93 Note by Department of External Affairs

London, 30 June 1967

Western Strategy

The following are some notes of a discussion session at the Imperial Defence College on 30th June, 1967, which was led by Herman Kahn (Director of the Hudson Institute). He is the author of several books, including 'On Thermonuclear War' (1960), 'Thinking About the Unthinkable' (1962), and 'On Escalation, Metaphors and Scenarios' (1965).

  1. Kahn said there was considerable disarray in Western strategic thinking about the defence of Europe. To begin with, the British who had the best fast moving armoured forces in Germany would not allow an attack and were thinking entirely defensively whereas the Germans would not allow any retreat. He added that all the field commanders were placing great reliance on the use of battlefield nuclear weapons and that this would be unacceptable to the Germans if it was to be confined to German soil.
  2. Kahn went on to discuss in detail a scenario which envisaged a Russian attack or move against West Berlin. He argued that assuming the Russian move was successful and the garrison was overcome it could not be assumed that the President of the United States would permit escalation to a massive nuclear exchange. He was hotly contested by British students at the I.D.C., but he maintained that rather than initiate a nuclear exchange the United States would make some formal act such as a declaration of war which would still leave the options open (especially if the attack on Berlin had not been accompanied by a major Soviet offensive into West Germany).
  3. Kahn's general thesis was that the 'threshold level' before either the United States or the Soviet Union would be prepared to risk escalation into a massive nuclear exchange had risen considerably over recent years, and that if ever they did get into a nuclear exchange it would be on a knock for knock basis. (He gave as an example a hypothetical scenario in which for political reasons, e.g. loss of face with the Chinese, Soviet leaders felt that they had to put a nuclear rocket into New York. He believed that once the Russians made clear on the 'hotline' that the blow at New York was a limited one the United States would react by taking out a Russian city such as Leningrad, and that that could conceivably be the end of the nuclear exchange).
  4. In these terms, Kahn saw the basic nuclear strategy of both the United States and the Soviet Union as extremely cautious, and one only of matching escalation.
  5. He commented, however, that current official strategic thinking in the United States did not believe that nuclear exchanges necessarily would be controlled but only that they might be controlled. He said that most scenarios suggested that millions could be killed and war terminated with most of the weapons unfired. This was the lex talionis ('knock for knock') principle, and this was what lay at the back of talk of graduated and controlled response, controlled deterrents, etc.
  6. Dealing with the inhibitions on the use of tactical nuclear weapons in situations such as Vietnam Kahn listed them as follows:
    1. the precedent would be set;
    2. the impetus that would be given to proliferation;
    3. the reduction of controls over the Chinese;
    4. the reaction of domestic United States and world public opinion.
  7. In discussion of non-proliferation, Kahn argued that the world would probably be a safer place with proliferation. The most likely situation would be a war between under-developed countries. In such event (e.g. a nuclear exchange between Israel and the U.A.R.), he believed that the United States and Soviet Union would stand aside. Generally, he believed that the United States would only be prepared to honour obligations to non-nuclear countries. If, for example, Israel or India acquired nuclear weapons there would be no obligation to protect them.
  8. Commenting on the Chinese nuclear developments, Kahn argued that despite Chinese development of A-model (nuclear) and T-model (thermo-nuclear) weapons they did not have the industrial base to come anywhere near matching U.S. and Soviet sophisticated delivery systems technology and could not be regarded as a serious threat to those powers especially with the new systems coming up in the next decade. He claimed that by the time they came up with an I.C.B.M.1 capability in the 70's the U.S. and Soviet Union would have leap-frogged ahead again.
  9. The Directing Staff emphasized at a subsequent session that he did not hold any official position in the United States administration.

[NAA: A1838, TS681/6 part 6]