Michael KreponHerman Kahn

Herman Kahn has a favored place in my shoe box collection because he followed his logic train to territory where other deterrence strategists feared to tread. Kahn was plus-sized (above), utterly confident, and easily caricatured. A sense of the man’s mind can be found in the preface of one of his important books, On Escalation, Metaphors and Scenarios (1965), which was written, he writes, to “create propaedeutic and heuristic methodologies and frameworks.” For the sake of our youth, I sincerely hope that the word propaedeutic is never used during a national spelling bee. Readers of lesser intelligence are instructed that this word “pertains to introductory instruction, although there is no suggestion of the elementary.”

In schooling us in the intricacies and logic of nuclear war fighting, Kahn identified eight factors that governed the degree of escalation one might expect in a crisis or war:

1) Apparent closeness to all-out war
2) Likelihood of eruption
3) Provocation
4) Precedents broken
5) Committal (resolve and/or recklessness) demonstrated
6) Damage done or being done
7) Effort (scale, scope, or intensity of violence)
8) Threat intended or perceived

Go ahead and mock the man, but try your hand at compiling a better list.

Kahn argued that there were “two traditional American biases: an unwillingness to initiate the use of moderate levels of force for limited objectives, and a too-great willingness, once committed, to use extravagant and uncontrolled force.” Neither trait, he warned, would serve the United States well in the serious business of dealing with Cold War dangers. Where Kahn lost most of his audience was in the particulars, to which his agile mind was his particularly drawn. Kahn’s escalation ladder – “a generalized (or abstract) scenario” – included no less than forty-four rungs.

The Cold War literature on escalation, as exemplified by Herman Kahn, was deeply flawed. It rested heavily on rational choice, which might well be in short supply if the nuclear threshold were crossed. This literature, as well as U.S. plans for the employment of nuclear weapons, also presumed that Soviet nuclear war fighters would respect rungs on Kahn’s escalation ladder. This key assumption, as we learned after the Cold War ended, was badly mistaken.


  1. Azr@el (History)

    Nuclear war is a thing best fought by folks without a return address, Kahn was so wrapped up in the east-west dichotomy he failed to grasp that nuclear war doesn’t make sense to people who have land, cities, farmland, ports, etc. He, like many products of RAND in his generation assumed that nation states could have waged nuclear war and on favourable terms. Imagine the consequences if the political leadership had taken that group of nutters too seriously. If we had any sense as a nation we should be digging up the corpses of these “nuclear warfighters” and posting them to the walls of 1200 S Hayes Street as a warning to future would be theoroticians of mass destruction.

  2. Major Lemon (History)

    Deeply flawed realism maybe, but fascinating to remember the game how we once thought it could be played.

  3. Mark Gubrud

    I think you hit the nail on the head with your comment that “The Cold War literature on escalation, as exemplified by Herman Kahn, was deeply flawed. It rested heavily on rational choice, which might well be in short supply if the nuclear threshold were crossed.” Not only after it was crossed, but even before, if people just think nuclear war might be imminent. (Reason seems in pretty short supply even when the fate of humanity isn’t hanging in the balance, or when it is, but not on such a short timeline.)

    This is very apparent to me in reading, for example, the EXCOMM transcripts from early in the Cuban Missile Crisis, where everybody, it seems, including JFK and RFK, wavered in and out of pre-Apocalyptic madness, talking tough about the need to show resolve, then collapsing into helpless babble faced with the realization of what could be about to happen. Only one man kept his cool – former Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson, who appears to have been the unsung hero who saved civilization. If anyone ever deserved a monument….

    To my mind, Kahn’s lists of criteria and rungs of ladders of escalation are simply nonsense. I wouldn’t try to compile a better list of factors because I think there could be any number of factors created on-the-fly by actual events and interactions, and how they would affect further events would depend on personalities, contexts and chance. I don’t think there is any way to systematize the dynamics that might be at play in a pre-nuclear war scenario; you can model what might happen, but it comes down to “The more people think it’s likely, the more likely it is,” and even that doesn’t capture the likely desperation of those facing oblivion to try to find some way out.

  4. Matt Hoey (History)

    Well said Michael.

