The Worlds of Herman Kahn

Herman Kahn and his fellow analysts at the RAND Corporation in the 1950's developed systems analysis as a device for modeling future wars, but many military veterans sneered at the work of these theorists never tested on the battlefield. When Kahn published On Thermonuclear War in 1960, some intellectuals were enraged but many others were forced to think for the first time about the possibilities for survival after a nuclear war.

President Dwight Eisenhower was a bitter critic of RAND and eventually forbade its analysts any direct access to government intelligence. Kahn's most startling concept in his book was the suggestion that for ten billion dollars the United States could build a Doomsday Machine, a bomb that could destroy the earth in response to a nuclear attack, his thinking apparently being that no enemy would invite such catastrophe. Ultimately, Kahn the optimist argued that the world could rebuild itself through its scientific expertise.

Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi's study is valuable not only for its insights into a figure now rapidly fading into a footnote to the Cold War but for her chapters of social history. In a chapter on “Comedy of the Unspeakable” she delves into sick jokes, Lenny Bruce, horror comics, and Mad magazine. Finally, in “Mass Murder or the Spirit of Humanism” she surveys the philosophical responses to Kahn's vision of what to do about achieving peace and security in a world threatened by annihilation.

Ghamari-Tabrizi has written a fine study of an unusual genius and of a crucial period in American history.