Let’s Play War

In the spring of 1964, as fighting escalated in Vietnam, several dozen Americans gathered to play a game. They were some of the most powerful men in Washington: the director of Central Intelligence, the Army chief of staff, the national security advisor, and the head of the Strategic Air Command. Senior officials from the State Department and the Navy were also on hand.

Players were divided into two teams, red and blue, representing the Cold War superpowers. The teams operated out of separate rooms in the Pentagon, role-playing confrontation in Southeast Asia, simulated in a neutral command center. Receiving each team’s orders, the command center’s experts modeled the blue and red moves, and issued mock intelligence reports in response. Reports reflected the evolving conflict, but the intelligence was intentionally distorted to replicate the fog of war. After days of playing out different scenarios, the war gamers reached the conclusion that civilians in the United States and the rest of the world would vocally protest an American bombing offensive.

The need to anticipate the dynamics of conflict increased as the U.S. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August of 1964, effectively declaring war on North Vietnam. So another war game was played. The objective was to play out the situation in Southeast Asia six months in the future. After ruling out an American nuclear attack, the teams role-played their way to a quagmire, in which the North Vietnamese countered every

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