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Strategic Thinkers Herman Kahn: A Jomini for the Nuclear Age
Jan 2, 2009 – Barry Scott Zellen

Anyone who has watched Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, a parody of the Cold War and the absurdity of its nuclear logic, and perhaps the funniest movie about the end of the world one might ever see, will, by virtue of having laughed about the unthinkable, have a sense of what the real Dr. Strangelove was really all about. Herman Kahn, nuclear theorist and bold advocate of “thinking about the unthinkable,” not only knew how to laugh at life’s absurdities. He knew how to use language to engage people, and compel them to overcome their fears and dare to think about what so many others, in paralyzing fear, could barely contemplate. The ultimate nuclear warfighter, Kahn’s mission in life was to change the nature of the dialogue on nuclear weapons: instead of letting our fears drive our thinking (or block us from thinking at all), Kahn felt it was our duty to prepare for the very worst of all scenarios, thermonuclear warfare, and apply our very best ideas, our most persuasive logic, to developing a blueprint to guide us through its friction and fog to victory. Nuclear denial, which was the opiate that blinded both the early advocates of nuclear deterrence (and their unthinkable threats of massive retaliation) as well as the nuclear abolitionists and the one-worlders who called on the creation of a singular world government, who were so terrified by the threat of nuclear extinction that they would at once surrender their only means of protection from a nuclear foe, and abdicate their very freedom gained through over a millennium of struggle against the forces of darkness.
Kahn, in contrast to his colleague, longtime friend and later rival, Bernard Brodie—who grappled with his nuclear demons, and shuddered at the specter of thermonuclear warfare—had instead an iron gut, and could swallow the coldest, and harshest, of nuclear medicine. As a brief biography of Herman Kahn on the Hudson Institute’s website notes:
Unlike many other scholars and strategists, he believed that nuclear war could be won. At Rand, he studied the application of such analytic techniques as game theory and systems analysis to military theory. In 1961 he founded the Hudson Institute, where he conducted research into questions of national security and the future. His writings include On Thermonuclear War (1961), Thinking About the Unthinkable (1962), On Escalation (1965), The Emerging Japanese Superstate (1970), The Future of the Corporation (1974), The Japanese Challenge (1979), and Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s (1984). It is widely believed that the title character Stanley Kubrick’s classic Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove (played by Peter Sellers, 1964) was modeled in part on Kahn. Herman Kahn died in 1983.[i]
There is some debate as to whether Kahn was truly the model for Dr. Strangelove, though he certainly is a compelling candidate, and his biographer, Barry Bruce-Briggs, is confident Kahn was at least one of Kubrick’s influences on developing the character, and his tome On Thermonuclear War also proving influential. On a Kubrick fan website called, it’s asked: “Just who WAS Dr. Strangelove, really?” And a number of candidates are considered. Strangelove is described as “such a potent character—twisted, coldly rational, his mechanical arm likely to spring into a SEIG HEIL at the slightest provocation—that many people have speculated on who Strangelove might be ‘based’ on.”
While there are “several major guesses as to who provided the basis for Strangelove,” one “favorite seems to be Henry Kissinger,” and another favorite is “Werner von Braun, the former Nazi rocket scientist who quickly turned his services (and those of his underlings) to the U.S. after the war.” A “third runner-up is Edward Teller, the Hungarian physicist who worked on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, and whose theoretical work was instrumental in developing the H-bomb.” But according to this website, “the best case can be made that Herman Kahn was the best source for Strangelove. Kahn was one of the earliest employees at the RAND Corporation, which had been set [up] by Gen. ‘Hap’ Arnold to study nuclear war.”
According to Fred Kaplan in his strategic biography of the nuclear age, The Wizards of Armageddon, Kahn was notable for developing the linguistic trick of referring to potential casualties with the word “only” used to suggest these numbers were really quite reasonable, as in “only two million killed!” and “Alluding almost casually to ‘only’ two million dead was part of the image Kahn was fashioning himself, the living portrait of the ultimate defense intellectual, cool and fearless, asking the questions everyone else ignored, thinking about the unthinkable.”[ii]
Indeed, his controversial 1960 tome On Thermonuclear War, Scientific American magazine reviewed it as “a moral tract on mass murder; how to plan it, how to commit it, how to get away with it, how to justify it.”[iii] Helping to support the case for Kahn as the template for Kubrick’s ultimate cold warrior, “Dr. Strangelove himself refers to a study he commissioned from the ‘Bland Corporation,’ a clear play on Kahn’s old haunts.
The similarity to Kahn’s own ideas in Strangelove’s pronouncements—including the mine-shaft and ten-females-to-each-male stuff—is uncannily similar to Kahn’s brand of futurism. And since Kahn was the most famous nuclear war theorist at the time, Kubrick must have been thinking of his work.”[iv] But arguing against Kahn’s candidacy, “Kahn, despite his name, was American-born, and was never a Nazi. Kahn was once asked about Strangelove, and his reply was: ‘Dr. Strangelove would not have lasted three weeks at the Pentagon. He was too creative.’” concludes, “My Best Guess is that Kubrick wanted to satirize the works of nuclear intellectuals such as Herman Kahn. Kahn was clearly the most famous, though it is not inconceivable that Kubrick was aware of Kissinger’s work in the field. In order to give an extra spin on the ultra-rational, ‘pragmatic’ pose, Kubrick added allusions to Von Braun’s Nazi past. The wheelchair and the physical infirmities were added to give Strangelove a bizarre, grotesque appearance. But personally, I believe that Herman Kahn was the single greatest influence on the creation of Dr. Strangelove.”[v]
One dark invention of Kubrick’s film widely associated with Kahn is the Soviet’s as-yet unveiled doomsday weapon which sought to guarantee deterrence by initiating planetary destruction if deterrence failed. Though Kahn is associated in the popular imagination with this device, for Kahn it was only an analytical heuristic to illustrate the inherent danger of deterrence-only or assured-destruction strategies. The doomsday weapon was actually first conceived, according to Peter D. Smith, an historian of the cold war and author of Doomsday Men, by nuclear physicist Leo Szilard. As Smith recalled in Doomsday Men:
Homo sapiens is the only species that knows it will die. The thought obsesses us. From the earliest marks made on cave walls to our most sublime works of art, the fear of death haunts our every creation. And in the middle of the twentieth century, human beings became the first species to reach that pinnacle of evolution—the point at which it could engineer its own extinction. In February 1950, as the temperature of the cold war approached absolute zero, an atomic scientist conceived the ultimate nuclear weapon: a vast explosive device that would cast a deadline pall of fallout over the planet. Carried on the wind, the lethal radioactive dust would eventually reach all four corners of the world. It would mean the end of life on earth.
The world first heard about the doomsday device on America’s most popular radio discussion programme, the University of Chicago Round Table. Four scientists who had been involved in building the atomic bomb discussed the next generation of nuclear weapons: the hydrogen bomb. During the programme, one of the founding fathers of the atomic age, Leo Szilard, stated that it would be ‘very easy to rig an H-bomb’ to produce ‘very dangerous radioactivity.’ All you had to do, said Szilard, was surround the bomb with a chemical element such as cobalt that absorbs radiation. When it exploded, the bomb would spew radioactive dust into the air like an artificial volcano. Slowly and silently, this invisible killer would fall to the surface. ‘Everyone would be killed,’ he said. The fallout from his chilling suggestion spread fear around the world. For many it seemed as though the biblical story of Armageddon was about to be realized; the seventh angel would empty his vial into the atmosphere, and it would contain radioactive cobalt-60. . . . In fiction and films, Szilard’s deadly brainchild soon became the ultimate symbol of the threat humankind now posed to the very existence of our living, breathing planet.
The story of the cobalt bomb is an unwritten chapter of the cold war. For Szilard it was a dramatic way of warning people about weapons of mass destruction and the escalating arms race. Scientists had been praised by many for curtailing World War II with the atomic bomb. But in the cold war the creators of these apocalyptic superweapons were seen as holding the fate of the world in their hands. They had transformed the laws of nature into instruments of mass destruction and, as far as the public was concerned, there would soon be little to distinguish real scientists from that fictional master of megadeath, Dr. Strangelove.[vi]
We will turn next to some of the early strategic thoughts of Herman Kahn, which were later developed in his comprehensive tomes on nuclear warfighting such as On Thermonuclear War (1960), Thinking About the Unthinkable (1962), and On Escalation (1966). In Kahn’s November 7, 1958 study at RAND, “Major Implications of a Current Non-Military Defense Study” (P-1497-RC), Kahn comes out swinging at the end-of-the-world doomsday naysayers committed to the view that in nuclear war there can be no winners. As Kahn writes: “The general belief persists today that an all-out thermonuclear war would inevitably result in mutual annihilation and that nothing can be done to make it otherwise,” and “even those who do not believe in total annihilation often do believe that the shock effect of the casualties, the immediate destruction of wealth, and the long-term deleterious effects of fallout would in combination, inevitably jeopardize the survival of civilization,” resulting in “such often-used phrases and analogies as ‘the survivors will envy the dead,’ ‘balance of terror,’ ‘destruction of all life,’ ‘two scorpions in a bottle,’ ‘two heads on a single chopping block,’ and many others.”[vii]
But Kahn goes onto to describe a study he and some colleagues at RAND completed that “reached conclusions that seriously question these beliefs,” and that, “while a thermonuclear war would be a catastrophe—in some ways an unprecedented catastrophe—it would still be a limited catastrophe” whose very magnitudinal limits “might be sharply dependent on what prewar measures has been taken.”[viii] Taking a cue from Brodie’s earlier speculations about shoring up deterrence, Kahn goes one step further, suggesting that “feasible combinations of military and non-military defense measures can come pretty close to preserving a reasonable semblance of our prewar society.”[ix] Kahn observed, some three decades ahead of Fukuyama, that “as long as we think of thermonuclear war as a sort of end of history, we may not feel acutely uncomfortable about placing all of our reliance either on deterrence or on measures to alleviate tension” such as arms control, “as these seem to be all we can do.”[x]
Kahn’s willingness to think about the unthinkable ushered in an era of nuclear war preparation that blurred the lines between the strategy of deterrence as envisioned by Brodie, which presupposes that nuclear weapons have revolutionized warfare, and the practical challenges of nuclear warfighting, which presupposes that nuclear weapons are merely an evolution in warfare, a new and powerful tool for an ever-expanding armory of destructive power. When contemplating whether America would launch a retaliatory strike against the Soviet Union in the event of a sneak attack of Western Europe, Kahn speculated that the U.S. would lose its nerve were the casualties to reach as high as 180 million Americans; but, if the American body count was only sixty million, that “might be a more acceptable figure.”[xi]
For his part, Kahn sought to transform nuclear theory from thought-orientation to action-orientation, in the event that the theory of deterrence failed and warfighting became reality, and to thus shift from theorizing about what can’t be done (due to the horrific, absolute nature of wars fought with what Brodie thought of as the “Absolute Weapon”) to doing, and planning to do, what was hitherto considered “unthinkable.” As noted above, the concept of “order” in has a very fluid and dynamic meaning, and like beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder, or in this case the ear of the beholder. Brodie’s nuclear “order” is thus an imperative, akin to the phrase: Order! Nuclear weapons thus order (compel) us to maintain the peace, an inescapable, logical deduction. Kahn’s “order” is heard as a verb, in the active voice, and in his mind, there is no reason not to consider military commanders ordering the use of nuclear weapons in combat, no moral compulsion against it, and perhaps a moral compulsion to, at the very least, plan for such an eventuality. Hence our migration from The Absolute Weapon, which proclaimed the imperative of deterrence, which is thus a state of being, imposed, as if by magic, by the cold logic of the balance of terror, a state of fright, a nuclear fight-or-flight instinct to avoid needless escalation toward Armageddon, to Thinking About the Unthinkable, and thus being prepared to face more complex, less predictable, potentialities.
As Dan Seligman wrote in “Know-It-All,” his April 2001 Commentary review of Barry Bruce-Briggs’ biography of Kahn, Supergenius:
His early fame was based mainly on his devastating critique of U.S. military strategy in the thermonuclear age. His core objective, elaborated in On Thermonuclear War (1960) and again in Thinking about the Unthinkable (1962), was to make his countrymen understand that existing doctrine was disastrous. Its assumptions, based on the idea of a “balance of terror,” were embodied in a nightmare scenario in which, as Kahn put it, somebody, presumably a Russian, “pushed all the buttons and then walked away from the table.” The only thing deterring the Russians from such a massive and unrestrained attack was, supposedly, the realization that it would be matched in kind—which would mean in turn that both countries would have committed suicide.
That was the theory. Although Stanley Kubrick chose not to read him properly, Kahn’s Doomsday Machine—a device set to blow up the planet automatically any time your country was attacked with nuclear weapons—was presented by him not as a rational strategy but as a caricature of this irrational posture. To tell the world that you equated nuclear weapons with national suicide was, he wrote, to invite blackmail—and, given the Soviet superiority in conventional arms, it left us with very few military options in the face of aggressive behavior short of an attack on the United States.
The point of all this thinking about the unthinkable was to find serious alternatives to annihilation and surrender. Kahn argued that the alternatives were there. Any thermonuclear war would almost certainly begin as a limited and not as an “all-out” attack, for the simple reason that the attacker would want the other side to have incentives for restraint. With that in mind, Kahn generated an avalanche of data to demonstrate that civil defense and other damage-limiting measures could leave our country still viable even after most imaginable thermonuclear wars. And he also argued that serious planning for such wars—including a “pre-attack mobilization base,” some ballistic-missile defense, and what he called a “not incredible first-strike capability”—would itself serve as a deterrent to provocative behavior, and leave us less susceptible to blackmail.[xii]
And, as explained by John A. English, in his fascinating Marching Through Chaos: The descent of armies in theory and practice, Kahn sought to re-assert control over the bomb, and not let the threat of its uncontrolled escalation remain unchallenged. Like Hobbes’ Leviathan concept, Kahn’s bomb was a powerful, destructive, and efficient tool to impose order, and free ourselves from the specter of chaos, not a tool to unleash uncontrolled chaos:
The further development of the concept of controlled escalation by Herman Kahn produced additional dimensions to deterrent theory. Kahn himself identified countless scenarios calling for a range of responses, including civil defense measures, and three kinds of deterrence: Type I, the ‘passive’ deterrence of direct nuclear attack on the United States by the threat of a second strike general nuclear retaliation; Type II, the ‘active’ deterrence of extreme provocations, such as attacks on NATO or other allies, by the threat of a first strike; and type III, the ‘graduated’ or controlled deterrence of limited attacks on points like Berlin or Quemoy by the threat of military and nonmilitary measures. In the course of his studies Kahn also examined ‘minimum’ and ‘finite’ deterrence; counterforce and countervalue combinations; and first and second strike variations. His ideas, in turn, spawned other terms such as ‘extended’ deterrence to third parties and ‘negative’ deterrence, which aimed at convincing an enemy not to fear a first strike so that he would not feel compelled to launch a preemptive strike. Ironically, although most academic concepts of deterrence emphasized rationality, the introduction of uncertainty allegedly increased their credibility.[xiii]
But English thinks this shift toward uncertainty, this introduction of a little bit of madness to shore up MAD, to add spice and credibility to the stale, rational deterrence theory of Brodie, that Kahn’s thinking about the unthinkable unleashed, pushed us down a slippery slope toward grave danger, where the risk of miscalculation leading to potential disaster actually increased. Warfighters would disagree, of course—but such is the world of nuclear strategy, which is a mirror land of contradiction and illogic, a realm of competing theories, none tested, none ruled out by counterexample.
Herken recalls how RAND Corporation in its nuclear heyday, made some nuclear thinkers household names, including Kahn: “The notoriety RAND received had made public figures of several of the analysts there. One example was Herman Kahn, whose lectures on what nuclear war might be like became a fixture at RAND as well as the Pentagon, and were eventually published in a best-selling book.”[xiv] Kahn felt that many strategists shared a “blind spot concerning the conduct of a nuclear war,” which he believed emerged from the “unwillingness they shared with the general populace to look the specter directly in the eye—in his phrase, ‘to think about the unthinkable.’”[xv]
Indeed, Kahn’s first chapter in Thinking About the Unthinkable is titled “In Defense of Thinking,” in which he recalls—after publishing On Thermonuclear War in 1960 in an effort to “direct attention to the possibility of a thermonuclear war, to ways of the likelihood of such a war, and to methods for coping with the consequences should war occur despite our efforts to avoid it”—his work was “greeted by a large range of responses—some of them sharply critical,” and “much of that criticism was not concerned with the correctness or incorrectness of the views I expressed” but “with whether any book should have been written on this subject at all,” as “many intelligent and sincere people are willing to argue that it is immoral to think and even immoral to write in detail about having to fight a thermonuclear war.”[xvi] And while “by and large this criticism was not personal,” Kahn noted that it “simply reflected the fact that we Americans and many people throughout the world are not prepared to face reality” and “that we transfer our horror of thermonuclear war to reports about the realities of thermonuclear war. In a sense we are acting like those ancient kings who punished messengers who brought them bad news.”[xvii] And yet, while “thermonuclear war may seem unthinkable, immoral, insane, hideous, or highly unlikely,” Kahn points out that “it is not impossible,” and “[t]o act intelligently, we must learn as much as we can about the risks” and “thereby be able better to avoid nuclear war.”[xviii] When he and two colleagues polled their RAND colleagues on what they believed the most likely cause of nuclear war would be, he found that 90 percent of their efforts went into looking at the very surprise attacks that they considered the least likely cause of war.[xix] Even the Pentagon assumed the Soviet Union, in the event of a nuclear exchange, wouldn’t even make the effort to evacuate its cities, even though that could reduce its casualties by 90 percent. Kahn, in short, found the strategic community to be in total denial, paralyzed, perhaps, by their communal fear of the very type of war they were tasked to prepare America to survive.
Kahn, who by 1960 had left RAND to form his own think tank called the Hudson Institute, started to look seriously into the nature of nuclear warfighting, considering the likely causes of such a war and settling on eight scenarios of nuclear war initiation. Kahn polished his thoughts into a series of lectures, which he organized while at Princeton in 1959 for a book that Herken suggests was to be modeled on Clausewitz’s On War, the very same tome that inspired Brodie, though Herken’s view has been disputed, with Kahn’s biographer Bruce-Briggs explaining the title was actually selected by the publisher, part of a successful effort at mass-marketing the book. The title for Kahn’s sprawling manuscript thus became On Thermonuclear War. Kahn later sought to revise his manuscript, which he was working on at the time of his death in 1983. And like Clausewitz’s own unfinished treatise on war, Kahn’s published manuscript remained “unwieldy,” as it was based upon his lectures, delivered over a three-day period, on war in the atomic age, and the “nearly seven-hundred-page book was taken directly—even verbatim—from Kahn’s lectures,” merging “form” and “content” and reflecting “the distinctive persona of their author,” with uniquely Kahnian flaws including “repetitiousness” and hyperbole that Herken says “some at RAND called ‘Hermanism.’”[xx] Brodie himself, who would come to be overshadowed by Kahn in the public’s eye, “objected to Kahn’s coining of the term ‘wargasm’ to describe all-out nuclear conflict,” finding that its “levity” was inappropriate for the topic.[xxi] But as Herken explains, Kahn’s critics “mistook Kahn’s subtle satire for advocacy” and seem to have misunderstood Kahn’s intent: he wanted to induce us to move beyond out paralysis and denial, and overcome our fear, and think about what must be thought about in order to increase our chances of survival.[xxii] As described by Louis Menand in his New Yorker review of Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi’s The Worlds of Herman Kahn, a cultural biography of Kahn and his legacy published by Harvard University Press in 2005:
In 1959, he spent a semester at the Center for International Studies, at Princeton, and then toured the country delivering lectures on deterrence theory. In 1960, Princeton University Press published a version of the lectures (with much added material) as On Thermonuclear War. Kahn was not really a writer, and his book—six hundred and fifty-one pages—is shaggy, overstuffed, almost free-associational, with a colorful use of capitalization and italics, long excurses on the strategic lessons of the First and Second World Wars, and the sorts of proto-PowerPoint charts and tables that Kahn used in his lectures.[xxiii]
Instead, many were shocked and awed by his language as well as his subject matter into further denial. One critical review in Scientific American dismissed Kahn’s magnum opus as “thermonuclear pornography,” and Kahn’s effort to rebut his critic were denied by the editor of that magazine, who also refused “to allow the strategist into his office.”[xxiv]
Kahn had the last laugh, however: he took his unpublished rebuttal, and its title, Thinking About the Unthinkable, and turned it into a well received, widely read, and considerably influential sequel. Kahn found that others were less able to think in so detached a fashion about the unthinkable as he was, and came under criticism for his “cold-bloodedness;” yet as Kahn once told a critic, “Would you prefer a nice warm mistake?”[xxv] Case in point: while testifying before Congress, one Congressman, exclaimed, “Ten million or one hundred million dead, what’s the difference?” Herken recounts how Kahn “coolly replied, ‘Ninety million, Senator.’”[xxvi] That’s certainly not fuzzy math: yet most people were afraid of thinking so coolly about such a grave, and potentially catastrophic, matter of life and death, even if by thinking so coolly, tens of millions of lives could be saved. Kahn’s lyrical distinction between “credible first strike capability” and a “splendid first strike capability” naturally led some to believe Kahn was an advocate of nuclear war, when in fact he sought, through his sober, cool realism, to be an advocate of peace; he just dared to think outside the box, and logically deduced that America, by having such a “splendid first strike capability,” would be much less likely ever to have to use it.[xxvii]
While controversial, Kahn achieved something Brodie never could quite achieve: celebrity. Just as Jomini, for many decades, rode to prominence on his enthusiastic embrace of Napoleonic maxims, Kahn became an internationally renown nuclear optimist, while the more pessimistic, and more philosophical Brodie, found many doors that once looked promisingly open to him and his ideas, slammed shut, perhaps because of his unapologetic embrace of psychoanalysis, perhaps because he so honestly counseled caution to a culture that favored bold action. Thus as Kahn achieved both fame and perhaps a dose of infamy, Brodie seemed to suffer in a frustrating isolation that Machiavelli in exile might have empathized with. Brodie remains influential to this day among theorists of war, but the popular imagination still remains bedazzled by the gregarious Herman Kahn and his politically incorrect embrace of the unthinkable. As Ghamari-Tabrizi describes:
In the 1960s Herman Kahn was a well-known man. His name alone broadly signified contemporary affairs. Jules Feiffer twitted him in a lampoon of East Coast foreign policy elites. Susan Sontag invoked him in an essay on science fiction films. The composer Luigi Nono even borrowed text from his book On Escalation in a work dedicated to the National Liberation Front of Vietnam. Kahn himself quipped, “I am one of the ten most famous obscure Americans.” His first book, On Thermonuclear War, published in December 1960, was the first widely circulated study that dramatized how a nuclear war might begin, be fought, and be survived. A reviewer in The Village Voice remarked that the book “shocked us into paying serious attention, for the first time, to what our military thinkers, planners, and doubters were thinking, planning, and doubting. Never has so much been publicly written and read about war; never has there been so much open and respected exploration . . . of a nation’s military policies.” OTW, as it was popularly known, made Kahn a celebrity. He appeared on TV and radio, in magazines and newspapers, exhorting the nation to muster the will and wherewithal to fight and survive a nuclear war. The book and its author were the subject of editorials, letters-to-the-editor, and college debates. Nearly everything said about him contributed to the feeling that Kahn was a man of the times, but no one could agree on what he represented. Was he a hero-scientist or an American Eichmann? A human computer or a humanist, a patriot or a psychopath?.[xxviii]
In his June 2005 New Yorker article, “Fat Man: Herman Kahn and the nuclear age” reviewing—or more accurately, responding to—Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi’s The Worlds of Herman Kahn, Louis Menand describes Herman Kahn as “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.”[xxix] Menand noted the “collective combat experience of these men was close to nil; their diplomatic experience was smaller. Their training was in physics, engineering, political science, mathematics, and logic, and they worked with the latest in assessment technologies: operational research, computer science, systems analysis, and game theory. The type of war they contemplated was, of course, never waged, but whether this was because of their work or in spite of it has always been a matter of dispute. Exhibit A in the case against them is a book by Kahn, published in 1960, On Thermonuclear War.” Menand recalls how:
In his day, Kahn was the subject of many magazine stories, and most of them found it important to mention his girth—he was built, one journalist recorded, “like a prize-winning pear”—and his volubility. He was a marathon spielmeister, whose preferred format was the twelve-hour lecture, split into three parts over two days, with no text but with plenty of charts and slides. He was a jocular, gregarious giant who chattered on about fallout shelters, megaton bombs, and the incineration of millions. Observers were charmed or repelled, sometimes charmed and repelled. Reporters referred to him as “a roly-poly, second-strike Santa Claus” and “a thermonuclear Zero Mostel.” He is supposed to have had the highest I.Q. on record.[xxx]
In his review, Menand presented a snapshot of Kahn’s early years:
Kahn was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, in 1922, and grew up in the Bronx and, after his parents divorced, in Los Angeles. He went to U.C.L.A. and majored in physics. During the war, he served in the Pacific theatre in a non-combat position, then finished his B.S. and entered a Ph.D. program at Cal Tech. He failed to graduate—family financial problems interfered—and, after a halfhearted attempt to enter the real-estate business, went to work at RAND. He became involved in the development of the hydrogen bomb, and commuted to the Livermore Laboratory, near Berkeley, where he worked with Edward Teller, John von Neumann, and Hans Bethe. He also entered the circle of Albert Wohlstetter, a mathematician who had produced an influential critique of nuclear preparedness, and who was the most mandarin of the RAND intellectuals. And he became obsessed with the riddles of deterrence.[xxxi]
Menand describes Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi’s work as “an attempt to look at Kahn as a cultural phenomenon,” and notes she was “not the first to treat Kahn as more an artist than a scientist. In 1968, when Kahn was at the height of his celebrity, Richard Kostelanetz wrote a profile of him for the Times Magazine in which he suggested that Kahn had ‘a thoroughly avant-garde sensibility.’ He meant that Kahn was uninhibited by conventional ways of thinking, alert to abandon positions that were starting to seem obsolete, continually trying to find new ways to see around the next corner.”[xxxii] As Menand observes, “Ghamari-Tabrizi thinks that if nuclear strategy is a science it is, at best, an ‘intuitive science,’ more imaginative than empirical, and she relies a lot on the vocabulary of literary criticism to interpret it: the grotesque, the fantastic, the uncanny, the hardboiled, ‘the aesthetic of spontaneity,’ ’serious play.’ She does not withhold judgment about the merits of Kahn’s work, but she is interested mainly in the feel of the moment, the moods and tastes of a time when the Cold War, and the anxious talk that swirled around it, had many Americans scared almost to death.”[xxxiii]
According to Menand, Kahn makes two assertions in On Thermonuclear War: “The first is that nuclear war is possible; the second is that it is winnable. Most of the book is a consideration, in the light of these assumptions, of possible nuclear-war scenarios. In some, hundreds of millions die, and portions of the planet are uninhabitable for millennia. In others, a few major cities are annihilated and only ten or twenty million people are killed. Just because both outcomes would be bad on a scale unknown in the history of warfare does not mean, Kahn insists, that one is not less bad than the other.” Or as Kahn put it in his work, “A thermonuclear war is quite likely to be an unprecedented catastrophe for the defender. But an ‘unprecedented’ catastrophe can be a far cry from an ‘unlimited’ one.” Menand notes Kahn’s “opening chapter contains a table titled ‘Tragic but Distinguishable Postwar States.’ It has two columns: one showing the number of dead, from two million up to a hundred and sixty million, the other showing the time required for economic recuperation, from one year up to a hundred years. At the bottom of the table, there is a question: ‘Will the survivors envy the dead?’ Kahn believed—and this belief is foundational for every argument in his book—that the answer is no.”[xxxiv]
Menand writes how Kahn argues “despite a widespread belief to the contrary, objective studies indicate that even though the amount of human tragedy would be greatly increased in the postwar world, the increase would not preclude normal and happy lives for the majority of survivors and their descendants,” and notes how
For many readers, this has seemed pathologically insensitive. But these readers are missing Kahn’s point. His point is that unless Americans really do believe that nuclear war is survivable, and survivable under conditions that, although hardly desirable, are acceptable and manageable, then deterrence has no meaning. You can’t advertise your readiness to initiate a nuclear exchange if you are unwilling to accept the consequences. If the enemy believes that you will not tolerate the deaths of, say, twenty million of your own citizens, then he has called your bluff. It’s the difference between saying, “You get one scratch on that car and I’ll kill you,” and saying, “You get one scratch on that car and you’re grounded for a week.”[xxxv]
In short, Menand explains, ”‘Massive retaliation’ sounds tough, but unless a President can bring himself to pull the nuclear trigger, it’s just talk.” Menand adds “Kahn argues that deterrence is not insured by the policy of massive retaliation, which he calls the theory of the ‘Splendid’ First Strike,” but rather “by a credible second-strike capability—by what the United States can do after a Soviet nuclear attack,” a view also shared by Brodie.[xxxvi] As Kahn puts it, “At the minimum, an adequate deterrent for the United States must provide an objective basis for a Soviet calculation that would persuade them that, no matter how skillful or ingenious they were, an attack on the United States would lead to a very high risk if not certainty of large-scale destruction to Soviet civil society and military forces.”[xxxvii] Menand also notes Kahn, as Brodie also later concluded, “argues for the development of a Limited War Capability—that is, the ability to counter Soviet aggression with conventional forces. That capability, too, is a deterrent, since it solves the ‘Scratch that car and I’ll kill you’ problem. Again, the threat of apocalypse is not proof against a minor infraction.”[xxxviii] Menand notes that:
The most infamous pages in On Thermonuclear War concern survivability. What makes nuclear war different, Kahn points out, is not the number of dead; it’s a new element—the problem of the postwar environment. In Kahn’s view, the dangers of radioactivity are exaggerated. Fallout will make life less pleasant and cause inconvenience, but there is plenty of unpleasantness and inconvenience in the world already. “War is a terrible thing; but so is peace,” he says. More babies might have birth defects after a nuclear war, but four per cent of babies have birth defects anyway. Whether we can tolerate a slightly higher percentage of defective children is a question of trade-offs. “It might well turn out,” Kahn suggests, “that U.S. decision makers would be willing, among other things, to accept the high risk of an additional one percent of our children being born deformed if that meant not giving up Europe to Soviet Russia.”[xxxix]
Menand notes Kahn even “proposes a system for labeling contaminated food so that older people will eat the food that is more radioactive, on the theory that ‘most of these people would die of other causes before they got cancer.’”[xl] He believes Kahn’s basic “message of the book seemed to be that thermonuclear war will be terrible but we’ll get over it.”[xli] He cites Fred Kaplan, who explains “Kahn’s specialty was to express the RAND conventional wisdom in the most provocative and outrageous fashion imaginable.”[xlii] This naturally generated controversy on all sides, and Menand notes On Thermonuclear War “received praise from a few prominent disarmament advocates and pacifists,” including “A. J. Muste, Bertrand Russell, and the historian and senatorial candidate H. Stuart Hughes, who called it ‘one of the great works of our time,’” who “thought that, by making nuclear exchange seem not only possible but nearly unavoidable, Kahn had, intentionally or not, presented a case for disarmament.”[xliii] But while Kahn’s tome presented “an assault on the overwhelming-force mentality of Dulles and the generals at the Strategic Air Command (who, Kahn once told them, dreamed of a ‘wargasm’), it is also an attack on the anti-nuclear movement and the belief that nuclear war means the end of life as we know it. Most anti-nuclear advocates thought that arguing that a nuclear war was winnable only made one more likely. An official of the American Friends Service Committee compared Kahn to Adolf Eichmann, and he became one of the movement’s favorite monsters. His house was picketed.”[xliv]
But Menand points out that the “best-known response to On Thermonuclear War” was in the form of that darkest of film comedies by Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove; he recalls that Kubrick “began reading intensively on nuclear strategy soon after he finished directing Lolita, in 1962” and that “[h]is original plan was to make a realistic thriller,” but he “could not invent a plausible story in which a nuclear war is started by accident, so he ended up making a comedy, adapted from a novel, by a former R.A.F. officer, called Red Alert.”[xlv] As Menand writes, “‘The movie could very easily have been written by Herman Kahn himself,’ Midge Decter wrote in Commentary when Dr. Strangelove came out, in 1964. This was truer than she may have known. Kubrick was steeped in On Thermonuclear War; he made his producer read it when they were planning the movie. Kubrick and Kahn met several times to discuss nuclear strategy, and it was from On Thermonuclear War that Kubrick got the term ‘Doomsday Machine.’”[xlvi] And while “[t]here were a number of possible models for the character of Strangelove,” that “one source was Kahn. Strangelove’s rhapsodic monologue about preserving specimens of the race in deep mineshafts is an only slightly parodic version of Kahn. There were so many lines from On Thermonuclear War in the movie, in fact, that Kahn complained that he should get royalties. (‘It doesn’t work that way,’ Kubrick told him.) Kahn received something more lasting than money, of course. He got himself pinned in people’s minds to the figure of Dr. Strangelove, and he bore the mark of that association forever.”[xlvii]
Menand notes “Kubrick’s plan to make a comedy about nuclear war didn’t bother Kahn. He thought that humor was a good way to get people thinking about a subject too frightening to contemplate otherwise, and although his colleagues rebuked him for it—‘Levity is never legitimate,’ Brodie told him—he used jokes in his lectures. Mordancy was his usual mode; Ghamari-Tabrizi compares him at one point to Charles Addams.”[xlviii] But Menand believes that “Kahn was the opposite of a satirist. He was a believer. Questioning military policy was his business; questioning the policies that military policy is designed to protect and enable was not. For all the avant-gardism, all the high-powered analytic techniques and ‘thinking outside the box,’ Kahn’s work was fundamentally in the service of preserving the system, and without cynicism.”[xlix] That being said, Menand adds: “On Thermonuclear War is a preposterous monument to this way of thinking. Complications and qualifications are swatted away like flies. ‘I will tend to ignore, or at least underemphasize, what many people might consider the most important result of a war—the overall suffering induced by ten thousand years of postwar environment,’ Kahn writes at one point.”[l] Menand notes “Ghamari-Tabrizi interviewed a number of Kahn’s associates, and she includes a telling comment about what it was like to work with him. ‘Nothing was ever finished,’ Irwin Mann, a mathematician, told her. ‘It was terribly sloppy. It was an enormous myth that anything was studied. Nothing was studied. Not really. He didn’t study anything. He was enormously smart.’ Critics like Newman complained that what is missing from Kahn’s work is a moral sense. Kahn had a reply to this objection, which was that the insistence that nuclear war is immoral will never prevent nuclear war. What is missing from his analysis is not morality; it’s reality. The reason his scenarios are fantastic to the point, almost, of risibility is that they deliberately ignore all the elements—beliefs, customs, ideas, politics—that actual wars are fought about, and that operate as a drag on decision-making at every point.”[li]
In short, Menand’s criticism of Kahn’s work is its lack of realism, and what we may think of as its decoupling of the Clausewitzian linkage firmly interconnecting war and policy. That is why his work was both embraced and rejected by the pacifistic anti-war community, who found in it an underlying (albeit horrifically articulated, in the tradition of Saint John the Divine’s detailed and almost pornographically violent Revelation) idealism that distinguished it from the more realist work of Brodie, in contrast to Kahn’s approach, its focus on means and not ends, on scenarios of war without the underlying analysis of the war’s ultimate cause (which Clausewitz observed restrains war from achieving its theoretical totality, and which Brodie applied to the nuclear era hoping in fact to foster such restraint).
