Albert Wohlstetter

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Albert Wohlstetter
Born December 19, 1913
New York, New York, USA
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Los Angeles, USA
Alma mater City College of New York
Columbia University
Known for The Delicate Balance of Terror[2]

Albert Wohlstetter (December 19, 1913 – January 10, 1997) was an influential and controversial nuclear strategist during the Cold War. He and his wife Roberta Wohlstetter, an accomplished historian and intelligence expert, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan on November 7, 1985. He was one of the inspirations for the film Dr. Strangelove.[1]


A native of New York, New York, Wohlstetter earned degrees from the City College of New York and Columbia University in the 1930s. During the 1940s, he worked with the War Production Board, at Atlas Aircraft Products Company and, after World War II, at the General Panel Corporation of California.

From 1951 to 1963, he served first as a consultant and later as a senior policy analyst for the RAND Corporation, and maintained his affiliation with RAND for years afterward. At RAND, he researched how to posture and operate U.S. strategic nuclear forces to deter plausible forms of Soviet nuclear-armed aggression in way that was credible, cost-effective and controllable.[2]

Wohlstetter's 1958 'The Delicate Balance of Terror' was highly influential in shaping the thinking of the Washington foreign policy establishment, particularly in its emphasis on the looming threat of Soviet attack.[3]

In the 1960s and 1970s, he expanded the scope of his research to include alliance policy and nuclear nonproliferation,[4] ballistic missile defense,[5] innovation in military technology,[6] peacetime military competitions,[7] and military potential and economics of civil nuclear energy.[8]

In the 1980s, Wohlstetter frequently criticized proponents of mutual assured destruction who supported targeting of nuclear weapons on civilians and cities instead over enemy combatants and military forces.[9]

Wohlstetter and his wife, Roberta Wohlstetter, also counseled both Democratic and Republican administrations, including advisers to President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.[10] They received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan on November 7, 1985.

During his long career, Wohlstetter also taught at UCLA and the University of California, Berkeley, in the early 1960s. From 1964 to 1980, he taught in the political science department of the University of Chicago, and chaired the dissertation committees of Paul Wolfowitz and Zalmay Khalilzad. He is often credited with influencing a number of prominent members of the neoconservative movement,[11] including Richard Perle (who, as a teenager, dated Wohlstetter's daughter Joan).[12] He is the uncle of John Wohlstetter, author of Sleepwalking with the Bomb and The Long War Ahead and The Short War Upon Us.[13]


Wohlstetter died in Los Angeles in 1997 at the age of 83.


  1. For Wolfowitz, a Vision May Be Realized , Michael Dobbs, The Washington Post, April 7, 2003.
  2. See Albert Wohlstetter, et al., Selection and the Use of Strategic Air Bases, a report prepared for United States Air Force Project RAND, R-266 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, April 1954); Wohlstetter, et al., Protecting U.S. Power to Strike Back in the 1950s and 1960s, staff report, R-290 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, September 1, 1956); and Wohlstetter, "The Delicate Balance of Terror," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 37, No. 2 (January 1959), pp. 211-234.
  3. Andrew Bacevich, 'Tailors to the Emperor', New Left Review 69, May–June 2011, p. 108 [1]
  4. See Albert Wohlstetter, "Nuclear Sharing: NATO and the N+1 Country," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 39, No. 3 (April 1961), pp. 355-387.
  5. See Albert Wohlstetter, "The Case for Strategic Force Defense," in Johan Jørgen Holst and William Schneider, Jr., eds., Why ABM? Policy Issues in the Missile Defense Controversy (New York, NY: Pergamon Press, 1969), pp. 119-142.
  6. See D. A. Paolucci, Summary Report of the Long Range Research and Development Planning Program (LRRDPP), DRAFT, February 7, 1975, declassified on December 31, 1983.
  7. See Albert Wohlstetter, "Racing Forward? Or Ambling Back?," in Robert Conquest, ed., Defending America (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1977).
  8. See Albert Wohlstetter, et al., Moving Toward Life in a Nuclear Armed Crowd?, final report prepared for the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in fulfillment of ACDA/PAB-263, PH76-04-389-14 (Los Angeles, CA: PAN Heuristics, December 4, 1975 [revised April 22, 1976]); and Wohlstetter, et al., Swords from Plowshares: The Military Potential of Civilian Nuclear Energy (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979).
  9. See Albert Wohlstetter, "Bishops, Statesmen, and Other Strategists on the Bombing of Innocents," Commentary, Vol. 75, No. 6 (June 1983), pp. 15-35; Wohlstetter, "Between an Unfree World and None: Increasing Our Choices," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 63, No. 5 (Summer 1985), pp. 962-994; and Wohlstetter, "Swords Without Shields," The National Interest, No. 9 (Summer 1987), pp. 31-57. In 2003, two French journalists writing for Le Monde (Paris) tried to summarize Wohlstetter's ideas on nuclear strategy. They wrote that Wohlstetter:

    was at the origin of the rethinking of the traditional doctrine known as 'mutual assured destruction' (MAD, in its English acronym), which was the basis for nuclear deterrence. According to this theory, two blocs capable of inflicting upon each other irreparable damages would cause leaders to hesitate to unleash the nuclear fire. For Wohlstetter and his pupils, MAD was both immoral -- because of the destruction inflicted on civilian populations -- and ineffective: it led to the mutual neutralization of nuclear arsenals. No statesman endowed with reason, and in any case no American president, would decide on 'reciprocal suicide.' Wohlstetter proposed on the contrary a 'graduated deterrence,' i.e. the acceptance of limited wars, possibly using tactical nuclear arms, together with 'smart' precision-guided weapons capable of hitting the enemy's military apparatus. He criticized the politics of nuclear arms limitations conducted together with Moscow. It amounted, according to him, to constraining the technological creativity of the United States in order to maintain an artificial equilibrium with the USSR.

  10. On February 25, 1963, the Wohlstetters published "Studies for a Post-Communist Cuba." See Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter, Studies for a Post-Communist Cuba, D(L)-11060-ISA (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, February 25. 1963).
  11. See Craig Unger, The Fall of the House of the Bush, London: Pocket Books, 2008, p. 42. "Thanks in large part to Wohlstetter, to his methodology, his demeanor, his political know-how, proto-neocons learned how to turn their ideas into political action."
  12. Unger, 2008, p. 42.
  13. "Reviews: Praise for The Long War Ahead". Retrieved 2014-05-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


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