Notes on “The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War” (2020)

I recently finished the Audible version of Fred Kaplan’s book The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War. I learned about this book due to Darius Meissner writing:

On the topic of nuclear warfare, I have also read and can recommend The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War by Fred Kaplan. The book provides a deep dive into the development of the US nuclear doctrine over time , covering all administrations across 70 years and outlining in great detail many issues and arguments around nuclear policy.

I found the book interesting and useful. To compare it with the other nuclear-war-related books I’ve read:

Note that Kaplan also wrote The Wizards of Armageddon, which was recommended by Daniel Ellsberg on the 80,000 Hours Podcast.

In the remainder of this post, I’ll:

  • discuss my main criticism of The Bomb

  • share the Anki cards I made for myself when reading the book[1] (as a low-effort alternative to me writing notes specifically for this post)

My hope is that this will help some EAs (i) quickly gain some key insights from the book, and (ii) decide whether reading/​listening to it is worth their time. (See also Should pretty much all content that’s EA-relevant and/​or created by EAs be (link)posted to the Forum?)

My main criticism

Note: What follows will be somewhat vague and unconvincing. This is because I wanted to only spend 1 or 2 hours on this post as a whole, so I didn’t go hunting for examples of what I’m criticising or take the time to fully explain my criticism.

It seems to me that, at some points, Kaplan has an alarmist tone or implication while being vague in what he actually says, makes statements which are overly certain or exaggerated, and/​or makes arguments that seem to miss obvious points or strawman alternative perspectives. It seems to me that this biased the book towards the positions “nuclear weapons are terrifying and disarmament (or similar) is needed urgently”, “nuclear strategists were crazy and deterrence is a stupid idea”, and/​or “Republicans or at least the Trump administration are bad/​stupid”.

The reason I raise this criticism is not that I disagree with those positions. (Though I certainly disagree with the positions when stated as strongly and confidently as I stated them there, and I might disagree with more moderate versions.) Instead, I raise the criticism because I think it’s very important in general to not overstate the arguments for one’s position, and to recognise the best arguments against one’s position.[2]

Some examples of what I’m talking about, mostly vague and from memory:

  • At times, Kaplan seems to sort-of dismiss the whole idea that nuclear weapons could have any value (from a country’s perspective) via helping to deter an adversary from taking a disliked action

    • But this was like an impression he repeatedly seemed to me to give via tone or vague statements, rather than something he stated outright

    • Note that I don’t just mean he seems to argue that that value is outweighed by the downsides or costs of nuclear weapons; I’d see that position as much more reasonable than the position that that value doesn’t exist at all

  • At times, Kaplan seems to imply that, if nuclear weapons were used against an adversary in any way, that would be practically guaranteed to escalate to full-scale war, to cause a nuclear winter, and to essentially cause the end of civilization or the species

    • (Whereas I think there’s room for a lot of uncertainty about each of those things—although I also think that those things are plausible and warrant substantial concern)

    • E.g., I think he repeatedly used phrases like “every president for the last 75 years has has the power to end civilization” (this is not a direct quote; it’s just the sort of thing I recall him saying)

    • But I expect that, if asked directly, Kaplan would acknowledge uncertainty about those points

  • Kaplan quotes a member of the Trump administration saying that “classical deterrence theory” wasn’t applicable to Kim Jung-un, because Kim is a totalitarian leader who doesn’t care about his people (or something like that). Kaplan suggests this is clearly false, since Kim clearly cares about self-preservation, and a person who cares about self-preservation is exactly the sort of person to whom deterrence theory is relevant.

    • But that member of the Trump administration was (apparently) talking about classical deterrence theory, not just any form of deterrence. Classically, nuclear deterrence theory has often emphasised attacks on cities that the leader isn’t in. Two common rationales for this have been the idea that the leadership will intrinsically want to prevent that (e.g., because they care about their people) and the idea that keeping the leadership alive may be necessary so that they’re able to order a surrender or a de-escalation. So if it is true that Kim doesn’t care about his people, then that really would affect how one should apply deterrence theory to him.