Brodie himself engaged Kahn’s nuclear optimism critically, rejecting the realism behind his rosy premise permeating On Thermonuclear War. In Brodie’s April 1973 Foreign Service Journal article—“How Much Conventional Force Do We Need?”—he starts out by noting that “[i]n the minds of the great majority of people, nuclear weapons are objects of unmitigated horror, and so they are—in use. We know, however, that the leaders of all the nations possessing nuclear weapons are and have long been most keenly aware of their terrible potentialities.”[lii] And yet, Brodie finds, conventional thinking persists. Brodie recalls how “[o]ver a decade ago, Herman Kahn in his ‘On Thermonuclear War’ spoke of his ‘quaint ideas’ then still current among the military, including ‘the claim that in a thermonuclear war it is important to keep the sea lanes open.’ He mentions comparable ideas characteristic of the other services, and asks: ‘Where do such ideas come from?’ His answer: ‘They generally result, it can be assumed, from doctrinal lags or from position papers that primarily reflect a very narrow departmental interest or which are the result of log-rolling compromises between several partisan departments of the government.’ He adds, too optimistically as it has turned out, ‘We are fortunate that on the whole these views are no longer taken seriously even by many of the decision maters who sign the papers.’”[liii]
Brodie speculates on the potential cause of the persistence of conventional thinking, and the belief that a general war might be fought using only conventional weapons, during the nuclear era:
It is possible that in the quoted statement Kahn was correctly interpreting a trend that was later reversed. That is, officers who were at one time ready, or on the threshold of being ready, to admit that the conditions of a thermonuclear war were incompatible with the notions they had previously been advancing, subsequently became accustomed to the fact that nuclear weapons were not in fact being used even when American forces were at war, as in Korea and Vietnam. It also is likely that they have been affected selectively by the ideas of the conventional war-buildup school, that is, that they have absorbed gratefully the views that the United States would need as many ships, tanks, guns, aircraft as of yore, without necessarily accepting the basic assumption behind those views. That basic assumption is that we can have a World War III on something like a World War II scale without thermonuclear weapons being used. This is the same as saying that existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons cannot reliably deter such a war, let alone a lesser war.[liv]
Brodie examines the thoughts of several proponents of conventional warfighting in the nuclear era, and finds they generally acknowledge that full scale hostilities between the great powers would result in nuclear use, and that despite the restraint showed in both the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts, nuclear non-use could not be assured should a conflict involving great power and not peripheral interests arise. Brodie also brings Kahn up again, devoting several paragraphs to discussing his views on the survivability of nuclear war:
Herman Kahn, in the book that first made his name a byword, set out to prove that, provided certain precautions were taken of a kind that he and a research team under his direction had thoroughly explored, the United States could survive a strategic thermonuclear war. By that he meant that the fatalities and other casualties, though very large, could be kept within limits that he considered tolerable, and that within a term of years that others might consider astonishingly short, say five to ten years, the GNP that it had enjoyed before the war. The special condition to which he attached such supreme importance was the provision in good time of adequate fallout shelters and other forms of civil defense (though he had abandoned blast shelters as unfeasible), and also the storage in caves or man-made shelters of certain well-selected machine tools, the preservation of which would greatly assist in the reconstruction.
As Kahn himself said in one of his footnotes, “It is the hallmark of the expert professional that he doesn’t care where he is going as long as he proceeds competently.” He added that that seemed to be a reasonable charge against his book. This writer fully agrees, especially concerning the competence. Unlike most other writers in the field of strategy, including myself, Kahn had the courage to explore as thoroughly as his exceptional ability and knowledge permitted the character of a “general war” with thermonuclear weapons. However, having expressed this tribute, I must take part of it back by declaring that while Kahn cared well enough where he was going, he was helped along by an optimism that has in some critical respects turned out to be unwarranted.[lv]
Brodie proceeds to challenge Kahn’s conclusions on the survivability of nuclear war, noting “the precautions that Kahn deemed absolutely essential before his somewhat roseate conclusions could be warranted have not been taken and it is now abundantly clear that they will not be.”[lvi] That’s because, “[f]or reasons that were again psychological rather than logical, the American public in 1961-1962 reacted violently against the fallout shelter program studied and proposed by Kahn and accepted by the Kennedy Administration,” and now “appears unrevivable, and no one seems any longer interested.”[lvii] Next, Brodie points out, “as Kahn himself admitted frequently to his friends, his premises assumed a situation in nuclear weapons that was fast changing for the worse. His arguments, he conceded, would no longer be valid a decade hence unless there were significant and farreaching international agreements for nuclear disarmament. That decade has passed, and with MIRV and other developments, we know he was right to be concerned by the great increase in the sheer quantity of destructiveness that would be available to both sides. As could be predicted since they began, the outcome of the SALT negotiations was not enough to matter in this respect.”[lviii]
Further, Brodie argues, reaching into his knowledge of psychology, “being neither by training nor temperament sensitive to the vast psychological and emotional damage that a society like ours would suffer along with the physical devastation of a thermonuclear war, Kahn undoubtedly underestimated the problems of recovery even from a war taking place under the premises he postulated. Psychologically trained people have worked on the problem, but it is difficult to do so when one cannot find any real parallels in history. Past wars and other disasters have proved the human being and his societal structure remarkably resilient, but there are limits—especially in the absence of outside help of the kind that the United States after two world wars could give to others. One thing we may intuit with some assurance, and that s that democracy as we know it could hardly survive.”[lix] And Brodie’s “[f]ourth and most important” point is that:
although Kahn could see reasons why this unspeakable sum of destruction might nevertheless have to be accepted rather than yield one’s position on an important political dispute—the main reason being that a disposition to yield would be visible and hence tempting to the opponent—this writer can imagine no such issue that is at all likely to arise. On the simple Clausewitzian premise that a war must have a reasonable political objective with which the military operations must be reasonably constant—we have to work back from the assumption that “general war” with thermonuclear weapons must never be permitted to begin, however much we find it necessary to make physical preparations as though in might begin. Working back from that I premise is far from easy, and as I have indicated before, the idea of large-scale conventional war is simply no solution. There are requirements for a new diplomacy, the beginnings of which are in fact appearing.[lx]
After considering the reflections of several senior members of the Kennedy administration who stood on the precipice of war and who concluded that nuclear weapons could not be magically withheld from general hostilities if war came, Brodie concludes that “strategic thermonuclear war is indeed possible,” and that “[m]en who know or think they know the consequences of such war have sometimes taken steps in the direction of confrontation because they thought the latter necessary,” and could thus “see no alternative.”[lxi] As Brodie reflects,
Perhaps the compulsions that have moved them in that direction are due to outworn habits of thinking and of action, but for the time being and at least for the generation that now holds power, they exist. That is why so many people have despaired of avoiding general thermonuclear war except through remedies that this writer, among many others, regard as utterly unavailable, like world government or complete nuclear disarmament, or ineffective for the purpose intended, like building up conventional armaments as a means of sealing off or at least critically reducing the probability of resort to nuclear weapons.
Yet, as time goes on people seem to live in less rather than more fear of what would otherwise seem to be an increasing menace. The specialists become aroused about the threats to retaliatory forces arising from the increasing accuracy of long-range missiles, and they try to communicate their alarm to others in order to get certain things done—like building an ABM, but they have to contend with a certain calm resistance that is new, and which is reflected in such matters as the Senate votes on the ABM. It is an interesting phenomenon, some no doubt would argue a dangerous one, and it requires some explanation. Most important, one wants to know whether it reflects a reality or an illusion about the direction in which events are leading us.
The most hopeful part of the answer is that diplomacy seems clearly to be moving in a direction that indicates a common recognition, among those powers possessing substantial nuclear capabilities, that thermonuclear war between them is simply forbidden, and thus also lesser wars that might too easily lead up to the large-scale thermonuclear variety. This trend shows itself in various far-reaching and significant ways. No doubt it is not moving fast enough for our comfort, and yet it would even know take a very great deal to start a World War III—just as it took so much more to start World War II than it took to start World War I.[lxii]
Menand notes after On Thermonuclear War made Kahn a star, Kahn left RAND, moving to Chappaqua, New York, where, incidentally, President Clinton settled after his White House years. In 1961, Kahn founded the Hudson Institute, which Menand notes Kahn described as “a high-class RAND,” with such luminaries as “sociologist Daniel Bell, the French political philosopher Raymond Aron, and the novelist Ralph Ellison” in its employ.[lxiii] And while “Kahn liked debate,” Menand notes “the ad-hominem attacks on On Thermonuclear War had bruised him, and he softened his tone. He published a response to critics, Thinking About the Unthinkable, in 1962, and another book on military strategy, On Escalation, in 1965,” and served as “a consultant to the Defense Department from 1966 to 1968, criticizing the government for announcing its willingness to negotiate with the North Vietnamese, and advising ‘a sharp, potentially uncontrollable increase in threat, which might raise anxiety about points of no return.’ He couldn’t understand bombing North Vietnam unless it made life unbearable for the enemy. But he looked for an exit strategy, and he claimed to have introduced the term ‘Vietnamization’ to the Nixon Administration, which adopted it as the path to ‘peace with honor.’ It sounded better, Kahn later explained, than ‘de-Americanization.’”[lxiv] Menand summarizes Kahn’s final years:
In the nineteen-seventies, Kahn became a dealer in the futurology business—the fascination (prevalent at a time when the present day did not bear much examination) with imaginary Armageddons and pots of gold over the rainbow. In Kahn’s case, it was all pots of gold. He devoted his institute’s resources to refuting popular apocalyptic scenarios like Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” (1968) and the Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth” (1972). He argued that the potential of capitalism and technology was boundless, and predicted that human beings would colonize the solar system (an unbeatable type of deterrence: you threaten us, we’ll evacuate to the moon). His politics went right. “The Coming Boom: Economic, Political, and Social” (1982) is a hymn to Reaganism. In his last book, an update of “Thinking About the Unthinkable,” he charged Jonathan Schell with exaggerating the effects of a nuclear war in his best-selling “The Fate of the Earth” (1982). Kahn died, of a massive stroke, in 1983. That was the year a group headed by Carl Sagan released a report warning that the dust and smoke generated by a thermonuclear war would create a “nuclear winter,” blocking light from the sun and wiping out most of life on the planet. Kahn’s friends were confident that he would have had a rebuttal.[lxv]
Abella, in Soldiers of Reason, examines Herman Kahn and his legacy, and in his sixth chapter appropriately titled “The Jester of Death,” describes him as follows: “Herman Kahn was what most RAND analysts, by dint of their belief in their intellectual superiority, never deigned to be: a showman. And his shtick was death. Death by the millions, the tens and hundreds of millions. It is with Kahn that RAND becomes, in the popular mind, the place where people think the unthinkable.”[lxvi]
As Abella recounts, “Kahn liked to ask, ‘If 180 million dead is too high a price for punishing the Soviets for their aggression, what price would we be willing to pay?’”[lxvii]  He further noted, “Kahn was almost as wide as he is tall—six feet and 300 pounds—and he could extemporize for hours on his favorite topics: civil defense and thermonuclear war.”[lxviii] These thoughts came together in his stylistically informal, and long-winded, tome, On Thermonuclear War, published in 1960 and based on a series of lectures Kahn had delivered across the country on what for many, including Brodie, had been unthinkable: waging and winning a general nuclear war against the Soviet Union. As Abella explained:
Never much of writer, with the help of collaborators Kahn compiled transcripts of his talks, which he edited down to a large, informal, yet apparently amoral and decisively infuriating book. He called it On Thermonuclear War, in homage to Carl von Clausewitz’s military classic On War. His confreres in RAND’s nuclear analysts club—with their scorn of public exposure and their rational, precise use of language, figures, and statistics—were contemptuous of the work when Kahn submitted it to RAND management for release authorization. Most of the analysts felt Kahn had cribbed from everyone and given credit to no one.[lxix]
Abella recalls what transpired when Kahn “handed a copy to (RAND director, Albert) Wohlstetter for review. Bruno Augenstein was in Wohlstetter’s pristine, all-white office when Kahn peeked in and asked his erstwhile mentor for his response. ‘There’s only one thing to do with this Herman,’ replied Wohlstetter, tossing the manuscript back. ‘Burn it.’”[lxx]
But despite its negative response within RAND, Abella noted “there was no classified information in it and it was not an official RAND document,” so it was approved for public release. And his “652-page tome was an immediate success when published in 1960 to widespread, controversial reviews; more than 14,000 copies sold during the first two months. To a world familiar with hopeless talk of total annihilation if nuclear bombs were used for war, Kahn’s pragmatic views were unexpectedly bracing and clearheaded—or repulsive and pornographic, depending on the reader’s political persuasion.”[lxxi] Finding some similarities with Brodie’s strategic thinking, Abella observes that like Brodie,
Kahn espoused limited war, denying that the threat of massive retaliation brought about deterrence. In his book, he concocted a so-called doomsday machine, one that would automatically release enough nuclear bombs to wipe out all life on Earth if the Soviet Union engaged in some forbidden practice. He likened that contraption to SAC war plans, calling them both absurd as they offered no flexibility in response to a Soviet attack. Kahn borrowed Brodie’s concept of a nuclear reserve force, which Wohlstetter has appropriated and dubbed second-strike capability; Kahn also used the recommendations of Wohlstetter’s basing study, the dispersal of bombers and military personnel, as well as the hardening of hangars and missile silos. Finally Kahn through into the mix the RAND notion of counterforce—that is, going after specific military targets of cities in a nuclear war.[lxxii]
But adds Abella, “Kahn saved his most colorful, riveting descriptions for his visions of civil defense and life during and after a nuclear exchange. Blithely assuming that the federal government and the economic system would survive by people hiding in backyard shelters, evacuation centers in fortified mine shafts, and deep caverns, he declared that the vaunted effects of radioactive fallout were highly exaggerated.”[lxxiii] Kahn went so far as to suggest “food be labeled according to its contamination level, with the degree of contamination expressed in five different grades, from less to more poisonous,” with the least made available to children and pregnant women and the most poisonous for animals, and the second most poisonous “restricted to people over forty or fifty.’”[lxxiv] Kahn’s work was controversial, and “[m]any people were shocked by the apparent callousness of On Thermonuclear War,” and while Kahn was “sympathetic to the squeamish,” he “felt such trepidations were a waste of time and intellectual energy. In an era when human kind teetered on the brink of the most destructive conflict ever imagined, it was essential for Americans to know that they could definitely survive if thermonuclear war broke out. That knowledge alone was enough to make them stronger and safer.”[lxxv]
Criticism was widespread, including the infamous review in Scientific American by James Newman that described it a “moral tract on mass murder: how to plan it, how to commit it, how to get away with it, how to justify it,” and New Statesman describing it as “pornography for officers.”[lxxvi] Strangely (at least on the surface, but the contradictory nature of the nuclear age made paradox commonplace), Abella noted “[s]ome of the loudest praise came from pacifists and advocates for nuclear disarmament” such as “Bertrand Russell, who believed Kahn unwittingly illustrated the impossibility of peace through nuclear weapons.” With the success of his magnum opus, and a million dollars in support from the Rockefeller Foundation, Kahn moved east to set up the Hudson Institute, “his own competing think tank,” breaking with RAND once and for all.[lxxvii]
Barry Bruce-Briggs, in his uniquely detailed biography of Kahn, Supergenius: The Mega-Worlds of Herman Kahn, recalls the genesis of On Thermonuclear War, and how Kahn had “said to Wohlstetter: ‘You know, somebody’s going to write a book about this whole subject, and they’ll get a lot of kudos, perhaps more than they deserve, simply because no one else has done it.’”[lxxviii] And so Kahn did. “While on leave Herman contracted to write a book based upon his lectures with the Princeton University Press,” and “[u]sing a transcript of the lectures as a rough draft, Herman hand-typed the manuscript in the rented Princeton house. The draft was sent for review by a long list of colleagues; the only surviving remarks are by Bernard Brodie who called it ‘a first rate job’ and asked to be listed among the acknowledgments, and by Daniel Ellsberg who favored the author with 38 pages of nit-picking. The manuscript went to the Defense Department for review and was approved (with ‘comments’) in October 1959. That did not end the RAND work. There were sundry inputs of statistics, etc., and interminable revisions by Herman stalled publication until the end of 1960.”[lxxix]
Some observers, such as Gregg Herken in Counsels of War, have suggested Kahn, like Brodie, intended his work to be the nuclear era’s response to Clausewitz, and that he intended to revise his work, building upon the foundation of his lectures and molding the analysis into a truly Clausewitzian treatise, and suggesting that Kahn himself was disappointed that his completed volume fell far short of this goal. But Kahn’s biographer and Hudson Institute colleague disagrees. Bruce-Briggs recounts that Kahn’s “original title ‘Three Lectures on Thermonuclear War’ was transmuted to ‘Thermonuclear War: Three Lectures and Several Suggestions,’ and finally became ‘On Thermonuclear War,’” and he “strongly suspects that the title was the brainstorm of the Princeton press, perhaps from the editor, Gordon Hubel,” and notes that it was “reminiscent of Carl von Clausewitz’s Vom Krieg/On War, hailed as the great classic of military theory.”[lxxx] But “[w]hile Kahn may have skimmed Clausewitz, he never showed a smidgen of interest in any strategic theorist. Any Clausewitzian implication in the title is misleading; in the preface Herman clearly set forth his purpose: ‘This book examines the military side of what may be the major problem that faces civilization, comparing some of the alternatives that seem available and some of the implications in these choices. Even here I have not been as comprehensive, for reasons of space, as I would have liked to be. I have mostly restricted the discussion to the deterrence and waging of thermonuclear ‘Central Wars’ between the United States and the Soviet Union, touching only lightly on Limited War and related alliance problems.’”[lxxxi] Bruce-Briggs adds that Kahn “made no pretence of producing a general treatise on thermonuclear war or the Cold War,” and that “the university press was guilty of the excessively grandiose title is suggested by the exceedingly unscholarly hard sell. The publisher sold On Thermonuclear War to the History Book Club and the Aerospace Book Club. The stark black cover was a harsh touch.”[lxxxii] He also cites Princeton University Press’ press release announcing Kahn’s tome, which “howled, ‘Deliberate Nuclear War is Now a Real Threat.’ A convention of publishing is to obtain ‘blurbs’ from big names who are chums or allies of the writer or publisher and have an opportunity for self-advertising. The press chose blurbs by Harrison Brown, Schelling, Sprague, Hubert Humphrey, and Larry Hafstad, ex-head of AEC reactor research and General Motors’ research chief. Brown opined, ‘This book will influence history more than any which I have read in the last twenty years,’ which prompted Mrs. Kahn to ask, ‘If this is the best book he has read in 20 years, what is the book he read 20 years ago? That’s the book I want to buy.’”[lxxxiii] But the hard sell, it seems, paid off handsomely for the press, and for Kahn who migrated from the relative anonymity of RAND to pop culture. As Bruce-Briggs recalls, “On Thermonuclear War became one of the 20th century’s most celebrated books, and created Herman Kahn’s fame.”[lxxxiv]
Bruce-Briggs notes that “[b]ig chunks of the book are downright huckstering for more and more serious research on the subject. It is rather obvious who the author had in mind to accomplish this mammoth project. How the research would be done is far less evident.” He also notes despite Kahn’s claim of the “adoption of the Systems Analysis point of view,” that in fact “it was not necessary for Herman to be quantitative; few numbers appear in the book; almost all of it is purely literary exposition. Except for the calculations of damage from hypothetical attacks on the US and an illustrative chart of effects of missile attacks on SAC bases, the book has no quantitative analysis and its conclusions do not rest on any, nor are any claimed. In fact, OTW retreats from the blandly stated calculations set forth in his RAND civil defense writings. The long-term genetic estimates are qualified to the point of vaporousness” He recalls how “[t]en years later Herman commented, ‘Another common criticism of the book—that it is ‘pseudo-scientific’ and yet ‘everywhere insistent on its scientific rigor’—could also be make only by individuals who had not read the book, or had been unable to absorb what they read.” Bruce-Briggs explains that “[m]ost of the calculations in the book are intended as illustrative examples and metaphors, or as basic communication, and not as scientific proof.”[lxxxv] Bruce-Briggs believes On Thermonuclear War “is a compendium of Plato’s shadows-on-the-wall-of-a-cave, dim projections of bright ideas in RAND and flaming quarrels within the military establishment, masked for political and/or security reasons.”[lxxxvi] In fact, Bruce-Briggs believes Kahn “misled his readers by writing that ‘The lectures that form the body of the book were initially delivered . . . at Princeton,’” since “less than a quarter of the book is in the lectures,” and Bruce-Briggs suspects “[t]his was probably a ploy to gull the security people: the censors approved a draft just a few days before the imposition of policy review on RAND, yet the text was fiddled for another year.”[lxxxvii] As he explains, “The most glaring addition is the initial chapter on ‘Alternative National Strategies.’ Stanford Research Institute held an enormous seminar in April 1960, one of the biggest conferences of all. Richard Foster encouraged Kahn to develop a taxonomy of strategic alternatives, evidently based on Herman’s briefings for the Army, also sponsored by Foster, the previous year. Herman’s list paralleled one published in early 1960 by Henry Rowen.”[lxxxviii] Bruce-Briggs notes On Thermonuclear War was not without its faults, and
If OTW (as came to be labeled) was intended to be analytical, it was an utter failure. It is too sprawling and inchoate, with key points buried in obscure places, sometimes by design. Many of the emphases are masked, probably deliberately to avoid blame for special pleading. Largely this is due to Herman’s quicksilver mind; he would get flashes of insight and write them down, or maybe not. With characteristic candor he wrote to the theologian Paul Ramsey, ‘The book was prepared in a rather hectic fashion and it wouldn’t surprise me if whole sections were inadvertently left out.’ Simply stated, Herman was a clumsy writer. Everyone who cared about literary quality execrated his style.[lxxxix]
He noted “Wohlstetter described his prose as ‘dictated through a public address system,’” adding that “[o]ne problem was that Herman thought like a mathematician, and treated a sentence as the equivalent of an equation,” and “would modify a sentence with qualifiers, ruining the cadence and balance, and befuddling the reader. A grotesque stylistic perversion was excessive capitalization, an evident effort to turn terms into proper nouns. He tried to give the text some unifying structure by including his briefing charts intact; unfortunately, they merely muddled matters more.” But as Bruce-Briggs observes, “Still, the ‘passionately barbarous’ prose and anarchistic disorganization may have strengthened OTW. It forces the serious reader to concentrate. The artlessness imparts authenticity; were the author a hustler, he would have been slicker and ingratiating.”[xc] As for its excessive length, Bruce-Briggs notes “Herman never learned that more is less,” and recounts how Kahn “brought home his author’s copy of On Thermonuclear War with vast pride, so much that his wife asked if he preferred it to his infant son. ‘It’s my second child, and my first book.’ Jane read the book to page 19; she already had heard the lectures.”[xci]
Despite its structural flaws, On Thermonuclear War received noteworthy praise, from colleagues, friends and military professionals. As Bruce-Briggs recounted:
Herman’s first notice of the reception of OTW was the response from friends. It must have been gratifying. The Princeton theologian Paul Ramsey called it “monumental.” Henry Kissinger wrote, “truly splendid,” and that OTW would make his forthcoming strategic book “appear amateurish.” From Paris, Brodie was rapturous: “. . . it is a great book. It happens to be the only book in its field, but it would be the best even if there were many others . . . you know you are rendering me unemployed. I don’t mean in RAND, which is likely to continue to harbor me, but in the field of strategy. I used to enjoy a certain isolation, which made it easy to write what others called ‘distinguished.’ Now I shall really have to bethink myself what it is that I can contribute henceforward. . . . I am glad . . . that the name of RAND is so prominent . . . so that the organization will get the credit which the front office, at least, does not deserve.” The Air Force adored OTW: “highly recommended by the Air Staff.” “It is viewed by NORAD’s CINC as ‘must’ reading.” Perhaps it is superfluous to remark that the federal civil defense agency was overjoyed. However, Admiral Rickover remarked about Herman & co., “I can’t understand these fellows. There must be something wrong with me.” Senator Stuart Symington wrote Henderson, “I never read anything that interested me more.” High praise also came from newspapers and magazines. It was favorably received by the military affairs correspondent of the Washington Post and by Richard Fryklund of the Washington Evening Star. Both the conservative New York Daily News and Max Lerner of the liberal New York Post hailed it. The influential New York Times Book Review was enthusiastic. Time considered OTW worthy of a news story, and a few weeks later Henry Luce cited it affirmatively in a major speech. The opinion magazines weighed in—with some expectable ideological slants. On the right, the tough anti-Communist Col. William R. Kintner in the Yale Review raved, but was skeptical about Herman’s hopes for alleviating the arms race. In the National Review the ferocious ex-Communist Frank S. Meyer was impressed, but disturbed by Kahn’s treatment of the USA and USSR as equivalents. To the left, Fred Greene in The New Republic called it “a brilliant study” but with caveats. In the Saturday Review of Literature edited by the pacifist Norman Cousins, Norman Thomas addressed OTW with gracefully frigid tartness, seeing it as a symptom of armed nationalism; “Mr. Kahn and his fellow theorists . . . have not convinced me that mankind deserves to survive if it is capable of the horrors of destruction for which we prepare ourselves at such material and spiritual cost.”[xcii]
But the book review that was the most passionately critical of Kahn, and which by virtue of its intensity became perhaps one of the most infamous books reviews of all time, was the one published in Scientific American. As Bruce-Briggs recalled:
The most popular science-popularizing magazine was Scientific American, controlled by a syndicate headed by former science editors of Life. In the March 1961 issue, OTW was addressed by the book review editor James R. Newman:
Is there really a Herman Kahn? It is hard to believe. Doubts cross one’s mind almost from the first page of this deplorable book: no one could write like this; no one could think like this. Perhaps the whole thing is a staff hoax in bad taste. . . . The style of the book certainly suggests teamwork. It is by turns waggish, pompous, chummy, coy, brutal, arch, rude, man-to-man, Air Force crisp, energetic, tongue-tied, pretentious, ingenuous, spastic, ironical, savage, malapropos, square-bashing and moralistic. Solecisms, pleonasms and jargon abound; the clichés and fused participles are spectacular. . . . How could a single person produce such a caricature? . . . This is a moral tract on mass murder: How to plan it, how to commit it, how to get away with it, how to justify it. . . . Kahn, we are told, is ‘one of the very few who have managed to avoid the ‘mental block’ so characteristic of writers on nuclear warfare.’ The mental block consists, if I am not mistaken, of a scruple for life. This evil and tenebrous book . . . is permeated with a bloodthirsty irrationality such as I have not seen in my years of reading.
Thus Herman was the beneficiary of one of the most famous book reviews ever written.[xciii]
There were other criticisms, few as infamous as Newman’s, though one comes close: “The unnamed science correspondent of the Glasgow Herald was a Scots incarnation of James Newman: ‘This book is the work of the devil . . . a slick, talcum-scented contemporary Satan, rationalising hideous emotions by reference to strategic studies, electronic computers, contingency planning, and all the other gimmicks of paranoid gamesmanship. . . . Naive and preposterous by turns, untrammeled by moral principles, his essay on thermo-nuclear war is a handbook of genocide.”[xciv] It is fascinating that the vociferous criticism of Kahn is so reminiscent of earlier criticisms of the pivotal realist political theorist, strategic philosopher, and frustrated diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli, whose name has become in some quarters synonymous with amorality and duplicity but whose true intentions were more humanistic and whose philosophical perspective far more subtle than the prescriptions found in The Prince. Taken on their own, and out of context with his full panoply of work, these precepts are easy to misconstrue, and a limited reading of Machiavelli’s work can lead a reader to logically, and fairly, conclude the worst. And such a fate, it seems, has befallen Herman Kahn, though clearly not all of his readers assumed the worst of him, with praise emanating from both sides of the political spectrum, and from both the anti-war and the professional military communities.
