July 8, 2003
by Max Singer
Herman Kahn was a significant part of the intellectual scene from the publication of On Thermonuclear War (OTW) in 1961 until his death twenty years ago. While he was a prolific and creative writer, his personality and physical presence were so memorable, unique, and compelling that his main legacy has been carried on by the thousands of ordinary people and intellectuals who worked with him or heard him speak.
OTW is the written outcome of Herman’s “three-day briefings” on the subject. One of the first things to understand about Herman’s impact on people is the qualities that made it possible for him to talk to a series of audiences all day for three days in a row and make them wish for more. He talked as in a conversation, not as if he were giving a lecture. Although he provided lots of facts, and rigorous analysis, all his key points were tied to stories—which meant that he could summon up the idea by mentioning the story.
His audiences, from Presidents to colonels to housewives to professors, engaged with him and his ideas because, although they knew that Herman was a genius, they felt that they were talking to a human being who had thought about something they were interested in and was talking about it so that they could think about it too. He was not showing off, or trying to dominate, or to keep apart. They felt in touch with his mind and sense of humor, not his ego.
Kahn’s audiences took away many new facts, ideas, and analyses of a wide range of policy issues, but probably the main reason why listening to him had such a large impact on so many people was the exposure to Herman’s style of thinking. At its heart, this style was common sense, but it was notable for the creativity and flexibility with which Herman brought such common sense to bear on issues that people had not thought much about before.
For example, Kahn was not in favor of nuclear war—to put it mildly—but he thought that people who exaggerated the effects of nuclear weapons, or refused to think in practical terms about the decisions that might lead to nuclear war, increased the danger of such a war occurring. One illustration is that when Herman showed, on the basis of serious, detailed analysis, that the United States could survive a nuclear war with the weapons of the 1950s and ’60s, his work had the effect of scaring the U.S. Air Force. The generals had never paid attention to the scare-claims made about the results of nuclear war by the antinuclear movement. But when Herman, as part of demonstrating why survival was possible, showed in detail how terrible such a war would be, they began to take the dangers more seriously.
Despite the fact that thousands of nuclear weapons were deployed by the United States and the Soviet Union for decades before the Cold War ended, there never was an accidental nuclear explosion or an accidental nuclear war. Many great minds, such as C. P. Snow, had insisted that this was scientifically impossible. But it is not unreasonable to think that we got through the danger not only because of luck and a beneficent Providence, but also as a result of the many people who followed Herman Kahn into the strange pathways of thinking realistically about nuclear war, how to be prepared to fight it while reducing the chance of accident, and how to prevent it.
Thinking about nuclear war is an extreme case—not only of extreme harm but also, fortunately, one extremely far from living experience. But Kahn carried the practices he had had to develop to think usefully about nuclear war over to the many other questions that can’t be handled by referring to past experience—which includes almost everything about the future and the effects of important changes in the world.
Kahn’s approach to thinking determined the unique character of the Hudson Institute under his leadership. The base was a staff composed of individuals with different ways of looking at the world—differences of professional background as well as of personality and policy orientation. Kahn created intellectual incentives for the people at Hudson to address each other’s work as part of a constant effort to understand the underlying differences behind policy disagreements. To protect themselves, everybody at Hudson had to learn what arguments would be used against their position by everybody else. Ideas counted, not authority or credentials; positions had to be able to stand up to analysis. The result was that everyone at Hudson took advantage of the thinking of the whole group, and that integrated thought had a richness and originality that came partly from Kahn’s direct contributions and partly from the relationships and style of thinking that he instilled.
Much of Kahn’s intellectual legacy as recorded in his writings has become part of history, as the issues he addressed recede into the past: ideas about nuclear strategy, civil defense, the rise of Japan, the Year 2000, and Viet Nam. His approach to thinking—about the future, about policy choices, about the world’s passage through what he called “the great transition,” about the central role of social morale and the harmful tendencies of intellectuals’ policy inclinations, remains timely and continues to influence those who read or remember Herman Kahn. And those who worked with him still bear the influence of his realistic optimism, commitment to having a useful effect on the real world, patriotism, and moral values.
Max Singer is a Senior Fellow and Trustee Emeritus at Hudson Institute. He founded Hudson with Herman Kahn in 1961.
Home | Learn About Hudson | Hudson Scholars | Find an Expert | Support Hudson | Contact Information | Site Map
Policy Centers | Research Areas | Publications & Op-Eds | Hudson Bookstore
Hudson Institute, Inc. 1015 15th Street, N.W. 6th Floor Washington, DC 20005
Phone: 202.974.2400 Fax: 202.974.2410 Email the Webmaster
© Copyright 2013 Hudson Institute, Inc.