Jeffrey LewisIts only 20 million killed …

Working on my dissertation, I/’ve noticed a strange fascination among the nuclear warfighting crowd with the idea that 20 million casualties was low enough to risk in a crisis with the Soviets.

Here is a passage from Herman Kahn in On Thermonuclear War (1961):

“Feasible combinations of military and non-military measures might make the difference between our facing casualties in the 2-20 million range rather than the 50-100 million range. This could mark the difference between a world in which the Russians might feel they had an almost completely free hand, and one in which they should feel they had to act with circumspection.”

Keith Payne, principle author of the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review, makes the same point writing in 1981 with Colin Gray:

“… an intelligent U.S. offensive strategy, wedded to homeland defenses, should reduce U.S. casualties to about 20 million, which should render U.S. strategic threats more credible.”

What is it about 20 million?

Kubrick apparently noticed this, too. In Dr. Strangelove, General Turgidson (who often repeats sentences from On Thermonuclear War) exclaims “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. Depending on the breaks.”