Bruce-Briggs examines the controversy that erupted in the wake of Newman’s sharp and public rebuke in the pages of Scientific American, and notes that “[m]uch of Herman’s subsequent strategical writing was a defense against his critics,”[xcv] although two important but obvious elements of the storm of criticism were not directly engaged by Kahn. The first is that he was somehow anti-Clausewitzian in his dissociation of war from politics, a point that Brodie would later argue despite his early praise for Kahn’s work, but a point that his biographer, Bruce-Briggs, contests, noting Kahn’s intent in On Thermonuclear War was to explore the military dimensions of nuclear war, and thus he did not deny the existence of nor the importance of the political dimensions of nuclear conflict by making this thematic emphasis. And the second set of issues had to do with the moral dimensions of war, which Bruce-Briggs similarly defends Kahn for, noting his did not deny the existence or importance of morality in war by so openly, and with such sober clarity, discussing his imagined scenarios of nuclear warfare. The charge, that Kahn “was accused of failure to take politics sufficiently into account,” Bruce-Briggs believes, “is both irrelevant and incorrect. The book was clearly labeled an examination of ‘the military side’ of thermonuclear war. It was a treatise for officers and other professionals. Bruce-Briggs notes that “Kahn, however, charmed Brodie, at the time,” but later their relations would sour: “Unfortunately, Brodie deeply resented the success of others. Any disagreements among these men had to be of a personal nature; they were in accord on all substantial points of strategy, save Brodie’s more tolerant view of tactical nuclear warfare.”[xcvi]
Years later, an “embittered Brodie wrote that OTW had ‘lost’ Carl von Clausewitz’s ‘insight’ that ‘war in all its phases must be rationally guided by meaningful political purposes.’”[xcvii] But Bruce-Briggs own “thumbing of On War will reveal that the ‘insight’ did not inform Clausewitz; e.g., Book VII, Chapter 14, on ‘Attacks on Swamps, Flooded Areas, and Forests.’ Practically nothing that the military does in war (or preparing for war, or deterring war) is guided by political purposes, meaningful or not, rational or not.”[xcviii] Bruce-Briggs seems to interpret “politics” in a literal, partisan sense and not the broader sweep of “policy” that he may have intended, or that tactical operations in war were naturally non-political. Thus, “[w]hen Technical Sergeant Kahn served in Burma, the political purposes of the United States were irrelevant to his duty to keep the telephone lines open. Similarly, one designs—e.g., strategic offensive forces, the defense of those forces, and the defense of the civil population—in disregard of ‘policy.’ Except very rarely at the very highest level, politics is of no consequence to acquisition of forces and to military operations.”[xcix] But Bruce-Briggs also finds in Kahn’s work a deep political understanding, and at least an implicit Clausewitzian linkage of war and policy:
Moreover, the no-politics charge against OTW is incorrect. The distinction between several types of deterrence was, as documented here, based upon three general types of “provocation;” a provocation is a political act you deem undesirable and which would occasion your response for political purposes. Herman’s analysis took for granted the political objective of avoiding the destruction or the occupation of the United States by the Soviet Union. He explicitly addressed the political objective of denying the assets of West Europe to the Soviet Union, and the “policy” of containment in general. The immediate political context of OTW was the on-going Berlin crisis. Perhaps some of the critics meant that no political objective was worth the risk of destruction of a thermonuclear war; certainly this was often said later. Anyone who really believes that is advocating surrender rather than facing the threat of war, and anyone who says that—and is taken seriously—is encouraging nuclear blackmail. Herman eschewed detailed analysis of the specific political events that might generate provocations that might require deterring for the simple reason that such were necessarily imponderable. This was the lesson learned from his accounts of the lead-in to the World Wars. The circumstances were so bizarre and so unanticipatable that no one could have forecast them, and could not have been expected to do so. “History has a habit of being richer and more ingenious than the limited imaginations of most scholars or laymen.” So Herman and his colleagues were concerned with the design of systems that could deter a broad range of provocations.[c]
So while Kahn’s strategic thinking was at least implicitly Clausewitzian, Bruce-Briggs concedes Kahn may have been what we now call politically incorrect. As he explained, “the charge of political innocence is valid at another level—not the analysis, but the publicizing of the analysis was impolitic.”[ci] He adds that “[i]n arguing the need for vigorous efforts to maintain a Type II deterrent, Herman was revealing that the American guarantee to Europe was tissue paper; surely this was what flustered the British. At a more fundamental level, OTW was largely an assemblage of publicly available information. Did no one notice what was making those contrails in the sky, or wonder what was the purpose of the explosions in Nevada? Herman rubbed their noses in thermonuclear war. To Amitai Etzioni, ‘Kahn does for nuclear arms what free-love advocates did for sex: he speaks candidly of acts about which others whisper behind closed doors.’”[cii]
The second set of issues for which Kahn was “pilloried” was “for ignoring the ‘moral aspects’ of thermonuclear war,” and Bruce-Briggs also believes:
This is fallacious: the book is permeated with morality, military morality. Herman’s audience was soldiers and colleagues of the military. Most of them were veterans of World War II, and they took for granted certain long-established moral precepts; brutally stated: A. It is moral and commendable for soldiers to kill and maim the enemy and destroy his property until the war is over; B. It is moral and commendable for soldiers to risk killing and maiming their comrades; C. It is moral and commendable for soldiers to kill and maim civilians, hostile or friendly, and destroy their property, if they get in the way of achieving A above, just like cavalry horses trampling grass; D. If necessary, it is moral to directly kill and maim enemy civilians (e.g., by blockade) if the means of A are inadequate.[ciii]
Like Machiavelli, Kahn was dealing in the dangerous realm of a very harsh and unforgiving necessity. Bruce-Briggs cites one discussion of the moral dimensions of nuclear targeting: “The notion of ‘bonus’ damage (of cities) is wrong in another sense. It is basically an immoral idea. It became reputable and could be justified in World War I and World War II, only because of military necessity. In those wars civilian morale played an essential role in furnishing men and materials to the fighting fronts. This is no longer true, and therefore . . . nonmilitary damage is now not only immoral, it is senseless.”[civ] Adds Bruce-Briggs: “‘Senseless’ obviously is more pertinent than ‘immoral’; elsewhere he coolly suggested ‘that if the enemy is lucky enough to destroy 80 per cent or more of our strategic force, we should devote the remaining force to malevolent (i.e. countervalue city) objectives—to punish the enemy in that way which is hurtful to him.’”[cv]
Another moral dimension of Kahn’s work was noted by some on the left who found his sober realism in the face of nuclear destruction a catalyst, ultimately, of peace, much like we can view Machiavelli’s The Prince as a warning of sorts to the very republicans he sought to inspire with his Discourses. Kahn himself recognized this subtle moral edge to his work over a decade after he published On Thermonuclear War, when, as recounted by Bruce-Briggs, Kahn informed an audience:
I wrote a book called On Thermonuclear War. . . . it’s a very strange book, because it’s not a right-wing book; it’s a left-wing book. (I was still a leftist in those days.) It’s a left-wing book addressed to the Right. And the point I was trying to make was that Americans could be deterred, which at that time was not believed by the people in charge. They said, ‘We’re just too tough. . . .’ I’d start out first to give a lengthy briefing to explain that you could survive a war: The radioactivity wasn’t that bad, the strontium-90 wasn’t that bad, destruction—By the time I finished the briefing they were terribly upset. It looked pretty awful. And since it’s cast in reassuring terms, the impact was worse—you understand. I wasn’t lying—I was doing the best study I could, but trying to shake it around slightly.[cvi]
Thus, Bruce-Briggs explains that a “fundamental purpose of OTW was missed by all the thoughtful reviewers and subsequent learned commentators. Kissinger showed a hint of it when he chided Herman: ‘you may be strengthening the unilateral disarmers by putting your case too extremely.’ The pacifist economist Kenneth Boulding remarked about a conference, ‘One of the young men of the RAND Corporation, whom I suspected of being a sheep in wolf’s clothing, gave us about ten years to perfect the doomsday machine...’ And a little later Margaret Mead ‘reiterated her opinion that you are a radical pacifist, who believes that a proper delineation of the horrors of war will bring people to their senses.’”[cvii] But ultimately, Bruce-Briggs observes, Kahn “did not write OTW for science journalists, history professors, or crypto-socialists; his audience was ‘professionals.’”[cviii]
And perhaps because he wanted to serve these professionals well, and illuminate their thinking along the way, he reached out to the traditional opponents of the strategic theorists: the peace movement. As Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, in her socio-cultural study of Kahn, The Worlds of Herman Kahn, recalls how Kahn, the apostle of thermonuclear war who would later rebut not only the utopian vision of disarmament espoused by Jonathan Schell but also the more practically-minded program of a nuclear freeze and the moral rejection by the American Catholic bishops of nuclear warfighting doctrine, managed to maintain a warm relationship with the peace movement throughout the Cold War, and was fascinated by America’s youth culture and its utopian hippie movement of the 1960s:
Kahn loved to buttonhole people who disagreed with him. For example, he energetically pursued contacts with the full spectrum of the peace movement, from the anticommunist Robert Pinkus, to members of SANE, to religiously oriented pacifists such as Quakers and A.J. Muste, to the academic disarmers of the Committees of Correspondence in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the direct-action pacifists of the Committee on Non-Violent Action [CNVA]. Both the strategists and the peaceniks looked forward to these public wrestling matches. Kahn adored these encounters, and some in the peace movement were equally delighted to get on so cordially with a man whose ideas they condemned.
Kahn’s cordiality with the peace movement did not go unnoticed. In August 1962 he agreed to be interviewed by two FBI agents about his contacts with CNVA and his general relationship with the peace movement. The encounter seems to have been hostile. . . . As director of the Hudson Institute, he defended his regular conversations with the disarmers. “It is useful to have people in the peace groups freely express their ideas and objectives to this organization.” In fact, he vowed to continue to meet with leftists as well as liberals and conservatives, in the future. “Such a procedure is necessary in order to obtain the entire spectrum of thinking of all various and opposed groups.”
This was no lie. Throughout his life, Kahn befriended people far from him in taste, opinion, and preoccupations. He was fascinated with the counterculture. His sister-in-law’s sons were hippies. They had dropped out of college and lived with the Kahn family for close to a year. He occasionally sought out their company, the opinions of their friends, and other ideologically invested young people. Anthony Wiener remembered a trip to the Esalen Institute for a Hudson study on the youth culture. “Herman got along wonderfully with all these people. I found Abby Hoffman for him, Paul Krasner. I identified all these people. They all wanted to meet Herman. They had a wonderful time. We walked around . . . chatting about dropping acid.” Kahn’s engrossment in the counterculture was not wholly theoretical. He confided to a reporter in 1968, “I like the hippies. I’ve been to Esalen. I’ve had LSD a couple of times. In some ways I’d like to join them.[cix]
Bruce-Briggs identifies four impacts that resulted from the reception of On Thermonuclear War. First among these was its “superlative publicity,” as “[t]he American Library Association selected it as one of the 46 most notable books of 1960. OTW sold like Crackerjack. It became the book to be seen on one’s desk in military circles or on one’s coffee table in scientific and intellectual circles,” and in the end, “30,000 copies were sold—a substantial number for such a specialized volume from an academic press. The royalties poured in, and kept coming, and even when they had tapered off to a trickle 20 years later.”[cx] The second, related to the first, is that publication of On Thermonuclear War “made Herman Kahn famous outside military and scientific circles,” and “[h]e became a Big Name, a celebrity, not of the stature of a major national politician or a superstar entertainer, but a name known at least at the level of some vague recognition by most formally-educated Americans, and foreigners as well.”[cxi] The third impact, Bruce-Briggs writes, is that “[t]he Scientific American and Nation attacks made Herman a bete noire of the American Left—the personification of evil. The comedian Mort Sahl, who had made a reputation in the 1950s with anti-Ike golf-ball jokes, amused an audience with: ‘I got on this idea after reading a book called On Thermonuclear War by a man named Herman Kahn. . . . He is a fascist . . . a genocide who goes home at night and plays with his kids and asks them, ‘What are you going to be IF you grow up?’ . . . Remember Herman Kahn, remember that name. The book is so big that they might decide just to drop it instead of a bomb.”[cxii]
And in 1962, Bruce-Briggs observed, “the distinguished semanticist S.I. Hayakawa, relying upon his scholarly research of reading the San Francisco Chronicle, declared, ‘I find it difficult to find words to express the horror and incredulity which his views arouse in me.’ To Herman, this was heartbreaking, and . . . prompted him to intense attempts at recoupment.” And fourth, “Conversely, by an effect of pure reaction, the onslaughts from the Left shielded him from the Right. Although his views were frequently decidedly heretical to conservative orthodoxy, it was presumed that anyone so anathema to the lefties must be sound.”[cxiii]
Bruce-Briggs discusses Kahn’s approach to strategic theory, noting Kahn himself found “[t]he term ‘strategy’ escapes clear definition” and that Kahn “gave up on it, joking, ‘Strategy is what I do; tactics is what my subordinates do—at any level of command.’ It can be loosely said that a strategy is a broad concept for assigning military forces to achieve goals. Strategy is not what you want, but how you intend to go about getting it; and strategy is not how you get it—that is tactics.”[cxiv] Kahn’s biographer adds that when the term strategist “first appeared in the 19th century,” it “labeled a handful of men who wrote about strategy, usually advocating what strategy should be. Almost all were military officers” and an even smaller few such as “the Marshal de Saxe and King Frederick of Prussia, actually commanded armies, but more commonly the strategical writers were fluent staff officers” like Clausewitz and Jomini, and only “[r]arely did civilians write about military matters, and those few were journalists, usually with personal military experience, and of times of considerable perception,” mostly journalists who had either covered and/or served in wars.[cxv] But this started to change in World War II, and after that conflict ended, Bruce-Briggs observes a new group, the “‘civilian strategists’ came to the fore, and the actual strategists—the commanders and their war planners—were assigned to anonymity. A precise date can be attributed: In spring 1945 a team of scientists of the Manhattan Project was canvassed about using the atomic bomb. This was unique; nobody had asked Hiram Maxim how to use the machine gun. Henceforth, ‘the atomic scientists’ were held to be experts on nuclear war, but their effusions were limited to advocacy of bigger bombs or not-so-big bombs or no bombs.”[cxvi] Among these was the “Charles River Gang, some Harvard but mostly MIT,” largely from its Radiation Lab, who Bruce-Briggs finds only “made small contribution to nuclear strategic understanding, but much to popular polemics,” with a “[s]lightly more significant” impact being made by “the handful of academic scholars who initiated the study of international relations in the 1930s, and extended their scope to strategy in the post-World War II period,” among which can be found Bernard Brodie, whom Bruce-Briggs credits for his foresight, but whom he criticizes for dismissing the viability of counterforce targeting, which Bruce-Briggs believes flowed logically from Brodie’s earlier work on naval strategy and thus marked a serious “gaff” in Brodie’s thinking about the bomb.[cxvii] As Bruce-Briggs writes:
In this group was the first man to write comprehensively about the meaning of nuclear warfare—Bernard Brodie. The bombing of Hiroshima terminated his stint as a naval scribe and he returned to academia at Yale’s School of International Studies, where he took part in a collaborative that addressed the military and political implications of atomic munitions, and edited the resulting small volume The Absolute Weapon containing military sections by himself. This work is justly renowned for its precedence, and also should be for its prescience; almost every concept that was elaborated later was present in embryo. To be sure, Brodie’s first effort could be challenged on many points, but unfairly. Brodie was quite proper in 1946 to assume existing technological conditions: that atomic bombs, however awesome their power, would be expensive and few, that their effects would be limited to blast, that they would be delivered by aircraft, that bombing would be inaccurate and therefore addressed to easy targets such as cities, and that defenses would be ineffective. A worse gaff was forgetting the naval strategy that he had earlier expounded. Before employing your navy against the enemy’s economy by blockade or raid, you must gain command of the sea—by addressing your attention to his naval forces, that is, to use a term from nearly a decade later, “counterforce.” Brodie continued to publish occasional lucid essays, properly modifying his position as new information became available.[cxviii]
Bruce-Briggs notes SAC had articulated a counterforce strategy “from the beginning of the Cold War; the desirability of nailing the enemy’s aircraft on the ground had been one of the nursery school precepts of aerial warfare since WWI,” when “[t]he air arm of the Royal Navy initiated counterforce strikes against the Zeppelin strategic bombers in 1914. SAC’s counterforce was labeled the ‘blunting’ or BRAVO mission of its nuclear war plans. However, SAC also intended at the same time, with a single attack, to achieve a ‘retarding’/ROMEO interdiction mission against Soviet forces in Europe as well as a ‘destruction’/DELTA mission toward Soviet war industry/cities. But the popular view of nuclear war was rigidly fixed by Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the blasting of cities, and only that.”[cxix] Kahn, in his 1965 On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios, describes this shift in strategic thinking, noting: “When the atom bomb was developed, many scholars, military professionals, and informed laymen believed that strategy and tactics, as they understood them, had come to an end. This feeling was reflected in the late 1940’s in such phrases as ‘the absolute weapon,’ and in many aphorisms and analogies that made the point, more or less dramatically or ironically, that the inevitable result of a nuclear war would be mutual annihilation.” The net result was that both tactical theory and strategy came to be perceived as “equally irrelevant, since it could not be an objective of strategy to bring about the destruction of the nation. Atomic war thus became unthinkable, both literally and figuratively. And, in fact, most of the strategists and technicians were so awed by the existence of this new weapon that they almost did stop thinking.”[cxx] There was a similar “block against thinking” on the military side as well, Kahn added, and this “sometimes resulted in a compensatory denial of the problem: atomic bombs were simply ‘bigger bombs’ or ‘quality weapons.’ The initial nuclear strategic targeting and tactics of the Air Force were almost identical to those used for conventional bombing in World War II,” which “merely made clearer the lack of serious creative thinking about nuclear war.”[cxxi] But then “[i]n the late 1940’s and early 1950’s there was a partial reawakening, which led to some initial discussion of the various options open to a potential nuclear attacker. Particularly studied were the threats he might make and the appropriate tactics if threats failed. The counteroptions available to the defender were also examined. The discussion on such topics as rationality-of-irrationality, withholding tactics, various mixtures and levels of counterforce and countervalue targeting, and so on, reached a fairly high level of sophistication, but it came to an abrupt end with the development of the hydrogen bomb, which seemed so close to a ‘doomsday machine’ that details seemed to become irrelevant. Multimegaton weapons appeared to be unusable for any rational, and even for many irrational, purposes. ‘War was obsolete.’ So once again there was a block in strategic thinking.”[cxxii]
Kahn in fact starts out chapter ten of On Escalation, which is titled “Some Comments on ‘War-Fighting,’” with a discussion of the “Current Neglect of Strategy and Tactics,” noting how “war-fighting” had become the antonym of “deterrence-only,” and Kahn notes how “[m]any find such concern,” with how to fight nuclear wars, to be “strange, if not offensive,” and that “[p]robably never in the history of the world has there been so widespread a conviction that ‘war is unthinkable’ or ‘impossible,’ and so extensive a belief that a serious concern with the problems in fighting and surviving a war—as opposed to deterring it—is misguided and perhaps even immoral.”[cxxiii] Indeed, Kahn seems dismayed that “tactics are not merely considered—as they often were in the past—as a matter of relatively narrow professional concern; instead there is a fundamental and almost self-righteous disavowal of interest in the whole topic.”[cxxiv] However, Kahn adds that “[s]trategy is not treated with quite the same hostility as tactics,” in part because strategy is widely perceived to be related to “other national concerns as deterrence and foreign policy.”[cxxv] Since tactics come into play only in the event deterrence fails, Kahn finds an attitude of “nuclear incredulity” has made it “difficult to take seriously all the possible consequences of a failure of deterrence,” and “the importance of thinking through to the bitter end at least some of those possibilities.”[cxxvi] Kahn finds “[t]his lack of interest in tactics is unfortunate . . . because many major strategic issues are almost impossible to discuss seriously without analyzing tactics in a more detailed fashion than is customary,” and “despite the enormous current interest in national-security issues, and the consequent expansion of scholarly and professional work, there is relatively little serious, sophisticated consideration of the military requirements, advantages, and weaknesses of various strategies and tactics for the middle and upper rungs of the escalation ladder.”[cxxvii] Kahn concludes “the chief reason for this is a psychological obstacle, even among professionals and scholars.”[cxxviii]
Kahn cited one of Brodie’s articles as proof positive of this psychological, theoretical, and doctrinal block, his October 1955 Harper’s article, “Strategy Hits a Dead End,” in which Brodie suggests one of Jomini’s better known maxims might soon become obsolete, that “methods change but principles are unchanging.”[cxxix] As Brodie explains: “Until yesterday that thesis had much to justify it, since methods changed on the whole not too abruptly and always within definite limits,” so that “[t]here could therefore be a reasonable choice among methods of fighting war or ‘strategies.’ If the time has not already arrived for saying good-bye to all of that, it will inevitably come soon.”[cxxx] Kahn presents Brodie’s concluding “exhortation,” in which he writes:
In a world still unprepared to relinquish the use of military power, we must learn to effect that use through methods that are something other than self-destroying. The task will be baffling difficult at best, but it can begin with the clear recognition that most of the military ideas or axioms of the past are now or soon will be inapplicable. The old concepts of strategy, including those of Douhet and of World War II, have come to a dead end. What we must now initiate is that comprehensive pursuit of the new ideas and procedures necessary to carry us through the next two or three dangerous decades.[cxxxi]
Kahn observes that at the time of his writing in the mid-1960s, “we are beginning again the comprehensive pursuit of new ideas and procedures,” and “realize that, terrible as these weapons are, they exist, and therefore they may be used.”[cxxxii] Kahn points out that “discussion now seems again to be dying down with the growing belief that, as both sides develop relatively or absolutely invulnerable forces, strategy and tactics really do come to a dead end; war really is obsolete. There may be some justification for this feeling, in the sense that certain traditional tactics and strategies may become almost completely irrelevant, but it is nevertheless misleading, in part because new strategies and tactics may be invented and become more important than ever.”[cxxxiii] Kahn adds it remains “possible that we may now find a strategy or tactics competition complementing the technological competition, and partially substituting for it,” especially as “men are inventive, and so long as current weapons exist or can be made available, men are likely to search for new and ingenious methods of obtaining benefits from them.”[cxxxiv] Further, should the “balance of terror” environment become “relatively stable, war can still occur,” and in such an environment “the difference between intelligent, sophisticated, and rational use of weapons, and stupid, thoughtless, or emotional use, would loom very large,” and that means “good strategies and tactics will still be needed,” as “concerns about escalation may still be expected to dominate or influence many peacetime relations and crises. The difference between good and bad tactical planning can thus be important in peace, particularly in preserving the peace.”[cxxxv]
Bruce-Briggs examines how, in the aftermath of the Korean War, funding for defense activities had greatly increased, and some of these funds flowed into the RAND Corporation. Partly as a result, “by 1956, Herman was deeply involved in research on nuclear warfare,” and “[w]hat made this effort possible was the Korean War.” As Bruce-Briggs detailed:
In early 1950 were fierce debates about whether the defense budget should be $13, 14, $15 billions; after the North Korean Communists invaded the South, the budget shot to $60 billion, with little strain on the civilian economy. The cost of waging the war was but a modest fraction of this cascade of money; big chunks went to expanding the European garrison, new aircraft carriers, and a veritable cornucopia of strategic projects and procurement. This episode had a fundamental impact on Herman. It showed the military potential that the US could generate, if it so desired. For the rest of his life Herman claimed—although he failed to support it in any way—that American mobilization potential frightened the Soviets, and the potential was in and of itself a deterrent to hostile adventures. The money torrent flowed into RAND. As the entire defense establishment, its budget swelled after 1950. The place was flying high.
RANDites flew everywhere first class, stayed in world-class hotels, and ate in four-star restaurants. RAND had a box at the Hollywood Bowl. In the pattern of other progressive companies, all manner of ancillary activities were organized to promote employee cohesion and loyalty—clubs for every interest, and reflecting its academicy background, a co-op and a chamber orchestra. In 1953 the corporation moved from its original quarters in a former newspaper building to a new purpose-built office on the beach. There was an ample patio for agreeable lunches, and for a several years, the aspiring strategists would schmooze at noontime; Brodie, Wohlstetter, Kahn, and others. Herman picked their brains clean.[cxxxvi]
Helping to catapult Kahn toward the fame that would soon greet him was RAND’s decision to shift attention from strategy, which had consumed great attention at its highest levels, to tactics, and in particular those of airpower. As Bruce-Briggs recalls, “In 1955, RAND’s management (perhaps prompted by some element of the air staff), concluded that the corporation was devoting insufficient attention to issues relevant to the Tactical Air Command, the province of fighters and light bombers, intended to defend and support land operations,” and consequently, “[a] committee was established” with both Brodie and Kahn onboard, and this “effort was known as Tactical Air Power—TAP.”[cxxxvii] He adds that “available records strongly indicate that Brodie was supposed to be the directing force, and that the discussions were unfocused and wandering. The problem seems have been a perceived lack of purpose of TAC compared with SAC.”[cxxxviii] Bruce-Briggs cites Kahn, who noted, “SAC knows what it wants to do. It wants to destroy Russia—totally, completely, and 100%,” and Bruce-Briggs adds that “[t]here was some discussion of SAC doing tactical functions—rather less than a revelation because strategic bombers frequently had been so used in WWII and Korea.”[cxxxix] He noted Kahn “gave a talk on progress of the study at the end of 1955, cheerfully recounting no progress,” and by 1956 it appears “nothing may have been accomplished (although the effort likely blended into limited war studies),” and “[a]fter 1956, Brodie fades away from RAND strategy. He was producing some minor papers and writing a thin book, but he appears isolated from what had become the mainstream. Speculating on personalities is always chancy, yet the reason may be found in his character. He is said to have been diffident. He advertised his attachment to psychoanalysis, and told colleagues that he had to undergo a session before he could write anything.”[cxl]
Bruce-Briggs notes “Brodie’s eclipse coincides with the ascent of Wohlstetter and the advent of Kahn,” and these “rivals were smarter than Brodie, and their skills, especially with quantification, were orders of magnitude better, and their practical analyses were necessarily more relevant to the interests of RAND and its client than Brodie’s essays, however thoughtful. Brodie wrote what newspapermen characterize as ‘thumbsuckers’—loose analysis without hard reportage. You could not read Brodie and conclude what you should do.”[cxli] Further, Bruce-Briggs comments, “Unfortunately, Brodie deeply resented the success of others. Any disagreements among these men had to be of a personal nature; they were in accord on all substantial points of strategy, save Brodie’s more tolerant view of tactical nuclear warfare.”[cxlii] Kahn soon found himself elevated “from Wohlstetter’s consultant to his peer,” and was appointed as co-head of a “parallel Strategic Air Power Committee” with Wohlstetter, where he continued to work on passive defenses, including civil defense, which Kahn believed contributed to the stability of deterrence and in the event of failure, would help speed recovery and limit the losses. Kahn also considered several distinct variations in deterrence, identifying “‘first-order provocations,’ ‘second-order provocations’, and ‘third-order provocations.’ Almost immediately he relabeled these ‘Type I,’ ‘Type II’, and ‘Type III’ deterrence. This typology became central to nuclear-strategic thinking.”[cxliii] As Bruce-Briggs recalled:
To Herman, as to all his colleagues, and everyone who addressed these matters, deterrence had highest priority. Nuclear war should be avoided, almost at all costs. But what if deterrence failed? What if a war broke out by design, miscalculation, or accident? ‘Insurance’ was a back-up function of civil defense, like preparation for any disaster. ‘Alleviating the consequences of a nuclear war is an important objective in its own right.’ But the strategic argument was dominant. The strategic argument was what impressed and persuaded Herman’s contemporaries. Civil defense did not just protect the country if deterrence failed; civil defense helped to prevent war; civil defense bolstered deterrence; ‘Deterrence of extremely provocative enemy behavior . . . might thus be maintained as a credible national policy.’[cxliv]
While Kahn’s provocative style contributed to his growing renown and his increasingly perceived persona as the prototype for Dr. Strangelove, his On Thermonuclear War tome was less a guide to how to fight a thermonuclear war and more a manual for its prevention. By probing the consequences of deterrence’s failure, he hoped to decrease the probability of such a scenario. He articulated, often in excruciating detail, a rebuttal to those who placed their faith in nuclear denial, or who conducted what he would later describe as “ostrichism,” named for the bird who in fright would bury its own head in the sand.
By openly contemplating what might happen should deterrence fail, Kahn wades into a horrific realm of scenarios few dared to follow. He is forced to acknowledge that:
Actually, when one examines the possible effects of thermonuclear war carefully, one notices that there are indeed many postwar states that should be distinguished. If most people do not or cannot distinguish among these states it is because the gradations occur as a result of a totally bizarre circumstance—a thermonuclear war. The mind recoils from thinking hard about that; one prefers to believe it will never happen. If asked, “How does a country look on the day of the war?” the only answer a reasonable person can give is “awful.” It takes an iron will or an unpleasant degree of detachment or callousness to go about the task of distinguishing among the possible degrees of awfulness.
But surely one can ask a more specific question. “How does a country look five or ten years after the close of war, as a function of three variables: 1. The preparations made before the war, 2. the way the war started, and 3. the course of military events?” Both very sensitive and very callous individuals should be able to distinguish (and choose, perhaps) between a country which survives a war with, say, 150 million people and a gross national product (GNP) of $300 billion a year, and a nation which emerges with only 50 million people and a GNP of $10 billion. The former would be the richest and the fourth largest nation in the world, and one which would be able to restore a reasonable facsimile of the prewar society; the latter would be a pitiful remnant that would contain few traces of the prewar way of life.[cxlv]
It is with this comparison in mind that Kahn presents his infamous “Table 3: Tragic But Distinguishable Postwar States,” with a side-by-side comparison of war dead with the time required for economic recuperation, starting with two million dead and a one-year recuperative period and ending with 160 million dead and a one hundred-year recuperative period. At the bottom of this table is the haunting question that brought both fame and infamy to Kahn: “Will the survivors envy the dead?”[cxlvi] This table is presented on page 20, and again in its entirety on page 34, reiterating its thematic and symbolic importance. And the haunting question at the bottom of the table becomes the title of his second chapter.
Kahn proceeds to explain that “if we have a posture which might result in 40 million dead” but which “as a result of poor planning, apathy, or other causes” leads to 80 million dead, then “we have suffered an additional disaster, an unnecessary additional disaster that is almost as bad as the original disaster. If on the contrary, by spending a few billion dollars, or by being more competent or lucky, we can cut the number of dead from 40 to 20 million, we have done something vastly worth doing. The survivors will not dance in the streets . . . yet it would have been a worthwhile achievement to limit the casualties to this number.”[cxlvii] But Kahn points out that it can be “very difficult to get this point across to laymen or experts with enough intensity to move them to action,” and even though the reduction in casualties will be enormous, “[s]omehow the impression is left that the planner said that there will be only 20 million dead. To him is often attributed the idea that this will be a tolerable or even, astonishingly enough, a desirable state!”[cxlviii]
And yet, ironically if not surprisingly, Kahn’s very humane and idealistic objective, to illustrate how many millions of lives could be saved by contemplating what might happen if deterrence fails, was somehow obscured by the nuclear numbing that can accompany thinking about death in such large numbers, so much so that even Kahn’s clarification that saving 20 million lives by taking necessary precautions is in no way an endorsement that the loss of 20 million lives is either tolerable or desirable tends to be forgotten by history—and in the end, Kahn is remembered by so many, layperson and expert alike including Fred Kaplan—whose strategic and historical biography, The Wizards of Armageddon, is widely considered to be one of the best accounts of the nuclear strategists—as the very war planner believed to find only 20 million war dead to be tolerable. As Kaplan described, “as Kahn phrased it, only two million people would die. Alluding almost casually to “only” two million dead was part of the image that Kahn was fashioning for himself, the living portrait of the ultimate defense intellectual, cool and fearless, asking the questions everyone else ignored, thinking about the unthinkable.”[cxlix]
Just as Machiavelli was later perceived to be Machiavellian rather than the humanistic visionary who aimed to warn future generations of the very behavior that came to be associated with his name, Kahn was hoping to reduce human losses, and avoid the unnecessary dangers that would befall those who clung stubbornly to outmoded thinking such as “minimum” or “finite” deterrence, and who believed that nuclear war would inevitably lead to the end of history itself—and whose belief would without some form of insurance potentially become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, Kahn found that: “Many who accept the Finite Deterrence view . . . think it is not feasible to protect either people or property,” and as a consequence, “it does not matter whether one dies immediately from blast, heat, or radiation, or dies later from the effects of radioactivity, disease, or starvation—as long as one is going to die. And they go on to assert that modern war is so horrible that everyone or almost everyone will be killed immediately—or will eventually be destroyed by one of the aftereffects.”[cl] Further, Kahn found a “surprisingly large number of official military experts and planners seem to hold views, at least unconsciously, which are really a variation of the Finite Deterrence view that the only purpose of the strategic forces is to deter.”[cli] But Kahn thought otherwise, and concluded: “Once one accepts the idea that deterrence is not absolutely reliable and that it would be possible to survive a war, then he may be willing to buy insurance—to spend money on preparations to decrease the number of fatalities and injuries, limit damage, facilitate recuperation, and to get the best military result possible.”[clii] Much of On Thermonuclear War considers such preparations—making the case that the survivors of a nuclear war, far more likely than not, will enjoy productive lives, and thus will not envy the dead one bit.

Kahn’s unique and provocative style as a strategic thinker is again illustrated with his first chapter of his 1962 Thinking About the Unthinkable, which is titled appropriately, “In Defense of Thinking,” which takes a direct shot at what we would later call political correctness, and which in his time resulted in a paralysis in strategic thinking as a result of what we might think of as nuclear numbing. As Kahn noted, “Social inhibitions which reinforce natural tendencies to avoid thinking about unpleasant subjects are hardly uncommon.”
