While conscientious civilians kept an eye out for suspicious aircraft, Herman Kahn went swimming. A corporation sympathetic to Kahn's concern for civil defense had offered a fallout shelter, free of charge, to the Kahn family. Unfortunately, the shelter's entrance tube could not accommodate Kahn's prodigious frame, and so he had a swimming pool installed instead. He swam in it nearly every day.

Meanwhile, citizens of Yale, South Dakota, were gazing at the sky. Upon spotting a plane overhead, they'd sprint to the post office, each eager to be the first to describe the shape of the aircraft. These civic-minded Dakotans were members of the Ground Observer Corps, inaugurated in 1950 by the Continental Air Command. Joining them across the United States were lumbermen, fishermen, merchant marines, taxicab drivers, and inmates at Folsom, Attica, and Statesville.

These two images capture Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi's ambivalence toward the subject of her book The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War. Famous in his heyday, in the late 1950s and the 1960s, reduced to a caricature by those for whom Dr. Strangelove remains the last word on nuclear strategy, Kahn (1922-1983) has long aroused simplistic responses. Ghamari-Tabrizi is more ambivalent, more nuanced, seeing him in turn as a court jester and a visionary.

The case for the former is strong. Ghamari-Tabrizi dwells on Kahn's propensity for nuclear holocaust humor, quoting such gems as: "It is possible, isn't it, that parents will learn to love two-headed children twice as much?" Kahn's appearance alone was preposterous. Comically corpulent, balding, bespectacled, wheezing, and stumbling over words, he resembled—Frances FitzGerald wrote—"his adopted ...

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