Following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Einstein implored:
A world government must be created which is able to solve conflicts between nations by judicial decision. This government must be based on a clear-cut constitution which is approved by the governments and nations and which gives it the sole disposition of offensive weapons.
It is doubtful that a world government such as envisioned by Einstein -- which allowed for the centralization of "offensive weapons" -- would have eliminated the nuclear threat, let alone war, if for no other reason than secessionist movements and other power struggles would have remained a constant concern (we will return to this subject at the essay's closing).
In any case, Churchill, Truman and Stalin would carve up most of Europe at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, creating the foundation for the Cold War. As if to underscore the improbability of world government, the three leaders had an argument over who would enter the Potsdam conference room first; they eventually decided that they would enter at precisely the same time through three separate doors.
The new paradigm was MAD -- Mutually Assured Destruction. Because man is a rational being, he would not risk nuclear annihilation by attacking his foe. Game theorists at the Rand Corporation, a Pentagon think tank, provided the theoretical basis. According to the prisoner's dilemma, both players had to assume the other was rational.
While most nuclear strategists took it for granted that the point of the game was to maintain peace between the super-powers, others believed, quite logically, that the point of the game was to win it.
Among those who embraced the "winner takes all" view was General Curtis Lemay, purported model for the character "Jack the Ripper" in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.
Best known for masterminding the massive bombing campaign against Japan during WWII (which resulted in half-a-million dead and about five million homeless), Lemay headed up the Strategic Air Command and served as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force from 1961 to 1965.
During his service, Lemay drew up a war plan which involved dropping "the entire stockpile of atomic bombs in a single massive attack" on the Soviet Union -- 133 atomic bombs on 70 cities. The Washington Post later quoted the General as stating, "Every major American city -- Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles -- will be reduced to rubble. Similarly, the principal cities of the Soviet Union will be destroyed."
According to then Defence Secretary Robert McNamara, Lemay was "absolutely certain" that "the US was going to have to fight a nuclear war with the Soviet Union," and that "we should fight it sooner rather than later."
Equally disturbing as the super-hawks at the Pentagon were the numerous academics -- people who considered themselves highly rational -- who advocated a similar strategy. Most found their home at the Rand Corporation.
One of Rand's most notorious strategists was Herman Kahn. He believed that the US atomic arsenal was a wasting resource. So long as the Soviet Union continued to build its own arsenal, America's would decrease in value. For Kahn, nuclear weapons were like a precious commodity in danger of depreciation on the global marketplace. Though he did not explicitly advocate a first strike, Kahn believed that a nuclear war was "winnable."
Breaking the Chain of Command
MAD is widely regarded as a triumph of both rationalism and hard-nosed realpolitik. The missiles stayed in their silos. We didn't go extinct. Starry-eyed idealists who rejected Ronald Reagan's belligerence and exorbitant military spending were proven wrong.
What few realize is that we escaped destruction primarily due to a handful of individuals who rejected the chain of command -- and even the logic of their computer screens -- in order to embrace the better angels of their being.
In my documentary film The Power Principle I explore several of the biggest "close calls" during the Cold War.