    To take it a bit further, Herman Kahn provided a great service to this country. He painted a picture of the horrors of nuclear weapons (accurate or not, who cares – it worked), this image motivated many Americans to work towards the eradication of the nuclear threat. He even reached out to disarmament activists.

    I just finished reading The Worlds of Herman Kahn, which was a great read – check it out if you have not already.

    The man deserves praise in my opinion.

  5. John F. Opie (History)

    It seems that your rejection of Kahn’s thinking is so extreme that any thinking about the use of nuclear weapons becomes then a function of reflex rejection and dissolves into emotional argumentation of how horrible it all is.

    Given the fact that the Soviet military were great fans of “correlation of forces” arguments and analyses, regardless of the imputed irrationalities of their leaders, Kahn’s thinking, published openly for the Soviets also to read, served also to point out to the Soviets that the West was at least trying to be rational in their decision making.

    Leading an opponent to understand your own thinking to avoid him misunderstanding you serves the avoidance of war as well.

    More wars start because of miscalculation of how the other would react – most famously the Japanese in WW2, who thought the US would sue for peace when their forces-in-being were destroyed – leading to mistakes in strategy that led to war.

    I’m not saying that Kahn’s thought isn’t flawed, and indeed your argument that his thinking was indeed deeply flawed may be legitimate, but ad hominem and ridicule do not serve to better the arguments.

    I for one would like to understand your argument that the Soviet leadership would not have played the game: their war plans, as we now know, in the 1950s called for massive use of tactical weapons to ensure their military victory over NATO, at the cost of destroying most of Western Europe (and significant portions of Eastern Germany and Poland as well).

    This is an area where significant work remains to be done…

  6. Robert

    A new edition of On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios will be published at the end of October 2009 with a new introduction by Nobel prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling, who co-authored with Morton Halperin Strategy and Arms Control in 1961.

    In addition, The Essential Herman Kahn: In Defense of Thinking, an anthology of Kahn’s shorter writings edited by Paul Dragos Aligica and Kenneth Weinstein, is now available.

    P.S. Kahn’s writings stress that his concept of an “escalation ladder” is to be viewed as a metaphor to help think through the complex range of possible and difficult choices that would confront leaders in times of uncertainty or crisis — not as a strict or linear model of how nations might behave in a conflict involving nuclear weapons.

  7. Matt Hoey (History)

    Thanks for mentioning the new book Robert and for hitting the nail right on the head in the last paragraph of your post.

    I have referred to Kahn’s rungs of escalation more often than I can remember. On Escalation is in a stack of books next to my bed. I’ve had it for about 10 years and plan to return it to the Widener Library at Harvard one of these days.

    There are a few noteworthy words after the title of On Escalation, it also includes the line “metaphors and scenarios”. Kahn’s On Escalation is to be viewed as a guide to help forecast how a crisis may play out. To think that each rung is supposed to evolve in a time of crisis just as described or close to it is just silly.

    Mark’s point must be considered as well, rational thinking and guides will most likely go out the window when the threshold has been crossed.

    That aside I come back to Robert’s words: “On Escalation is to be viewed as a metaphor to help think through the complex range of possible and difficult choices that would confront leaders in times of uncertainty or crisis”

    No more, no less, and if the threshold is crossed I certainly ain’t throwing my copy of On Escalation out the window because after the dust settles I am sure Harvard is gonna still hit me with the late fees.

  8. Azr@el (History)

    “From a scientific perspective there is some indication that a nuclear war could deplete the earth’s ozone layer or, less likely, could bring on a new Ice Age – but there is no suggestion that either the created order or mankind would be destroyed in the process.”

    -Herman Kahn

    Herman Kahn, like the rest of the nuclear warfighter school of thought RAND regurgitated over the years, firmly believed that nuclear war could be waged and could be won by nation states. Regardless of how many war game simulations showed limited nuclear exchanges veering towards an out of control chain reaction as various actors were gripped by irrational fears and attempted massive counter force attacks to limit damage on their own population centers and loci of gravity, Kahn and his ilk grudgingly stuck to their dogma that nuclear war could be tamed. Evidence to the contrary was tossed out as either being tainted by the participation of the mentally unbalanced, in the case of wargame data, or environmental reactionary nonsense, in the case of concerns of the side effects of large scale exchange. Those who authour overwrought attempts to rehabilitate his image as a vague “metaphorical” wise sage that warned of the horrors of nuclear war should in all honesty be paying royalties to the Protestant sages who sought to make the bible more acceptable to modern ears by reinterperting it as a collection of allegorical metaphors. The only praise Herman Kahn is deserving of is whatever the worms bestow upon him; bon appetit.