    • This seems to be a sufficiently obvious and critical oversight in that statement of Kaplan’s that I’d say that this likely to reflect either subconscious or conscious bias.

(This all also makes me worry slightly more than I usually would about whether Kaplan gets matters of basic facts correct. But I haven’t looked into that, and I’m only slightly more worried than I would be normally.)

All this said, as noted above, I did find the book interesting and useful, and would recommend it.

My anki cards

What follows are the Anki cards I made for myself. Some include direct quotes without having quote marks, while others are just my own interpretations (rather than definitely 100% parroting what the book is saying) but don’t note that fact. It’s possible that some of these cards include mistakes, or will be confusing or misleading out of context. I also haven’t fact-checked Kaplan on any of these points.

The indented parts are the questions, and the parts in square brackets are my notes-to-self.

In 1989, Cheney was alerted “to the fact that, in order to forestall cuts to the [US nuclear] arsenal, SAC…

“ignored official doctrines and simply found targets for every existing weapon, regardless of their strategic value.”

[Quote from a NYT review of Kaplan’s The Bomb.]

In the 1986 memo to Reagan entitled “Why We Can’t Commit to Eliminating All Nuclear Weapons Within 10 Years”, what 3 key arguments does Poindexter give?

  1. Such an agreement couldn’t be verified

  2. Other nuclear armed states might not also eliminate their weapons, and thus they might gain superiority

  3. This would create a major risk to Western Europe, given the Soviets’ advantage in conventional forces

[If I recall correctly, this was in response to plans to publicly state that the US would eliminate its nuclear weapons if Russia did to. So point 2 just refers to states other than Russia.]

Around 1981 (I think), an analyst in the Defence Intelligence Agency said that the number of discrete objects the Soviet early warning system could track before everything merged into a big blob was __. The smallest US attack option included __ missiles.

200; nearly 1000

[Kaplan claims that this means the Soviets would see that smallest attack option as indistinguishable from an all-out attack.]

Under H. W. Bush, in one instance before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US cuts its “required” number of nuclear weapons from ____. This was the result of ____.

Over 12,000 to 5,888

A purely technical deep dive analysis of how many nuclear weapons the US required

[That analysis was conducted by Miller and Klinger, commissioned by Cheney.

Kaplan says something like ” opposed to treaties or relaxation of tensions”. But I’d guess that reduced tensions under Gorbachev did contribute at least somewhat.

Kaplan isn’t totally clear about whether this translated into an actual reduction in the number of deployed/​stockpiled weapons, vs just a change in what was said to be “required”. Another source says “During the George H. W. Bush administration, from 1989 to 1994, the U.S. nuclear stockpile dropped by 50 percent, from about 22,00 to 11,000 warheads, the most rapid nuclear arsenal reduction in U.S. history.”]

Between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the US cut its number of “required” strategic warheads from ___. This was due to the removal ___.

~5,888 to ~3,500 [Or maybe it was cut by 3,500?]

From the target list of those targets that were in Eastern Europe (mainly/​solely air defence sites) or in Soviet republics that didn’t themselves possess nuclear weapons (since it seemed like the Soviet Union might soon fall apart)

[Kaplan isn’t totally clear about whether the “required” number was actually reduced before the end of the Cold War, or whether there was just a plan to reduce it that was then implemented when the Cold War actually ended.]

In terms of compliance with or violation of the Agreed Framework, Kaplan and Wikipedia both seem to suggest _____.

That North Korea didn’t start to fundamentally violate the Framework until around 1998, after the US had basically violated it (e.g. by not allocating sufficient funding to building the light-water reactors, sometimes delivering the oil supplies late,  and not fully normalising political and economic relations)

[Kaplan and Wikipedia suggest that this was partly due to US Congress control switching into Republican hand shortly after the agreement was signed. Kaplan also suggests South Korea also didn’t supply as much funding for the LWRs as it was meant to.

