The pioneering role of CIS in American war gaming

  • Fall 2015
Reid Pauly

Reid Pauly is a PhD student in Political Science.

By Reid Pauly
November 1, 2015

IT IS APRIL 1972, and tensions between the superpowers run higher than ever. The United States is mired in a disastrous war in Indochina, the Soviet nuclear arsenal is growing rapidly, and both countries are investing heavily in anti-ballistic missile systems. As nuclear weapons technology proliferates, West Germany inches closer to the bomb. One morning, Moscow warns Washington that it will soon commence conventional bombing of West German nuclear research facilities. American officials debate whether the move is a bluff, but as the minutes tick by, Soviet planes take to the sky. What is the United States to do?

Thankfully, this scenario never played out in the real world. It was part of a war game called BETA II conducted by the Joint War Games Agency in 1967.1 One of dozens of war games held during the Cold War, the exercise pitted a Blue Team against a Red Team in a series of strategic decision-making rounds, facilitated by a Control Team interlocutor. The purpose was multi-fold—to study strategic interactions, to educate participants, and to refine American strategy.

Where did this methodology of modern war games originate? In large part at MIT, where a host of legendary faculty affiliated with the Center for International Studies were crucial early adopters and innovators of the games. Beginning in the late 1950s, Lincoln "Linc" Bloomfield and others transformed rudimentary war game exercises into immersive experiences for policymakers. The games, many of them held at the Institute's Endicott House in Dedham, Massachusetts, set a standard that the U.S. Department of Defense and others would consciously imitate.


Preparation for war has long involved simulation in some capacity. Military training exercises are in a sense preparing combatants for the reality of war at the tactical level. For the purposes of developing strategy, however, simulation took on a new prominence in the nuclear age. Unable to hone the tactical skills or the strategic logics of nuclear warfighting through practice and experience, leaders would rely on theory and simulation to train and prepare.2 As Herman Khan astutely put it, "how many thermonuclear wars have you fought recently?" This emphasis on simulation began with systems analysis in the early Cold War and evolved into role-playing politico-military games. Later, as computing power increased, the emphasis shifted to man-machine games and computer simulations. Today, war games remain a tool of strategic analysis and training.3

The first organized political-military war game likely took place in Germany in 1929; the crisis in question: a Polish invasion of East Prussia.4 In the United States, the RAND Corporation pioneered the first war games as early as 1948. At RAND, the Mathematics Division established the Blue-on-Red simulation method, focusing initially on developing a computer model of a Cold War crisis, based on their developing interest in the field of systems analysis.5 By 1954, the Social Science Division at RAND developed the first rounds of "political gaming," involving both human and machine-played roles.6 The first full political-military games were held at RAND in 1954 and 1955.7 One of the express purposes of these games was to explore "novel strategies," both from the perspective of the United States and the Soviet Union.8 To this end, the new games eliminated rules about what had constituted victory in the mathematicians' simulations, continuing play until either the umpire called the end or time ran out.9 Still, RAND's contribution was limited by its focus on the Air Force, its chief client.

By the end of the decade, RAND war gaming had attracted the interest of academics. The center of the academic study and development of war games became CIS at MIT The idea of war gaming seems to have been introduced to MIT by W. Phillips Davison, a visiting professor from the RAND Corporation. Davison conducted the first simplified war game at MIT in a graduate seminar during the 1957-58 academic year.10 MIT professors Lucian Pye, Norman Padelford, and Warner Schilling later conducted similar war games in their courses.11

The most invested MIT professor, however, was Bloomfield. Recently graduated with a doctorate from Harvard, Bloomfield studied international law and the process of UN-facilitated territorial transitions. He turned to the subject of war gaming when CIS director Max Millikan introduced him to the ongoing RAND exercises.12 Bloomfield was hooked and soon began to work on designing a more professional war game methodology.

