For a political science course at Yale back in the 1960s, I read Herman Kahn’s notorious Cold War tome, On Thermonuclear War, which struck many people then as pretty nutty, even by Cold War standards. Kahn, who prided himself on “thinking the unthinkable,” was a RAND Institute systems analyst running computer simulations on nuclear warfare, with outcomes measured in megadeaths – a term he coined for casualties of one million dead. Kahn used modern game theory for his simulations, based on a scenario inspired by a scene in the movie Rebel Without a Cause in which two teenagers speed toward a cliff in stolen cars to see who will be first to jump from his car before it goes over the edge. The philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell likened the arms race to this game of Chicken, although in Russell’s version, the two cars aim for each other at high speed, and the loser is the one that swerves first to avoid a smash-up.
Kahn acknowledged that Russell had a point. He realized the Eisenhower-era policy of “massive retaliation” for Soviet military actions was too inflexible and might actually make nuclear war more likely in the event of a provocation. Kahn favored a more nuanced approach, with the level of retaliation (as calibrated in megadeaths) carefully matched to the level of provocation. He raised eyebrows by claiming that nuclear war was not only survivable but winnable, provided the nation was willing to absorb tens of millions of deaths. The key to a winning strategy was to persuade the other side that you weren’t bluffing, which dictated strong conventional forces and a second-strike capability in the event of a surprise attack. Kahn was also a strong proponent of civil defense -- not necessarily to save civilian lives but to show the Russians we were prepared to take a punch.
Profiles of Herman Kahn never fail to mention that he was one of the models for the maniacal title characer in Stanley Kubrick’s film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Kubrick reportedly met with Kahn when the film was in development and read his book. This may explain why Kubrick, who had initially intended the film to be a serious drama about a nuclear confrontation, decided instead to make it a black comedy. Dr. Strangelove, as portrayed by Peter Sellers, bore little physical resemblance to the rotund Kahn, who was once described as a “thermonuclear Zero Mostel.” However, Strangelove could certainly be said to embody his ideas, if not his specific mannerisms or demeanor. The Doomsday Machine that rang down the curtain on the human race at the film’s conclusion is another Kahn brainchild, although he never seriously proposed that one be built.
There is a peculiar sort of logic behind Kahn’s thinking that begins with a more-or-less realistic appraisal of a given military and political situation and proceeds step-by-step toward conclusions that some would regard as manifestly insane. Even Kahn himself acknowledged that the whole premise of nuclear deterrence was built on the “rationality of irrationality.” In his defense, Kahn was not the only Cold War strategist to think this way. He had been trained as a nuclear physicist and worked on development of the hydrogen bomb in the 1950s. His colleagues then were mostly veterans of the Manhattan Project, which built the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Many were Jewish refugees who had fled fascism in Europe during the 1930s. They had personal experience with Adolf Hitler’s regime and were gravely concerned that the Nazis might be the first to develop nuclear weapons. They were not war-mongers. They had a far better understanding of what they were unleashing on the world than the nation’s civilian leadship and lobbied strenuosly to head off a suicidal arms race. Their concerns were brushed aside, and the postwar era played out pretty much as they had feared. The result was that the U.S. and Russia found themselves locked in a game of global thermonuclear Chicken.
Looking back, it is now clear that many of the premises underlying Kahn’s nuclear scenarios were seriously flawed. For one thing, they relied on intelligence estimates of Soviet military strength that turned out to be grossly exaggerated. For example, the Russians had only four intercontinental ballistic missiles in 1961, while the U.S. had 170. In other words, the level of paranoia generated by the Soviet threat was out of all proportion to Russia’s actual military might. The Soviets certainly possessed formidable conventional forces but were hardly in a position to launch a surprise nuclear attack, even as Kahn was urgently calling for a second-strike capability to counter a threat that did not yet exist.
More than 75 years after the decision was made to build an atomic bomb, it is easy to look back and render judgment on the wisdom or sanity of those involved. The physicists who led the project knew full well that once it became techniclly feasible to build a bomb, someone would do so. The only question then was whether it would be Hitler, Stalin or the U.S. Some of them even wanted to share information about the bomb with Stalin at the end of World War II in hopes that he might be persuaded in join in a postwar arms control regime before each side began stockpiling nuclear weapons. In retrospect, it seems doubtful that Stalin would have played along. By the same token, while Herman Kahn was easily caricatured as a mad scientist, he was probably correct in seeking alternatives to all-out nuclear war in the event of a showdown with the Russians, even if he appeared blithely unconcerned about the prospect of tens of millions of casualties in a smaller-scale conflagration.
As it happened, the U.S. and Soviet Union came perilously close to a final showdown during the Cuban missle crisis in 1962, just two years after Kahn’s book was published. The crisis began when U.S. spy planes discovered that the Soviets were building medium-range missle sites in Cuba. But the ensuing conflict didn’t play out like Kahn’s simulations, in part perhaps because none of the actual players knew enough about game theory to follow the script. U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk characterized the conflict at the time as an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation in which “the other fellow just blinked.” In the game of Chicken, this would mean that the Russians had swerved to avoid a smashup, and therefore that the U.S had won. However, this isn’t what happened. In reality, the U.S. secretly agreed to remove its missles from Turkey if the Soviets did the same in Cuba. In other words, both sides swerved.
That wasn’t the end of it. In the wake of the Cuban missle crisis, the two sides signed a test ban treaty, and a hotline was installed between Washington and Moscow to reduce the danger of miscommunication in a future crisis. Eventually the Soviets and Americans began negotiating sizable reductions in their nuclear stockpiles, and the arms race slowed to a trot. There are still worrisome arms control issues, notably the proliferation of nuclear weapons among rogue nations and potentally among terrorist organizations as well. However, in retrospect, it appears that the lesson the two sides learned from their near-death experience in 1962 is that when you find yourself locked in a game of nuclear Chicken, the only sensible solution is not to play the game. In fact, Bertrand Russell had suggested as much when he first pointed out the similarities between nuclear brinksmanship and the game of Chicken played by unruly teenagers in fast cars. Not playing the game is easier said than done, of course, especially when confronted by an adversary determined to test your resolve. And yet, when push came to shove, both sides in the Cuban missile crisis belatedly came to the same conclusion. When you find yourself locked in a game where the outcome is measured in megadeaths, you need to play a different game. In the end, the players tossed aside the rationality of irrationality, choosing life rather than death.
Louis Menand, "Fat Man: Herman Kahn and the Nuclear Age,” The New Yorker (June 27, 2005)
William Poundstone, Prisoner's Dilemma