Moral Choices Without Moral Language: 1950s Political-Military Wargaming at the RAND Corporation (Fall 2021)
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The RAND Corporation was the site of early-Cold War knowledge production. Its scientists laid the foundations of nuclear deterrence, game theoretic approaches to international politics, defense acquisition, and theories on the future of war. The popularized understanding of RAND as filled with cold, detached rationalists who casually discussed killing millions with no moral abhorrence misses the immense contestation in the early 1950s between the mathematics and the social sciences divisions, which sought to understand the impact of nuclear weapons on war and international politics. To do so, they created the first political-military simulations, called the “Cold War Games.” The games had divergent outcomes, with the mathematicians quick to launch nuclear weapons and the social scientists acting with nuclear restraint. The key difference in the game models was a high degree of realism in the social science game that engaged the players’ emotions. This immersive experience had lasting effects beyond the game itself as defense intellectuals bore the weight of decision-making and confronted the catastrophic consequences of using nuclear weapons. The role of emotion is central to both ethics and decision-making, and is essential for wargaming today, yet often remains excluded in rational theories of nuclear deterrence.