This episode is from the WNYC archives. It may contain language which is no longer politically or socially appropriate.
Physicist and author of On Thermonuclear War discusses the likelihood of such a war in the 20th Century. Says there is less likelihood now than 5 years ago. rom card catalog: Herman Kahn, physicist and author of "On Thermonuclear War" discusses the likelihood of such a war.
Ansel Talbert introduces Kahn.
Kahn says that "modern war" doesn't pay for modern nations. Says that Red China doesn't pose such a great problem within the next 10 years because they are cautious and are not as insane as they are made out to be. Says decision makers are prudent and careful these days. Questions are posed to Kahn. Says technological advancement is _____ (as to weapons) if we have more money to spend on it. Says Vietnamese officers lack aggressiveness
Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection
WNYC archives id: 5785
Municipal archives id: T1425
This is a machine-generated transcript. Text is unformatted and may contain errors.
Ladies and gentlemen. Members of the overseas press Bob I'm absolute tall Brit bomber the board of the Overseas Press Club and red Muller our president asked me to represent him today we have a very distinguished guest with us I'm sure that everyone here is familiar with the background of our guest and I will just hit the high spots he's a young president is still young and about five years ago he wrote a book that shocked a lot of people around the world it was called on thermonuclear war. In this our guest Herman Kahn advance the thesis that. War with nuclear armaments was survivable and he started to fade which has continued ever since then he's written. Several other books numerous articles for magazines such as fortune and. Newspaper articles. He wrote a book called. Thinking about the unthinkable the unthinkable again being the subject of thermonuclear war and he's just written his latest book which is called escalation metaphors and scenarios. With that I'd like to introduce Mr Herman Kahn who is a physicist and one of America's Outstanding commentators on the international political and scientific sane so stick on. I'm glad to be here at the present. Joe asked me if I would discuss the topic of the likelihood of nuclear war some point the twentieth century. That's the next thirty five years and a topic which we've actually put a good deal of thought into. I would say if I'd been giving this talk say about five years ago I think automate the Esper substantially higher than I would today in a number of ways the world looks a lot safer and a lot calmer to us and it is five years ago and most because things have changed. The biggest change probably has been in our current estimates of the rate at which nuclear weapons will liberate. If you asked almost anybody in this field say or how long would it be the last ten fifteen countries who have nuclear establishments most people in say one thing six they would have said ten fifteen years and the rest were based on the fact that it's contrary to some popular opinion it's very easy to make nuclear weapons particularly if you happen to have a nuclear reactor now almost every car in the world can have a nuclear power plant of some kind and one can base programs on such plans for out any trouble. Valid reason to get a primitive delivery system and the assumption was that most countries would want this kind of equipment for various reasons. Today in part because of the fear of such effects. We have on the could this situations change. The Chinese to test the nuclear weapon and the Indians are still debating now I would guess that the Indians are very very close technically to having a nuclear weapon let me describe what I mean by that. Baaba was one of the great physicist of the twentieth century and in charge of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission has quoted a series of estimates as to how much would cost this country have nuclear weapons and he used his total number of fifty million dollars and they went down to ten and they went down to one and they went down to a few hundred thousand recently and I really told privately I don't know whether actively or not because the figures a few thousand dollars now have to this big Well if you're in charge of a large laboratory a large research program if you have access to the kind of equipment Bob has you can run such a research program as part of your normal physics research program so you can just go ahead and do it and it's no problem wish to literally to say assemble a bomb and have in the basement but not actually put it together not actually tested. The and that I am told by my Indian friends that there's some pressure that they try to test the device as a peaceful device for peaceful uses just to show the Chinese they have it and other Indians have told me I don't know what actually are not that bothered believe he's ahead of the Chinese today and I would guess that's reasonable the weather where. You have a strange situation of the words that a country has invaded India has tested a nuclear weapon has said in the end you know your enemy the Indians are either have a bomb or very close to having a bomb and do not go ahead and put your. That's a completely unexpected notion five years ago we didn't think it would be like that and when we go around the world we find that countries like Switzerland which have a strong sense that their armed services deserve the highest quality equipment and that they can always have the highest quality equipment are not