Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Worlds of Herman Kahn

Meanwhile at the Pentagon

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On June 9, 1963, or exactly fifty-five years ago last week, newspaper readers were treated to an unusual installment of the comic strip Steve Canyon. It was the one of the first mainstream public depictions of a military war game. As the characters are told in their briefing:

You are persons of importance in your own fields—from which we hope to receive new slants on problems we live with here in the Pentagon every day! You have been divided arbitrarily into blue and red teams. The blues will be the United States and its allies. The reds will pretend to be the command staff of the Red Bloc nations. You will be given a series of hypothetical situations…Each team, in separate rooms, will decide what next to do. You will have all the actual forces of your own group to throw into the mock crisis…Each morning you will cast the die to determine who will be team captain for that day. After each side has made its initial and countermoves, the control team will evaluate the results and make a judgment on the score! We on the control team are umpires! We do not wear uniforms but we are from all branches of the Department of Defense. We will give you true answers to known strengths on both sides—which is one reason these games must be classified as secret—and no documents you use may leave these rooms!

The colonel concludes: “Team evaluations and control evaluations will be sent to the proper authorities each morning. There is no assurance that any of the material will ever be used.” But not all of the participants in the room seem convinced. As one whispers nervously to another: “Ed, do you think they’d act on a request for a quick transfer to Vietnam?”

In fact, Steve Canyon creator Milton Caniff was providing an accurate description of the gaming exercises that had long been conducted by the Joint War Games Group, which had been formed on the recommendation of defense aide Henry Rowen, a former analyst for the RAND Corporation. As the scholar Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi notes in her article “Simulating the Unthinkable,” which she later adapted into a section of her biography of Herman Kahn, these games were viewed with interest by such officials as Robert F. Kennedy, who proposed taking a similar approach to the problem of civil rights. They remained controversial within the Pentagon, however, with some expressing reservations over the government “playing games,” and even their proponents preferred the more respectable term “simulation.” The use of gaming wasn’t technically a secret, but it was rarely publicized, and Caniff’s strip seems to have led to some internal consternation. Ghamari-Tabrizi writes:

Apparently some members of the [Joint Chiefs of Staff] gaming agency sought to create favorable publicity among the armed forces. Because cartoon protagonist Steven Canyon was a gallant Air Force officer, Caniff was quite popular with Air Force personnel. He was regularly briefed about bases and service matters as possible material for his comic strip saga. Sometime in 1963, Caniff was invited to observe one of the Pentagon exercises, which he subsequently featured in his 9 June strip. The JCS were dumbfounded by the unexpected disclosure. While the comic strip did not provoke focused national attention to war-gaming as feared, [MIT professor] Lincoln Bloomfield recalled: “When to their chagrin [Caniff] went public and the strip hit the street, it also hit the fan. The embarrassment (and extensive kidding) they endured in-house caused the folks in the Pentagon basement to vow never again to make the mistake of allowing an uncleared round-bottomed civilian on the premises.”

The circumstances behind the appearance of this information, which Ghamari-Tabrizi states was “leaked,” remain fairly obscure. (In the version of the story published in The Worlds of Herman Kahn, she omits the sentence stating that members of the gaming agency had “sought to create favorable publicity.”) As far as I can determine, the first discussion of the incident in print is in the book War Games by Thomas B. Allen, and there doesn’t seem to be any mention of it at all in Meanwhile…, the massive biography of Caniff by R.C. Harvey. There’s no question that Caniff was on friendly terms with the Air Force, which often provided him with material for the strip—although he maintained that his level of access was no greater than that of any ordinary journalist. And Caniff seems to have been genuinely wary of the possibility of an inadvertent leak. Harvey describes an incident in which Caniff allegedly received unwanted attention from the government in March 1944, in the form of a visit from the FBI:

The two G-men had been civil, even polite, but their unrelenting humorlessness invested the visit with a chilly stiffness that was almost frightening. Nothing Caniff could say brought a smile to the lips of either one of them. They’d come, one of them explained soberly, because the cartoonist had been accused of being a spy, so they were obliged to investigate. The charge had been made by the London Express, and it stemmed from the Terry and the Pirates strip published March 17. In that strip, Flip Corkin is shown briefing his pilots in northern India for an invasion of Burma. On March 18, the news broke: in real-life Burma, Phil Cochran’s First Air Commandos were engaged in exactly such an invasion. [Cochran was Caniff’s childhood friend, and he had served as the model for the character of Flip Corkin.] The coincidence was too much for London editors: since they knew the strip had been drawn weeks before its publication date, Caniff must have known about Cochran’s invasion well in advance. The British newspapermen wanted to know how he found out.

Affording to Harvey, Caniff was worried that he might have gotten Cochran into trouble, and he spent most of the afternoon arguing to the agents that the timing was just a coincidence.

As regular readers of this blog will recognize, this anecdote has striking similarities to the “Deadline” incident, in which a story in Astounding Science Fiction briefly raised the possibility of a leak at the Manhattan Project. If Caniff’s account can be credited, the two “investigations” were unfolding at practically the same time—Cleve Cartmill’s “Deadline” appeared on February 11, 1944, and an agent from the Counterintelligence Corps visited John W. Campbell at his office on March 8, or a week and a half before the alleged visit to Caniff. I’ve learned to be skeptical of such stories, which tend to be embellished across multiple retellings, and I haven’t been able to find any sources apart from Caniff himself. (In Milton Caniff: Conversations, he claims to have received another visit from the FBI after accidentally using the actual code name for an allied radio station.) Yet the war game strip was real enough, which only raises further questions. As Harvey writes:

Over the years, Caniff developed several techniques to protect himself and his sources against inadvertently revealing military secrets…[such as] letting a base photographer develop any photographs he took on a base so that prints of anything classified could be culled out before he could use them. Sometimes he checked plots with the Air Force in advance if he suspected he was treading near classified territory. “I’d go to my neighborhood Air Force information officer and say, Can this be done—?” Caniff said. “And I’d describe what was going to do. If I asked him a direct question about it, I’d be putting him in a position of lying—or not lying—to me, but I didn’t need to ask him directly. I watch the guy’s face, and if he suddenly gets tight under the collar, then I know it’s time to quit my idea and go to lunch.”

Given what we know about Caniff—who, unlike John W. Campbell, was unhesitatingly patriotic—it seems doubtful that he would have included any information in the strip without full assurance that its release had been approved. The most plausible explanation, perhaps, is that one group within the government “leaked” it at the expense of another, with Caniff caught somewhere in the middle. It still happens today. You just don’t tend to see it in the comics.

Thinkers of the unthinkable

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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.

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