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Interview with Herman Kahn, author of On Escalation, May 11, 1965
|Born||February 15, 1922
Bayonne, New Jersey
|Died||July 7, 1983
Chappaqua, New York
|Occupation||futurist, military strategist, systems theorist|
|Known for||On Thermonuclear War|
Herman Kahn (February 15, 1922 – July 7, 1983) was one of the preeminent futurists of the latter third of the twentieth century. He was a founder of the Hudson Institute think tank and originally came to prominence as a military strategist and systems theorist while employed at RAND Corporation, USA. He was known for analyzing the likely consequences of nuclear war and recommending ways to improve survivability; a notoriety that made him an inspiration for the title character of Stanley Kubrick's classic black comedy film satire, Dr. Strangelove .
His theories contributed to the development of the nuclear strategy of the United States.
Kahn was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, the son of Yetta (née Koslowsky) and Abraham Kahn, a tailor. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He was raised in the Bronx, then in Los Angeles following his parents' divorce. Despite being raised Jewish, he later on became an atheist. He attended the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), majoring in physics. During WWII he was stationed by the Army as a telephone linesman in Burma. After World War II, he finished his B.S. at UCLA and embarked on a Ph.D. at Caltech. He dropped out for financial reasons, but did receive an M.Sc. Following briefly working in real estate, he was recruited to RAND by his friend Samuel Cohen, the inventor of the neutron bomb. He became involved with the development of the hydrogen bomb, commuting to the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in Northern California and working closely with Edward Teller, John von Neumann, Hans Bethe, and mathematician Albert Wohlstetter.
Cold War theories
Kahn's major contributions were the several strategies he developed during the Cold War to contemplate "the unthinkable", namely, nuclear warfare, by using applications of game theory. (Most notably, Kahn is often cited as the father of scenario planning.) During the mid-1950s, the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration's prevailing nuclear strategy had been one of "massive retaliation", enunciated by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. According to this theory, dubbed the "New Look", since the Soviet Army was considerably larger than that of the United States, it therefore presented a potential security threat in too many locations for the Americans to counter effectively all at once. Consequently, the United States had no choice but to proclaim that its response to any Soviet aggression, anywhere, would be a nuclear attack.
Kahn considered this theory untenable because it was crude and potentially destabilizing. Arguably, the "New Look" invited nuclear attack by providing the Soviets with an incentive to precede any conventional, localized military action worldwide (e.g., in Korea, Africa, etc.) with a nuclear attack on U.S. bomber bases, thereby eliminating the Americans' nuclear threat immediately and forcing the U.S. into the land war it sought to avoid.
In 1960, as Cold War tensions were near their peak following the Sputnik crisis and amidst talk of a widening "missile gap" between the U.S. and the Soviets, Kahn published On Thermonuclear War, the title of which clearly alluded to the classic 19th-century treatise on military strategy, On War, by German military strategist Carl von Clausewitz.
Kahn rested his theory upon two premises, one obvious, one highly controversial. First, nuclear war was obviously feasible, since the United States and the Soviet Union currently had massive nuclear arsenals aimed at each other. Second, like any other war, it was winnable.
Whether hundreds of millions died or "merely" a few major cities were destroyed, Kahn argued, life would in fact go on, as it had for instance after the "Black Death" of the 14th century in Europe, or in Japan after a limited nuclear attack in 1945, contrary to the conventional, prevailing doomsday scenarios. Various outcomes might be far more horrible than anything hitherto witnessed or imagined, but nonetheless, some of them in turn could be far worse than others. No matter how calamitous the devastation, the survivors ultimately would not "envy the dead." To believe otherwise would mean that deterrence was unnecessary in the first place. If Americans were unwilling to accept the consequences, no matter how horrifying, of a nuclear exchange, then they certainly had no business proclaiming their willingness to attack. Without an unfettered, unambivalent willingness to push the button, the entire array of preparations and military deployments was merely an elaborate bluff.
