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 second book, Thinking About the Unthinkable, and seems to have taken an overdose in this, his latest study of atomic unthinkability. What we have now is not only a more mellow Herman Kahn, but a cautious, and even a benign one—a veritable expurgated version of his former outrageous self. To be sure, many of the old elements are still there: people are optimistically trooping off to their civil defense drills, Russia and America are blasting each other with atomic bombs, and nations are bounding back to their former levels of prosperity in double-time. Even that Strangelove monstrosity, the “doomsday machine,” makes a return bout, and at virtually bargain basement prices (between $10 billion and $100 billion) although it is now dismissed as impractical and “not likely to affect international relations directly.” But the old gusto is gone, and with it some of the gems that made the first book such a landmark of (unintentional) sick humor—like the unforgettable comment of one blast victim to a vomiting fellow-victim suspected of malingering: “Pull yourself together and get back to work! You’ve only received a tenroentgen dose!”

Instead of such hearty stoicism, Kahn now admits that nuclear war will be no bed of roses. Which doesn’t, however, make it impossible. Or even unlikely. Like Clausewitz, on whom he seems to model himself, he wants us to consider how force, even nuclear force, can be used for political ends. Deploring our reluctance to use force sparingly for limited objectives, and then to use too much force once our emotions are aroused, he preaches a “cool, restrained and moderate willingness to threaten or use force.” And in the atomic age, force means atomic weapons.

A primer on nuclear arm-twisting On Escalation is not designed to shock but to instruct—to show how we can use our atomic weapons and still, perhaps, come out alive. Or at least kicking. Based on the premise, unexceptionable in the abstract, though deceptive in the specific, that “a very undesirable peace might have consequences…worse than those of many wars—even [some] thermonuclear wars,” it tells us how to avoid such an undesirable peace by being willing to wage certain kinds of atomic war. Rather than merely thinking about the unthinkable, Herman Kahn now speculates on how we can do the unthinkable—and maybe even get away with it.


Escalation, in Kahn’s definition, is a “competition in risk-taking,” not unlike the adolescent game of “chicken” in which the players try to gain prestige and humiliate their opponents by taking dangerous risks. Like chicken, it is no game for the faint-hearted, for as Kahn observes, “when one competes in risk-taking, one is taking risks. If one takes risks, one may be unlucky and lose the gamble.” And when one gambles with nuclear weapons, he might have added, there may be no return bout. Why, then, play the game at all, the unromantic might ask? Why not reach agreements without threatening to use force? Why not “reason together,” as a President impervious to other people’s reason keeps suggesting? Because, as Kahn tells us, “if either side desperately desires to make a settlement without harm or risk of harm, it is likely to get a very bad bargain.”

Having thus admirably defined Realpolitik as a global chicken-playing, Kahn constructs an escalation ladder by which nations can work their way up a series of forty-four graduated rungs from ordinary cold war unpleasantness to all-out nuclear oblivion. With the aid of analogies from history (metaphors) and hypothetical confrontations at various points along the ladder (scenarios), Kahn demonstrates some of the options that are open in the game of chickenmanship.

We begin our climb up Kahn’s Ladder with run-of-the-mill incidents like the Tonkin Gulf raids last summer (Subcrisis Maneuvering) and progress gradually to the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 which, although it had us all under our beds, seems to have been only at level 9 (Dramatic Military Confrontation). From there we push on steadily, breaking off diplomatic relations, fighting land wars and issuing nuclear ultimatums up to rung 17, where we start evacuating our cities for limited nuclear war. On reaching rung 21 we find ourselves in “bizarre crises” where we use atomic weapons in a frugal manner, stepping up the pace bit by bit (unless one side turns chicken and swerves off) until we finally arrive at rung 44 (Spasm or Insensate War). At this point the game is over. “All the buttons are pressed,” Kahn writes, with what I presume is mordant humor, “and the decisionmakers and their staffs go home—if they still have homes; they have done their job.” In this case, escalation was presumably a success, although the patient unfortunately died.

With his doomsday ladder, however, Kahn is not really trying to scare us. He has built a ladder, not an elevator, and to set foot on rung 1 doesn’t automatically whisk a nation up to rung 4—at least if it keeps its wits. In the abstract, nations always have the option of climbing off the ladder if the going gets rough. Whether in fact they would be able to do so once the bombs start falling in a “barely nuclear war” and cities start being traded like rugs at a Berber market is another story.

Adding increasing doses of nuclear weapons a little bit at a time, like oil into mayonnaise, Kahn is attempting nothing less than a demystification of nuclear war. Escalation becomes the means by which it is possible to open the atomic cupboard and take some of the small bombs off the shelf. In a world of atomic stalemate, limited nuclear battles are offered as the alternative to “all-out spasm war or peace at any price.” By taking the mystery out of nuclear war, Kahn transforms the traumatic into the ordinary. Which is why there was such an outburst of horror when his earlier books were published. We do not want nuclear war to be demystified, because we fear that the more ordinary it seems, the more likely it will be to occur. For most people, its unthinkability is the only guarantee of its improbability.

