

fabrication of

Paranoia, there was a real Cold War

People really thought there was a good chance that there was going to be a war between the United States and the Soviet Union

So if the kind of person who was say at the RAND Corporation back in those days for the Hudson Institute

Examining this first thought they were talking about they were dealing with a real thing and they saw it in their

powers and their mission to

enhance deterrence in other words to to do things that would maybe make sure that this war doesn’t happen and

Then to limit damage and it did so they had a kind of a crusader

Image, but they were also

by and large

Economists social scientists

mathematicians, in other words, they saw that

That that the discipline in which they had been trained had some unique power to deal with this problem

Herman Kahn in his book on thermonuclear war

said that

What he was trying to do was to create a vocabulary in which these problems can be discussed

rationally, it was sort of a

religion of rationality that

Rationality defined as mathematical calculations can get us out of not just this problem

but you know for a while that the sort of

Elevation of systems analysis and things like that. There were people who thought this could solve all the problems of the world

I have to say the kind of person who does this

for a living now


you know the kind of


mystification of rationality has been

you know has crumbled in the face of all kinds of things from

the Vietnam War to the breakdown of all kinds of social


I have a I have a little less

I don’t know if you could if you could put it down to a type of what what kind of person

Gets in this at least in a very deep

deep way

Now unless they’re a military officer

And it may be that there aren’t people like this anymore

and as a result, maybe

These problems aren’t dealt with rationally, but maybe they they could never be dealt with rationally

You know, it’s fascinating if you look at how much ink and time and effort what went in in the 1950s 1960s and into the

1970s towards exactly what you’re talking about the almost Spock like

Analysis of the game itself and the various options and the rational, you know counter moves and all that sort of stuff

And to talk about I was struck by what you said that maybe there aren’t those people today

And then all of a sudden it popped into my head that I don’t hear those kinds of conversations today

Has this all been so internalized that we don’t have to have maybe that that the first few decades were the discovery period and this

Stuff’s all been absorbed or is this something that went out of fashion when the the seeming?

Inevitability or at least extreme likelihood of a general nuclear exchange went away

Well, I think I think for a while it was it was internalized

To the point where you know, I I conclude my first book was the wizards of armageddon

Which was awesome, by the way, we used it as a source. It was fantastic

Oh, thanks, but I mean it was about these people that that’s mainly what it was about and and how they

How they had influence on policy

and I ended the book by noting that

This book came out in 1983 that the sort of second generation of these people, you know, the Cold War was still going on

They had so absorbed

The analytical framework of the of the founding fathers at Rand and so forth that

They they’d come to think that it was it was

Real that it reflect a reality that that these these ideas had been hammered at home so often in books and treatises

It was also it was almost like the stone of dogma

Whereas, you know, I would you talk to the first generation people, you know

They’ll admit like hey, you know, we never knew whether this was

Real. In fact, we thought it was unlikely that you could limit a nuclear war or control how it would

Spin out, but if we if there was any chance that you could do it

At least we should try instead of blowing up the world all in one in one


Now though at least until a couple years ago for about the previous 30 years

Nobody was thinking about nuclear war nuclear weapons at all. The Cold War was over. You know, we were all on a holiday from history

Quite the contrary to it being internalized if I think all of these

Ideas have been at least among the broad


public interested in international relations, let’s say

Forgotten and one reason I wrote that this new book the bomb

is big precisely because of that when when

Donald Trump came out of his

You know golf clubhouse in Edmonston, New Jersey on August 8th

2017 and said that if I have North Korea keeps making threatening noises and testing nukes and missiles

he will rain fire and fury on North Korea like the earth has never seen and

You know that was kind of a provocative first of the rhetoric alone

But second he wasn’t saying that if they attack us will rain fire and fury

but just if they

Developed the capability to attack us

he would do that and that got people all kind of got people very worried and

Nervous about the possible prospect of nuclear war for the first time in

Decades but this nervousness took form in the shape of a kind of vague anxiety because

people had forgotten all of the discussion about

Nuclear strategy and so forth if they ever knew it. And so I thought well, it’s it’s time maybe to

To take another look at the history of this thing. I have a persistent devil’s advocate side in me

And there’s a part of me that thinks

that the

Awakening to how dangerous it is perhaps to have a single individual in charge of the the world’s most powerful arsenal ever

I I think people maybe were a little complacent because they felt like the person in power would never violate whatever that we can trust

You know this individual to act responsibly

It’s almost like you had to get somebody that shattered that sense of trust to maybe give the right amount of attention to a command

And control problem that if you look at the Constitution seems ridiculous, right?

