Was the United States willing to kill millions of Russians, and to put millions of Americans at risk of dying in a counterattack, in order to prevent, say, South Korea from going Communist?
Or West Berlin? There had to be some options available between disapproval and annihilation. The doctrine of massive retaliation was a deterrent—a way to prevent war—but it was inherently destabilizing. National defense policy required something more nuanced, and figuring out what, since Eisenhower was uninterested, fell to the people at rand. In , he spent a semester at the Center for International Studies, at Princeton, and then toured the country delivering lectures on deterrence theory. The first is that nuclear war is possible; the second is that it is winnable.
Most of the book is a consideration, in the light of these assumptions, of possible nuclear-war scenarios.
The Essential Herman Kahn
In some, hundreds of millions die, and portions of the planet are uninhabitable for millennia. In others, a few major cities are annihilated and only ten or twenty million people are killed. Just because both outcomes would be bad on a scale unknown in the history of warfare does not mean, Kahn insists, that one is not less bad than the other. Kahn believed—and this belief is foundational for every argument in his book—that the answer is no. His point is that unless Americans really do believe that nuclear war is survivable, and survivable under conditions that, although hardly desirable, are acceptable and manageable, then deterrence has no meaning.
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If the enemy believes that you will not tolerate the deaths of, say, twenty million of your own citizens, then he has called your bluff. Deterrence is insured by a credible second-strike capability—by what the United States can do after a Soviet nuclear attack. Again, the threat of apocalypse is not proof against a minor infraction.
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Fallout will make life less pleasant and cause inconvenience, but there is plenty of unpleasantness and inconvenience in the world already. More babies might have birth defects after a nuclear war, but four per cent of babies have birth defects anyway. Whether we can tolerate a slightly higher percentage of defective children is a question of trade-offs. One symptom of radioactive poisoning is nausea, Kahn explains, and, when one person vomits, people around him will start to vomit, convinced that they are dying. If the dosimeter indicates that no one has received more than an acceptable dose of radiation, everyone can stop throwing up and get back to work reconstructing the economy.
Kahn dismisses the notion that a society that has just suffered the obliteration of its cities, the contamination of its soil and water, and the massacre of a large portion of its population might lack the civic virtue and moral fibre necessary to rebuild. This is true, except that, unlike most of the defense establishment in the nineteen-fifties, Kahn was an early advocate of civil defense.
He was the champion salesman of the fallout shelter, and was especially excited by the potential of mineshafts as evacuation centers. Having more shelters than the Soviets is like having more missiles: it is another way of saying, Go ahead, make our day. We can take your nuclear hit and come right back at you. The United States could not afford a mineshaft gap. Facilities for the evacuation of millions cost too much to construct.
In the nineteen-fifties, the people who were enthusiastic about fallout shelters and evacuation drills, the now derided emblems of Cold War domestic culture, were liberals. All of the hundred million black-and-yellow fallout-shelter signs that appeared in the United States during the Cold War were put up by the Kennedy Administration—which also made Kahn happy by distributing two million dosimeters.
The book received praise from a few prominent disarmament advocates and pacifists: A.
Muste, Bertrand Russell, and the historian and senatorial candidate H. Not only pacifists believed this. Other reactions were more predictable. The National Review thought that the book was not hard enough on Communism. Most anti-nuclear advocates thought that arguing that a nuclear war was winnable only made one more likely. His house was picketed. His original plan was to make a realistic thriller. But Kubrick could not invent a plausible story in which a nuclear war is started by accident, so he ended up making a comedy, adapted from a novel, by a former R.
This was truer than she may have known. Since nations are not suicidal, its only use is to threaten. Peter Sellers picked up the accent from the photographer Arthur Fellig, known as Weegee, when he was visiting the studio to advise Kubrick on cinematographic matters.
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But one source was Kahn. Kahn received something more lasting than money, of course. Strangelove, and he bore the mark of that association forever. Mordancy was his usual mode; Ghamari-Tabrizi compares him at one point to Charles Addams. Ghamari-Tabrizi has some enterprising pages comparing this sort of ob-la-di, ob-la-da banter with the satire of contemporaries like Mort Sahl and Jules Feiffer, and with the sick humor of Lenny Bruce and Mad.
This is one of the places, though, where she seems to be reaching. He was a believer. Questioning military policy was his business; questioning the policies that military policy is designed to protect and enable was not. In this, he was like most of the Cold War defense intellectuals. The attitude was: We are trained scientists.
And we conclude that the world as it is—in this case, a global rivalry between two nuclear powers in an escalating arms race—is acceptable provided that the policy changes we recommend are adopted. Complications and qualifications are swatted away like flies.
He addresses anxieties about the effects of fallout by analyzing three radioactive isotopes, noting, almost incidentally, that there are about two hundred other isotopes in fallout, which he does not discuss. His margins of error can be staggering. The widespread panic about a missile gap was an artifact of this bias. In , rand estimated that the Soviets had three hundred intercontinental ballistic missiles; in fact, even in , the year John Kennedy became President, after a campaign accusing Eisenhower of letting the United States fall behind in the arms race, the Soviet Union had only four missiles in its arsenal.
It was an enormous myth that anything was studied. Nothing was studied. Not really. He was enormously smart. Kahn had a reply to this objection, which was that the insistence that nuclear war is immoral will never prevent nuclear war. The reason his scenarios are fantastic to the point, almost, of risibility is that they deliberately ignore all the elements—beliefs, customs, ideas, politics—that actual wars are fought about, and that operate as a drag on decision-making at every point. Kahn was writing during the Khrushchev period, after Sputnik and during the Berlin crisis, when levels of Soviet bellicosity were high.
But even if Soviet behavior had been more pacific his analysis would have been the same, for his methodology, the rand methodology, required him to posit an eternally and implacably hostile enemy. Computer modelling, thermonuclear exchanges, survivable fallout shelters, post-war scenarios--Kahn was in the thick of these debates and his views shaped the way military planning was conceived. And in the process has delivered to us a riveting, original, and troubling image of the calculus of modern war.
Ghamari-Tabrizi is superb at providing, in compelling narrative, the cultural context for Kahn, his work and some of his more outlandish statements He was vilified for his beliefs and, as the author so capably demonstrates, he seemed to love every second of it A rotund, joke--cracking extrovert, the loquacious Kahn reveled in prodding presumptions that nuclear war was too horrible to contemplate.
Her exploration of Kahn falls in line with the contemporary fad for demented comedy, and a Ghamari-Tabrizi unbounded by a political-science stricture will attract readership beyond the wonks. It is an adventurous approach, and rewarding when it works. Ghamari-Tabrizi , an independent scholar who specializes in the social studies of science and technology, tracks his uncanny ideas and public meanings and in the process excavates the Cold War in ways that resonate eerily with the present war on terror Kahn freely used fiction throughout his work and was sometimes impatient with tedious empiricism, proposing that it did not matter what had actually happened, only what could have happened.
His books were full of numbers, but the numbers and graphs measured nothing real, describing only hypothetical events and future possibilities. His ideas oscillated along the edge of reason and unreason, fact and fiction. The Worlds of Herman Kahn is a book that should be widely read. If we foreground the cognitive and emotional palette of these years rather than its pathology, we can enter vitally into its world.
Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi makes clear in her new biography of Kahn In his book, he pointed out that, dreadful as an exchange of H-bombs might be, there were degrees of dreadfulness--arguing that just as having one loose lion roaming the city streets is worrying but survivable, a hundred lions could really ruin your day.