I am not going to explain how much of my courtship doctrine was based on this book and ones like it aside from admitting it was not a small fraction

On Thermonuclear War — Herman Kahn


On Thermonuclear War came out in 1960, a time when a world without nuclear weapons was something a lot of people had actually grown up in, rather than a peculiar fantasy of a few idealistic deviates. The years between 1945 and 1960 had seen some breath-taking advances in technology but sadly the doctrines available remained comparatively crude. This book was Herman Kahn’s attempt to address this gap. Since the outcomes are distinguishable, the US should chose policies that selected for the least bad outcomes and the only way to do that was through rational analysis. 

There are a couple of ideas driving Kahn here. One is that there would be or at least could be1  survivors of a nuclear war. Another is that while nuclear war is clearly undesirable, something that could make the Earth a worse place to live for centuries or more, the outcomes of possible nuclear wars vary wildly and are distinguishable: a war where the United States loses 1/3rds of its population and two generations of economic growth is bad from the US point of view2 but clearly less bad than a war where the US loses 9/10ths of its population and a century’s worth of economic growth.

Kahn approaches his topic in three lectures:

I: The Nature and Feasibility of Nuclear War

In which he admits that nuclear war would be bad but since nuclear war also seems to be survivable – at least in some cases – and since nuclear weapons don’t seem to be going anywhere, refusing to think about the problem is probably the worst thing people could do.

II: The Formulation and Testing of Plans

Having made his case that the US should turn to rational analysis, Kahn attempts to show what that would look like.

III: World War I through World War VIII

Kahn uses recent historical world world wars and then various hypothetical and future world wars to illustrate show how evolving technology forces strategy and tactics to change.

I can’t help but notice that “unexpected operational gaps” appears as a line item for the three historical periods and then vanishes as soon as Kahn begins talking about the future. It seems to me a pretty good bet that if humans had a history of overlooking the effects of new military technology in the past, they’d keep on doing that in the future, even if they began paying RAND and the Hudson Institute sacks of cash to think hard about doctrine.

On Thermonuclear War is very much focused on the US, although he does acknowledge other nations have their own aspirations, something he sees as useful because the US can take advantage of those goals to shape other nations’ policies. He sees the Soviets as the US’s great rival in 1960 but then tries to make it clear that situations change; the US of 1969 might be in a world where the great division isn’t capitalist versus communist but have versus have not. He favors policies that allow a wide range of possible responses, even if that includes some forms of nuclear war, because that does not leave the US in a position where the only choices are “do nothing” or “thermonuclear Armageddon”.

Kahn does have some blind points. While he makes a pretty good guess as to when technology would run into the inherent kilotons/kilogram limits of nuclear explosives and he’s well aware of something that would be called Moore’s Law if this had not been written five years before Moore published his paper, he thinks of computers mainly in terms of mainframes and he sees China as an appendage of the Soviets (which was probably comforting to him because he also saw China as having an unreasonably sunny view of nuclear which given that it is Kahn writing says a lot about how China was seen in 1960). I cannot fault him on the mainframe thing because I have non-fiction books from 1980 that still thought of computers that way.

Because he sees the Soviets as rivals rather than demented, posturing monsters, there’s a running theme of communication as a risk-reduction strategy. In many ways it is safer if both sides talk, if they are frank about their abilities, their goals and their doctrines; while this limits certain cunning stratagems, it also reduces the chance of an accidental nuclear war caused by the two sides misjudging each other. He’s also in favour of arms control, even flawed arms control and makes the interesting point that in the past nations have arrived at de facto arms limitations without ever formally agreeing to them.

On Thermonuclear War has some serious issues as far as convincing people that Kahn is right goes. One is that even a good thermonuclear war is pretty bad, which the author admits, and it’s reasonable that people would just as soon not think about horrible things in any sort of complicated way, particularly since it is not clear Kahn’s complicated way is correct. Another is the prose and the endless charts and lists: I kept being reminded of Simulations Publications, Inc.’s legalese, an attempt to provide clarity that instead leads to a text that is often stultifying. A third is that there are many, many sections of this book that lend themselves to quoting out of context in a hostile way3  and others that lend themselves to quoting in context in a hostile way4. Kahn gets pretty cranky about being quoted out of context and is clearly aware that a lot of people think he’s a raving nutcase but I think finding some more effective way of communicating with people was beyond him.

Kahn is also fond of a rhetorical trick where he asks people what their reaction to a particular awful eventuality would be – 1% of all babies being born with serious birth defects, say - only to reveal once people react with horror to the idea that the reality in 1960 is already worse than the unacceptable hypothetical case. I see the attraction of this – I am pretty sure I’ve done it myself – but I doubt it ever changed anyone’s mind.

Still, as a teenager in the Cold War, a book that said it was possible to think rationally about nuclear war policy was preferable to a world where people seemed to be blindly experimenting with how many bombs the various sides could assemble before some misunderstanding, misplaced ambition or technical mishap allowed us to carry out extremely detailed tests of our models of how nuclear wars would work. The moral that bad outcomes can nevertheless be distinguishable was also of use to me5. Grinding my through Kahn’s prose was painful (and I can tell from the bookmark in this I stopped trying to do that in the early 1980s) but I don’t regret having read it. 

On Thermonuclear War is still available in a variety of formats.

  1. Assuming no doomsday devices, which he does discuss but rejects as excessively inflexible.
  2. He does acknowledge other nations have their own agendas. For example, he points out that while denying Burma to the Communists by turning Burma into a radioactive wasteland could be seen as a good enough solution by certain Americans, it would be pretty unlikely to be satisfactory from a Burmese point of view. He also doubts if India would be all that pleased.
  3. For example, selective quotation could make him sound like he thought the Save Burma by Destroying Burma policy was sensible.
  4. At one point he proposes that the way to handle the issue that the post-war US is unlikely to meet pre-War safety standards is to accept the new reality and change the standards. A hostile reviewer could also point out the rather disturbing (but as far as I can tell, accurate) assertion in early discussion that if the US and SU are going to have a nuclear war at all, fewer people will die in an early one than a later one. Not that a book written in 1960 would use these examples but from a US point of view, WWIII in 1962 is bad but clearly preferable to one in 1983.
  5. As was the story about the group of people trying to decide which one type of sandwich they would buy to take advantage of a deep discount if they all purchased the same kind of sandwich. I think the version I use is that when offered chicken or beef, they choose beef but when they learn ham is also available they pick chicken instead. This is because one of them only slightly favours chicken over beef and isn’t willing to kick up a fuss over not getting his preference. He really likes ham and if he cannot have ham, he insists he at least get his second choice, which is the chicken. Moral: ranked preferences can produce counter-intuitive-from-the-outside results, therefore there will always be acrimonious arguments over the results of the Hugos.

Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

Review Categories

By Author/Editor

Reviews by Date