Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge, and Nuclear Weapons Devastation

By Costanzo, Charles E. | Air & Space Power Journal, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge, and Nuclear Weapons Devastation


Costanzo, Charles E., Air & Space Power Journal


Airpower alone does not guarantee America 's security. But I believe it best exploits the nation's greatest asset-our technical skill.

-Gen Hoyt S. Vandenberg

Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge, and Nuclear Weapons Devastation by Lynn Eden. Cornell University Press (http://www. cornellpress.cornell.edu), Sage House, 512 East State Street, Ithaca, New York 14850, 2003, 384 pages, $32.50 (hardcover).

Lynn Eden's book examines the devastating firestorms that would follow the detonation of nuclear weapons, a topic largely ignored in the prodigious literature on nuclear policy and strategy. She begins her quest by raising an intriguing question: how and why did the US government ignore the possibility of catastrophic atomic firestorms as it developed plans for nuclear war fighting, especially in light of its World War II experience with firebombing and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

The author begins her search for an answer with an empirical inquiry into why the US government routinely underestimated the damage caused by nuclear weapons. Her methodology compares damage predictions of the combined effects of blast and fire with much lower levels of damage expected if only blast effects are measured. Eden discusses and critiques alternative explanations of organizational routines that have seen use in predicting only blast damage. Her research shows that frames used by organizations, particularly the Air Force, to define problems and seek solutions lead to the acquisition of certain types of expertise as well as the emergence of both specialized research programs and knowledge-laden routines. In sum, this process of organizational problem solving causes actors to make critical choices about predictions of blast damage but not fire damage-predictions divorced from attributes of the actual physical environment.

Eden's inquiry into this organizational phenomenon begins with US bombing doctrine shaped in the 1930s and applied during World War II. US Army Air Corps officers believed that bomb damage resulted primarily from blast effects. Although American planners did not entirely ignore the potential for fire damage, they paid far greater attention and applied more resources to predicting and optimizing blast damage.

The blast-damage frame, which carried over into the post-World War II era, strongly influenced the earliest attempts in 1947 and 1948 to predict damage from atomic bombing. Because of the historical association of blast damage with bombing and because analysts and planners believed it more predictable than fire damage, experts, research programs, and knowledge-laden routines focused exclusively on understanding blast damage. By the early 1950s, an extensive research program had arisen for the purpose of acquiring detailed knowledge about the effects of an atomic blast. Consultants hired to conduct this research helped shape the agenda, interpreted data, and developed analytical tools to better predict blast damage. However, no comparable activity sought to understand fire damage from atomic attacks.

US nuclear tests conducted in the early 1950s generated new data that verified and expanded the Vulnerability Number system, a blast-damage model developed in 1951. Although the Air Force commissioned a single study during this period to predict atomic fire damage, the effort did not yield compelling predictions. Other government organizations concerned with civil defense and the protection of equipment during war performed extensive experiments, but none studied or predicted damage from mass fires. Detonation of the first hydrogen bomb by the United States in 1952 created new problems for measuring blast effects due to the longer duration of the blast wave. …

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