Policymakers and academics alike will remember her scholarship, in particular her excellent book “Guardians of the Arsenal,” which argued that civilian and military experts who work on nuclear strategy and operate the nuclear weapons development complexes and systems of the U.S. military have been resistant to civilian-directed policy change.
Nolan characterized a significant gap between the nation’s nuclear strategy, which existed in the minds and policy papers of civilian leaders, and its operational doctrine, which lay under the control of a small group of mainly military planners. She not only described the phenomenon but also concluded that the nuclear establishment purposely did not comply with civilian direction. To Nolan, this was an undemocratic approach.
Her arguments contributed to debates about how nuclear weapons fit into U.S. strategy. Historian Marc Trachtenberg offered a challenging review of “Guardians of the Arsenal” in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, arguing the malignity of intent Nolan ascribed to operational (and predominantly military) planners was unfair. In reality, any use of nuclear weapons would cause so much damage that fine-tuned strategies — what analysts call “flexible response,” or options designed to signal limited intent in war — would prove impossible.
Instead, talk of flexible response merely helped civilian political leaders retain public and allied support for the ultimate guarantee that the United States could impose enough damage on an enemy to prevent war. Any approach that counts on restraint by adversaries in warfare makes military planners deeply uncomfortable, then and now. Political leaders were trying to create options that wouldn’t exist in actual war. Trachtenberg argued it was elected leaders, not the “guardians,” who needed to address the gap between strategy and operational planning by facing up to the nature of war.
The arguments Nolan engaged in “Guardians” have remained highly relevant in U.S. strategic thinking. Recently U.S. and NATO policy has trended back to avoiding talk of “flexible” nuclear options, for instance. That is partly because, for the moment, U.S. adversaries are weaker than they were — or at least than policymakers perceived them to be — during the Cold War.
But the ebb of flexible nuclear strategies has also to do with public attitudes. Nolan believed greater public attention to issues of nuclear strategy would drive obdurate military planners toward more flexible operations. Instead, this spotlight seemed to drive Western politicians away from any use of nuclear weapons. And that may well be the outcome Nolan was hoping for because she was an ardent advocate of denuclearization, serving on numerous arms control and disarmament groups.
An inclusive approach to nuclear policymaking
For many scholars, Nolan played an important role in another way altogether: She created countless opportunities for women, by cajoling foundations to provide scholarships to bring women into national security studies and participating on scholarship selection committees to ensure female candidates also got opportunities.
I was able to attend graduate school at the University of Maryland because the MacArthur Foundation targeted funding toward female students, and I received an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellowship that took me into government because Nolan was on the selection committee that awarded those fellowships. I am the face of gender affirmative action, and I am one of a legion that she helped along our way.
And it is even more to her credit that she created opportunities for me knowing that my views differed from hers. We in the sisterhood can now get a laugh saying that we work on the traditional “women’s issue” of nuclear strategy. But we can say that with honesty because of the work by Nolan and Catherine Kelleher and Enid Schoettle and Ruth Adams to pull the rest of us into and upward in the field.
At the time of her death, Nolan was still building her legacy through a relatively new but flourishing initiative. As chair of the nonpartisan Nuclear Security Working Group, Nolan helped establish a fellowship that placed nuclear experts in congressional offices for a year, with an eye toward rebuilding bipartisan nuclear expertise on Capitol Hill.
Reviewing “Guardians of the Arsenal” in Foreign Affairs in 1990, Gregory Treverton didn’t agree with Nolan but praised the book as a story well told. Reading his review brings back memories of the condescension common from those in the field of national security — and especially nuclear strategy and forces — toward the women of Nolan’s generation.
Those of us lucky enough to work in a time with far greater acceptance of our professional contributions have Nolan and her peers to thank for what they endured and what they earned for us with their work. In addition to her scholarship, Nolan’s mentorship and creation of openings for women like me are also her rightful legacy.
Kori Schake (@KoriSchake) is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the author of “Safe Passage” (Harvard University Press, 2017).