Herman Kahn is back in the news.

He was the great geo-strategist, the ultimate doomsday game-theory player and the model for Peter Sellers’ character of Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie of that name subtitled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Some of the mad doctor’s dialogue in the film is lifted from Kahn’s writing.

Kahn believed that nuclear war was not only highly likely, but winnable. He wrote and spoke of tolerable levels of victims in the tens of millions. He crunched his numbers, according to the game theory that he helped to refine, and found the United States coming out on top. The term “escalation” is attributed to Kahn; and in a Cold War era plagued by fear stemming from the nuclear powers’ deterrence strategy of mutually assured destruction (MAD), it was comforting to refer to his message: that, scientifically analyzed, America’s future was secure, if somewhat blistered by the death fires of internecine war.

In our own era of nuclear threat and proliferation, it is natural that Kahn’s ideas should be brought into the light once again. He was a pioneer in opening up the discussion of issues that were all too horrible to contemplate in the years leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Kahn’s two books, “On Thermonuclear War” (1961) and “Thinking About the Unthinkable” (1962), were worldwide best sellers. They became central to discourse on the topic of nuclear strategy, and even, curiously, bolstered the cause of pacifists who were able to point to Kahn’s cataclysmic predictions as proof that we were all heading blindfolded down the road to Armageddon.

Two books about Kahn’s life and theories have been published recently in the U.S., and with them he has returned to a wider public consciousness.

Self-styled Japan expert

It may not be widely known, however, that Kahn was a self-styled expert on Japan, co-authoring “The Japanese Challenge” in 1979. But when he came to Japan in 1969, he knew little about this country. I happen to know this quite well, as I was guide and interpreter for Herman and Jane Kahn on their trip here that year.

Kahn was a massive man, weighing nearly 140 kg. He was well aware of the effect his size had, particularly on the generally much smaller Japanese. When we found ourselves in the elevator of the Kyoto Hotel with a few other Western tourists, Kahn pointed to a little plaque that read, “Maximum Capacity 11 Persons.” He turned to the tourists and said, “That’s just for Japanese.”

Kahn’s visit was welcomed by those in the highest echelons of the Liberal Democratic Party. Prime Minister Eisaku Sato was facing a difficult election in the coming January, and Kahn’s rosy predictions about the rise of a Japanese superstate gave comfort to the ruling party. Kahn praised Japan and its leadership to the hilt. Japanese people’s opinions are vulnerable to influence from the outside. A prominent American who feeds Japanese nationalism can have more sway than a mere politician in power.

But when Kahn went to Osaka to give a talk to entrepreneurs in that commercial center, his theories about Japan leading the world into the 21st century were greeted with skeptical grimaces. The Osaka business world has traditionally been much less ideological than its Tokyo counterpart, and the word dished from on high, in this case the U.S., was taken with a very large grain of salt.

Kahn was born in 1922, in New Jersey, and brought up, as I was, in Los Angeles. We had both gone to UCLA (he 20 years before me), and we talked about our alma mater. Kahn had gone on to Caltech to study physics before joining the Rand Corporation, the Air Force think tank in Santa Monica, Calif.

One evening during their visit I had dinner with the Kahns at a tempura restaurant in Kyoto.

“This country will go nuclear by 1985,” he predicted. “You can’t have an economic superstate without the nuclear deterrent. And despite what the businessmen in Osaka said, Japan will overtake the U.S. as an economic power by the turn of the century.”

“Well, that’s a long way off,” I said, trying to imagine what life in Japan would be like more than 30 years on. “But the nuclear allergy here is pretty strong.”

“It won’t last another two decades.”

Having said that, he looked around the restaurant and then peered at me.

“But Roger, let me ask you a question. What are you doing here working for the Japanese?”

At the time I was lecturing at Kyoto Sangyo University in Russian and Polish.

Absolute American values

“What do you mean? I live here. I love it here. I don’t consider myself to be ‘working for the Japanese.’ Take this food, tempura. It’s Japanese food, but what’s the difference? If you like it, you like it.”

I wasn’t very articulate in my defense of expatriate life, and Kahn came back with something quite incisive.

“It’s an acquired taste. Just like your feelings about Japan. You are an American and it’s that simple. You may like it here, but you don’t belong here.”

Kahn spoke much about America during those few days in 1969 that I spent with him and his wife. He was a prototype of the present-day neocon, an unstinting advocate of absolute American values. His game-theorizing about a nuclear holocaust was bold and global; but when it came down to it, he was an American patriot posing as an internationalist.

Kahn’s knowledge of the culture, history and character of the Japanese people was minimal. But then again, a person who predicts the future of the world on the basis of systems analysis hardly needs such background.

Yet Kahn, I think, knew himself quite well. He was affable and without pretense.

“If you think I’m conservative,” he quipped to me one morning as we strolled down a lane in Kyoto, “you should talk to Jane. She’s somewhat to the right of the John Birch Society.”

When Kahn died in July 1983, President Ronald Reagan had this to say: “Herman Kahn was a futurist who welcomed the future. . . . All who value independent thinking will mourn the loss of a man whose intellect and enthusiasm embraced so much. I convey my deepest sympathy to Mr. Kahn’s family and all those who believe tomorrow can be better than today.”

There’s the paradox of Kahn in a nutshell. The president’s expression of sympathy to those who believe that tomorrow can be better than today belies the dark truth inside Kahn’s nuclear prophecy: The thing that is unthinkable is a world according to Herman Kahn.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.