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Herman Kahn

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Herman Kahn
Kahn in 1965
Born(1922-02-15)February 15, 1922
DiedJuly 7, 1983(1983-07-07) (aged 61)
Alma materUniversity of California, Los Angeles (BS)
California Institute of Technology (MS)
Known forNuclear strategy
Notable workOn Thermonuclear War

Herman Kahn (February 15, 1922 – July 7, 1983) was an American physicist and a founding member of the Hudson Institute, regarded as one of the preeminent futurists of the latter part of the twentieth century. He originally came to prominence as a military strategist and systems theorist while employed at the RAND Corporation. He analyzed the likely consequences of nuclear war and recommended ways to improve survivability during the Cold War. Kahn posited the idea of a "winnable" nuclear exchange in his 1960 book On Thermonuclear War for which he was one of the historical inspirations for the title character of Stanley Kubrick's classic black comedy film satire Dr. Strangelove.[1] In his commentary for Fail Safe, director Sidney Lumet remarked that the Professor Groeteschele character is also based on Herman Kahn.[2] Kahn's theories contributed to the development of the nuclear strategy of the United States.

Early life and education[edit]

Kahn was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, the son of Yetta (née Koslowsky) and Abraham Kahn, a tailor.[3] His parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He was raised in the Bronx, then in Los Angeles following his parents' divorce.[4] Raised Jewish, he later became an atheist.[5] Kahn graduated from Fairfax High School in 1940 and served in the United States Army during the Burma campaign in World War II in a non-combat capacity as a telephone lineman.[6] He received a Bachelor of Science at UCLA and briefly attended Caltech to pursue a doctorate before dropping out with a Master of Science due to financial constraints.[7] He joined the RAND Corporation as a mathematician after being recruited by fellow physicist Samuel Cohen.[8]

Cold War theories[edit]

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. Kahn is often cited (with Pierre Wack) as a father of scenario planning.[9]

Kahn argued for deterrence and believed that if the Soviet Union believed that the United States had a second strike capability then it would offer greater deterrence, which he wrote in his paper titled "The Nature and Feasibility of War and Deterrence".[10]

The bases of his work were systems theory and game theory as applied to economics and military strategy. Kahn argued that for deterrence to succeed, the Soviet Union had to be convinced that the United States had second-strike capability in order to leave the Politburo in no doubt 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.[11]

In 1962, Kahn published a 16-step escalation ladder. By 1965 he had developed this into a 44-step ladder.[12]

  1. Ostensible Crisis
  2. Political, Economic and Diplomatic Gestures
  3. Solemn and Formal Declarations
  4. Hardening of Positions – Confrontation of Wills
  5. Show of Force
  6. Significant Mobilization
  7. "Legal" Harassment – Retortions
  8. Harassing Acts of Violence
  9. Dramatic Military Confrontations
  10. Provocative Breaking off of Diplomatic Relations
  11. Super-Ready Status
  12. Large Conventional War (or Actions)
  13. Large Compound Escalation
  14. Declaration of Limited Conventional War
  15. Barely Nuclear War
  16. Nuclear "Ultimatums"
  17. Limited Evacuations (20%)
  18. Spectacular Show or Demonstration of Force
  19. "Justifiable" Counterforce Attack
  20. "Peaceful" World-Wide Embargo or Blockade
  21. Local Nuclear War – Exemplary
  22. Declaration of Limited Nuclear War
  23. Local Nuclear War – Military
  24. Unusual, Provocative and Significant Countermeasures
  25. Evacuation (70%)
  26. Demonstration Attack on Zone of Interior
  27. Exemplary Attack on Military
  28. Exemplary Attacks Against Property
  29. Exemplary Attacks on Population
  30. Complete Evacuation (95%)
  31. Reciprocal Reprisals
  32. Formal Declaration of "General" War
  33. Slow-Motion Counter-"Property" War
  34. Slow-Motion Counterforce War
  35. Constrained Force-Reduction Salvo
  36. Constrained Disarming Attack
  37. Counterforce-with-Avoidance Attack
  38. Unmodified Counterforce Attack
  39. Slow-Motion Countercity war
  40. Countervalue Salvo
  41. Augmented Disarming Attack
  42. Civilian Devastation Attack
  43. Controlled General War
  44. Spasm/Insensate War

Hudson Institute[edit]

In 1961, Kahn, Max Singer and Oscar Ruebhausen founded the Hudson Institute,[13] a think tank initially located in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, where Kahn was living at the time. He recruited sociologist Daniel Bell, political philosopher Raymond Aron and novelist Ralph Ellison (author of the 1952 classic Invisible Man).