You put the power to launch a war into one person’s hands alone

And we can talk about you know

The actual restrictions that might be on a person in a second

But but I mean it seems like that and I always look at it as a technological question, right?

You don’t have time for Congress to deliberate and everything when the missiles are in the air

But I mean it seems like maybe if there was an upside to this whole thing

It’s that people are examining this obvious hole in our whole, you know

Defense strategy and constitutional design now in a way that they weren’t when we had the Obama presidency or the Bush presidency or the Reagan

Presidency, does that ring true?

You could take this all the way back. Yeah, I think it is true. I think one thing that Trump has done is to

sort of

slap this awake

To the reality that hey, you know, maybe we’d forgotten

but these these thousands of nuclear weapons are still here and always have been here and

there’s a whole machinery a whole apparatus that is planning how to use them in various contingencies and

Keeping them maintained, you know, the the new defense budget that Trump just put out has twenty nine billion dollars

Devoted to nuclear weapons and the things that carry them

That was about a 17% increase over the previous year. So yeah, these things are still here now

What people will do about it, I don’t know there there is a

there was a hearing in 2017 around the same time as

fire and fury

Senate Foreign Relations Committee

The Republican chairman at the time Bob Corker suddenly realized I mean you’d think that someone in that position would have known this already

but kind of suddenly realized that

The president has the sole power to blow up the world if he wants to there’s nothing anybody can do about it

and so he held a hearing and it was the

First hearing that Congress had held on this subject since the mid 70s

That tells you something right there. It was an open hearing wasn’t reported on much. I watched it on C-SPAN 3

it was live and

It was the notion the premise of the hearing was confirmed that yeah, yeah the president

It’s it’s the human factor is the deciding element now

Did Congress do anything about this?

No, and the issue is brought up. You’re right. It’s one thing if the missiles are coming and you’ve got 20 minutes warning

You don’t have time to

You know call hearings or assemble the group of eight in Congress to discuss this

But they were talking about well

What if the president is contemplating a first strike and even if not even so much a preemptive strike?

But a preventive strike say against North Korea if they’re starting to test

ICBMs and nuclear weapons

That’s a legitimate question, I think you do have time

Do you want it all to rest in the power of one person?

But nothing was done that there was a moment in the hearing where a Democratic senator

said look, let’s cut the

Let’s cut the politeness out of this. We’re we’re holding this hearing because the president is erratic

He has poor judgment and he might get us into a war and the remarkable thing

Is that no Republican senator on the panel disagreed with this?

you know didn’t say that’s outrageous or anything like that and

That one of the people testifying was a retired general named Bob Taylor

He had recently been the commander of strategic command and he came away from the hearing very distressed because

To his mind. Hey if Congress wants to change the rules about launch authority

that’s fine that that’s that’s their right to do but

What he was really upset about was that they shouldn’t

Publicly raise doubts

about the reliability or

legitimacy of the chain of command and then do nothing about it and

That’s that’s what they had done in this hearing

I want to I want to talk a little bit about something you just mentioned the human factor and get into that a second because

As you explained it and I’ve heard this elsewhere, too

That this is if you say to the to the military higher-ups or the people involved in the in in the decision-making here

Does the president have the power to start a nuclear war all by themselves?

They will often say no as you pointed out because they’re not supposed to follow illegal orders or irrational orders or all that

But at the same time when when when in the hearings you just mentioned they dialed down and got granular on that question

That’s what they answered kind of that, you know, it’s sort of the human question

In other words somebody at some chain of command has to say no

And the likelihood may be of that happening in certain situations

I mean you mentioned in your book people that were transferred and fired

Simply for asking questions about how they would know if the launch orders they received were legitimate, right?

That was enough to get somebody. So do we have a cyst? Do we have a system that is encouraging the human factor?

No, in fact quite the contrary

You’re right. I mean the military military officers and enlisted personnel as well are trained that they should not

They should not obey that they have an obligation to obey legal orders

Which suggests that they should not obey illegal orders, but what is an illegal order, you know?

There’s a book, you know

The football the thing that the guy carries around in a case next to the president all the time

It’s not a button and it’s not a palm print that the president lays his fingerprints in

It’s a book and it has codes in it and the codes refer to options to attack options and

If an attack option is in that book

that means that


Military lawyers have already deemed that it is legal

Now there’s all kinds of other

Circumstances. Well, you know under what circumstances?


