If Henry Kissinger had died last Friday, the weekend newspapers and television programs would have devoted considerable space to his obituary and his remembrances during the weekend. It was Albert Wohlstetter, though, who died in his home in the Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles. He was 83. The New York Times did not catch up with the news until Tuesday, when it ran a photo and 15-inch obit of him on page B8. The headline read “Albert Wohlstetter, 83, Expert On U.S. Nuclear Strategy, Dies.” In fact, of the two men, Wohlstetter and Kissinger, it is no exaggeration to say that Wohlstetter was the more influential. It is no exaggeration, I think, to say that Wohlstetter was the most influential unknown man in the world for the past half century, and easily in the top ten in importance of all men. The headline said “Expert on Nuclear Strategy.” He was The Expert on nuclear strategy. Dating back to 1951, when he worked as a senior policy analyst for the Rand Corporation, he steadily moved to the edge of the nation’s nuclear chessboard, and from the mid-1960s, Albert never had a serious challenger at the top of that intellectual pyramid, right up until the end of the Cold War. He remained unknown, except to the inner circles of power in our country, because he saw no need to become a public man when his function was to design the grand strategy that would bring military victory over the Soviet Union without a nuclear shot having to be fired. Albert’s decisions were not automatically made official policy at the White House from the Johnson presidency forward. A nuclear chessplayer cannot move pieces as easily as that. But Albert’s genius and his following were such in the places where it counted in the Establishment that if his views were resisted for more than a few months, it was an oddity. Not only did he have a mainframe computer in his head -- the Times tells us he earned a master’s degree in mathematical logic from Columbia University in 1938 -- he also had direct access to the most secret of all information available in the U.S. government.
In Monday’s Wall Street Journal, editor Robert L. Bartley took note of Wohlstetter’s death by reprinting a 1991 account of his long association with Wohlstetter. It gave only hints of the extraordinary role Albert played during the most critical years of the Cold War, which was then just coming to an end. It did point out that two of the most public men of the last three decades who have been identified with shaping strategic counterforce policy, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, were Albert’s protégés. If you would connect the dots to others who were under Wohlstetter’s spell, you would soon find the late Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson, Senator Robert Dole, and in London, Margaret Thatcher. For all practical purposes, every editorial on America’s geopolitical strategy that appeared in The Wall Street Journal during the last 25 years was the product of Albert’s genius. If Henry Kissinger was the principal leader of the “dove team” in foreign policy over much of this period, stressing diplomatic strategems, Wohlstetter was the undisputed leader of the “hawk team,” which stressed military moves of breathtaking creativity and imagination. While the Soviets built bigger and bigger intercontinental ballistic missiles at enormous cost, Albert often stressed feints and parries to offset those advantages, at little or no cost. Albert and his wife Roberta, who survives him, worked as a team during this last half century, and the pair received the Medal of Freedom from President Reagan in 1985. President Reagan’s “end game” with Moscow in the Cold War, replete with “Star Wars” initiatives and the idea of targeting Soviet missile silos with inexpensive “smart bombs” that were chemical, not nuclear, were all advanced as part of the bag of tricks Albert and Roberta brought to the table. Mr. Reagan cited them for their “great contributions to the security of the United States,” and that Wohlstetter had been “influential in helping to design and employ our nuclear forces.”
Here are excerpts of the obituary Eric Pace wrote for the Tuesday NYTimes:
Mr. Wohlstetter’s career as a strategic analyst was guided by certain key principles, including his conviction that the United States should be able to control its military forces in such a way as to permit varying the American response to foreign aggression according to the circumstances. The goal of such control, he felt, was to insure that the United States would not be obliged to mount an initial nuclear attack on the Soviet Union -- known to military analysts as a “first strike” but would have a variety of options instead...
Soon after he joined Rand (in 1951), a colleague there, Charles Hitch -- who later became an Assistant Secretary of Defense under Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara in the 1960s -- suggested that Mr. Wohlstetter carry out a research project about the selection and use of strategic air bases -- that is, air bases for nuclear bombers. There were no nuclear missiles until the mid-1950s.
James Digby, a friend of Mr. Wohlstetter who worked with him at Rand, recalled yesterday that Mr. Wohlstetter’s paper “resulted in a change of Strategic Air Command’s basing policy so that bombers were based far from the Soviet Union, and their bases, highly protected. This in turn led to the ability to strike back even after receiving a first attack by the Soviets.”
This is all the tip of the iceberg. In the 1970s, Albert’s chessplaying in the Middle East helped lure Moscow into its costly adventure in Afghanistan. The defense buildup in the Reagan years was presided over by Albert’s protégés, Perle and Wolfowitz, who were brought into the Defense Department. When Moscow finally threw in the towel and the Berlin Wall came down, those of us who considered ourselves on Albert’s team, in the sense that we were happy to have him doing our thinking on these matters of profound importance, wondered if he would ever get the credit he deserves. Bartley had begged him to write his memoirs, but Albert believed there was too much work yet to be done, to nail into place the security he helped bring to the world. In his last years, I became an occasional critic of Wohlstetter, on the grounds that the post-Cold War world should shift sharply from military chessplaying to diplomatic and economic stratagems. Albert, after all, never evinced much interest in foreign economic policy. That does not subtract from my belief that in the last half century, taken as a whole, there was no greater national asset for the free world than Albert Wohlstetter. Rest in peace, Albert, a peace we might not have had without your intellectual energy, creativity and genius.