July 10, 2003
by Irving Leveson
Herman Kahn left an indelible mark upon our intellects and our imaginations. He forced us to think far beyond the day-to-day details that engulf our lives, and to have a vision of the future that would give us purpose and hope. In a generation that is once again strongly reaching out in search of excellence, it is appropriate to consider how Herman helped us through what some consider a darker age.
Who was this man who started out as a mathematical assistant to Nobel physicists at RAND, burst onto the scene thinking about the unthinkable, and emerged as a leading thinker, challenging conventional views on economics, politics, social development, technological impacts, and national security? Who was this man, self-taught in so many fields, author of more than a dozen books, with extraordinary range, who was introduced to and by presidents as the world’s smartest? The Washington Post called him a polymath-a specialist in many fields-an appellation he cherished. A Hudson staff member turned undersecretary called him the world’s largest briefer. A physical scientist, popularizer, entertainer-he was many things. Herman Kahn liked best to be thought of as a macrohistorian, a modern-day Toynbee, exposing our frailties, foolishness and wishful thinking, but most of all exhorting us to avoid the paralysis of pessimism, to recognize strengths and to be all that we could be.
Herman did this through a relentless effort to make us look a the sweep of history, in The Year 2000, The Emerging Japanese Superstate, and The Next 200 Years, to see the implications of the big picture and the forces changing our lives. At the same time he taught us to study detail and to learn from observation and practical experience, at the very time we were being urged to use theory and methodology in ways that were becoming more remote and themselves in need of reexamination for our time. He made us bring to the surface and study those facts that didn’t fit, in the way great scientists always have fostered new ideas. Herman focused on how we use information and encouraged use of every method of learning and gaining insights. One of his favorite stories was about a speech he gave three years ago in Australia. After he went on in great detail about his subject, a man in the back of the room raised his hand. He said, “Herman, that’s fine in practice, but how does it work out in theory?”
The hallmark of Herman’s approach was the evolution of strategic thinking. The strategic approach brought together many perspectives and considerations into analyses suitable for decision-making on the part of both business and government. The strategic approach facilitated studying cross-cutting and highly interrelated developments for practical considerations, and the use of scenarios made vivid the implications of trends, business-as-usual behavior and fundamental shifts. These Herman would present with more lists than Irving Wallace and his many anecdotes that earned him the place he treasured in a book on the great persuaders of our time. A Time magazine critic quipped that Herman Kahn was “working to be more holistic than thou.”
Herman was willing to speak out and take the personal and professional abuse of being wrong-and of being right. He told the defense community that a policy of mutually assured destruction was unworkable and that survival depended on a strategy of no-first use of nuclear weapons. He told its critics that unilateral disarmament was unrealistic and that we could greatly limit the damage of nuclear exchange if we refuse to stick our heads in the sand and instead think about how to handle situations that could arise. He even proposed in a 1967 Law Review article that an antinuclear movement-if truly worldwide-was one of the best ways to reduce the chances of a nuclear holocaust.
Herman was quick to remind us that the beard he wore in later years was an Amish beard, signifying peace and moral strength.
Herman Kahn directed the Hudson Institute in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, which he founded in 1961, and was affectionately known as Herman-on-Hudson. Today, the family of Hudson organizations is evolving more rapidly than ever, with Hudson Institute running the Center for Naval Analyses in Alexandria, Hudson Institute moving to Indianapolis, and the spin-off of Hudson Strategy Group in New York. But the openness, curiosity and spark which make Herman the national resource he has often been called were greater than any organization.
A dictionary defines a pioneer as “a person who originates or helps to open up a new line of thought.” Herman Kahn knew how to laugh at us and at himself and how to make us think. I will always remember those fifteen leather briefcases lined up beneath his dining room table-traveling files, ready to go at a moment’s notice. Now they are gone, but he as left something in all of us. Herman-we miss you.
This publication was originally delivered to the World Future Society Open General Assembly, June 10, 1984.
Irving Leveson is an Adjunct Fellow for Hudson Institute.
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