going ahead and testing bombs though they've been looking at the way and Sweden has had the same thing that will have the bomb those looking into it and so on down the line now one of the reasons. For this reluctance is a general fear by everybody that this thing can get out of control very rapidly and if irritably was justified another very important reason for the control it is not a space has recent years shown a higher degree of self-control than we expected in one in the late fifty's most American military men thought that they had authorization if you will to think of nuclear weapons as being more or less conventional. And we expected to use them in any serious event today if you ask the average American military I would this is a gas and formal call of my own I can't claim any accuracy but I've asked military men the following thing let's assume you have a battalion of Americans a big now say a thousand people you're totally surrounded you have fractional kiloton weapons in your possession but you don't have missions to use them you feel them actually use these weapons your parents get wiped out do you think the president would give you permission to use them most of them say no back they all say one half of them say and he showed that it is better for us to die Americans episode jobs are to use it or have say better late no he wouldn't and he should I mean it is there can't there's a controversy about it but they all understand the need for the caution they understand that if we use nuclear weapons other people still get there's no fear to me that escalation of a man by the way it is quote almost inconceivable to us not is it conceivable that we use nuclear weapons of a man that the Chinese or the Russian would use nuclear weapons to be just too dangerous to them but that's not the issue the issue is we want to make this equipment Look unusable is it. The world of safe or for other reasons in a very very strange way the aggression doesn't seem to pay anymore for developed nations. And there is a kind of a disbelief and it and a disinterested aggression which is new in the world the two nations which are most prospering today Japan and Germany lost the last war they were red and lost their colonies the nations which the colonized European continent all nations are incredibly prosperous today then at noon the world used to be the other way. People tell jokes you may have probably heard this post once been a meeting in Israel where somebody said the square war in United States and then they'll beat us and then I'll go as a foreign aid program and will be very prosperous and as I'll be rabbi got up and said But our luck will went. Well you couldn't hold a job like that thirty years ago people would have understood what you meant. To say now they understand now I'm not saying wars don't pay historically many many wars have paid you know what I'm saying modern war tends not to pay for modern nations rise to status not modern war modern nations. May pay olfaction was may pay for modern nations or modern was made paper old fashioned nation but modern war does nothing to pay for modern nations that's an interesting fact that even the strong within that at the institute we have a tendency to talk about a decline and so we didn't use the as a summit in talk I would call that line of Soviet nerd now that it's crap what I mean by that and I don't want to hold so it's cheap by the way but this is one of the major source of direction today for me to look at them. The service has had two major victory since World War two China and Cuba. Now I would guess they're very impressive analogies to China as a victory today they would maybe just assume not have had that victory was a cubit to the maybe and of the two are Cuba's very part of the Soviet Union among the men in history but it's both of course so if you're so much for your four hundred million dollars a year to support Cuba it's not a country which life gives that amount of weight money away like let's say. To give is there what I mean. If you want a service today and said to them Look we can give you a united Germany is Western United communist but not quite as I would Union do you want I would guess they would look at it and say you know we do but looks to us like worse than China you know this is now Germany you know and maybe we don't want it in fact I think they thought about ten minutes they would say no we don't want he went to so he said look we can give you a commerce Colombia tomorrow but a regime which is a crackpot now has had to come compass up and be crackpots because the likely throw the economy away the way say the first two years if you with the throw away their economy so you have to support it but we're four years or see Go Pro Chinese they might be in developing this AM It's a very strange situation well. Well that's the current situation you seem to have over much of the world. We everybody of course is worried about China some of my colleagues refer to China as the R.H. menace you know the old yellow of the old red line that together. I think that tends to be some overestimate of the likelihood of Chinese aggression and the power of Chinese are very aggression so I think it's a proper S.T.'s been in some ways of Chinese current intentions. By this by the way I don't mean that the Chinese are crazy the Chinese people spend about half their time trying to convince us they're crazy and Russia spent all their time trying to commence that the Chinese are crazy so there are sort of two experts on the subject you know and they can be telling us these