TCS Daily

Laughing All the Way to the Brink

By James Pinkerton - August 24, 2005 12:00 AM

What to make of Herman Kahn, more than two decades after his death? Was he the prototype for Dr. Strangelove, or was he a sage for the new age of reason?

The title of a new book, The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War, by Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, gets at the idea that there was more than one Kahn. He was, in fact, a man who veered from strategist to comedian to futurist -- sometimes in the same sentence.

Back during the Cold War 50s and 60s, when the shadow of The Bomb darkened the national mood, Kahn struck a chord with honest talk about the future that loomed ahead. As his biographer explains, "Kahn was determined to prove to his audience that most ideas about nuclear war were maudlin, sleepy, badly formulated, and factually wrong." Interestingly, Americans responded; two of Kahn's books, On Thermonuclear War (1960) and Thinking About the Unthinkable (1962), became best-sellers.

Kahn laced his grim work with even grimmer humor. In lectures he would role-play the part of the president of the United States, agonizing over a decision to go to nuclear war, knowing that American cities would be destroyed. And then, switching to his own voice, he would say, "It's OK, we've built some spares." Needless to say, not everyone appreciated Kahn's schtick. His ideas and his physique (he weighed 300 pounds) were the subject of merciless critique and satire. The 1964 movie "Dr. Strangelove" is premised on Kahn's idea for a "doomsday machine," even if the title character has almost nothing in common with Kahn -- a dissimilarity that Kahn the ham might have regretted, on the "just spell the name right" principle.

Without a doubt, Kahn was a publicity hound. He once quipped, "I am one of the ten most famous obscure Americans" -- not bad for a fellow who never made a movie, or recorded a song, or hit a baseball. In the words of Kahn's contemporary, the sociologist Amitai Etzioni, "Kahn does for nuclear arms what free-love advocates did for sex: he speaks candidly of acts about which others whisper behind closed doors."

Some of Kahn's detractors insisted that nuclear war was too horrible even to think about. Even worse, the detractors added, the act of thinking about such a war made it seem more normal, more possible, more plausible.

Kahn's response was that the nuclear threat is a reality we have to deal with. If we don't deal with reality, no matter how unpleasant, others -- notably the Soviets -- will, anyway. So we have no choice but to think about the unthinkable. And by the way, buy my book.

In fact, Kahn identified at least two serious issues that deserved a full debate.

First, he wanted a rethink of US nuclear policy in the 50s. In that decade, in the wake of the Korean War stalemate, the Eisenhower administration moved toward a stated policy of "massive retaliation." That is, no more frustrating land wars in Asia, no small stuff. The new approach would be "massive retaliation" -- which is to say, if you poke us, we'll nuke you. The reality behind massive retaliation was that it was a cost-saving exercise for Ike's bean counters masquerading as a grand doctrine. As Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson explained, by relying more on nuclear weapons, as opposed to conventional ground forces, the country could "get more bang for the buck."

The problem with this approach, of course, is that some crises are small, not big; they justify only a minor retaliation, as opposed to a major retaliation. A good example was the US response to the bloody Soviet suppression of Hungary in 1956. Americans were outraged -- the Hungarian Freedom Fighter was Time magazine's Man of the Year -- but what was Uncle Sam supposed to do? Were we supposed to attack Moscow because T-34s were rampaging through Budapest? Or, to put it another way, was it worth losing New York City to an inevitable Soviet counterattack? Were the Hungarian freedom fighters worth that much to us? Eisenhower's ultimate answer was "no" -- which left the US with nothing to do as the Soviets reconquered their captive nation.

A more nuanced answer came from Kahn and others: "flexible response." That is, the US response would be variable, according to the threat. But Kahn's signature contribution was the idea of "escalation," which he ultimately worked out into a 44-rung "ladder" of escalation, beginning with "ostensible crisis" and "political, economic and diplomatic gestures," then moving all the way up through conventional and nuclear tit-for-tatting, and ending, finally, with "spasm or insensate war."

Flexible response and escalation were hardly perfect -- they helped get us into Vietnam, for example. But to apply Kahnian logic, it's much better to lose 60,000 Americans in Vietnam through a mistaken use of flexible response than to lose 60 million Americans through a mistaken use of massive retaliation.

Unfortunately, these difficult issues have lasted longer than the Soviet empire. There's not much chance these days that the US will get into a nuclear exchange with a superpower, but there's a decent enough chance that the US will suffer a nuclear strike of some sort -- say, from a suitcase bomb. What to do then? Do nothing until we're exactly sure who did it -- if that's ever even possible? Or do we strike back at the generalized enemy, e.g. "Islamo-fascism"? And do we use nukes ourselves? These are, to put it mildly, difficult questions. But surely it's better to be thinking of answers now, in advance, rather than in the wake of an atomic helter-skelter, when perceptions and judgments will be skewed by the passions of the moment.

A second issue that Kahn wrestled with was civil defense. He wanted more of it, and yet was constantly opposed by those who either a) wanted to pinch pennies, or b) didn't want to do anything that would make nuclear war seem more acceptable. "But there is a difference between damage and annihilation," Kahn declared -- and damage was better. Indeed, Kahn was curiously optimistic about American prospects, post-nuke. With proper planning, relatively few people would die, he maintained.