  9. Alex W. (History)

    While we are pointing out problems in the RAND approach to nuclear war, I just want to plug Lynn Eden’s book Whole World on Fire (2006), which presents a very compelling case on the fact that the RAND game theorists, in their focus on easily calculable effects relating to nuclear weapons, omitted the more messy fire effects (which were predominant at Hiroshima and Nagasaki), thus vastly underestimating the real effects of a bomb against a city.

    Herbert York says something similar in Making Weapons, Talking Peace, which I don’t have in front of me right now or else I would quote it directly, about the fact that when you watch a nuclear test in a desert or a Pacific atoll, you really don’t get a sense of the scale of the thing, of the real damage it would do. It is impressive, but comparatively sterile to the reality of nuclear war.

  10. $murf

    I would only fault Azr@el’s comments for not going far enough!

    Azr@el was thoughtful enough to preface his most recent comment with that thoroughly reprehensible Herman Kahn passage, the one that starts: “From a scientific perspective….

    Azr@el surely read Thinking the Unthinkable in the 1980s (1984), the book from which that passage originates. (He’s assuredly not the sort of chap who would simply Google the web for the most objectionable Kahn quote that he could find.) So, it can be inferred that Azr@el also read the footnote that accompanies that passage, the one that cites as its source the 1975 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report Long-Term Worldwide Effects of Multiple Nuclear Weapons Detonations.

    Of course, one should not expect that Azr@el read that 1975 NAS report as carefully as he read Kahn’s book — though, if his openness to ideas are any indication, one should not be surprised if he actually has! But one could surmise that Azr@el would be curious to know that (a) the report’s point of departure was a hypothetical nuclear exchange of 10,000 megatons, and (b) then-President of the National Academy of Sciences Philip Handler summarized, in his letter of transmittal to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the report’s conclusions in the following manner: “If I may restate their principal question as, ‘Would the biosphere and the species, Homo sapiens, survive [such an exchange]?’, the response by our committee is, ‘yes.’”

    Enough!, Azr@el might have us say. We need not read any further!

    In response to such impious thought — from the National Academy of Sciences, no less — I am reminded of the words with which Azr@el concluded his first comment to this post: “If we had any sense as a nation we should be digging up the corpses of these ‘nuclear warfighters’ and posting them to the walls of 1200 S Hayes Street as a warning to future would be theoroticians of mass destruction.”

    One can only conclude that Azr@el would also exhort us to dig up the corpses of Dr. Handler, Alfred O. C. Nier, Louis H. Hempelmann and other scientists who participated in that 1975 study, and post them to the walls of 2001 Wisconsin Ave, NW, as warning to future scientists who would ever dare to think or write heretical things.

    But in the event that some participants of that study are still alive, one can be sure that Azr@el, with his deep respect for human life, would insist that we have the decency to wait until those participants actually pass on before posting their bodies to any walls or other building surfaces.

  11. Azr@el (History)

    “A warning to future scientist”? Has some commentator’s version of reality diverged so greatly from the rest of us fellows? Kahn studied physics but was not by any means a scientist, he was by all accounts a strategist and a systems analyst. RAND is not a scientific institute, it is a think tank devoted to influencing government policy by lobbying elected officals and educating future members of the bureaucracy.

    Freedom of scientific inquiry is not the heart of this discussion, nor even a tangental aspect of it, and not a single commentator has argued for it’s curtailment. Some of us however have been vocal in our disapproval of praising elements of the nuclear warfighting school in general and Kahn in particular; the fact that some people choose to do so shocks me to my core. I can only assume that some minority of thought out there feels the current world is poor substitute for the one Kahn would have bequeathed us in its stead.

    And the most efficacious means of moderating such sentiment as to see it diminish with time rather than not, would be the posting of a few eminent corpses to the walls of think tanks such as RAND that view human life in general and American lives in particular as just so many scaler numbers to be shuffled from the ledger of the living over to the ledger of the not quite alive. Such displays, truly nothing more outrageous than the bodies exhibit, should have quite the focusing effect and help these institutes of strategy and policy think a tad bit more clearly and soberly about what those numbers truly mean should the ‘wisdom’ of the likes of Herman Kahn ever come back into vogue.

