Herman Kahn was about as socially appealing as one would expect of a man who helped inspire Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. Yet the co-founder of the Hudson Institute was unquestionably a genius of a sort: an archetype of an era when America was wealthy enough and confident enough to produce a startling array of thinkers and futurists. Kahn’s gift for informed speculation, and his intellectual ability to think in systems, placed him alongside contemporary minds including Buckminster Fuller, Robert Heinlein, and John Boyd, each of whom possessed and employed the vital combination of comprehensive knowledge and the gift for synthesis. It is not at all clear to me that American society is creating this sort of intellect in sufficient numbers now: you might tag someone like John Robb as a present-day example, but the ranks are thin. For whatever reason, we lived in an era from perhaps 1950 to perhaps 1990 when a spirit of creative iconoclasm shot through the American mind, and then we left it.
Illustrative of the point: spend just over eight minutes of your life watching Kahn riff, here, on absolutely anything he wished in 1979.
The range is simply astonishing, and it is matched with depth and the indispensable cross-referencing. Herman Kahn appears here as a sort of mirror-image Shelby Foote: a man who reminisces about the future, not the past; a man very much of the north, not the south; and a man entirely willing to hold forth at length on the currents propelling his thoughts.