Thursday, August 06, 2009


You're looking at the man with the highest IQ ever measured. His name was Herman Kahn. Joining RAND in 1947 (two years after the detonation of the first atomic-bombs) Kahn worked with scientists such as Edward Teller and Hans Bethe to develop more-powerful nuclear weaponry, ultimately producing the H-Bomb. When it became clear that the growing conflict between the United States and Soviet Union could escalate into a nuclear exchange, Kahn was one of the many minds enlisted by the American government to develop strategy for such an exchange. His job entailed contemplating scenarios of unspeakable destruction with clinical detachment and professionalism.

In 1960, he wrote a book on the subject called On Thermonuclear War. The principle assertion of the book was that a nuclear war was not only likely, but basically unavoidable given the escalating conflict between the superpowers. But Kahn insisted such a prospect was not as apocalyptic as one might think, and indeed a nuclear war could be be a winnable war. Kahn believed that while the devastation would be beyond human comprehension, (with many millions of people dead or poisoned and entire cities reduced to ash) mankind had previously endured torturous eras and emerged strong and stable. The medieval Black Plague was cited as an example. His projections of post-nuclear America depicted a nation where fallout was a daily inconvenience and deformed, irradiated babies were an unfortunate part of ordinary life. Such horror, according to Kahn, "would not preclude normal and happy lives for the majority of survivors and their descendants."

Despite reasoning that can only be called at best spurious and at worst insane, On Thermonuclear War was highly influential in shaping America's nuclear policy. Kahn emerged as one of the most prestigious cold war minds, working for various think-tanks in the ensuing decades. He died in 1983 of a massive stroke. While his name is not widely known amongst the public, he has an appropriate cultural legacy, providing the main inspiration for the frenzied Dr. Strangelove.

Would you like to know more?
-Read Kahn's "The Nature and Feasibility of War and Deterrence"
-Read this New Yorker review of "The Worlds of Herman Kahn"


  1. Herman Khan was clearly a "glass is half-full" kind of guy. Atomic devastation? No biggie. Just put on a smile and get to work rebuilding human civilization.

  2. It's that can-do American attitude that keeps a fella' going.

  3. It's what I wake up to each and every morning. A glass of OJ, some toast, and some good 'ol American can-do.

  4. On Thermonuclear War :Or how I learned to love the bomb