[Paleopsych] WP: (Hermann Kahn): Giggling at the Apocalypse
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Sat Apr 16 22:31:20 UTC 2005
Giggling at the Apocalypse
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page BW06
In 1961, Amitai Etzioni said that Herman Kahn "does for nuclear arms
what free-love advocates did for sex: he speaks candidly of acts about
which others whisper behind closed doors." Kahn, one of the nuclear
analysts whom the RAND Corporation paid to think about the
unthinkable, did not just stand out from his cold-blooded brethren; he
ballooned out from them. This "artless, sweaty man," wheezing and
gulping down water, was almost cartoonishly fat, a rotund prophet
giggling at the apocalypse. Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi's suitably macabre
The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War
(Harvard Univ., $26.95, forthcoming in April) shows us both the
clownish appearance and the deadly serious mind. "I can be funny on
the subject of thermonuclear war," he once told a reporter.
Much of Kahn's fame and notoriety came from his 1960 book On
Thermonuclear War, which Ghamari-Tabrizi notes was "the first widely
circulated study that dramatized how a nuclear war might begin, be
fought, and be survived." Kahn wrote that prewar preparations could
decisively shape a post-nuclear-war world. Like Thomas C. Schelling,
Bernard Brodie and the rest of RAND's wizards of Armageddon, Kahn
argued that the best way to deter a nuclear war was "to look willing"
to fight one -- and that the easiest way to look willing to fight one
was "to be willing" to fight one.
The reviews were uniformly passionate and decidedly mixed: The future
Kennedy and Johnson aide Adam Yarmolinsky admitted that he and other
Pentagon officials were living off Kahn's "intellectual capital,"
while Bertrand Russell raged that the book should shock British
politicians into outright neutralism. "Is there really a Herman Kahn?"
James Newman famously wrote in Scientific American. "It is hard to
believe. Doubts cross one's mind from the first page of this
deplorable book: no one could write like this; no one could think like
this." Kahn joked that he had gained 10 more pounds to prove that he
Kahn expected to see a world awash with some 50,000 missiles by the
mid-1970s, and he found it hard to believe that "an occasional button
will not get pressed. . . . We may just be going to live in a world in
which every now and then a city or town is destroyed." Three decades
later, in a world in which the Bush administration and Russia deem it
acceptable to wait until some time beyond 2008 to finish securing the
nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union from the grasping hands of
al Qaeda, Kahn may seem monstrous, but he does not sound mad.
-- Warren Bass
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