Episode 8: Thinking the Unthinkable: The Nuclear Strategy of Herman Kahn

Dr Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi joins Beatrice and Paul to discuss prominent futurist and founder of the Hudson Institute Herman Kahn.

Herman Kahn (1922–1983) came across to some as a ‘roly poly, second-strike Father Christmas’, but to most of his contemporaries in the US, his style and way of talking about nuclear strategy seemed deeply immoral.

Arguably, however, his intention was to think through what nuclear war would look like and to plan for the days and months after a strategic nuclear bombing. It was by thinking through these scenarios, he reasoned, that there may be the potential to save tens of millions of lives, even if tens of millions would die. By developing such resilience, therefore, Kahn's intention was to make deterrence more credible.

Shocking journalists and the public with his loose language, Kahn was a product of the RAND Corporation’s emphasis on number-crunching to envisage different scenarios for future wars. Kahn famously developed scenarios involving an escalation ladder for nuclear war on which the nuclear powers might move up or down, potentially but not necessarily to a final nuclear ‘wargasm’ – an example of language that alienated the larger public. Yet he took a great interest in converting existing facilities – mines in particular – into bunkers to protect as many members of that public as possible.

Dr Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi holds a PhD from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her biography The Worlds of Herman Kahn was published by Harvard University Press in 2005


Beatrice Heuser

Senior Associate Fellow

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Paul O’Neill

Senior Research Fellow

Military Sciences

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