[cliii] To illustrate his point he examined the prevalence of white slavery in England as recently as seventy-five years earlier, noting: “One reason why this lasted as long as it did was that it could not be talked about openly in Victorian England; moral standards as to subjects of discussion made it difficult to arouse the community to necessary action,” and a direct result was “perpetuating the white slave trade,” which “intensified the damage to those involved.”[cliv] Kahn identifies a phenomenon he dubs “ostrichism” for the “ostrich-like behavior” it reflects. Accordingly, Kahn explains:
It may now be possible to condemn unequivocally the extremes of Victorian prudery, but the less doctrinaire forms of ostrichism must be considered with more care; they are, after all, often based on healthy instincts. Everyone is going to die, but surely it is a good thing that few of us spend much time dwelling on that fact. Life would be nearly impossible if we did. If thinking about something bad will not improve it, it is often better not to think about it. Perhaps some evils can be avoided or reduced if people do not think or talk about them. But when our reluctance to consider danger brings danger nearer, repression has gone too far.[clv]
Such a reluctance to consider danger led, just a few years earlier, resulted in much hostility directed at Kahn for his 1960 best seller, On Thermonuclear War. As he recalled, after he published his controversial book, in which he “attempted to direct attention to the possibility of a thermonuclear war, to ways of reducing the likelihood of such a war, and to methods for coping with the consequences should war occur despite our efforts to avoid it,” he found among the “large range of responses” to his work some that were “sharply critical,” only a fraction of which were “substantive, touching on greater or smaller questions of strategy, policy, or research techniques.”[clvi] Instead he found that “much of the criticism was not concerned with the correctness or incorrectness of the views I expressed” but “with whether any book should have been written on this subject at all. It is characteristic of our times that many intelligent and sincere people are willing to argue that it is immoral to think and even more immoral to write in detail about having to fight a thermonuclear war.”[clvii] denial was not primarily personal, Kahn reflected, but “simply reflected the fact that we Americans and many people throughout the world are not prepared to face reality, that we transfer our horror of thermonuclear war to reports about the realities of thermonuclear war,” which reminded Kahn of “those ancient kings who punished messengers who brought them bad news. This did not change the news; it simply slowed up its delivery.”[clviii] Kahn reiterated his sober nuclear realism by noting “thermonuclear war may seem unthinkable, immoral, insane, hideous, or highly unlikely, but it is not impossible.” Thus, he counsels that:
To act intelligently we must learn as much as we can about the risks. We may thereby be able better to avoid nuclear war. We may even be able to avoid the crises that bring us to the brink of war. But despite our efforts we may some day come face to face with a blunt choice between surrender or war. We may even have war thrust upon us without being given any kind of a choice. We must appreciate these possibilities. We cannot wish them away. Nor should we overestimate and assume the worst is inevitable. This leads only to defeatism, inadequate preparations (because they seem useless), and pressures toward either preventive war or undue accommodation. Many terrible questions are raised when one considers objectively and realistically the problems created by the cold war and the armaments race. For some years I have spent my time on exactly these questions—both in thinking about ways to prevent war, and in thinking about how to fight, survive, and terminate a war, should it occur.[clix]
Kahn notes that it’s been “argued that thinking about the indescribable horror of nuclear war breeds callousness and indifference to the future of civilization in our planners and decision makers,” and he concedes that “detailed and dispassionate discussion of such questions is likely to look incredibly hard-hearted,” but Kahn believes it “should also be clear, at least to thoughtful readers, that such questions must be considered.”[clx] Like Machiavelli confronting the collision of necessity and virtue, or Hobbes surrendering in fear to the mighty Leviathan to restore order to his fractious land, decision-makers of the nuclear era bear a heavy burden of responsibility, particularly the strategic thinkers whose ideas strive to sustain order and banish chaos, at least for a time, and whose calculations determine whether a society enjoys the prosperity of peace or the calamity of war. Hence the necessity to think about the unthinkable and end the nuclear “ostrichism” and the ostracism of those who dare to challenge taboos on conventional thinking. As Kahn observes:
The reality may be so unpleasant that decision makers would prefer not to face it; but to a great extent this reality has been forced on them, or has come uninvited. Thanks to our ever-increasing technology, we are living in a terrible and dangerous world; but, unlike the lady in the cartoon we cannot say, “Stop the world, I want to get off.” We cannot get off. Even the most utopian of today’s visionaries will have to concede that the mere existence of modern technology involves a risk to civilization that would have been unthinkable twenty-five years ago. While we are going to make major attempts to change the nature of this reality, accepting great risks if necessary, most of us are unwilling to choose either a pronounced degree of unilateral disarmament or a preventive war designed to “settle” our problems one way or another. We therefore must face the facts that thermonuclear bombs now exist . . . [and] unless we are willing to abdicate our responsibilities, we are pledged to the maintenance of terrifying weapon systems with known and unknown, calculable and incalculable risks, unless and until better arrangements can be made.[clxi]
Kahn notes that there are some that accept “we should consider these problems but view them with such awe and horror that we should not discuss them in normal, neutral, professional everyday language,” and Kahn’s response is, “I tend to disagree, at least so far as technical discussions and research are concerned. One does not do research in a cathedral. Awe is fine for those who come to worship or admire, but for those who come to analyze, to tamper, to change, to criticize, a factual and dispassionate, and sometimes even colorful, approach is to be preferred. And if the use of everyday language jars, that is all the more reason for using it. Why would one expect a realistic discussion of thermonuclear war not to be disturbing?”[clxii] As for those who step back from the complexity of the new nuclear realities, preferring a simpler mode of thought more suitable to the pre-Hiroshima world, Kahn observes: “The very complexity of the questions raised is another reason why many object to their consideration. There is no doubt that if we reject hard thinking about alternatives in favor of uncritical acceptance of an extreme position we make the argument simpler—and most of us prefer simple arguments.”[clxiii] Kahn sees a great danger in falling back on simplicity, since the post-Hiroshima world is inherently complex. Just as the transition from the Newtonian world to the Einsteinian one required a giant leap from absolute certainty to inherent uncertainty, and from presumed rigidity to a more fluid relativity, Kahn believes strategic thinking in the nuclear age required an acceptance of this new complexity, and the challenges it presented. As “there may be different paths to safety” in this dangerous, nuclear-armed world, “each involving degrees of risk and varying outcomes,” and because “balancing the risks is difficult” and “cannot be done rigorously, though analysis should help,” Kahn concludes that “[i]n the end, the best of policies must involve judicious guesses, informed acts of faith, and careful steps in the dark,” and that “[i]t is well to recognize these for what they are, to be conscious that some new and seemingly appealing path that avoids the familiar horrors may be riskier than the present perilous one.”[clxiv] Kahn finds that “[m]any people believe that the current system must inevitably end in total annihilation,” and “reject, sometimes very emotionally, any attempts to analyze this notion,” either being “afraid of where the thinking will lead” or “afraid of thinking at all.”[clxv] In their hope for simplicity, Kahn finds, “[t]hey want to make the choice one between a risk and the certainty of disaster, between sanity and insanity, between good and evil,” and so “as moral and sane men they need no longer hesitate.” But Kahn finds the world too complex, and too dangerous, for such a simple mindset. He thus argues that “an intelligent and responsible person cannot pose the problem so simply.”[clxvi]
To help wrestle with this new complexity, Kahn argues, requires independent consultants and policy researchers, the new defense intellectuals, a view shared by his old colleague Bernard Brodie, who also found a narrowness of strategic thinking among uniformed officers that demanded the input and insights of those outside the military profession. Kahn noted that among the critics of On Thermonuclear Warfare were those who believed “the study of warfare should be left to the professional military officers,” including one particularly hurtful criticism by George Kirstein in the January 14, 1961 edition of The Nation, who, as cited by Kahn, wrote that he “could understand and respect career military officers who have chosen the ‘honorable profession of arms’ as a way of life, often at a sacrifice in comfort and emoluments and who are subsequently assigned the duty of formulating war plans to meet all eventualities. But Mr. Kahn is a physicist, a scholar and a civilian. To be blunt, his book makes me ashamed that we are fellow countrymen.”[clxvii]
Kahn responds to this sort of criticism by noting “Clemenceau once said, ‘War is too important to be left to the generals,’” and added that Wohlstetter had updated this to be “Peace is too important to be left to the generals.”[clxviii] Kahn added that “[i]f we treat all questions of the deterrence and fighting of war as a subject to be entrusted solely to those in uniform we should not be surprised if get narrow policies. The deterring or fighting of thermonuclear war certainly needs specialists in and out of uniform; but it involves all of us and every aspect of our society.”[clxix] Further, Kahn finds that the “private consultant” brings an “independent point of view,” and this independence enables consideration of “the full range of alternatives” and even the freedom “to be wrongheaded and stubborn” enough to change old paradigms and introduce “new controversial ideas in the policy field.”[clxx] As Kahn observes:
Critics frequently refer to the icy rationality of the Hudson Institute, the Rand Corporation, and other such organizations. I’m always tempted to ask in reply, “Would you prefer a warm, human error? Do you feel better with a nice emotional mistake?” We cannot expect good discussion of security problems if we are going to label every attempt at detachment as callous, every attempt at objectivity as immoral. Such attitudes not only block discussion of the immediate issues, they lead to a disunity and fragmentation of the intellectual community that can be disastrous to the democratic dialogue between specialist and layman. The former tends to withdraw to secret and private discussions; the latter becomes more and more innocent, or naive, and more likely to be outraged if he is ever exposed to a professional discussion.[clxxi]
When Kahn published Thinking About the Unthinkable in 1962, he asked journalist and philosopher Raymond Aron, to write the introduction. Aron was a prolific political philosopher and lifelong friend and rival of Jean-Paul Sartre, and became one of the high profile staff members recruited by Kahn at the Hudson Institute, part of his broader effort to enrich his new think tank with high caliber intellects. Aron would go on to become a Clausewitz scholar in his own right, authoring Penser la guerre, Clausewitz in Paris in 1976, and the English-language edition, Clausewitz: Philosopher of War in 1983. Aron speculated on the reason for his selection, noting his surprise at being asked: “I wondered why an author whose technical competence is indisputable wished to be presented to the public by a semi-layman, or a columnist and sociologist who approaches problems of the thermonuclear age from a background of experience quite different from his.”[clxxii] Aron credited his selection to the “very reasons which, at first glance, made it seem puzzling,” and noted “[t]oday, peace has become too serious a business to be restricted to a few specialists, whether civilian or military.” Aron thought “[o]ur two names appearing together on the jacket of the book symbolizes the collaboration necessary between representatives of different disciplines and different countries.”[clxxiii]
Aron recalled how Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War had been “both warmly praised and violently attacked,” and that Aron was among “those who deplored the attacks and joined in the praise,” adding:
To face the monster squarely, to consider and examine a possible catastrophe is not to resign oneself in advance to a war for which one prepares in order to avoid fighting it. It is, on the contrary, to contribute to the elaboration of a strategy which we all hope will succeed, a strategy which will reduce the risks of an apocalypse without forcing the West into capitulation.[clxxiv]
Aron lauds Kahn’s “intellectual courage to analyze the consequences” of deterrence policy, and in particular its failure. After all, “[i]f war is ‘impossible,’ how can one threaten a possible with war?”[clxxv] Thus, Aron logically concludes that “[g]iven these conditions, disagreeable as they are, and however macabre such studies may be, research is called for on what type of thermonuclear war we might eventuate, and on the possible volume of material destruction and loss of human life that might occur.”[clxxvi] Adds Aron, “The danger evoked by numerous critics, that such research will result in a sort of resigned expectation of the holocaust, seems a weak argument to me,” and while analysts like Kahn that calculate “in millions or tens of millions of deaths resulting in a matter of minutes or a few hours from thermonuclear exchanges [do] indeed forget the human significance of these figures,” Aron believes this is not fundamentally different from “the reader of detective stories [who] calmly accepts recitals of choice murders; without the ability to neutralize his feelings, the analyst’s profession would become impossible.”[clxxvii] Aron argues that the analyst’s “acquired capacity to coldly examine possible horrors does not prove that the analyst has lost his humanity and has ceased to think and act like other men,” and might in fact suggest the possession of “a typically American combination of moral idealism and practicality.”[clxxviii]
Aron recalls Kahn’s contribution to the “unleashing of a debate on civil defense,” precipitated in part by publication of On Thermonuclear War, on the appropriate defensive measures for “a war whose strategy is to brandish a threat in the hope of never having to put it into execution,”[clxxix] and notes that deterrence is enhanced by such defensive measures, as the credibility of the threat of nuclear use is bolstered by the efforts made to protect the populace. But Aron is most persuaded by the “demands of defense” rather than by “those of deterrence,” and is thus convinced by Kahn’s argument “for certain measures of passive defense, in particular those in favor of fallout shelters,” even though they “do not protect against blast and fires.”[clxxx] Aron praises Kahn for thinking about the unthinkable, viewing his effort as tremendous service, and observes:
I have no doubt that many readers and critics will be tempted occasionally to believe that the subtlety of the analysis has become an intellectual game, that the behavior hypothesized is incompatible with the passions and irrationality of statesmen and mere mortals. It may be indeed that the first atomic or thermonuclear bombs may unleash what I call elsewhere homicidal madness, the objective becoming for each belligerent to destroy as many cities as possible, to kill as many of the enemy population as possible. But it is not demonstrated that it must be this way, and in differentiating the diverse kinds of thermonuclear war, in creating scenarios of possible crises and attacks, Herman Kahn, it seems to me, renders a service to everyone, civilian or military, responsible for the survival of his nation and of humanity itself.[clxxxi]
Aron views the “theory of combined deterrence and defense” as being “less radically unusual, on the theoretical level, than it seems,” and notes Clausewitz himself defined “absolute victory in terms of disarmament of the enemy,” and once “the enemy has no more weapons, I can impose on him whatever conditions I wish, and these conditions can be total destruction.”[clxxxii]
As Aron observes, in the nuclear age, it’s “no longer necessary to take all the enemy’s weapons away from him,” as “it will suffice to take away his means of retaliation to hold him at your mercy. But, just as deterrence and defense are inseparable, by the same token strategic methods and peace conditions are inextricably intertwined,” bound by that Clausewitzian pairing of war and policy.[clxxxiii] [11] As Aron elaborates:
In an abstract sense, all the complications result from the primacy of policy over strategy in an era when a single thermonuclear bomb has an explosive force superior to that of all the bombs dropped on Germany in four years. In addition the preeminence of political considerations imposes itself in time of peace as in time of war . . . so that it determines choice of weapons as well as organization of armies. It is all the more necessary now to maintain this preeminence since there is a risk that technology, by its own dynamism, may drag humanity toward a contingency that no one would be able to control.[clxxxiv]
Aron sees Kahn as a “reformer” who “calls for a revolution” in international politics “in conformance with the technological revolution” that brought us nuclear weapons, as the current international order, as envisioned in a time before the era, would likely not endure for much more than ten or twenty years, and surely not for centuries. Aron believes this realization as converted Kahn “into a reasonable utopian,” and that he “conceives of and hopes for . . . a universal state and the rule of law.”[clxxxv]
While “‘world government’ is indeed one of the conceivable outcomes of the present crisis,” as Kahn acknowledged, it remains unclear from Kahn’s analysis of scenarios and his infamous “hypothetical experiments” if it’s the most likely possibility. But Aron has no objection with Kahn’s remaining “too reserved about dealing with a variety of possibilities, especially since his critics reproach him so often for having precisely the opposite effect.”[clxxxvi] The very possibility that it took Kahn’s nuclear realism to plant the seed of perpetual peace is enough for the philosopher Aron.
And as things turned out, the branch of international relations theory that came to prominence at the end of the Cold War era known as neorealism, or structural realism, predicted the emergence of something akin to a Kantian perpetual peace emerring from the mutually self-reinforcing nuclear stalemate, with ineorealism’s leading theorist, Kenneth Waltz, controversially suggesting that when it comes to international peace and stability, more nuclear weapons and not less was optimal. Stanford political scientist Scott Sagan, who as a young man was once a structuralist who like his peers on Harvard’s Nuclear Study Group accepted the moderating influence of nuclear weapons on international relations, came to be an outspoken opponent of Waltzian nuclear realism, and implictly, Kahnian nuclear realism—and so argued against Waltz in their eclectic “debate” published at the dawn of the post-Cold War era: The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate.
As we will see in later chapters of this work, Waltz did not foresee the emergence of a world government, but he did not have to: in its absence, mutual self-restraint under the long shadow of nuclear weapons would render international anarchy into a pacific world order, like alchemy turning uranium into a foundation more stable that one might have expected from a particle known to decay so readily. Such may have been the aspiration of Kahn in his effort to demystify nuclear weapons, and by making them a normal tool of international relations, thereby contribute to the very stability that Waltz predicted, and which until the end of the Cold War appears to have taken root.
John English, in his classic work on modern war, Marching Through Chaos, considers the role of nuclear weapons in man’s quest for order, and believes that “the nuclear weapon did not prove to be a cure for Western military shortcomings; on the contrary, its awesome destructive power and generational residual effects, which included the possibility of genetic mutation, greatly complicated matters,” and “propelled the pursuit of a highly questionable strategic bombing theory of war to an almost lunatic extreme,” leaving what English believes is “a dangerous military legacy.”[clxxxvii] He described it as “essentially a cheap, quick technological solution to a military problem, nuclear deterrence has itself become so encumbered with theoretical twists and esoteric spins that attempts to apply them in their various forms might actually do more harm than good.”[clxxxviii] Or, as the popular music group, the Talking Heads, noted in their song on their mid-1980s album Remain in Light, which in many ways captures the nuclear ambiguity of the same period, titled Once in a Lifetime: “And you may ask yourself, well, ‘how did I get here?’” On this, nuclear theorists of all persuasions, from the fire-and-brimstone prophecies of the nuclear abolitionists and to the steel-nerved nuclear warfighters, agreed.
English cites Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., the prolific writer on strategic theory and avowed Clausewitzian, who explained: “Even before the end of the Cold War, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the civilian nuclear ‘strategists’ with their phantasmagoric notions of nuclear war, had sold us a bill of goods. Their arguments that the ‘atomic age’ had rendered obsolete all previous military theories, doctrines, strategies and battlefield experience sent professional military thought into an eclipse that lasted through the Vietnam war.”[clxxxix] Indeed, as English explained, “Instead of reflecting the essential unity of war fighting, deterrent theory focused military attention on the grand strategic plane to the neglect of operational and tactical dimensions,” and “exacted a malign effect on traditional defensive posture akin to that of a crutch, which encouraged maldeployments and the erosion of traditional military skills. According to Admiral Henry E. Eccles, who recognized the critical connection between tactics and strategy, nuclear weaponry merely raised the level of tactical defeat that was acceptable.[cxc]
English points out that several non-nuclear states called the bluff of their nuclear foe: pre-nuclear China against the United States and its allies in Korea; Algeria against France; Argentina in the Falklands against Britain; Iraq against the United States and its allies in Kuwait; and North Vietnam against the United States in Indochina. And this, he argued, reinforces what he calls the “conventional imperative,” a recognition that “the future march of armies may well continue to reflect as much continuity as change, for evolution rather than revolution has tended to set the pace of military activity in the past.” That is why he so passionately believes that “so long as there are people on earth, there will be a need for armies to march in good order and discipline through chaos.”[cxci] And, like so many strategic theorists before him, English calls upon us to avoid the “loss of warfighting skill and the iniquitous growth of operational inertia” and the “dilettantism” of peace by raising “learning about war on a higher plane within the military mainstream” and embracing a “Clausewitzian approach of thinking things through, and frankly debating the results,” and not just doctrinaire, Jominian-styled prescriptions.[cxcii]
The theoretical architect of nuclear deterrence, Bernard Brodie confronted the arguments put forth by the conventional warfare proponents in his 1973 article in the Foreign Service Journal, “How Much Conventional Force Do We Need?” As Brodie observed, “In the minds of the great majority of people, nuclear weapons are objects of unmitigated horror, and so they are—in use. We know, however, that the leaders of all the nations possessing nuclear weapons are and have long been most keenly aware of their terrible potentialities.”[cxciii] Brodie notes that “One also hears the contrary idea expressed by some political scientists that nuclear weapons, being so obviously unfit for military use, have become effectively “decoupled” from diplomacy,” but counters that “[t]hey may be effectively decoupled from many kinds of problems that traditionally concern diplomatists, but hardly from problems concerning war and peace.”[cxciv] Top strategic, diplomatic and military leaders of his age all seemed to concur that “strategic thermonuclear war is indeed possible,”[cxcv] and that:
Men who know or think they know the consequences of such war have sometimes taken steps in the direction of confrontation because they thought the latter necessary. At any rate, they could see no alternative. Perhaps the compulsions that have moved them in that direction are due to outworn habits of thinking and of action, but for the time being and at least for the generation that now holds power, they exist. That is why so many people have despaired of avoiding general thermonuclear war except through remedies that this writer, among many others, regard as utterly unavailable, like world government or complete nuclear disarmament, or ineffective for the purpose intended, like building up conventional armaments as a means of sealing off or at least critically reducing the probability of resort to nuclear weapons.
Yet, as time goes on people seem to live in less rather than more fear of what would otherwise seem to be an increasing menace. The specialists become aroused about the threats to retaliatory forces arising from the increasing accuracy of long-range missiles, and they try to communicate their alarm to others in order to get certain things done—like building an ABM, but they have to contend with a certain calm resistance that is new, and which is reflected in such matters as the Senate votes on the ABM. It is an interesting phenomenon, some no doubt would argue a dangerous one, and it requires some explanation. Most important, one wants to know whether it reflects a reality or an illusion about the direction in which events are leading us.[cxcvi]
Brodie concludes the “most hopeful part of the answer is that diplomacy seems clearly to be moving in a direction that indicates a common recognition, among those powers possessing substantial nuclear capabilities, that thermonuclear war between them is simply forbidden, and thus also lesser wars that might too easily lead up to the large-scale thermonuclear variety.”[cxcvii] Furthermore, Brodie finds “[t]his trend shows itself in various far-reaching and significant ways,” and while there remains “[n]o doubt it is not moving fast enough for our comfort,” Brodie finds some solace in his belief that “it would even now take a very great deal to start a World War III—just as it took so much more to start World War II than it took to start World War I.”[cxcviii]

 “Let’s talk, you and I. Let’s talk about fear. . .so let’s talk very honestly about fear. Let’s talk very rationally about moving to the rim of madness. . .and perhaps over the edge. . . . We’ll talk about the way the good fabric of things sometimes has a way of unraveling with shocking suddenness.”
—Stephen King[cxcix]
One of the most interesting things about nuclear deterrence is that it works largely by fear, not calculation, and states act with greater restraint in a nuclear environment knowing intuitively they face a threat to their very existence. Thus nuclear deterrence, at its most existential level, creates a system of automated restraint. Nuclear weapons become pillars of stability that prop up the system, and—as we saw with the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, sometimes everything else can rust out, deteriorate, and decay around those pillars, just as, after Rome collapsed, its aqueducts and coliseums remained, fixed and permanent reminders of a system that had disappeared that are still with us. The nuclear strategists self-consciously sought to manipulate fear as a weapon, knowing that the dangers inherent in nuclear weaponry were so great that our deepest, darkest fears would be exposed, and that all flavors of deterrence, from minimalist schools of assured destruction to more complex articulations of flexible response and controlled escalation, reflect distinctly different fears: fear of starting a war and opening the Pandora’s Box of chance; the fear of losing a war once started or having that war consume the very society that turned to war to defend or achieve its policy; the fear of war’s own logic eclipsing our own intentions, and for the means to become unhinged from the ends they were created to achieve.
The first generation of deterrence theorists so feared war itself that they threatened the most frightening of consequences to any that dared initiate one. The next generation, the warfighters, so feared the consequences of the failure of deterrence that they dared to “think the about thinkable,” and plan to win a nuclear war, suggesting that they were less afraid of a nuclear war starting than of it ending to our disadvantage, or even with our potential extinction. Another school of thought, the nuclear abolitionists, feared most the specter of nuclear winter, which they viewed as nothing short of the Apocalypse. Like Saint John, they sought to so frighten us from the specter of Armageddon that we return the nuclear genie to the bottle for all time. All schools of nuclear strategy, from the hawkish to dovish, were intimately aware of an underlying “nuclear fear” and responded to this fear in their own way. During the Reagan years, not everyone believed in the logic of deterrence, or its continuing dialectic with flexible response. Thus, two new schools of nuclear thought emerged to challenge the cool logic of the nuclear age: the fiery nuclear abolitionists (ranging from arms control advocates to unilateralist nuclear freeze advocates to their more extreme counterparts, the unilateral disarmers), and the dreamy nuclear defenders, whose most articulate spokesman was none other than President Ronald Reagan, whose infamous ‘Star Wars’ speech reintroduced the Ballistic Missile Defense paradigm as an alternative strategy to deterrence mid-way through his presidency.
We will first consider the thoughts of President Ronald Reagan on nuclear defense, and his challenge to the logic of deterrence and its acceptance of the nuclear “MADness” that undergirds deterrence, and which he sought to overcome through his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), more popularly known as “Star Wars,” his vision of an advanced ABMsystem that would protect America from the very nuclear genie that it had unleashed upon the earth in its desperate struggle against the militarism of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, a vision that was adopted as policy by the George W. Bush Administration after 9/11 reminded policymakers of America’s continued vulnerability to attack and questioned its ability to deter its emerging enemies, and who now prioritized the defense against external nuclear threats from rogue-, failed- or non-state threats, leading them to break with the long and seemingly suicidal tradition of MAD as enshrined in the ABM Treaty, which now stands broken. With the Soviet threat now gone, and the less menacing threat of China no longer a central pre-occupation of the West with the rise of the Islamist threat, America’s war planners have resurrected President Reagan’s vision of a nuclear shield—to protect us from the “MADness” that our very own strategic theorists introduced, in response to the chaos of World War II, forever transforming the nature and scale of the threat to our Republic, and the dangers that lurk outside the city gates.
Beyond Deterrence: The Star Wars Dream of Missile Defense

While President Reagan oversaw America’s nuclear modernization as Commander in Chief, and sought to explain its logic to the American people as the Great Communicator, he explained that he wished to navigate a path that led out of the uncertain and dangerous world of nuclear ambiguity. He wanted to be a Philosopher-King of the nuclear age, guiding not only his people but all people from the shadow world of the cave into a world of light and hope. And, only two years later, he found his own exit from the straightjacket of nuclear logic that had constrained his predecessors grappling with the role the bomb played in securing America. He was thus the first President to articulate America’s first truly post-deterrence vision of nuclear order.
Reagan returned to the nuclear laboratory to conjure up a technologically feasible solution to the deterrence dilemma—and envisioned a system of space- and ground-based ballistic missile defenses that would render deterrence (and its underlying threats and counter-threats) obsolete. The technology required for Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed “Star Wars” for its futuristic and space-based components, was not yet ready for primetime; indeed, two decades later, it’s still pretty rough though components have made the transition from blackboard to laboratory to field deployment in time to nullify the emerging strategic threat from nuclearized North Korea. Reagan wanted to be sure the Soviets knew America was prepared to negotiate with more than words, and threw the nation’s capacity for innovation and technological advance straight at them, one of the first examples of dissuasion as a strategic doctrine (deterring future capabilities rather than just current capabilities, and reversing the hitherto inexorable direction of the arms race through a de-escalatory process). Some viewed Reagan’s “Star Wars’ vision as a bold strategic bluff, yet even so, many credit this bluff ultimately with bankrupting the Soviet Union, as its addiction to disproportionate military spending resulted in an accelerating spiral economic stagnation. Less than a decade after “Star Wars” was articulated, the Soviet Empire, and soon thereafter the Soviet Union itself, collapsed in an economic, political and moral implosion, its citizenry and leadership unable, unwilling, to believe any longer in its ideological foundations, the Communist Leviathan defanged. Reagan had perceived a Soviet advantage in raw, military might and sought to end run it with ingenuity, a solution Sir Thomas Hobbes would no doubt have greatly admired.
On December 28, 1984, Reagan delivered his now famous Star Wars speech, in which he proclaimed:
Since the advent of nuclear weapons, every President has sought to minimize the risk of nuclear destruction by maintaining effective forces to deter aggression and by pursuing complementary arms control agreements. This approach has worked. We and our allies have succeeded in preventing nuclear war while protecting Western security for nearly four decades. Originally, we relied on balanced defensive and offensive forces to deter. But over the last twenty years, the United States has nearly abandoned efforts to develop and deploy defenses against nuclear weapons, relying instead almost exclusively on the threat of nuclear retaliation. We accepted the notion that if both we and the Soviet Union were able to retaliate with devastating power even after absorbing a first strike, that stable deterrence would endure. That rather novel concept seemed at the time to be sensible for two reasons. First, the Soviets stated that they believed that both sides should have roughly equal forces and neither side should seek to alter the balance to gain unilateral advantage. Second, there did not seem to be any alternative. The state of the art in defensive systems did not permit an effective defensive system.
Today both of these basic assumptions are being called into question. The pace of the Soviet offensive and defensive buildup has upset the balance in the areas of greatest importance during crises. Furthermore, new technologies are now at hand which may make possible a truly effective nonnuclear defense. For these reasons and because of the awesome destructive potential of nuclear weapons, we must seek another means of deterring war. It is both militarily and morally necessary. Certainly, there should be a better way to strengthen peace and stability, a way to move away from a future that relies so heavily on the prospect of rapid and massive nuclear retaliation and toward greater reliance on defensive systems which threaten no one.[cc]
His last point—“moving away from a future that relies so heavily on the prospect of rapid and massive nuclear retaliation and toward greater reliance on defensive systems which threaten no one”—fulfilled Reagan’s deep desire to bring an end to the MAD-ness of deterrence.[cci] In his speech, Reagan recalled that on March 23, 1983, he had directed “the establishment of a comprehensive and intensive research program, the Strategic Defense Initiative, aimed at eventually eliminating the threat posed by nuclear armed ballistic missiles” and “finding ways to provide a better basis for deterring aggression, strengthening stability, and increasing the security of the United States and our allies.”[ccii] Reagan argued that SDI “complements our arms reduction efforts and helps to pave the way for creating a more stable and secure world,” and that its research was consistent with U.S. treaty obligations, including the 1972 ABM Treaty.[cciii] Reagan explained that SDI was both a response to Soviet ABM efforts, and a “powerful deterrent” to prevent the expansion of the Soviet ABM program “beyond that permitted by the AMB Treaty.”[cciv] Reagan expressed hope that SDI would become “a crucial means by which both the United States and the Soviet Union can safely agree to very deep reductions, and eventually, even the elimination of ballistic missiles and the nuclear weapons they carry.”[ccv]
Reagan sought to reassure America’s NATO allies that they would not be sacrificed on the alert of American security, explaining, “Our vital interests and those of our allies are inextricably linked. Their safety and ours are one. They, too, rely upon our nuclear forces to deter attack against them. Therefore, as we pursue the promise offered by the Strategic Defense Initiative, we will continue to work closely with our friends and allies. We will ensure that, in the event of a future decision to develop and deploy defensive systems—a decision in which consultation with our allies will play an important part-allied, as well as U.S. security against aggression would be enhanced.”[ccvi] Reagan turned to American ingenuity for a way out of the nuclear dilemma posed by deterrence, and thus “called upon the great scientific talents of our country to turn to the cause of strengthening world peace by rendering ballistic missiles impotent and obsolete. In short, I propose to channel our technological prowess toward building a more secure and stable world. And I want to emphasize that in carrying out this research program, the United States seeks neither military superiority nor political advantage. Our only purpose is to search for ways to reduce the danger of nuclear war.”[ccvii]
Reducing the danger of nuclear war—whose very threat, whose very danger cemented the nuclear peace—was one of Reagan’s most sacred goals, the other being the rolling back Soviet aggression whenever the opportunity presented itself, from Grenada to Nicaragua to Afghanistan—presenting new peripheral battlefields where the West began to fight back, and to slay its Vietnam ghosts. The danger of nuclear war, and the paradox of the nuclear peace, caused many a moral philosopher to agonize throughout the Cold War, leaving a legacy of moral confusion and debate, ranging from Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth, in which he rejected the cold logic of the nuclear wizards and rejected the very premise of nuclear deterrence and its underlying horrific threats, to the American Catholic Bishops’ reflections in The Challenge of Peace. Even Harvard University got into the action, with the Harvard Nuclear Study Group’s Living With Nuclear Weapons, which sought to rationalize the Nuclear Wizard’s cold logic. But while moralists grappled with moral dilemmas, the strategists had to face strategic realities—and Reagan, as one of the notable visionaries from the last days of the Cold War, sought to secure America without the threat of destroying all the America values: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

During the 1980s, there was a populist anti-nuclear backlash in Europe and the United States as millions of people took to the streets in opposition to the Reagan Administration’s nuclear modernization program, which many feared brought the world, or at least Western Europe, closer to the nuclear abyss. At the time, a veritable Bible of the antinuclear movement was published by journalist and philosopher Jonathan Schell, called The Fate of the Earth. Schell, who was honored as “Peacemaker of the Year” by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in November 2003, was born in New York sixty years earlier, just as America prepared uncork the bottle holding nuclear genie. He graduated from Harvard University in 1965, and spent a year in Tokyo, returning to the United States through Vietnam, where he witnessed an American raid on the village of Ben Suc. His observations were published in The New Yorker and evolved into his first book, The Village of Ben Suc (1967), followed by his The Military Half, (1968), another story based on reporting in Vietnam. From 1967 to 1987, Schell worked as staff writer at The New Yorker, winning the prestigious George Polk award for his journalism in 1983.
Schell’s book on nuclear disarmament, The Fate of the Earth (1982), became a runaway international bestseller and was an inspiration to the global anti-nuclear movement. As described in his biography posted on the Hiroshima Peace Institute website, Schell—still a reporter at the New Yorker when he published a series of articles in 1982 describing the threat of nuclear weapons, which were republished in book form later that year: “A nationwide anti-nuclear campaign in the U.S. gathered enormous momentum in 1981 and 1982,” and “numerous books and articles on nuclear weapons were published, and The Fate of the Earth is generally credited with creating that wave.” The Fate of the Earth was written in three parts: “The first (A Republic of Insects and Grass) points out that an all-out nuclear war would kill nearly all animal life on the planet. Given this danger, a nuclear war of any kind is absolutely unacceptable. Part II (The Second Death) emphasizes that no greater crime against the future is imaginable than a nuclear war leading to the extinction of the human race and the death of all future generations. Part III (The Choice) demonstrates the contradiction inherent in the theory of nuclear deterrence: the effort to prevent nuclear war gives rise to an increased threat of nuclear extinction. It ends with a powerful call for a campaign to eliminate all nuclear weapons.”
As Schell writes in The Fate of the Earth:
Four and a half billion years ago, the earth was formed. Perhaps a half billion years after that, life arose on the planet. For the next four billion years, life became steadily more complex, more varied, and more ingenious, until, around a million years ago, it produced mankind—the most complex and ingenious species of them all. Only six or seven thousand years ago—a period that is to the history of the earth as less than a minute is to a year—civilization emerged, enabling us to build a human world, and to add to the marvels of art, of science, of social organization, of spiritual attainment. But, as we built higher and higher, the evolutionary foundation beneath our feet became more and more shaky, and now in spite of all we have learned and achieved—or, rather, because of it—we hold this entire terrestrial creation hostage to nuclear destruction, threatening to hurl it back into the inanimate darkness from which it came. And this threat of self-destruction and planetary destruction is not something that we will pose one day in the future, if we fail to take certain precautions; it is here now, hanging over the heads of all of us at every moment.
The machinery of destruction is complete, poised on a hair trigger, waiting for the “button” to be “pushed” by some misguided or deranged human being or for some faulty computer chip to send out the instruction to fire. That so much should be balanced on so fine a point—that the fruit of four and a half billion years can be undone in a careless moment—is a fact against which belief rebels. And there is another, even vaster measure of the loss, for stretching ahead from our present are more billions of years of life on earth, all of which can be filled not only with human life but with human civilization.
The procession of generations that extends onward from our present leads far, far beyond the line of our sight, and compared with these stretches of human time, which exceed the whole history of the earth up to now, our brief civilized moment is almost infinitesimal. And yet we threaten, in the name of our transient aims and fallible convictions, to foreclose it all. If our species does destroy itself, it will be a death in the cradle—a case of infant mortality. The disparity between the cause and the effect of our peril is so great that our minds seem all but powerless to encompass it. In addition, we are so fully enveloped by that which is menaced, and so deeply and passionately immersed in its events, which are the events of our lives, that we hardly know how to get far enough away from it to see it in its entirety.
It is as though life itself were one huge distraction, diverting our attention from the peril to life. In its apparent durability, a world menaced with imminent doom is in a way deceptive. It is almost an illusion. Now we are sitting at the breakfast table drinking our coffee and reading the newspaper, but in a moment we may be inside a fireball whose temperature is tens of thousands of degrees. Now we are on our way to work, walking through the city streets, but in a moment we may be standing on an empty plain under a darkened sky looking for the charred remnants of our children. Now we are alive, but in a moment we may be dead. Now there is human life on earth, but in a moment it may be gone.[ccviii]

Such a statement of nuclear pessimism, if accepted, would compel us to pursue but one path: that of nuclear disarmament. Yet, it was in the pre-nuclear world that we witnessed the Holocaust, the specter of industrialized, mechanized, mass genocide, and the perfection of the machinery of the Final Solution; and centuries before that we witnessed the conquest of the Americas and the annihiliation of many of its indigenous tribes. And it was on the non-nuclear periphery of world affairs, in the jungles of post-Cold War Africa, that another horrific genocide took place, as one tribe of Rwandans, the Tutsis, sought to annihilate their neighbors, cousins, colleagues, friends, and fellow countrymen, the Hutus, using a weapon that was as simple as it was ubiquitous: the machete, manufactured by the Chinese with a unit cost of mere pennies. Death, on a large scale, inflicted by the cold hand of malice, inspired by the darkness in the human soul, need not be articulated using Kahnian language. Schell believed if we rid the world of nuclear vocabulary, and buried our nuclear secrets in the desert, we would emerge somehow liberated from the nuclear shadow that we built.