You know who is to determine that way who is though is a one-star general the person to determine whether something is legal or not

That’s generally not what he’s trained for and then here’s how the chain of command works

President gets warning of something going on or just gets it in his head. He wants to attack. There is assembled a conference call

involving some cabinet people some

Four-star generals if they can be found and gathered and there’s a consultation

But ultimately it’s up to the president. In fact, the chain of command does not go through the people that he’s consulted

He sends a guy carrying around the football

President somehow authenticates who he is the order goes to a one-star general in the National Military Command Center

Which is located in the basement of the Pentagon and that person sends the order to the submarines the missile ears

Bombers and that’s it. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the strategic command commander the Secretary of Defense

They are not in that actual chain of command

There was an incident in the 70s there was a

An Air Force officer named he was a major Harold Herring

He was a Minuteman here in late 73. He was training to be a Minuteman launch officer

He had been a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and so forth and in the training center. He asked

He asked his instructors. How can I know that in order I received to launch my missiles came from a sane president and

What checks and balances exist to verify that an unlawful order does not get into the missile man. Now, these are

Crucial and you would think

You would you would want you would wanted an officer who asks these kinds of questions, right?

He’s he’s asking, you know, what what can I do it to assure that I’m not abetting a serious war crime, right?

Well, he was basically

taken out of the missile man instruct miss minute man instructor class and

Put before a panel and they drummed him out of the Air Force

So, you know, this is they the people who are

in places like the National Military Command Center and the people holding the football and

the people supposedly down in the

Missile holes and so forth the missile silos. They are selected in part on their perceived

inclination to salute and follow orders


Okay, so let’s talk I’m gonna shift gears a little bit because that is so disturbing but but

But you use a word that’s and and this is so as a civilian

Let’s say let’s say you’re an 18 year old kid and and listening to this interview. That’s the first you’ve heard of this, right?

It reminds me of and you use the description several times the the the reaction to new

Presidents when they get that first big briefing on what the nuclear war plan is and you used I I wrote it down several times

You used the word the president came out appalled over and over and over again

These are intelligent people who ran for office who were briefed all through their debates and all through the process

Some of them had political experience up to very high levels before they were elected. How can almost all these people be so

Changed when they come out of these meetings

How could they know so little going in theoretically versus the reality after they get the the behind-the-scenes briefing?

Well, because it isn’t something that’s generally discussed or at least not on this level

I mean the president gets a briefing on what’s called the psyop. That’s not a new president coming in

Yeah, a new president coming in single integrated operational plan. It’s one of the first things like, okay

You’re the guy who might have to decide whether to go to nuclear war let’s take you through what this involves and

They just have no idea of how

Well, I mean it’s changed over time

But let me let me tell you what the first psyop said the one that that Kennedy was briefed on there the first psyop

Where they actually integrated all of the nuclear weapons into one plan


1960 and this was the plan the plan and it was the only plan was that

if the Soviet Union invaded Western Europe or grabbed

West Berlin and you know, it wasn’t something for which we had enough

conventional forces to

push back the invasion

the plan the only plan

Was to unleash the entire US nuclear arsenal against every target in the Soviet Union

the satellite nations of Eastern Europe and

communist China even if China hadn’t been involved directly in the war and

It was estimated that this would kill about two hundred and eighty five million people in


1960 Kennedy and Eisenhower as well also received every year a briefing

This was there was something called the the

Net evaluation subcommittee. It was a very secretive

Office inside the National Security Council. It’s very existence was classified

they would take the data on how many weapons we had how many weapons it was believed the Soviet Union had and

they would run a computer-generated war game and then look at the consequences and

There was a briefing of just, you know, maybe a dozen people and it was just appalling it was you know

Tens of millions of people killed hunt tens of millions more injured

in need of

hospital care for which there were no hospitals the government completely breaking down the economy a wreck and

When Kennedy received this briefing he turned to Dean Rusk

The Secretary of State who was sitting next to him and said and we call ourselves the human race

Now when Eisenhower first heard this briefing he was in this is, you know, five-star general Sakhir, you know

World War two hero. He wrote in his diary how

Disturbed he was he said I guess maybe the only option is to launch a preemptive first strike before this happens

But that would go against our values and Congress would never stand for it, which is kind of an interesting

take and then he said this only makes me more determined to keep the threshold to

To keep deterrence firm and Eisenhower his view was okay. We don’t have conventional forces

so I’m going to put out he put out a

policy called massive retaliation which said you you make one move on a

into our

vital interests

We will blow you to smithereens. That was the way to deter them. That’s what he thought

And by this wasn’t just you know, Curtis LeMay and strategic air command

This was general Eisenhower the Joint Chiefs of Staff signed a document saying that

