Schelling’s early work was on the most important issue of the Cold War: preventing it from becoming a hot war. In his classic 1960 book, The Strategy of Conflict, Schelling laid out some important applications of game theory to the issue of nuclear war. In one passage, he discussed the U.S.-Soviet conflict in the terms of a hypothetical duel. He wrote “if both [duelists] were assured of living long enough to shoot back with unimpaired aim, there would be no advantage in jumping the gun and little reason to fear that the other would try it.” Thus “schemes to avert surprise attack have as their most immediate objective the safety of weapons rather than the safety of people.” This means that to have a credible deterrent against a Soviet first strike that would destroy many of its people, the U.S. government needed to defend its weapons first, rather than its citizens first. While the government may appear to be placing the value of its weapons above the lives of its citizens, the threat of deterrence is not credible if the weapons are exposed.

This is from “Thomas Schelling” in David R. Henderson, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. Read the whole thing.

HT2 Tyler Cowen for some suggestions after I sent him an earlier draft.

This is part of my project of catching up on bios for Nobel Prize winners and other eminent economists.