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Primer: Herman Kahn September 10, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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I usually try not to ramble on here about the area in which I have the most expertise: the 20th-century policy sciences.  I like to see what’s been done in other sub-fields, and what happened in various times and places, and I don’t want to harp on the same subject again and again.  However, I thought I’d take the opportunity with this week’s Hump-Day History post to highlight a really fascinating and controversial character who is the subject of a book that is both lively and, in my opinion, important.

Herman Kahn (1922-1983) was trained as a physicist, achieved record scores on the Army’s mental aptitude tests, and in 1947 joined the RAND Corporation (founded in Santa Monica in 1946).  The RAND Corporation, the first of many nonprofit policy think tanks of the postwar era, was initially envisioned as a place where far-sighted R&D projects could be conceptualized and tested for feasibility.  Its first research report was on the possibility of launching an earth-orbiting satellite.  However, by 1950, the organization had also developed the new specialty of systems analysis.  By the mid-1950s (cutting a long and fascinating story short), systems analysis had morphed from being an adjunct of design engineering into a form of policy analysis, wherein entire technological systems and policies for their use were subjected to rigorous analysis so that preferable systems and policies could be identified and developed.

Herman Kahn switched specialties and became RAND’s most famous and notorious systems analyst: his ideas were one of the inspiration’s for Stanley Kubrick’s icon of the Cold War nuclear intelligentsia, Dr. Strangelove.  What Kahn advocated was an adventurous exploration of future scenarios using whatever information and ideas happened to be available.  In his view, the future was enormously indeterminate, and he had no illusions that analysis could offer any guarantees about what would happen or should be done.  However, he also believed that it was better to undertake whatever preparations could be undertaken in anticipation of possible eventualities.  In the context of the Cold War, this meant “thinking about the unthinkable”: what form would nuclear war take? how could it be fought most effectively? how could the nation survive it? how could the nation rebuild afterward?

Kahn did not desire nuclear war, nor did he feel that it was inevitable.  Rather, he felt, should politics and peace efforts fail, it would be irresponsible and immoral not to have prepared for it.  To alert the government and military to what would be necessary in the event of war, Kahn used darkly humorous lectures to explore the logistics of profoundly unfunny subjects.  In 1960, he took his unique brand of futurism to the public in a bizarre and rambling work entitled On Thermonuclear War, in which he explored the principle of deterrence by proposing a Doomsday Machine that would be automatically programmed to irradiate the face of the earth if the nation were ever attacked (the machine would play a crucial role in Kubrick’s movie a few years later).  He also outlined macabre scenarios for World Wars III, IV, and beyond.

Kahn’s many critics were apoplectic that he would even have the audacity to consider such possibilities as anything other than an outrageous disaster for humanity that simply could never be allowed to occur.  His (and other nuclear strategists’) scenario-spinning became the subject of a critique holding that they made the inherently insane seem within the bounds of reason, and thus that they brought it closer to reality.  Kahn’s often arrogant demeanor did not help quell the criticisms: he sometimes pointed out that he could argue his opponents’ positions better than they could, and then show them why they were wrong.  However, some opponents who sat down to talk with him often found him engaging and sympathetic to their concerns.

Kahn’s brand of systems analysis was not typical of work at the RAND Corporation.  His outlandishness fell on the far side of the analyses of scenarios, strategies, and technological systems; although the open-ended nature of his speculations were of a kind with the exploratory research that RAND did.  Kahn knew how to do serious policy analyses, but the sheer looseness of his preferred style and his new-found public notoriety soon drove a parting of ways with RAND.  He went on to open up his own think tank, The Hudson Institute, in the early 1960s, where he spent the rest of his career.

University of Illinois historian Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi wrote the book on Kahn: The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War.  I have my specialist quibbles with it, but really it’s nothing short of excellent.  Ghamari-Tabrizi follows Kahn’s career, explains the thinking and motivation behind his work, puts it in the context of not only Cold War nuclear anxiety, but also modernist improvisational art and music, and (perhaps most importantly) the taboo-destroying sick humor of Lenny Bruce and MAD Magazine.  It’s well-argued, entertaining, and a great starting point for anyone who wants to try and understand the meaning and argumentative force of not only systems analysis, but all the postwar policy sciences.  Also highly recommended: Hunter Heyck’s biography of Herbert A. Simon (subtitled “The Bounds of Reason in Modern America”), a far less colorful, but probably more important figure, who inhabited a (somewhat) different corner of these sciences.  The best published source on RAND’s military consulting is Martin Collins’ Cold War Laboratory.


1. Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi - September 11, 2008

Dear Dr. Thomas
I’m grateful to you for drawing attention to Kahn and my book.
My decision to plunk Kahn into the cultural stream of his moment has been — shall we say — controversial in some quarters. Whether or not the reception of Kahn’s sick jokes must be understood within a public arena that included Jules Feiffer, Lenny Bruce, Mad Magazine, Dick Gregory, and children’s sickjokes is ultimately a historiographical decision. My point was to highlight the grotesque conjunction of sick jokes and nuclear strategy. Whether or not one could hear his point — in the way he meant it — seems to me to be an index of one’s understanding of the various social and cultural movements in society at the time.

2. Will Thomas - September 11, 2008

I’m a bit surprised that it’s controversial, because I thought you handled the argument very well. It’s true that a lot of the nuclear humor of the period was used to ridicule the arms race (as you demonstrate, especially with the illustrations you pick out), where Kahn took the arms race seriously. But, looking at it from a larger perspective, Kahn used the same strategy of humor (especially in his private military briefings) to broach the reality of topics that were not generally considered within the realm of polite conversation. He could not have done this in other times and places, which is why your discussion of the humor of the period works so well for me. Thanks for the comment, Sharon! (None of this “doctor” business around here).

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