Armed conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union will go nuclear at the first opportunity

Regardless how the war was initiated I

want to I want to expand on that a little bit because I

Know more than the average bear on this and you you still had a ton of things in the book that I’d either never heard

Or never saw integrated into the story

well, and and one of the things that you did a really good job and I’ve been meditating on it sort of ever since is

the disconnect between

military leadership and political leadership

I mean I I had never heard the the Kissinger line that you used that he had said because because this this seems to strike

Against all the public released information about the president regardless of which presidents desire to maintain deterrence

Especially in the 60s and 70s where he said that Nixon would not push the button basically that he would not kill 80 million people

I actually quoted he said said in a remarkable statement your words that that that he meaning Nixon won’t push the button

He won’t use nuclear weapons in a crisis and that to only have the option of killing 80 million people is the height of immorality

Oh, yeah

I found that fascinating when you juxtaposition that sentiment the civilian leadership sentiment with the

Curtis LeMay strategic air command

Siam sentiment. Well, you know, it’s interesting because

This is an I’m going to now reveal the one thing that I got wrong in the Wizards of Armageddon


Had which again was written 37 years ago

I had in that book that when Kennedy came in and his secretary of defense Robert McNamara

Reformed the psyop and put in all kinds of limited options so that the first step would not be


Catastrophic destruction of everything, you know, he put little, you know, we would restrain

We wouldn’t attack these kinds of targets in the first instance

We’d only attack those strategic forces not the cities. It was very elaborate very detailed very sophisticated

what I learned in

researching my new book is

Because what when I when I did that first book I learned about

McNamara’s reforms only by interviewing people who were involved in it. There was

No documents on the subject declassified yet at that point

what I learned in the new book is that

The Strategic Air Command just ignored these directives

I mean not not totally what they would do

they they would they would get the joint the joint staff to put little caveats like to the extent feasible or

If it is consistent with military objectives, we will do these limited options as they were called and

Then of course they were determined they knew that if war actually come

They would

Determine that it wasn’t feasible and it wasn’t consistent with with military objectives

So by the time Nixon becomes president and he and Kissinger get their psyop briefing and you know Kissinger has been writing about this

Since the mid 50s and he thinks that and he’s he’d been following

Because he had been a consultant in the Kennedy administration

He knew about these options that that McNamara was putting forth as directives to sack

He he was stunned that that none of it had had the slightest impact and

Yeah, Nixon once gave a public speech where he talked about the need to develop some options that would not leave us the choice

of surrender or suicide in the event of a war like this, so

that’s that’s what he was talking about and the the line that you quoted work where

Kissinger says I think Nixon just won’t push the button if the only

Outcome is 85 million people killed that was in a

behind doors

meeting of the National Security Council of his advisers it was

You know, I got that from a top-secret

Notetakers account of the meeting which had recently been declassified because that would destroy deterrence if something like that ever got out

Yeah, I might if you’re saying if the whole idea is to convince the other side that

Yeah, you’re going to you’re you really are gonna do this the other side thinks that you won’t do it

Well, maybe it’s maybe he’ll get aggressive

I was I was interested in sort of the polarities and if you’ll pardon that the the analogy the triad of interests here

That develops after the the bomb is first discovered. I mean you could talk about the the Bertrand Russell

Sometimes Robert Oppenheimer. We need to rid the world of past behaviors because they’ll destroy us the middle ground

Which is maybe the von Neumann’s and the Hermann Kahn’s and these people who try to figure out how to use our rationality to live

With a tough situation, but then on the far side is the military and you could say not just in our country

But also the establishment in the Soviet Union. I was I found it interesting when you were talking about

Kissinger had talked about how and this is what you just talked about how

Unresponsive to presidential direction

The military was and you don’t just point out that they found wonderful little lawyer like wiggle words in the in the specifics in the small

Print but also they had because I was trying to figure out in a democratic system how they worked this and you were very clear

About how they would have allies in Congress and in the Senate, you know in the house and in the Senate

I controlled important committees on defense and expenditures and whatnot and they could sort of undermine a

President that they didn’t like or or anyone that was soft on security or what-have-you through their allies in the

Legislative branch is that kind of how the military was able to in a free society where the president supposed to to hold the cards

And all this is that how they kind of

Counterbalanced his power

Well to some degree, I mean, you know, the military is also evolved over this time. I mean

The 50s and the 60s strategic air command was was basically

Dominated by people who had been strategic bombardiers second world

yeah, and then you came up in the culture of

Of Curtis LeMay, you know, there was the first

Effective commander of sack and you know Curtis LeMay had fire

But he had been in the head of the 21st bomber command in World War two

He’d been in charge of firebombing Japan and in the spring of


General Hap Arnold who was the commander of Army Air Forces came to him and said when will the war be over that Nazis had?

