Cover: The Worlds of Herman Kahn in HARDCOVER

The Worlds of Herman Kahn

The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War

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$41.00 • £35.95 • €37.95

ISBN 9780674017146

Publication Date: 04/22/2005


432 pages

5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches

43 halftones


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Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi gives us a sober, fabulous, research-rich portrait of Herman Kahn, the early years of the RAND Corporation, and the eruption of the nuclear war-gaming scenario and strategic futurology. This is a book that can help us unlearn the official versions of the terrors let loose on this earth.—Donna Haraway

One of the smartest, most engaging, and informed Cold War studies I’ve read.—Michael Sherry

If we have forgotten Hermann Kahn we have forgotten a vision of the Cold War of the first importance. Computer modelling, thermonuclear exchanges, survivable fallout shelters, post-war scenarios--Kahn was in the thick of these debates and his views shaped the way military planning was conceived. Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi captures this remarkable and terrifying time through Kahn’s work. And in the process has delivered to us a riveting, original, and troubling image of the calculus of modern war.—Peter Galison

Herman Kahn is perhaps best known (to those who know of him at all) as the model for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. In fact, this physicist turned defense analyst achieved notoriety in the 1950s and ’60s by articulating a vision of what a postnuclear-war world might look like, arguing that since it might be possible to survive a nuclear war, it was essential to plan to do just that. Ghamari-Tabrizi is superb at providing, in compelling narrative, the cultural context for Kahn, his work and some of his more outlandish statements...He was vilified for his beliefs and, as the author so capably demonstrates, he seemed to love every second of it...Ghamari-Tabrizi provides a fascinating look at a complex man--at once ’visionary’ and ’quixotic’--who was thinking, as the author says, about the unthinkable.Publishers Weekly

In 1961, Amitai Etzioni said that Herman Kahn ’does for nuclear arms what free-love advocates did for sex: he speaks candidly of acts about which others whisper behind closed doors.’ Kahn, one of the nuclear analysts whom the RAND Corporation paid to think about the unthinkable, did not just stand out from his cold-blooded brethren; he ballooned out from them. This ’artless, sweaty man,’ wheezing and gulping down water, was almost cartoonishly fat, a rotund prophet giggling at the apocalypse. Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi’s suitably macabre The Worlds of Herman Kahn shows us both the clownish appearance and the deadly serious mind.—Warren Bass, Washington Post

Herman Kahn (1922-83) was a cold war original whose notoriously sensational ideas, embodied in his On Thermonuclear War (1960), were later satirized in Dr. Strangelove . Though the inspiration for the movie’s namesake character, the real Kahn could not have been less menacing. A rotund, joke--cracking extrovert, the loquacious Kahn reveled in prodding presumptions that nuclear war was too horrible to contemplate. The contrast between Kahn’s joviality and his apologia for global genocide is one of the worlds of Kahn that Ghamari-Tabrizi surveys. Others are Kahn’s think-tank society of civilian defense intellectuals and their simulations of warfare, and her consideration of Kahn’s ruminations about waging and surviving nuclear war ’as a style, a mood, and an aesthetic.’ If it seems strange to treat theories of nuclear warfare as an art form, the fantastical scenarios that Kahn batted around justify Ghamari-Tabrizi’s approach. Her exploration of Kahn falls in line with the contemporary fad for demented comedy, and a Ghamari-Tabrizi unbounded by a political-science stricture will attract readership beyond the wonks.—Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

[In her] highly engaging book...Ghamari-Tabrizi sets out with gusto to attack what she calls Kahn’s ’comic metaphysics.’—Christopher Coker, Times Literary Supplement

Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi’s The Worlds of Herman Kahn is an attempt to look at Kahn as a cultural phenomenon...Ghamari-Tabrizi thinks that if nuclear strategy is a science it is, at best, an ’intuitive science,’ more imaginative than empirical, and she relies a lot on the vocabulary of literary criticism to interpret it: the grotesque, the fantastic, the uncanny, the hardboiled, ’the aesthetic of spontaneity,’ ’serious play.’ She does not withhold judgment about the merits of Kahn’s work, but she is interested mainly in the feel of the moment, the moods and tastes of a time when the Cold War, and the anxious talk that swirled around it, had many Americans scared almost to death. It is an adventurous approach, and rewarding when it works.—Louis Menand, New Yorker

The ’affable psychopath’ and his times are vividly reconstructed in The Worlds of Herman Kahn...Ghamari-Tabrizi, an independent scholar who specializes in the social studies of science and technology, tracks his uncanny ideas and public meanings and in the process excavates the Cold War in ways that resonate eerily with the present war on terror...Kahn freely used fiction throughout his work and was sometimes impatient with tedious empiricism, proposing that it did not matter what had actually happened, only what could have happened. His books were full of numbers, but the numbers and graphs measured nothing real, describing only hypothetical events and future possibilities. His ideas oscillated along the edge of reason and unreason, fact and fiction. Ghamari-Tabrizi’s compelling work illuminates the chilling potential of that edge, both for Kahn’s time and for our own. The Worlds of Herman Kahn is a book that should be widely read.—Susan Lindee, Science

This is a thoroughly researched and well-written and argued book--much more readable than either of Kahn’s ponderous tomes.—Jack Harris, Times Higher Education Supplement

