The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War
by Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi
Harvard University Press, 2005
387 pp., $26.95
In 1959, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy published an ad in the New York Times, asking, “What kind of insane person would take comfort from decreasing casualties from three-quarters to half?” One reader became so irritated at the question that he picked up the phone and called a friend at the group, also known as SANE. “That sounds like you’re sort of quoting me,” he complained. “Yeah,” came the reply, “we call this the Herman Kahn ad.”
The response evoked Kahn’s wrath, as well as his contempt. First, there was the fuzzy math—SANE’s figures were wrong. “I talk about going from three-quarters to three-eights,” grumbled Kahn. But there was an even more fundamental point. Why shouldn’t American war planners come up with ideas for reducing the casualties in a nuclear war by about 40 million people? Was there really something wrong with that?
In the minds of many Cold War pacifists, there certainly was something wrong with that. They refused to tolerate the notion that a nuclear conflict might be anything less than cataclysmic. Kahn, they feared, would encourage Americans to think that nuclear wars were winnable—and perhaps even worth initiating. And so when Kahn discussed how to survive a Soviet strike, they tended to respond with massive retaliation.
The controversy surrounding Kahn eventually became so intense that he felt compelled to quit RAND—America’s first postwar think tank, funded primarily by defense dollars in the 1950s. Soon after, Kahn helped establish the Hudson Institute, a nonprofit research organization where he was able to continue his career both as an advisor to the government and as a public intellectual.
Kahn’s story presents a vital lesson for philanthropists, especially those who want to help national security efforts but don’t know where to start. After all, donating cruise missiles to the Pentagon can take a big bite out of a donor’s budget, and they aren’t even tax deductible. But national security requires more than missiles. The American defense community relies on mavericks like Kahn, who in turn must hold jobs in safe havens where they can perform their work without having to worry about getting fired for offering impolitic opinions or inconvenient theories. Some of this may be accomplished on campus, where scholars can earn the protection of tenure. But with the notable exception of a few outstanding programs, such as Harvard’s John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies or a similar program at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), American universities are better known for banning ROTC training and giving jobs to the likes of Ward Churchill, who thinks the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks were morally superior to their victims.
That’s where think tanks have a role. They’re sometimes called “universities without students,” the implication being that their scholars can focus exclusively on their research rather than grading term papers and exams. The flip side of not having students, of course, means that think tanks also don’t earn revenue in the form of tuition dollars. Most of them receive the bulk of their funding from private sources, and most of these private sources are philanthropic foundations that take an interest in particular subject matters. In this world—and perhaps only in this world—Herman Kahn was able to thrive as one of the most important strategic minds of his generation. He not only offered large and transformative ideas of his own, but he also influenced significant figures such as Andrew Marshall of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment (a kind of internal Department of Defense think tank) and nuclear strategist Albert Wolhstetter (who in turn mentored the likes of Paul Wolfowitz).
Born in 1922, the son of Jewish immigrants, Kahn was many things: a brilliant mathematician, a pioneering systems analyst, a military planner, a provocative author, and the founding father of what is now a venerable research organization. Some have credited him with inspiring director Stanley Kubrick to create Dr. Strangelove, the famous film character. His real legacy is encouraging Americans to think seriously about hard subjects—to think about the unthinkable, as he liked to put it. With respect to nuclear war, for instance, he asked a disturbing but necessary question: “Will the survivors envy the dead?” The answer, he insisted, was “no,” or at least it didn’t have to be “yes.”
Kahn always caused a stir when he discussed these matters, in part because of his fondness for macabre jokes. Wasn’t nuclear war to be avoided at all costs because the radioactive fallout would cause genetic mutations? Kahn replied with a quip: “It is possible, isn’t it, that parents will learn to love two-headed children twice as much?” Such wisecracks prompted earnest condemnations, but Kahn never let up. It is one of the qualities that makes him such a colorful character for a skillful biographer—someone with more talent and sharper judgment than Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, the author of an odd and disappointing new book called The Worlds of Herman Kahn. The dust jacket describes Ghamari-Tabrizi merely as “an independent scholar,” but she is in fact the product of a doctoral program in something called the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where graduate students apparently are taught to ask such off-the-wall questions as: “Did RAND’s futurological motifs bear any stylistic resemblance to the avant-garde in the fine arts?”
Because RAND concentrated on strategic airpower and related matters in Kahn’s day, you probably never thought to ask. Well, Ghamari-Tabrizi not only asks, she answers by referring to “the works of the beat and Black Mountain poets, bebop jazz, abstract expressionist painting, modern dance, ceramic sculpture, and critical psychotherapy in order to assemble the ‘formal vocabulary’ of the Cold War aesthetic of spontaneity.” It is probably the first time a scholar has discussed the links between Kahn and these diverse fields. Let’s hope it’s also the last.
