About The Book

The Worlds of Herman Kahn; The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War (Harvard University Press, April 2005) is the first major study of Herman Kahn, an oddly droll physicist and nuclear strategist who worked at the RAND Corporation in the 1950s. Kahn’s work at RAND is critical to understanding the cultural and scientific authority of simulated experience. One of the earliest arenas for explorations of the reality offered by simulation was nuclear war-planning. The young civilian analysts at RAND boasted that their experience in role-playing crises, and formulating systems analyses, Monte Carlo models, and man-machine simulation yielded an expertise more insightful and assured than that garnered by first-hand experiences of combat in WWII and Korea. By the time President Kennedy appointed Robert McNamara as his Secretary of Defense in 1960, the basis for authority for defense policy and strategy had decisively migrated from actual combat experience to the synthetic experiences of simulated combat.

Ghamari-Tabrizi frames the issue of nuclear strategy and war-planning as one resting on anxious faith.

Atomic war, and soon after thermonuclear war , would be unlike anything the world had seen before. Imagining how it would be fought was a science fiction, a hypothetical physical, military and social construct. How could the defense establishment plan for something that would be unexampled, catastrophic, and accessible only through experiments, models and simulations? In order to grasp the principles by means of which the simulationists at the RAND Corporation attempted to solve this problem in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, Ghamari-Tabrizi immersed herself in Herman Kahn’s unclassified papers, memoranda, and reports. From these attempts to model nuclear war, she extracted the formal motifs that marked these simulations as tentative sketches of future, hypothetical events. While the Kahn, and the other simulationists insisted that their approach to nuclear war was informed by scientifically exacting rigor, they also freely acknowledged that simulating nuclear war was an artisanal and subjective business. While they scrupulously pointed out the simplifications and assumptions of their models, they concluded on a note of openly anxious faith. In one way or another, they refrained Kahn’s remark that in order to enter into the speculative domain of the post-attack world, one had to overdesign one’s models, heeding all the known weapons effects phenomena, “and then hope for the best. … All we can do is just face the fact that to some extent the working of our [infrastructure] installations depends upon faith.”

The cold war fantastic

Ghamari-Tabrizi pays special attention to how emotion and mood might have shaped the understandings of the Soviet threat. In considering the emotions of the various players in the story, she sidesteps the clichés of paranoia and hysteria that are usually the only invocations of mood in cold war histories. She also makes use of the literary theory of the fantastic to throws light on the roots of the impulse towards extravagant speculation among some intelligence analysts. Motifs of the fantastic genre show us on how panic and dread aroused by uncertainty prepares the mind for haunting disturbances.

Kahn’s comedy of the unspeakable

Ghamari-Tabrizi situates Kahn’s public lectures and his book, On Thermonuclear war (Princeton University Press, 1960) up against other comic performances of the period. By looking at his grotesque jokes, she pinpoints what was unsayable, what could be broached publicly, and how dread eventually broke into speech in the vulgar entertainments of the late 1950s. Only in this way can one guess how Americans might have heard and understood Kahn in his own moment.