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The Essential Herman Kahn: In Defense of Thinking

The Essential Herman Kahn: In Defense of Thinking edited by Paul Dragos Aligica and Kenneth R. Weinstein. Lexington Books, 2009, 286 pp.

The Essential Herman Kahn is an anthology of previously published material from the professional life of Herman Kahn and illustrates a wide spectrum of thought-provoking issues that may affect our roles and responsibilities in society. Throughout, Kahn offers well-crafted arguments on important issues and presents new insights into the realms of political science, public policy, military strategy, and decision making.

Kahn was first recognized as a nuclear strategy theorist and later expanded his interest into the broader issues of public policy as a futurist. During World War II, he was stationed in Burma as a communication specialist for the US Army Signal Corps. After the war he completed his undergraduate degree in physics at UCLA. During the early 1950s at the RAND Corporation in California, he contemplated the emerging impact of nuclear weapons being placed into the American military arsenal. Kahn articulated the use of these weapons in a manner that surprised some people and offended others. He is considered by some as the model for Stanley Kubrick’s title character in the movie, “Dr. Strangelove.” After RAND, he began his own “think tank” called the Hudson Institute in 1961.

Kahn pondered the uses and effects of the employment of nuclear weapons during a military confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. He espoused the theory that the “world” could survive a total nuclear war—a concept alien to the generally accepted theory that a nuclear weapon exchange between the world’s two superpowers would end civilization as we knew it. Kahn offered a different lens from which to view the horrific cataclysmic effects of a total nuclear war—that the result of a nuclear exchange of weapons, while it would greatly change the world as we knew it, would not destroy it. His theory was not widely accepted, and Kahn was labeled a free thinker, not bound by the usual protocols. Critics charged that his theories were reckless for merely discussing the likelihood of a nuclear exchange and may well have made such an exchange more likely. Kahn dismissed this argument as foolhardy and counterproductive. He postulated that educating the populace of the true effects of nuclear warfare was more important to prevention than a self-fulfilling prophecy. Kahn also stated the world needs to discuss matters of importance and not avoid topics simply because they may frighten readers.

The Essential Herman Kahn offers a banquet of thought on nuclear weapon strategy. This book reflects the breadth of topics on which Kahn wrote and spoke during his tenure at RAND and the Hudson Institute, including economic growth, cultural change, policy research, decision making, and forecasting the future. This list offers insight into the perspective Kahn brought to analysis—he seems to measure the topics as interconnected and relates the impact or intentions in one arena to the effects in another.

This is not a light work for a casual read but a thoughtful piece that shall absolutely capture the reader’s attention. While one must invest full attention to the thoughts expressed by Kahn to fully comprehend his reasoning, the payback is worth the effort. The vocabulary is similar to a college textbook or a magazine commentary; whereby, Kahn explores each topic in sufficient detail that the reader is enriched with a new perspective. The value of the book lies in its presentation of topics that educate, inform, and perhaps motivate the reader to ponder the merits of the arguments offered. Again, this is not an easy read; however, the journey through its pages will add to personal knowledge on the topics and force readers to reassess their own beliefs. That is the value of reading the book.

Col Joe McCue, USAF, Retired

Leesburg, Virginia

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

Strategic Studies Quarterly (SSQ) and the Air & Space Power Journal (ASPJ) publish book reviews to inform readers and enhance the content of articles in the journals.