28 FEBRUARY 1964, Page 11

Dr. Strangelove and Dr. Kahn


rTFIE gossip that is going around tells us that

I Dr. Strangelove of the current film is based on Dr. Herman Kahn, head of the Hudson Insti- tute in New York. An article, for instance, in the Sunday Times of February 9, speaks in its head- line of Dr. Kahn as 'the Prototype of Dr. Strange- love.' I am not quite sure what such phrases mean. Dr. Strangelove is a small, crippled man v,ho is wheeled about in a bathchair. Dr. Kahn is a man of Chestertonian dimensions who happily needs no such aid for his propulsion. Such differences are perhaps of secondary impor- tance. Dr. Strangelove is an ex-Nazi who at the moment of destruction makes the Nazi salute. One cannot imagine Dr. Kahn doing anything of the sort. Dr. Strangelove is an inhuman figure, humourless, fanatically convinced that the world is divided into two sorts of men, ruthlessly deter- mined to perfect any technique of destruction, unhesitantly ready to destroy the whole human race, if that is the only way to destroy the enemy, down to the small remnant that can be crowded into disused mineshafts, from whom the new race can be bred. Dr. Kahn, on the other hand, is a man of chuckling humour, of wide cultural interests. I sat a few months ago at dinner between him and Mr. Karpov, the First Secretary of the Russian Embassy in Washington. We talked about Chaucer and Dostoievsky. It is true that Dr. Kahn was, I believe, the inventor of the phrase 'the Dooms- day Machine,' the machine which, buried ten thousand feet beneath the ground, insulated against the danger of sentimental blackmail by the fact that its working was entirely depen- dent on a computer, would be able to destroy all human life. He certainly habitually uses the phrase and has expressed the opinion that, given ten years and ten thousand million dollars, it would alMost certainly be possible to construct such a machine. The Doomsday Machine, it will be remembered, plays a large part in the film of Dr. Strangelove and it is presumably from a study of Dr. Kahn's work that Stanley Kubrick derived the idea of it. But in the film it is not Dr. Strange- love who has made the machine nor the Ameri- cans who possess it. It is the Russians who possess it. Nor, though Dr. Kahn has expressed the opinion that it would be possible to make such a machine, has he therefore advocated that it should be made. On the contrary, he has ex- plicitly denounced the making of it—denounced it in his rather curious Teutonic phraseology as 'unacceptable'—the making of it as insane.

The Doomsday Machine is to Dr. Kahn 'un- acceptable' for the common-sense reason that it could serve no purpose. The only rational use of force is to impose or to preserve a certain pattern of society. A weapon that is so destructive that It destroys the human race cannot be called a weapon of self-defence. Hitherto mankind has no- had to concern itself with weapons of such power. It is the especial problem of our own day that such weapons have now been invented. If Dr. Strangelove is the type of the inhuman tech- nician, utterly indifferent to the consequences of the exploitation of his discoveries, not only is Dr. Kahn not the prototype of Dr. Strangelove. He' is almost the exact opposite of him. The difference, to put it succinctly, is that Dr. Strange- love is mad and Dr. Kahn is sane.

In the 1950s Dr. Kahn was disturbed by the failure of the politicians and strategists to under- stand that a new type of weapon had come into the world—by their naïve determination merely to pile up weapons of greater and greater destruc- tive power in the belief that the maximum of destructive power would automatically create the maximum of security. On the contrary, these• weapons were so horrible that it was impossible to contemplate their use save against acts of outrageous aggression and therefore, if a nation possessed no effective weapons other than nuclear weapons, it had in fact no means of preventing acts of secondary aggression. Therefore the task that Dr. Kahn and his colleagues set themselves was to inform the world in as accurate detail as possible what would be the effects of the different sorts of conflict. His pur- pose, in so far as he was concerned to advocate a policy, was to persuade the nation to equip itself to tight at every rung of the ladder of escalation and to have as many rungs as possible between the first conflict and the final 'all-out' nuclear destruction. The powers, as he often puts it, are playing 'chicken'—a game in which two persons drive motor-cars towards one another along a white line and the one that swerves off that line the first in fear of a col- lision is jeered at by the other and the onlookers as 'yellow.' We must find some less idiotic and less suicidal game for the powers to play.