people are insane but if you examine Chinese behavior you find it amazingly cautious you know they don't attack for most they don't attack him or imagine they don't take over Macau Hong Kong are still independent they attack in the but in the is it prepared they're careful as far as we can say they are likely to remain so. The other hand they are a an oppressive country historically over the last two thousand years most that period China was the preeminent power in the world and they have the Chinese and South of the second period history they may come back so I'm not saying that they will never be a problem I am saying for the next decade or so they too don't look like the kind of ferocious probably sometimes they describe newspapers I wouldn't want to leave with the impression however that everything is somehow going well. I would not be with the other oppression either I literally don't know. Currently we have a serious study of the astute trying to look ten twenty thirty forty years ahead now where convention can slip more than five or ten years ahead in other words. We have found in the past that five or ten years ahead seems to be quite reasonable you can guess what's going to happen a little bit make conjectures you can do studies may seem to be the real gods but trial of say twenty five years ahead is like trying in one hundred with World War One and the aftermath of asylum in the zone or trying insane one hundred twenty to protect the depression in the rise of hip the rise of Japan so we've been pent up again. Never for trying to look twenty thirty forty years ahead and it turns out whatever its words. I guess the right of the easy to write scenarios in which you can see escalation is occurring using the pure weapons being used you can see all kinds of violence this is not in a sense a prediction it's simply noticing that a lot of problems which have now are not of great seriousness of less next five or ten years can mature in the next ten twenty thirty for example a problem I first started when I saw discussion. I can easily imagine that ten years from now only one or two additional nations that know the weapons but I find to my heart with that twenty years from now that'll be Joe they'll just be too widespread too easy the basic capabilities. I find a lot of nations today which are relatively weak will be getting access to weapons and will be frustrated various ways be hostile will be respected maybe. There's not a prediction of disasters with action the trouble can occur I guess it's more likely just to try to answer Joe's question which may run out of the head that we do have a nuclear war in the twentieth century it's more likely between between two small powers than two large powers a number of reasons. Live or die situation had the nineteenth century all of the great nations were carrying modern naval forces but were cautiously each other in the first war which occurred occur between the two nations should acquire the naval forces last China Japan I mean there were the ones somehow I was most willing to risk or actually depends ones with the risk that could happen again as such a war need not be a total disaster I was introduced as predicted that a nation could survive a war and so have the time people seem to believe that means you would enjoy a war. That would say that you can survive means you know that some of it isn't so bad. Anybody resent them as the wars never go away fitting of a war is a bad co. What I did say in the book this is can see we lose ten twenty thirty million people even I said it was fifty one hundred cities and recover not only conceivable but every study we had done of that and since in the case that this is the reason less than the one can never really know because these are in power and that is because events but the war I'm talking about that may occur in the next ten twenty thirty years may not even be of that magnitude Otherwise if you have a swore between two countries most likely every other counties to be very cautious about intervening and if they have been they have been carefully if they can in such a way that it doesn't blow up one of the things you really notice about the world today is that decision makers are not reckless by and large they are frightened fearful deterred Prudence careful and you can see that every day's headlines. Is a can we do the kinds of terrible things today which were thought of as impossible ten twenty thirty years ago. We push the Russians around they push us around and nobody. Gets very aggravated can afford to. What I'm saying is that in my judgment if the next ten years I'd like to be relevant because I think they will you do have a chance to rock the boat you do have a chance of these reforms you do have a chance revolution I mean you can do so you can use the time and that is where sort of think about using this time for some other nurses is that if the next five or ten years are complex ten twenty thirty may not be. Seen as a time to do the things you think you ought to be done to make the world safer and we have some recommendations not a great deal Pern time on the other hand. Even if you somehow didn't use the time well and some much more likely that you will then you will you still may not face total disaster so to speak used to you history may continue wars may occur or dictators may arise charismatic leaders may take over and expand and history may be somewhat similar to the past without blowing up at the one final or gas expands instructions towards entire world. Once again I repeat has no guarantees here we do know how