The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War

Front Cover
Harvard University Press, 2005 - Biography & Autobiography - 387 pages
2 Reviews

Herman Kahn was the only nuclear strategist in America who might have made a living as a standup comedian. Indeed, galumphing around stages across the country, joking his way through one grotesque thermonuclear scenario after another, he came frighteningly close. In telling the story of Herman Kahn, whose 1960 book On Thermonuclear War catapulted him into celebrity, Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi captures an era that is still very much with us--a time whose innocence, gruesome nuclear humor, and outrageous but deadly serious visions of annihilation have their echoes in the "known unknowns and unknown unknowns" that guide policymakers in our own embattled world.

Portraying a life that combined aspects of Lenny Bruce, Hitchcock, and Kubrick, Ghamari-Tabrizi presents not one Herman Kahn, but many--one who spoke the suffocatingly dry argot of the nuclear experts, another whose buffoonery conveyed the ingenious absurdity of it all, and countless others who capered before the public, ambiguous, baffling, always open to interpretation. This, then, is a story of one thoroughly strange and captivating man as well as a cultural history of our moment. In Herman Kahn's world is a critical lesson about how Cold War analysts learned to fill in the ciphers of strategic uncertainty, and thus how we as a nation learned to live with the peculiarly inventive quality of strategy, in which uncertainty generates extravagant threat scenarios.

Revealing the metaphysical behind the dryly deliberate, apparently practical discussion of nuclear strategy, this book depicts the creation of a world where clever men fashion Something out of Nothing--and establishes Herman Kahn as our first virtuoso of the unknown unknowns.


What people are saying - Write a review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - Shrike58 - LibraryThing

If history repeats twice, as tragedy and then as farce, this life and times begins with that bizarre moment back in 2002 when Donald Rumsfeld was holding forth in public on "unknown unknowns" while ... Read full review

User Review - Flag as inappropriate

Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi describes herself as an independent scholar living in Champaign Illinois. She earned a doctorate in 1993 from the History of Consciousness Program, University of California at Santa Cruz with a specialization in the social studies of science and technology. Based on biographical material posted on her website, she’s covered some ground, academically and geographically speaking. This interesting person has written and interesting and useful book.
The author’s website posts a review by Jack Harris of the Times Higher Education Supplement who says Ghamari-Tabrizi’s book is “much more readable than either of Kahn's ponderous tomes.” But be advised: this is not a book about nuclear strategy. In the most important respects, it’s not even a biography of Herman Kahn. If you’re looking for the Cliff Notes version of On Thermonuclear War or Thinking about the Unthinkable, don’t cheat yourself. Read and appreciate these books for yourself.
The Worlds of Herman Kahn is, instead, a book about cold war culture. In the words of the author, “'we can more sensitively explore the cold war by referring to a shape of feeling. If we foreground the cognitive and emotional palette of these years rather than its pathology, we can enter vitally into its world.” For prospective readers, this is a useful passage. It reveals the author’s subject, intent, and style. If you’re looking for nuclear strategy look elsewhere; if you’re looking for a sensitive exploration of the emotional palette of the cold war, you’ve arrived.
In Eisenhower’s farewell address, he averred that, “in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” To Ghamari-Tabrizi, Kahn exemplified this elite. At the vanguard of Rand’s “soldiers of reason,” Kahn was in impressive company. Albert Wohlstetter, Andrew Marshall, Henry Rowen, Charles Hitch, John Williams, Edward Barlow, James Digby, Burton Klein and others were, at this time, the prototypical defense intellectuals.
Kahn shared their métier but distinguished himself through the creativity of imagination. The “worlds” of Ghamari-Tabrizi‘s title refers to Kahn’s extraordinary capacity to summon visions of the future and subject them to a brutal analysis. The author singles Kahn out as the focus of her study because of this unusual talent. She says in an online interview that in reading Kahn’s writings, “what really snagged my attention was the intensity of the psychic energy coursing through his book. Here was a man who insisted, repeatedly and loudly, that America must pay attention to the prospect of having to fight, survive, and reconstruct from a nuclear war.” Here, Kahn is a stand-in for a generation of civilian and military strategists willing to think openly, creatively, and aggressively about the hellish prospect of such a war.
Ultimately, it’s this willingness that fascinates her and is the focus of her book. She works toward an understanding of how these people, whom she describes as comic philosophers of strategy, could think unthinkable thoughts. This is an interesting and useful contribution to cold war history. However, because she offers us an essentially sociological work, she recognizes but neglects the central and most interesting questions for strategists.
Referring to the need to formulate objectives, strategies, and plans for future circumstances that have no basis in human experience (general nuclear war), how can humans dissect its myriad scientific, social, economic, and military aspects? Absent past experience, how can we understand their elements and anticipate the associated future considerations? Given uncertainty, how can we balance cost and risk to create a desirable future? These are questions that Kahn and his colleagues recognized as essential. Ghamari-Tabrizi seems to have little sensitivity for them


A Matter of Faith
How Many Kahns Can There Be?
The Cold War AvantGrade at RAND
The Real Dr Strangelove
An Operational but Undetected Capability
How to Build a World with Artful Intuition
Faith and Insight in WarGaming
The Mineshaft Gap
Comedy of the Unspeakable
Mass Murder or the Spirit of Humanism
A Comic Philosophy

On Thermonuclear War

Other editions - View all

Common terms and phrases

References to this book

All Book Search results »

About the author (2005)

Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi is an independent scholar living in Florida.

Bibliographic information