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On Escalation


In this widely discussed and influential book, Herman Kahn probes the dynamics of escalation and demonstrates how the intensification of conflict can be depicted by means of a definite escalation ladder, ascent of which brings opponents closer to all-out war. At each rung of the ladder, before the climb proceeds, decisions must be made based on numerous choices. Some are clear and obvious, others obscure, but the options are always there.

Thermonuclear annihilation, says Kahn, ...

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In this widely discussed and influential book, Herman Kahn probes the dynamics of escalation and demonstrates how the intensification of conflict can be depicted by means of a definite escalation ladder, ascent of which brings opponents closer to all-out war. At each rung of the ladder, before the climb proceeds, decisions must be made based on numerous choices. Some are clear and obvious, others obscure, but the options are always there.

Thermonuclear annihilation, says Kahn, is unlikely to come through accident; but nations may elect to climb the ladder to extinction. The basic material for the book was developed in briefings delivered by Kahn to military and civilian experts and revised in the light of his findings of a trip to Vietnam in the 1960s. In On Escalation he states the facts squarely. He asks the reader to face unemotionally the terrors of a world fully capable of suicide and to consider carefully the alternatives to such a path.

In the never-never land of nuclear warfare, where nuclear incredulity is pervasive and paralyzing to the imagination even for the professional analyst, salient details of possible scenarios for the outbreak of war, and even more for war fighting, are largely unexplored or even unnoticed. For scenarios in which war is terminated, the issues and possibilities of which are almost completely unstudied, the situation is even worse. Kahn's discussion throws light on the terrain and gives the individual a sense of the range of possibilities and complexities involved and are useful.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This [reissue of Kahn's On Thermonuclear War and On Escalation] could not come at a better time. Human nature has not made much moral progress since the end of the Third Reich but its very worst instinct for total destruction has, so far, been held at bay by the certainty of self-destruction. We need someone to remind us again of how to think about the unthinkable."
-- Mark Safranski,

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781412811620
  • Publisher: Transaction Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/1/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 338
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Herman Kahn (1922-1983) was a renowned political scientist, economist, historian geo-strategist, and considered by many to be the founder of futurology as a serious field of study. Associated for many years with the RAND Corporation, he was the founding director of the first independent “think tank,” the Hudson Institute. Among his many books are Thinking About the Unthinkable, The Year 2000, The Next 200 Years, The Coming Boom, The Resourceful Earth, and On Thermonuclear War.

Thomas Schelling is Distinguished University Professor at the School of Public Policy, University of Maryland. In addition to being the 2005 Noble Prize Laureate in Economics he is the author of numerous works including Choice and Consequence, The Strategy of Conflict, and Micromotives and Macrobehavior.

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Table of Contents

Introduction to the Transaction Edition, Thomas C. Schelling

Foreword to the Paperback Edition




Escalation in Brief

The Strike and "Chicken" Metaphors

Sources of Control and Cooperation in International Society

The Question of Who, Whom, and Why Some Examples of the Importance of Who, Whom, and Why

An Example of Restraint and Negotiation in Total War (World War II)

A "Standard Crisis" Scenario


A Useful Metaphor

Description of the Rungs and Thresholds

Subcrisis Maneuvering

Traditional Crises (The Boat Is Rocked)

Intense Crises (The Unthinkable Nuclear War Becomes Credible)

Bizarre Crises (Nuclear Weapons Are Used)

Exemplary Central Attacks (Violating the Central Sanctuary-Nuclear Gunboat Diplomacy)

Military Central Wars (The New Kind of All-Out War)

Civilian Central Wars (Violation of the "No-City" Threshold)


Basic Description and Definition

The Rungs of Subcrisis Maneuvering

Rung 1. Ostensible Crisis

Rung 2. Political, Economic, and Diplomatic Gestures

Rung 3. Solemn and Formal Declarations

Rationality-of-Irrationality and Committal Strategies

The Rung 2 Escalation of the Summer of 1964


Basic Description and Definition

The Rungs of Traditional Crises

Rung 4. Hardening of Positions-Confrontation of Wills

Rung 5. Show of Force

Rung 6. Significant Mobilization

Rung 7. "Legal" Harassment-Retortions

Rung 8. Harassing Acts of Violence

Rung 9. Dramatic Military Confrontations

A Recent Example of a "Traditional Crisis" Scenario


Basic Description and Definition

The Rungs of Intense Crises

Rung 10. Provocative Breaking Off of Diplomatic Relations

Rung 11. Super-Ready Status

Rung 12. Large Conventional War (or Actions)

