The Power of Restraint in the “Golden Age” of Arms Control: A Tribute to Thomas C. Schelling

Image of Thomas Schelling teaching at Harvard

Thomas Schelling’s passing last month represents a great loss to many in this community and beyond. He leaves a remarkably rich intellectual legacy. Among his many achievements, Schelling’s influence on the theory and practice of arms control cannot be overstated. He produced his seminal works on the subject—Strategy and Arms Control, published with Morton Halperin in 1961, and Arms and Influence, published in 1966—during his twelve years in residence at the Center for International Affairs (1959–1971). I had the pleasure of spending time with Professor Schelling at his home in Bethesda while researching my book on the history of the Center in 2005. Two things stood out from that conversation then, and perhaps even more so now in retrospect. First, Schelling was deeply committed to policy-relevant research, and his long life of work reflects that fact. Secondly—and relatedly—his work on the efficacy and control of nuclear weapons remains a singular benchmark for research in the field and a profoundly erudite and intelligent guide for today’s policy makers, just as it was for their predecessors some sixty years ago.

It was clear from the beginning of our conversation that Schelling had never conceived of his research in solely conjectural terms, despite his considerable theoretical contributions to the study of strategic behavior in a wide range of contexts—including arms control, racial segregation, climate change, and substance abuse. As he wrote in the preface to his essential 1960 essay collection on game theory, The Strategy of Conflict: “In my own thinking [pure and applied research] have never been separate.”[1] He was, he told me, “a completely policy-oriented person” throughout his professional life, a fact that is reflected in his early career trajectory.[2] Schelling took a leave from his Harvard graduate studies in 1948 to join the staff of the new European Recovery Program in Washington, before travelling to Copenhagen and Paris where he helped administer the Marshall Plan until 1951. With the establishment of the Mutual Security Agency in 1951, Schelling returned to Washington to assist in the management of the Truman administration’s revamped foreign aid programs. Having managed to finish his PhD dissertation amidst the demands of government service and returned to academia at Yale, he was a natural fit for Robert Bowie’s new Center for International Affairs. Bowie himself had served at the highest levels of the State Department before returning to Harvard, and he envisioned the Center as a critical node in a broader network of government-academic collaboration on foreign policy issues. Based on his own experience as director of policy planning in the State Department, Bowie believed that the Center could facilitate the kind of long-range research that policy makers urgently needed but seldom had the time to undertake.[3] He invited Schelling to join the Center’s core faculty in 1958, an offer which Schelling took up the following year after an invigorating interlude at the RAND Corporation in his native California.
Arms control therefore became a central feature of the CFIA’s research agenda, and Schelling was the fulcrum of that endeavor, along with founding Associate Director Henry Kissinger and a number of prominent intellectuals and strategists like Fred Ikle, who periodically engaged with the Center’s activities on arms control during the early 1960s. Schelling brought a lucid and rational sagacity to the problems of nuclear weapons strategy and arms control that some mistook for cold, technocratic indifference. Early advocates of nuclear disarmament like Irving L. Horowitz cast Schelling—and others who were inclined towards arms control rather than disarmament—as “new civilian militarists” who were callously invested in maintaining a Soviet-US “balance of terror.”[4] Yet if ever there was an issue and a time that demanded perspicacity and circumspection it was the question of nuclear weapons in 1960. There was an especially pressing need for judicious analysis after fifteen years of unbridled competition with the Soviet Union. That competition had intensified throughout the 1950s thanks to the fiery rhetoric of the Eisenhower administration’s Massive Retaliation doctrine and Khrushchev’s post-Sputnik boasts about prolific Soviet missile production. Schelling’s predisposition toward arms control—instead of outright disarmament—therefore reflected what he and others saw as the strategic, technological, and geopolitical realities of a nuclear arms race that was reaching a dangerous peak. “I don’t mind being called a Cold Warrior,” Schelling told me, “but I would insist that I wanted deterrence to work, in both directions, so that there could be no war, and I never felt I had to apologize for that.”[5]
A number of other factors made 1960–61 an auspicious moment for breakthrough research in Cambridge. Schelling had discovered during his time at RAND that there was a keen audience within the military for thoughtful strategic analysis on the use and control of nuclear weapons, and there was a growing recognition among those who paid close attention that calamity or miscalculation might induce the unthinkable. At the same time, the Kennedy White House was about to be staffed by a number of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors, many of whom were closely associated with CFIA faculty and their research. This politico-academic cross-pollination was exemplified by McGeorge Bundy. As dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Bundy had played a central role in the Center’s founding, and he was to become Kennedy’s national security advisor following the 1960 presidential election. At the same time, a critical mass of scholars who were actively engaged with questions of arms control and nuclear strategy was already present in the Cambridge area, and they were beginning to foster opportunities for research and publication.[6]

