Salute to the Cold War game theorists

The new field of game theory had already provoked several re-thinks about nuclear policy in the 1950s and 1960s, and that’s what saved us. In the 1950s, game theorist John von Neumann understood that nuclear weapons imposed an existential crisis on humanity, and required a completely different attitude towards conflict. He developed the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), based on concepts of rational deterrence and the Nash equilibrium. By the time he died in 1957, he’d taught the Pentagon policy-makers that if the U.S. and the Soviet Union could utterly destroy each other even after one launched a nuclear first strike, there could be no rational incentive for nuclear war. This was the most important insight in applied psychology, ever. You don’t have to feel emotional sympathy with the enemy; you only have to expect that he will act in accordance with his perceived costs, benefits, and risks. The more certain he is that a nuclear assault will result in his own extermination, the less likely he is to launch one.


So, even before I was born, the game theorists had tamed the existential threat of nuclear weapons through some simple psychological insights. We must respect the enemy’s rationality even if we cannot sympathize with his ideals. We must understand his costs and benefits even if we don’t share his fears and hopes. We must behave rationally enough that we don’t attack first (which would be suicidal) – yet we must act crazy and vengeful enough that the enemy thinks we’ll retaliate if we’re attacked, even after it would be futile and spiteful (Robert Frank nicely explained this deterrence logic in his classic book Passions within Reason.) And we must understand that if both players do this, both will be safe.

It's not Memorial Day, it's Veterans Day, but this piece on appreciating the Cold War game theorists still felt timely.