Today, civil defense is still important. As technology accelerates, the destructive power of nuclear weapons, plus whatever other kinds of WMD that might be dreamed up somewhere in the world, will inevitably accelerate, also. And so whole cities could be vulnerable to the mass-murdering whim of a single individual, and it's tough to defend against that. In which case, civil defense -- including perhaps, the systematic dispersion of the population -- will be as important in the future as it was in Kahn's day. Indeed, the stoicism of the population in the face of multitudinous mortal threats on the homefront will be a major factor in national strength and resolve.

For his part, Kahn was confident in his prediction: "bourgeois virtues survive." In other words, American pluck and industry will always undergird a comeback for the nation.

That was Kahn: ruthless in his thinking about the present, including possible present-day wars, but at the same time, just as relentless in his optimism about the future. In the words of Ghamari-Tabrizi:

        "Kahn's world picture was rooted in a faith in necessary inventions (that technical 
        and scientific innovations evolved by necessity), in the perpetually new 
        of the modern (that with each wave of technical innovation the defense avant 
        garde had to be willing to think in a permanently new way), in human resiliency 
        (that foresight erred by way of apocalyptic exaggeration; having staggered 
        through near-millennial crises before, humankind would do so again), and in the 
        absence of limits to growth (that the earth bore distinct properties, 
        yet its riches and powers were illimitable; there would always be more science 
        to extract). Likewise, human ingenuity was infinitely adaptable. In its engineered 
        stuff, human will propelled itself beyond the puny rotation of generation 
        and corruption."

In the preceding paragraph, one might note the words "absence of limits to growth." In the 70s, as the nuclear threat faded, new issues, notably the environment, came to the fore. And Kahn was on the barricades for that big fight, too. In 1972 the Club of Rome -- a self-important title if there ever was one -- published The Limits to Growth, a neo-Malthusian tract that ultimately proved to be as disastrously wrong as the original 1798 essay. But for a time, The Limits to Growth seemed like The Answer. Jerry Brown, for example, was elected in 1974 as the Democratic governor of California on an "era of limits" platform, and everybody back then figured he'd be the next Californian to be elected president. But of course, first we had to have another limits-to-growther in the White House, Jimmy Carter.

But in 1976, the same year that Carter was elected, Kahn published a counterattack. In The Next Two Hundred Years: A Scenario for America and The World, Kahn and his co-authors at the Hudson Institute rejected Club/Brown/Carter-style doom and gloom, declaring instead, "200 years from now we expect almost everywhere [human beings] will be numerous, rich, and in control of the forces of nature."

And in Kahn's mind, "nature," and its potential to serve humanity, was big indeed: "If limits set by a 'finite earth' really exist, they can be offset by the vast extra-terrestrial resources." Yup, Kahn's optimism was literally limitless; he was ready, in his mind at least, to slip the surly bonds of earth and travel into the heavens, there to seek resources, more territory, and mankind's true destiny: a "space-centered" civilization. As Kahn wrote when he was feeling especially bold, "Open the Age of Reason -- Colonize Space!"

Kahn died in 1983. During the last decade of his life, and in the decades since, the space program has lagged. That's a potential calamity for humanity, as weapons expand relative to the earth, but Kahn was never one to give in to counsels of despair. He would always be looking for a new idea, a new scenario -- a new hope.

Indeed, in his last few years, he helped fuel the counter-offensive against the voguish "limitsism" of the 70s. One beneficiary of Kahn's effort was Ronald Reagan, who was elected on a "no limits to growth" platform in 1980. And so it was fitting that the 40th President paused to note his passing:

        "Herman Kahn was a futurist who welcomed the future ... All who value 
        independent thinking will mourn the loss of a man whose intellect and enthusiasm 
        embraced so much. I convey my deepest sympathy to Mr. Kahn's family and all 
        those who believe tomorrow can be better than today."

So how to remember Kahn? Biographer Ghamari-Tabrizi, who sits on the dovish left end of the spectrum, is not overly fond of her subject and his works, but she picked him because she knew he was, and is, important.

Kahn's contributions on nuclear strategy, civil defense, economic growth, and space exploration speak for themselves. But what's also important for others who might seek to follow in his footsteps is that the big man had fun doing what he did. He lived, laughed, thought -- and ate -- heartily. His enthusiasm was infectious, which made him all the more effective at "memeing" others. Kahn's biographer includes this quote as a chapter-heading epigram:

        "To stay cheerful when involved in a gloomy and exceedingly responsible 
        business is no inconsiderable art: yet what could be more necessary than 
        cheerfulness? Nothing succeeds in which high spirits play no part."

Who said that? Why Friedrich Nietzsche, of course, in 1889. Nietzsche was a rather difficult figure. Yes, he is central to our philosophical and cultural tradition, and yet the German philosopher had a personal dark side -- and some very dark-souled followers. Still Kahn would agree with the spirit of the quote. And if a troublesome German said it first? Well, there's a joke in there somewhere, and Kahn would surely want to tell it.



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