The basis of his work were systems theory and game theory as applied to military strategy and economics. Kahn argued that for deterrence to succeed, the Soviets had to be convinced that the United States had a second strike capability, in order to leave no doubt in the minds of the Politburo that even a perfectly-coordinated, massive attack would guarantee a measure of retaliation that would leave them devastated as well:
At the minimum, an adequate deterrent for the United States must provide an objective basis for a Soviet calculation that would persuade them that, no matter how skillful or ingenious they were, an attack on the United States would lead to a very high risk if not certainty of large-scale destruction to Soviet civil society and military forces.
This reasoning superficially resembles the much older doctrine of MAD, or "Mutual Assured Destruction", but Kahn was actually a vocal critic of that doctrine, which was due to John von Neumann. Strong conventional forces were also a key element in Kahn's strategic thinking, for he argued that the tension generated by relatively minor flashpoints worldwide could be thereby effectively siphoned off without undue resort to the nuclear option.
Due to his willingness to articulate the most brutal possibilities, Kahn came to be disliked by some, although he was known as amiable in private. Unlike most strategists, Kahn was entirely willing to posit the form a post-nuclear world might assume. None of the conventional issues bothered him. Fallout, for example, would simply be another one of life's many unpleasantnesses and inconveniences; even the much-ballyhooed rise in birth defects would not doom mankind to extinction, because in any event a majority of the survivors would still not be affected by them. Contaminated food could be designated for consumption by the elderly, who would presumably die anyhow before the delayed onset of cancers caused by radioactivity. A degree of even modest preparation — namely, the fallout shelters, evacuation scenarios, and civil defense drills now seen as emblematic of the paranoid 1950s — would give the population both the incentive and the encouragement to rebuild. He even recommended the government offer homeowners insurance against nuclear bomb damage. Kahn felt that having a strong civil-defense program in place would serve as an additional deterrent, because it would hamper the other side's potential to inflict destruction, thus lessening the attraction of the nuclear option. A willingness to tolerate such possibilities might be worth it, Kahn argued, in exchange for sparing the entire continent of Europe in the more massive nuclear exchange more likely to occur under the pre-MAD doctrine.
A number of pacifists, including A.J. Muste and Bertrand Russell, admired and praised Kahn's work, because they felt it presented a strong case for full disarmament by suggesting that nuclear war was all but unavoidable. Others criticized Kahn vehemently, claiming that his postulating the notion of a winnable nuclear war made one more likely.
In 1961 Kahn, Max Singer and Oscar Ruebhausen, founded the Hudson Institute, a policy research organization then located in Croton-on-Hudson, New York which was also where Kahn was living at the time. Luminaries such as sociologist Daniel Bell, political philosopher Raymond Aron and novelist Ralph Ellison, author of the 1952 classic Invisible Man, were recruited by the institute. Stung by the vociferousness of his critics, Kahn softened his tone somewhat, responding to their points in Thinking About the Unthinkable (1962) and a further work on military strategy, On Escalation (1965). Between 1966 and 1968, during the peak of the Vietnam War, Kahn served as a consultant to the Department of Defense and opposed the growing pressure to negotiate directly with North Vietnam, arguing that the only military solution was sharp escalation. Failing that, he said, the U.S. government had to have an exit strategy, and Kahn claimed credit for introducing the term "Vietnamization". Herman Kahn and the Hudson Institute advised against starting a counterinsurgency war in Vietnam, but once it was going, they gave advice on how to wage it. He said in an interview that he and the Hudson Institute preferred not to give advice to e.g. the Secretary of Defense, because disagreement at such a high level was regarded as treason, whereas disagreement with, say, the deputy undersecretary was regarded as only technical. The US brought in British advisers having experience from their successful counterinsurgency war in Malaya and constructed a plan with their help. But Kahn and the Institute judged that Vietnam was different from Malaya because the British had an effective rural constabulary in Malaya. They did a study of the major counterinsurgency wars in recent history and found a 100% correlation between successful wars and effective police forces. Kahn said "the purpose of an army is to protect your police force. We had an army in Vietnam without a purpose."
The Year 2000
In 1967 Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Wiener published The Year 2000, A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Three Years with contributions from other staff members of the Hudson Institute and an introduction by Daniel Bell. Table XVIII contains a list called "One Hundred Technical Innovations Very Likely in the Last Third of the Twentieth Century." The first ten predictions were:
- 1. Multiple applications of lasers.
