During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union wielded enormous arsenals of nuclear weapons. Citizens of the world lived in fear that the conflict would someday heat up, resulting in a devastating nuclear war that would destroy the world. Into this confusion and terror stepped the RAND Corporation and a team of Game Theory experts. Did Game Theory stop Mutually Assured Destruction and save mankind?
Game Theory: The Prisoner’s Dilemma?
The chart above represents the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” In this game, two men are arrested for various crimes. However, the police lack enough information to make the main crime stick. So, the police separate the men and offer them both the same deal. If one prisoner confesses while the other one doesn’t, the confessor will go free while the other prisoner will serve a full 20 year sentence. If both prisoners confess, they will each receive a ten year term. However, if both prisoners keep quiet, they will each be charged with a lesser crime and receive a one year term. This is a one-time situation and the prisoners are not told of each other’s decision. What should they do?
Game Theory: Solving the Prisoner’s Dilemma?
If Prisoner B confesses, Prisoner A’s best strategy is to confess as well since 10 years is a shorter term than 20 years. If Prisoner B doesn’t confess, Prisoner A’s best strategy is still to confess since being free is better than a year in prison. Thus, Prisoner A’s best choice is to confess. Knowing this, Prisoner B will do the same thing and they will both go to jail for 10 years. What makes this game interesting is that the prisoners would be better off if they both kept quiet. And yet, logic dictates that they both confess instead.
Game Theory & Mutually Assured Destruction?
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were in a nuclear stand-off. So, the RAND Corporation hired some of the world’s top game theorists to study the situation. At the time, both nations had the same policy: “If one side launched a first strike, the other threatened to answer with a devastating counter-strike.”
This became known as Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD for short. And indeed, the idea of this happening was “mad” since it could’ve brought about a nuclear winter. However, game theorists were worried about Mutually Assured Destruction. They thought the two countries had boxed themselves into a prisoner’s dilemma that could threaten mankind’s very existence. Here’s how it worked:
“Suppose the USSR launches a first strike against the USA. At that point, the American President finds his country already destroyed. He doesn’t bring it back to life by now blowing up the world, so he has no incentive to carry out his original threat to retaliate, which has now manifestly failed to achieve its point. Since the Russians can anticipate this, they should ignore the threat to retaliate and strike first. Of course, the Americans are in an exactly symmetric position, so they too should strike first. Each power will recognize this incentive on the part of the other, and so will anticipate an attack if they don’t rush to preempt it. What we should therefore expect…is a race between the two powers to be the first to attack.” ~ Don Ross
Strategies to Deter Mutually Assured Destruction
This analysis led the RAND Corporation to recommend the United States taking actions designed to show their commitment to Mutually Assured Destruction. One strategy was to ensure that “second-strike capability” existed. A second strategy was to make leaders appear irrational. The CIA portrayed President Nixon as insane and/or a drunk. The KGB, which appears to have come to the same conclusion as RAND, responded by fabricating medical records to show that General Secretary Brezhnev was senile.
Another strategy was to introduce uncertainty at stopping Stop Mutually Assured Destruction. For example, by building more nuclear missiles and storing them in numerous locations, it was less likely that the President could stop all of them from being launched in the event of a Russian attack. A third strategy was to ensure Mutually Assured Destruction. Russia went so far as to create Perimeter, or Dead Head, which was the closest thing this world’s ever seen to a doomsday machine.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
So, did the game theorists save the world from Mutually Assured Destruction? Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll never know for certain. But advancements in game theory have shown that the Cold War models weren’t really accurate. Nuclear war was usually modeled as a one-time game. But as long as one preserved second strike capabilities, the “game” would’ve been played over and over again with both sides exchanging repeated waves of missiles.
The outcome of nuclear war is the same whether one initiates an attack or responds to it. And since this outcome is worse than “no nuclear war,” the optimal move is to not launch missiles. Of course, this depends on a number of assumptions. Second-strike capabilities must be available and known to the other side. Both sides must have perfection detection equipment since a false positive like the one recognized by the heroic Stanislav Petrov could lead to nuclear war. Perfectly rational leaders must be in place. And finally, both sides must be unable to defend an incoming attack.
Still, one could argue that the game theorists were on the right track. By making it clear that retaliation was more likely than not, both nations managed to discourage each other from ever launching a single missile. Then again, it was never clear that the maximum payoff for either side was to destroy its enemy while avoiding its own destruction. Indeed, maybe the games being played weren’t just between nations but rather, within them as well.
“A wise cynic might suggest that the operations researchers on both sides were playing a cunning strategy in a game over funding, one that involved them cooperating with one another in order to convince their politicians to allocate more resources to weapons.” ~ Don Ross