Fortified by a subsidy of a million dollars from the United States Government, he and his staff of thirty-five at the Hudson Institute, thirty-five miles outside New York, have set themselves up as 'a think factory.' We 'make systematic analyses of many possible alterna- tives, pleasant and unpleasant.' says Dr. Brennan, the Institute's President, 'and then, having cleared away some of our own emotional biases, we are able to see more clearly what the choices are and what actions should he taken.' The more rungs there are on the ladder of escalation between 'disagreement' and final. all-out destruction, the greater the chance of stopping the conflict somewhere on the way before the utter destruction.

It is true that Dr. Kahn has his own somewhat Teutonic and professorial manner of enunciating his opinions. He arrives to give a lecture armed with assistants and a vast mass of charts to be thrown on to the screen. His preference Is for a lecture of three hours. Under some pressure at the seminar where I made his acquaintance he agreed to confine his lecture to two hours with a break in the middle. The charts showed various choices of destruction and the audience was commanded to proclaim which of these alternatives it thought the least undesirable. When they announced their choices, Dr. Kahn told them—perhaps a little too dogmatically— which choices were 'correct.' It was a fascinating but an exhaustive business. Only the physically fit are qualified to form part of Dr. Kahn's audiences. A critic might, I suppose, interpret Dr. Kahn's chuckle and ready laugh as an evi- dence of a certain intellectual relish in making our flesh creep. It would not, I think, be a fair interpretation, 'r nd in any event even if he does enjoy alarming us, that is not very culpable unless it can be shown that in order to do so he exaggerates--of which there is no evidence at all. Yet the one thing that Dr. Kahn is not— except to his audiences—is ruthless. He is the exact opposite of Dr. Strangelove, who is pre- pared to allow millions to die without compunc- tion. One of the most persistent reasons in Dr. Kahn's arguments that cause one answer to be proclaimed as more 'correct' than another is that such a society as the American cannot kill unnecessarily and still remain itself. An America which consents to unnecessary killing is an America that has defeated itself. whatever its victories over its enemies. Morality apart, he is much too inteilcent, as Dr. Strangelove appar- ently is not to imagine that psychological con- siderations can be ignored.

In Dr. Strangclope catastrophe comes as a result not of deliberate policy but of inadequate ccntrol over a particular irresponsible lunatic. Some writers—Mr. Peregrine Worsthorne, for instance—have taken the film to task on the ground that precautions are such that an accident of this sort is now impossible. But this film was based on Mr. P:ter George's novel Red Alert. That novel was written in 1958. It is Dr. Kahn's opinion—and in this he is undoubtedly correct— that precautions against accidents were danger- ously insufficient some years ago but are very much more satisfactory today--so much so that he thinks that today the chances of an accidental war are about as small as they can be made. He is optimistic, but even in his optimism he still keeps an air-raid shelter beneath the Hudson Institute—just in cast. The chances may be a hundred to one against an accident, but, if the two powers contrent one another over the genera- tions, sooner or later even the hundredth chance will turn up. 'Mutual destruction,' Dr. Kahn has written, 'cannot be avoided by slogans or even good, intentions.'

Therefore the only real security lies in the establishment of some sort of effective world authority. The best world authority would doubt- less be a freely accepted world federation, but we are very unlikely to get that within such time as we have available. We should accept an un- satisfactory authority Mute de Inieux rather than wait indefinitely for the ideal. In his character- istic fashion Dr. Kahn lists in order of prob- ability, and not of desirability, the forms of effective world government that we are likely to get. The most probable, he thought a few years ago, was a domination of the world by either the Soviet or the United States after the one had defeated the other in conflict. He is now inclined to think a Soviet-United States partnership, in effect though not specifically called a world government, to be the most probable. The Ameri- cans and the Russians are unlikely to allow them- selves to be drawn into a conflict out of which the gainer would clearly be neither Russia nor America, but the teriius gaudens of China. An Englishman must record with regret that, in spite of Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Dr. Kahn does not think the United Kingdom is likely to play a very significant part in the arrangement of the affairs of the world.