Metaphors and Scenarios
Nuclear War: The Impending Strategic Deadlock
If Herman Kahn didn’t exist, he would have to be invented. Indeed, he already has been. He is Dr. Strangelove, plotting “megadeaths” on computers deep in the bowels of the Pentagon. He is Dr. No, lying awake nights thinking of ways to plunge the world into an atomic Götterdämmerung. He is Dr. Mabuse, armed with “kilotons” and cobalt bombs. He is Our Lord of the Doomsday Machine, the evil genius that the atomic age has brought upon himself. No wonder we all find him so horrifying. He forces us to think impure thoughts and gaze into the technological abyss created by our own political ineptitude.
“Does Herman Kahn really exist?” one critic asked in outrage when Kahn’s now-notorious tome, On Thermonuclear War, appeared five years ago. A coldminded, and to most readers a coldblooded account of how to wage nuclear war and still “prevail,” it brought Kahn the kind of international fame enjoyed by such personalities as Moise Tshombe and Walter Ulbricht. With his slide rule and his atom smasher he became the monster of our nuclear nightmares, the mad scientist who would reduce us all to radioactive fallout.
What a surprise, then, to discover that Herman Kahn not only exists, but that he may not really be such a monster after all. Despite widespread skepticism, it now seems to be conclusively established that the cheery and rather corpulent man who has been spotted giving briefings to generals and lectures to ladies’ clubs, is indeed Herman Kahn. This person, who, for purposes of identification, we shall in any case call Herman Kahn, is now director of the Hudson Institute, a private “think factory” located in the woods near New York (but comfortably outside blast range) which he set up after leaving the semi-secret RAND Corporation a few years ago. There he has been studying such unapocalyptic matters as arms control and a more rational international order. From such studies came a series of lectures—described by Kahn as “a ‘left-wing’ presentation”—which form the basis of these speculations On Escalation.
Feeling unjustly accused of monsterdom, kahn swears that he is not really advocating all those terrible things he writes about. Like many a seeming Caliban, perhaps he is misunderstood. Which is not to say that he didn’t bring some of his misfortunes upon himself. His first book, On Thermonuclear War, for all its pace-setting brilliance on questions of atomic strategy, was the perfect model of political naivety. Kahn is a mathematician and a physicist—not a political philosopher. Reaching out of his depth by fusing dubious political judgments with computerized strategic options, he made it easy for critics to dismiss the implications of his sharp analysis. His political gaps were reinforced by a looseness of vocabulary that made him seem callous—if not actually sadistic—when he was probably only trying to be unemotional.
Herman Kahn had to learn that there is a delicate line between shaking people out of their apathy and shocking them out of their pants. He applied the lesson in his…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.