Title: How to Win a Nuclear War (According to Herman Kahn)
Author: Dick Cheney.

How to Win a Nuclear War (According to Herman Kahn)
"We don’t want to start a nuclear war unless we really have to, now do we Jack?"
---Capt.Mandrake (Peter Sellers)
. Dr. Strangelove, Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb

Results of Hypothetical Nuclear War - Princeton University (2019)

The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) asserts that there can be no winners in a nuclear war. In fact, because of MAD, one wonders if war between nuclear armed countries is even possible at all. War between Russia and the United States for instance, is irrational. No side could conceivably hope to benefit from armed conflict that would inevitably result in its own destruction. The cost of nuclear fallout and loss of life sustaining ecosystems would also devastate the Earth, making it less hospitable to human life. Thinking about nuclear war, therefore, like suicide to rational agents, is not possible.

On Thermonuclear War (1960)

Enter Herman Kahn, author of On Thermonuclear War, RAND Corps physicist, futurist, Princeton professor, and the historical inspiration for Dr. Strangelove.

According to Kahn, nuclear war wasn’t only possible, it was also winnable. And he aimed to prove it by demonstrating the logical fallacies associated with mutual destruction.

Suppose the Russians did invade a NATO country and did denotate a nuclear weapon, according to MAD and massive retaliation theories the US should respond disproportionately with nuclear weapons – including (possibly) an attack on Moscow itself. A minor conventional attack, or even a nuclear device used on a NATO country, could thus conceivably result in an all-out nuclear war.

It’s here, according to Kahn, where deterrence theories leading to unlimited destruction and mutual annihilation begin to fall apart.

“However angry both of us would be,” Kahn writes, “we would not start an all-out [nuclear] war” over an invaded country or a nuclear attack “because suicide is not a rational way of expressing one’s anger.” [1]. And if a tit-for tat exchange were used instead (in the event of an actual nuclear attack), it eventually becomes irrational to continue with escalation. Both sides will eventually have an incentive to stop using nuclear weapons as continued conflict becomes unprofitable.

According to Kahn then, nuclear war between Russia and the United States was possible because it would be limited.

“Even if the United States and [Russia] cannot wage all-out war against each other this does not mean that the role of force will be entirely eliminated. There may still be many disputes between the two nations—disputes which may tempt one side to use force on a small scale. If the only counter the other nation has is to commit suicide by starting a thermonuclear war, that nation most likely will not act. Therefore, one needs Limited War capabilities to meet limited provocations. Those who adhere to the [Mutual Annihilation] theory often feel that the “nonaggression treaty” of mutual deterrence is so binding and so stable it is impossible to provoke the other side to violate it by anything less than an all-out attack. Seen in this perspective, cannot one safely use the most extreme forms of violence in a limited war?” [2]

To further this point, that the decision to use nuclear weapons does not logically lead one to Armageddon, Kahn posed the following question; would the survivors of a nuclear conflict envy the dead?

As horrible and catastrophic a nuclear war might seem, Kahn writes, the answer is no. Nuclear war in any of its forms is survivable.

“From a scientific perspective there is some indication that a nuclear war could deplete the earth's ozone layer or, less likely, could bring on a new Ice Age – but there is no suggestion that either the created order or mankind would be destroyed in the process.” [3]


“Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, objective studies indicate that even though the amount of human tragedy would be greatly increased in [a] postwar world, the increase would not preclude normal and happy lives for the majority of survivors and their descendants.” [4]

Finally, even with a Doomsday Machine, an autonomous weapon that could guarantee the complete destruction of the Earth (via detection of a nuclear launch), mutual annihilation would still suffer from a huge credibility problem.

“Who would even build it?” Kahn argued. And who in their right mind would hand the fate of the world to a computer? How would you even begin to account for miscalculations along with nuclear accidents? According to Kahn, the threat of mutually assured destruction in its most perfect form -the legendary Doomsday Machine- served no purpose other than to again threaten idiotic suicide.

“The Doomsday Machine is not sufficiently controllable. Even though it maximizes the probability that deterrence will work.. it is totally unsatisfactory. One must still examine the consequences of a failure [and its unpredictability]. In this case a failure kills too many people and kills them too automatically. There is no chance of human intervention, control, and final decision. And even if we give up the computer and make the Doomsday Machine reliably controllable by the decision makers, it is still not controllable enough. [No country] would be willing to spend billions of dollars to give a few individuals this particular kind of life and death power over the entire world.” [5]

Plus, in the event of a thermonuclear war, there logically had to be another option between surrender and the end of history.

Escalation Dominance

After showing problems inherent in mutual annihilation, Kahn then went on to theorize how an actual nuclear war could be won.

Nuclear war, according to Kahn, would be fought on an escalation ladder consisting of 44 rungs. Each rung representing a level of intensity that could be expected during a nuclear crisis. Nuclear armed states might begin maneuvering through peacetime disputes, accelerate to brinkmanship and conventional warfare, before finally passing the nuclear threshold, which, however unprecedented, would still not automatically lead to general nuclear war.

