Making sense of deadly games

Profile: Thomas Schelling


Forget about game theory and focal points and all the other intellectual achievements that got the University of Maryland's Thomas C. Schelling the Nobel Prize in economics last week. For many, the fact that he played a key role in nurturing the movie Dr. Strangelove would be enough to qualify him for that honor.

Many see this searing send-up of nuclear gamesmanship as one of the best films ever made. Released in 1964, it illustrated the types of Cold War bargaining strategies that led to Schelling's Nobel, making clear the absurdity of ever using nuclear weapons, reinforcing a taboo that was becoming the norm in Washington.

Schelling, then at Harvard, got involved in 1960. That was the year he wrote The Strategy of Conflict, considered a seminal document of Cold War negotiations.

He also wrote an article on the possibility of a nuclear war starting by accident, which included a review of three books that postulated such an occurrence - On the Beach by Nevil Shute, Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank and Red Alert by Peter George.

Schelling was particularly impressed by Red Alert, recalling that he sent out over more than 30 copies of the 35-cent paperback to friends.

His article, titled "Meteors, Mischief and War," appeared in the September 1960 issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In it, Schelling lauds Red Alert for presenting a plausible scenario for an accidental war that "exceeds in thoughtfulness any nonfiction available on how war might start."

Director Stanley Kubrick, working on a movie in England, saw the review when it was reprinted in a London Sunday newspaper, The Observer. He contacted George, asking him to write a screenplay based on his book.

Kubrick and George got in touch with Schelling. Along with fellow nuclear theorists Morton Halperin and William Kaufman, they sat around for an afternoon and evening dealing with a quandary - Red Alert had been written in 1958, before intercontinental ballistic missiles became the primary delivery system for nuclear weapons, which changed the plausibility of its scenario based on bombers.

"We had a hell of a time getting that damn war started," Schelling says. "We finally decided that it couldn't happen unless there was somebody crazy in the Air Force. That's when Kubrick and Peter George decided they would have to do it as what they called a nightmare comedy."

Schelling had been hoping for a serious movie. "The book was a very serious study; there was nothing funny in it at all," he says. But, like generations of moviegoers, he was not disappointed in the result that came out in 1964.

"I was a little sorry they couldn't do it without making it a black comedy, but I think it got the point across," he says.

The point was one that Schelling had made in The Strategy of Conflict - that by limiting your options you can actually improve your bargaining position. Imagine two drivers headed toward one another in a game of chicken. If one driver takes his steering wheel off and holds it out the window, showing the other driver, he has limited his options. But he has increased the possibility that the other driver will turn away.

That was what the Soviets had done in Dr. Strangelove with a doomsday machine that would destroy the Earth in the event of a nuclear attack. The problem was that they had never announced it publicly - they had not held the steering wheel out the window.

Schelling, 84, graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1944 and received his Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University in 1951. He worked in the office of the budget during World War II, and after the war went to Europe to work on the Marshall Plan. From 1951 to 1953, he was an adviser in the Truman White House.

He then joined the faculty at Yale, spent a year at the Rand Corp., and returned to Harvard in 1959, staying there until 1990, when he came to the University of Maryland, College Park, where he is now distinguished university professor emeritus in the department of economics and School of Public Affairs.

The day after learning that he had shared the Nobel Prize for economics with Israeli Robert J. Aumann, Schelling was interviewed by The Sun about his long career.

You received the Nobel for economics, yet you have spent most of your life dealing with questions such as nuclear war and drug abuse and residential segregation that seem outside the bounds of that field. Do you consider yourself an economist?

I used to say that I could still pass the Ph.D. examinations in economics. I think I'm a pretty good economist, but I got into so many other things so many years ago. So, I still consider myself a card-carrying economist, but I recognize most of what I work on is considered outside the field.

Economic reasoning will carry you a long way, so training as an economist is good training for working on a large variety of social issues. And one of the good things about getting tenure at a university is you don't have to do what they tell you to, you can work on what you want to.

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