‘The Worlds of Herman Kahn’

“The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War” by Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi: If you ever wanted to read a book about a technocrat, a geek, a free-thinking resident of the ivory-tower world of think tanks — well, this still probably isn’t the book for you. And if you don’t want to read about a career think-tanker who liked to dream of a world after global thermonuclear war, this definitely isn’t the book for you.

I know it wasn’t the book for me.

Kahn was a second-rate physicist who became a first-rate think-tanker, first with RAND and then with his own Hudson Institute. His big contribution to the Cold War was the publication in 1961 of “On Thermonuclear War,” which shocked the nation with its examination of how the nation could survive a cataclysmic confrontation with the Soviet Union — give or take 100 million people. He supposedly helped inspire the character of Dr. Strangelove, who, like Kahn, advocated taking American society underground to wait out the fallout in the Stanley Kubrick movie of the same name.

Kahn had a wicked sense of humor: “One can almost hear the President saying to his advisors, ‘How can I go to war (when) almost all American cities will be destroyed?’ And the answer ought to be, in essence, ‘That’s not entirely fatal, we’ve built some spares.’ ”

If Ghamari-Tabrizi could match that wit, it might be worth following her back into the Cold War to examine her shaky parallels to the current Bush administration and its thoughts on known unknowns. Instead, we get repeated references to the “gestalt” of this and that and phrases such as “If we foreground the cognitive and emotional palette of these years rather than its pathology, we can enter vitally into its world.”

If that sentence excites you or even makes sense to you, jump right into Kahn’s “Worlds.” Otherwise, spend the time letting a great book, “The Bomb,” blow you away.

Rating: Don’t waste your time. Reviewed by Michael Jacobs (originally appeared in USA TODAY)

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