  12. Nukethrower (History)

    It is nice to see an arms control advocate write that the Cold War literature on escalation “rested heavily on rational choice, which might well be in short supply if the nuclear threshold were crossed.”

    If the nuclear weapons abolitionists agree with the above statement, then should they not advocate study and analysis of Russian and Chinese nuclear thinking prior to publication of the Nuclear Posture Review, a Senate vote on the CTBT, and signing of a follow-on agreement to START? Perhaps we should investigate what patterns of thinking and behavior might prevail in the military decision-making centers of Russia and China before we proceed down a path that will be difficult for our nuclear complex to reverse with short warning.

  13. Ward Wilson (History)

    It’s actually quite interesting to look at Kahn through the prism of emotion.

    It would make sense that the early thinkers about nuclear war were scared. Almost everyone had a feeling of doom who followed the development of nuclear weapons. (See, for example, By the Bomb’s Early Light by Paul Boyer.)

    One way to deal with feelings of fear is try to use rationality to explain the phenomenon that seems to be causing the fear. We feel safer when we think we can explain something rationally. It feels as if it can be controlled. Much of the early work on nuclear weapons was fiercely rational (I believe) because the emotions people were feeling were so strong that they didn’t dare allow them in. Only by talking about nuclear war in purely rational ways could nuclear war strategists keep discomfort and fear from overwhelming them.

    Emotion is one of the things that is forbidden in serious writing about nuclear weapons, even today (although because the fear is less, the taboo is less). The psychology, the anthropology, the emotions of the field of nuclear weapons are fascinating and germane. But what little work has been done is generally ignored by the mainstream.

    William James points out that human beings are amalgams of both emotion and rational thought – both ways of being inextricably mixed. Human decisions are amalgams of both emotion and rational choosing. It makes no sense to study one while ignoring the other.

    A worthwhile study of escalation would look closely at the psychology of revenge. That is most of what “escalation” is. “You hurt me and now I’m gonna hurt you worse!”

    Kahn was a smart man and I’m told was a very likable guy. But in examining the rational part of decisions about nuclear war he was ignoring the much larger emotional component. Explaining 15% of a decision (or a decision process) – even if you do it quite well – isn’t much of an accomplishment.

  14. Mark Gubrud

    Ward Wilson: Well said, although unfortunately “rational” military analysis also leads to escalation in the form of preemption, which is an area where the thinking of “rational choice” analysts led to the proliferation in number of nuclear weapons and the creation of destabilizing weapons and unstable force configurations.

    A theory of the entwining of emotion and reasoning in situations of stress and conflict is needed if you want to model pre-nuclear war or escalation dynamics. I think in an “actual” (i.e. perceived then as actual) pre-nuclear war situation the emotional stress is automatically so great that something we might call Apocalyptic madness descends over the players.

    Nukethrower: The problem with our looking at Chinese and Russian thinking is that someone will have to select and translate it for us, and that someone is extremely likely to be trying to make a case of some kind.

    But when the Russians or Chinese or we look at the documentary record from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when we look in awe at nuclear test films, when we think about what nuclear war would likely mean in reality, there is something that they must understand as well as we do, whatever the words they use in whatever order of importance to think about the subject.

  15. Oppenheimer's Scorpion

    @Ward Wilson. In On Escalation, Herman Kahn didn’t assume anything approaching perfect rationality; he understands the role that passionate emotions may play. This is made clear several times, e.g.:

    Can it be assumed that decision-makers will actually do this kind of thing, that they will think clearly or that they will be calm and collected? These worries are, in fact, based on an important phenomenon: in normal circumstances, as well as under stress, decision-makers may not behave in an entirely rational fashion. However, researchers who study these problems do not really assume that decision-makers are wholly rational, but rather that they are not totally irrational—which is quite different from the assumption of rationality (Penguin, 1968 ed., 220-221, emphasis added).