The Year 2000[edit]

In 1967, Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Wiener published The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Three Years, which included contributions from staff members of the Hudson Institute and an introduction by Daniel Bell. Table XVIII in the document[14] 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

Later years[edit]

In Kahn's view, capitalism and technology held nearly boundless potential for progress, while the colonization of space lay in the near, not the distant, future.[15] 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 a number of books extrapolating the future of the American, Japanese and Australian economies and several works on systems theory, including the well-received 1957 monograph Techniques of System Analysis.[16]

In 1970, Kahn published the book The Emerging Japanese Superstate in which he claimed that Japan would play a large role in the world equal to the Soviet Union and the United States.[17] In the book, he claimed that Japan would pursue obtaining nuclear weapons and that it would pass the United States in per-capita income by 1990, and likely equal it in gross national product by 2000.[17] During the mid-1970s, when South Korea's GDP per capita was one of the lowest in the world, Kahn predicted that the country would become one of the top 10 most powerful countries in the world by the year 2000.[18]

In his last year, 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. On July 7 that year, he died of a stroke, aged 61.[19]

Personal life[edit]

His wife was Rosalie "Jane" Kahn. He and Jane had two children, David and Debbie.

Cultural influence[edit]

Along with John von Neumann, Edward Teller and Wernher von Braun, Kahn was an inspiration for the character "Dr. Strangelove" in the eponymous film by Stanley Kubrick released in 1964.[1][failed verification] After Kubrick read Kahn's book On Thermonuclear War, he began a correspondence with him which led to face-to-face discussions between Kubrick and Kahn.[20] In the film, Dr. Strangelove refers to a report on the Doomsday Machine by the "BLAND Corporation". Kahn gave Kubrick the idea for the "Doomsday Machine", a device which would immediately cause the destruction of the entire planet in the event of a nuclear attack. Both the name and the concept of the weapon are drawn from the text of On Thermonuclear War.[21] Louis Menand observes, "In Kahn’s book, the Doomsday Machine is an example of the sort of deterrent that appeals to the military mind but that is dangerously destabilizing. Since nations are not suicidal, its only use is to threaten."[21]

Kahn also inspired the character of Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) in the 1964 film Fail Safe.[22]


Outside 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. ISBN 1-41283004-4
  • 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)
  • 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 involving Kahn:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Paul Boyer, 'Dr. Strangelove' in Mark C. Carnes (ed.), Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, New York, 1996.
  2. ^ Fail Safe (DVD). Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. 2000.
  3. ^ Ghamari-Tabrizi, Sharon (June 30, 2009). The Worlds of Herman Kahn: the intuitive science of thermonuclear war. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674037564 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ McWhirter, William A. (December 6, 1968). "The Think-Tank Man". Life. Vol. 65, no. 23. pp. 110–126. Herman Kahn is an atheist who still likes rabbis, and a liberal who likes cops.
  6. ^ Ghamari-Tabrizi, Sharon (April 22, 2005). The Worlds of Herman Kahn: the intuitive science of thermonuclear war. Harvard University Press. p. 63. ISBN 978-0674017146.
  7. ^ "Herman Kahn (1922-1983)". www.atomicarchive.com. Retrieved December 29, 2022.
  8. ^ Tietz, Tabea (February 15, 2022). "Herman Kahn and the Consequences of Nuclear War". Retrieved December 29, 2022.
  9. ^ Schwartz, Peter, The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World, New York: Currency Doubleday, 1991, p. 7
  10. ^ Kahn, Herman (1960). "The Nature and Feasibility of War and Deterrence".
  11. ^ "On Thermonuclear War", Herman Kahn
  12. ^ Concepts and Models of Escalation, The Rand Corporation 1984
  13. ^ "Hudson Institute > About Hudson > History". Hudson.org. June 1, 2004. Archived from the original on February 5, 2012. Retrieved February 21, 2012.
  14. ^ "The Year 2000", Herman Kahn, Anthony J. Wiener, Macmillan, 1961, pp. 51–55.
  15. ^ "The Next 200 Years", Herman Kahn, Morrow, 1976.
  16. ^ Kahn, Herman; Mann, Irwin (June 1957). Techniques of Systems Analysis. RAND Corporation.
  17. ^ a b Oka, Takashi (December 13, 1970). "The Emerging Japanese Superstate". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved May 7, 2024.
  18. ^ "[월간조선] 朴正熙와 46년 전에 만나 "한국 10大 강대국 된다"고 했던 美미래학자, 그는..." Retrieved October 4, 2016.
  19. ^ "Herman Kahn". www.atomicarchive.com. Retrieved April 27, 2017.
  20. ^ Maloney, Sean (2020). Deconstructing Dr. Strangelove: The Secret History of Nuclear War Films. Potomac Books. p. 24. ISBN 9781640121928. Retrieved August 10, 2022.
  21. ^ a b "Fat Man – Herman Kahn and the Nuclear Age", Louis Menand, The New Yorker, June 27, 2005
  22. ^ "Watching Fail Safe at the End of the World". Vanity Fair. May 8, 2020.

Further reading[edit]

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