Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Thinkers of the unthinkable

with 4 comments

At the symposium that I attended over the weekend, the figure whose name seemed to come up the most was Herman Kahn, the futurologist and military strategist best known for his book On Thermonuclear War. Kahn died in 1983, but he still looms large over futures studies, and there was a period in which he was equally inescapable in the mainstream. As Louis Menand writes in a harshly critical piece in The New Yorker: “Herman Kahn was the heavyweight of the Megadeath Intellectuals, the men who, in the early years of the Cold War, made it their business to think about the unthinkable, and to design the game plan for nuclear war—how to prevent it, or, if it could not be prevented, how to win it, or, if it could not be won, how to survive it…The message of [his] book seemed to be that thermonuclear war will be terrible but we’ll get over it.” And it isn’t surprising that Kahn engaged in a dialogue throughout his life with science fiction. In her book The Worlds of Herman Kahn, Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi relates:

Early in life [Kahn] discovered science fiction, and he remained an avid reader throughout adulthood. While it nurtured in him a rich appreciation for plausible possibilities, [his collaborator Anthony] Wiener observed that Kahn was quite clear about the purposes to which he put his own scenarios. “Herman would say, ‘Don’t imagine that it’s an arbitrary choice as though you were writing science fiction, where every interesting idea is worth exploring.’ He would have insisted on that. The scenario must focus attention on a possibility that would be important if it occurred.” The heuristic or explanatory value of a scenario mattered more to him than its accuracy.

Yet Kahn’s thinking was inevitably informed by the genre. Ghamari-Tabrizi, who refers to nuclear strategy as an “intuitive science,” sees hints of “the scientist-sleuth pulp hero” in On Thermonuclear War, which is just another name for the competent man, and Kahn himself openly acknowledged the speculative thread in his work: “What you are doing today fundamentally is organizing a Utopian society. You are sitting down and deciding on paper how a society at war works.” On at least one occasion, he invoked psychohistory directly. In the revised edition of the book Thinking About the Unthinkable, Kahn writes of one potential trigger for a nuclear war:

Here we turn from historical fact to science fiction. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels describe a galaxy where there is a planet of technicians who have developed a long-term plan for the survival of civilization. The plan is devised on the basis of a scientific calculation of history. But the plan is upset and the technicians are conquered by an interplanetary adventurer named the Mule. He appears from nowhere, a biological mutant with formidable personal abilities—an exception to the normal laws of history. By definition, such mutants rarely appear but they are not impossible. In a sense, we have already seen a “mule” in this century—Hitler—and another such “mutant” could conceivably come to power in the Soviet Union.

And it’s both frightening and revealing, I think, that Kahn—even as he was thinking about the unthinkable—doesn’t take the next obvious step, and observe that such a mutant could also emerge in the United States.

Asimov wouldn’t have been favorably inclined toward the notion of a “winnable” nuclear war, but Kahn did become friendly with a writer whose attitudes were more closely aligned with his own. In the second volume of Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, William H. Patterson describes the first encounter between the two men:

By September 20, 1962, [the Heinleins] were in Las Vegas…[They] met Dr. Edward Teller, who had been so supportive of the Patrick Henry campaign, as well as one of Teller’s colleagues, Herman Kahn. Heinlein’s ears pricked up when he was introduced to this jolly, bearded fat man who looked, he said, more like a young priest than one of the sharpest minds in current political thinking…Kahn was a science fiction reader and most emphatically a Heinlein fan.

Three years later, Heinlein attended a seminar, “The Next Ten Years: Scenarios and Possibilities,” that Kahn held at the Hudson Institute in New York. Heinlein—who looked like Quixote to Kahn’s Sancho Panza—was flattered by the reception:

If I attend an ordinary cocktail party, perhaps two or three out of a large crowd will know who I am. If I go to a political meeting or a church or such, I may not be spotted at all…But at Hudson Institute, over two-thirds of the staff and over half of the students button-holed me. This causes me to have a high opinion of the group—its taste, IQ, patriotism, sex appeal, charm, etc. Writers are incurably conceited and pathologically unsure of themselves; they respond to stroking the way a cat does.

