Moral Choices Without Moral Language: 1950s Wargaming at The RAND Corporation

Wednesday, May 26, 2021
11:30 AM - 12:30 PM

Virtual Seminar

* Please note all CISAC events are scheduled using the Pacific Time Zone.


Seminar Recording:


About the Event: What can wargames tell us about the ethics of decision-making under the threat of nuclear escalation? The “Cold War Game” (CWG) that took place from 1954-1956 at the RAND Corporation offers insights into the origins of deterrence and the dilemmas of contemplating the possible futures of war with rare events or little empirical data through the method of gaming. Based on extensive archival research at RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, CA, this project identifies the methodological and epistemological issues faced by early systems analysts and social scientists in attempting to link political and economic issues to traditional military wargaming in the nuclear era. The CWG sought to both quantify the non-rational or social dimensions of nuclear decision-making as well as develop psychological insights, to recognize the ways that propaganda and psychology were used as techniques of warfare alongside the quantitative and rational analytics of game theory. I argue that discussions of the ethics of nuclear weapons were sidelined throughout the Cold War for nuclear strategists and my questions examine how ethics functioned even it its absence of explicit discourse. Nevertheless, a kind of ethical restraint became implicit throughout the CWG that tempered even the most bellicose players through the process of physical play by forcing strategists to face the weight of their decisions. Differing epistemological approaches to the game from the social science division and the mathematics/economics division at RAND offers a unique empirical test to compare qualitative and quantitative approaches to wargaming operating within the same context of uncertainty in the early Cold War period. The conclusions of this study offers insights for contemporary dilemmas of AI and wargaming the future of war today. Ultimately, the project offers both an in-depth look at the origins of the political-military wargames and interjects with the larger questions of how abstraction and technostrategic language enables and constrains the acceptable discourse for decision-making in the face of nuclear brinksmanship.



About the Speaker: John R. Emery is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. He received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Irvine and then became a Tobis Fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center for the Scientific Study of Ethics and Morality at UC Irvine. His research agenda is at the intersection of security studies, ethics of war, and science and technology studies. His previous work on drones, ethics, AI, and counter-terrorism has been published in Law & Policy, Critical Military Studies, Ethics & International Affairs, and Peace Review. His current research agenda explores issues of human-machine interaction in the U.S. national security context analyzing both historical and contemporary cases.