Book Review: The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War


by Sharon Ghamari Tabrizi

Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, 2005. 374 pages. Illus., notes, index. $26.95. ISBN:0-674-01714-5

Herman Kahn was one of the first “MegaPundits.” He was witty, gave good soundbite and covered a subject (nuclear warfare) that always got peoples attention. The Worlds of Herman Kahn, as the title implies, is not a biography of Kahn, but rather a description of the world he inhabited, and how the media, Herman Kahn, the U.S. government and various aspects of American culture in the 1950s and 60s, came together on the subject of nuclear war. There were some interesting collisions. Some of them were meaningful, most were at least interesting. Kahn was also something of a character, and an original thinker.

Kahn got things rolling in 1960 when his book, “On Thermonuclear War” was published by Princeton University Press. Publishers were not eager to take on something like this, because until Kahn came along, the conventional wisdom was that nuclear war meant the end of the world. Not quite, although things would never be the same if the bombs were dropped. Kahn did the math, and explored the various scenarios. It was a touchy subject. I was running a wargame publishing company in the 60s and 70s, and there was never any enthusiasm in our market for a game on nuclear war. The Department of Defense maintained interest, and asked me to design a nuclear warfare game in 1980.

Kahn started lots of people thinking. This included politicians, military planners, comedians, pundits, filmmakers, environmentalists, clergy and pacifists. All had different reactions to Kahn’s explorations of “the unthinkable.” Stanley Kubrick’s movie on nuclear warfare, “Doctor Strangelove,” was inspired by Kahn’s book (and the character doctor Strangelove, was based on Kahn.)

The Worlds of Herman Kahn doesn’t go into much detail for military history buffs, although you can still get a second copy of On Thermonuclear War via (for about $75) if you want more of those details. The Worlds of Herman Kahn doesn’t cover much of the contemporary wargaming on nuclear war (which was one reason I was called in 1980). In the 1950s, most of the wargames dealing with nuclear war, only addressed the diplomatic aspects. The Pentagon didn’t get into the kind of wargames that could deal with Kahn’s analysis until the 1970s.

Herman Kahn came out of RAND, the first modern think tank. He left in 1961, largely because of the superstar status he achieved because of his best selling book. He founded the Hudson Institute, in New York, that same year, and did well providing defense and non-defense analysis. A compelling and captivating public speaker, he made think tanks chic.

The Worlds of Herman Kahn was written for a general audience, but has enough interesting detail of Kahn, and his times, that even hard core defense analysis geeks would find it useful.

An excerpt from The Worlds of Herman Kahn can be found at: StrategyPage Movie Reviews. The author of The Worlds of Herman Kahn extracted her discussion of the Doctor Strangelove movie from her manuscript, for use as a movie review.

Reviewer: James F Dunnigan   

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