- 2. Extreme high-strength structural materials.
- 3. New or improved superperformance fabrics.
- 4. New or improved materials for equipment and appliances.
- 5. New airborne vehicles (ground-effect vehicles, giant or supersonic jets, VTOL, STOL.)
- 6. Extensive commercial applications of shaped-charge explosives.
- 7. More reliable and longer-range weather forecasting.
- 8. Extensive and/or intensive expansion of tropical agriculture and forestry.
- 9. New sources of power for fixed installations.
- 10. New sources of power for ground transportation.
The remaining ninety predictions included:
- 26. Widespread use of nuclear reactors for power.
- 38. New techniques for cheap and reliable birth control.
- 41. Improved capability to change sex of children and/or adults.
- 57. Automated universal (real time) credit, audit and banking systems.
- 67. Commercial extraction of oil from shale.
- 74. Pervasive business use of computers.
- 81. Personal pagers (perhaps even pocket phones.)
- 84. Home computers to "run" households and communicate with the outside world.
With the easing of nuclear tensions during the détente years of the 1970s, Kahn continued his work on futurism, with speculations about a potential Armageddon. The Hudson Institute sought to refute popular apocalyptic essays such as Paul Ehrlich's "The Population Bomb" (1968), Garrett Hardin's similarly reasoned "The Tragedy of the Commons", published in the same year, and the Club of Rome's "Limits to Growth" (1972). In Kahn's view, capitalism and technology held nearly boundless potential for progress; the colonization of space lay in the near, not the distant, future.  In his last year of life (1983), Kahn wrote approvingly of Ronald Reagan's political agenda in The Coming Boom: Economic, Political, and Social, and bluntly derided Jonathan Schell's claims about the long-term effects of nuclear war. Kahn's 1976 book The Next 200 Years, written with William Brown and Leon Martel, presented an optimistic scenario of economic conditions in the year 2176. He also wrote several works on systems theory, including the well-received work Techniques in System Theory, as well as a number of books extrapolating the future of the U.S., Japanese and Australian economies.
Kahn died of a stroke in 1983, at the age of 61.
Kahn was reportedly one of the models for Dr. Strangelove from the eponymous film by Stanley Kubrick, released in 1964 (other prominent influences were John von Neumann, Edward Teller, and Wernher von Braun). It was said that Kubrick immersed himself in Kahn's book On Thermonuclear War. Kubrick actually met Kahn personally, and Kahn gave him the idea for the Doomsday Machine, which would immediately destroy the entire planet in the event of a nuclear attack. In the film, Dr. Strangelove refers to a report on the Doomsday Machine by the "BLAND Corporation". The Doomsday device is precisely the sort of destabilizing tactic that Kahn himself sought to avert, since its only purpose was a threat or bluff rather than actual military application.
Also based upon Kahn was Walter Matthau's maverick character Professor Groteschele in Fail-Safe, in which the U.S. President (played by Henry Fonda) tries to prevent a nuclear holocaust when a mechanical malfunction sends nuclear weapons heading toward Moscow.
- Frankel, Benjamin; Hoops, Townsend (1992). The Cold War, 1945–1991: Leaders and Other Important Figures in the United States and Western Europe. Gale Research. p. 248. ISBN 0-8103-8927-4.
- "LIFE - 6 Dec 1968". Life: 121–123. 1968. "Herman Kahn is an atheist who still likes rabbis, and a liberal who likes cops."
- "Hudson Institute > About Hudson > History". Hudson.org. 2004-06-01. Retrieved 2012-02-21.
- "The Year 2000", Herman Kahn, Anthony J. Wiener, Macmillan, 1961, pages 51–55.
- "The Next 200 Years", Herman Kahn, Morrow, 1976.
- Leary, Timothy (1980). The Politics of Ecstasy. Ronin Publishing; 4th edition. Berkley, California. ISBN 1-57951-031-0
Outside of physics and statistics, works written by Kahn include:
- 1960. On Thermonuclear War. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-313-20060-2
- 1962. Thinking about the unthinkable. Horizon Press.