Once nations think they can get away with just a “little” nuclear war, won’t they be in for as big a surprise as the girl who thought she could be just a little bit pregnant? Even Kahn seems to sympathize with those who fear “that the more both sides believe in the possibility of nuclear bargaining…the more likely it is that such bargaining will be tried and that it will escalate.” But his answer (and it is not such a bad one) is that nations are going to engage in escalation anyway, so they might as well do so with some knowledge of the risks involved, rather than in total ignorance.


But if escalation may not be an automatic process, it requires cool nerves on both sides. Even more importantly, it demands a mature political judgment which can distinguish between essential risks and foolish ones, between vital interests and crude displays of power politics, between a Cuba and a Vietnam. For all its temptations, as Kahn points out:

The probability of war eventually occurring as a result of “chicken” being played once too often may be very high…After a while, the hypothetical danger of war may look less real than the tangible gains and the prestige that are being won and lost. It may turn out that governments learn only after peace has failed that it is not feasible to stand firm on incompatible positions…To rely even on slow, rung-by-rung escalation in international crises is a dangerous strategy.

This is not the counsel of a monster, but of a man deeply troubled by the implications of his own analysis and the uses to which it is likely to be put by those responsible for making political decisions. As an escape hatch from this nuclear nightmare, Kahn counsels arms control which would limit options and thereby reduce the dangers of escalation open to sovereign states. Although so long as states are sovereign, it seems unlikely that they would forego the temptations that escalation provides. Failing such self-restraint, the only other hope is some form of world government—which Kahn vaguely espouses, but for which he sees little prospect except as the result of a nuclear Armeggedon.

To add to the general gloom, British strategist Neville Brown agrees that limited (barely nuclear?) strategic warfare is a likely prospect for the future. While he admits that “controlled strategic strikes are not the ideal way of settling international disputes,” he finds a certain comfort, which his readers may not share, in the belief that “they need be no more savage and no more prone to escalation than other types of warfare.” In his learned, exhaustive, and rather exhausting study, Nuclear War: The Impending Strategic Deadlock, he is less interested in escalation per se than in explaining current strategies and weapons systems. An able defense correspondent for the New Statesman and former associate at the Institute for Strategic Studies in London, he has written a valuable reference work for the specialist which tells the general reader all, and perhaps more than, he wants to know about weapons and strategy.

The strategic deadlock of Mr. Brown’s title rests upon the arsenal of protected missiles which place America and Russia in a relatively stable atomic balance. They are in deadlock because neither side can destroy the other without being in turn destroyed itself. This leads Mr. Brown to see a world centered around the Russian and American deterrents as offering the best hope for nuclear stability. More concerned with the danger of nuclear proliferation than with the restraint of the great powers, he welcomes a Russo-American condominium as a way of preventing small nations from arming themselves with atomic and bacteriological bombs. With an earnest, though perhaps exaggerated, faith in the UN and NATO, he fears that “if either of these collective security systems should disintegrate or fade away, rapid nuclear proliferation is almost certain.”

Even without proliferation the future does not look very bright, since that very strategic deadlock Mr. Brown finds so promising offers the great powers temptations to escalation they might otherwise not dare attempt. As these two books make clear, the psychological wraps are slowly being stripped off atomic weapons, and what was once untouchable is now entering the military arsenal as just another weapon. Like the crossbow, gunpowder, and high-explosive bombs in an earlier age, nuclear weapons have become part of our mental furniture. The unthinkable has become a commonplace, and if the President should decide to use “little” atomic bombs in Vietnam tomorrow in the defense of “freedom and democracy,” who will be shocked? The major threshold may already have been crossed: the one in the public mind. With that barrier gone, escalation simply becomes a matter of logistics and of risk-taking in which the only limitation is the self-restraint of the players involved.

Herman Kahn has shown us how it can be done. Clausewitz with a computer, he demonstrates, in the words of his mentor, that even nuclear war may be “a real political instrument…a carrying out of [policy] by other means.” By reducing nuclear strategy to its logical conclusions, he has made nuclear war banal. And that which is banal, as Hannah Arendt has taught us, is rarely resisted. He is not telling us we should wage nuclear war; he is telling us how we might still survive if that is what we insist on doing.

The global game of chicken, after all, is not conducted by academic strategists, but by political leaders. It is they who will be tempted to use atomic weapons to impose unfavorable settlements on weaker rivals, and they who will hazard the risks of escalation to reap tantalizing rewards. In the new Augustan age now dawning in Washington, it is not American military power that limits the degree of escalation, but the hesitations of a democratic society which has not yet accepted the imperial role which has intoxicated its leaders. Unorganized and politically inarticulate though it may be, it is still the public which seems to be blocking the nation’s steady ascent up the escalation ladder. The authority for this is no less than Herman Kahn himself who, in a recent lecture recounted by the astute Washington correspondent of the London Times, described how the United States was in a position to do almost anything it wanted to do in Vietnam, even bombing China. “I asked,” the reporter wrote, in words that speak for us all, “why it did not exercise that enormous power, and quite simply he said ‘public opinion’.” Vox populi: a restraint which Clausewitz never felt, but which may now have become our court of last resort.

This Issue

July 15, 1965