But the terrible carnage of modern technology is no longer limited to atomic and thermonuclear weaponry, but can be delivered through biological and chemical weapons. Indeed, as we saw during the Black Death and again in the strategic use of smallpox to infect and thereby decimate America’s first inhabitants, imperial ambition, and genocidal destruction, need not be limited to atomic incineration. Granted, the nuclear threat was and remains unique, though biological weaponry is similarly gruesome and disturbing. Just watching the havoc of AIDS spreading throughout the world, taking root wherever freedom shines, as people, liberated from tyranny, begin to freely interact without responsibility, dooming the emerging democracies of the world to a new horror, as seen most notably in post-Apartheid South Africa, but also to an alarming degree in the young democracies of Eastern Europe and Russia, and the nations of South Asia. Just imagine what would happen if a disease was engineered to deliver the certainty of death like AIDS does but with the rapidity of contagion as seen with Ebola?
As such, the path of nuclear disarmament does not rid the world of the darkness in our hearts nor rescue us from the Abyss of self-induced extinction; indeed, the cold logic of nuclear deterrence compels us to imagine a more dangerous world without nuclear weapons, one where greater chaos, greater evil, may be manifest. Just as the advocates of pure deterrence countenanced the creation of a dangerous and fragile system of mutual destruction, and advocates of disarmament like Schell countenance the creation of a world where even the noblest of democracies can not destroy the most cancerous of emerging threats, we find a need for a middle path—and that path is that of the nuclear realists, who dare to think about the unthinkable while hoping we will never have to do the undoable. They reject denial, and perhaps offer us our greatest chance of survival. These nuclear realists seek to slow the spread of nuclear technology, to keep the dangerous arsenal of nuclear death out of the hands of “rogue states” that do not share a common philosophical outlook with the democracies such as their love of freedom and commitment to tolerance. The pure deterrence advocates, and the anti-nuclear advocates of nuclear abolition, forget that we are defending sacred values from present and future threats, and that the technology is not the problem, though its use as the solution creates its own confusing riddle. Were we to bury the nuclear genie in the sand, who is to say that tomorrow’s Hitler won’t rediscover its dark art, and with nothing to deter him, and no expectation of a credible nuclear warfighting capability from us, plunge us back into chaos and darkness, of the sort we have not seen since Rome’s fall? In our current war against al-Qaeda, and its anti-western, anti-democratic, anti-modern vision of an ecclesiastical, theocratic order, with men of cloth once again governing both affairs of the spirit as well as the state, we may discover our next nemesis, and he might become a potent foe, with its own nuclear arsenal at its disposal.
If this happens, we will be glad we did not bury our nuclear wisdom, for it may be this nuclear wisdom that saves us from defeat, and prevent the descent of our fragile blue-green orb so full of life into another millennium of darkness.

Schell’s The Fate of the Earth struck a sensitive nerve, deeply resonating with the anti-war community and the lay public, becoming a runaway global bestseller and contributing to the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s, a movement that permeated across the Iron Curtain after the Chernobyl nuclear accident shook confidence across the Soviet Union and its broader empire, fostering a mass-movement in the Soviet bloc that was part environmental, part democratic, and part anti-Communist, a movement that eventually consolidated into a sweeping tectonic social revolution against the very foundations of Soviet power, resulting in a chain-reaction, not a nuclear chain reaction as envisioned by the nuclear strategists, but a social chain reaction that blunted Soviet power at its core.
Herman Kahn was one of the most colorful and influential theorists of the nuclear era, not a strategist so much as a popularizer of strategic imperatives of this new and dangerous era who famously wrote the run-away best seller, On Thermonuclear War, a massive tome that postulated, quite forcefully at times, that mankind could not only survive a nuclear war, but must be prepared to do so. His later Thinking About the Unthinkable further developed his thesis that it was a moral imperative of our era to accept the harsh realities of the post-Hiroshima world, and think about waging nuclear war. He passed away suddenly in 1983 before he had the opportunity to publish his response to Schell, but not before the work was nearly completed. His untimely death but near-completed work presented Kahn with the post-humous opportunity to rebut Schel, and this with an opportunity to genuinely imitate Clausewitz, by contributing to the strategic debate after his own passing through the posthumous publication of his latest work on strategic thinking.
Brodie Brodie, perhaps the era’s most sophisticated and philosophical of their nuclear theorists, would not enjoy this same opportunity, having passed away in 1978—before the anti-nuclear mass-movements spread across the West, as nuclear freezeniks and abolitionists alike came together by the millions in an effort to topple the nuclear Leviathan that they came to fear in a truly Hobbesian fashion, but to which they no longer were prepared to surrender. While their efforts did not cause NATO to splinter or its nuclear strategy to be defanged, the global scale of the anti-nuclear movement would have a profound impact on central and eastern Europeans, who would soon thereafter take to the streets, rising up against their own Communist Leviathan and successfully inducing its collapse. While Brodie’s passing from the earthly stage prevented him from participating in the nuclear debates of the 1980s, thus missing the opportunity for a posthumous contribution like his long-time colleague and doctrinal rival Kahn had achieved, Brodie otherwise successfully imitated Clausewitz in virtually every other respect.
And so, Kahn’s Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s came to press the next year, engaging the anti-nuclearists head-on in Kahnian fashion. As an editor’s note explained, Kahn had “died unexpectedly on July 7, 1983. At the time he had finished most of the material for this book, a project he was working on with Carol Kahn (not related) his long-time colleague and editor. Ms. Kahn completed the final manuscript with the assistance of the defense staff of the Hudson Institute.” In his introduction to the book, Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Advisor to President, noted that it was “altogether fitting and wholly characteristic of Herman Kahn that even after he has left us he is making yet another important contribution to the dialogue on the most critical issue of our age. Those who have known Herman and received the benefit of his brilliant mind, fertile imagination and indefatigable energy would have expected no less.”[ccix] Scowcroft recalled how Kahn had “burst onto the national scene when he told us we had to think seriously about nuclear war and its consequences,” and that it was “he, in a sense, who ‘popularized’ the national nuclear debate.”[ccx] According to Scowcroft, Kahn was “in a way, the philosopher of the RAND group,” and that beyond “the technical aspects of the nuclear threat and potential, his scope was always much broader, encompassing a humanitarian and ethical perspective.”[ccxi] With Kahn’s “important—and timely—revisiting of Thinking About the Unthinkable,” he “forces us again to go beyond deterrence, to consider what we should do if deterrence fails, if nuclear weapons are actually used,” and again “describes a number of measures that could be useful if a war did break out.”[ccxii] While he passed away before the theory of nuclear winter was postulated, Scowcroft believes that Kahn’s “reactions to this theory would most certainly have been enlightening,” as he had always demonstrated the “courage to confront the most horrifying aspects of these difficult issues,” even if this had “not always served Herman well.”[ccxiii] Indeed, in his revisit to Thinking About the Unthinkable, he “does take on the moral simplicity of some of the ideas of the anti-nuclear groups,” challenging his critics to think about the unthinkable rather than just to stand before it in fear.
In his preface, Kahn explains that in contrast to 1962 when he wrote Thinking About the Unthinkable, when “not thinking about nuclear war was still an option,” in the 1980s it “no longer is,” and as a result, those who were thinking about the unthinkable had “been extended; clergymen, physicians, schoolchildren, and movie stars are no less entitled to express their concern about the nuclear threat than military analysts.” But consequently, the “range in the level of the public discussion has led to a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding,” and “much of today’s conventional wisdom preaches the inevitability of disaster—an ‘apocalyptic vision’ that only radical disarmament, or a ‘freeze,’ can prevent.”[ccxiv] But Kahn continues to believe that for us to “act responsibly we must learn as much as we can about the genuine risks involved in order to make certain that we are better prepared to reduce them as much as possible. Or, deal with them.”[ccxv]
And so Kahn takes aim at the misinformation and misunderstanding, noting how, at the start of “Part I: Thinking About the Unthinkable,” that “[t]he debate over nuclear war and national security policy is often more confused and confusing than informative and productive.”[ccxvi] That’s why he continued to believe, two decades after he first thought out loud about the unthinkable, that it was “important to separate issues that are relevant to government policy from issues that may be valid from some perspectives, but are not serious policy options,” and that “[m]isconceptions and illusions do not contribute to the formulation of substantive recommendations and programs.” He thus dissects “Twelve Nonissues and Twelve Almost Nonissues,” starting out with twelve assertions that “however common and sincerely held, in terms of policy making are basically irrelevant, impractical, inaccurate, or foolish and should be eliminated from the debate at the outset.”[ccxvii]
The first is that “We must halt the nuclear ‘arms race’ in order to achieve the redemption of mankind. This concept has recently been popularized in a book by Jonathan Schell.” He cites Schell, who wrote, “‘today the only way to achieve genuine national defense for any nation is for all nations to give up violence together . . . if we had begun with Gandhi’s law of love we would have arrived at exactly the same arrangement. E. M. Forster told us, ‘Only connect!’ Let us connect. Auden told us, ‘We must love one another or die.’ Let us love one another. . . . Christ said, ‘I come not to judge the world but to save the world.’ Let us, also, not judge the world but save the world.’”[ccxviii] Kahn adds, “This concept has also been suggested in A Pastoral Letter on War and Peace by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Redemption may be an appropriate and correct concern for a church, but it has nothing to do with any policies that the government can—or should—carry out. If there is a ‘redemption of mankind,’ it will not occur as a result of a great debate on national security policy or defense. It is, then, the ‘nonissue’ of least relevance to government policy on nuclear war.”[ccxix]
The second nonissue is that “The control of nuclear weapons should be pursued through the creation of an effective world parliamentary government and/or total worldwide disarmament,” both of which Kahn refutes.[ccxx] Third, Kahn dismisses the belief that “Even if it cannot be total, the goal should be disarmament rather than arms control.” As he explains, the “objective of nuclear-weapons policy should not be solely to decrease the number of weapons in the world, but to make the world safer—which is not necessarily the same thing. World War I broke out largely because of an arms race, and World War II because of the lack of an arms race.”[ccxxi] Consequently, Kahn believes that “[a]ppropriate arms control could increase the trend toward decreased megatonnage and even toward fewer weapons, but unwise disarmament could set it back.”[ccxxii]
The fourth nonissue Kahn challenged was the popular notion at the time that “There should be a total nuclear freeze,” and Kahn explained that a “total nuclear freeze is counterproductive—especially now, when technology is rapidly changing and the Soviets have some important strategic advantages,” so that:
An effective and verifiable freeze would worsen the U.S. position by ‘institutionalizing’ apparent Soviet military superiority, and no freeze would be reliably verifiable, despite many claims to the contrary. More important, a freeze would prevent agreement on better arms-control measures by eliminating the incentive for useful negotiations and for the development of beneficial technology. In fact, the most important reason for rejecting a freeze is that much of the weapons technology ahead is, relatively speaking, beneficial. Many people seem to believe that any change in weapons technology has to be for the worse, but that is demonstrably untrue. For example, almost all military analysts agree that the change from bombers to missiles in the early and mid-1960s made the world safer, since at that time missiles were much less vulnerable and accident-prone than the bombers. In addition, a freeze would preclude many adjustments and refinements that could make existing systems and forces safer. Nuclear-arms reductions or trade-offs are unlikely to take place under a freeze, but if our objective is to make the world safer, we must have the option of increasing, decreasing, or changing forces to achieve this goal.[ccxxiii]
Kahn’s fifth nonissue, “Deterrence must be made 100 percent reliable,” was “a nonissue simply because there is no way to make any complex human (let alone technical) system 100 percent effective,”[ccxxiv] just as his sixth, “Deterrence must fail eventually, and probably will fail totally,” was an overstatement, and while “many doomsayers argue that since it might fail, it eventually has to fail,” Kahn notes “[t]his is technically incorrect, but not entirely unreasonable (unless it assumes that the failure must be total). My guess is that nuclear weapons will be used sometime in the next hundred years, but that their use is much more likely to be small and limited than widespread and unconstrained. Deterrence would then have failed—but not totally.” That is why, he argues, that his next nonissues are “so important.”[ccxxv] These are, seven: “Useful ‘damage limitation’ in a nuclear war is infeasible;” eight, “One can achieve totally reliable damage limitation;”[ccxxvi] nine, “A nuclear war can be reliably limited;”[ccxxvii] ten, “There is no possibility of a limited war;” eleven, “There can be no victory in nuclear war (i.e., ‘nobody wins a suicide pact’);”[ccxxviii] and twelve, “Either the United States or the Soviet Union could rely on victory.[ccxxix]
Kahn reiterated that it is “unwise to judge realistic analyses and preparations as a lust for war. There are no two sides to the nuclear debate: no one is ‘for’ war; everyone is against it—some categorically so and others only to the degree that it does not result in an even less desirable alternative.”[ccxxx] Kahn explains his “twelve ‘nonissues’ are important because many of them are deeply held beliefs and reflect genuine concerns. But they offer no substantive guidance in dealing with nuclear dangers, cannot be translated into constructive programs, and often stand in the way of serious discussions of useful and necessary programs.”[ccxxxi] In addition to these twelve nonissues, Kahn also considers “Twelve Almost Nonissues” that are “equally popular, widely held, and emotionally defended, but offer almost as little practical guidance on how to make the world safer from the threat of nuclear war.” What distinguishes the twelve nonissues from the “almost nonissues” is that Kahn was “comfortable in [his] belief that the first twelve are truly irrelevant,” while he was “not as sure about these.”[ccxxxii] His first two are, first, that “Nuclear war would result in the destruction of the created order,” and second, “Nuclear war would result in the destruction of all human life.” As Kahn explains:
There are no respectable objective analyses or calculations to indicate that either of these is likely. But the data and theory are so lacking one cannot be absolutely certain. From a scientific perspective there is some indication that a nuclear war could deplete the earth’s ozone layer or, less likely, could bring on a new Ice Age—but there is no suggestion that either the created order or mankind would be destroyed in the process. From a religious perspective these assertions are almost heretical, since only God can fashion or destroy the universe (but some believe that He may choose nuclear war as His means of doing so). As a practical matter, however, these concerns do not offer any useful policy guidelines.[ccxxxiii]
Kahn’s third almost-nonissue is that “The threat of a nuclear war would mean ‘everybody Red, dead, or neutral.’”[ccxxxiv] He adds that a “further revision of the slogan—’everybody Red, dead, neutral, or NATO’—is much more reasonable. Indeed, the purpose of the Atlantic Alliance is to make the last option the most attractive one.”[ccxxxv] Fourth, Kahn considers as an almost-nonissue that “Nuclear weapons are intrinsically immoral.”[ccxxxvi] He elaborates:

Nuclear war is such an emotional subject that many people see the weapons themselves as the common enemy of humanity. Nuclear weapons are intrinsically neither moral nor immoral, though they are more prone to immoral use than most weapons. But they can be used to accomplish moral objectives and can do this in ways that are morally acceptable. The most obvious and important way is to use them or their availability to deter others from using nuclear weapons. The second—of much lower, but still significant priority—is to use them to help limit the damage (human, social, political, economic, and military) that could occur if deterrence fails. Anything that reduces war-related destruction should not be considered altogether immoral.

On the other hand, the position that nuclear weapons are ‘just another’ weapon and therefore as moral as any other is not accurate either. I would judge them as moral when used solely to balance, deter, or correct for the possession or use of nuclear weapons by others, and immoral when deliberately used against civilians, for positive gains, or to save money and effort on nonnuclear military alternatives. This rule precludes the first use of nuclear weapons to defend Western Europe (current NATO policy), simply to avoid the more complicated capabilities, plans, and costs required for improved conventional defenses. It likewise stamps as immoral the targeting of enemy cities simply to avoid the problems of counterforce weapons and attack planning (countercity targeting is endorsed by many supporters of the nuclear freeze).
It is unacceptable, in terms of national security, to make nonuse of nuclear weapons the highest national priority to which all other considerations must be subordinated. It is immoral from almost any point of view to refuse to defend yourself and others from very grave and terrible threats, even as there are limits to the means that can be used in such defense.[ccxxxvii]
As his fifth almost nonissue, Kahn considers the prospect that “Expenditures for strategic nuclear forces are bankrupting the United States and the Soviet Union,” noting “U.S. strategic expenditures are now less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the gross national product (and have been less than 2 percent for almost two decades), while Soviet expenditures are probably about 2 percent of the Soviet GNP,” and that “[t]he cost of U.S. strategic forces represents only about 10 percent of total U.S. military expenditures; roughly 15-20 percent of the Soviets’ defense budget is allocated to strategic forces. So while reducing the cost of arms is a desirable goal, it is simply not an overriding priority in terms of bringing about a dramatic turnaround in U.S. fiscal solvency.”[ccxxxviii] His sixth almost nonissue is that “Defense expenditures should be reallocated to the poor,” as a “healthy and fully functioning society must allocate its resources among a variety of competing interests, all of which are more or less valid but none of which should take precedence over national security,” while “[t]his is not an argument for papering over instances of wasteful or excessive spending in the Department of Defense, but simply a recognition that national security programs have a legitimate and fundamental claim on the nation’s resources.”[ccxxxix]
Kahn’s seventh almost nonissue is that “‘War-fighting’ measures are simultaneously too ineffective and too effective,” and eight, that “‘Deterrence only’ is the least undesirable policy; any ‘war-fighting’ policy is fatally flawed.” As Kahn explains:

As used by most strategists, “deterrence only” implies an all-or-nothing strategy: first, a very strong belief that deterrence can and must be made to work for the foreseeable future, and second, that if it fails we are all doomed—because the cities on both sides would be deliberately and automatically destroyed at the outset of a war. The policy of “mutual assured destruction” (MAD) is the clearest form of “deterrence only.”
It is often believed that any attempt to mitigate the damage a nuclear war would cause, or even to reinforce deterrence with “war-fighting” capabilities, is “destabilizing” or a waste of resources. For its supporters, a “deterrence-only” policy offers a simple, clear and, by itself, unaggressive “solution” to the threat of nuclear war. But the term “warfighting” does not mean one wants to fight a war; the position simply recognizes that deterrence can fail and says that it is prudent to have programs both to reinforce deterrence and to alleviate such failure should it occur. . . . [T]hese efforts are likely to be effective enough to be worthwhile (i.e., they could have a positive effect on the course and outcome of a war), but would not be likely to cause or contribute to an appreciable increase in the risk of war.[ccxl]

Kahn’s ninth almost-nonissue is that “No significant weakening of deterrence is acceptable,” a view he challenges, as “[i]n most situations, some small “destabilizing” or weakening of deterrence is not likely to be significant” and “[i]n some instances, an intentional weakening might be an acceptable part of a trade-off for other gains. For example, a minor and relatively insignificant decrease in deterrence would be justified if it would bring about an enormous reduction in the damage done if deterrence failed. Deterrence itself is not a preeminent value; the primary values are safety and morality.”[ccxli] His tenth almost-nonissue is “If retention of nuclear weapons is unavoidable, then ‘simplistic stability’ is preferable to ‘multistability.””[ccxlii] As Kahn explains:
If we recognize nuclear deterrence as a means toward attaining a safer overall security environment, then simplistic stability (stability only against a first strike) should not be the sole objective of strategic forces. In fact, it is not the only mission of U.S. forces: their purpose is multistability—i.e., to deter serious provocations against the United States (and its allies), as well as to prevent an actual first strike.
Multistable deterrence imposes much more stringent—and necessary—requirements on our strategic forces than simple deterrence. While the U.S. can no longer have the kind of extended deterrence that covers all areas where provocation is possible, it still needs a “not-completely-incredible” ability to punish an opponent for a variety of (extreme) provocations.[ccxliii]
His eleventh almost-nonissue is that “Nuclear war would be fought mainly to achieve positive gains, and Kahn explains, in a thoughtful and Clausewitzian analysis, that:
Both the Soviet Union and the United States are essentially very prudent and cautious—the Soviets probably even more than the Americans—and both are unlikely to risk a nuclear war for positive gains (i.e., to fulfill or advance national or personal ambitions), even if they think they can do it successfully. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union believes in “war by calculation” (i.e., planned and carried out as scheduled), but rather by miscalculation (plans always go awry). Calculated wars have not worked in either country’s history, leading both to the realization that even theoretically sound plans are almost certain to go astray. Consequently, only desperation could persuade the leadership of either country to initiate a nuclear war. The belief that war has become virtually obsolete as an instrument for advancing positive ambitions (as opposed to averting disaster) is not completely the result of nuclear deterrence. It is also because, increasingly, the most effective and reliable way to achieve affluence, power, influence, status, and prestige is through economic development, and not through territorial or political gains. While war between two major powers may still be an important way for one or both of them to avoid what appear to be more severe alternatives (e.g., for the Soviet Union, the loss of political control), primarily it has become largely dysfunctional. And yet, maintaining a credible (or “not incredible”) capability to resort to nuclear war remains basic to an adequate defense and foreign policy.[ccxliv]
And lastly, Kahn’s twelfth almost nonissue is that “Normally, there is an automatic and increasingly dangerous ‘arms race.’” Kahn believes “[t]his concept is plausible and has sometimes been accurate—for example, the arms race preceding the outbreak of World War I,” and the “[p]ost-World War II history has witnessed some automatic increases in armaments,” and “[n]ew developments in weapon systems during the 1950s and early 1960s created a situation that was most dangerous, and even conducive to accidental war. In retrospect, we were fortunate that none occurred.”[ccxlv] But Kahn came to believe that the evolution of nuclear weapons technology and doctrine took on its own momentum, independent of the other side:
However, it appears that in both the United States and the Soviet Union the radical development of military technology since World War II has been a greater engine of weapons development than has any sense of detailed measure/countermeasure competition. A careful study of the development of Soviet and American strategic weapons suggests that in almost all cases weapons were developed in conformity with strategic and technological thinking that took remarkably little account of the other side’s real or likely programs and other strengths and weaknesses. If each side must more or less commit itself to a weapon system as much as ten to fifteen years before it enters service in any quantity, then there is little chance that the concepts being developed in one country will serve as a guide for the other.
The world became much less dangerous in the 1960s because of improvements in equipment (e.g., submarine-launched ballistic missiles—SLBMs), tactics (e.g., alert procedures), and thinking (e.g., planning for limited counterforce campaigns). But even with advances in U.S. and Soviet weaponry and defense planning, there was no “arms race.” For example, from 1963 to 1980, the U.S. defense budget was more or less constant in constant dollars (except for the operational expenses of the Vietnam War), while the Soviet budget increased by 4 or 5 percent a year—about the rate of increase for the Soviet GNP.
More accurate than the “race” metaphor is the observation that if it was a contest at all, the Americans walked while the Soviets trotted. There was no race—but to the extent that there was an arms competition, it was almost entirely on the Soviet side, first to catch up and then to surpass the Americans. The United States barely competed: except for some retrofitting (e.g., equipping ICBMs and SLBMs with multiple warheads), the U.S. defense establishment languished. The present controversy over the expense and morality of “rearming” the United States is a result of two decades of a very lax U.S. defense effort; the controversy could largely have been avoided if a consistent pace and pattern of defense preparedness had been maintained all along. The United States and the world would be much safer today, and the current anxiety-provoking defense program would not be necessary. But even this recent attempt to redress the balance is very different from being involved in an inevitable and increasingly dangerous “arms race.” In fact, as discussed later, many of the innovations in defense that we expect over the next decade or two are as likely as not to make the world safer.[ccxlvi]
Kahn concludes that the “accuracy of these twelve oft-cited assertions is, then, dubious at best,” and he believes that “[t]hose who uncritically accept their validity are less likely to help make the world safer from the threat of nuclear war than those who question them.”[ccxlvii] On the other, he concedes that “while we doubt that these ‘givens’ are relevant to government policy, they are less irrelevant than the first set of commonly held assumptions.”[ccxlviii] Kahn goes on to explain that “misconceptions having to do with nuclear war include more than these twenty-four variations on the theme of apocalypse,” and challenges the extent to which the “advent of nuclear weapons—the nuclear era—has dramatically changed the world,” noting that while “[t]here is no question that enormous changes have in fact occurred, the most obvious being the change in the capacity and magnitude of potential destruction,” that “there are probably as many dramatic continuities as changes.”[ccxlix]
Kahn probes the changes in greater detail, considering the impacts of the new nuclear fear, including the “terrifying threat of the instantaneous and total destruction of whole countries, if not of mankind itself,” and the “pervasive fear of fallout, thermal radiation, genetic defects, and environmental chaos. The conventional wisdom simply expects a nuclear war—any nuclear war—to be a literal Armageddon.”[ccl] Added to this is “a whole new fear of accidental war caused by mechanical or human error,”[ccli] contributing to a “persistent fear of nuclear disaster.”[cclii] Amidst this examination of the specter of nuclear Armageddon, Kahn credits Brodie “the first great work on military strategy in the nuclear age,” and supports Brodie’s assessment that: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them.”[ccliii] Kahn thus explains:
The notion of Armageddon has created a self-defeating prophecy: the more frightened decision makers are, the more careful they become and the less likely they are to initiate any action that might bring about the dreaded escalation to nuclear use. Armageddon is averted to the degree it is feared. As a result, nuclear deterrence has not only worked remarkably well in peacetime and served to limit the scope and intensity of conventional warfare, but it is likely to work surprisingly well in a large U.S.-Soviet conventional, and even a limited nuclear, war.[ccliv]
Yet while “[t]he existence of nuclear weapons as therefore changed the nature of warfare greatly,” Kahn notes “it has not made warfare totally obsolete,” and so “there is still a need to plan and prepare for fighting and even winning a war if deterrence fails.”[cclv]
Kahn considers the new nuclear lingo, noting “many of the terms and phrases have taken on such emotional bias that they are sometimes less than useful (and often misleading) in the public debate on nuclear war issues.”[cclvi] These include such terms as “Deterrence Only,” of which Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) is a “somewhat insane” variant, and while “deceptively comforting” and “so uncomplicated, inexpensive, convenient, and politically and emotionally acceptable that it seems practical and even moral” when “[i]n fact, it is gravely defective—politically and militarily, and especially morally.”[cclvii] Other variations of Deterrence Only include “Finite Deterrence” and “Minimum Deterrence,” which “support a ‘reasonable’ and ‘moderate’ deterrence-only strategy,” and compatible with a “Minimum Deterrence” position. He also considers “Reinforced Deterrence” and “Deterrence Plus Insurance,” which also aim to moderate the response in the event deterrence fails, either by targeting the military or political power centers of the adversary and not its urban-industrial complex as in the case of “Reinforced Deterrence,” and aiming for an “improved war outcome” by “limiting war damage suffered by the population and resources of one’s own nation and its allies” in the case of “Deterrence Plus Insurance.”[cclviii]
Kahn believes that “[t]o the extent damage-limiting policies and programs did increase the probability of war, this slightly greater risk would be outweighed by the insurance against the consequences of nuclear war afforded by active and passive defensive systems and counterforce weapons.”[cclix] Further, while these “deterrence-only positions stand in contrast to what is sometimes called a ‘war-fighting’ posture,” Kahn explains that war-fighting “does not advocate war: it simply means the nation should be concerned with how a war will be fought and how it will end if deterrence fails.”[cclx] Kahn believes that it’s both “incorrect and unproductive to categorically accuse those who subscribe to war-fighting concepts either of wanting to fight a nuclear war or of having less interest in deterrence,” even when the war-fighting advocate chooses to “pursue objectives that exceed deterrence and insurance.”[cclxi]
Kahn also considers the moral dimensions of the nuclear debate, noting each side had “referred to moral considerations in making its arguments,” and citing President Reagan’s moral response to the nuclear freezeniks:
beware . . . the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both the United States and the Soviet Union equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil. I ask you to resist the attempts of those who would have you withhold your support for our efforts . . . to keep America strong and free, while we negotiate real and verifiable reductions in the world’s nuclear arsenals and one day, with God’s help, their total elimination.[cclxii]
Commenting that “[t]he recent involvement of religious leaders in the nuclear debate is perfectly reasonable,” as “[t]he moral and spiritual aspects of nuclear war are their legitimate concerns,” Kahn questions whether “the concepts of good and evil” can “determine the appropriate size of our nuclear forces, or whether this country needs policies other than just MAD, or whether a nuclear freeze would make the world more or less safe.”[cclxiii] Kahn finds the popular anti-nuclear sentiment of the 1980s to be influenced by ideas that are “incorrect, misperceived, misleading, or incomplete,” and which “will become even more so in the future,” in part because of the government’s failure to provide “compelling alternative concepts and proposals.”[cclxiv] Kahn argues that “[t]hose advocating a freeze, unilateral disarmament, or some form of pacifism do not have a monopoly on morality when it comes to nuclear weapons,”[cclxv] and that efforts to “preserve nuclear deterrence,” “improve the safety of the world in the face of dangers posed by nuclear weapons,” and “alleviate the consequences of a nuclear war” in the event deterrence fails.[cclxvi] Rather than disarm, or arbitrarily freeze the current strategic forces, Kahn instead argued that “[v]igilance and appropriate defense efforts constitute the best way to avoid war and insure safety in the future,” which means “no panaceas, no free lunches, no ultimate and complete solutions” to fall back on.[cclxvii]
The second part of Kahn’s revisit to Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s is titled “Describing Strategic Realities,” with its final chapter “Seizing the Moral, Political, and Strategic High Ground.” In it, Kahn observes that:
Four decades into the nuclear era, nuclear weapons seem to have taken on a new and immoral life of their own. They are alternatively cited as the harbingers of an almost certain Armageddon or as the lost stop on the way to the redemption of mankind. There is a constituency for every nuclear position, and a coalition of concerned doctors, lawyers, mothers, actors, and so on, for ever antinuclear rally. But the real issue is how to achieve national security and international order within a morally and politically acceptable framework.[cclxviii]
Kahn identified—and refutes—three “popular (but flawed) antinuclear positions,” including Schell’s contention in his wildly popular The Fate of the Earth that “anything short of the elimination of all nuclear weapons . . . becomes morally and politically unacceptable,” and thus “all values and interests must be subordinated to avoiding nuclear war,” a view that Kahn believes is “impractical, illusionary, and dangerous.”[cclxix] Kahn chides Schell for overstating the value of peace to the point that “there are no other values that in any way can compete with this,” and for his presumption that nuclear war necessarily “threatens the existence of humanity” and “has some significant probability of ending all human history.”[cclxx] Kahn also rebukes Schell for his “utopian solution” that “envisions some kind of world government where sovereign nations cede their political authority and military power to an unclearly defined global order,” and for Schell’s unwillingness to chart a clear path toward this goal, instead only describing it as one of mankind’s “awesome, urgent tasks,” and as “the political work of our age,” which he nonetheless has “left to others.”[cclxxi] To a man who has spent decades thinking about the unthinkable in excruciating detail, imagining virtually all possible scenarios for nuclear use, and every rung of the escalation ladder, such vagueness appears to be an empty promise.