Already surrendered the Japanese were still fighting

LeMay took the problem to his staff. They did the math

They you know, how much how many how much territory has been destroyed so far how much more territory there is to go?

How many bombs that’ll take how long it’ll take the bombers to get there and he came back and said the war will be over

September 1st because that will be the time by which we will have bombed every square mile in Japan

So that was his idea of war it’s bomb

Everything and when the atom bomb and then the hydrogen bomb came along this became more appealing still so the notion the very notion

having this

incredible weapon that you would want to

Employ strategies involving restraint or using them in some limited way

struck guys like LeMay and

His successor at SAC whose name was General Tommy Power who had been LeMay’s deputy

But whom LeMay once referred to as a sadist

This notion is this notion of restraint struck them as perverse

Why would you want to restrain yourself?

I mean in this incredible moment, there was a my professor old professor at MIT who?

Bill Kaufman who had come up with some of these ideas of restraint and counterforce and so forth was giving Tommy Power

Briefing on this and Tommy Power pounded his fist on the table and said why are you talking about restraint?

Look at the end of the war

there are two Americans and one Russian then that means we won and Kaufman said well, you better make sure it’s a man and a

woman and

Power stormed out now power was an exception. Not everybody was like that, but they did have this bomb everything mentality as time went on

the military evolved the LeMay types died out more people came into the command who had had experience as

tactical fighter pilots or as tactical bombers, in other words looking at at


military use

Military function is to go after discrete targets as you would in a military campaign in a conventional military campaign

so things did

Loosen up a little bit but still there was this

you know sack is out in Omaha and and

LeMay and his successors

Exploited that fact. Yeah, they were isolated from Washington

but that also allowed them to do their own thing away from the peering eyes of Washington and much of what they did was

incredibly technical and based on very very highly classified stuff and


they were allowed to get away with with an incredible amount of

excess and

And really almost perverse thinking about strategy

I was shocked and you know, again, I know quite a lot about this

But it is interesting how much of the way the whole nuclear apparatus developed could be

I mean you might be able to make a case that one of the key reasons for it is inter-service rivalry and

And and jealousy over military budgets

I mean

I’ve never heard a better argument in my life for that age-old question about whether or not there’s too much

Duplication and redundancy by having multiple service branches. I want to use your your your knowledge of this for a second

We’ve been talking about the way things were but I always think that when somebody spent as much time on a subject as you have

On this I’d like to get your own personal insights if you don’t mind for a second


For example, we talked earlier about the command-and-control problem that this this dicey issue of what if the situation we have now is insane

What makes more sense and is something that would work as opposed to you?

We can’t say let’s deliberate for two weeks

But but in your mind have you heard talking to all these people any any reforms that would make sense in this area and that were


Well, you mean about sole presidential

Way to diversify the decision-making on something as big as that

Well, I would I well, you know, there have a few times been amendments

William Proxmire offered amendment in the 70s

Edward Markey did at this most recent hearing which

basically said that for

First strikes that do not involve, you know a response to an imminent threat

that I don’t know either

Congress gets a vote or the cabinet has to be consulted or this sort of eight

People in Congress that you consult about covert operations have to be consulted


Think that’s imminently feasible. You know, the president is not facing. Hey, I’ve only got an hour to make this decision


To to to get that kind of power

I think also

Listen, I believe it or not. Look that there there is a system where again eight eight members of Congress are

Led in on on really every covert operation

But then the people and they call it the select committee on house intelligence and the select committee on

Senate intelligence they are

informed about all covert operations that the intelligence agencies do and there’s never been a leak out of these committees you have to

Agree to certain things even to beyond these committees

There is no such committee

Dealing with nuclear war planning the armed services committees of the House and Senate

They get into it in a very cursory way. They don’t get nobody is shown

Not even the Secretary of Defense he gets a briefing on the vague outlines

Nobody has shown the targeting is I have this one chapter in my book and maybe this is what you’re getting to

