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Mutually Assured Destruction? Game Theory and the Cold War

http://www.historytoday.com/john-swift/soviet-american-arms-race

The Cold War, born out of the aftermath of World War II, was characterized by a state of political and military tension between primarily the United States and the Soviet Union, breaking the former alliance between two superpowers strongly divided over economic and political ideologies.  While the two nations never clashed directly on the battlefield throughout this time, their competition for nuclear supremacy resulted in the ever-present threat of an all-out nuclear war between the two nations and their allies.

This quickly became a scenario in which neither nation could gain the upper hand through a nuclear bombardment; the repercussions would be too devastating, as the opposing nation would be in possession of the same weapons and would be completely capable of issuing a counterattack via second strike.  This doctrine is referred to as Mutually Assured Destruction, which is founded strongly in game theory and is, in itself, a form of Nash equilibrium in which both sides neither have any incentive to initiate a conflict nor to disarm.  In such a game, both players must assume the other is only concerned with their own self-interest and as such, will limit risk by adopting a dominant strategy.  If the balance of power was swayed by one nation building an excess of bomb shelters or a missile defense system (such as the proposed “Star Wars” project), it might have violated the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction and consequently initiated a nuclear war.  Thus both nations worked to prevent such imbalances, such as targeting enemy missile silos being built while hiding their own nuclear armaments on land, sea, and sky.  In addition, the US and USSR also held various negotiations during which they discussed weapons control and the possibility of disarmament.  These meetings could be considered repeated games which promoted cooperation while punishing defection.  Eventually, these repeated conferences lead to a degree of trust and disarmament between the two powers.

Beyond specifically the Cold War, wars in general are abounding with instances in which game theory could be applied.  When Japan plotted its preemptive strike on Pearl Harbor during World War II, it was ploy in hopes of keeping the United States out of the Pacific Theater.  Instead, their plan backfired and resulted in perhaps one of the largest military mobilizations in history.  Later in the war, Japan also made consecutive incorrect decisions in regard to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  When the United States warned Japan of their nuclear missiles, the latter simply assumed it was a bluff.  This cost the Japanese dearly when Little Boy was dropped over Hiroshima soon after, blowing a third of the city completely off the map.  When the United States subsequently demanded Japan surrender again, Japan still did not concede, resulting in Fat Man being dropped on Nagasaki with similar consequences.  Only then did Japan surrender.  However, at that instant, the United States was left with no more atomic bombs to bombard Japan with anyway.  The most harmonious conclusion would have occurred had Japan simply conceded in the beginning.

Thankfully, the US and USSR made the right decision by not acting out the final stage of their game.  Otherwise, there’d be needless to say a lot fewer people around today.

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