by Cliff Connor, originally published on Socialist Action
Following World War II, a think tank named the RAND Corporation took the lead in formulating policies guiding military-industrial Big Science. Some of the titles of books and articles about RAND provide a hint of what it represented in the public imagination: “The Think Tank that Controls America,” “America’s University of Imperialism,” “Dr. Strangelove’s Workplace,” and “Wizards of Armageddon.”
RAND’s signature initiative was its hypotheoretical venture into “thinking the unthinkable.” Its legendary Nuclear Boys Club waded into the topsy-turvy world of megatons and megadeaths in a quixotic effort to put nuclear warfare strategy on a rational, scientific basis. Spoiler Alert: The end of the world begins with a “Fuck You, Buddy.”
The logical foundation of the American strategy for waging nuclear warfare was constructed by a man best known as a paranoid schizophrenic. As surreal as that sounds, it is the truth. Paranoid schizophrenia is a devastating mental illness whose victims deserve the utmost compassion, but it is terrifying to realize that the fate of the human race could rest on a theoretical framework built upon paranoiac delusions.
One of the RAND Corporation’s leading nuclear strategists was John Nash, a gifted mathematician whose descent into psychosis was the subject of the Oscar-winning film “A Beautiful Mind.” However beautiful Nash’s purely mathematical conceptions may have been, their application to the real world of human society have produced the most hideously ugly consequences imaginable.
Nash was a pioneer of mathematical game theory, which analyzes the rules of games in order to devise winning strategies. Among its theoretical progeny was James M. Buchanan’s Public Choice Theory, which set the agenda for the Koch brothers’ efforts to “dismantle the administrative state” (i.e., eliminate trade unions, privatize the social security and health-care systems, constrain governmental regulatory power, and the destroy the public education system).1 But its original application provided the basis of Cold War nuclear brinkmanship policies, including the one aptly acronymed MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction.
“All Is Number?”
It is not unusual for mathematicians to profess a philosophy of science based on the proposition that “All Is Number,” a variety of philosophical idealism that gained an early champion in Plato. It makes “number” the essence of all reality and mathematics the arbiter of all truth and knowledge.
The scientific method associated with that philosophy is a priorism—the notion that the details of science can be derived from “first principles” by deductive logic. Its adherents insist that knowledge of nature is not to be gained by observation and experimentation, but by pure reason. Hey, if it works for geometry, why not physics? Why not biology? Why not economics and political science?
Plato’s antiempirical method served to derail scientific inquiry into the actual workings of nature for 1400 years. Although his followers thought they had solved all of science’s general problems, the onset of the Scientific Revolution a few hundred years ago revealed that those solutions were worthless.
Fast forward to the 20th century, where we find John Nash applying Platonic a priorism to the problem of how to prevent the thermonuclear incineration of the planet Earth. His contribution was to derive strategic solutions from mathematical game theory.
A “game” of global risk and peril
In 1945, when American policymakers made the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan, the game was simple. They did not have to fear retaliation because they knew Japan could not respond in kind. The more farsighted among them were aware, however, that the United States’ monopoly of nuclear weapons could not last forever.
American policymakers had no choice but to adjust to that reality. A debate among them ensued over how best to assure that the fearsome power they had unleashed upon the world would not be turned back against the United States. Their deliberations posed the complex problems that the RAND Corporation’s nuclear strategists took on.
In fact, following the dropping of the bombs on Japan, it was only four years before the Soviet Union had become the second member of the nuclear club. On Aug. 29, 1949, the USSR exploded its first nuclear weapon. This was (ahem) a game-changer.
The Soviet nuclear test in August 1949 prompted the United States to immediately up the ante. President Truman announced the intention to create a thermonuclear weapon, or “superbomb,” with explosive power that would dwarf that of the bombs dropped on Japan. In response, the Soviet Union vowed to do the same. An arms race to Armageddon was underway.
