Herman Kahn and the Bomb

Herman Kahn is the kind of eccentric whom you no longer publicly see. In his capacity as an analyst at the RAND Corporation, he made a vast effort to get the public to consider his ideas: What happens next after thermonuclear exchange.

The thought of nuclear war was mostly too grim to behold, and Kahn acknowledged that head on by writing a book called Thinking About the Unthinkable. With morbid humor he challenged people to think about deterrence strategies, mineshaft shelters, and the hydrogen bomb. He loved debate, and he reached out to the public with “twelve-hour lecture, split into three parts over two days, with no text but with plenty of charts and slides.”

Kahn was the main inspiration for Dr. Strangelove. He was supposed to have the highest I.Q. ever recorded, and he made real contributions in shaping U.S. nuclear strategy through his commentary and analysis. He was accused by his colleagues and by the public of treating the annihilation of millions with far too much levity than the subject deserved. Some of the things he said have been really shocking, but it’s a bit of a shame that we don’t really see brilliant oddballs like him much in public, to listen to his ideas and then debate them.

Here are a few interesting facts about him, from two sources. First, Fred Kaplan’s book Wizards of Armageddon, which features him for a chapter:

Brodie and Kauffman approached the business of first-use and counterforce strikes uneasily, as acts of desperation among a terrible set of choices. Kahn, on the other hand, dived in eagerly.

At one point, Kahn had calculations on bomb designs plugged into all twelve high-speed computers then operating in the United States.

Calculations suggested that even with a purely countermilitary attack, two million people would die, a horrifyingly high number… (But) as Kahn phrased it, only two million people would die. Alluding almost casually to “only” two million dead was part of the image that Kahn was fashioning for himself, the living portrait of the ultimate defense intellectual, cool and fearless… Kahn’s specialty was to express the RAND conventional wisdom in the most provocative and outrageous fashion possible.

Along with an engineer at RAND, Kahn figured out on paper that such a Doomsday Machine was technologically feasible.

In the early-to-mid 1960s, Kahn would work out an elaborate theory of “escalation, ” conceiving 44 “rungs of escalation” from “Ostensible Crisis” to “Spasm of Insensate War,” with the rungs in between including “Harassing Acts of Violence,” “Barely Nuclear War,” “Justifiable Counterforce Attacks” and “Slow-Motion Countercity War.”

Kahn felt that having a good civil-defense system made the act of going to the nuclear brink an altogether salutary thing to do on occasion.

More than 5,000 people heard (his lectures) before Kahn finally compiled them into a 652-page tome called On Thermonuclear War. It was a massive, sweeping, disorganized volume, presented as if a giant vacuum cleaner had swept through the corridors of RAND, sucking up every idea, concept, metaphor, and calculation that anyone in the strategic community had conjured up over the previous decade. The book’s title was an allusion to Clausewitz’s On War… Published in 1960 by the Princeton University Press, it sold an astonishing 30,000 copies in hardcover, quickly became known simply as OTW among defense intellectuals, and touched off fierce controversy among nearly everyone who bore through it.

Strangelove, the character and the film, struck insiders as a parody of Herman Kahn, some of the dialogue virtually lifted from the pages of On Thermonuclear War. But the film was also a satire of the whole language and intellectual culture of the strategic intellectual set. Kahn’s main purpose in writing OTW was “to create a vocabulary” so that strategic issues can be “comfortably and easily” discussed, a vocabulary that reduces the emotions surrounding nuclear war to the dispassionate cool of scientific thought. To the extent that many people today talk about nuclear war in such a nonchalant, would-be scientific manner, their language is rooted in the work of Herman Kahn.

And from Louis Menand, writing in the New Yorker:

In his day, Kahn was the subject of many magazine stories, and most of them found it important to mention his girth—he was built, one journalist recorded, “like a prize-winning pear”—and his volubility.

He became involved in the development of the hydrogen bomb, and commuted to the Livermore Laboratory, near Berkeley, where he worked with Edward Teller, John von Neumann, and Hans Bethe. He also entered the circle of Albert Wohlstetter, a mathematician who had produced an influential critique of nuclear preparedness, and who was the most mandarin of the rand intellectuals. And he became obsessed with the riddles of deterrence.

For many readers, this has seemed pathologically insensitive. But these readers are missing Kahn’s point. His point is that unless Americans really do believe that nuclear war is survivable, and survivable under conditions that, although hardly desirable, are acceptable and manageable, then deterrence has no meaning. You can’t advertise your readiness to initiate a nuclear exchange if you are unwilling to accept the consequences. If the enemy believes that you will not tolerate the deaths of, say, twenty million of your own citizens, then he has called your bluff. It’s the difference between saying, “You get one scratch on that car and I’ll kill you,” and saying, “You get one scratch on that car and you’re grounded for a week.”

Kubrick was steeped in “On Thermonuclear War”; he made his producer read it when they were planning the movie. Kubrick and Kahn met several times to discuss nuclear strategy, and it was from “On Thermonuclear War” that Kubrick got the term “Doomsday Machine.”

Kubrick’s plan to make a comedy about nuclear war didn’t bother Kahn. He thought that humor was a good way to get people thinking about a subject too frightening to contemplate otherwise, and although his colleagues rebuked him for it—“Levity is never legitimate,” Brodie told him—he used jokes in his lectures.

Kahn died, of a massive stroke, in 1983. That was the year a group headed by Carl Sagan released a report warning that the dust and smoke generated by a thermonuclear war would create a “nuclear winter,” blocking light from the sun and wiping out most of life on the planet. Kahn’s friends were confident that he would have had a rebuttal.

One thought on “Herman Kahn and the Bomb

  1. This proves that even unthinkably horrible concepts are perfectly respectable compared to politically unthinkable taboos like gender or racial differences.

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