In his review of Fred Kaplan’s The Bomb, Marc Trachtenberg reminds readers that “it is important to see the past for what it was.”  This, as both Trachtenberg and Robert Jervis agree, is the overwhelming merit of The Bomb, a remarkable history of one of the wonkiest niches of U.S. national security strategy—the operational planning of nuclear wars.  In the book, Kaplan takes readers across six decades of nuclear planning and, in doing so, reveals a remarkable consistency throughout America’s nuclear history: despite numerous attempts by many presidential administrations, U.S. nuclear strategy has never been able to escape the impetus for first strike.  Kaplan makes a compelling argument that the U.S. has been imprisoned by its own operational planning requirements, unable to draw down its nuclear arsenal largely because of path dependencies that were set in motion by service cultures which Kaplan traces back to World War II.

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What factors would propel a conventional war into a nuclear one? Would leaders know whether their military operations were driving the other toward a decision to use nuclear weapons? If we can identify potential escalation flashpoints in peacetime, what unilateral or cooperative steps can the United States and other countries take to minimize the risks of nuclear catastrophe? These are tough questions of increasing salience as competition between the United States and Russia and China intensifies. We cannot meaningfully reduce nuclear risks among the major powers if we do not understand them. Fortunately, a number of scholars and practitioners are tackling this set of issues.[1]

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