Kahn was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, the son of Yetta (née Koslowsky) and Abraham Kahn, a tailor. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He was raised in the Bronx, then in Los Angeles following his parents' divorce. Raised Jewish, he later became an atheist.
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".
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.
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 contains a list called "One Hundred Technical Innovations Very Likely in the Last Third of the Twentieth Century". The first ten predictions were:
Multiple applications of lasers.
Extreme high-strength structural materials.
New or improved superperformance fabrics.
New or improved materials for equipment and appliances.
More reliable and longer-range weather forecasting.
Extensive and/or intensive expansion of tropical agriculture and forestry.
New sources of power for fixed installations.
New sources of power for ground transportation.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. It was also said that Kubrick immersed himself in Kahn's book On Thermonuclear War. 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. 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."
^"Nation: NEW MAN FOR THE SITUATION ROOM". Time. 1968-12-13. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved 2016-10-04.
^ ab"Fat Man – Herman Kahn and the Nuclear Age", Louis Menand, The New Yorker, June 27, 2005
^Leary, Timothy (1980). The Politics of Ecstasy. Ronin Publishing; 4th edition. Berkeley, California. ISBN 1-57951-031-0
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
Wikiquote has quotations related to: Herman Kahn
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