Volume 16: Game Theory and the Nuclear Age: Part II

How About a Nice Game of Chess?

“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” – President Merkin Muffley, Dr. Strangelove


The 1960s were perhaps the most dangerous period in our history. At the height of the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union fought for influence on five continents. The Berlin Crisis, Bay of Pigs, and Cuban Missile Crisis flowed to escalation in Vietnam and the bellicose leaderships of Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev.

The world of the Sixties existed every day in the shadow of nuclear weapons. Increasingly powerful and reliable, ready to launch from airplanes, missile silos and submarines. By the end of the decade, the superpowers felt obligated to possess nearly 40,000 bombs, enough to destroy the world many times over.

Somehow – and sometimes despite our best efforts – there was no nuclear holocaust. This is the story of how we avoided it and of whether we’ll be able to in the future.

  • What is Mutually Assured Destruction?

  • What are the problems with MAD?

  • Will this game work in the modern nuclear paradigm?


Your author cautions you (same as in Volume 14):

Nuclear weapons are terrible things. This is true in all of the word’s meanings. Terrible: extremely bad, as in “a terrible movie.” Terrible: formidable in nature, as in “a terrible responsibility.” Terrible: extreme or great, as in “a terrible disappointment.” Nuclear weapons are not to be trifled with, joked about or handled except with extreme care.

Which is all to say – this Volume will prominently feature death, destruction, fallout, nuclear winters and the end of the human race. We will flippantly talk about the gruesome deaths of millions and even billions. We will explicitly do this through the lens of a game, winning and losing, keeping score of the destruction. We will not modify our usual style of writing or the ongoing attempts at mild humor. We are not focused on the morality of these weapons, their development or their use. Except in the paragraphs immediately following.

The previous five hundred years have been a period of steady human advancement with no major steps back. It was inevitable that we would learn about the power of the atom. Every man, woman and child is innately aware of this power. It stares you in the face every day, from sunrise to sunset. We were going to learn about radioactivity, fission and fusion and chain reactions. It necessarily follows that we would try to harness this power. Even with knowledge of their destructive potential, we were eventually going to develop nuclear weapons capabilities. They are a by-product of these five centuries of discoveries about the Universe we live in.

Morality comes only after development: how can these weapons be controlled to prevent their use? The two decades after the Trinity Test were not just a scramble to build bigger bombs, but also to develop these controls. Game theory contains the most effective controls we’ve found. And we can only learn the game theory of nuclear weapons by repeatedly simulating the destruction of the world.

Only by understanding these weapons can we prevent their use.



What is Mutually Assured Destruction?

We left off in Volume 14 discussing the classic problems of game theory and this is where we will pick up. Recall that in game theory, Players (two of them, in our examples) make decisions from a set of choices, each called a “Strategy.” All the Players try to maximize their “Utility,” a generic measure of value, usually represented by a single number. Players in game theory are always assumed to act rationally. In some games, Players are allowed to communicate before choosing their Strategies. If you need a longer refresher on game theory basics, I encourage you to look back at Part I.

In game theory, Global Thermonuclear War is closest to Chicken, so we will start there. In classical Chicken, two drivers are headed towards a cliff and each must decide to Swerve First or Swerve Last. If both Swerve First, the game is a draw. If both Swerve Last, they drive off the cliff and are killed.(1) Table 1 shows the outcomes for our first game of Chicken:

The most important feature of Chicken is that the “Crash” outcome is far worse than the “Lose” outcome. This makes sense: the slight embarrassment you feel from swerving First is a better than the death you feel from driving off the cliff. Therefore, if you think that your opponent will swerve Last, you should swerve First. Even if you aren’t certain what he(2) will do, a significant likelihood of his choosing Swerve Last should make you cautious. Using the game theoretic terminology, the Nash Equilibriums of Chicken are where exactly one player swerves.(3)

Strategic Deterrence has been an element of warfare for most of history, long before the term was coined. The idea is simple: your nation-state tells all the others that, if attacked, you will respond disproportionally – usually against their homeland as well as their military forces. Knowing the losses they would experience, anyone thinking of attacking you will think twice. If this potential response is deadly enough, it will not be in their best interests to begin a war. Therefore, if they are rational Players, they will not attack you and peace is preserved.

Strategic Deterrence only works if the threat is credible. Napoleon couldn’t keep England off the European continent because he couldn’t credibly threaten a crossing of the English Channel.(4) Imperial Japan was forced to open its borders to Matthew Perry’s Black Ships. Japan’s Navy of the 1850s was archaic, making Perry’s threat credible. In World War II, strategic bombing took deterrence to new heights. The firebombing of Dresden on February 14/15, 1945 killed at least 22,700 people, rendered at least 100,000 homeless and destroyed the entire city. The Allies lost only eight of the more than 2,000 warplanes sent against Dresden.(5)

But the disparate damage caused by raids in 1945 obscures the experience in World War II up to that point. When Germany (or, for that matter, England) had active fighter defenses, the bombers did not always get through.(6) In the British Bomber Comm