    You seem to dislike caricatures (e.g., the all-too-common and unexamined belief that Hiroshima and Nagasaki coerced Imperial Japanese elites into submission in WWII). I hope you can look past the caricatures of people like Herman Kahn that have been passed down over time. That would require, for starters, a fair reading of Kahn’s writings; from this one would get a clear sense of how Kahn’s thought developed over time.

    No doubt Kahn’s writings sometimes shocked and repulsed. But, towards the end of staving off nuclear violence, he also wrote much worth reading and pondering.

  16. kme

    “…and easily caricatured” – indeed, it seems likely he was much of the basis of the Dr Strangelove character, with a bit of Von Braun mixed in.

  17. Ward Wilson (History)

    @Oppie’s Scorpion: I do dislike caricature. I like truth and try to look at it wide-eyed whether it makes me comfortable or not. I’ve read almost all of Kahn at one time or another and I don’t dismiss him I just don’t agree with much of what he says. He’s smart, he’s entertaining (maybe sometimes a little too entertaining for his own good [e.g. “wargasm”]) and Dyson tells me he was a really decent, likable man. So no disrespect intended. Just disagreement.

    Hope you find a way out of that bottle.

  18. Shay Begorrah (History)

    Firstly Kahn’s personal decency, intelligence and likeability is no reason not to characterise his life’s work as dangerous and immoral. Saying that his suggested strategies would not definitively lead to the extinction of all human life or to the total destruction of civilization also seems extremely faint praise.

    Secondly, could Kahn’s work be said to encourage (or even justify) proliferation? If nuclear weapons can be deployed tactically, if they can rationally and justifiably be used in a military confrontation, what moral (as opposed to practical or political) reasons can we give for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons technology – especially to nations who have military competitors who already have nuclear weapons, and can already, quite rationally, climb the ladder?

  19. Ward Wilson (History)

    @Shay Begorrah

    It’s possible to condemn Kahn for promoting proliferation. And you can make an argument that his work did promote building nuclear arsenals.

    Two things, though. I’m not sure his work was that influential. Most people are persuaded they need nuclear weapons because they feel fear or they fear their enemies or some such, rather than the writings of one guy (brilliant or not) at RAND. Kahn is useful to read but I don’t think his influence is that great.

    I don’t really want to condemn Kahn. Nuclear weapons issues are difficult and not well understood. I think most people who work on them are trying their best, not working with evil intention.

    In a crisis I don’t want to know who to blame. I want to figure out how to get out of the crisis. I think nuclear weapons are still dangerous and destructive enough to constitute a real danger. So I want to figure out a way out from under them. Right now I think we need better understanding of the issue more than moral condemnation of individuals.

    But that’s just my view.

  20. Shay Begorrah (History)

    Hello Mr Wilson.

    I would note that for many non-experts in the field of games theory as applied to nuclear war, which is effectively everybody and especially me, Kahn is by a distance the most well known, if not understood, figure. He was the only person in this area that I knew of fifteen years ago in college and I had mistakenly assumed that his prominence in the field reflected his significance to it.

    However, as is frequently the case, ACW has left me a good deal better educated on the matter, though not any more sympathetic to Mr Kahn.

  21. Azr@el (History)

    I don’t think anyone is accusing Kahn of being stupid or evil, no more than we accuse the train engineers who developed the logistics that delivered Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals,etc of being stupid or evil. Rather they shared with Kahn a casual banality towards human life derived from an ability to abstract their fellow human beings as nothing more than numbers.

    Kahn advocated a policy of first strike! Can any on the other side of this debate rationally imagine what that means. A nuclear Pearl Harbour against the Soviets and their allies for conventional provocation. Now understand the cold war was waged for the express purpose of seeing who would be the preeminent power on this planet. At stake was neither the American nor Russian heartland, if we had lost the soviets would not be occupying New York any more than we are occupying Moscow.

    The Soviet area of influence would have waxed and ours would have waned, nothing more, nothing less. Herman Kahn and his ilk would have turned this poli-economic contest into a genocidal third world war, no doubt applauded on by some of the commentators on this page. Had his vision taken hold during the scary phases of the cold war, America and Russia would be third world nations, China would be crippled by ‘just in case’ strikes and Far west Eurasia would be radioactive swiss cheese. And I would be writing this with ink on paper and hoping pirates don’t intercept the coal or kerosene steam ships we’d be exchanging correspondences upon.