Herman Kahn


Herman Kahn
Interview with Herman Kahn, author of On Escalation, May 11, 1965.jpg
Kahn on May 11, 1965
Born(1922-02-15)February 15, 1922
DiedJuly 7, 1983(1983-07-07) (aged 61)
Alma materUniversity of California, Los Angeles (B.S.)
California Institute of Technology (M.S.)
Known forNuclear strategy
Notable work
On Thermonuclear War

Herman Kahn (February 15, 1922 – July 7, 1983) was a founder of the Hudson Institute and one of the preeminent futurists of the latter part of the twentieth century. He originally came to prominence as a military strategist and systems theorist while employed at the RAND Corporation. He became known for analyzing the likely consequences of nuclear war and recommending ways to improve survivability, making him one of the historical inspirations for the title character of Stanley Kubrick's classic black comedy film satire Dr. Strangelove.[1]

His theories contributed heavily to the development of the nuclear strategy of the United States.


Kahn was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, the son of Yetta (née Koslowsky) and Abraham Kahn, a tailor.[2] His parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He was raised in the Bronx, then in Los Angeles following his parents' divorce.[3] Raised Jewish, he later became an atheist.[4]

Cold War theories

Kahn's major contributions were the several strategies he developed during the Cold War to contemplate "the unthinkable" – namely, nuclear warfare – by using applications of game theory. Kahn is often cited (with Pierre Wack) as a father of scenario planning.[5]

Kahn argued for deterrence and believed that if the Soviet Union believed that the United States had a second strike capability then it would offer greater deterrence, which he wrote in his paper titled "The Nature and Feasibility of War and Deterrence".[6]

The bases of his work were systems theory and game theory as applied to economics and military strategy. Kahn argued that for deterrence to succeed, the Soviet Union had to be convinced that the United States had second-strike capability in order to leave the Politburo in no doubt that even a perfectly coordinated massive attack would guarantee a measure of retaliation that would leave them devastated as well:

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.[7]

Hudson Institute

In 1961, Kahn, Max Singer and Oscar Ruebhausen founded the Hudson Institute,[8] a policy research organization initially located in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, where Kahn was living at the time. He recruited sociologist Daniel Bell, political philosopher Raymond Aron and novelist Ralph Ellison (author of the 1952 classic Invisible Man).

The Year 2000

In 1967, Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Wiener published The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Three Years, which included contributions from staff members of the Hudson Institute and an introduction by Daniel Bell. Table XVIII in the document[9] contains a list called "One Hundred Technical Innovations Very Likely in the Last Third of the Twentieth Century". The first ten predictions were:

  1. Multiple applications of lasers.
  2. Extreme high-strength structural materials.
  3. New or improved superperformance fabrics.
  4. New or improved materials for equipment and appliances.
  5. New airborne vehicles (ground-effect vehicles, giant or supersonic jets, VTOL, STOL).
  6. Extensive commercial applications of shaped-charge explosives.
  7. More reliable and longer-range weather forecasting.
  8. Extensive and/or intensive expansion of tropical agriculture and forestry.
  9. New sources of power for fixed installations.
  10. New sources of power for ground transportation.

Later years

In Kahn's view, capitalism and technology held nearly boundless potential for progress, while the colonization of space lay in the near, not the distant, future.[10] Kahn's 1976 book The Next 200 Years, written with William Brown and Leon Martel, presented an optimistic scenario of economic conditions in the year 2176. He also wrote a number of books extrapolating the future of the American, Japanese and Australian economies and several works on systems theory, including the well-received 1957 monograph Techniques of System Analysis.[11]

During the mid-1970s, when South Korea's GDP per capita was one of the lowest in the world, Kahn predicted that the country would become one of the top 10 most powerful countries in the world by the year 2000.[12]

In his last year, 1983, Kahn wrote approvingly of Ronald Reagan's political agenda in The Coming Boom: Economic, Political, and Social and bluntly derided Jonathan Schell's claims about the long-term effects of nuclear war. On July 7 that year, he died of a stroke, aged 61.[13]