...[an] LSD-trip of a book.—Robert Matthews, New Scientist

The Worlds of Herman Kahn does not evaluate the validity of Kahn’s stratagems. Instead, Ghamari-Tabrizi tells us ’we can more sensitively explore the cold war by referring to a shape of feeling. If we foreground the cognitive and emotional palette of these years rather than its pathology, we can enter vitally into its world.’ Ghamari-Tabrizi succeeds admirably in this reconstruction; the book is peppered with amusing, startling, and unsettling artifacts of Kahn’s world...She’s persuasive when she places with the frame [of the uncanny and the fantastic] Kahn’s enthusiasm for simulation, abstraction, and the limitless possibilities of the mind.—Andrew Wilson, Christianity Today

In her...artfully written study, Ghamari-Tabrizi evokes the intellectual climate at RAND and paints a vivid picture of Kahn in action...[She is] on the mark when she sees traces of Kahn’s ’strategic futurology’ in Donald Rumsfeld’s fear of ’unknown unknowns.’—Edmund Levin, Weekly Standard

As Dr. Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi makes clear in her new biography of Kahn...his insouciance unleashed a firestorm of controversy. Kahn’s book dealt with the question everyone wanted answered but few felt brave enough to ask: just how bad would a thermonuclear war be?...What prompted [public] outrage was not so much Kahn’s aim but his methods. In his book, he pointed out that, dreadful as an exchange of H-bombs might be, there were degrees of dreadfulness--arguing that just as having one loose lion roaming the city streets is worrying but survivable, a hundred lions could really ruin your day.—Robert Matthews, Telegraph [UK

Kahn’s great strength was as a horror-story teller, using nuclear grotesquerie instead of ghosts and goblins. Ghamari-Tabrizi rightly connects him to...horrifically surreal...The author briefly and deftly connects the metaphysics of Kahn to those of...Donald Rumsfeld...Sadly, Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi’s book, which offers significant insight into Kahn, is more than just a chronicle of the past. It is an account, too, of the present, in which many of Kahn’s self-anointed successors are still riding high. And it might also be a guide to an increasingly dangerous future, in which Kahn’s memory is trampled under the thudding hooves of Four Apocalyptic Horsemen.—James P. Pinkerton, American Conservative

Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi delves into the remarkable and terrifying world of Herman Kahn, offering a unique portrait of the analyst who gleefully articulated a vision of a survivable post-nuclear war world. Highlighting Kahn’s infamous jokes about mass annihilation as well as quirks of the Cold War era--the high consumption of tranquilizers--Ghamari-Tabrizi describes the occult culture at the RAND Corporation, where Kahn and his fellow nuclear researchers sought to fill in the blanks of strategic uncertainty. At RAND, Kahn used systems analysis and mathematical and scientific tools to forecast, among other things, extravagant threat scenarios. Khan’s 1961 book, On Thermonuclear War was the first effort to explore the possible effects and strategic options of nuclear war. The author hints that Kahn’s complex vision of civil defense--200 million underground shelters--might have unintentionally helped convince President Dwight Eisenhower that American society could not survive and rebuild from a nuclear war.Arms Control Today

Herman Kahn was one of the first ’MegaPundits.’ He was witty, gave good soundbite and covered a subject (nuclear warfare) that always got peoples attention. The Worlds of Herman Kahn, as the title implies, is not a biography of Kahn, but rather a description of the world he inhabited, and how the media, Herman Kahn, the U.S. government and various aspects of American culture in the 1950s and 60s, came together on the subject of nuclear war...[The book is] written for a general audience, but has enough interesting detail of Kahn, and his times, that even hard core defense analysis geeks would find it useful.—James F. Dunnigan,

Ghamari-Tabrizi makes the connections between Kahn’s image in pop culture and the remarkable shift that brought civilian analysts and game theorists to positions of influence at the expense of more traditional military analysts.Weekly Intelligence Notes

This eloquently penned biography of ’our first Virtuoso of the unknown unknowns’ displays both the wit of Kahn as well as his dark genius.Futurist Book Shelf, World Future Society Website

Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi’s book uses Kahn’s personality and his stance on thermonuclear nuclear war as a vehicle for an insightful reconstruction both of an era--the Cold War--and of an entire school or mode of strategic thinking, strategic futurology...A sincere, thoughtful, sophisticated and largely successful attempt to escape the intellectual and academic clichés of the moment regarding war, military, strategic thinking and the human condition in conflict situations, Ghamari-Tabrizi ’s book is a remarkable endeavor both in its arguable shortcomings and its incontestable achievements.—Paul Dragos Aligicia, Comparative Strategy

Ghamari-Tabrizi’s fascinating and sparklingly written book is one of the best examples of how the genre of biography is developing as focal social history. This kind of biography considers the individual as a point at which broader social, institutional, and cultural dynamics and conflicts intersect. To uncover the individual life is simultaneously to analyze a broader social and cultural condition. Kahn serves Ghamari-Tabrizi as just such a point of convergence, allowing her to draw together transformations of consciousness and authority within the American State and in the culture more generally. By tracing the rise, albeit brief, of this bizarre figure to political and cultural prominence, she shows us also how Americans and their institutions grappled with the Atomic Age.—Charles Thorpe, Journal of Historical Biography

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