Kahn's Ladder of Escalation
Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 

Invoking Clausewitz, Kahn argued his escalation ladder worked (and that nuclear war had a limited character) because it was impossible to separate the use of force from political goals. Even with the possibility of a full-on nuclear exchange, contestants must begin the crisis with political goals that were limited in character. As adversaries engaged in nuclear war pursue limited objectives and increase the use of force overtime -either to gain advantage or avoid defeat- it becomes increasingly obvious that its wartime objectives are unreachable or no longer worth the costs. At some point in the nuclear ladder (Kahn argued), countries will seek to negotiate or de-escalate the conflict. Even with a full-on nuclear exchange- countries would be allowed to continue fighting -or seek de-escalation- through spasm war. A maximum discharge of nuclear weapons was not the maximum threshold for wartime violence. Nuclear war again, according to Kahn, was survivable and could continue past Armageddon.

Levels of Conflict (differentiated by intensity and level of violence) leading to de-escalation

To win a nuclear war, Kahn thus argued for a strategy of escalation dominance. In broad military terms, escalation dominance means a country -through its political power or its military- controls the pace of escalation. This is achieved ideally by demonstrating dominate capabilities at each of the 44 levels of escalation. A country that possess escalation dominance can win a war at any of level of conflict and is able to choose the rung on the nuclear ladder at which a nuclear issue would be resolved. Because costs tend to rise as violence intensifies, opponents engaged in a nuclear war must have enough poker chips to compete at each level of escalation. An opponent will surrender its wartime objectives once it no longer has the capabilities -or the chips- necessary to climb the ladder of escalation at a favorable cost. A country that possess escalation dominance is the only one who can improve his situation by raising the level of violence but still make things costly or disadvantageous enough for his opponent to continue.

Like any other war then, Kahn’s escalation ladder shows that the decision to use force (and nuclear weapons) will be governed by principles in economics. The goal in nuclear war is not merely to achieve political objectives, or kill your opponent, but to achieve one’s political objectives at the lowest cost possible.

Kahn and His Critics

Kahn theories and strategies of course, are not without their critics. And it is important to remember that Kahn complied most of his thinking and writing in the first two decades of the Cold War. ICBMs were still in their infancy, MAD had yet to be formally coined, and Massive Retaliation was justified on the premise that nuclear weapons were necessary to overcome Soviet numbers and advantages in conventional warfare.

Since publishing his theories however, more countries have obtained nuclear weapons, and nuclear proliferation has become a dominate arms control issue. Critics contend that Kahn’s theories on nuclear war -especially escalation dominance- open the doors for future arms races. Dominating each level of conflict in a theoretical nuclear war would require huge investments in civil defense, missile defense, early warning radar, first and second-strike capabilities, along with conventional force. Many arms control experts agree, reinventing the missile gap would be dangerous, and could lead to preventative war. Arms races, if World War I was any indication, encourages mistrust and are politically unstable. Kahn however, might contend that World War II happened because there wasn’t an arms race.

Still, military superiority, even after paying a hefty price for it, does not guarantee victory. A risk-taking opponent might still choose to escape escalation dominance through gambling, to include deception and denial. The inevitable fog of war also calls into question whether a nuclear armed state would even realize it faced escalation dominance – which of course could still lead to accidental nuclear exchanges.

Finally, a nuclear war would literally be unlike anything the world has ever seen before. For all Kahn’s models, research, and assurances, the world has never experienced a nuclear war, or experienced the expected loss of life and damage that would wreck the planet and global economy. To the extent it would fundamentally alter human society and our way of life remains an unknown possibility. Yet the effect of nuclear winter and radioactive fallout -along with the death of millions, and millions more to still be born- is sure to be a step back for us as a species. Mankind might still survive a nuclear holocaust, but there won’t be any gains.

In the end, whatever we might think of Herman Kahn, it is important to remember that he was not a war monger. His theories and writings showed potential holes in deterrence strategies that saw no other way out of a nuclear stalemate other than through mutual suicide. Kahn’s thinkings and writings at least give credibility to a new theory of flexible response – which is much more preferable to nuclear oblivion. It was Kahn’s job after all to think through the unthinkable and provide solutions that would help policymakers prevent or win a nuclear war. To Kahn, the only reasonable way to prevent nuclear catastrophe was to prepare for it. Kahn provides a way out of nuclear oblivion through daring but also rational thinking. In a nuclear war, dare what may, a way out through rational thinking is the only thing we can hope to pray for.


1. Kahn, Herman. On Thermonuclear War (p. 12). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
2. On Thermonuclear War (p. 12)
3. Kahn, Herman. Thinking about the Unthinkable (p. 30) - Google Books Result
4. On Thermonuclear War (p. 27)
5. On Thermonuclear War (p. 172)