Even if you’re not it might be a good time to bring it up

There was no civilian interference in this and no real limited options

It was the nuclear war plan remained, you know blow up everything

Really all the way until almost the end of the Cold War in the late

1980s and there were there was a civilian a civil servant in fact in the Pentagon named Frank Miller and

this was when

first Carlucci and then Dick Cheney of all people was Secretary of Defense and

Before he got this job Frank who had been working in the State Department

Immersed himself in all of these documents that McNamara’s and McNamara’s successors had written over the decades calling for

restraint and limited options and the guidance that they sent to

The to sack and so forth and then he sits in on the psyop briefing

to the Secretary of Defense and

He doesn’t hear anything about this doesn’t hear anything about

Limit options restraint or anything and he says what’s going on here and Cheney

Basically gave him

Authority to go make a deep investigation of the war plan and told ordered people exact to let him and his staff

see everything in the books and

They discovered some amazing things. So the level of overkill

Was just staggering now that we’re talking about 1989 here

The 50 might there were 700 nuclear weapons aimed at a 50-mile radius around Moscow

There was an air base in the Arctic Circle. It was it was a secondary air base

It was an air base that Russian bombers would land on on their way back

From having nuked the United States and it was so cold. It couldn’t be used for most of the year

There were 17 nuclear weapons aimed at this base

There was an anti-ballistic missile site in Moscow that we learned later

Really didn’t work at all

There were 69 weapons aimed at this missile site. I went out there also the way

Target sets for time. For example, one target set was destroyed the Russian tank army

Okay. Well what they did it wasn’t even just destroying just the tanks

They also destroyed the factory that made the tanks the factory that made spare parts for the tanks the factory that made

It rolled the steel to make the tanks the mines. Well, I mean, you know went on and on like that

it was just incredibly redundant and

Then here came the kicker here came the the thing that blew the whole system apart

At this point George HW Bush was negotiating a strategic arms deal with Russia

Negotiating a strategic arms treaty with the Russians and one of Frank’s staffers

a guy named Gil Klinger

Asked his contact at the joint strategic target planning staff, which was the division of sacrament actually did the mechanical

Targeting of a war plan. He said, you know

They’re thinking of lowering number of nuclear weapons to such-and-such

Would you still be able to perform your mission with so few weapons and

The guy said well, no that that’s not how we think about this because well what I mean, you know

No, I understand what you mean

but that’s not what we do what we do we take the number of weapons that are given to us and

We apply them to the targets that are on our lists

Now the implications of this are insane it means

that at no point

Had anybody in the operational side of this?

Asked well, how many weapons do we really need to perform?

Whatever mission it is. They want to perform. No, it was there was a there was a sack commander named Jack chain who won


in the 90s, I

Guess it was a late 80s

said I need 10,000 weapons because I have 10,000 targets and

People thought he was either joking or or maybe he wasn’t very bright. But no that is exactly how it worked

It was it was a completely out of control

process with no

with no reference to policy or aims or

proportionality and this is what happens when you let

a very powerful

highly highly specialized


Go completely rogue go completely independent with no oversight even from the people who are actually setting the policies

that this bureaucracy is was set up to

Implement now, we’ve been talking about high-minded stuff and policy and all these kinds of things which is fascinating

But I think we we should not lose track of what you point out in the book over and over and what is the key?

Issue here and it’s bodies on the ground right Bertrand Russell’s. I dream of London in ruins with corpses everywhere

You know, I was wondering about

Humankind’s ability to stay on a knife’s edge of concern and alert generation after generation

I think maybe after thinking about this that it might almost be an evolutionary

Help that we don’t

continually worry about nuclear weapons to the same degree that we did in like

1955 and yet if we don’t do we risk

presidential campaigns where we’re talking about minutia and small little

opinion things or or or or optics things that don’t matter at the expense of talking about some of the very important things we

We talked about here. How can you keep something this important and this almost impossible in your mind to imagine thing?

How can you keep this at the height of the triage alert level?


Yeah, I think you’re right. I don’t think like you and I are sitting here

You know, I’m 65 years old. I’m 50. Maybe I’m okay. Well, maybe I’ve got another 15 years

I’m I don’t think about this every day. Maybe I should you know, there’s a whole bunch of things that that


That we don’t think about I mean much of much of what we do in life is kind of an evasion

I mean and this of course what we’re talking about nuclear war is a is a super evasion

But you know that there’s this does lead to one thing that that you mentioned a little earlier about

Presidents versus the generals now the subtitle of this book is


Generals and the secret history of nuclear war and one thing that I found consistent

Leading up to the current president who has nothing hasn’t yet been tested on this

But about him one can make some inferences is that a lot of these presidents more than we realize

Faced crises in which the use of nuclear weapons was seriously contemplated and the records show

That they immersed themselves very deeply in the logic in the strategy in the

scenarios and in the

Consequences and they were led through this by briefers who spoke of it in very calm and rational terms

in some cases


certain kinds of uses of nuclear weapons and in every case

When the president got to the bottom of this rabbit hole

He realized no, I am not going to go there

The consequences are just too catastrophic and they figured out some way to scramble out of the rabbit hole and to settle this crisis

through some diplomatic solution

And you know you can ask

Why is it I think if you had gone back to

1947 say and ask somebody there

What do you think the chances are that we’ll get to the year 2020 and never use these nuclear weapons again?