- 1965 On escalation: metaphors and scenarios. Praeger. 
- 1967. The Year 2000: a framework for speculation on the next thirty-three years. MacMillan. ISBN 0-02-560440-6. With Anthony Wiener.
- 1968 Can we win in Viet Nam?. Praeger. Kahn with four other authors: Gastil, Raymond D.; Pfaff, William; Stillman, Edmund; Armbruster, Frank E.
- 1970. The Emerging Japanese Superstate: challenge and response. Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-274670-0
- 1971. The Japanese challenge: The success and failure of economic success. Morrow; Andre Deutsch. ISBN 0-688-08710-8
- 1972. Things to come: thinking about the seventies and eighties. MacMillan. ISBN 0-02-560470-8. With B. Bruce-Briggs.
- 1973. Herman Kahnsciousness: the megaton ideas of the one-man think tank. New American Library. Selected and edited by Jerome Agel.
- 1974. The future of the corporation. Mason & Lipscomb. ISBN 0-88405-009-2
- 1976. The next 200 Years: a scenario for America and the world. Morrow. ISBN 0-688-08029-4
- 1979. World economic development: 1979 and beyond. William Morrow; Croom Helm. ISBN 0-688-03479-9. With Hollender, Jeffrey, and Hollender, John A.
- 1981. Will she be right? The future of Australia. University of Queensland Press. ISBN 0-7022-1569-4. With Thomas Pepper.
- 1983. The Coming Boom: economic, political, and social. Simon & Schuster; Hutchinson. ISBN 0-671-49265-9
- 1984 Thinking about the unthinkable in the 1980s. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-671-47544-4 
- The nature and feasibility of war, deterrence, and arms control (Central nuclear war monograph series), (Hudson Institute)
- A slightly optimistic world context for 1975–2000 (Hudson Institute. HI)
- Social limits to growth: "creeping stagnation" vs. "natural and inevitable" (HPS paper)
- A new kind of class struggle in the United States? (Corporate Environment Program. Research memorandum)
Works published by the RAND Corporation:
- The nature and feasibility of war and deterrence, RAND Corporation paper P-1888-RC, 1960
- Some specific suggestions for achieving early non-military defense capabilities and initiating long-range programs, RAND Corporation research memorandum RM-2206-RC, 1958
- (team led by Herman Kahn) Report on a study of Non-Military Defense, RAND Corporation report R-322-RC, 1958
- Herman Kahn and Irwin Mann, War Gaming, RAND Corporation paper P-1167, 1957
- Herman Kahn and Irwin Mann, Ten common pitfalls, RAND research memorandum RM-1937-PR, 1957
- Herman Kahn, Stochastic (Monte Carlo) attenuation analysis, Santa, Monica, Calif., Rand Corp., 1949
- Barry Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius: The mega-worlds of Herman Kahn, North American Policy Press
- Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-01714-5 [reviewed by Christopher Coker in the Times Literary Supplement], nº 5332, 10 June 2005, p. 19.
- Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon, Stanford Nuclear Age Series, ISBN 0-8047-1884-9
- Kate Lenkowsky, The Herman Kahn Center of the Hudson Institute, Hudson Institute
- Susan Lindee, "Science as Comic Metaphysics", Science 309: 383–4, 2005.
- Herbert I. London, forward by Herman Kahn, Why Are They Lying to Our Children (Against the doomsayer futurists), ISBN 0-9673514-2-1
- Louis Menand, " Fat Man: Herman Kahn and the Nuclear Age", The New Yorker, June 27, 2005.
- Claus Pias, "Hermann Kahn – Szenarien für den Kalten Krieg", Zurich: Diaphanes 2009, ISBN 978-3-935300-90-2
- Essays about and by Herman Kahn
- Kahn's "escalation ladder"
- Andrew Yale Glikman: "Herman Kahn's Doomsday Machine" In: CYB + ORG = (COLD) WAR MACHINE, FrAme, 26/Sep/1999, Online
- RAND Corporation unclassified papers by Herman Kahn, 1948–59
- Hudson Institute unclassified articles and papers by Herman Kahn, 1962–84