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Herman Kahn on World Annihilation, 1965

Friday, October 26, 2012 - 09:00 AM

Herman Kahn addresses the members of the Overseas Press Club about "The Likelihood of Nuclear War at Some Point in the 20th Century," proclaiming the outlook is safer and calmer than five years before.

Kahn -- physicist, well-known "futurist," and partial inspiration for Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" -- claims that the biggest change has been in nuclear proliferation estimates. For example, China has tested a nuclear device, but India still seems to be debating whether such an escalation would be worthwhile, even though it has the means and know-how.  He argues that other countries with the capability to develop atomic weapons are hesitating, or have decided against it. Kahn also appears surprised that the U.S. government is showing "a higher degree of self-control than expected," e.g., in Vietnam it appears that even if a large number of U.S.  troops were in grave danger, the nuclear option would probably not be considered.  In general, Kahn argues that most world leaders (particularly the Soviet Union) are recognizing that aggression does not seem to "pay," although this is only a short-term prognostication. In the next 20 years or so he imagines there may well be significant proliferation leading to a myriad of smaller wars, though these wars would not necessarily go nuclear.

In the question segment of the talk, much of the conversation focuses on Vietnam. Kahn enthusiastically endorses bombing the North and makes interesting observations of the structure and composition of the South Vietnamese army. "We can hold Vietnam," he insists but adds that this should be done primarily with Vietnamese troops.

In many ways, Kahn personified the Cold War intellectual. Born in 1922, he began his career as a physicist, working on the Manhattan Project, but quickly made a name for himself as a policy advocate with his book On Thermonuclear War (1960).  This book intrigued and maddened people on both sides of the arms divide by cold-bloodedly envisioning a "winnable" nuclear war. Whereas most people refused to even face the nuts-and-bolts questions such an encounter would pose, Kahn offered practical solutions like serving contaminated food to old people (because they are more likely to die before the effects could manifest themselves) and dismissed the fear of a rise in birth defects by pointing out that 4 percent of the population already is born with some abnormality. The book certainly struck a chord, becoming an unlikely best-seller while inciting reactions such as this, from the magazine Scientific American:

Is there really a Herman Kahn? It is hard to believe….No one could write like this, no one could think like this. Perhaps the whole thing is a staff hoax in bad taste.

Kahn parlayed the success of his book into establishing his own think-tank, the Hudson Institute, which did contract work for corporations and governments, applying "game theory" and other sophisticated tools to predict possible military, political, and economic scenarios. Despite the Institute's proclamation that it was employing the highest scientific methods, many retorted that Kahn depended more on intuition and personality than hard data. Noam Chomsky, writing in The New York Review of Books, complained:

Kahn proposes no theories, no explanations, no factual assumptions that can be tested against their consequences, as do the sciences he is attempting to mimic. He simply suggests a terminology and provides a facade of rationality. When particular policy conclusions are drawn, they are supported only by ex cathedra remarks for which no support is even suggested … What is more, Kahn is quite aware of this vacuity; in his more judicious moments he claims only that "there is no reason to believe that relatively sophisticated models are more likely to be misleading than the simpler models and analogies frequently used as an aid to judgment." For those whose humor tends towards the macabre, it is easy to play the game of "strategic thinking" à la Kahn, and to prove what one wishes.

Kahn's attitude toward Vietnam, the next great area for think-tanks after the arms race, was hawkish, and he argued against all negotiation with the North, with the prescient caveat that directly increasing U.S. involvement would only make victory less likely. Employed by the Department of Defense, he took credit for coining the term "Vietnamization," the ultimately failed strategy of training the South Vietnamese to win the war themselves.

In addition to his consulting work and writing, Kahn was a colorful character and a much sought-after speaker, able to banter with the press (as heard here), yet also give 12-hour lectures (divided into two, six-hour segments) to academics and generals. Perhaps his most accurate prediction was foreseeing America's growing fascination with the future itself. He was constantly asked to weigh in on what would happen "in the year 2000" and beyond. In its obituary, The New York Times reported:

…his curiosity and interests seemed boundless. In an interview last fall, Mr. Kahn's reflections ranged from the tactics of manned bombers in conventional warfare to legalized gambling, from Brazil in the 21st century to the United States Postal Service, from the use of low dams in Colombia to "decapitating" nuclear strikes. "I'm against ignorance," Mr. Kahn said then. "I'm against sloppy, emotional thinking. I'm against fashionable thinking. I'm against the whole cliché at the moment."

Kahn died in 1983. He was 61.

 

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

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