Nobody uses them. I I don’t think you’d find very many people

Who would think that was a possibility?

I I think you’d be seen as a as a naive or or an excessive optimist if you said yeah

I think that’s possible and yet we’ve done it. We’ve done it. So why is that? Well, I think it’s three things

I think it’s three things

One thing I think, you know nuclear deterrence. I mean, you know, it’s a powerful thing

It’s not a lifetime guarantee, but the idea that if you

Start messing around that the other person will strike back and destroy you

That’s that’s a restraining influence

the second part is that as I’ve discovered in this book, we’ve had the law we’ve been

blessed with

Leaders who in a pinch turn out to be

Fairly shrewd and rational at least when it comes to this sort of thing

And three we’ve had good luck. I mean

there have been lots of accounts of you know incidents in which

You know a flock of geese just somebody looks out on a radar screen

that looks like missiles coming their way or a software error that that makes it look like that missiles are coming our way and


somebody in the middle level of the command who decides

This probably isn’t real

And doesn’t and does nothing about it

so we’ve had it’s a combination of


shrewd leaders

And good luck, but what happens?

if we have a situation where

We have slow-witted lure slow-witted leaders


a spate of bad luck

And that’s a that’s a combination that you know, the dice are gonna come up that way at some point

uh, even if they haven’t just yet and and then what happens that’s

That’s the sort of frightening thing

Uh and not to change the subject but to leave it on a note that I found

Another fascinating thing and like I said, I know quite a bit about this and you threw things out there where I was like

Wow, I didn’t I didn’t know that or I didn’t realize that or I didn’t internalize that

Um, I was fascinated by how the different presidents sort of dealt with this issue

In a way that sort of matched their personality

so watching an eisenhower try to figure out how to deal with this versus a kennedy and then when you got to

to reagan

I found that so interesting because instead of doing it at like an eisenhower level

Or a kennedy level where he was looking at the giant dr

Strange love and and and uh and and von neumann side of this he took it down to a human level

I love that story where um where and i’m gonna let you tell it because you’ll tell it better

But where where reagan and gorbachev right when they’re at this, you know

They had been at a knife’s edge with and drop off and brezhnev

And uh and sure and and and the various leadership that was dying left and right then you get this transformative first person

Gorbachev in an environment where everybody uh distrusts one another and reagan the ultimate coal warrior, you know

We start bombing in five minutes that guy

Sends everybody else away and with just the translators gets gorbachev on a couch

And and brings it down to a level far below the the rand institute level and just gets it to a real human thing

Can you tell the story about the aliens?

Yeah, well, you know reagan, you know, I was a reporter. I was covering reagan and

And he turns out to be a more complicated

Figure than than I thought for one thing. He was kind of a secret nuclear abolitionist

A lot of his staff tried to keep this from everybody

But this was why he was in favor of star wars strategic defense initiative

He might have been one of two or three people who really thought that’s what that program was about which was

To kind of erect a shield that would keep all nuclear weapons out rendering them impotent or obsolete first term

It comes in

boosts the budget

Does makes all kinds of provocative statements about the soviet union?

The nsa and cia are doing incredibly provocative things

And then reagan realizes that the soviets believe that we’re setting up to launch a first strike and he says, oh

God, we have to start dialing this back and he he reaches out to a soviet leader

As you say a couple of them died then he goes to meet with gorbachev. This is in 1985

in geneva

And their their first round of talks. Uh, it’s kind of tense. And so they go for a walk along

The lake and they duck into a cabin where a fire is roaring and it’s just them and their trans and their translators and notetakers

reagan leans in and says

If the united states were were attacked

By aliens from outer space would russia come to our defense?

and gorbachev says absolutely and reagan says

I feel the same way about you. And so when they came back to the conference room

Secretary of state george schultz

Who had no inkling of this conversation until much much later?