Kahn is as unimpressed with the nuclear freezeniks, viewing their position as another “nonsolution” that is “almost as romantic and simplistic as Schell’s,” and instead argues a freeze “is an indiscriminate restraint that is only a partial remedy at best and create adverse side effects,” and which “could only bring about a false sense of security that would be exposed as soon as the popular pressure subsided and a hostile confrontation seemed imminent.”[cclxxii] Kahn adds that “[f]launting one’s vulnerability (which is essentially what a freeze would do) is neither morally nor militarily useful,” and “[p]olitically, it is primitive,” and far less “responsible” than efforts to “pursue bilateral arms reductions seriously . . . while continuing to improve our national defense through a rearmament program.”[cclxxiii] The third position Kahn refutes is that of the European unilateral disarmers, who like the freezeniks in America, pursue their aim “either regardless of the consequences or hopeful that such a show of good faith and honorable intentions would shame the other side into a similar position,” a view Kahn finds naïve, noting the members of this movement “are the most protected, naïve, and illusion-prone young people in the West today.”[cclxxiv]
Kahn also challenges the arguments put forth by the American bishops in their Pastoral Letter, particularly their conclusion that “a just nuclear war is practically impossible because of the ‘overwhelming probability that a nuclear exchange would have no limits,’ and would therefore violate two of the major principles of the [Just War] doctrine, namely ‘discrimination’ and ‘proportionality’”[cclxxv] Indeed, as Kahn sees things:
Contrary to the bishops’ assessment, I would argue that the nuclear age has not rendered the doctrine of a just war obsolete. While it is true that no war can be reliably limited, it is not at all certain that all nuclear wars will escalate. An attempt to fight a limited nuclear war may be the least desperate choice in a future U.S.-Soviet conflict. Moreover, it has become more imperative than ever to meet the highest and most stringent criteria of justification for waging war, and—equally important—to strengthen both the effectiveness and the morality of deterrence.”[cclxxvi]
Kahn does agree with one element of the Bishops’ Pastoral Letter: their advocacy of the “no first use” doctrine, a view Kahn had himself been advocating for two decades and which he still held, but he found the Bishops took the doctrine too far, and that their Pastoral Letter “stretches no first use to a practically no-use-at-all position (basically nuclear pacifism) that I believe is unnecessarily dangerous” in that it “implicitly goes beyond that position to a no-use posture.”[cclxxvii] Kahn notes it:
proscribes attacks against cities; it rules out attacks against many military installations because the collateral damage, even in a limited nuclear wars, would be ‘disproportionate’; and it condemns counterforce weapons as ‘destabilizing.’ No recommendations are offered as to what targets the U.S. should threaten to strike in retaliation for Soviet first use, or what military capabilities would be required for these retaliatory attacks. A U.S. nuclear-war plan informed by the directives contained in the Pastoral Letter would have no direction or purpose. The credibility of an effective U.S. reprisal for the most serious Soviet aggressions would be severely undercut. This, in turn, could result in Soviet provocations that might precipitate nuclear war—the abhorrent act at the center of the letter’s concern.[cclxxviii]
Even the Bishops’ insistence “that there must be no use of nuclear weapons solely or mainly against civilians,” Kahn explains, requires rethinking, noting the potential strategic benefits of a “talionic” reprisal such as might be called for if an American city is intentionally targeted by a limited countervalue strike, and in response to which further escalation could be both dangerously escalatory and disproportionate. Hence Kahn, as ever the nuclear realist, adds to their prohibition on targeting civilians, “I would add ‘except as a last resort or in very special circumstances.’”[cclxxix] Kahn even sees similarities in the Bishops’ perspective and that of the war-fighting doctrine, with their shared “concern with avoiding cities, and with the moral question related to the use of weapons,” which Kahn believes makes the Bishops’ doctrine “a war-fighting doctrine.”[cclxxx] And just as this “is not the same as accusing the bishops of wanting to fight a nuclear war,” Kahn notes “nor should this accusation be leveled against strategists who favor a war-fighting doctrine.”[cclxxxi] Kahn challenges the bishops’ view, which “seems to endorse Schell’s view that a nuclear war would threaten ‘the existence of the planet,’” adding that “[a]s far as we can tell, the created order has survived even greater stresses than nuclear war as a result of natural forces,” and that “[i]t does not improve the safety of the world to terrify (via distortion of the dangers of nuclear war) one side (ours) into weakness or even submission.”[cclxxxii] Kahn suggests the bishops “come too close to jeopardizing U.S. and global interests,” and believes “the implications of war-fighting doctrines and enhanced strategic defenses must be considered much more carefully and objectively than the bishops have done so far.”[cclxxxiii]
Kahn defends his own contribution to the nuclear debate, noting his own position that he has “taken for many years on the moral aspects of nuclear use (and nonuse) comes as close as any to putting nuclear arsenals into a proper ethical context,” where “strategy and tactics of nuclear war become secondary (but still very important)” and “[t]he primary focus is on the rationale for maintaining a force of nuclear weapons,” which can only justifiably be “to deter, balance, or correct for the possession or use of nuclear weapons by others,” though Kahn notes the word “‘deter’ might be changed to ‘dissuade’,” as deterrence “means to dissuade by terror.”[cclxxxiv] Kahn reiterates that “[f]or the past twenty years, I have been concerned with how best to reduce the potential for nuclear war,”[cclxxxv] and he sympathizes with the “instincts of the utopian (Schell) and religious (bishops) antinuclear advocates,” and himself believes in a “long-range antinuclear policy” that “would build upon the common revulsion at the thought of using nuclear weapons,” with the long-range objective not just opposing nuclear war but also being “ready to foreclose the possibilities for nuclear intimidation and to correct for nuclear use,” lest “the widespread fear of nuclear war will be manipulated by parties not sharing the taboo to forestall opposition to military aggression.”[cclxxxvi] Kahn confronts the corrosive potentiality of nuclear fear, explaining:
No scheme can completely assuage the multifarious fears that arise as a consequence of the existence of nuclear weapons; for even in the case of total disarmament, fears will remain that the weapons might again come into existence or that disarmament was not complete. Nor will any scheme completely eliminate nuclear weapons from the calculations of statesmen, and in fact, it might be undesirable to try to go that far. The major, perhaps sole legitimate function of nuclear weapons should be to deter—to answer the threat or use of nuclear weapons.[cclxxxvii]
And thus the ultimate “Wizard of Armageddon,” the leading source of inspiration for the Dr. Strangelove character, comes to the very same conclusion that Bernard Brodie came to at the dawn of the nuclear era: that in the world scarred by the legacy of Hiroshima, it was the threat of nuclear use, but not actual nuclear use, that offered the most utility, and which provided the most solace from the specter of the nuclear Apocalypse. Just as all roads led to Rome, all logic in the nuclear era pointed inexorably toward deterrence as the best last hope for mankind, hence the reluctant blessing of the bishops—who wrestled with the moral implications of the bomb and found themselves unable to condemn the nuclear order outright; and the pioneering insights of Brodie; and even the tough talk and swagger of Herman Kahn who made his name by thinking out loud about the unthinkable, but who in the end realized, like in the end of War Games, that in nuclear war there would most likely be no winners.
Kahn concludes his 1980s revisit to the unthinkable by reiterating his discomfort with Schell’s utopian conclusion, noting that a non-nuclear world would actually present “some undesirable effects,” including the restraint exhibited by great powers tiptoeing through the nuclear minefield of possibilities, as they endeavor to be “very careful in nonnuclear confrontations simply because they fear escalation to nuclear weapons (or the procuring of nuclear weapon systems by their opponents).”[cclxxxviii] Kahn believes “[t]hese inhibiting fears have some desirable consequences,” and even with efforts to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons or lower their likelihood of use, Kahn expects “we may be able to eat our cake and have it too,” since “fears of nuclear escalation or production will still exist.”[cclxxxix] Kahn thus concludes his work by re-asserting his fundamental realism, a realism that binds his strategic theory with his broader political philosophy, rejecting the utility of idealism detached from hardcore truths. As he explains:
A declaration of no first use (as part of a long-term antinuclear policy) is not a panacea, nor is total trust in religious credos, nor is an underlying faith in the ultimate goodness and rationality of mankind. Spiritual and moral values certainly inform practical and secular ones, but they cannot substitute for them. Even the most devout and pious practitioners have to live in the real world, and almost all religions accept the basic notion that the Lord helps those who help themselves. In terms of seizing the moral, political, and strategic high ground, this means a nation, in addition to relying on God’s good will and aid, is entitled to use force in defense of the lives, property, and values of its citizens if it is attacked. In fact, we would argue that anything less would be immoral and irresponsible behavior.[ccxc]
In 2000, Peter R. Lavoy—a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and the founding director of its Center for Contemporary Conflict, who had served in the Office of Secretary of Defense in 2000 as Principal Director for Requirements, Plans and Counterproliferation Policy and from 1998 to 2000 as Director for Counterproliferation Policy, and who would later become chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council—co-edited Planning the Unthinkable: How New Powers Will Use Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons with his NPS colleague James J. Wirtz and Stanford professor Scott D. Sagan—the very same Sagan who had, as a younger scholar more than fifteen years earlier, co-authored the Harvard Nuclear Study Group’s Living with Nuclear Weapons but who a decade later would switch sides, and engage leading neorealist Kenneth Waltz in their jointly published debate on the spread of nuclear weapons, directly challenging Waltz’s faith in the nuclear peace, albeit less than persuasively.
The Lavoy-Schell debate in contrast is more lively, and compelling: it plays out much as I imagine a real Kahn-Schell debate might have had Herman Kahn lived to confront the author who became his principal post-Brodie rival, and whose Fate of the Earth presented a compelling counterpoint to the arguments put forth in Kahn’s influential works of nuclear realism, On Thermonuclear War and Thinking About the Unthinkable. On PBS television, Lavoy and Schell would come together on “Uncommon Knowledge,” a show hosted by Hoover Institution fellow Peter Robinson, on May 16, 2003—addressing the topic, “Stop The Madness: Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.” Schell, who had recently authored The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence and the Will of the People, sparred with Lavoy, who filled the shoes of Kahn and whose Planning the Unthinkable was directly inspired by Kahn’s own Thinking About the Unthinkable and his posthumous sequel, Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s.
Robinson introduced the episode by noting, “Today on Uncommon Knowledge, the bomb that wouldn’t go away,” and then adding:
Our show today, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, an old problem but new challenges. When the Cold War ended more than a decade ago, the world breathed a sigh of relief. The danger of nuclear war that had seemed so real for so long now seemed destined to fade into history. That didn’t happen. During the 1990s, two nations, India and Pakistan, acquired nuclear weapons and more recently it seems all but certain that a third, North Korea, has done so and that a fourth, Iran, is well on the way to doing so. Why are nuclear weapons continuing to proliferate and what is the Bush Administration doing about it? Behaving in a way that comes to grips with the problem or as some argue, that makes the problem worse? Joining us, two guests. Peter Lavoy is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. Jonathan Schell is author of the classic anti-nuclear text, the 1982 best seller, The Fate of the Earth. Schell’s most recent book: The Unconquerable World.
Robinson started out by asking if his guests agreed with a recent comment by George Perkovich that the Bush administration’s “‘approach to nuclear issues seems destined to reduce international cooperation in enforcing nonproliferation commitments rather than enhance it.’ Is he right or is he wrong?” Lavoy replied, “He’s wrong,” while Schell countered, “He’s absolutely right.”
Robinson next cited Kenneth Waltz’s infamous observation on nuclear stability, noting he had written: “Nuclear weapons reduced the chances of war between the United States and the Soviet Union and between the Soviet Union and China. One must expect them to have similar effects elsewhere. The gradual spread of nuclear weapons is more to be welcomed than feared,” to which Schell replied, “Not in my book.” But Lavoy took a more realist approach, noting, “I think I would agree that deterrence is hard. It’s a very challenging policy between the United States and the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, we each conducted deterrence policies and it worked but there was a lot of learning that went on. We had a lot of close calls, Cuban Missile Crisis, Berlin, other problems. And I think we gradually improved our deterrence policies as a result. But I think there’s no reason to expect that India and Pakistan, for example, can’t also learn to figure it out.” Later in the show, Robinson noted Schell had co-authored a statement titled “End the Nuclear Danger an Urgent Call” that was published in The Nation that among other things called upon the United States “to renounce the first use of nuclear weapons.” Schell explained his rationale, to which Lavoy responded, as the two sparred on a topic that would have been familiar to both Kahn and to Brodie, the question of nuclear use, escalation across the nuclear firebreak, and the place of limited war, even with use of nuclear weapons, to bolster nuclear deterrence:
Schell: I think it’s not only wrong but impracticable and unworkable for the United States to go before the world sitting on top of a mountain of weapons of mass destruction and telling them that they can’t have any and then to add by the way, not only do we have them for retaliation, for deterrence, but we are prepared to use them first even without their use against us. I think this is--to use one of the key words of the Cold War, that’s unstable. That lacks stability. Richard Butler, the UN Ambassador said that.
Robinson: Peter?
Lavoy: Well I think there are threats that are feasible. Perhaps the threat of North Korean attack against South Korea where you could conceive of the use of nuclear weapons. It might make sense even though North Korea might not be using nuclear weapons. Let me give you a scenario.
Robinson: But at a minimum, you want the North Koreans to be unsure whether you’d use them?
Lavoy: Absolutely. That enhances the deterrence effect. And the one scenario I--for discussion here if there were to be a war on the Korean Peninsula, certainly it would be a very bloody war. It’d be devastating to both sides. But if we have intelligence that North Korea was actually preparing a nuclear weapon for use, that would be unacceptable. And it might be that the only way to destroy, to defeat that weapon because they probably are doing this deeply underground in a very hardened structure, is by using a nuclear weapon to destroy it. And if you’re the president...
Robinson: A nuclear bunker buster, that kind...
Lavoy: Exactly. And if you’re the President and you’re responsible for the lives of the troops overseas and the Koreans that you’re—you’ve got a security commitment to, it really would be a responsibility to consider the use of nuclear weapons in that circumstance.
Schell: Can I comment on that?
Robinson: Oh sure, please.
Schell: Because, I mean, one can conceive of a scenario which just conceivably the use of a nuclear weapon might give the United States a slight advantage although I doubt that we’d be able to find even the cave where that thing was going on. But the point is that that only makes sense if you imagine that the United States is the only nuclear power in the world. Such a policy undercuts completely in my opinion, the international effort to reduce and as I would hope, get rid of nuclear weapons. So the price is tremendous for such a tiny little advantage in some imaginable scenario.
Robinson: I see you nodding. You look as though you’re—we repeat you’re speaking for yourself here, not for the Department of Defense.
Lavoy: Absolutely.
Robinson: But it looks—if I’m reading your body language, you’re granting him a little something there.
Lavoy: The price is high. I think Jonathan makes a very, very good point. The fact that we maintain nuclear weapons I think undermines our ability to convince others not to pursue nuclear weapons themselves, absolutely.
Robinson: But you’re not ready to give them up?
Lavoy: I’m not ready to give them up and I think that even if we got rid of them, it would be idealistic to believe that other countries wouldn’t pursue them anyways.
As we continued on our journey, from the world of total war tamed by modern strategic theory and its response to the Napoleonic challenge, into the age of “absolute” warfare, we have found that the totality of warfare increased again by an order of magnitude in the world after Hiroshima. Theorists of order, be they political, strategic or even the modern IR-theoretical persuasion, have thus been forced to confront an even greater horror than that which Jomini and Clausewitz grappled with. Thus before continuing further on this journey, we must first briefly undertake two digressions. The first is to talk about death and dying, and to look at the strategic as well as the philosophical implications of human mortality. Our second digression is to define again, but a little more formally, the concepts of deterrence and compellance, the nuclear era’s analogue to defensive and offensive mindsets conceptualized during the Napoleonic period. These concepts will be useful for understanding post-modern warfare (and its prevention), and the real dichotomy in strategic thought that has dominated the field since Napoleon marched from the Rhine to the Elba (and back again).
The most important thing about death, as far as strategy goes, is how the strategic realist thinks about, reacts to, and plans for death. Some want to go down fighting. Some want to live now and for the present and try to postpone anything that might disrupt their present calm. These represent two different poles, two different emphases in dealing with death. One which faces it “like a man,” a more macho, Rambo-esque attitude that laughs at death, much as portrayed in science fiction circles by the Klingon warrior culture and exemplified in classical times by the fearless Alexander. The other, more timid, only wants to postpone it, constructing systems to perpetuate the peace. Each will have to die. Yet one does not want to face it, while the other is inspired when facing it. (The “cowboys” during the Cold War were the fearless nuclear warfighters like Kahn, and in today’s war on terror they’re the neocons who seek to pre-empt future strategic threats by waging war today, before the threat grows. The more sheepish in the Cold War were the deterrers and the arms controllers, and their extrastrategic colleagues, the disarmers and nuclear abolitionists. Today’s counterparts advocate multilateral diplomacy in favor of pre-emptive war, hoping to induce behavioral change not through a Hobbesian, Leviathanic transformation but instead a more Rousseauian dialogue.)
The way that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ patients confront death parallel the ways that strategic theorists confront it, reflecting the way that we all face death—individually and societally. My first tutorial in contemporary military strategy (with a then young graduate student named Scott Sagan, then a participant in the Harvard Nuclear Study Group that produced Living with Nuclear Weapons) was just like a patient’s confrontation with unexpected illness. At first I denied the cold and brutal logic of strategy in the nuclear age, leaning toward the nuclear abolitionists in my thinking. Denial was the natural first step. War was wrong, especially in the nuclear age. It was that simple. Targeting civilians was wrong. Twenty million civilian causalities was wrong—from a single battle, let alone a war. Just like antinuclear neofeminist Carol Cohn, I shut off my mind to the language of deterrence and warfighting, seeking solace in the language of abolition.
But after a while, you start to get used to the proximity to death. Just like a cancer patient. And you eventually grow to accept it, just as we must come to grips with our own mortality, be it through the fantasy of an afterlife (which inspired both the early Christians, who stood up to Rome as well as today’s Islamic jihadis standing up to the West); or by simply recognizing how small and unimportant we are in the end. One may look at Kubler-Ross’ stages of coming to grips with death and dying and compare them to different stages of U.S. national security policy and grand strategy over time. With death there is denial and isolation. In American foreign policy, with George Washington’s farewell address, we have isolationism. It lasts a long, long time indeed—not in our hemisphere, but in our policy to Europe. As we confront death, after denial, we move on to anger. In strategy, in the post World War II era, we have strategic bombing and later massive retaliation. In response to communist aggression, we threaten to reduce our opponent to rubble and radioactive debris. A little bit testy, indeed. In our confrontation with death, after anger we go through a process of bargaining. In strategy, we have the formal strategists of the nuclear age, game theorists playing their deadly game, and the advent of limited warfare, flexible response, and nuclear warfighting as a kind of rational bargaining strategy—the very heart of modern coercive diplomacy and the diplomacy of violence. In our confrontation with death, we go into a deep depression as we realize that inevitability and then the imminence of death. In strategy, we have the growing feeling of impending doom, the inevitability of war, and a tendency toward pre-emption. This may translate into paranoid ‘Red Scares’, and such things as bomber gaps, missile gaps, and windows of vulnerability, as we witnessed during the Cold War; and lest we forget former Vice President Cheney’s and then-National Security Advisor Rice’s paranoid warnings of imminent mushroom clouds if we didn’t oust the emerging nuclear menace, Saddam Hussein (who in fact had no active nuclear weapons program.) Finally, in our confrontation with death, we have acceptance. In strategic thought, we have sound strategy. The triumph of a rational logic—not necessarily divided from ethical parameters—taking over and allowing us to think about the unthinkable. Some theorists face acceptance by turning to the problems of vertical proliferation and look to arms control and gradual disarmament for salvation. Others looked forward to letting the missiles loose and getting in the first blow. With “acceptance” there is an ultimate commitment to whichever strategy is consistent with the way you want to die. If you want to stretch it out—you deter aggression to the best of your ability. And if you want to go down fighting, you plan for the next war and expect to fight and win it, no matter how high the cost. Plato has his Socrates tell us that philosophy is a preparation for death. As it reflects the proper way to live it helps us face death properly. We can think of strategy as a way to come to grips with death as well. If we are very scared, as Hobbes was, we demand the ultimate solution. If we are less scared, or not afraid at all, we come up with strategies with higher probabilities of death and destruction, so long as they prove less costly when successful. Consider the case of Herman Kahn, the popularizer of nuclear warfighting and counterforce strategy whom we will examine below: by inverting Brodie’s conceptual and metaphorical roadblock—the twenty million unjustifiable deaths that made nuclear war unthinkable to Brodie—and adding the qualifier “only” to say “only twenty million dead,” he changed the emphasis to suggest the opposite of unthinkable, and from this shift in emphasis, derived a fundamentally different strategic theory (which may or may not be more effective, efficient, and/or ethical.)
In the Santa Monica, California headquarters of the RAND Corporation, Kahn, an ex-physicist turned nuclear strategist, wrote that he “first came in contact with the philosophy which is willing to ask any question and tackle any problem.” He went after Brodie’s studies of counter-force targeting with the H-bomb. Brodie was pessimistic about the feasibility of counterforce targeting. He found that a purely countermilitary attack would leave some twenty million of more dead. “A horrifyingly high number.” But Kahn put a novel twist on this observation by shifting the emphasis and adding the word “only.” He went on to write several books, some as long and detailed as Hobbes’ Leviathan itself, but never as philosophical, and to deliver countless presentations that became infamous, even inspiring the doctrinal diatribes of the Dr. Strangelove character, in his effort to make the unthinkable thinkable, giving us a scientific vocabulary with which to engage in our post-deterrence strategic discourse (just as Hobbes did in an earlier time.) Everyday language was not appropriate for the discussion of nuclear strategy. Conventional wisdom and ethical limits would restrain the mind from entering into the twilight zone of strategic reality. His six-hundred plus page tome, On Thermonuclear War, was thus like Hobbes’ Leviathan in that it provides us with a new, appropriate language: a scientific language capable of expressing clearly and rationally his contemporary, nuclear era equivalent of Leviathan, with its focused, counterforce targeting strategy, a rational and logical escalation ladder calibrating the level of force (and violence) to serve a specific objective (from the tactical to the grand strategic), enabling thermonuclear warfighting and breaking free of the moral, theoretical and doctrinal limitations of deterrence and its threat (of questionable credibility) of massive retaliation (separating means from ends, and breaking the bond first articulated by Plato and later fleshed out by Machiavelli on the appropriate use of force and violence for the preservation of political order.)
Coercive diplomacy and the domestic political utility of violence have been essential to contemporary (post-medieval and post-early modern) international relations and political theory, and the pursuit of security in an anarchical international system whether domestic or international. Deterrence is simply the art of preventing somebody from doing something you don’t want by clearly signaling to them both your will and capability of punishing them (severely enough to dissuade them) should they disobey your will. There has to be some credibility that your threat is not empty, lest it will fail. Having precedent, and good propaganda, helps, hence Machiavelli’s counsel that it’s better to be feared than loved (albeit he believed it best to be both feared and loved); either way, deterrence requires fear to succeed. Compellance is a little different—it comes into play after deterrence fails, or if there was no original threat made in the first place. Such concepts were not invented in the nuclear age, nor are they inventions of the modern period. The Romans mastered the practice of coercive diplomacy, of using force through armed-suasion, as a kind of language with which to signal their intentions and their capabilities to their friends and foes alike. They understood the need to have reserves of usable military force—easily deployed if necessary to use. They understood that power was in part perceptual, and in the western world quite easily conveyed their seriousness without having to always be at war (perhaps as a result of Alexander’s seeding of Rome’s later imperial domain with Hellenistic language, concepts and cultural norms), creating a shared language that made it easier than ever before to communicate intention as well as capability.
No doubt the concepts of armed suasion and coercive diplomacy were well developed prior to Rome: in ancient China, long before the warring states period, diplomacy and military strategy were well enough developed to embrace these ideas. But for our present purposes we need not look too far back. Indeed, Hobbes serves us well as a launching platform into the present, and the continuing need for Leviathan to impose his firm peace upon us, and to prevent us from descending back into that violent vortex of nature and its perpetual war of man against man.
It was Hobbes that brought us into the era of total war, and from there to the current era of asymmetrical total war, where terrorists wielding mass destruction weapons can compete in the art of annihilatory warfare against mightier conventional and nuclear foes, as Al Qaeda did early on in Iraq, reducing that country after America liberated it from Saddam’s tyranny to an Hobbesian Hell, humbling America, whose shock-and-awe could bring about a speedy and relatively bloodless regime change, but which could not govern without the consent of those liberated. And since no one had invited America to the party, consent was not readily provided. Thus, a stateless band of terrorists was able to operate from the shadows, bringing total war to the nation America had liberated, mocking American power by inducing a fear as terrible as that which American military power had wrought. And so, with the Cold War long settled in favor of the democratic West, a new and dangerous era began, one of inherent and unbalanced asymmetry where both sides, no matter how uneven in technology, manpower, or industrial might, could induce a horror that would make Thomas Hobbes blush, with foresight as well as with trepidation—reminding men of all ages that so long as fear remains unvanquished, there is still a need for the mighty Leviathan to pacify mankind.
Those familiar with Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky will know that the Jabberwock presents a compelling metaphor for the ubiquitous problem of language in political, strategic, and international relations theory.[ccxci] Strategic theorists seek to slay a mythical creature like the Jabberwocky, the ubiquitous specter of chaos outside the city gates, using a blade of sharp language. Identifying language as the perennial problem of theory making is a bit like Monsieur Jordain discovering in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme that he’s been speaking prose for his entire life without so knowing. When we think and write and theorize we use words as the building blocks, and these very words are not reality but rather labels assigned to images we have of reality (we’re trapped in perceptual caves, as Plato so artfully described, after all); our words at best approximate reality with metaphor, suggesting a world of light but trapped in the mind’s darkness, inside our own cave of mind.
I have been, and remain, intrigued by how we use language to respond to nature—specifically to deal with horror, to confront our fears. By confronting horror, we will be able to see how those, gifted with the power of language, can make sense of senselessness and bring order to chaos, not unlike how Carroll tells a coherent story in Jabberwocky using many nonsense words, leaving us with the form of a story, but without the clarity of meaning. But once we open this Pandora’s Box, of how we use language as a tool to explore a fear that we can only feel, and to reshape an external world that we can barely see let alone fully fathom, so that it becomes less threatening, less dangerous, less fearsome, we will encounter a new ambiguity: how do we know our prescription will make the world safer and not more dangerous?
This was the great riddle of the nuclear dilemma that fueled Brodie’s imagination for nearly half a century: do we make ourselves safer by threatening so much destruction, or do we become trapped by the logic of nuclear weapons, contradicting our dearest values, and placing those values in the gravest of danger, trapped by the shadow cast by our nuclear logic, and unable to put the nuclear genie back in its bottle, just as the U.S. Bishops were so trapped when they grappled with nuclear logic in their Pastoral Letter on War and Peace, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, as were the scholars of Harvard University’s Nuclear Study Group, known by some as the HUNS, as they grappled with the same riddle in their book, Living with Nuclear Weapons, written during the same period.[ccxcii] This was a central debate of the Cold War, the riddle of nuclear strategy, a riddle that in the end had no punch line—the desperate, dangerous gambit upon which we bet the entire farm, taking the entire world hostage as the price of our freedom, and thus, to some, betraying the very spirit of our freedom, alienating our friends as much if not more than our foes, and in the end, finding more in common with our foe, as we shared the same destructive power, the same knowledge of good and evil, the same fear, and the same global power. In the 1980s, the people of Western Europe rose up against what Dr. Helen Caldicott called the “Nuclear Madness” that threatened their annihilation in an effort to preserve their freedom. They chanted, in 1982, “Better Red than dead!” Yet at the end of that very same decade, the people of Eastern Europe rose up against the Soviet Union’s “Nuclear Madness” that threatened their annihilation to preserve their continued subjugation, and in 1989 they rose up and chanted, “Better Dead than Red!” Just as the North Vietnamese humbled us by daring us to destroy them, calling our bluff; the people of Eastern Europe looked to their occupiers, and called their bluff by daring them to destroy their plea for freedom, but by then the dream of freedom had already infected the highest levels of the Politburo, and the Soviet dream collapsed, just as the Roman dream once did, albeit more rapidly, a speed of collapse that echoed the quick collapse of Alexander’s empire.
The horrific power of the Nuclear Leviathan had become so extreme that in the end, it overwhelmed those who had been willing to submit to its cold logic. Our friends and allies, protected by our extended deterrence, refused to continue tolerating the real dangers of extending deterrence to their homeland. Live Free, or Die, but not here! To them the motto had become, Die Free, or Live, and they chose life. Indeed, the people of Europe, on both sides of the East/West divide, chose to live. Nuclear logic thus became so contradictory that the bipolar system it sought to restrain and to balance simply merged into a single, greater Western world, inhabiting the zone carved out by Christendom in both the New World and Old. Together, both sides chose life, throwing off their ideological divide, and rediscovering their common heritage.
I recall Stephen King’s and Peter Straub’s classic work of fantasy, Talisman, a journey across space and time, across nature and supernature. It is a journey that travels through different levels of reality, not unlike King’s The Stand that begins with the great American westward conquest. A physical, geographic odyssey across the American heartland can be accompanied by a spiritual, supernatural and subconsciously paranormal journey through darkness in search of light. A journey can be both physical and psychical, natural and supernatural. Just as Hobbes’ Commonwealth can be ruled by a secular Leviathan, as much an Ecclesiastical Leviathan or even in Infidel Leviathan. Just as Machiavelli’s principality may be hereditary, new, mixed, or papal. So long as there is order, the kind of order becomes almost academic. As any order is preferred to chaos and disorder, at least to the strategic realist, the warrior-philosopher.
War and violence, as well as nonviolent upheavals driven by well tuned and oiled strategies, reflect the strategic quest for external (to the self) security as much as the horror story or the old or new testament reflects the quest for internal security (within the self). Even the dangerous and somewhat esoteric (though nonetheless simple) art of nuclear strategy is fascinating, at times a method for internal coping as much as for external coping (i.e., the quest for order and the eradication of chaos, manifested by the plague in Thucydides, and again throughout the Old Testament (particularly in Exodus, as God’s punishment of the recalcitrant Pharaoh). Man has always faced death by nature; aggression from other creatures predates that of man against himself. But as we see portrayed by Kubrick in his visual interpretation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the force of the monolith teaches primitive man to kill his brethren in a wonderful reenactment of Cain and Abel: it only took two generations of man before we discovered fratricide; so as mankind multiplied over the face of the earth, fratricide became aggression became war (and to most strategic theorists, war became a reflection of nature in its ideal state.) Fratricide begat genocide, and genocide begat the suicide of the nuclear Leviathan. The problem of dealing with chaos (the void, the Abyss, and Death) is a much more troubling problem than the art of war or the science of strategy, which are more orderly. Strategic theory places war into a broader perspective that does not condemn the folly of man, but instead empathizes with his Fall and subsequent quest to rediscover Eden that has pursued ever since. As Clausewitz wrote, strategy is easy to think about though harder to do:
Everything in strategy is very simple, but that does not is the mean everything is easy. Once it has been determined, from the political conditions, what a war is meant to achieve and what it can achieve, it is easy to chart the course. But strength of character, as well as great lucidity and firmness of mind, is required in order to follow through steadily, to carry out the plan, and not to be thrown off course by thousands of diversions.[ccxciii]
Indeed, fortuna itself intervenes in the form of friction: Machiavelli’s arbiter of half our actions takes something simple and logical in principle and makes it something that’s not so simple to conduct. Indeed, a central paradox of strategy is that it is so hard to do well on the ground. The very nature of security, as Luttwak elegantly stated in the appendix to his Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire is to achieve order at a decent cost: efficiency has as much to do with projecting and transmitting power as does the nature of the political order imposed. The problem with the implementation of strategy is not the intellectual cost (since the logic is generally cogent) so much as the physical and economic/political costs (which always seem harder to predict than the logic of the theory might suggest.) In his Counterforce Syndrome, Robert Aldridge explained:
One of the most difficult subjects to comprehend is military strategy. . . . Highly technical in nature, it is further obscured by scientific jargon, security classifications, and fragmentation in many sources. . . . We cannot afford to be uninformed.[ccxciv]
It is my observation that only a small portion of the people who ever recognize this lethal momentum are motivated to do anything about it. Yet the risks to personal freedom and security those few are taking are minute compared to the risk of nuclear cremation which faces us all if the arms race continues to its ultimate conclusion. Those few people may well be the single remaining hope for civilization. The importance of their efforts cannot be overstated.[ccxcv]
His work in some ways foreshadows of Jonathan Schell, and identified the very same (and vitally important) danger that we had to confront during the nuclear showdown of the Cold War: that the Nuclear Leviathan itself now violated the very raison d’etre, the raison d’etat if you will, of Leviathan, to protect us. Those who stress the complexity and difficulty of strategy as a response to the nuclear riddle often select simplistic and potentially dangerous alternatives: as with the 1980’s European Nuclear Disarmament (END) movement which seemed to prefer a Europe vulnerable to Soviet hegemony than a free and democratic Europe whose security and freedom were protected by America’s nuclear umbrella, since this placed the continent under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, something that nuclear strategists safely across the Atlantic felt was well worth the risk. The Europeans involved with END did not seem to comprehend that security is never free, though it may be subsidized by someone else, by being occupied, conquered and deprived of freedom in the name of somebody else’s order as happened on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain. We see in Aldridge the democratically naïve simplification of an allegedly difficult problem. Yes, the problem itself is simple. It is just that the solution is not easy to live with. Survival has its cost, especially in universe that tends toward chaos and in which entropy consumes all, so even in death, or at least until death, there is insecurity.
Just as with the numerous diversions presented by the spokes of friction, the infinite complexity of information streaming into our sensation from the natural world must be filtered through our perception and ordered by language and knowledge and systemized into science and allowed flexibility through craftsmanship and art, becoming in the end strategy to guide our actions in the real and physical world. Most of strategy is simply the development of rules of thumb, in order to cope with a high probability of success with the changing world of uncertainty. It is like using knowledge of the eternal and unchanging Forms to better order the swirling cyclone of reality. Given the liquidity of language we can thus deal with the chaos of reality, and strategy can be made. Strategy itself may be simple, but the threats to which it responds are very grave.
The deterrence theorists put on their armor called “systems theory” to defend themselves through the self-righting structural integrity of “systemic forces” that call for mutual restraint. They rest upon the clarity of signaling within an environment governed by rationality and logic, and limits prevail beneath the burden of assured retaliation and the nightmare of, at the very least, collateral damage and at the very worst, the end of life on earth. The mutual annihilatory capabilities of the great and even the middle powers of the world today, by the logic invested in the state of the art by MAD, make the very probability of violating the status quo unlikely enough not to worry about (not so in the age of mass terror, where non-state actors without assets to hold hostage have nothing to lose by crossing the nuclear chasm.) Leviathan’s effect without Leviathan himself; systemic deterrers stare at the abyss unprovoked, rational to the end. Indeed, during the 1980’s arms build-up, the perceived need to modernize nuclear forces was determined by the prerequisites of signal clarification: force procurements and military organization evolved in dialogue, action and reaction, in response to perception of reality.
Nuclear warfighters, on the other hand, place less faith in and felt less hope from the mercy of international stability, the logic of assured destruction, or even the seeming ease of bipolarity (with both friends and enemies sharing a language of restraint). History taught them to be less optimistic, to be ready for the worst case. Bluffs will be called and weaknesses exploited unless preparations are consistent with the correlation of forces. Systemic relaxation does little to prepare us for the day when push comes to shove and a tug of war over the heartland of Europe erupts, as logic responds to illogic and deterrence fails (or succeeds, since even in the event of war and the wrath of retaliation, the logic of deterrence is never questioned. Peace or war, deterrence does not fail. It simply operates according to its fixed principles.) The warfighters were the nuclear pessimists, who felt we needed to be prepared for deterrence to finally succumb to miscalculation or error; ironically, those preparations in the end strengthened deterrence by boosting its credibility, and their pessimism contributed to the outcome sought by their more optimistic counterparts, the deterrers.
