The Magazine

Thinking Big

Herman Kahn didn't shrink from the fundamental questions.

Sep 7, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 47 • By GARY SCHMITT
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The Essential Herman Kahn

In Defense of Thinking

edited by Paul Dragos Aligica
and Kenneth R. Weinstein

Lexington, 286 pp., $29.95

When Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove first appeared in movie theaters in 1964, it was Peter Sellers's portrayal of the wheelchair-bound, ex-Nazi adviser to the president on nuclear strategy that grabbed the most attention from audiences and, to this day, remains the most memorable role in the film. Based on Strangelove's hilarious discussion of possible plans for living in a post-nuclear-war world--including the need for a 10:1 ratio of females to males in order to repopulate the country--movie historians have linked the role, in part, to the Cold War nuclear strategist Herman Kahn. Given Kahn's own writing about fighting and surviving a nuclear war, it was no surprise that he became a prime target of the disarmament crowd in the early 1960s.

And Herman Kahn was no small target. He was an immense man, standing over six feet tall and weighing some 300 pounds, with an equally impressive intellect and gift (and love) for driving public policy debates. On the staff at the RAND Corporation in the 1950s, he was part of a group of mathematicians, physicists, and economists who gave the emerging discipline of nuclear strategy far greater depth and sophistication than it had ever had before. After leaving RAND, he founded the Hudson Institute, a think tank with a reputation for addressing some of the most difficult and challenging policy disputes of the day. Kahn died in 1983 after a massive stroke, age 61.

What has been missing is a single volume providing access to Kahn's thought and, more important, his insights on how to think about public policy. That has now been remedied by The Essential Herman Kahn. Edited and introduced by Paul Dragos Aligica and Kenneth Weinstein, it is a compilation of two dozen selections from Kahn's writings intended to provide today's reader with a sense of the substance of Kahn's work and also of his approach to tackling issues.

Broken into four parts, The Essential Herman Kahn reflects his wide range of interests: from nuclear strategy to prospects for economic growth, from the state of Western culture to methodologies for forecasting. Kahn, as one might guess, would be no easy man to condense; but Aligica and Weinstein have done a remarkably good job of it.

Included in this collection is Kahn's effort to battle with the cultural and economic pessimism of the late 1960s and 1970s. The arguments of the limits-to-growth crowd were as shoddy and lacking in analytic rigor then as they appear today under the new green consciousness. If Kahn were alive he would, no doubt, have been at the forefront of dismantling the likes of Al Gore.

But Kahn was not a conservative thinker in the sense that preserving the status quo was foremost in his mind. Although deeply appreciative of the many past factors that were required to bring about vast improvement in human welfare, he was also fully aware that there is no stopping the train of history. His analysis, insights, hopes, and worries about the ramifications of the post-industrial age we had just entered are still of value today. Indeed, as the editors point out, one problem in assessing Kahn's place in the realm of public intellectuals is that "an important part of the ideas he promoted meanwhile have become part of the public discourse in such a profound manner that now we tend to take them for granted."

That said, and despite his capacity to deliver his ideas in a grand, china-
rattling fashion, Kahn's own views about how best to think about the future were essentially modest. A substantial part of the Essential Kahn is his admonition that policy analysts need not only to think rigorously and seriously about the future--what he sometimes referred to as attempts to "stretch the imagination"--but to understand the limits of what they can predict. There were certainly tools to be employed, like extrapolations from current trends, or the use of analogies from history; but they could be abused just as easily as not. The proper perspective for a futurologist was to understand he was engaged in a kind of "planned muddling through."

Nor was Kahn unaware of the impact such studies might have on the future itself. Analyzing where civilization might be taking us is not some dry, purely scientific endeavor. To the contrary, how mankind thinks about its future can't help but have an impact on how that future unfolds. Writing in the late 1970s, but with words just as relevant today, Kahn noted that "perhaps the single most important thing" an analyst like himself could do "would be to substitute reasonably accurate positive images of the future for the depressing images that now prevail." There was, he thought, something deeply troubling about the West's loss of confidence in itself.

The black humor of Dr. Strangelove was a small but not atypical reflection of that fact. And obviously, Peter Sellers's portrayal of Strangelove was not meant to be a sympathetic one. But typically missed by the critics is the fact that the movie itself pays considerable, if unintentional, homage to Kahn's own views that the prevailing theories of nuclear deterrence were inadequate and, indeed, dangerous. Although the script was written by Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern, the subtext is pure Herman Kahn.

Kahn had ridiculed the concept of mutual assured destruction (appropriately dubbed MAD) by extrapolating it to its logical, technological conclusion: the creation of a "doomsday machine" in which an attack, even a limited nuclear attack by an adversary, would result in an automatic, computer-generated release of a world-destroying stockpile of hydrogen bombs. Kahn's point was that a model of deterrence that rested on the certainty of total annihilation should a war begin was strategically absurd and self-defeating since it was highly unlikely any president would ever pull that trigger.

In the movie it's the Russians who have built the doomsday machine, and it is Dr. Strangelove who tells the president that, yes, he too had thought about such a machine but "my conclusion was that this idea was not a practical deterrent for reasons which at this moment must be all too obvious." To which the president, now knowing that all of civilization is about to be destroyed, says simply: "This is absolute madness." As, indeed, it was.

Along with his fellow RAND and Hudson strategists, Herman Kahn got the last laugh by continuing to think about the unthinkable and, in turn, making sure that American strategic thought did not end in a simple-minded nihilism.

Gary Schmitt is resident scholar and director of advanced strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute.