Revising the Unthinkable

On Escalation.
by Herman Kahn.
Praeger. 308 pp. $6.95.

It would be nice to hate Herman Kahn with an easy conscience. But even On Thermonuclear War (1960), his first and willfully épatant book, contained some reflections that weakened the urge to write him off as a sadist or a surrealist. His next book, Thinking about the Unthinkable (1962), was blander in tone, easier to read and, though faithful in all particulars to the message of the first book, allowed his humane side to appear more readily. With the publication of On Escalation, it becomes even harder to abuse Kahn: this new book not only brings his humane side into prominence, it also represents a substantial change in the very essence of his thought. It should be welcomed by all who are oppressed by the state of foreign affairs in the thermonuclear age-welcomed, however, with a fair amount of judicious reluctance. There is no need now to love Kahn; that would probably only embarrass him anyway. Rather, fairness dictates even more than ever that he cease being the object of hysteria.

The really terrible thing about Kahn's first two books was the expressed readiness to contemplate the use of thermonuclear weapons in responding to Soviet provocation. Kahn was perfectly aware of the way in which the existence of these weapons had profoundly changed the nature of politics and warfare. No one could charge him with a failure to observe the radical discontinuity with the past: war had ceased to be, in any simple sense, an instrumentality of politics. Kahn insisted, however, that war could still be seen as a desperate but rational means to the great traditional ends of political aspiration, provided many new facts were taken into account, many new arrangements contrived, old patterns of thought replaced by startling new ones. Times had changed, but had not changed enough to abolish general war as an element in the calculations of power, as a genuine choice in the thermonuclear age. Men on the Left (Bertrand Russell, C. Wright Mills, Erich Fromm) held that advocating the strategic use of thermonuclear weapons was in fact insane, and that the retention of these weapons for the “minimal” purpose of deterring a direct thermonuclear attack on the United States or its allies was not far from insanity. More moderate men accepted—and still accept—the idea of deterrence, while shrinking from any further thermonuclear employment. Kahn, on the other hand, was prepared to adopt a quite literal-minded approach to the subject: weapons are made to be used, and it was about time that somebody took the trouble to educate the public about the details, no matter how disgusting those details turned out to be.

Disgusting they indeed were. And after every conceivable trick of generosity was performed in his favor—and a good many were performed by unexpected people like H. Stuart Hughes—one plain fact could not be obscured. Kahn maintained that the United States should initiate the use of thermonuclear weapons when faced by serious Soviet provocation. That is, if the United States thought that its interests or honorable commitments were gravely threatened by some Soviet move involving subversion or conventional warfare or both, this country could reasonably resort to thermonuclear weapons to redress the balance. With this basic assumption made, Kahn went on to engage in that speculation—at first fascinating, but after a while boring as only the macabre can be—for which he became famous. He subtilized the doctrine of massive retaliation. We were treated to thoughts about the modes and degrees of thermonuclear response, the differences between the death of one-third of a population and the death of one-half, and the potentialities for stoicism liberated by the semi-Hobbesian state of life after the Soviet thermonuclear rejoinder to our thermonuclear response. All of this was decked out in tables and charts, and mixed together with observations (many of them brilliant) on almost everything political or military, past, present, and future. And at the bottom (or center) of the whole argument was a plea for that most wondrous of bureaucratic daydreams, that most lavish of political swindles, civil defense. Now and then, Kahn's common sense proved irrepressible. He could write: “I believe that, in the long run, a purely military approach to the security problem can lead to disaster for civilization, and by long run I mean decades, not centuries.” And: “If one seriously pictures the world over the next fifty years, and perhaps just the next ten years with arms control and without arms control, he is almost compelled to conclude we will and should be actively and earnestly seeking arms-control agreements.” But common sense was obliterated by the self-contained and self-delighting exercise in realism, sustained over nearly seven-hundred pages.


On escalation is not exactly a recantation, but it comes quite close to being one. Some of Kahn's old habits stick to him; there are, for example, a dozen tired pages on the desirability of civil defense. The main tendency of his thought, however, has changed, even though Kahn does not make a formal acknowledgement of that change. In fact, the book is organized in such a way as to lead the unsuspecting reader to believe that it is primarily an elaboration of a concept that Kahn had already used in On Thermonuclear War, and that it therefore could fit comfortably into the larger intellectual structure erected in the earlier work. To believe that, however, would prevent one from taking the measure of what Kahn has done. Most important, he has given up the view that the United States should retaliate to Soviet (or Chinese) non-nuclear provocation by using nuclear weapons (of any size or description). It must be added that Kahn does list four situations in which we might be justified in having recourse to nuclear weapons: a Soviet invasion of Europe; a Soviet or Chinese attack on Japan, or on India; and “a particularly flagrant act of aggression by China or the Soviet Union that clearly ‘violated current conventions.’” Even in these cases, however, Kahn thinks that it might be better to absorb major defeats than to launch a nuclear attack.