And it wasn’t just the “stroking” that Heinlein liked, of course. He admired Thinking About the Unthinkable and On Thermonuclear War, both of which would be interesting to read alongside Farnham’s Freehold, which was published just a few years later. Both Heinlein and Kahn thought about the future through stories, in a pursuit that carried a slightly disreputable air, as Kahn implied in his use of the word “scenario”:

As near as I can tell, the term scenario was first used in this sense in a group I worked with at the RAND Corporation. We deliberately choose the word to deglamorize the concept. In writing the scenarios for various situations, we kept saying “Remember, it’s only a scenario,” the kind of thing that is produced by Hollywood writers, both hacks and geniuses.

You could say much the same about science fiction. And perhaps it’s appropriate that Kahn’s most lasting cultural contribution came out of Hollywood. Along with Wernher von Braun, he was one of the two most likely models for the title character in Dr. Strangelove. Stanley Kubrick immersed himself in Kahn’s work—the two men met a number of times—and Kahn’s reaction to the film was that of a writer, not a scientist. As Ghamari-Tabrizi writes:

The Doomsday Machine was Kahn’s idea. “Since Stanley lifted lines from On Thermonuclear War without change but out of context,” Khan told reporters, he thought he was entitled to royalties from the film. He pestered him several times about it, but Kubrick held firm. “It doesn’t work that way!” he snapped, and that was that.

4 Responses

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  1. ‘Along with Wernher von Braun … one of the two most likely models for the title character in Dr. Strangelove.’

    Not exactly. Sure, Herman Kahn was one model for Strangelove, and I suppose von Braun contributed his German-ness and amorality to the character — although that would be true of any of the former Nazi scientists brought over under Operation Paperclip.

    But here’s your primary Strangelove model, down to the wheelchair he used as he was dying from cancer caused by tests of the fission and fusion bombs he enabled, and to the U.S. president (Eisenhower, not Mufley Merkin in this case) deferentially attending him (you can’t see clearly but von Neumann is in a wheelchair in this pic).

    Not only was Von Neumann responsible for vital insights about actual nuclear weapons design, but also he was the father of game theory, which provided the main mode for formulating nuclear strategy. Indeed, he was responsible for this quote regarding the Soviets: ‘If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at five o’ clock, I say why not one o’ clock?’ He would, moreover, have pronounced this Strangelove-ian sentiment in a Strangelove-ian accent (though Hungarian like Teller’s, not German).

    Also, responsible for the von Neumann computer architecture in your laptop and 99 percent of all the other computers ever built.

    Also, much else. Possibly the most intelligent human being who ever lived and possessed of a perfect memory, too, which was no affliction to him as it apparently is to many who have a photographic memory.

    Mark Pontin

    May 2, 2018 at 7:45 pm

  2. @Mark Pontin: I don’t think I realized that von Neumann was in a wheelchair at the time. You’re right—that makes the connection a lot more convincing.


    May 2, 2018 at 9:22 pm

  3. @ Alec: Re: Herman Kahn, here’s something that might interest you. An account of working with Kahn as number two man at Kahn’s think tank by — of all people — Michael Hudson.

    I say “of all people” because Hudson is a singular character himself, if you don’t know him. (Well, he’d probably have to be pretty singular as Kahn’s number two man, wouldn’t he?) Hudson is a radical leftist economist and economic historian who, among other things, is Leon Trotsky’s American godson.

    If you’ve ever heard that apocryphal story about how some guy once wrote a book explaining the full implications of how the US power structure really works and how the government then bought up all the copies as a “how-to” manual and effectively suppressed it, that’s a true story and Hudson is that guy. In 1972, he published a book called SUPER IMPERIALISM: THE ECONOMIC STRATEGY OF AMERICAN EMPIRE right after Nixon and Kissinger took the dollar off the gold standard and explained how that would work. Kahn thought the book was great and hired Hudson on the basis of it.

    Mark Pontin

    May 3, 2018 at 6:46 am

  4. @Mark Pontin: This is really interesting—thanks! One of the many, many possible avenues of investigation for this book that I wasn’t able to pursue was the influence of science fiction on the “think tanks” of the middle of the century. If I ever get a chance to return to it, I’ll take a close look at Hudson.


    May 5, 2018 at 7:37 am

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