The most infamous pages in "On Thermonuclear War" concern survivability. What makes nuclear war different, Kahn points out, is not the number of dead; it's a new element—the problem of the postwar environment. In Kahn's view, the dangers of radioactivity are exaggerated. Fallout will make life less pleasant and cause inconvenience, but there is plenty of unpleasantness and inconvenience in the world already. "War is a terrible thing; but so is peace," he says. More babies might have birth defects after a nuclear war, but four per cent of babies have birth defects anyway. Whether we can tolerate a slightly higher percentage of defective children is a question of trade-offs. "It might well turn out," Kahn suggests, "that U.S. decision makers would be willing, among other things, to accept the high risk of an additional one percent of our children being born deformed if that meant not giving up Europe to Soviet Russia."Of course, the whole purpose of his book was less to inform than simply to exist, to have certain illocutionary effects. In order for deterrence to be a credible strategy, the Soviet Union had to believe that we were actually crazy enough to fight—and accept the costs of—the worst of nuclear apocalypses, and that's where thinkers like Kahn came in. Reading about his life and thought, it's impossible to believe that there weren't people genuinely crazy enough to try to win a nuclear war. Which was, I suppose, what they wanted Moscow to believe. (I believe Mao Tse-Tung once made a similar threat, noting that if 200 million Americans died in an atomic exchange, that would mean the end of the United States; 200 million dead Chinese would be a mere blip on the radar.)
The book proposes a system for labelling contaminated food so that older people will eat the food that is more radioactive, on the theory that "most of these people would die of other causes before they got cancer."