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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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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.