On Thermonuclear War, by Herman Kahn (1960)

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

By the late 1950s, the notion that nuclear war would extinguish mankind, dramatized in Nevil Shute’s best selling On The Beach and the subsequent movie, or kill hundreds of millions of Americans at the very least, had become prevalent. Kahn’s book, applying data from the U.S. government’s exhaustive experiments on the effects of nuclear weapons to the gamut of scenarios in which they might be used, shows that “disasters come in very different sizes.” In short, the destructiveness as well as the military effect of nuclear weapons—like that of any other weapons—depends on how they are used and on how one goes about defending one’s self against them.

Combining experimental data about the effects of nuclear blast, heat, prompt and residual radiation with data on the vulnerability of structures and humans, Kahn showed that mere civil defense measures reduce casualties by orders of magnitude. When the effect of these is superimposed on tactics for reducing the enemy’s striking power as well as to defend against the enemy’s means of delivering nukes—all dictates of common sense—the prospect of nuclear war’s destructiveness re-enters the realm of reality.

As Kahn was writing, America had an abundance of nuclear weapons and aircraft to deliver them. The U-2 spy plane was just lifting our ignorance about where we might drop them so as to do ourselves some good. As a result, the U.S. was moving away from the non-strategy of hitting an “optimum mix” of civilian and military targets. Kahn argued for restricting U.S. nukes to the Soviet airfields and missile sites, the destruction of which would reduce their capacity to hurt America, and for using satellites to find them. He praised America’s anti-aircraft defenses, and advocated building similarly near-perfect ones against missiles.