There is much to be gained from a proper understanding of Kahn’s story—or what we might call the history of Kahnsciousness. RAND was founded in 1946 as a research organization that contracted exclusively with the branch of the military that was soon to become the Air Force. (The name RAND is a blend of R n’ D, as in “research and development.”) Its leaders believed that RAND’s long-range planners would function best if they were kept outside the formal chain of command. “No one in the Air Force anywhere is to tell RAND what to do or what not to do,” said General Curtis LeMay. The group’s original contract called for “scientific study and research on the broad subject of air warfare with the object of recommending to the Air Force preferred methods, techniques, and instrumentalities.” In 1950, a writer for Fortune visited RAND and compared it to “a kind of secular monastery—worldly in rubbing shoulders with the physical and social sciences, industry, and the military, yet monastic in its security isolation.”
As Kahn and his colleagues contemplated the development of airpower, they devised methods to anticipate the future of war. This led to all sorts of tensions with active-duty strategists, who sometimes resented having to listen to RAND’s civilian pointy-heads. Kahn had an effective response for them: “How many thermonuclear wars have you fought recently?” In truth, the supposed experts on this newfangled subject, including Kahn, were masters of conjecture. Yet one of RAND’s strengths during this period was its ability to generate fresh insights, however conjectural, by dragging additional brainpower into the national security debate. Today, by contrast, a figure such as Kahn might not jump in, because the modern academy frowns on people who boldly cut across disciplines. This observation has led some experts, such as Eliot Cohen of SAIS, to suggest that the War on Terror could benefit from attempts to replicate what RAND was able to accomplish 50 years ago.
In 1956, thanks in part to a grant from the Ford Foundation, Kahn became involved in the study of civil defense—i.e., non-military efforts to recover from nuclear attack. One of the central ideas to emerge from his research was the belief that nuclear war didn’t have to result in national obliteration. “There is obviously a difference between damage and annihilation,” Kahn wrote. “It is high time that the distinction was drummed into many key minds in our society.”
Kahn’s greatest offense probably came in 1960 with the publication of On Thermonuclear War, a hefty book whose title deliberately alluded to Carl von Clausewitz’s classic On War (which famously described military conflict as the continuation of politics “by other means”). In truth, Kahn’s book is a rambling mess—the work of a genius who could deliver a brilliant lecture but who also had trouble transferring his thoughts into the demanding medium of the written word. It nevertheless sold nearly 25,000 copies in 18 months, an impressive number for a book published by an academic press and intended for an elite audience. Many readers admired it, but the book threw others into conniptions: “This is a moral tract on mass murder: how to plan it, how to commit it, how to get away with it, how to justify it,” sneered a reviewer in Scientific American.
“Why do so many people regard you as a monster?” a reporter once asked Kahn. “There are a lot of reasons, none of which derive from my actually being a monster,” he replied. “One of the most important and obvious is the feeling that anybody who is interested in these kinds of problems must be a monster.”
Whatever Kahn was, he became too hot for RAND. “Its president considered him an inconvenient agitator for civil defense, not a good-will ambassador,” writes Ghamari-Tabrizi. Kahn knew he had to leave, and he did. With seed money from Thomas J. Watson Jr. of IBM, he and a pair of colleagues founded the Hudson Institute in 1961. “Basically we want to be the think tank for the Secretary of Defense,” he said. A year after opening its doors, the Hudson Institute could claim this achievement. “We at the Department of Defense have been living off the intellectual capital accumulated by Herman Kahn and others in this audience,” said Adam Yarmolinksy, an assistant to the defense secretary, in 1962.
The organization would serve as Kahn’s intellectual home for more than two decades, allowing its resident genius to focus on what he called “important issues, not just urgent ones.” His activities weren’t limited to strategic planning. Kahn also battled biologist Paul R. Ehrlich and the Club of Rome—leading doomsayers of the l960s and 1970s who wrongly predicted that overpopulation was an imminent global crisis. As the 1970s progressed, Kahn became increasingly neoconservative. In 1982, he published a prescient book on economics called The Coming Boom. He died the next year.
Today, Kahn is largely forgotten—or, when he is remembered, it is principally in the context of Dr. Strangelove and his “Doomsday Machine.” Five years ago, B. Bruce-Briggs, a former associate from the Hudson Institute, published a sympathetic but not uncritical biography called Supergenius. Unfortunately, it’s only available through lulu.com, an online publisher. With so little to compete against, plus the imprimatur of Harvard University Press, Ghamari-Tabrizi may find herself in the position of having written what will be considered by many as the definitive account of Kahn’s life and times. (Weirdly, she doesn’t even mention the Bruce-Briggs book in her footnotes.) That’s a shame, but perhaps also an opportunity for a certain kind of philanthropist—one who can find a way to work with a scholar who wants to see the history of the Cold War told, and told the right way.
Contributing editor John J. Miller is a writer for National Review and the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America, forthcoming this fall from Encounter Books.