to build a coal doomsday machines we know from the engineering point to have a destroy world I don't think anybody will build such devices I mean and I don't think that built they would have the use but the world is different I mean these are now possibly never were before the point is many people confuse the possible with a certain you know because a war might blow up if you're a passable because a doomsday machine might be built that good it's already been built. Because you might lose a hundred million people if something escalated they feel it will escalate and you will lose an event people this is not a prescription for taking chances I think should be clear from the whole tone of my top that I don't believe in the world but one should be reckless it is a prescription for not getting hysterical they're not collapsing. Just because the issues are momentous just because they're dangerous just because the. Lives of millions of people somehow are at stake it's more important to be detached careful thoughtful serious you know in other words. You don't deserve less hard thinking just cause the issue gets more important you deserve somehow more Thank you very much. I think we have time for a few questions I like the question as to you for say that during the next twenty or thirty years I'm radically new weapons I presume and I know play or feel of a development will change a situation. Many cases questions of technological breakthroughs really turns out to be a cost question let me try what I mean by you if you go back to June one thousand nine hundred fifty you find that United States was debating whether the budget should be fourteen fifteen or sixteen billion dollars the previous year been taking a half. Braddy night out that's why that eighteen would be bankrupt at sixteen would be NO REASON NUMBER North Korea margin of South Korea and Congress authorized sixty billion dollars increase by a factor of four now the more they authorized that budget they made Clara's technologically possible they may be free to think Marty possible they made Minuteman technologically possible they made Atlas Titan So one technology possible we had that authorization these would be technologically impossible today because you can't put them into a fifteen by not a bunch. So I think the question should be asked a little differently is it possible if you increase the budget say we're spending seven or eight B.N. a year now in central war say to fifteen which is you know would it make a difference technologically to buy new equipment would change everything against it would make a very large difference. I don't think we would do it I'm not sure we should do it now but I'm saying you can do things which make a big difference the way was come out whether you should or not is an open issue the second question we have a technological development which all by itself without any change about making or the different night and day I don't think so. Do you feel that the anti missile program is going to keep up with a muscle program. I am originally willing to bet that our missiles will Johnny be able to get through our anti-missile and other words within our turn a research program we will keep up where the Russian vessels will be able to get through is a very controversial question depending upon what you how good you think their research is versus our research it is a race kind of thing. The anti-missile program is not likely though to be a very good negation the problem there is that is it turns out that to shoot down incoming missile you know it's like trying to shoot one but again how to pull the head on that side ought to be easy to everybody's surprise. And forty's difficult to shoot a dodging bullet or a bullet which confuses you would by putting in a hundred fake bullets and it turns out to be much easier to intercept in the atmosphere than about the atmosphere well this means that you're more likely as just a machine to separate all which meeting explode the atmosphere would be just practice impossible to protect property. You can protect people and fact all of us that indicate that it's much easier protect people anybody tense the thing and also protect recuperation ability you can rebuild a society after the war but it's very hard almost impossible tech property and that property is a very adequate hostage and also a big thing to rest nobody wants to rebuild New York City you know with the totally destroyed. Could you describe Lee Hudson Institute of which Mr Harness director and president other banks I cringe when I left the Rand Corporation about four years ago they gave me a going away party and I referred to that it was a has a high level right. That didn't go well with my friends but that's my position. We have about thirty five staff people and one of our staff people went back to the university about six months ago and asked what I've been doing the last three years so I've been playing president. And they got a raise their eyebrows but he was perfectly accurate even trying to take a president's view of the problem secretary of state to the problem sector defense put you through the problem. We think it's important to have twenty or thirty people sort of full time trying to take you know a large picture look at the picture putting as much as you can of the various issues. When you're as broad as we try to be you of course run of the great danger of being superficial and you would be surprised occasionally we are in that position like all the time. You can't help it. Otherwise we have the exact opposite problem with an arm