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Neil Cameron
Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian. He served as a member of Quebec's National Assembly from 1989 to 1994.

Kahn, Russell, and Rethinking the Unthinkable

Herman Kahn (left) and Bertrand Russell (right)


To better understand the dangers of the present confrontation between North Korea and the U.S. , it is worth re-examining the first years in which thermonuclear ICBMs became available to the U.S. and the Soviet Union, climaxing in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and how the arrival of these weapons in the 1950-1970 Cold War years was treated by two influential thinkers of the era. One was the rotund, jovial American strategic analyst, Herman Kahn (1922-83); the other, the British aristocratic philosopher and popular agitator, Bertrand Russell (1872-1965).


Kahn, reputed to have ‘the highest IQ ever recorded’, was one of a small group of strategists of a new kind coming out of WW II, civilians and quasi-academics. rather than military professionals. Although dropping out of his mathematics Ph.D. program at Cal Tech, he never let that get in his way. Shortly after the end of WW II, he joined the U.S. Air Force’s new RAND (‘Research and Development’) thinktank, and also soon participated in thermonuclear (‘hydrogen’) bomb research at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. He was soon on equal footing with his older brilliant colleagues, many of them European e’migre’s who had worked on the wartime Manhattan Project. Both they and the younger native-born strategic theorists like Kahn and Thomas Schelling had their main backgrounds in mathematics, physics, and economics. Kahn found an especially kindred spirit in the expatriate Hungarian, John von Neumann (1903-57), like him a cheery and sybaritic polymath with a stratospheric IQ. Both were not only interested in nuclear weapons, but in developing computers. They drew on equally new and more general ‘systems theory’, using computerized mathematics, and also on the theory of games, with its imaginative thought experiments seeking outcomes of alternative ‘scenarios’.


Eisenhower was not fond of the civilian theorists, whose 1950s work for the USAF did not determine the ‘Massive Retaliation’ doctrine promulgated by John Foster Dulles in 1954. It assumed an enduring American superiority in stockpiled bombs and bombers, which might even be used against conventional Soviet military aggression anywhere. But the arrival of American and Soviet hydrogen bombs, 1000 times as powerful as the uranium bomb that had obliterated Hiroshima, and steadily improving long-range missiles that could reach their targets in less than a twentieth the time taken by bombers, demanded new thinking, beyond that of traditional military advisers. The Kennedy and Johnson Democrats, hawkish ‘Cold War liberals’ until late in the Vietnam War, turned enthusiastically to the systems theorists.


Kahn, especially after the early death of von Neumann, soon became a pre-eminent representative of the scientist-strategists, and for two decades a public celebrity, both admired and reviled. That followed the 1960 publication of his 650-page book, On Thermonuclear War. He added a shorter and slightly milder popularized version a few years later, but in the Pentagon, it was ‘OTW’, as it was reverently identified, that became a constantly-cited classic, changing forever the education of the professional military. Some parts of the book have by now become obsolete, due to advances in weapons technology and the end of the specific challenges posed by Soviet Russia and Communist imperialism. But Kahn, who would prove an unusually talented ‘futurist’ all his life, correctly anticipated many later developments, including possible nuclear wars involving the U.S. and a smaller nation like North Korea, and also their possible ‘escalation’. He made ‘gaming’ a preferred approach to potential nuclear conflicts everywhere.


Kahn had regarded the ‘Massive Retaliation’ hawkishness of the 1950s as crude and dangerously unstable, eventually tempting both Americans and Soviets to a ‘First Strike’, to escape the consequences of being hit first, or of becoming unable to bear the years of tension. He wasn’t happy with the similarly risky ‘MAD’ [‘Mutually Assured Destruction’] or with inadequate protection from blunders or accidents. The latter were a very real danger; in the Cuban Missile Crisis, only the sensible refusal of a Russian submarine officer to fire a nuclear torpedo prevented what could have become an all-out nuclear war, and the Russians provided a similar later example in 1983. But what shocked many OTW readers, even some political hawks, were its two central assumptions: that a thermonuclear war might actually be undertaken and won, and that even after tens of millions of people were killed, a later recovery was possible.


Critics accused Kahn of ‘planning for mass murder’, but he was unmoved, reminding everyone of the inescapable and paradoxical logic of a weapon that was all about the threat of deterrence. He advocated an elaborate civil defence effort (a policy taken seriously by the 1960s U.S. and Soviet Union, but not by Canada or other potential target nations), not because he was all that confident that many lives would be saved, but because it was vitally necessary that any enemy should believe that the citizens and government of a target nation were really serious about engaging in a nuclear war. They might be bluffing, but an enemy must not know they were, or ‘deterrence would not ‘deter’, including against smaller levels of aggression, or even against a real ‘First Strike’ by a dictatorial government more willing to gamble with the fate of its own citizens.


Bertrand Russell, Whig aristocrat, late Victorian survivor, brilliant Edwardian Cambridge scholar in philosophy, logic and mathematics, for over sixty years a popular journalist of Voltairean wit and irreverence, and a popular, if sometimes erratic agitator for liberal and radical causes all his life, was by the 1960s almost ninety, but was still the most widely-recognized leader of radical opposition to the very possession of thermonuclear weapons. In the 1950s, he wrote many letters to political leaders, including a famous 1957 one to Eisenhower and Krushchev, endorsed by Albert Einstein. Krushchev gave what looked like a promising reply, but John Foster Dulles, who answered for the Americans, gave no encouragement. By the 1960s , Russell and some English church leaders were willing to advocate ‘unilateral’ renunciation of nuclear weapons by Western nations, producing both the internationally popular Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and Russell’s own more militant ‘Committee of 100’, which engaged in active non-violent civil resistance, like a famous ‘sit-down’ around 10 Downing Street.


Russell’s campaigns were not entirely without effect; their public impact probably contributed to an American, Soviet, and eventually worldwide ban on above-ground testing of atomic and hydrogen bombs.  They may also have reduced the fecklessness of the American and Soviet military commanders in adopting smaller, ‘low yield’, ‘battlefield’ atomic and thermonuclear weapons.  Somewhat surprisingly, Russell actually admired On Thermonuclear War, as he mistakenly thought it would lead more people to support his unilateralist cause.


Perhaps the until-now fairly successful imposition of ‘non-proliferation’ of nuclear weapons beyond a restricted ‘club’ of nations with command-and-control systems owes something to both Kahn’s strategizing and Russell’s moral exhortations. But wider public understanding has surely come above all from the most memorable monument of 1960s ‘thinking about the unthinkable’, Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy. Doctor Strangelove. Kubrick had studied Kahn, and ‘Strangelove’ (Peter Sellars), comic Nazi moments aside, reasoned much like him, so much so that Kahn thought he deserved royalties. Sellars also played a sensible President, appalled by several crazy American military officers. The film was both very funny and very frightening. For the present, we can now only hope that insult-trading by a laser-focused North Korean fanatic and an American scatterbrained ignoramus doesn’t conclude in a fatal scenario.