Wrote in in his account of this that all of a sudden the atmosphere had changed

Completely these two guys were laughing and joking like they were old friends

and that’s what led to the sort of pivot away from cold war to the end of the cold war and

This was something real to reagan a couple years later. Reagan wrote a speech to the un general assembly

uh and

Colin powell tried to excise this line that i’m about to recite a couple of times

And reagan kept adding it back in and it was this he said

if we were

attacked by aliens from outer space

The quarrels and disputes between us here on earth

Would seem trivial by comparison now on the one hand. This is kind of nutty, right?

But on the other hand, hey, you know, he has a point and and maybe when you’re dealing with with a subject that is

Cataclysmically catastrophic

Uh, maybe a view from a billion miles up is is is not a bad way to go

Holy cow, is that the best ending I could ever think of for an interview?


Why don’t why don’t we call it quits here?

Unless there was something that I left out that you really want to include please bring that up

You know, I mean there are there is you know, if you if you want to talk about and insert

you know things about the cuban missile crisis or the berlin crisis or but but whatever, you know, there’s

You certainly asked a lot of questions that nobody’s ever asked before

My thanks to fred kaplan for coming on the program

The book is called the bomb presidents generals and the secret history of nuclear war available right now

You can also check out his column his regular column war stories in slate magazine

And my goodness if you’re into this stuff

and it’s a fascinating book about trying to figure out the most logical ways for human beings to live with the

Ever-increasing power of their weapon systems check out fred kaplan’s earlier work the wizards of armageddon fascinating stuff


We appreciate him coming on the show. Hope you enjoyed it


Have you seen 1917 yet in the theater

The reason I ask is because it’s one of those films

uh that if you are a fan of filmmaking


Well, you can’t take your eyes off the way they did it from a cinematographer standpoint. I mean, there’s a reason

People oohed and awed about it when they saw it and it wasn’t necessarily the sort of things that speak to yours truly

I’m going to go to a first world war film

That’s done like this because there there haven’t been many of them. We’ve talked about that in the past

So i’m already hooked before you even show me how you shot it

But then when you show me how you shot it, I couldn’t take my eyes off it

Now I don’t talk about this very much, but I come from a family of film people

And knowing how

stuff is done and watching how scenes are shot and the way they’re framed and all this kind of stuff kind of is

Second nature discussion around the dinner table when I was a kid and i’m watching this and all I could think about was

Oh, you know

I really missed my dad at that moment when you want to have your dad back and you want to show it to him

And you want to just say dad?

What do you think of that and just get his feedback?

Because if you don’t know if you haven’t read anything about this

You’re not like the fly on the wall or the spider up in the corner of the room

You’re there the way they shot it you’re like on the mission with the people in the mission

And so you feel like you are in real time

Here like almost I I felt like sometimes like I was looking through my own eyes

but then they’d spin the camera around and you’d be like

I found myself thinking of all the other subjects besides the first world war that you could give this kind of treatment to and how

Interesting and weird and wild it would be in all those circumstances

It did change the feel of the film made it a very unique sort of feel because it didn’t feel like

Uh, there are certain kinds of reactions you get out of the theater and you go. Oh, I have this

I mean, I remember with platoon. It was like i’d been hit in the face with a sledgehammer

There was a mood and a lot of these films where war is a part of it

You get this a different feel not necessarily the platoon feel but a different feel when you walk out

This felt this was much more the way they shot it turned it into an edge of your seat thriller suspense thing

That reminded me more of some of the really well done horror movies when I was a teenager and you would just go

Holy cow

There’s some kind of dopamine or something that it’s pumped into my brain

Because I felt like I was on the edge of my anything could happen to me at any time

I felt the same way in 1917

I didn’t feel like I was watching one of these war films where there are tens of thousands of people in a panoramic

You know fields of glory or paths of glory type of movie

It was much more of a holy cow

My heart rate is up and I feel like i’ve actually gone on this mission with these guys

I loved it. I thought they did a great job. And so did the you know academy of motion pictures, obviously, too

This is the kind of film you’re going to want to splurge for the extra clarity and all that because they did a fantastic job

If you want to hear how they did it, by the way, i’m told there’s going to be some fabulous bonus content

along with all this you’ll get the whole story on the behind the scenes cinematic ideas the

Uh, the music was fantastic. The soundtrack was fantastic exclusive interviews with the cast and production crew commentary

Uh by director and co-writer sam mendes and the director of photography well worth your time. Enjoy it

It’s available to own march 10th 2020 on digital streaming and of course march 24th

For those of you who want to see it in 4k ultra hd or blu-ray and I just have to tell you

Uh, this is the kind of film you’re going to want to splurge for the extra clarity and all that because uh,

They did a fantastic job