Image of Thomas Schelling quotation
A functional conception of mutual deterrence emerged from these multiple contexts. What critics derided as a “balance of terror,” Schelling and others understood to be a practical response to an intolerably precarious nuclear arms race that was susceptible to disastrous miscalculation, catastrophic accident, or the allure of a first-strike borne either of perceived weakness or superiority. Many of these macabre possibilities had become vividly apparent to Schelling in the course of his research and government service. His frequent consultations with the custodians of the United States’ strategic forces illuminated a whole range of unforeseen circumstances and oversights of sometimes head-slapping obviousness, whether it was gaming out the post-deployment flight-readiness of strategic air command crews in the event of a false alarm, or envisaging the value of an instant communication system between the Kremlin and the White House.[7]
Propelled by these kinds of questions, and bolstered by the intellectual and financial resources of Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Ford Foundation, Schelling published his seminal Strategy and Arms Control, co-authored with Morton Halperin, under the auspices of the Center in 1961. The book was conceived in part the previous year during a Harvard-MIT “Summer Study on Arms Control,” and Schelling and Halperin were able to workshop chapters with members of the new Harvard-MIT Joint Arms Control Seminar as they wrote during the fall of 1960. Participants included McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, Henry Rowen, Carol Kaysen, and Abram Chayes—all of whom would go on to important positions in the Kennedy White House. Schelling and Halperin made a sophisticated and multifaceted case for arms control at a time when the nuclear arms race fulminated without serious management or restraint. Their analysis ranged from the possibilities and problems of negotiated limitations to more intangible considerations of explicit and implicit gestures that might condition both Soviet and American behavior outside the scope of formal negotiations.[8]
Thanks to both fortuitous timing and the caliber of the seminar participants, Schelling recalled that they managed to have the book in the hands of Kennedy administration officials—many of whom had participated in the discussions—within two weeks of the inauguration.[9] Rarely can one trace so clearly and directly the influence of academic research on a presidential administration. Sixty years later, in the wake of yet another presidential inauguration, it seems like an opportune moment to revisit Schelling’s clear-headed wisdom on nuclear weapons. The new president seems to have more than a passing interest in nuclear weapons. His casual tweeted references to a new arms race, combined with impromptu statements in favor of nuclear proliferation, would suggest that he and his national security team could learn a great deal from Schelling and other participants in the so-called “golden age” of arms control.
David C. Atkinson, Assistant Professor of History, Purdue University.

To commemorate the Center’s fiftieth anniversary, Atkinson published a history of the CFIA’s first quarter century in 2007 entitled In Theory and in Practice: Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, 1958–1983 under the Weatherhead Center’s auspices. He has recently published his second book with the University of North Carolina Press entitled The Burden of White Supremacy: Containing Asian Migration in the British Empire and the United States.


[1] Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960), 6.
[2] Interview with the author, September 9, 2005.
[3] David C. Atkinson, In Theory and in Practice: Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, 1958-1983, 115-16.
[4] “Role of Experts on Arms Decried,” New York Times, May 26, 1963.
[5] Interview with the author, September 9, 2005.
[6] Interview with the author, September 9, 2005. See also Atkinson, In Theory and in Practice, 70-90.
[7] Interview with the author, September 9, 2005.
[8] Thomas C. Schelling & Morton H. Halperin, Strategy and Arms Control (New York: The Twentieth Century Fund, 1961).
[9] Interview with the author, September 9, 2005.

Photo Caption

Thomas Schelling received his PhD from Harvard in 1946 and joined the Harvard faculty in 1958. Credit: Martha Stewart