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Vol. 07, No. 2


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Solving puzzles, making the world safer

Telling the story of a Nobel Prize winner

Upon graduating from North Dakota State University in 1967, Robert Dodge did the things lots of people do after graduating: served in the military, got a job as a history teacher, earned a master's degree in education. He later took time off from teaching to attend Harvard in pursuit of a master's degree in public administration at the Kennedy School of Government, where he had the good fortune to meet the economist Thomas Schelling. This teacher-student relationship became a friendship and a collaboration, and eventually led to a book about Schelling, an influential but not widely known adviser during tense years after World War II. Here is a bit about Dodge's experience with writing a biography of Schelling, who received the 2005 Nobel Prize for Economics.

It was 1957 when the bespectacled economics professor from Yale first spent a summer in Santa Monica, California, at a site where workers gathered during their lunch breaks to entertain themselves by playing a challenging blind-chess game called Kriegspiel. The game required two chessboards with a barrier between them, so the players could only see their own boards and pieces. The contestants made moves against blank spaces, and only found whether those moves were allowed or they had captured opponents' pieces when told so by the third person, the referee. Halfway around the world at Baikonur in Kazakhastan, workers were entertaining themselves in a more raucous manner, by throwing pairs of scorpions in large glass jars and watching them fight to the death. It is appropriate both were entertained by combat. The Kriegspiel world Thomas C. Schelling had come to was the RAND Corporation, the think tank where elite civilian strategists worked on military strategy, focusing on nuclear war. The Soviet workers were at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, preparing a launch pad.

One thing Schelling brought with him to that isolated world was a knowledge of game theory, the study of interactive decision making by rational decision makers. That knowledge would be recognized when the man with a ready smile and a twinkle in his eye was awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2005. The Prize would bring his profound yet quiet influence public attention. Schelling had liked solving puzzles from his early days and that joy of solving puzzles led him to study economics, as the Great Depression seemed the most challenging puzzle to take on. That 1957 fall Sputnik went up, and Schelling's focus changed. As Paul Samuelson, first American winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics said, "Once the vital game of survival in a nuclear age challenged Schelling's attention, mere economics could no longer contain him." He was back at RAND then on to Harvard, and was soon the leading nuclear strategist of the time. A RAND document states, he "established the basic conceptual structure of deterrence theory. In fact, one could go farther. Schelling's ideas are at the heart of the complex, counterintuitive logic of mutually assured destruction, which has underpinned American nuclear and arms-control strategy for four decades."

The year he moved to Harvard, John Kennedy was elected president. It was the most dangerous time in history and this little-known strategist helped the world survive. Now there is great concern because North Korea has tested a nuclear device and Iran might be working on one. When Shelling became involved in nuclear strategy, the United States was producing an average of 70 nuclear weapons per day. America's nuclear arsenal reached a high point in explosive power of 40 trillion pounds of TNT in the early 1960s. A pound of TNT would bring down a plane and the United States had more than 13,000 pounds of TNT for every man, woman and child on the face of the earth. The Soviets had larger bombs but not quite as many, but would catch and eventually surpass the United States. As Albert Einstein had observed years earlier when Truman decided to go ahead with development of the hydrogen bomb, "annihilation of any life on Earth has been brought within the range of technical possibilities ... General annihilation beckons."

Schelling believed that in such volatile situations communications were vital and was first to propose the hotline. He also conducted war games for training decision makers for crisis situations, where participants included, among others, Henry Kissinger and Robert Kennedy. His game theory was apparent in the "chicken dilemma" advice he gave John Kennedy for making a stand in Berlin in 1961, when nuclear war threatened. Schelling believed tactics could have desired outcomes and recommended what he called "commitment." In the chicken dilemma game the problem is making the other side know its actions will be disastrous. It comes from old movies about teenagers driving their cars at each other to see who will be the chicken and turn away. Schelling said commitment, a binding statement of intention one makes in advance of his opponent's decision, is a winning way to play this game. He likened it to one driver ripping off his steering wheel and holding it out the window as he sped forward at the other car. After reading Schelling's advice Kennedy announced, "We have given our word that an attack upon that city will be regarded as an attack upon us all," and "the choice of peace or war is largely theirs, not ours." The Communist response came with no attack. Instead, the Berlin Wall was built.

"Tom Schelling is a titan, and it is not the slightest exaggeration to say that his remarkable scholarship has made the world a safer and better place."