Between 1958 and 1971, Professor Bloomfield directed twelve "senior-level" war games at MIT Dubbed the "POLEX" war games, Bloomfield and Paul Kecskemeti of RAND led POLEX I in September 1958.13 The crisis at the heart of the three-day game was a nationalist uprising in Poland. CIS hosted POLEX II in 1960, a game that posited a crisis in the Middle East. Thomas Schelling, who at the time taught at Harvard, joined Bloomfield in designing these war games.14

Schelling and Bloomfield were instrumental in innovating a new style of politico-military war gaming at CIS. Rather than have participants role-playing characters and asking themselves "what would I do if I were in this official's shoes?" Schelling and Bloomfield wanted the teams to be of "homogenous responsibility" so that the players were "deeply engaged in the decision-making process, in which they were taking full responsibility for their decisions."15 Moreover, Schelling felt that in previous war games at RAND "the limits were always decided in advance," leaving no room for an analysis of the "process of escalation, no process of feeling around for what the other side might accept or reject."16 They sought to rectify these shortcomings in the game design.

Two primary innovations formed the backbone of the new CIS method of politico-military gaming. First, participants were no longer "role-playing" in a strict sense of being assigned a character to play; rather they were part of a team, a committee of decision-makers debating strategic interactions. Second, the decisions were simplified to only include military moves. The teams would make military decisions and then focus on the political and diplomatic effects of those military decisions. This boiled the simulation down to strategic interactions, not faked diplomacy.

Former RAND analyst Henry Rowen recommended that the Pentagon adopt Schelling and Bloomfield's MIT war gaming method.17 In 1961, the Joint Chiefs of Staff established the Joint War Games Agency (JWGA).18 It hosted five or six games per year, conducted in the manner of Bloomfield and Schelling's politico-military games—Red versus Blue (in separate rooms) moderated by Control. Games required rigorous preparation, between two to three months. Each team generally consisted of five to ten players. The teams plotted moves for several hours a day, in three to six rounds of moves, over three or four days. A typical game would work as follows: (1) Red and Blue Teams assemble and receive the "scenario problem paper"; (2) Each team deliberates and decides on discontinuous "moves," which are written down and given to Control; (3) Control assesses the moves (it may reject them if they are unrealistic), determines the likely outcome of both moves and updates the scenario; (4) Game clock advances and the Red and Blue Teams make another move; (5) Play continues until time is up or Control ends the game; (6) All games end with a debrief and critique.19



Did war games influence policy? Participants in MIT exercises tended to think they did. In an MIT survey between 1958 and 1964, a large majority of war game participants believed prior participation in war games would broaden the perspectives of decision makers in crises, by increasing the "number" and "quality" of "policy alternatives perceived." And more than half of participants who self-identified as being "engaged in policy planning, formulation, or implementation" could recall an instance in which their war game experience had been of practical value in their job.20

The experience itself tended to leave an impression. After the 1958-1964 MIT games, nearly two-thirds of participants reported an "extreme" or "intense" degree of emotional involvement in the roles they played.21 "Because the experience is highly demanding in terms of attention and concentration, as well as being of real interest," a report from participants concluded, "these insights do not soon pass out of one's mind."22

Schelling further recalls that participants in the 1961 Berlin Crisis simulation "virtually lived the game."23 Participants in these games, conducted at Camp David, included McGeorge Bundy, Carl Kaysen, and John McNaughton.24 During the Cuban Missile Crisis, somebody in the office of John McNaughton reportedly said, "this crisis sure demonstrates how realistic Schelling's [war] games are," to which someone responded, "No, Schelling's games demonstrate how unrealistic this Cuban crisis is."25



Unclassified war games, including those conducted at CIS, can provide reams of data for scholars. Yet so far the exercises have gone mostly unexamined. In another paper, I use some of this evidence to argue that U.S. elites who participated in war games showed a remarkable reluctance to employ nuclear weapons in exercises, and that their reticence provides additional evidence of a normative prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons.

By all accounts, the players took war games very seriously, including the fictional 1972 crisis. Scholars would be remiss not to do the same.



1 "Beta I & II – 67: Final Report," Department of Defense, Joint War Games Agency, Washington, DC, August 3, 1967.