Objective reality was likely somewhere between these poles of optimism and pessimism, oscillating toward one or the other as the political climate warmed and cooled. In terms of the state of the international environment, warfighters prepared themselves for a world which if not continually at war was at least recurrently at war. Deterrers were instead ready for a world at peace and extrapolated from the post-World War II calm that the great powers would forever remain cautious, and thereby maintain the peace. Earlier in this book, when we explored the limits language places on our ability to theorize about international politics, I suggested that different vocabularies underpin the doctrinal debate that took place during the Cold War. Not just deterrers and warfighters, but disarmers and nuclear abolitionists all had their particular dialects. But the root of the problem is prior to language and all its messiness, buffeted by differences in “world view” and explained away through the introduction of the concept of the paradigm (the fuzziest creature next too the caterpillar). At the heart of the problem is how the theorist responds to fear, whether through thought, or action, active thought or thoughtful action. As William Hurt grunts in the isolation tank of Altered States, “fear is the first emotion.” Or as expressed in the political theory of Thomas Hobbes, it is intellectually prior to the development of social organization and civil society. Indeed, fear is the hallmark of the psychoanalytical, metaphorical and protohistorical state of nature in which the life of man is poor, nasty, brutish and short. And in Machiavelli’s political theory, and especially in his prescriptions for statecraft in The Prince, fear is a fundamental ingredient. Recall that he concluded, in the end, that is “is better to be feared than loved.” Going all the way back to Thucydides, we see that the origin of the war with Sparta was the “fear” of increasing Athenian power on the Peloponnesian peninsula. Thus we see that laying at the very heart of classical realism (but lost, somewhat, in the more modernized theoretical articulation of neorealism) is the emotion fear. Fear is not a concept. It is not an idea. It is a feeling. And this feeling hovers in the background of nearly all strategic debate, dialogue, and disagreement. What are we afraid of? What are they afraid of? Recall that strategy is the art of maintaining security and that security is sought to redress insecurity and that insecurity is all about fear.
Fear exists within our hearts and souls. Cowards live by it, and courageous swashbucklers and soldiers of fortune die by it. E. O. Wilson, the pioneering founder of sociobiology, believed that we are “genetically predisposed” toward aggression in pursuit of security for genetic reproduction.[ccxcvi] That it is part of our genetic make-up to be afraid. That fear serves a sociobiological function. That much is obvious from animal behavior and ethology.[ccxcvii] That we all have to die, and that our cerebral cortexes have evolved far enough that many of us brood over our own individual mortality, makes us prone to insecurity and worry. It has been this way since man’s exile from Eden and his loss of immunity to entropy. The insecurity of nations is intimately connected to our own fear of such things. In the realm of strategy, the existence of nuclear weapons is indeed a scary thing. At the dawn of the nuclear age we reasoned it was scarier if they had nuclear weapons and we didn’t, scarier yet to imagine the Nazis beating us in the race to split the atom. Despite their inherent scariness, we were well advised to “live with nuclear weapons,” as the Harvard Nuclear Study Group concluded, as did pioneering warfighter Herman Kahn and the tormented father of deterrence, Bernard Brodie.[ccxcviii] Strategic denial and the pursuit of disarmament as a strategic goal was one extreme response to the inherent scariness of nuclear weapons, though the pursuit of arms control and the maintenance of strategic stability while mitigating the logic of vertical proliferation made certain sense. Denial, it turns out, is indeed a legitimate and a not uncommon response to fear, as Kubler-Ross explained in On Death and Dying.[ccxcix]
Strategy (and more specifically, the idea of strategic bombing) is permanently affected by nuclear weapons. Large armies no longer make or break the existence of states: now, a few well placed thermonuclear weapons will do the trick of reducing the aggressor to smoldering rubble and radioactive waste. Terror replaces power, for it is the raw capacity to destroy all that we value that becomes the prominent measure of international might (instead of the traditional measures of national power.)[ccc] The logic of nuclear deterrence rests upon the pillar of fear. The calculus for survival and “national security” change dramatically in the nuclear age; a Maginot line complex could be fatal for an entire hemisphere and nuclear winter doomsday prophesiers would say for the whole world. War for Clausewitz and any prudent statesman is a continuation of policy by an admixture of other means. But some policies are important, while others are wise when others are not. While Clausewitz did say that war in theory tends toward totality, he did not say that wars should be allowed to wantonly escalate. That was more like the logic of Jomini, in imitation of Napoleon (who gained much but lost more and like many of the great strategic theorists in history, ended up in lonely exile). But total war, as witnessed in World War I and to a degree in the southern theatre of the American civil war, was something truly fearsome. And total war in the age of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, enhanced by advanced technology warfare and global strike capabilities, makes Sherman’s “war is hell” a prescient understatement. Fear lies at the heart of strategy theory as it lies at the heart of many things, from the horror novel to political theory. Since strategy is the means by which a group seeks to preserve and when possible enhance its security, and national security is the normative condition of national survival, we can conclude and indeed prove (Q.E.D.) that the precondition that precedes the achievement of national and international politics is insecurity (and at the heart of insecurity is fear).
Nuclear technology, as with any weapons technology, may buy a greater sense of security than would have otherwise been gained using less destructive means; but as with any other weapon, it may also set off a chain of events that ultimately decrease one’s security as Iraq, once an aspiring nuclear power, learned; and as North Korea, now a minor-league nuclear power, seems to now be learning. Playing the nuclear game can result in one’s annihilation, since only with nuclear weapons does a state pose a true existential threat to another. Nuclear weapons can make only one promise, in the game of international conflict: the cost of threatening one’s national existence is death. No ifs, ands or buts.[ccci]
But in the dynamic world of international relations, this absolute terror is not a guarantee of absolute security. It is simply the logical conclusion of the security dilemma; and it is the logical projection of one’s fear onto the international arena. What we do when afraid is hardly ever noble; just necessary. And the necessity for survival and the passion that comes with the urge to live need not conform with standards of peace-time morality or western rationality. We have to judge strategic theory in the nuclear era on its own terms. That is why we have sought to probe the relationship of language and thought to fear. Sociobiological predisposition, much like systemic structure, may argue away the role for conscious and rational thought in the quest for survival: imbuing our genetic structure with the ability to guide our behavior by instinct much like systemic theories posit international structures can modify and restrain the behavior of states, and domestic political structures can modify our own behavior.
That which is vital and essential, the basics of human survival, may be so simple that the lower brain stem, devoid of higher, more complex thought, is as concerned with such problems as the higher mind like Clausewitz’s; indeed, evolution is the ultimate story of survival and most species have survived (or perished) without the advent of strategic theory to guide them. Instinct, pure and simple, embedded in the complex folds of our genetic make-up, may be as much the arbiter of strategic choice as higher thought; and this might explain the recurrence of so many arguments across history between action and thought, as we saw with Jomini and Clausewitz, and later during the nuclear era’s replay of this strategic rivalry as personified in the theoretical approaches to the nuclear era of Bernard Brodie and Herman Kahn, and to some degree further back with Thucydides, Xenophon and Plato. Not unlike the forces of good and evil in Stephen King’s end-of-the-world horror novel, The Stand, which exist in the social body and penetrate the supernatural underworld, a modern retelling of the ancient struggle between good and evil as witnessed in the pages of the Old and New Testaments, from man’s fall in Genesis and his banishment from Eden to God’s wrath in St. John the Divine’s Revelation of the Apocalypse.
Modern strategy, in a manner more scientific than prior articulations of strategic thinking, breaks down into two distinct schools of thought/action (a “limited” school where reflection and complexity are evident, and an “unlimited” school of action following logic to its limits, a world more for maxims than philosophy.) This has been seen with Jomini and Clausewitz in the era that followed the disruptive innovations of Napoleon; and with Kahn and Brodie after the next major transformation after Trinity. Clausewitz, in his Hegelian-styled treatise On War, and Jomini in his more Sun Tzu-ian treatise on The Art of War, responded to Napoleon, and since the deterrers (think of Brodie’s “Anatomy of Deterrence”) and the warfighters (think of Kahn’s Thinking about the Unthinkable and On Thermonuclear War) responded to the advent of atomic and thermonuclear weaponry. Some seek to hold onto the fragile order that now exists and others seek to emerge from the coming storm of chaos with enhanced security (along the lines of fighting the war to end all wars). Jomini sought the commander with strategic coup d’oeil to follow his logic while later on Kahn and the warfighters he inspired looked for the commander bold enough to deliver a thermonuclear knock-out blow. Meanwhile, Clausewitz like Brodie sought to reestablish some priorities to help us balance the ends and means of strategy, splicing the logic of total war with the wisdom of policy, and the frustrating but persistent reality of friction and the fog of war
What is going on here is less a problem specific to the art of war and more the result of the underlying nature of political theory itself: Jervis might explain it all away in terms of logic and images—but he need not bother. Going back to basics of political theory provides even greater clarity, rooting contemporary strategic issues in the problems and solutions observed by the first generation of philosophers, much as Waltz did with his classic work of international relations theory, Man, the State and War, written early in the Cold War, turning to the simple yet profound art of political philosophy to help clarify what many others have muddled, and elucidating from that the underlying structure of international politics, which he later formalized with his A Theory of International Politics.
The very essence of language and theory can help us get to the heart of strategic theory, as we learned when we found that a singular emotion, fear, lay at the root, a commonality to all ideologies of war, all theories of war, all philosophies of war, whether to find protection from fear as Leviathan promised, or to overcome fear as St. John counseled. Just as language and theory can help us see what is going on in the fragile world of international relations theory, Waltz, in Man, the State, and War and later, A Theory of International Politics, is taking an introspective, philosophical approach, placing his bet on structural inhibitors to irrational behavior. His is the thoughtful man’s approach. His tool—theory—was so elegant that it did not need to hide behind case studies. Those followed, proving the theory with empiricism and historical analysis, as articulated by the many neoclassical realists as well as neorealists who responded to Waltz’s work.
In his first book, Waltz shows us something very important—that accumulated in those dusty old library collections of classics in the world of philosophy already exist the answers to the major questions of international politics. At a time when neofeminist critics of the “Dead White Men” of history were using their Machiavellian tools of demagoguery to rid college curricula of the classics in favor of a hodge-podge of political correctness, Waltz found wisdom in the words and thoughts of the masters, the great minds of history (regardless of their gender or race), much as Machiavelli in exile turned to their words for insight and wisdom and path out of exile. We know why wars occur; we’ve known for as long as war has been a tool of man. Now we just have to organize those answers in a meaningful way, and at the dawn of the Cold War, there were really only three primary “images” or dimensions that we need to form a taxonomy of reasons. Three images, one overriding and predominant, and presto-bango, we have our answers. No frontline reporting from the Afghani-Pakistani border or the Iraqi frontlines was necessary; going outside, into the world, was not necessary since the wisdom has already been collected, parsed, digested, and reflected upon, as it has since the time of Thucydides. Granted, later case studies would help verify Waltz’s groundbreaking work, by demonstrating the primacy of Image 3 and help build theoretical responses detailing the machinations of both Image 1 and Image 2. Looking inward and thinking about the unthinkable did the trick; as we contain within us the answers. From there we can reason our way to the predominance of systemic forces in international relations, and from these draw enough ammunition to prop up a deterrer’s world view.
While elegant, and inspiring a generation of scholars, I felt (and still feel) the need to revisit Image 1, and truly understand the role of the individual in both the telling and the making of world history. I have long remained most fascinated by the individual, whether the individual theorist, or the individual actor on the world stage. Yes, I full well know there are systemic factors, in times of war or peace, in a climate of international order or chaos; but what strikes me as the most fascinating question is the individual’s effort to overcome the chaos and to conjure up a new order from the ether, to imagine an alternative structure, and to march forward into the chaos, engaging history’s dialectic between thought and action. Deferring to systemic forces evolves logically, naturally, from not being afraid, and having faith that order will triumph over chaos. But I’ve found that individuals, driven by ideals, with their own fears and insecurities percolating underneath, are imperfect interpreters of signals, and are known to act brashly, impulsively, shortsightedly, even arrogantly. Indeed, each time we go to war we bring with us the lesson of the last war but seldom the one before that; we keep forgetting important lessons that should be etched into the fabric of these international structures and systemic forces that are meant to moderate out behavior. Fearing the spiral of unintended escalation as we saw in World War I, we erred on the side of inertia, appeasing aggression on two continents at the start of World War II. Fearing the incremental escalation that we saw in Vietnam, which gradually eroded our will while never taxing our capabilities, we resorted to overwhelming force during the first Gulf War, but when Baghdad lay unprotected and Saddam’s army defeated, we withdrew from the battlefield rather than seize victory when it was presented, partly in fear of losing the support of world opinion, and in triggering a rebellion by our defeated foe once we had become an occupier of their homeland. That hesitation inspired al-Qaeda to strike harder, as did our early withdrawal from Somalia soon thereafter, planting the seeds of 9/11, and suggesting to our opponents that we don’t have the stomach for long engagements, sustained American casualties, or the other realities of modern war. Now, in the wake of 9/11, we must persuade our opponent that we will fight to win, and not withdraw in fear, as they have been conditioned to expect.
Were systemic forces truly in the driver’s seat, we’d act more wisely in times of war, but like the Athenians, we are constantly learning and never truly certain, as a battle within us, and among us, is waged, pitting theory against doctrine, thought against action, hope against fear, all on the precipice where order gives way to chaos (something akin to the event horizon of a black hole, below which light cannot escape, where time itself stops.) The logic embedded in the very structures that we’ve created has proven hard to decipher; our reading of History continues to show riddle and contradiction. Those with faith in systemic order, as a result of their faith, do not show fear, much like the early Christians, with faith in God, likewise marched into the Lion’s pit without hesitation, even taunting their oppressors as death loomed close by. Lacking such faith, I learn more toward those who feel afraid, and let the palpability of their fear guide them, each step of the way. For these insecure individuals, the first image is a vital locus of causality; only those without the fear can proceed without fear’s effect. (Though interestingly enough, the nuclear stability of the Cold War was itself a systemic codification of fear, operating logically, without emotion gumming up its operation.) Systemic thinkers look to the many years of peace between wars as the proof of the pudding; the periods of turbulence in between, no matter how destructive, are simply anomalies that demand corrections and a rebalancing, an equilibrium-restoring reshuffling in the face if intrasystemic changes.
But reason is not the only factor here; and the language that supports reason is not the only available tongue. Instead what matters is the gut response to the situation, the response to fear. The Waltzian systemic approach is fearless, one that sleeps easily at night, comfortable in its inherent optimism (one might almost find it pacifically idealistic, if not outright Kantian.) And yet, so many have died peacefully in their sleep, like the children of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, still soundly dreaming on those mid-summer dawns, in previously unbombed and thus unafraid cities unaware of the mass death to be rained upon them. Is it better to stay awake at night sweating and listening to one’s pounding heart, fearing that inevitable day of death, or to close one’s eyes and while asleep one night, quietly, anonymously, perish? While that may not necessarily be the choice, the strategic theory and the international relations theory of the nuclear era appears to be largely divided along these lines. Fear or fearless, that is the question. Looking to the theorists and observers of conflict who stay awake all night, afraid of what may happen should their eyelids drop, we see an opposite impulse, one rooted in pessimism: those long periods of peace are simply buffers between the pivotal moments when history is made (in a Hegelian way). The briefer periods of chaos are the defining moments of international relations that determine the shape of the next world order. The wars of conquest and the imperial ambitions of great and not-so-great powers, the struggles for independence along the periphery of empire. The system itself is not stable, temporarily stretched beyond efficiency, beyond viability, by such tumult; indeed, there is no systemic balance per se, and the dynamism of international relations becomes manifest during these period of unleashed chaos. Every little tremor could thus indicate the onset of the big earthquake: you’ve got to be prepared for the giant quake to come, or else you may end up in the dust-bin of history.
Herman Kahn’s realism, like his colleague and later rival Bernard Brodie’s, shared with the realists from ancient times to the present an insistence that we confront the most dangerous challenges of our time, and deal with reality as it existed for better or worse. That meant, in the nuclear age, the sober responsibilities of thinking about the unthinkable, and learning how to either live with nuclear weapons, or to imagine a path toward a post-nuclear world. Both leading nuclear theorists, Brodie and Kahn, accepted the burden of living with nuclear weapons, a challenge that would absorb the attention of many other theorists, strategists, politicians, diplomats and professional soldiers up to, and beyond, the end of the Cold War, and thinking about the unthinkable would continue into the new, asymmetrical world that was born the day the Soviet Union quietly surrendered to its own democratic revolution, leaving America without a strategic peer, and without an existential threat for the first time since Pearl Harbor.
While the challenges of the post-Soviet world, its many complexities and new (or hitherto obscured) fault lines, would present their own challenges, the gravity of the Soviet threat and its potent strategic arsenal was truly the stuff of nightmares, so much so that the relatively modest scale of destruction caused by the 9/11 terrorists pales in relative insignificance. All the fear, and rage, precipitated by that bold but precisely targeted attack, seems somewhat out of joint when considered in a comparative perspective with the imagined scenarios of destruction presented in such controversial detail by Herman Kahn, the feared Apocalypse that drove Schell to long for a post-nuclear world, and which so deeply disturbed Bernard Brodie. The events of 9/11 were, when compared to the specter of a nuclear Apocalypse feared during the Cold War period, mere tactical pin pricks when compared to the level of devastation that would surely have resulted had deterrence failed.
That does not mean the suffering and loss of civilian life experienced on 9/11 was not a terrible human tragedy, without direct parallel in American history. Prior surprise attacks, such as at Pearl Harbor sixty years earlier, were targeted at American military forces and not civilian targets, though the audacity and callousness of that day of infamy, and the pre-dawn raid on sleeping sailors in their bunks, does suggest a parallel in cruelty of our opponents. But within the broader context of America’s historical experience, the events of that day seem almost trivial, particularly when viewed in light of the destruction brought to other nations by American military power, whether Sherman’s burning of Atlanta and his brutal march to the sea; our genocidal wars against the American Indians to clear the continent for our experiment in democracy; our carpet bombing of Europe, the intentional fire bombing of Japan, and the atomic incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; not to mention our more recent Christmas bombing of Hanoi, or our protracted strategic use of napalm and toxic defoliants against the jungle canopy of Vietnam, the latter still exerting its lethal consequences on that nation’s poor farmers a generation later. America, in pursuit of military victory, had shown as callous a disregard for the health and wellbeing of its opponent’s citizenry as our new foe demonstrated on that September morning, perhaps more so given our willingness to incinerate hundreds of thousands sleeping civilians in pursuit of our just objective. Our tolerance for inflicting death upon our opponents across the march of history must never be forgotten, nor must our efforts during the Cold War to cope with the nuclear nightmares that courageous and tormented thinkers like Kahn and Brodie grappled with, and the specter of death on an Apocalyptic scale.
When one looks to the stuff of nightmares for both questions and answers, as we have during the Nuclear Age, one must walk a tightrope between the puritanical pessimism of the nuclear disarmers and the fanciful optimism of the nuclear prevailers. Inside our nightmares we may find out many things about ourselves, things that make us look neither good nor evil, but simply more afraid. By confronting our dreams, especially our nightmares, we begin a process of self-realization that is independent of the descriptive shadows of the dreams themselves. The artisan’s task in creating life from cold death, through the impressionistic stroke of the brush, or the precise chisel on the carving of stone to create magnificent David, is that of creating order out of chaos. From the rough unfinished product of nature man provides a mirror of himself and a permanent fixture in his image. As best he can, he mimics his Creator who gave birth to man in His image.
Art thus provides us with snapshots of ourselves to leave for when we are gone. Rome today is a living museum to the memories of its former greatness. As are the Great Pyramids in the Nile Delta and on the Yucatan Peninsula. The task of the artist of language, sculpting coherent thoughts from the sea of words, is much the same. He also leaves us a legacy, often a monument to himself in the same vein as the Pharaohs’ mighty tomb. As Jacobson argues in Pride and Solace, the “specific motif is the place of pride and solace in political theory; the pride of the theorist in the act of creation, the solace of the reader in the act of discovery.”[cccii] Henry Adam’s wise words that “chaos is the law of nature, order the dream of man,” is testimony to the quest of solace and security that drives men of letters. However, in a world of mortal men the notion of genuine solace is elusive. The quest for security is perhaps the only solace.
Jacobson writes that rather “than the history of solace as such, what will engage us here is an interpretation of the most persuasive structures erected in the modern age, as well as an explanation of the process by which those structures were sapped, beginning with the nineteenth century, and the way prepared for contemporary attempts at a political theory without solace.”[ccciii] What captures me is the absence of solace and the recognition of such elusiveness. For without solace we know fear, and knowing fear our nightmares become blurred with reality. By focusing on how horror enters into the artistic creation of the novelist, theorist and strategist, we can see how man through linguistic manipulation tries to probe his psychic and political universe, and unravel the darkness that surrounds the source of light. For the horror writer, the existence of free will and determination is a world where darkness permeates our hearts and minds, our bodies and souls, is in the absence of solace at least a step forward toward the goal of security. By unmasking our darkest fears and showing that despite them we are still human, the horror writer makes it just a little easier to keep on keeping on. Knowing that were peace to become war or life to become death, the world that we know, with which we are so intimately familiar, would keep on going, is a kind of solace. But it is not a heavy duty kind of solace. Horror does not rewrite the script that we must read; it simply gives us perspective and opens up our darkest corners by shining on them a little bit of light.
The political theorist, as Jacobson argues, provides a structure in response to the lack thereof in the chaotic world that spawned him. With his pen he responds to horror not by psychoanalyzing us into a state of relative solace but by creating something external to us. The jump from fiction to theory is the jump from internal insecurity to external insecurity. One can argue which is the more troublesome foe; my point is simply that the latter attempts to reshape the physical environment in order to provide security. He is the true sculptor, working with the structure of institutions and politics. His tools may not be as awesome as those of the contemporary strategist, for his concern is an internally external sort of security—order within the and not necessarily beyond. Thus the political theorist is the horror writer of the state, seeking to promote confrontation with the nightmare of political disorder. It is the political equivalent of what the horror writer says about the individual wandering in the valley of the shadow.
And the strategist, one may argue, is the international equivalent of the horror writer and the theorist. If the task of horror writing is to provide the closest thing to security one may provide given our moral liquidity and mortal shells, and theory is to provide solace, then strategy too is a kind of political theory in which the writer struggles to provide us with order, and hence security. Solace is his goal, though as his scope of environmental parameters is so broad compared tot he political theorist or the horror writer, he is less able to provide convincing logic that his artifice will actually work. These three bodies of literature flirt with fear and seek to appease its paralysis and nihilism. Jacobson’s exploration of political theory parallels the emergence of the nation-state as a primary unit of security for mankind, and its subsequent fall from efficacy. The problem for the political theorist thus parallels the problem of the modern strategist, as each seeks to provide security for that state within the international arena. Its just that the focus, the nuance, the flavor of the former is domestic, the latter international:
Perhaps a more conventional way of describing the book is to say that it examines the ascendancy in political theory of the nation-state, its subsequent decline in legitimacy, and the vulnerability of Western humanity bereft of authoritative ideas, principles, and institutions. Following the collapse of structures grown too weary to resist the fierce energies released in the Renaissance and the Reformation, men of political imagination recognized both the dangers and the possibilities inherent in the modern State and devoted to them their unstinting labor. In The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli was preoccupied with the acquisition of new dominions and the consolidation of political power. In his Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes was concerned with the achievement of order through the establishment of sovereignty. To address his subject fully, Hobbes needed to imagine a return to that period before the existence of civil society, in order to tell a somewhat different tale than Machiavelli and to play out the logic of the new State.[ccciv]
Jacobson looks at the dreamlike regression of Hobbes and Rousseau in their step back to the state of nature, where man was primitive and society was not yet civil. He ties the dreamlike quality to the general task of the theorist, as the maker of dreams, flirting with hope and fear.
Now it is obvious that I am describing a dream rather than reciting political history, recounting a myth rather than explaining anything in the “real world.” But the dreamer himself was a mythological creature, Modern Man. He had a dream first of glory, then of peace, at last of equal justice, a dream from which he was rudely shaken in the fateful disenchantment of the nineteenth century. In the theater of their imaginations, acting for Modern Man, the greatest political theorists of the modern age deliver the State to the sixteen century, structure it in the seventeenth, bend it to human desires beyond mere necessity in the eighteenth. Other great theorists, also acting as our surrogates, unmask the modern State and its rulers in the nineteenth, so that today we find ourselves back among the uncertainties of the sixteenth century, vulnerable and alone. Again, nothing quite like that ever did happen—except in the consciousness of Modern Man, who sees himself abandoned, in the eye of the hurricane, out of which he believes he must somehow create meaning anew.[cccv]
Jacobson’s methodology, for want of a better word, is not unlike my own herein, and it is perhaps because of this that I am so comfortable with his approach to political theory. His method is to:
[D]iscover what is most at stake for each thinker, then to trace the ways by which he attempts to persuade the reader to take up his cause. The object is to think oneself inside the skin of the theorist, if he can, by paying the closest attention tot he theorist’s use of language and the structure he gives his work. It will be necessary sometimes even to emulate his style in order to sense the rhythms which carry us on where logic has failed the author. For what we are dealing with most often are not arguments so much as intimations, appeals addressed to our reason but which deploy all the arts of composition to enlist our passions and prejudices in getting us to see the world from the unique perspective of the theorist.[cccvi]
He continues:
Whatever else may be said of the tradition of political theory, its contributors have sought, usually in a threatening or chaotic time, to maintain or resurrect civilized discourse upon politics. This conversation may not have served to discourage the determined brute from playing the brute in politics, any more than it does today. But at the very least, its participants have sought to keep alive standards of political judgment, always in danger of being lost from the sight of those too preoccupied with practice to take pause for serious thought about their own activities. It may be true that knowledge increaseth sorrow, as Solomon believed, but it also confounds simplemindedness thrust into action. The more we know about ourselves and other human beings, the less are we disposed to act recklessly in the service of abstract and symmetrical political principles.[cccvii]
Thus, the function of political theory is very much like that of horror writing, and fiction in general. Solace may be out of reach, but some kind of limit that approaches solace is always nearby. Recklessness in the name of symmetry is no worse than chaos itself. Jacobson’s thoughts on political theory and its function are a gold-mine, filled with rich nuggets of insight:
The political theorist has been tempted, then deliberately to blind himself to certain of the ‘facts of life’. But when he has actually yielded, the impulse has appeared less deception than desperation. When the tension has mounted unbearably and man becomes a danger to himself and his fellows, who then will maintain the political community, or recreate it? Political theory has been a heroic business, snatching us from the abyss a vocation worthy of giants. . . . From Plato’s time, our theorists have been preoccupied with schemes designed to defend us against either the wantonness of our passions or the frailty of our reason. And each system seems to have involved something of a sacrifice. That there has been no enduring agreement in the critical matter of what is to be saved and what cast away should come as no surprise. As we know only too well, one man’s utopia is very likely to prove another man’s hell. Still the quest went on.[cccviii]
If it is fair to look upon political theory as the stuff of dreams, something floating above and beneath the plane of reality, something marked as much by how it sounds as what it says: it becomes poetry of the caliber of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. For in nonsense, there is meaning just as in chaos there is order. Language is the channel through which reality and dream dance until dawn awakens us. Political theory as with horror writing and the late night TV monster flick appeal to us while we are receptive, in a dreamlike state. When we read or when we watch the screen we become part of a projection, something detached from reality though mirroring its heart. Its subjective velvet warms us, and from it we pull out threads of warmth that add up to something less than security. We learn to know ourselves, and in knowing ourselves we can thus make a decision in our minds how best to survive and to prosper.
Knowing our mutual fear, we can empower our Leviathan, and step outside the state of nature into the bright light of civil society. Or we can stay in the jungle and by recognizing the mutuality of fear, through self control maintain the peace. One solution may lose freedom and flexibility; the other may never know solace while never being so rigid that it need one day collapse. The human response to fear, through the recognition of horror and its coping, the dreamlike odyssey of the theoretical argument, or the harshness of strategic choice, knows more than just one face. Its two faces reflect the division of the supernatural world into light and darkness, the body politic into right and left. Language and thought occur inside the mind and the mind is like an inland sea forever separated from the wider ocean of humanity. It is perpetually dreaming; and this dream clouds perception and cognition. But it also raises into prominence the role of symbols and images, and its colors are vivid.
Let us consider the darker world of nightmares. A nightmare is just a dream, and need only play the role that any confrontation with our anxieties plays. Those who dwell on the objective qualities of nightmares miss the point. As bad as they are we do wake up; or if we don’t, for all we know death is but a dream and as dreams go, many are good, at least the ones we remember. Nigel Calder looks at “nuclear nightmares,” but in so doing fails to understand the beauty of man’s strategic theory: yes, it courts darkness; but as the Beatles sang in Strawberry Fields Forever, “living is easy with eyes closed.” One must open one’s eyes and look, no matter how bad things seem. While living may seem easy with eyes closed, walking into danger, or off a cliff, is made much easier as well. And that is what we do if we close our eyes to our nightmares and scream, instead of looking inward at the abyss and hoping that above the cave, behind the wall, there is a way out to the sunlight. The real nightmare of the Cold War period, to Calder, is what I think of as the “countervalue tragedy.” It is tragic, and as with Greek tragedy, it is inevitable. Strategies for possible wars are already programmed into the guidance mechanisms of the missiles. As Calder wrote: “People who lived amid the badly aimed bombs, shells, and primitive missiles of the Second World War often remarked fatalistically: ‘Unless it has my name on it I’m all right.’”[cccix] And during the Cold War, Calder wrote, “our nuclear warheads ha[d] ‘names’ written on them: not of individuals very often, but of the whole cities for which they are intended.”[cccx] And after 9/11, our smart bombs, cruise missiles and MOAB’s also had the names of those they avenged. Just like in the old western movies, when the bullet meant to slay the villain has his name etched onto it; a totem that is hoped to make him helpless before it. Targeting strategy has always had its own logic, and that logic is flawless, but the reality of nuclear fire power made collateral damage a genocidal after-effect, making a just war (in terms of jus ad bellum) seemingly unjust (in terms of jus in bello): “Fastidious targeters assure themselves and others that they are not deliberately setting out to commit mass murder, but the fact remains that cities are ideal targets for nuclear bombs.”[cccxi] The point that Calder makes is that targeters are mass murderers by default, but that is not the problem. The problem is borne of the new, post-Nagasaki ambiguity of assessing the costs and benefits of a security strategy in the nuclear era, instead of simply assuming that deterrence is a sin (even the American Bishops found themselves sliding down this slipper slope, knowing that the price paid by surrender might be even greater than the targeter’s dilemma of the Cold War.)
Calder, however misled, has an intriguing approach, and by placing modern strategy within the framework of terror and nightmares begins down the same path that we have been traveling together. It is just that his labeling of nightmares is trite and superficial, and tells us nothing about ourselves or the dangers of our environment. He does, however, look at how the strategic map differs from the peacetime Fodor’s map of the world as it exists right now. His look at the duality of maps, and the difference between the peacetime and wartime map of the world, reminds us of Stephen King and Peter Straub’s Talisman and of Stephen King’s The Stand, in which we have two realities, a waking reality and a dreaming one. A living reality and a world of nightmares. Both can, however, coexist and have always done so. We need not act surprised. Calder tells us what we already know from looking inward, and not outward:
Much as sports give international status to inconspicuous places like Wimbledon and St. Andrews, and past wars bring fame to villages like Waterloo and Gettysburg, so do the maps of the nuclear underworld read quite differently from those of civilian geography. Capital cities still appear: nuclear decisions may be made there if the leaders have not already fled to their bunkers beyond the suburbs; but other cities fade unless, like Omaha, or Sverdlovsk in the old Soviet Union, they happen to be the Rome of the nuclear empire. The important features of the strategic maps are the headquarters, nuclear bases, and radar stations of the opposing sides. The fine old city of Maastricht in the Netherlands is insignificant compared with the nearby village of Brunnsum, home of the allied headquarters for the European Central Front. On the Clyde in Scotland, Glasgow dwindles while Fasland and Holy Loch leap into prominence; Petropavlosk in the eastern Russia outshines Vladivostok for the same reason. The Arctic wilderness, spurned by sensible civilians, is spattered with the outposts of the superpowers, while in the Pacific a strategic air base makes the small island of Guam loom militarily larger than Australia. In the United States, Chicago defers to Malmstrom, Montana, hometown of two hundred intercontinental missiles.[cccxii]
This nuclear underworld is like that traveled by the Walkin’ Dude, a.k.a. Randall Flag, in Stephen King’s The Stand. Or the transcendental journey across America in the Talisman. A twilight zone of space and time, where the dimension of mind unfolds upon itself. It is a world without order or meaning except in raw strategic terms. The world at war is not supposed to be as neat as the world at peace. It is a world in the dual process of creation and destruction; the way things are determined is in flux, and the balance of power out of whack. To jump on this and say, “Gasp! Horror!” and to recoil in terror is the child’s way out. We may have a moon-like cratered landscape of the next war right behind our present scenic map, but there has always been death before and after life, surrounding it like an ice cream sandwich, suffocating life until we fall into the abyss never to return. That’s the way it is; confronting the nightmare can be helpful for it shows us how we think in order to survive, and how we maturely face the death from which we ultimately cannot flee. But allowing the absurdity of the nightmare to paralyze us is not wise; it is the response of Lemmings, the way of collective suicide. It is the final defeat before the omnipotence and omnipresence of the Absurd (in Camus’ terms). At Masada the suicide was the preservation of order and solace before certain enslavement and brutality. Death early and free made more sense than a life of slavery. Death became life eternal as a symbol, a metaphor, as it was for the struggling Melians, and for Spartacus. Death was the rebellion from chaos. Not its victory. But suicide in any other case is defeat. It is allowing the Absurd to win. That is what Eleazar let happen at Masada. But the nightmare is there. As Calder writes: “The men in uniform who are trained to fight a nuclear war are for the most part disappointing in their ordinariness. When you shake the friendly hand of a missile combat officer, the very hand that can kill six million people at a stroke, it is impossible to equate him with Eichmann.”[cccxiii] Were Calder familiar with Arendt’s shocking probe of Eichmann, and her discovery of his banality of evil, he might indeed see the connection. But even then, like Arendt he would shrink from the terror of such banality and ordinariness of evil. As Calder explains:
His readiness to obey orders is compensated by a conviction that it ought never to be necessary and, if it were, it would be the other fellow’s fault. Imagination fails and the encounter is less disturbing than meeting a private with a fixed bayonet. And military behavior is always liable to become comic eventually: for the squad that collects a nuclear bomb from its store, the French have a drill complete with shouting and jerks by numbers, like a caricature of a gun crew in training. I do not mean to imply that such men are harmless; on the contrary, the policy is to let opponents know just how wildly destructive of life and property they are prepared to be.[cccxiv]
Calder fails to look into the essence of the military order; within it there is the friction of individual conscience. Guns are often never used in combat; and bombs are often dumped at sea in order to please one’s commander as well as one’ conscience. Walzer’s priceless study of just war theory and the morality of the fighter fills in the gap left by Calder. And it reminds us of the friction that Clausewitz knows so well, a friction that can grind down strategy as the Colorado River inexorably carved the Grand Canyon. However, the essential point, despite Clausewitz and Walzer, is that we have adapted to the nightmare world. For not to do so would spell disaster. The world is by nature an uncertain and dynamic place; that was why Plato looked to the Philosopher King, in touch with the eternal and unchanging forms, for guidance and order. That was why the enlightened military dictatorship that he proposed seemed so worthwhile. In the place of uncertainty (as the uncertainty of democracy lost the war against Sparta for the Athenians, and allowed the demos to destroy their most famous son, Socrates), we have absolute security. But there is also no freedom. That is the choice. Look at the difference between East and West Berlin during the Cold War: The former knew security; the latter freedom. I preferred that latter, as most Westerners did. Since we have to die anyway, why force the order of death upon us prematurely in the name of life? Life involves risk and uncertainty.