--David T. Ellwood, dean of of the John F. Kennedy School of Government

Perhaps Schelling's greatest success came with his arms control efforts and work to overcome the "prisoner's dilemma" that had locked the United States and the Soviets in an arms race for so long. The prisoner's dilemma game demonstrated that even though the "rational" thing to do seemed to be to cooperate, rational players wouldn't do so out of fear of being exploited. So both the United States and the Soviets sought to gain superiority in arms when cooperation in reducing the expenditures would have been mutually advantageous. He worked to show that the efficient outcome for both sides, and one that could be monitored, was for neither to continue to try to gain superiority. Schelling's efforts, according to Al Carnesale, who was on the U.S. negotiations team for the treaties, contributed greatly to the success of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and the ABM Treaty. The importance of this was apparent on one of the most emotive symbols of the Cold War era, the Doomsday Clock. The Doomsday Clock is a seven-inch by seven-inch orange clock face expressing the peril the world faces that first appeared on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists of June 1947, set at 12 minutes to midnight. After the first Soviet atomic bomb explosion in 1949 the clock was moved forward five minutes, and in 1953 with the explosion of "Mike," the first hydrogen bomb, it was set at two minutes to midnight, where it remained during much of the thermonuclear era. With SALT I and ABM treaties, the world moved back from two minutes to midnight to 12 minutes to midnight (currently it is five).

Schelling worked to make strategies understandable, so those in power would choose wisely. His greatest book, The Strategy of Conflict, is still commonly used in universities. It formed the foundations of strategic studies, gave it its vocabulary. Stanley Kubrick was influenced by his writing to make a movie about nuclear war, Dr. Strangelove

As to his importance, typical comments (coming both from before and after his Nobel) are the following: David T. Ellwood, dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, "Tom Schelling is a titan, and it is not the slightest exaggeration to say that his remarkable scholarship has made the world a safer and better place." Richard Zeckhauser, professor of political economy at Harvard, adds "Schelling is the world's foremost strategic thinker about social situations and human behavior. He helped make the world a safer place to live." And from Paul Samuelson, Nobel Laureate 1970, "In Japan Thomas Schelling would be named a national treasure."

It wasn't just the Cold War he had worked on. He had talked about the "tipping point" and about other problems that helped show "how" segregation took place rather than "why." His ideas on segregation had found fertile soil in Singapore where we live, as the Prime Minister and several other ministers had studied under him at the Kennedy School. Measures were put in place in the massive public housing complexes to assure the racial or ethnic composition of the state was mirrored in all housing estates. Earlier "race riots," pitting one ethnic neighborhood against another, wouldn't be repeated. His views on congestion models also were influential, as Singapore worked to avoid the traffic gridlock so common among its neighbors. His work on organized crime, self-control, global warming has all been leading and novel in the application of pure rational thought to problems that bring on strong emotional response.

I first got to know Tom Schelling during the 1989-1990 school year. My wife and I are from Fargo and taught in the local area from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. We then decided to try overseas teaching and after a four-year stay in London, moved to Singapore, where we have remained. I was given a sabbatical to attend the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, a professional school Schelling helped found, to earn a master's in public administration.Its alumni include five acting heads of state and the new Secretary General of the UN, along with a number of members of congress and many civil servants from around the world. It is a stimulating place.

The course I enjoyed most was Schelling's "Conflict Cooperation and Strategy." It was about how to think about problems and emphasized game theory. I thought the skills we were learning could be presented to a younger audience and went to see him. We agreed it would be interesting and that we would cooperate on putting something together. We corresponded regularly, then began getting together in summers, and I suggested he should be writing his memoirs. He said he didn't want to take the time, so I volunteered, and a serious project was under way.

Schelling remains active and productive at 86 and his fertile mind has looked at many of society's problems and offered truly imaginative solutions. Perhaps one anecdote that captures that imagination is a story told by Herman "Dutch" Leonard, a professor of public administration at the Kennedy School since 1979. "The story is that there was a faculty committee to study the 'Harvard faculty parking problem.' It has been said that there are three relevant groups and interests around a university: sex for the undergraduates, football for the alumni, and parking for the faculty. My experience is that that is roughly right. You can imagine what the 'parking problem' looks like at Harvard. Harvard has a higher concentration of prima donnas than any other place on the planet. The faculty parking problem is not that we have too many parking places to distribute -- it is, roughly, that no matter how you distribute the parking places, (a) there will not be enough; and (b) [far worse] you will be implicitly or explicitly announcing some form of hierarchy among the eminent -- which, of course, is anathema. So what to do?

"The story goes that Tom was unable to attend the first meeting of the committee, so the chairman told him that the first meeting was for brainstorming alternative methods of distribution, and that the committee would meet and come up with some ideas and make a list, and that Tom could think on his own about alternatives and that if he had thought of any that weren't on the committee's list, he could add them at the second meeting. So it came to pass that the committee had thought of half a dozen materially different alternatives -- and, when Tom came to the second meeting, he had a list that included all six of the committee's alternatives, plus another dozen materially different new ones."

When the story of the Cold War of the Twentieth Century is finally written, perhaps the role of Tom Schelling will emerge more prominently. The civilian strategists behind the scenes whose ideas shaped the views and influenced the decisions of that conflict are the missing part of the story, and none was more important than Schelling.

My pleasure has been spending so much time and continuing to do so with such a brilliant, yet modest man, who has been a quiet influence on American affairs for over a half century. My biography of this remarkable man was published in the US by Hollis/Puritan Press and in Asia by Marshall Cavendish, and is entitledThe Strategist, subtitle: The Life and Times of Thomas Schelling.

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.