A Summary and Analysis of Isaac Asimov’s ‘The Machine That Won the War’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘The Machine That Won the War’ is a 1961 short story by the science-fiction author Isaac Asimov (1920-92). The story is set shortly after Earth and its associated worlds have won a war against an enemy civilisation known as the Denebians. A vast computer named Multivac is credited with being, in the story’s title, ‘The Machine That Won the War’.

But did Multivac win the war? It might be helpful if I briefly summarise the plot of Asimov’s story.

The story takes place shortly after a war has ended. Earth and its allies have defeated their enemies, Deneb, thanks largely to a large computer named Multivac. The story features three characters. Lamar Swift is the Executive Director of the Solar Federation, a group of planets which include Earth. John Henderson is the Chief Programmer of Multivac. And Max Jablonsky is the Chief Interpreter of Multivac.

When Henderson celebrates the Denebians being destroyed, Swift points out that they owe their victory to Multivac. Jablonsky seems sceptical of the machine being given the credit, but says he doesn’t care. Henderson, however, is more decisive, arguing that Multivac was ‘just a machine’ and had nothing to do with their victory. When Jablonsky suggests Henderson wants to take the credit for himself, Henderson denies this angrily, arguing that the war had become too complicated for the machine to make much difference.

Henderson points out that their entire war effort was focused on Multivac, so he could not point out its shortcomings at the time. If he had spoken out against the machine, he would have been removed and replaced by somebody else. Instead, he quietly corrected the unreliable data, using his intuition to guide him.

But then Jablonsky reveals that Multivac was not in working order anyway – but he couldn’t speak up about the computer’s technical faults for the same reason. He, too, used his intuition to cover for the machine’s flaws.

Swift seems surprised by these revelations. But then he reveals that he never placed too much store by whatever Multivac suggested as a course of action: instead, his military decisions were based on a far older piece of machinery: a coin which he flipped, in a game of ‘heads or tails’.

As this summary perhaps suggests, ‘The Machine That Won the War’ is a light story which nevertheless addresses some heavy themes: war, military decision-making, and personal human accountability. But at the structural level, Asimov’s short story almost works like a joke, with the final revelation – a senior military commander in a vast space war had actually made his momentous decisions based on nothing more than the toss of a coin – striking us with the surprise force of a punchline. (Indeed, Asimov was a consummate joke-teller and even published several jokebooks containing his favourites.)

And this final twist to ‘The Machine That Won the War’ is important, because it complicates any clear-cut interpretation of the story based on ‘human intuition versus machine intelligence’. Both Henderson and Jablonsky, it is revealed, relied on their own instincts and intelligence rather than the computations of Multivac, implying that machines cannot ‘think’ or be relied upon to perform complex decision-making processes in the way that the good old-fashioned human brain can.

But Swift’s final revelation that, when even the human brain found it impossible to make a call on a difficult tactic, the matter was left up to blind chance, upsets such a neat reading or analysis of Asimov’s ‘message’.

Asimov wrote ‘The Machine That Won the War’ when the memory of the Second World War was still fresh in many readers’ minds. Asimov himself had been drafted into the US army in 1945, shortly before the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan helped to bring the war to an end.

Another ‘machine’ that had helped to win the war was the one (actually, several) built at Bletchley Park by Alan Turing and the other codebreakers whose deciphering of German messages helped to shorten the war (it is estimated) by several years, although the full story of what had gone on at Bletchley Park wouldn’t emerge until decades later.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to avoid viewing ‘The Machine That Won the War’ as a quasi-satirical take on the idea that advanced technology will be a ‘game-changer’ in military operations: when it comes to brute force (and the potential for causing catastrophic explosions), perhaps; but no machine, at least when Asimov was writing, could be said to possess strategic ‘intelligence’ which is any better than that of the people who programmed it in the first place.

But even worse than this, sheer chance is touted as the equal of human intuition. Of course, Swift is also reinforcing something Henderson had said earlier in the story, about the men who programmed the machines having their own ‘skins’ to think of: i.e., their own reputations to guard.

Perched on the horns of a military dilemma, Swift appears to find it easier to let ‘fate’ decide what course of action he should follow: his reliance on the coin in his pocked, the real ‘machine that won the war’, is the same as putting one’s trust in Multivac, in that both are about eschewing personal responsibility for the difficult decisions taken in the heat of war.

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