like Adenike who digs very deeply in any subject attention a very narrow he can't be parochial we're not parochial but we are afraid but it's relatively speaking not as deep as we'd like to be. Nevertheless we seem to be deep enough to get away with it. We have a lot of work which were find the best Much of the kind think we want to do. That we dispense with a little pocket Institute but haven't done it yet. We're mostly a contract supported and about five or six months we said going to fund raising campaign to try to where responses are long range studies which are not suitable for contract. Coverage with some of these you cannot fit into the government various ways and aside from that single gap in our program I would say we did quite well. I wonder if you could give us your projection for the development of our house or the war. Right now within the presence of the press is coming from this country and outside again the president the power. And all the pressure to get any political increase in mind and the American round. About a year ago I would probably have been slightly in a sane side I don't really object to bombing North. The seventy eighth parallel and if you have spears only get him around in Saigon I'd be willing to do it I mean a lot of things the moral issue I think is probably reason for us if we were to bomb not just the parallel in general like idea of observing sanctuary so that I be slightly locked into the big issue is because the war in South Vietnam. There I had the impression as we happened not to feel expert on South Vietnam we've not done any studies in South Vietnam my can speak freely. I have a rather strong opinion and I'm not sure how I base that is that purely administrative reforms were made that were a lot more successful. People talk about this being political war and that's crackers on the great piece of art of being military war and that's quite the some great it's also kind of a police war and I'm describing kind of things I mean. First and foremost counterinsurgency warfare puts enormous premium on the aggressiveness and capability of individual officers a little bit like the you about campaigns where there's differences of fact is ten to fifty in the core productivity of individual captains and you really can see this kind of change he was there now the Vietnamese army sees me in many ways a struggle a good army fifty one has been relevant short lifetime and then he beat them he's off to turn out to be very very good company great people but there's I can see by and large and I get this from newspaper stories and comes out with friends the Vietnamese officers tend to lack a certain kind of aggressiveness that's really very essential in connect with the warfare the reason his army is more or less modeled on the French colonial armies that is cutting off the class which is opera middle class very French speaking and generally want of with a high desire to go to Paris. The enlisted man have no chance for promotion really you have the high school degree from a get in and they don't have it listen I tend to be very good by the way and they fight to the last man they really do very well one suggestion I've had is spot promotions battles or emotions where you take these enlisted men to make officers out and when they turn to be very good for the become does they take the good ones the tough ones you know and one of their very fast this has a number of good effects if it works it creates a national army and makes it more of a country song it provides you with a lot of good young officers you've picked in there but they go. They get better because they've been promoted it puts pressure on their fellow officers by example by competition to well also. Now it does turn out these detainees in this event can't use a fork and don't know how to read and those are rather important characteristics for the officer I'm not being funny here I mean but I've noticed as I mentioned to friends of mine that support actors were often in peacetime not in wartime. Well there's a number of things of this type for example Next they say. Put down the hocks with actually outnumbered by the House by the way he didn't have a ten to one a five to one. The other way but he did it in part by this kind of technique of having an extremely high allow high morale army and partly by doing as a kind of a kind of place operation finding the names of the leaders arresting them joining them a killing them find the names leadership replace them arresting them joining them killing them and so on Emmeline and I actually said to the get leaders in this way this takes a certain kind of counterintelligence operation as a kind of police operation a certain kind of the terminal devotion I will get that man created man please buy things. I talked to a number of people but the other side of connoisseurs was there on the receiving end of it and they tell me it's very tough to win though they're in a desperate situation for the governorship to go home because going to realize how desperate they are as a one final comment to get this is. People don't realize the realizes that seven Al Capone almost ran Chicago with seventy people. It doesn't take many people to run a large city if you're sufficiently top of the term and I didn't run the city but he controlled large areas of it and by the way when he shot somebody down there were no witnesses to turn him in. That got offended. But I had the sense of you know it's a mistake it's very not opponent as it was by the way it was not you can't get out of home I just getting them as a mom you