On Thermonuclear War. HERMAN KAHN.
On Thermonuclear War
On Thermonuclear War
On Thermonuclear War
On Thermonuclear War
On Thermonuclear War

On Thermonuclear War

“Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops! Uh, depending on the breaks.” — General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott), channeling Herman Kahn in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964)

“[Q.] What’s the best book you ever received as a gift? [A.] … Probably ‘On Thermonuclear War’ by Herman Kahn, not so much for what it said as for the ways that the arguments were made. That you could subject even the unthinkable to analysis. That served me well as a reporter, when you’d be looking into some complicated situation, and you’d have to step outside yourself to discover what was really going on.” -- Interview with author John Sandford, in The Sunday [New York] Times Book Review


SIGNED AND INSCRIBED by Kahn in ink on front free endpaper to fellow RAND employee Edward (Ted) Harris, a statistical physicist, and to his wife: “When the former [i.e., Harris] gets tired of mathematics and the latter [his wife] gets tired of children, you can turn your weary eyes to this most stimulating and wholesome of subjects. Herman.”.

Herman Kahn was an iconic and highly contentious figure during the Cold War era. During the 1950s and 1960s fear of nuclear war was at an all-time high, reflected in such widely-read apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novels as On the Beach, Fail-Safe, and A Canticle for Liebowitz. In that environment, Kahn’s dispassionate analyses of strategies for and the consequences of nuclear warfare — exercises that he described as “thinking about the unthinkable” — enraged those on the left who felt that by making nuclear war “thinkable,” he was undermining nuclear anti-proliferation and disarmament initiatives and making war more rather than less likely. James R. Newman, writing in Scientific American, famously called the work offered here “a moral tract on mass murder: how to plan it, how to commit it, how to get away with it, how to justify it.” To many on the right, on the other hand, his writings injected a welcome element of rationality and analytical rigor into the necessary exercise of planning for wars that might occur anyway, notwithstanding all good intentions.

Kahn’s writings, his general approach to issues, and his public persona, inspired characters in best-selling books and widely seen movies — he was at least one of the inspirations for the eponymous hero of Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove (and perhaps for other characters in that movie as well — see above quotation), and there is much of Kahn’s analysis, though nothing of his demeanor or personality, in the character of Professor Groeteschele in the best-selling novel (1962) and film (1964) Fail-Safe.

Kahn was an “American physicist, strategist, and futurist best known for his controversial studies of nuclear warfare. Kahn graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1945. Over the next three years he worked for several aircraft-manufacturing companies and completed his master’s degree at the California Institute of Technology. In 1948 he joined The RAND Corp., a private research centre largely funded by the U.S. Air Force, where he studied the application to military strategy of such new analytic techniques as game theory, operations research, and systems analysis” (Britannica). While at RAND he worked with, among others, Edward Teller, John von Neumann, and Hans Bethe.

On Thermonuclear War (whose Clausewitzian title was apparently chosen by the publisher, Princeton University Press) was an expanded version of a series of lectures on nuclear deterrence that Kahn had delivered after a semester spent at the Center for International Studies (Princeton). There were two central elements of Kahn’s analysis of nuclear strategy: (a) The consequences of nuclear war had to be confronted rationally, and could be minimized through the adoption of appropriate pre-war and post-war policies. Different deterrent and civil-defense policies would result in “tragic, but distinguishable postwar states,” but in no case would “the survivors envy the dead.” “[E]ven 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.” (b) The best deterrent to nuclear war would be for the United States to maintain a credible “second-strike” capability, in order to convince the Soviet Union that a massive first strike would result in a devastating counter-attack. (This view stood in contrast to the stated policy of the Eisenhower Administration, which was to be prepared to launch a first strike in response to any Soviet aggression — a policy that Kahn believed to be dangerously destabilizing.)

Kahn’s public persona was strangely inconsistent with the image of a dispassionate game theorist who (having invented the word) calmly predicted the number of “megadeaths” that would occur in various nuclear war scenarios. Kahn, who weighed about 300 pounds, “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 Clause’ and ‘a thermonuclear Zero Mostel.’” (Louis Menand, “Fat Man: Herman Kahn and the Nuclear Age”, in the New Yorker, June 27, 2005.) Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, in her 2005 study “The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War” argues that Kahn’s personal style drew on the genre of “sick” humor pioneered by Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Jules Feiffer. Something of his geniality and his wry approach to his chosen subject is illustrated by the inscription offered here.

“The best-known response to ‘On Thermonuclear War’ was a movie [Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove]. Stanley Kubrick began reading intensively on nuclear strategy soon after he finished directing Lolita in 1962. … 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.’ … There were a number of possible models for the character of Dr. Strangelove …: But 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” (Menand).

Note: This book is offered with a copy of Ghamari-Tabrizi’s “The Worlds of Herman Kahn.”

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960. Thick octavo, original cloth, original dust jacket. Book fine, dust jacket with only minor edgewear. A rare signed first edition with a wonderful inscription.

Price: $1,100 .

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