The United States performed its first hydrogen bomb test in November 1952, releasing the energy equivalent of 10.4 megatons of TNT—more than 700 times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In less than a year, in August 1953, the USSR replied with a much smaller (400 kiloton) fusion device test, but it was enough to demonstrate that Soviet scientists knew how to make hydrogen bombs. In 1961 the Soviet Union tested the largest bomb ever detonated—a 50-megaton behemoth with the explosive force of 3800 Hiroshima blasts.
Planning to win the game that ends in Doomsday
Early in the course of the Cold War, American policymakers saw the world in stark terms: Two implacable superpowers face-to-face, armed to the hilt with weapons on hair-trigger alert that could conceivably destroy all human life. What could be done—what steps should be taken—to prevent the world from ending in thermonuclear conflagration.
General Curtis LeMay, as head of the Strategic Air Command, was in charge of the U.S. nuclear strike forces. His proposal typified the kill-it-in-the-cradle instincts of the military mind: He called for massive preemptive nuclear strikes against the USSR. He advocated that policy despite the Strategic Air Commands’ estimates that it would annihilate more than 77,000,000 people in 188 targeted cities. Fortunately, President Eisenhower had the final word and ruled against preemptive strikes.
The official nuclear policy of the Eisenhower administration was the Doctrine of Massive Retaliation, an explicit warning to the Soviet Union that the United States would not hesitate to meet any Soviet act of aggression by unleashing the full force of its nuclear arsenal. The bigger the threat, it was assumed, the more effective the deterrent.
Meanwhile, the RAND Corporation’s “national security analysts” had taken on the assignment of thinking more deeply about the problem and promptly identified fatal flaws in the Massive Retaliation strategy.
RAND’s war strategists acquired a number of colorful nicknames, including the Nuclear Boys Club and the Megadeath Intellectuals. The most famous member of the group was an ebullient grandstander named Herman Kahn, a man with a Santa Claus demeanor who gained celebrity as a tireless popularizer of doomsday prophecy. His provocative, whimsical ruminations about the end of the world made him the target of Stanley Kubrick’s wickedly satirical film “Dr. Strangelove.” Kahn presented his views in a 1960 book entitled “On Thermonuclear War.” He insisted that an all-out nuclear war between the superpowers was preventable, and even it were not prevented, it could be survivable, and even winnable by the U.S.
It was Kahn’s view that stability arises from a scenario wherein neither side has reason to believe they could destroy their enemy without putting themselves in grave danger. To achieve that, both sides must amass such fearsome nuclear arsenals that both are afraid to use them.
The quest for security in a “balance of terror,” however, was illusory. What actually occurred was a frenzied nuclear arms race that made the world ever less secure. While not exactly what Kahn had in mind, the official U.S. deterrence strategy became known as MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction. MAD, most independent commentators concluded, was indeed madness.
A critique of RAND science
Kahn and his RAND colleagues insisted that their analyses and policy recommendations were derived scientifically, and from science alone. Their professions of dispassionate objectivity, however, were worthless. Their methodology was founded on the ideological proposition that nations have no choice but to regard each other as absolutely, unyieldingly hostile enemies.
Historian of science Peter Galison called this the Cold War “ontology of the enemy.” It required a view of the Soviet Union as simply a “cold-blooded, machinelike opponent” with no ideals, values, or goals beyond an absolute desire to win the nuclear showdown game.2
The McCarthyite premise upon which the entire edifice of RAND nuclear strategy stood was the assumption of the Soviet Union’s unalterable enmity toward the United States. Historians William Appleman Williams, Walter LaFeber, Joyce and Gabriel Kolko, and Gar Alperovitz, among others, have marshaled powerful arguments against that proposition.
The animosity between the United States and the Soviet Union was not a foregone conclusion when World War II came to an end. The two countries had been allies throughout the war. There is ample evidence that Stalin naïvely expected to preserve that alliance indefinitely, but the United States and its European allies had opposite intentions.