get new ones you gotta get Capone in the latest. So I'm not saying by the way the because a bunch of gangsters they're not but they use many techniques which gangs with yours. Well I know that we could go on all day discussing this subject which is certainly one of the most departing and interesting ones before the United States and all other nations but. I understand Mr Khan has other commitments I know you all have and I want to thank him very much the director of the Hudson Institute for being with us and discussing some of the problems of the age of nuclear armaments thank you very much. First I'd like to introduce the head table in a couple of other guests on my right as Mr Robert Sussman who is a consultant for the Hudson Institute. On the other side of the table is Joe Newman our program chairman for a number of. TIME Are the staff of The New York Herald Tribune. We have a lender wrote one of the most widely known writers on atomic energy and medicine of Reader's Digest. I saw The New York correspondent of the line and Daily Mail down there I think it's Mr Grimes of that. And the dean of all foreign correspondents Mr Albert state Stevens Crockett the well known from the right is ninety fourth birthday. And I'd appreciate it if those who wish to answer ask a question what state their name and affiliation. Over here. You phrase it all. Right. Well. China is a is either a developing or undeveloped nation that is technically its per capita cows run between fifty sixty dollars per capita makes underdeveloped but it starkly it's got the one of the richest cultures in the world you know me so we can't quite think it is primitive. I would guess that the Chinese could profit from. The kinds of wars they can fight back as you know but they would not profit from a larger war that Korea was close to disaster for them for example the last I think a million people and it was an absolute major all out effort which they would find very unpleasant to duplicate you know that's not what they profit from. And that their profits are not so large that it pays them to run these risks that the reason they do or for ideological reasons you know they have they do it because. They have a kind of a missionary crusading spirit and not on a cost effect on this basis it's not really a good business for them that's not doesn't mean they won't be in that business it just means that they were a boy who are capitalists they might not. But I have been asked to repeat the question. As a mask. One road. Down there. You. Are. Right. I think vice like sort of a pond. We don't make any computer calculations on these kind of things so it's this one human is the judgment it's not human it's the judgment the way these are literary statements you know you you discuss that. The basis of the character lation is the notion that in a way which is rather surprising given the historical record that decision makers in the five or six big nations are amazingly potential and cautious today now there's no law of God or Nature says they have to save the cautious and prevent you know no love God and act as our judgment is right. Now but that's the judgment of the US Based on that that people are frightened by these devices but they have a sense of restraint. That they have a sense that we don't have to build everything that can be built if you look at the current U.S. defense program example to go back to say one hundred fifty seven at that time we were basically designing sixty megaton bombs at the city was made perfectly arbitrary By the way not to build it ourselves or people said it's not useful I would deny that the military point of you stick to make the bombs look quite useful to me but not that useful you know this is worth it if you asked why don't we have a major civil defense program in this country today I think it's because in this case somewhat exaggerated fears a touch of an office defense arms race but that's the rationale to a lesser extent that's why we don't have not that the technical problem is country here the technical issues tend to be more important but this great issue if you look at the United States the Soviet Union you find at the mid fifty's they spent from say fifteen to twenty percent the gross national product and both very good they spent about half that amount and the expected to increase see. Whether or not I repeat this sense of restraint of prudence of care will continue in all the major decision makers I just don't know but it would not surprise me if we think for a decade or two. Or a holiday of the Christian Science Monitor. Here critter. I there in there. Somewhere in the next ten years I know you didn't say. You. Weren't really in the race going to work for me can you. Relate to the. Sex. My position is really quite similar to that cushy of this expression is one hundred sixty one speech he said all out war ridiculous much too dangerous limited war ridiculous might escalate not would escalate might escalate now is too strong I have them it was but he said sort of against him was a national liberation by which he means murder ambush terror SAS nation you know this all this kind of thing very peaceful compared to these other things. And yes I expect to have a good deal of them. And I think they're exactly the right kind of war that we ought to be funny if we have to fight wars what other kind of what would you want to fight in some sense the notion that people have another States is not suited to fight these wars is I think only partly correct in many ways has started we've been very good at that conference I see war b