Personal life

Herman Kahn was the son of Abraham Kahn and Yetta Kahn. His wife was Rosalie "Jane" Kahn. He and Jane had two children, David and Debbie.[14]

Cultural influence

Along with John von Neumann, Edward Teller and Wernher von Braun, Kahn was, reportedly, an inspiration for the character "Dr. Strangelove" in the eponymous film by Stanley Kubrick released in 1964.[1] It was also said that Kubrick immersed himself in Kahn's book On Thermonuclear War.[15] In the film, Dr. Strangelove refers to a report on the Doomsday Machine by the "BLAND Corporation". Kahn gave Kubrick the idea for the "Doomsday Machine", a device which would immediately cause the destruction of the entire planet in the event of a nuclear attack. Both the name and the concept of the weapon are drawn from the text of On Thermonuclear War.[16] Louis Menand observes, "In Kahn’s book, the Doomsday Machine is an example of the sort of deterrent that appeals to the military mind but that is dangerously destabilizing. Since nations are not suicidal, its only use is to threaten."[16]

In The Politics of Ecstasy,[17] Timothy Leary suggests that Kahn had taken LSD.


Outside physics and statistics, works written by Kahn include:

  • 1960. On Thermonuclear War. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-313-20060-2
  • 1962. Thinking about the unthinkable. Horizon Press.
  • 1965 On escalation: metaphors and scenarios. Praeger. ISBN 1-41283004-4
  • 1967. The Year 2000: a framework for speculation on the next thirty-three years. MacMillan. ISBN 0-02-560440-6. With Anthony Wiener.
  • 1968 Can we win in Viet Nam?. Praeger. Kahn with four other authors: Gastil, Raymond D.; Pfaff, William; Stillman, Edmund; Armbruster, Frank E.
  • 1970. The Emerging Japanese Superstate: challenge and response. Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-274670-0
  • 1971. The Japanese challenge: The success and failure of economic success. Morrow; Andre Deutsch. ISBN 0-688-08710-8
  • 1972. Things to come: thinking about the seventies and eighties. MacMillan. ISBN 0-02-560470-8. With B. Bruce-Briggs.
  • 1973. Herman Kahnsciousness: the megaton ideas of the one-man think tank. New American Library. Selected and edited by Jerome Agel.
  • 1974. The future of the corporation. Mason & Lipscomb. ISBN 0-88405-009-2
  • 1976. The next 200 Years: a scenario for America and the world. Morrow. ISBN 0-688-08029-4
  • 1979. World economic development: 1979 and beyond. William Morrow; Croom Helm. ISBN 0-688-03479-9. With Hollender, Jeffrey, and Hollender, John A.
  • 1981. Will she be right? The future of Australia. University of Queensland Press. ISBN 0-7022-1569-4. With Thomas Pepper.
  • 1983. The Coming Boom: economic, political, and social. Simon & Schuster; Hutchinson. ISBN 0-671-49265-9
  • 1984 Thinking about the unthinkable in the 1980s. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-671-47544-4
  • The nature and feasibility of war, deterrence, and arms control (Central nuclear war monograph series), (Hudson Institute)
  • A slightly optimistic world context for 1975–2000 (Hudson Institute)
  • Social limits to growth: "creeping stagnation" vs. "natural and inevitable" (HPS paper)
  • A new kind of class struggle in the United States? (Corporate Environment Program. Research memorandum)

Works published by the RAND Corporation involving Kahn:

  • The nature and feasibility of war and deterrence, RAND Corporation paper P-1888-RC, 1960
  • Some specific suggestions for achieving early non-military defense capabilities and initiating long-range programs, RAND Corporation research memorandum RM-2206-RC, 1958
  • (team led by Herman Kahn) Report on a study of Non-Military Defense, RAND Corporation report R-322-RC, 1958
  • Herman Kahn and Irwin Mann, War Gaming, RAND Corporation paper P-1167, 1957
  • Herman Kahn and Irwin Mann, Ten common pitfalls, RAND research memorandum RM-1937-PR, 1957
  • Herman Kahn, Stochastic (Monte Carlo) attenuation analysis, Santa, Monica, Calif., RAND Corp., 1949

