Arms and Influence by Thomas Schelling

I always wondered why the US didn’t just nuke the crap out of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Why did we waste four decades on empty threats?

Thomas Schelling wrote Arms and Influence in 1965, just after the crisis years. It’s a practical application of Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

War is a case of two parties negotiating the best collective outcome. Actions are motivated by deterrence (I don’t want you to do something) or coercion (I want you to do something you’re not doing). That’s all you need to know.


A lone student can singlehandedly stop a line of tanks by refusing to move. That’s deterrence. A tank can coerce the kid to move by cutting its brake lines, and telling him that the brake lines have been cut.

If the kid knows with 100% certainty that the tank has no brakes, he’ll get the hell out of the way because the deterrence strategy isn’t gonna work. However, maybe he thinks the tank is bluffing. Maybe he wants to stand around longer and call the bluff. Then they’re playing a game of chicken and that’s how you get the Cold War.

Important rule: Preserve your opponent’s assets*. Make sure they have a lot to lose. Power comes from the ability to destroy what the enemy can’t afford to lose. The threat of punishment is more powerful than the actual punishment. That is why we don’t bomb the crap out of everyone we want to coerce.

What made the Cold War scary was that Soviet leader Khruschev was insane. Or really good at faking insanity. He made it clear that he was happy to nuke the US even if it meant his own country might get wiped off the map. It’s hard to fight with someone who has nothing to lose.

We couldn’t have wiped the Soviet Union off the map though. It takes two parties to end a war.

*There were ancient Crusades and massacres where cities were burned to the ground. That’s mostly attributed to soldiers in the heat of war. In a calmer mind, they might find that the conquered cities contain nice things they could take home to their wives. And maybe the citizens could be kept as slaves.


See Also:
My Alarming Interview with Khruschev –LIFE July 13, 1959
(This one is worth looking at if only because magazine ads from 1959 are funny)

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