“1998” is from Wikipedia, not Kaplan.

And the exact interpretation given above is my own and could be slightly mistaken.]

Kaplan suggests an important event preceding the US-NK Agreed Framework was former US president…

Jimmy Carter travelling to NK, having talks with Kim Il-sung, and outlining a preliminary agreement (the US gov had authorised the visit and talks, but had specifically told him not to discuss any specific possible agreements)

[Kaplan seems to suggest that this helped lay the groundwork for further negotiations and for the Agreed Framework, though I can’t remember if Kaplan clearly claims that.

Apparently Carter announced his proposed agreement on CNN just 5 or so minutes after telling the Clinton administration that he’d done anything along these lines.]

Kaplan suggests that North Korea outright admitted to the Bush administration that it was actively developing nuclear weapons, and the Bush administration then...

Kept that information secret for a few weeks/​months. This was because Congress was at the time deciding whether to approve things to do with starting the Iraq War, and that debate would’ve been muddied if people knew that another rogue state was pursuing even scarier WMDs and yet Bush wasn’t proposing war with them.

[This is my memory/​interpretation of what Kaplan said.]

What general goal/​policy did Rumsfeld propose with regards to North Korea, after the US had toppled Hussein in Iraq in what at the time appeared to be a quick, decisive victory?

Regime change

[This was before the rest of the Iraq War had dragged on for a long time.]

Kaplan claims that, with the possible exception of Schultz, the “four horsemen”...

Don’t actually want the world to reach 0 nukes, even in the long-term

[Instead, they want to lend a dramatic flair to pushes for various measures they see as good, such as sharply reducing the number of weapons, getting rid of short range nuclear weapons near tense borders, etc.]

Kaplan says Secretary of Defense James Mattis asked at a meeting of the “graybeards”: “Does anybody here believe that nuclear war can be controlled?” [It seems he meant “can nuclear war be kept as a limited rather than all-out war?”] In response:

Everyone shook their heads “no”, except for the deputy undersecretary of defense for strategy [Colby], who said “strategic thinkers of my generation do think there are opportunities to limit nuclear conflict”

[I think Kaplan had implied there were 9 graybeards. Can’t remember for sure.

Regarding what the graybeards are, another source says that Mattis “convened a council of retired admirals, generals and specialists known as ‘the graybeards’ to engage in what Soofer said Mattis calls a ‘skilled dialectic,’ or an exchange of divergent views.”]

Ellsberg claims that, since WW2, there have been __ times the US has threatened to use nuclear weapons against another country.

25 or more

[I think Kaplan said Ellsberg said 25. A website says Ellsberg said “more than 25”. I can’t directly remember what Ellsberg claims in his book.

Note that the phrasing Ellsberg himself would use is that nuclear weapons were “used” on those 25+ occasions, as he thinks making threats should be counted as “use”.]

What does Kaplan claim happened during George W. Bush’s administration between the Russian Defense Minister and Donald Rumsfeld?

The Defense Minister implored Rumsfeld 3 times to make a deal in which both countries (or just Russia?) would get out of the INF

[I’m not sure precisely what Kaplan means, and I haven’t fact checked it.]


This post contains only my personal opinions, and was written in a personal capacity rather than in my capacity as a researcher for Rethink Priorities.

[1] See here for the article that inspired me to actually start using Anki properly. Hat tip to Michelle Hutchinson for linking to that article and thus prompting me to read it. Note that some of the Anki cards that I made and include in this post violate some of the advice in that article—in particular, the advice to try to ensure that questions and answers each express only one idea.

[2] Unfortunately, it currently seems to me that the sort of critique I’m raising here is also applicable to some other advocates in the nuclear weapons space, including some who seem to in many ways be doing valuable work and whose actual views I do largely agree with. I might write more on this in future.