[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
    was real.

    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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