Even before the war’s end, American policymakers looked upon the Soviet Union as the primary obstacle to their dream of an “American Century.” In February 1946, George Kennan, an American diplomat in Moscow, articulated a policy of “containment” of the Soviet Union and “strong resistance” based on military muscle rather than diplomacy. Less than two weeks later, a declaration of open hostility was issued in a speech by Winston Churchill as he stood beside Truman in Fulton, Missouri. Churchill declared that an “iron curtain” had descended across Eastern Europe, separating “Soviet Russia and its Communist international” from the “Western Democracies.”
The Soviet leaders, Churchill declared, aimed at “indefinite expansion of their power and their doctrines.” His warning that “throughout the world, Communist fifth columns are established and work in complete unity and absolute obedience to the directions they receive from the Communist center” provided the themes of McCarthyism that instilled an all-pervasive “us-against-them” mindset in the American public for several decades.
While it would be absurd to entertain illusions of Stalin’s benevolence, the McCarthyist warnings of worldwide communist subversion were based on a deliberate misreading of the Soviet leader’s motives. Stalin and the highly conservative Soviet bureaucracy he represented were anything but radical revolutionaries. It was not in their interest to rock the global boat by fomenting rebellions around the world. The expansionism Churchill decried was antithetical to their desire to be left in peace to exploit their own realm.
The Kremlin’s frequent expressions of support for international revolutionary movements were grist for the McCarthyist mill, but historians should not take them at face value. The guiding Stalinist slogan “Socialism in One Country” meant that the Communist International under their command was not charged with extending the world socialist revolution, but with stifling it. That their opportunism was not always successful does not disprove their intentions.3
Nonetheless, the RAND analysts reduced the messy complexity of international relations to a one-dimensional duel-to-the-death between intransigent foes. And with that we have arrived at the doorstep of the magical realm of mathematical game theory.
John Nash: “Fuck You, Buddy”
If Herman Kahn was king of the Nuclear Boys, John Nash was the creative power behind the throne. Nash played a crucial role in creating the mathematical framework that underpinned the RAND analysts’ deterrence strategies.
Mathematical game theory was not the brainchild of Nash alone. John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern inaugurated the field with a 1944 book entitled “Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.” It was a bold attempt to put economic theory on a rigorous, axiomatic base derived from mathematical models of economic decision making.
Professional economists at first ignored game theory, but other social scientists began to notice its potential applications in other fields. Most significantly, it was picked up and transformed by the Nuclear Boys Club at RAND into their primary tool for the analysis of military strategy. Nash’s critical contribution was to transcend the limitations of Von Neumann and Morgenstern’s simplified model by generalizing and validating their conclusions for more complex games of strategy.4
More ominously, Nash also influenced the social agenda of game theory by inventing a number of games to illustrate its potential usefulness for the social sciences. Nash’s games, based on the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma, were explicitly noncooperative in nature as opposed to games that encouraged or at least permitted cooperation among players.
The most notorious of Nash’s games was one provocatively named “Fuck You, Buddy.” (To avoid further repetitions of the coarse term here, the game will henceforth be referred to as “FYB.”) FYB was a four-person game in which a player can only progress by forming coalitions with other players. But a player can only win the game by betraying those with whom he or she had coalesced. “When this game was tried out at dinner parties,” a website for board game aficionados says, “a common outcome (reportedly) was that couples were so angered by the betrayals that they went home in separate taxis.” One commenter added a warning: “Do not play with people who take things personally.”5
The antisocial attitude encapsulated in the game’s title reflects a misanthropic view of human nature that is built into its rules: that all human behavior is motivated only by self-interest, and that rationality demands all players consider each other to be absolutely untrustworthy.
FYB established a pattern for games in which trickery, backstabbing, and blunt force are winning strategies, and trustworthiness is the currency of losers. That its primary author, John Nash, suffered from a pathological condition characterized by irrational suspiciousness of others is not irrelevant. Games of this genre served as models shaping American military strategy in the thermonuclear era, substituting paranoiac reflexes—“FYB!”—for thoughtful diplomacy.