Why, then, has Kahn altered his position? He is not systematic in his reasoning, and the most remarkable statements or conclusions often appear rather casually. The heart of the matter seems to be that even one use of nuclear weapons, by any power, for any purpose, will enormously stimulate the desire of non-nuclear nations to possess nuclear weapons, and thus eventually lead to an uncontrollable proliferation. It is Kahn's opinion that American interests, at least, are best served if the possession of nuclear weapons is as restricted as possible. The seventh chapter of Thinking about the Unthinkable contains Kahn's most careful assessment of the perils of proliferation, which range from “greater opportunities for blackmail, revenge . . .” to “greater danger of inadvertent war” to “diffusion of nuclear weapons to irresponsible private organizations.” From the very start Kahn has been obsessed by the problem of proliferation; he has gone so far as to state that he did not think that thirty or forty years could pass without a terrible tragedy caused by proliferation, unless the international political system had been radically modified. For all that, barring some miracle, or some burst of extraordinary wisdom, nothing can prevent proliferation.

If it is thus impossible to stop others from acquiring their own nuclear weapons—and some seem determined to get them even without the stimulus provided by their use by one of the great powers—the next best thing is for a tradition of non-use to be firmly established in the world. Kahn does not suggest that this tradition, by itself, will save the world. On the contrary, when all his scattered expressions of pessimism are brought together, one is left with a horrifying fatalism, a sense that before the world can be made better, it must undergo a devastating thermonuclear experience. Despite that, the tradition of non-use is one source of some feeble hope. He strongly recommends that the United States pledge itself not to be the first to use nuclear weapons, and to keep them only to deter their use by others. Quite in passing, Kahn lets drop the comment that, generally speaking, “. . . the initiation is as likely to come from us.” What Kahn is doing, remarkably enough, is asking the United States to be more forbearing than he thinks it will incline to be. (One would like to know Kahn's reaction to the recent revelations made by President Eisenhower. Twice his administration threatened to use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear power: first in 1953, to compel China to negotiate an end to the Korean war; and again, in 1958, to compel China to leave Quemoy and Matsu uninvaded.)

Kahn is now convinced that, should a nuclear war break out, “. . . it is almost certain that the risk of further escalation or eruption would dominate or over-shadow the issues around which the conflict originally revolved”; and that furthermore, “In an age of increasing weapons invulnerability, the outcome of even a general war is likely to be inconclusive whether it is fought in a carefully controlled fashion with relatively little unintended collateral damage to civilians, or whether it is fought indiscriminately.” The upshot is that Kahn has accepted the imperatives of common sense: nuclear warfare simply cannot be rationally considered as an instrument of foreign policy.


The pity is that only a small part of On Escalation is devoted to defending common sense. The bulk of the book consists in the effort to produce a schematic theory of escalation, of the possible sequences of action in a time of grave crisis. Not all crisis is dealt with, but only crisis in which the main antagonists could play a complex game requiring both conventional and nuclear armaments of the most diverse and sophisticated kind. That must mean having the United States pitted against the Soviet Union, with the rest of the world cast in the roles of bystanders, innocent victims, unwilling allies and co-sufferers, irritants, troublemakers, and residuary legatees.

There are forty-four rungs to the ladder of escalation, going from “ostensible crisis” to “spasm or insensate war”; there are six thresholds or points at which the struggle suffers a qualitative change, the most important of which is the decision, to use nuclear weapons. Kahn's intent is to suggest the stages by which the United States (or Russia) could intensify its involvement in a crisis, constantly taking risks, while avoiding excess and impulsiveness, and trusting that, sooner or later, the other side will back down or give up. Kahn has something enlightening to say about each of the rungs; his obiter dicta are numerous and valuable; his sense of the multifariousness of political motivation is remarkable; his intermittent disenchantment with his own theory is disarming. Yet for all its virtues, the main body of the book is still a waste of intellectual effort.

It would be philistine to deny a man the exuberance of his imagination; but it is surely strange to see Kahn's talents squandered on such a politically implausible condition as a really major confrontation of the United States and the Soviet Union. Apart from the question of Eastern Europe, there are no conflicts of interest between the United States and the Soviet Union. And that question, significant as it is, is not one to be decided by force, or the threats of force, but by the workings of time. Kahn himself says that judged by the standard of whether nuclear war has actually been deemed “thinkable” by American and Soviet leaders, no crisis since the end of World War II has been “intense.” In a footnote, Kahn persuasively argues that even the Cuban missile crisis did not include the possibility of a calculated nuclear strike by the United States on Russia.

The present tendencies, projected into the foreseeable future, would appear to continue to lessen the chances of a direct Soviet-American confrontation of the proportions required for Kahn's analysis to be at all useful. The troubles of the world may sometimes call for violent remedies; but they are not open to solution by escalation into nuclear warfare. All but the few lower rungs of Kahn's ladder stand for nuclear policies that are not technically available to most countries, and that are not moral or prudent for Russia or America. Certainly, the mere existence of nuclear weapons is a constant threat to the peace between the United States and the Soviet Union: accident or unauthorized action could bring about a crisis that perhaps only the refined techniques of selective punishment elegantly described by Kahn would settle. If that is so, Kahn should write a book on arms control, in which accident and unauthorized action would be the central preoccupation. It would be hard to think of anyone who could do a better job.

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