2 For a good discussion of how war gaming in the nuclear age affected civil-military relations, see Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, "Simulating the Unthinkable: Gaming Future War in the 1950s and 1960s," Social Studies of Science 30 (2000), 164-222.

3 War games remain a popular tool of policy assessment and strategic training within the United States government. Even as recently as the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit, world leaders played a joint war game, simulating a crisis initiated by a terrorist threat to detonate a dirty bomb in a prominent city with stolen nuclear material. Spoiler alert: they avoided disaster. "Obama Reportedly Plays Nuclear War Game with World Leaders at Summit," Fox News, March 25, 2014. , accessed November 19, 2014; Jill Reilly, "Would You Like to Play Global Thermonuclear War?" Daily Mail, March 25, 2014. , accessed November 19, 2014. See also Bruce W. Bennett, "Anatomy of a War Game," The RAND Blog, June 12, 2012.

4 Sidney F. Giffin, The Crisis Game: Simulating International Conflict, (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1965), 58-59. Japan also war gamed contingencies in the Second World War as early as October 1940, when it established the Total War Research Institute. Fascinatingly, Japan modeled its own side not as single force, but as "an uneasy coalition of Army, Navy, and Cabinet, with the military and the government disagreeing constantly." Robert D. Sprecht, "War Games," RAND Corporation, P-1041, March 18, 1957, 2.

5 Giffin, The Crisis Game, 64.

6 Giffin, The Crisis Game, 65.

7 Martin Van Creveld, Wargames: From Gladiators to Gigabytes, (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 180.

8 Giffin, 66.

9 Van Creveld, 181.

10 Brewer and Shubik, The War Game: A Critique of Military Problem Solving, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 103; and corroborated in Giffin, 68.

11 Giffin, 68. For some more of the history of war gaming at MIT, see Lincoln Bloomfield, "Reflections on Gaming," Orbis 28 (Winter 1984): 784-785; and Donald L.M. Blackmer, The MIT Center for International Studies: The Founding Years 1951-1969, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Center for International Studies, 2002), 157.

12 Lincoln Bloomfield, "Reflections on Gaming," Orbis 28 (Winter 1984): 784-785.

13 Lincoln Bloomfield and Barton Whaley, "The Political-Military Exercise: A Progress Report," Orbis (Winter 1965): 855.

14 Ghamari-Tabrizi, "Simulating the Unthinkable," 178.

15 Remarks by Thomas Schelling and Alan Ferguson at the Harvard Kennedy School, November 22, 1988, p. 1.

16 Remarks by Thomas Schelling and Alan Ferguson at the Harvard Kennedy School, November 22, 1988, p. 1.

17 Lincoln Bloomfield, "Reflections on Gaming," Orbis 28 (Winter 1984): 785.

18 JWGA was superseded by the Studies, Analysis, and Gaming Agency (SAGA).

19 Brewer and Shubik, 106-107; for an overview of MIT's game designs, see Lincoln Bloomfield and Barton Whaley, "The Political-Military Exercise: A Progress Report," Orbis (Winter 1965): 854-869.

20 Richard Barringer and Barton Whaley, "The MIT Political-Military Gaming Experience," (Summer 1965), 441.

21 Richard Barringer and Barton Whaley, "The MIT Political-Military Gaming Experience," (Summer 1965), 441.

22 Richard Barringer and Barton Whaley, "The MIT Political-Military Gaming Experience," (Summer 1965), 445.

23 Remarks by Thomas Schelling and Alan Ferguson at the Harvard Kennedy School, November 22, 1988, p. 3.

24 Connelly, et al. "General, I Have Fought Just as Many Nuclear Wars as You Have," American Historical Review (December 2012), 1449.

25 Quoted in Ghamari-Tabrizi, "Simulating the Unthinkable," 213, footnote 55. And Schelling says a version of this in Remarks by Thomas Schelling and Alan Ferguson at the Harvard Kennedy School, November 22, 1988, p. 10.