How the RAND secretaries played the game
The RAND Corporation submitted Nash’s games to empirical test. Experimental trials were performed using secretaries as players. The trials did not support the experimental premises, and in fact tended to refute them. This is one of numerous accounts that have appeared in print:
“The RAND scientists believed that mutual distrust should rule the day. … They tested their ideas on RAND’s own secretaries, creating all sorts of different scenarios in which the women could cooperate with or betray one another.
“In every single experiment, however, instead of making choices in the self-interested way that RAND expected, the secretaries chose to cooperate. … Nash blamed the failed experiments on the secretaries themselves. They were unfit subjects, incapable of following the simple ‘ground rules’ that they should strategize selfishly.”6
Because the secretaries were women, this story seemed to beautifully confirm feminist claims that female sensibilities are essentially altruistic and cooperative in contrast to masculine egocentric aggressiveness. There is evidence in RAND documentation to support the story, but the evidence is not very strong. The experimental sample size was far too small to yield significant results. Only two experimental trials were performed, and only two RAND secretaries served as subjects.
Nevertheless, the outcome was by no means without value. The author of the study pointed to a crucial insight that deserved to be heeded: “The main lesson from this limited experiment is that the social relationship between the subjects can have a controlling influence on their choices.”7
The tale of the two secretaries also illustrates a fundamental violation of scientific procedure on the part of Nash and his colleagues. When confronted with evidence, however meager, contradicting their ideological biases, they were unwilling to rethink their premises. From that point forward, their research rushed unimpeded toward conclusions that shoehorned human social behavior into absurdly oversimplified schemas.
The fallacy propagated by the RAND game theorists resides in their misapplication of formal logic to real-life situations that lie far outside its scope. They err at both ends of the process by starting with abstract mathematical postulates unmoored from space, time, and material reality, and ending up with mathematical models that model nothing that actually exists.
The Impossibility Theorem
A crucial early step along the road was a premise called the Impossibility Theorem, which was devised at RAND in 1948 by Kenneth Arrow. Arrow’s theorem declared the impossibility of any workable political system based on such notions as “the public interest” or “the public good.” The Impossibility Theorem, however, was based on extreme assumptions about human behavior. Arrow’s imaginary social universe reduced all human motivation to individual self-interest. There was no place in it for altruism, compassion, concern for others, or notions of social equality.
Because no such society has ever existed anywhere on Earth, Arrow’s assumptions obviously were not derived from empirical observation. They were purely hypothetical constructs with no basis in social reality. Nonetheless, his Impossibility Theorem resonated with the RAND Nuclear Boys, who integrated it and its assumptions into their strategic thinking.
RAND’s construction of nuclear military strategy on a foundation of game theory is perhaps the single most consequential example of mathematical malpractice in the long span of human history. One-dimensional models that reduce human interactions to one-against-all antagonism produce inflexible strategies heavy on trickery and blunt force, and light on intelligent efforts to resolve disagreements. By creating a framework within which U.S. policymakers could only treat the USSR with unyielding hostility, RAND rationalized a Cold War that humanity has thus far been fortunate to survive.
- For more on James M. Buchanan, see Cliff Conner, “The Lenin of Libertarianism,” Socialist Action, socialistaction.org, Dec. 26, 2017.
- Peter Galison, “The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Weiner and the Cybernetic Vision,” Critical Inquiry, journals.uchicago.edu, Autumn 1994.
- The most consequential example of Stalin’s policy of discouraging socialist revolutions in other countries was its application in China in the 1920s, which was chronicled by Harold Isaacs in his classic work, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (1938). The Chinese Communists eventually succeeded in taking power in 1949 despite decades of betrayal by Stalin’s Communist International.
- For a more thorough exposition of Nash’s theoretical contributions to mathematical game theory, see Roger A. McCain, Game Theory and Public Policy, 2nd edition, 2015.
- “So Long, Sucker (1964),” Board Game Database, boardgamedatabase.blogspot.com, April 17, 2016.
- Douglas Rushkoff, Life, Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back, 2009.
- Merrill M. Flood, “Some Experimental Games,” U.S. Air Force Project RAND Memorandum RM-789-1, June 20, 1952