See also


  1. ^ a b Paul Boyer, 'Dr. Strangelove' in Mark C. Carnes (ed.), Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, New York, 1996.
  2. ^ Google Books
  3. ^ Frankel, Benjamin; Hoops, Townsend (1992). The Cold War, 1945–1991: Leaders and Other Important Figures in the United States and Western Europe. Gale Research. p. 248. ISBN 0-8103-8927-4.
  4. ^ McWhirter, William A. (December 6, 1968). "The Think-Tank Man". Life. 65 (23): 110–126. Herman Kahn is an atheist who still likes rabbis, and a liberal who likes cops.
  5. ^ Schwartz, Peter, The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World, New York: Currency Doubleday, 1991, p. 7
  6. ^ Kahn, Herman (1960). "The Nature and Feasibility of War and Deterrence".
  7. ^ "On Thermonuclear War", Herman Kahn
  8. ^ "Hudson Institute > About Hudson > History". Hudson.org. 2004-06-01. Archived from the original on 2012-02-05. Retrieved 2012-02-21.
  9. ^ "The Year 2000", Herman Kahn, Anthony J. Wiener, Macmillan, 1961, pp. 51–55.
  10. ^ "The Next 200 Years", Herman Kahn, Morrow, 1976.
  11. ^ Kahn, Herman; Mann, Irwin (June 1957). Techniques of Systems Analysis. RAND Corporation.
  12. ^ "[월간조선] 朴正熙와 46년 전에 만나 "한국 10大 강대국 된다"고 했던 美미래학자, 그는..." Retrieved 2016-10-04.
  13. ^ "Herman Kahn". www.atomicarchive.com. Retrieved 2017-04-27.
  14. ^ "Herman Kahn". www.geni.com/people/Herman-Kahn/6000000055883295828. Retrieved 2020-06-13.
  15. ^ "Nation: NEW MAN FOR THE SITUATION ROOM". Time. 1968-12-13. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved 2016-10-04.
  16. ^ a b "Fat Man – Herman Kahn and the Nuclear Age", Louis Menand, The New Yorker, June 27, 2005
  17. ^ Leary, Timothy (1980). The Politics of Ecstasy. Ronin Publishing; 4th edition. Berkeley, California. ISBN 1-57951-031-0

Further reading

  • Barry Bruce-Briggs, Supergenius: The mega-worlds of Herman Kahn, North American Policy Press
  • Samuel T. Cohen, Fuck You Mr. President: Confessions of the Father of the Neutron Bomb", 2006
  • Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine, Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, Bloomsbury Press, 2017
  • Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-01714-5 [reviewed by Christopher Coker in the Times Literary Supplement], nº 5332, 10 June 2005, p. 19.
  • Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon, Stanford Nuclear Age Series, ISBN 0-8047-1884-9
  • Kate Lenkowsky, The Herman Kahn Center of the Hudson Institute, Hudson Institute
  • Susan Lindee, Science as Comic Metaphysics, Science 309: 383–4, 2005.
  • Herbert I. London, foreword by Herman Kahn, Why Are They Lying to Our Children (Against the doomsayer futurists), ISBN 0-9673514-2-1
  • Louis Menand, Fat Man: Herman Kahn and the Nuclear Age, in The New Yorker, June 27, 2005.
  • Claus Pias, "Hermann Kahn – Szenarien für den Kalten Krieg", Zurich: Diaphanes 2009, ISBN 978-3-935300-90-2
  • Innes Thacker, Ideological Control and the Depoliticisation of Language, in Bold, Christine (ed.), Cencrastus No. 2, Spring 1980, pp. 30 - 33, ISSN 0264-0856

External links

  • Essays about and by Herman Kahn
  • Kahn's "escalation ladder" at the Wayback Machine (archived October 23, 2001)
  • "Herman Kahn's Doomsday Machine" by Andrew Yale Glikman, in "CYB + ORG = (COLD) WAR MACHINE", FrAme, 26 September 1999.
  • RAND Corporation unclassified papers by Herman Kahn, 1948–1959
  • Hudson Institute unclassified articles and papers by Herman Kahn, 1962–1984