The Cold World They Made:
The Strategic Legacy of Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter

by ron robin
harvard, 365 pages, $35

Today all but forgotten, Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter were once the First Couple of Armageddon. During the Cold War, with World War III seemingly just around the corner, they played a leading role in pioneering the largely fraudulent enterprise known as nuclear strategy. In their heyday, the Wohlstetters were the twin stars around which the universe of defense intellectuals revolved.

Given the influence they once wielded, their personal eccentricities, and the devoted disciples that Albert in particular attracted, the Wohlstetters will one day make fascinating subjects for a full-length dual biography. This is not that book. Instead, Ron Robin, president of the University of Haifa, offers a serviceable but preliminary rumination on his subjects and their legacy. The Cold World They Made conducts readers on a brief reconnaissance into a place called Cold War America, covering once-familiar terrain that with the passing of time appears alien and awaits rediscovery.

As to who the Wohlstetters themselves were and how their lives unfolded, Robin offers only a bare outline. Instead, he focuses on what made them tick: the “unchecked vanities” of people certain of their own superiority along with an aptitude for opportunism. Among members of the American intelligentsia, of course, these are not uncommon traits. In the particular case of Roberta and Albert, opportunism combined with fearmongering became a formula for lifelong success.

During the Cold War, fears and fearmongers abounded. The Wohlstetters fashioned their careers out of one particular fear: the prospect of a climactic Third World War. The likelihood of such a war, beginning with an all-out surprise attack by the Soviet Union, was far greater than the nation’s political or military leaders imagined, they argued. Averting this nuclear Pearl Harbor would entail ceaseless and intensive efforts on the part of the United States, they insisted. Most importantly, to have any chance of success, the high officials charged with undertaking those efforts must necessarily take their cues from people like themselves. To do otherwise was to risk the ultimate catastrophe.

Theirs was the perfect setup: Spend your days thinking the unthinkable at taxpayer expense on a pleasant campus overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Spend your nights sampling the delights of Southern California—warm breezes, fine wines, and a modernist home above Laurel Canyon, the entire package affirming your own self-importance.

For the Wohlstetters, the dream of every ambitious intellectual became reality. They enjoyed status and influence without actual responsibility, plus a handsome income without the tedium and grubbiness of actual work. Washington paid for their advice and counsel. Back in Santa Monica, meanwhile, a pictorial spread in Life magazine profiled their glamorous existence—Dr. and Mrs. Strangelove as exemplars of mid-century sophistication.

Robin describes Albert Wohlstetter as “the alpha male of strategic studies.” Roberta was the demure consort, displaying little of her husband’s penchant for “unbounded self-promotion.” Yet Robin credits her with the insight that became the basis for Albert’s rise to prominence. Albert fancied that he was smarter than Einstein. That didn’t make him the smartest person in the Wohlstetter household, however.

Roberta made her name with the publication of a single book. Appearing in 1962, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision remains to date the only work prepared under U.S. government contract to win the prestigious Bancroft Prize for history. When she wrote it, Roberta and Albert were both working at RAND, the think tank created by the Pentagon after World War II. In writing her book, therefore, Roberta was not engaged in a disinterested search for truth. Her purpose was to devise truths that might prove useful to RAND’s clients.

This she succeeded in doing. Roberta’s principal conclusion was that surprise was all but unavoidable, that “some version of Pearl Harbor would always reoccur.” The strategic imperative of the day was not to avert surprise, but to cope with it. A nuclear-armed adversary increased by orders of magnitude the challenges inherent in coping.

“Beholden to his wife’s own acumen,” Albert Wohlstetter seized upon Roberta’s insight and ran with it. “Albert’s major claim to fame,” writes Robin, “was his skeptical approach to stability in the thermonuclear age.” Yet the word skeptical doesn’t quite capture the tone that pervades Albert’s work. Ominous, menacing, precarious, foreboding, apocalyptic: These come closer. The title of his most famous essay—“The Delicate Balance of Terror”—neatly summarizes his recurring theme. With survival itself teetering on a knife-edge, doomsday was always one tiny misstep away.

In essence, Wohlstetter argued that knuckle-dragging generals back in the Pentagon, unable to grasp the intricacies of nuclear strategy, didn’t know what they were doing and were therefore putting the nation, if not the entire planet, at risk. For their part, the generals lapped up Albert’s critique. Here was an all-purpose rationale for newer and better weapons, for big staffs and bigger budgets, and for more contracts funding more studies that somehow always assessed the Soviet threat as more dangerous today than it had been yesterday while destined to become more dangerous still tomorrow. “The close, symbiotic relationship between researcher and funder,” writes Robin with considerable understatement, “had, in effect, militarized what was in essence a political problem.”