Rung 13. Large Compound Escalation

Rung 14. Declaration of Limited Conventional War

Rung 15. Barely Nuclear War

Rung 16. Nuclear "Ultimatums"

Rung 17. Limited Evacuation (Approximately 20 per cent)

Rung 18. Spectacular Show or Demonstration of Force

Rung 19. "Justifiable" Counterforce Attacks

Rung 20. "Peaceful" World-Wide Embargo or Blockade


The Saliency of the Nuclear Threshold

The Nuclear Threshold as a Prototype Restraint

The Nuclear Consensus-An Example of Systems Bargaining

The Considerations to Be Examined

Some Disadvantages to the U.S.

Pressures for Continued Escalation

The Immediate Consequences on the Wider Power Balance

Effects on Stability, the Arms Race, and Nuclear Proliferation

Some Additional Arguments in Favor of a Breach of the Nuclear Threshold

Recapitulation and Concluding Remarks on Preserving the Nuclear Threshold

Application of the "No Nuclear Use" Discussion to the Other Basic Thresholds


Basic Description and Definition

The Rungs of Bizarre Crises

Rung 21. Local Nuclear War-Exemplary

Rung 22. Declaration of Limited Nuclear War

Rung 23. Local Nuclear War-Military

Rung 24. Unusual, Provocative, and Significant Countermeasures

Rung 25. Evacuation (Approximately 70 per cent)

The "Central Sanctuary" Threshold

The Rungs of Exemplary Central Attacks

Rung 26. Demonstration Attack on Zone of Interior

Rung 27. Exemplary Attack on Military

Rung 28. Exemplary Attacks Against Property

Rung 29. Exemplary Attacks on Population

Rung 30. Complete Evacuation (Approximately 95 per cent)

Rung 31. Reciprocal Reprisals

Some Comments on the Relative Technical Simplicity of Exemplary Central Attacks


A Serious Gap in Much Military Planning and Discussion

Crisis and Damage Limitation

Seven Basic Options

A Proposal for ABM Deployment

A Proposal for Evacuation Preparations

Some Pros and Cons



Basic Description and Definition

The Rungs of Military Central Wars

Rung 32. Formal Declaration of "General" War

Rung 33. Slow-Motion Counter-''Property" War

Rung 34. Slow-Motion Counterforce War

Rung 35. Constrained Force-Reduction Salvo

Rung 36. Constrained Disarming Attack

Rung 37. Counterforce-with-A voidance Attack

Rung 38. Unmodified Counterforce Attack

The Rungs of Civilian Central Wars

Rung 39. Slow-Motion Countercity War

Rung 40. Countervalue Salvo

Rung 41. Augmented Disarming Attack

Rung 42. Civilian Devastation Attack

Rung 43. Some Other Kinds of Controlled General War

Rung 44. Spasm or Insensate War


The Current Neglect of Strategy and Tactics

The Need for Limited Objectives If Deterrence Fails, and the Consequent Central Role of "Negotiation"

Bargaining in a Central War

The Problem of the "Fog of War"


Discontinuities in and Importance of Distance Between Rungs

Criteria for Evaluating the Position of Rungs

Dynamics of Escalation

The Question of Style

Objections to the Upper Rungs


De-escalation and Crisis Termination

Approaches to De-escalation

Escape from Current "Costs"

Insurance Against Further Escalation

Learning to Cooperate (Systems Bargaining?)

Setting Precedents (More Systems Bargaining?)

War-Fighting or Hostile Aspects

An Aspect of Crisis Management

A Special Kind of Conflict Management

Aftermaths of De-escalation from the Lower Rungs

Aftermaths of De-escalation from the Upper Rungs


The Problems and Value of "Conservative" Behavior

Various Ways of Viewing Crises and Escalation

Strategy and Tactics

Crisis-Management Problems

Conflict Management, Crises, Escalation, and Arms Control

European Defense Policy-A Suggestion for a Proportionate Nuclear Reprisal Force

How Will Escalation Be Handled in the Twenty-First Century?



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