Calder’s rejection of nuclear deterrence is again the child complaining about things he knows little about, or the American leftist complaining about the bias in American journalism during the Cold War, without having ever read Pravda or any other state controlled media. Although it is impossible to know the private thoughts of the national leaders who have nuclear weapons at their disposal, I doubt that any of them is planning to start a nuclear war voluntarily—with the exception, perhaps, of a non-Western nuclear power or nuclear-equipped terrorist group like al-Qaeda. In the West, the Bomb’s deterrent effect is a logical extension of the very principles that define the West; but as you migrate East and South, you venture into lands where western values are not central organizing principles, and as such, a deterrence theory rooted in the tenets of Western civilization, forged in the crucible of western History, risks becoming something of a non-sequitor. Nuclear deterrence worked (or at least appeared to work) by threatening the very disaster it was designed to prevent, so it ought to be 100 percent reliable. (And yet, a failed terror attack in India five years ago almost triggered a nuclear war, reminiscent of the Sarajevan spark that started World War I, unleashing an escalatory loss of control as pre-planned escalation ladders were climbed without effective human intervention to slow or reverse them.) But that is asking a great deal of any man-made system, especially one buffeted by the world’s most violent events. Although politicians hardly ever told their fellow citizens that in order to avoid nuclear war they will have to risk having a nuclear war once in a while, public confidence in deterrence policies managed to erode throughout the 1980s quite rapidly. Everyone was entitled to feel alarmed when the U.S. secretary of defense declared, as Harold Brown did in 1979, that: “A reasonable degree of nuclear stability in a crisis is probably assured. . . . Unfortunately, longer-term stability is not fully assured.”[cccxv]
Of course, Calder is naive to place crisis stability as the center-piece for strategic stability. Even given crisis instability, there is still a good chance that a system of security that relies on nuclear deterrence may by and large keep the superpowers off each other’s turf. What is essential here, however, is not that Brown recognized that long-term crisis stability was not built into the then current force structures and deterrence system that emerged from explicit and implicit threats; but rather that the lack of 100 percent reliability in the system to enhance security against foreign threats is something that should bother us. We must not remove this less than perfect efficiency and reliability from the proper context. Strategy, before and after 1945, is the art of providing security in the anarchical environment of international politics. As the political theorists have pointed out, it is hard enough to guarantee sovereignty and maintain security in a domestic polity. Crises in authority are daily events and the horror of civil unrest is something well known to every geographic region at one time or another. The insecurity within the political order often appears to be beyond the reach of human invention. And worse, internal security of self, from the perspective of psychoanalysis and the novelists’ apt penetration, is also something far off from 100 percent reliable. If we are insecure within our psyches, as well as within our political boundaries, what can we expect of the no-man’s land of international anarchy?
The best we can do is to try to reshape our environment to make it more hospitable. That is what Marauder ants do. That is what the Romans did during the second phase of their empire (as explained by Luttwak), with their scientific frontiers and fortifications: men, like the carpenter ant, digging and dragging around dirt and rocks in order to make the environment more defendable. That is what the Great Wall of China, the not so great wall of Hadrian, and the Berlin Wall were all about, as was Morocco’s Saharan Wall to keep out insurgent raiders on horseback, and both Israel’s security fence and America’s new Border Fence along portions of its southwest frontier with Mexico. That’s what the ramp to Masada was all about. And the Maginot line, not to mention the minefields along the Thai-Cambodian border and up and down the East-West divide in Europe until the glorious days of 1989 and 1990, when it all came down. Whereas Tibet and Nepal have their protective Himalayas, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa have their great Sahara desert, most of the world has had to develop its own fortifications. Buying, and building, security is all about finding something behind which to hide, from behind which you can toss something that will stop the aggressor in his tracks and quite possibly see to it that he never does that sort of thing again. We may conjure up our Princes and Leviathans and the all-powerful, Big Brother-modeled Party with which we guarantee domestic order. But even then the cost is high and the guarantee of reliable security less than 100 percent (it’s not a world of John Glenns, with everything “110 percent!”)
But the international environment is so hostile, so threatening, so ungovernable that we have to find a substitute for sovereignty. And in the nuclear age, we have developed a fairly efficient tool—the ever-evolving bomb, from the messy fission firecrackers of the 1940s to the plasma-induced clean fusion bombs of today—that enable us to stand up a limited volunteer army while protecting our security interests. The “more bang for the buck” idea of the 1950s is still relevant. Sure it is not 100 percent. But we must be serious. Of course, should the security system breakdown, we could realize our worst nightmares since the dinosaurs’ last night on earth. Look what happened in August 1914. And what did not happen in 1989. But the lesson is not to ignore a security system that includes deterrence, but to have the flexibility to keep war within its proper boundaries. Always have the ability to evaluate just enough to weigh costs and benefits, and to recognize that the demands of peace (for which the logic of MAD seemed sane) differ profoundly from the demands of war (where the logic of NuTS, or Nuclear Targeting Strategies for a flexible response, was likewise sane.) Our foreign policy, especially since the end of the Cold War, is not just a nuclear security system: it is a complex organization of conventional, nuclear, and special/irregular forces trained to deal with traditional warfare, low-intensity conflict, counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, conventional warfare between major and minor powers when strategic interests are threatened, as well as nuclear warfare.
The whole panoply of weaponry that exists is lined up along a spectrum; some things are meant to be launched against some targets. NATO has had, at one time or another, at its disposal a full arsenal of chemical, biological, atomic and thermonuclear weapons, not to mention its share of conventional weapons like tanks and guns and bullets. The existence of nuclear weapons does not undo the force structures that existed beforehand. It enhances them. It gobbles up less of the budget (“more bang for the buck”), and thus leaves a lot for other security tools. Thus the “nightmare” remains the nightmare of war, not just nuclear war, but the specter of total war as unleashed by Napoleon. For total war came to us with the dawn of industrialization and mass mobilization, when killing fields became factory farms of death. Indeed, Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising imagined what the next, great European war would look like, and it stayed conventional while still being quite nightmarish. Death is death and mangled bodies and firebombed cities smolder whether or not nuclear weapons are used. As Dr. John Montgomery, the first military governor of post-attack Hiroshima once told me, “a bombed out city is a bombed city, no matter how it got that way.” The fact that there will always be some crisis instability confuses the problem, as the specter of irrational escalation is always on the back of our minds. For the threats from which we need to maintain our sense of security differ from the actual scenarios of war we plan for: policy comes first, and policy changes as we shift from time of peace to war, when reality asserts itself, testing and challenging our pre-war modeling and war games. So even if there is uncertainty and no guarantee of 100 percent reliability, one must still recognize the need to have what we can have, so that when push comes to shove we can both bargain and fight; and that our threats and words, our theories that underpin our military doctrine will be more than empty illusions, instead backed up by will and power and steel. For otherwise, security is a fantasy, an imagined but not a real structure, waiting for the wind to blow down like a house of cards. And then the real nightmare begins. It was in response to the nightmare of war that Einstein begged FDR to unleash that double-edged genie from the atomic bottle: the fear of a Nazi victory and the defeat of everything noble made it look like the risk was well worth it, and that becoming unto a God, in our wrath and in our desperation to survive, was full well sound so long as we were still aligned with the God of justice.
But when peace returns and insecurity still looms beyond the next horizon, one must not expect, cannot expect, that genie to be put back within its bottle as called for by Schell and other nuclear abolitionists, and as imagined now by the first nuclear abolitionist in the Oval Office since President Reagan. It may be stored, but it will not be returned to the bottle; nuclear know-how can be buried, even though that is precisely what Saddam Hussein tried to do under relentless pressure from the West to denuclearize. We thus are forced to live with that genie in our midst—and even now, confront that fear that the genie will wander into the hands of those less responsible, less tolerant, than we. For it is the fear that stimulates the response. Nuclear weapons had a purpose in war that remained its purpose even after the war was over: to frighten a powerful foe into absolute submission to our will. Because in international relations even in peace there is no security for certain: it must be bought, it must be built. And nuclear weapons have been part of the plan since 1945 and remain part of that plan. The nightmare of insecurity demanded its own nightmare of security. This is not inconsistent with Jacobson’s philosophy of political theory: what one creates to defeat what one fears is often more powerful and inherently more threatening than the nightmare itself. That’s stuff of dreams and the result of fear. This is the stuff of Hobbes, who grappled with his own paradox of fear and death, counting on the former to prevent the latter, through the mighty terror of Leviathan.

Calder ponders the paradox of fear and death during the nuclear age, and wrote: “The miasma of mutual threat is more serious than either side’s particular capacities or intentions. The old Western notion of deterrence, supposedly so absolute in effect that the consequences of failure were unthinkable, has given way to a great deal of thinking about how you fight the nuclear war after deterrence has failed.”
[cccxvi]As Calder explained, “Warfighting means the use of nuclear weapons for well-defined military purposes, as opposed to crude punishment with unbridled attacks on cities. At this level of targeting, this policy may seem to put civilians in a somewhat safer position, but at the political level it increases the dangers they face, by making nuclear war seem less fatal and more possible.”[cccxvii]
By thinking about and preparing for the unthinkable, Calder starts to get squeamish: he finds the fear involved in having human choice between life or death, the ability to take a stand in a world of great risk, too frightening, and that the response to fear, by human choice, as opposed to the mindless, automated horror of MAD, is a greater threat. One recalls Stephen King’s The Dead Zone and Johnny Smith’s gift of foresight, and his need to confront the responsibility that comes with his knowledge (and in particular the certain foreknowledge of a nuclear apocalypse): he runs away but eventually returns to cope with his responsibility to respond to his knowledge. The element of choice, even if it confronts death and includes risks, is necessary. Sound strategy requires human intervention. Launch-on-warning systems, the idea put forth by Kahn in On Thermonuclear War and originally conceived by Leo Szilard in 1950 for a “Doomsday Machine” capable of destroying life on earth, and both hilariously and tragically parodied in Dr. Strangelove, are the negation of human choice in strategic affairs. And they are the logical extension of MAD into the age of high technology.
As intimated earlier, the nuclear deterrers were inertial, Clausewitzian in their predisposition toward contemplation and thought, while the warfighters were more active in their outlook, Jominian in their approach; each responding to different states of the world: a world of perpetual peace or a world of frequent and inevitable war. A warfighter in the Kahnian tradition is ready to fight for freedom while the Brodien deterrer will justify his inflexible Maginot line in the hope that fear will reign and peace will be imposed, Leviathan-like. Even the American Catholic Bishops, during the 1980s, accepted the limited moral purity of nuclear deterrence as a step toward disarmament, and their secular counterparts as a precondition for the conduct of continuing arms control. These moral defenders of the seemingly immoral nuclear logic of deterrence seem to fear moving beyond deterrence toward warfighting, and the consequent creation of a nuclear warfighting “regime,” where a just war theory of limited ends and means emerges to allow for silo-busting and city-melting behavior straight out of Herman Kahn’s scenarios. That is indeed frightening for a pacifist to imagine, and thus the pacifist response is to reduce the latitude for human choice: by bolstering the absurdity of deterrence and promising the strategically unsound notion of disarmament, these defenders of deterrence are surrendering to the nuclear Leviathan. But in life, one has to sometimes take a stand: so one might as well be ready. What Calder decries as tragic I see as good: the eventual penetration into strategic theory of human choice and flexibility, something Sun Tzu recognized as essential, as did the Romans: the avoidance of a Maginot-line mentality and alliance rigidity of the final form enshrined in the European balance of power system between 1907 and 1914, when its failure resulted in total war in Europe.
During the final years of the Cold War, Calder writes, “fear of defeat [came] to surpass the fear of nuclear war” at the highest levels of strategic planning, as “[d]eterrence ha[d] shed its simple forcefulness because the old game, in which both sides automatically lost if nuclear war broke out, [wa]s over. This is not because the arsenals ha[d] become less deadly; they gr[e]w more destructive every year. But nuclear weapons, and more particularly the missiles that deliver them, ha[d] become cleverer, and the nuclear warriors c[ould] now see how to run a new game with them, in which one player might, in a certain bloodied sense, be said not to have lost.”[cccxviii] Calder focuses in the bulk of his work on “four nightmares” of nuclear warfighting: that they are nightmares is reason enough to be prepared to face and to cope with them. But it is not a reason to succumb to the “cult of the scenario” and by listing paths to nuclear combat explain away the right or the need to fight such wars.
The first nightmare starts with a conventional war in Europe. . . . the growing power and precision of Soviet weaponry makes the policy in Europe more suicidal than ever. . . . [A] second way to the holocaust is by allowing the spread of nuclear weapons to more and more countries that did not have them before. The prospect then arises of a ‘local’ nuclear war—in the Middle East, for example—that results directly in millions of deaths, and if the superpowers fail to keep out of it, the conflict could grow into a global war, killing hundreds of millions of people. More subtle issues blaze and [the] third route to nuclear war... systems of ‘command and control’. Fourthly there is the counterforce game between the superpowers and the possibility that one of them might make a forthright attack on the nuclear forces of the other.[cccxix]
The striking thing about Calder’s list of possible paths to the nuclear nightmare we all faced during the Cold War is that strategically they did not make much sense: they were arguments of logic, but arguments that seem far less likely to result from the existing security system than Calder lets on. Logic often obscures our vision, being a sort of rhetoric in human discourse. But logic that reveals imminent doom can likewise argue probable security and stability: and given the alternatives, one should put less faith in logic and more in built in mechanisms for choice and flexibility. Having the means to fight as well as the knowledge to do so may make it less likely to ever engage in battle. Sun Tzu said that to know your enemy, and know him well, you can win a hundred battles. And Socrates said “know thyself.”
Having knowledge and capabilities is necessary; for given the possible risks involved in moving forward in time since the dawn of the nuclear age, it is better to confront our nightmares than to close our eyes. In fact it only makes sense to keep our eyes open. To prepare for the final stand: not to confront our nightmares will only make us have to experience them more often. Like they say about the lessons of history—those who forget are condemned to repeat them. So while nuclear moralists and pacifists condemned the risks and contradictions inherent in nuclear deterrence and modern strategy, they often failed to juxtapose such things with viable alternatives. Schell and the disarmers, in denial of the politics of fear (and of the chaos outside the city gates) would rather die with clean hands than live with dirty hands it seems; they tell us that we have a choice. But Schell’s choice between life and death was in fact no choice. Our real choice is how we respond to fear: by coping with it, and thus dealing with the dangers we’ve known since man’s exile from Eden, and his mortal fare; or by repressing it and in denial of these dangers, leaving ourselves vulnerable to all manner of external threats to our security. Schell’s faux choice was between life and death. His choice to live, by embracing Nuclear Abolition, in fact would lead ultimately to death. And his choice to die, by embracing nuclear realism, in fact is a reflection of our genuine, age-old effort to cope with our finite life after Eden, and to put to good use our new found knowledge of good and evil, and to overcome the dangers inherent in our chaotic external realm by submitting to the over-awing power of the Nuclear Leviathan.
The nuclear strategists tried, as best they could, to impose a sense of order onto the perilous world that greeted them after Hiroshima. They thought about the unthinkable, and grappled with the darkest of human nightmares. They looked into an abyss as deep as any before them had confronted, hoping to find a place for logic and wisdom, and for light to overcome darkness. As Kaplan concluded, in his chronicle of the nuclear era, Wizards of Armageddon:
In 1946, in the beginning, Bernard Brodie wrote: “Everything about the atomic bomb is overshadowed by the twin facts that it exists and that its destructive power is fantastically great.” The story of nuclear strategy, from that moment on, has been the story of intellectuals . . . trying to outmaneuver the force of those axioms, trying to make the atomic bomb and later the hydrogen bomb manageable, controllable, to make it conform to human proportions. The method of mathematical calculation . . . gave the strategists of the new age a handle on the colossally destructive power of the weapon they found in their midst. But over the years, the method became a catechism, the first principles carved into the mystical stone of dogma. The precise calculations and the cool, comfortable vocabulary were coming all too commonly to be grasped not merely as tools of desperation but as genuine reflections of the nature of nuclear war.
It was a compelling illusion. Even many of those who recognized its pretense and inadequacy willingly fell under its spell. They continued to play the game because there was no other. They performed their calculations and spoke in their strange and esoteric tongues because to do otherwise would be to recognize, all to clearly and constantly, the ghastliness of their contemplations. They contrived their options because without them the bomb would appear too starkly as the thing that they had tried to prevent it from being but that it ultimately would become if it ever were used—a device of sheer mayhem, a weapon whose cataclysmic powers no one really had the faintest idea of how to control. The nuclear strategists had come to impose order—but in the end, chaos still prevailed.[cccxx]

[i]. See the biography of Herman Kahn on the website of the Hudson Institute at:
[ii]. Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon. Simon and Schuster, 1983 as cited in Brian Siano, “A Commentary on Dr. Strangelove,” online at:
[iii]. Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth, 89.
[iv]. See:, online at:
[v]. See:
[vi]. Peter D. Smith, Doomsday Men. New York: Macmillan, 2007, xvii –xviii.
[vii]. Herman Kahn, “Major Implications of a Current Non-Military Defense Study” (P-1497-RC), RAND, November 7, 1958, 1.
[viii]. Herman Kahn, “Major Implications of a Current Non-Military Defense Study” (P-1497-RC), RAND, November 7, 1958, 1.
[ix]. Herman Kahn, “Major Implications of a Current Non-Military Defense Study” (P-1497-RC), RAND, November 7, 1958, 1.
[x]. Herman Kahn, “Major Implications of a Current Non-Military Defense Study” (P-1497-RC), RAND, November 7, 1958, 1.
[xi]. As cited by John A. English, Marching Through Chaos: The descent of armies in theory and practice, Praeger 1996, 135.
[xii]. Dan Seligman, “Know-It-All,” Commentary (April 2001).
[xiii]. John A. English, Marching Through Chaos: The descent of armies in theory and practice, Praeger 1996, 135.
[xiv]. Herken, Counsels of War. Alfred Knopf, 1987, 98.
[xv]. Herken, Counsels of War, 205.
[xvi]. Herman Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable (New York: Horizon Press, 1962) 17-19.
[xvii]. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable, 19.
[xviii]. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable, 19.
[xix]. Gregg Herken, Counsels of War (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1987), 205.
[xx]. Gregg. Counsels of War, 206.
[xxi]. Gregg. Counsels of War, 206.
[xxii]. Gregg. Counsels of War, 206.
[xxiii]. Louis Menand, “Fat Man: Herman Kahn and the nuclear age,” New Yorker, June 27, 2005.
[xxiv]. Herken, Gregg. Counsels of War. Alfred Knopf, 1987, 207.
[xxv]. Herken, Gregg. Counsels of War. Alfred Knopf, 1987, 208.
[xxvi]. Herken, Gregg. Counsels of War. Alfred Knopf, 1987, 208.
[xxvii]. Herken, Gregg. Counsels of War. Alfred Knopf, 1987, 208.
[xxviii]. Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, The Worlds of Herman Kahn (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005, 17-20.) She continued her description of Kahn’s fame: “In 1961 it seemed as if everyone wanted to solicit Kahn, argue or plead with him, schedule lectures and meetings, arrange publications and sponsorships. He was invited to address the War College at the Air University, the senior class of the Air Force Academy, and officers attending the National War College. He briefed President Kennedy’s assistant secretary of defense for civil defense and met with the Senior Seminar in Foreign Policy at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute. He testified before congressional hearings on civil defense. He addressed members of the U.S. Civil Defense Council in Los Angeles and the Dallas Symposium on Civil Defense. He spent a day hobnobbing with the Lexington Democratic club in Manhattan. He attended the Behavioral Science and Civil Defense conference sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences. At the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, he joined a panel on “promoting research on war and peace.” Kahn was invited to become an adjunct professor for the UCLA Institute of International and Foreign Studies. He accepted a position on the advisory council to a newly hatched Peace Research Institute in New York. He addressed the Commonwealth Club of California, celebrants at the MIT Centennial festivities, and the students of Oak Ridge High School. The Women’s National Press Club and the North Texas Section of the American Nuclear Society engaged him to speak. He debated the wisdom of civil defense with a Harvard philosophy professor and spent a day exploring the possibilities for peace with the American Friends Service Committee at their annual Roundup. The publisher Frederick Praeger invited him to write a book on foreign affairs. The editor of Encounter wanted his thoughts on the furor over OTW. The chief of the editorial division of the Organization of American States and the editor of a union periodical asked him for something on civil defense. He corresponded with the peace education secretary of the American Friends Service Committee; the editor of the radical Committee of Correspondence newsletter; the director of the Environmental Radiation Laboratory at New York University; a scientist adapting manufacturing processes to the lunar environment; an arms controller reporting on research on radiation absorption in human tissue; and an inventor of a weather control system that would induce rainfall by spreading carbon on the surface of drought-stricken regions. All of this took place during the year that he left RAND and founded his own research organization on the East Coast, the Hudson Institute.”
Ghamari-Tabrizi also presented the more negative side to Kahn’s infamy: “While some readers welcomed his frank exposition of possible war, others pounced on his ethics and mental health. ‘Mr. Kahn is now cast for the role of Chief Fascist Hyena,’ scowled a political scientist. He was pelted with a flurry of personal attacks, the first and most famous of which was James Newman’s sarcastic review in Scientific American: ‘Is there really a Herman Kahn? It is hard to believe. Doubts cross one’s mind almost from the first page of this deplorable book: no one could write like this; no one could think like this.’ The science correspondent in The Glasgow Herald denounced Kahn’s book as the work of the devil: ‘Not the traditional devil, reeking of brimstone and tempting men to old-fashioned sins, but a slick, talcumscented, contemporary Satan, rationalising hideous emotions by reference to strategic studies, electronic computers, contingency planning, and all the other gimmicks of paranoiac gamesmanship.’ In his defense, a Berkeley psychoanalyst championed the maturity and courage required to ‘face the worst fearlessly.’ In a letter to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Dr.Walter Marseille interpreted antagonism to Kahn as ‘a widespread and deep-seated emotional resistance against the possibility of nuclear war as part of the reality with which we are living.’ Official Washington regarded OTW as exemplary work from RAND. While he would never become a Kennedy insider, Kahn’s ideas were well known because many of his RAND colleagues had fled into the new administration. Alain Enthoven, the nation’s first (deputy assistant) secretary of defense for systems analysis, welcomed OTW, writing, ‘I am most impressed by the scope and the extremely high density of ideas.’ Reprising his own reasons for quitting, Enthoven regretted that so many ‘important ideas on strategic problems’ had been buried at RAND, ‘where they are sure to have no beneficial effect on policy. Your book,’ he concluded flatteringly, ‘represents an enormous break in the log jam.’ A year or so later, the secretary of defense’s special assistant, Adam Yarmolinsky, greeted an audience at Kahn’s new think tank with the comment, ‘For the past year and a half, we at the Department of Defense have been living off the intellectual capital accumulated by Herman Kahn and others in this audience.’”
[xxix]. Menand, “Fat Man,” New Yorker, June 27, 2005.
[xxx]. Menand, “Fat Man,” New Yorker, June 27, 2005.
[xxxi]. Menand, “Fat Man,” New Yorker, June 27, 2005.
[xxxii]. Menand, “Fat Man,” New Yorker, June 27, 2005.
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[xlix]. Menand, “Fat Man,” New Yorker, June 27, 2005.
[l]. Menand, “Fat Man,” New Yorker, June 27, 2005.
[li]. Menand, “Fat Man,” New Yorker, June 27, 2005.
[lii]. Bernard Brodie, “How Much Conventional Force Do We Need?” Foreign Service Journal (April 1973): 18.
[liii]. Brodie, “How Much Conventional Force Do We Need?” 18-19.
[liv]. Brodie, “How Much Conventional Force Do We Need?” 19.
[lv]. Brodie, “How Much Conventional Force Do We Need?” 21.
[lvi]. Brodie, “How Much Conventional Force Do We Need?” 21.
[lvii]. Brodie, “How Much Conventional Force Do We Need?” 21.
[lviii]. Brodie, “How Much Conventional Force Do We Need?” 21
[lix]. Brodie, “How Much Conventional Force Do We Need?” 21.
[lx]. Brodie, “How Much Conventional Force Do We Need?” 21.
[lxi]. Brodie, “How Much Conventional Force Do We Need?” 26.
[lxii]. Brodie, “How Much Conventional Force Do We Need?” 26.
[lxiii]. Menand, “Fat Man,” New Yorker, June 27, 2005.
[lxiv]. Menand, “Fat Man,” New Yorker, June 27, 2005.
[lxv]. Menand, “Fat Man,” New Yorker, June 27, 2005.
[lxvi]. Abella, Soldiers of Reason, as cited in Best Life, May 2008, 55.
[lxvii]. Abella, Soldiers of Reason, 95.
[lxviii]. Abella, Soldiers of Reason, 95.
[lxix]. Abella, Soldiers of Reason, 101.
[lxx]. Abella, Soldiers of Reason, 101.
[lxxi]. Abella, Soldiers of Reason, 101.
[lxxii]. Abella, Soldiers of Reason, 102.
[lxxiii]. Abella, Soldiers of Reason, 102.
[lxxiv]. Abella, Soldiers of Reason, 102.
[lxxv]. Abella, Soldiers of Reason, 103.
[lxxvi]. Abella, Soldiers of Reason, 103.
[lxxvii]. Abella, Soldiers of Reason, 103.
[lxxviii]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 95.
[lxxix]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 95-96.
[lxxx]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 96.
[lxxxi]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 96.
[lxxxii]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 96.
[lxxxiii]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 96.
[lxxxiv]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 97.
[lxxxv]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 98.
[lxxxvi]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 99.
[lxxxvii]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 99.
[lxxxviii]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 99.
[lxxxix]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 97.
[xc]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 97.
[xci]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 111.
[xcii]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 111-112.
[xciii]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 113-114.
[xciv]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 117-118.
[xcv]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 121.
[xcvi]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 77.
[xcvii]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 121.
[xcviii]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 121-122.
[xcix]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 122.
[c]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 122.
[ci]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 123.
[cii]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 123.
[ciii]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 123.
[civ]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 123.
[cv]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 123.
[cvi]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 124.
[cvii]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 124.
[cviii]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 124.
[cix]. Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, The Worlds of Herman Kahn. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005. 70, 74-75.
[cx]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 125.
[cxi]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 125.
[cxii]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 125.
[cxiii]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 125.
[cxiv]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 72.
[cxv]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 72.
[cxvi]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 72.
[cxvii]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 72-73.
[cxviii]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 73.
[cxix]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 73.
[cxx]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 74, citing Kahn, On Escalation, 197-98.
[cxxi]. Kahn, On Escalation, 198.
[cxxii]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 74; Kahn, On Escalation, 198.
[cxxiii]. Kahn, On Escalation, 196.
[cxxiv]. Kahn, On Escalation, 196.
[cxxv]. Kahn, On Escalation, 196.
[cxxvi]. Kahn, On Escalation, 197.
[cxxvii]. Kahn, On Escalation, 197.
[cxxviii]. Kahn, On Escalation, 197.
[cxxix]. Kahn, On Escalation, 198-99.
[cxxx]. Kahn, On Escalation, 198-99.
[cxxxi]. Kahn, On Escalation, 199.
[cxxxii]. Kahn, On Escalation, 199.
[cxxxiii]. Kahn, On Escalation, 199.
[cxxxiv]. Kahn, On Escalation, 200.
[cxxxv]. Kahn, On Escalation, 200.
[cxxxvi]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 75.
[cxxxvii]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 75-76.
[cxxxviii]. Kahn, On Escalation, 76.
[cxxxix]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 76.
[cxl]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 76.
[cxli]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 76.
[cxlii]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 77.
[cxliii]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 77-8.
[cxliv]. Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius, 80.
[cxlv]. Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), 19.
[cxlvi]. Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, 19.
[cxlvii]. Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, 19.
[cxlviii]. Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, 19-20.
[cxlix]. Kaplan, Wizards of Armagedon, 222.
[cl]. Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, 17.
[cli]. Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, 17.
[clii]. Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, 24.
[cliii]. Herman Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable (New York: Horizon Press, 1962), 17.
[cliv]. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable, 17.
[clv]. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable, 17.
[clvi]. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable, 17.
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[clviii]. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable, 17.
[clix]. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable, 17.
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[clxv]. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable, 17.
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[clxxii]. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable, 9.
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[clxxv]. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable, 9-10.
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[clxxxvi]. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable, 12.
[clxxxvii]. English, Marching Through Chaos, 140.
[clxxxviii]. English, Marching Through Chaos, 140.
[clxxxix]. English, Marching Through Chaos, 153.
[cxc]. English, Marching Through Chaos, 140.
[cxci]. English, Marching Through Chaos, 198.
[cxcii]. English, Marching Through Chaos, 197.
[cxciii]. Bernard Brodie, “How Much Conventional Force Do We Need?” Foreign Service Journal (April 1973): 18.
[cxciv]. Brodie, “How Much Conventional Force Do We Need?” 18.
[cxcv]. Brodie, “How Much Conventional Force Do We Need?” 26.
[cxcvi]. Brodie, “How Much Conventional Force Do We Need?” 26.
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[cxcviii]. Brodie, “How Much Conventional Force Do We Need?” 26.
[cxcix]. From the “Foreword” to Stephen King, Nightshift (New York: Doubleday, 1978).
[cc]. Ronald Reagan, Speech on the Strategic Defense Initiative, December 28, 1984. Available online at the website of
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[cclxxxii]. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s, 216.
[cclxxxiii]. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s, 216.
[cclxxxiv]. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s, 217.
[cclxxxv]. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s, 221.
[cclxxxvi]. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s, 221-24.
[cclxxxvii]. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s, 224.
[cclxxxviii]. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s, 224.
[cclxxxix]. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s, 224.
[ccxc]. Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s, 224.
[ccxci]. From Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872. Carroll begins: “‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.” It may be read in its entirety at:
[ccxcii]. U.S. Catholic Bishops, Pastoral Letter on War and Peace: The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, May 3, 1983; and Harvard Nuclear Study Group (Albert Carnesale, Paul Doty, Stanley Hoffmann, Samuel P. Huntington, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Scott D. Sagan, Derek Bok) Living with Nuclear Weapons. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983).
[ccxciii]. Clausewitz, On War (1976), III;1, 178.
[ccxciv]. Robert Aldridge, Counterforce Syndrome, 1.
[ccxcv]. Robert Aldridge, Counterforce Syndrome, 74.
[ccxcvi]. Wilson, Edward O., On Human Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978).
[ccxcvii]. See Arendt, On Violence.
[ccxcviii]. Harvard Nuclear Study Group (Albert Carnesale, Paul Doty, Stanley Hoffmann, Samuel P. Huntington, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Scott D. Sagan, Derek Bok), Living with Nuclear Weapons. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983).
[ccxcix]. Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying (Routledge, 1969).
[ccc]. Morgenthau, Hans. Politics Among Nations. 6th ed. Knopf, 1985.
[ccci]. This certainty underpins Waltz’s neorealist theory of international politics, and the triumph of stable international structures backed by a nuclear punch.
[cccii]. Jacobson, Pride and Solace, ix.
[ccciii]. Jacobson, Pride and Solace, x.
[ccciv]. Jacobson, Pride and Solace, xii,-xiii.
[cccv]. Jacobon, Pride and Solace, xii-xiii.
[cccvi]. Jacobson, Pride and Solace xiii.
[cccvii]. Jacobon, Pride and Solace, xiv.
[cccviii]. Jacobon, Pride and Solace, 2-4.
[cccix]. Nigel Calder, Nuclear Nightmares: An investigation into possible wars (New York: Viking Press, 1980), 1.
[cccx]. Calder, Nuclear Nightmares, 1.
[cccxi]. Calder, Nuclear Nightmares, 4.
[cccxii]. Calder, Nuclear Nightmares, 6.
[cccxiii]. Calder, Nuclear Nightmares, 6.
[cccxiv]. Calder, Nuclear Nightmares, 6.
[cccxv]. Calder, Nuclear Nightmares, 16.
[cccxvi]. Calder, Nuclear Nightmares, 18.
[cccxvii]. Calder, Nuclear Nightmares, 18.
[cccxviii]. Calder, Nuclear Nightmares, 18.
[cccxix]. Calder, Nuclear Nightmares, 19.
[cccxx]. Kaplan, Wizards of Armagedon, 390-391.

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