Albert demonstrated a particular talent for depicting a “relentless predatory enemy,” keen for the chance to catch America napping for even a half-second. Individuals speculating that the Soviet threat might fall short of existential were, in his estimation, guilty of “projecting their own wishful thinking.” That the assumptions informing his analysis might not withstand close scrutiny was simply impossible. To question Albert’s judgments was to become an enemy for life. His reflexive “response to criticism was vengeance.”

Yet despite his reputation for personal nastiness, Albert demonstrated a knack for attracting acolytes. Robin devotes the last third of The Cold World They Made to profiling three of the most prominent: Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Zalmay Khalilzad. After 9/11, this “next generation of Wohlstetter warriors” put their mentor’s insights to work by promoting and presiding over the debacle of the Iraq War. These abbreviated assessments come across as little more than filler, however. If anything, they distract attention from Robin’s punch line, which he buries at the book’s midpoint: Albert himself didn’t believe his own analysis. The alarmism that was the stock-in-trade for both Wohlstetters was entirely contrived.

Robin quotes from oral history interviews conducted with Albert in 1985. It turns out that Wohlstetter himself never subscribed to the notion of ten-foot-tall Soviets. Strategically, he said, they were “normally bright midgets.” Nor did Albert seriously believe that the Kremlin was plotting to launch a nuclear attack without warning. All the Soviets really wanted was to “forbid intervention by us” in Eastern Europe. When it came to the prospect of armed confrontation with the United States, caution governed Soviet behavior—and with good reason. After all, “their bombers were much less ready than [U.S. Strategic Air Command’s],” Albert acknowledged. “When they finally got missiles, they didn’t have any silos until 1965. When they got submarines, they were mostly in port and were extremely noisy.” Our side was always way ahead. We and they both knew it.

That same year, President Ronald Reagan awarded the Wohlstetters the Medal of Freedom. Reagan paid tribute to Roberta and Albert for making it “possible for us to start on a new path which can free mankind of the fear of nuclear holocaust.” Thanks to Ron Robin, we now know that their actual contribution was not to strategy and certainly not to the avoidance of war, but to the art of propaganda. Rather than freeing mankind from fear, they promoted it while simultaneously feathering their own comfortable nest.

How much has changed since the Wohlstetters passed themselves off as deep thinkers while actually functioning as well-compensated hirelings of the military-industrial complex? Sadly, not much. Today, the reflexive militarization of political problems to which Robin refers in passing continues apace. So too does the threat inflation that, for example, finds various commentators depicting the Islamic State or Vladimir Putin’s Russia as existential dangers. The inability (or refusal) to maintain a sense of proportion in evaluating threats has the effect of delegitimizing non-military policy alternatives.

Putin is not a “friend” of the West and never will be. Yet the onward expansion of NATO has been a needless provocation that plays directly into his hands, reviving among Russians nationalist sentiments that Putin exploits. Dealing effectively with Russia should begin with respecting the legitimacy of core Russian security interests. Not least among them is a determination to prevent any further encroachment by NATO into Russia’s near abroad.

ISIS quite definitely is an enemy of the West and must be destroyed. But its destruction will do little to address the factors that led to the rise of it, al-Qaeda, and other extremist groups in the first place. That’s the real strategic challenge that the United States faces in the greater Middle East—getting at root causes. Invasions, occupations, raids, and air strikes don’t address those causes and may indeed serve chiefly to exacerbate the problem.

Meanwhile, the constellation of entities, following in the path cleared by RAND, that produce “research” tainted by the interests of clients has expanded exponentially. Washington, D.C., is full of them: various centers and institutes with highfalutin names devoted to affirming the assumptions and arrangements that sustain the national security state. As if too preoccupied with today to contemplate tomorrow, the constituent parts of the national security state shovel money to contractors, confident that the questions they pose will elicit answers either justifying the status quo or at most proposing to tweak it ever so slightly. In either case, a rationale for the further expenditure of money is always included.

Thus, inexorably, does the gravy train roll on. While by no means the sole or the worst example of the corruption afflicting our system of government, the relationship between the national security apparatus and those hired to do its thinking cannot be termed anything other than corrupt. Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter taught us how it was done.

Andrew Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. His most recent book is America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.
Receive access
to all print & web
articles for