The Psychology of Moral Awareness in Military and Intelligence Research

A Psychologist’s Moral Response to

Participation in a Simulated Soviet Nuclear Attack

Ammi Kohn

      Ammi Kohn, the son of a rabbi, was born 1933 in Utica, New York.  Following a BA in sociology and an MA in experimental psychology, he served two years in the U.S. Army (1957-1959). He worked then for a year at General Electric on computer translation of military intelligence documents, and for two years at Thompson Ramo Woldrich on storage of satellite data, until the U.S. Air Force discontinued the project.  In this vignette, Kohn describes a moral turning point in a subsequent military contract job and explores the psychological cause.

      There was a shortage of white, educated males for the burgeoning industry of military-industrial-aerospace companies, and they were gobbling up anybody who was intelligent who had a degree.  I was kind of sleepwalking.

      What was your ideological position at that time?

      My ideological? I really didn’t have one. I had a wife.  By the time that I was laid off from that contract, I had just had my second child.  So I was really concerned with providing. I had a child a couple months old. We had to move with this kid in a bassinette. And so I really wasn’t thinking about this, because I wasn’t confronted directly with work that starkly and dramatically said, “This is what you’re doing.”

      So I transferred to SDC (System Development Corporation) and I went on a contract which was DODDAC, Department of Defense Damage Assessment System Center.  And SDC had the contract to develop a system which would assess what would happen to the United States and Russia in the case of a nuclear war. 

      To do this, a database had to be constructed, a database of cities. In order to build the correct database, you had to know the basic parameters of nuclear weapons:  megatonnage, the altitude at which a bomb would be dropped, and what kind of structures are in a city.   My job was to develop a model of Russian and American cities which would have the characteristics, which would test all of the different levels of destruction which would occur given different values for the power, wind, where the wind was going, how close to the ground the thing exploded, what kind of soil, what kind of houses.

      Now were you using as initial values any of the experimental results from the Nevada Test Site?

      No. Not that I knew. All I knew was how did the weapons work. That’s all I had to know.  They told me, “We need to test these and these values.”  Basically, it’s like Tinker Toy stuff. I design all these cities that had all these different values, so they could test the programs.

      The real test came in a three-day simulated attack. And this was in one of what they call the “holes,” where the President goes if there’s an atomic attack. This would have been ’61 or ’62, in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland, close to Washington.  It’s not a secret anymore.  I can’t tell you exactly where. You go in go into a big camouflaged site, which I’m sure the Russians knew where it was.   And these massive iron doors open up. And you go into the tunnels, make right angles to deflect the blast, and you go underground and you’re in this florescent world.  So for three days, we get reports of bombs coming from Russia and our bombs going over there. And we have this stupid colonel saying, “We’re going to lob one in the bathroom in the Kremlin,” blah, blah, blah.       

Anyway, I come out of there, and I guess it just says [to me], yes, this is real. I’m doing this thing to earn money. And I’m blasting worlds, and hundreds of millions of people are being killed, and I’m helping doing this.       Up until that point — and it’s important in terms of the moral development to understand that I haven’t had any trouble getting a job — I’m sleepwalking. They were looking for white males.  So I wasn’t really exerting myself, and I was getting promotions and raises, because there’s a big military-industrial gravy train. — And I could tell you stories about wasted government money.  We went out and we got good hotels, and that was all the way we were living, and you took it for granted. — I wasn’t a hippie or anything. I was just really doing my job and making children and being in the work force and sleepwalking.      

But many people from that time felt the Soviet nuclear threat very strongly and believed what they were doing was necessary.

      I did not really think deeply about it.  That was the world.  I don’t think I ever really believed that the powers to be would be that stupid.  The moral turning point is actually doing this three-day exercise, because it’s surreal. You don’t see daylight for three days. You’re living florescent. There’s these long, brightly-lit-to-nowhere-but-the-“hole” corridors.  And the only thing you’re getting as intellectual stimuli is reports of damage assessment. There were reports of megatonnage coming in for three days.  And the computer is using this model on the data I gave it to crank out what’s happening to Russian and American cities and population.

      It was as if a war had happened and I happened to be one of those who was saved. There’s a whole issue there. I don’t why they expected all the military and congressmen to just leave their families and go there.  The military people there, most of them, as far as I could see now — this is kind of hazy memory — it’s just a job.

      And I start thinking, man!  I go home and I really start thinking about what I’m doing.  I start having nightmares. And the most vivid one is sitting on top of a hill with my family overlooking a city whose characteristics I know exactly because I designed the city. And I know exactly what missiles are coming in. I know exactly what megatonnage is coming in. And I know exactly the damage that’s going to happen to the structures. And I know exactly, according to the model, the millions of people who are going to be killed, including me and my family.  And I’m a part of it. I’m helping do this. And so it really comes to me what I’m doing.

      At that point, I decide I have to get out of it.  And I do, eventually. Because I’m still lucky, with the shortage of males, I get a job because of my computer background, which isn’t all that great, but which is more than enough for the Metropolitan Washington Council Government, which is a regional planning agency in Washington. And I get a job with them.  And from there, I go into the Model Cities Program.

      How did you actually terminate your military work? What did you tell them?

      I was laid off from SDC and worked for a very short time with the Department of the Navy, and then I quit to go into the Model Cities Program.  I just told the navy I’d found another job. I did not give them the reasons why. You know, I didn’t even think of that as something to do. The world was this way. I was this cog. There’s this big economic industrial thing going on. And it’s really hard to really think of what I thought then, because I think I’m projecting my own thoughts now to what maybe I would have been thinking at the time. I think it was just:  “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t believe in it. I think I’m doing wrong. It’s affecting my mental health. And I just have to get out.”

      What is the source of your respect for the secrecy?

      It’s a commitment I made. When keeping the commitment becomes a moral issue, then I would say something.  But breaking the commitment now is not important to this interview.


When I think about how I’ve changed or what has caused me to change, it is not an intellectual thing.  It is not a recollection of a moral [principle], like this is wrong morally or something. It occurs to me somehow in the body. Somehow, unless I really feel it in the body emotionally, I’m probably not going to act on it. I may recognize it intellectually. But there’s something physical that I’ve found in the past that has to happen to me.  Now eventually, of course, it is a moral thing. But in my psyche it wasn’t framed so much that way. It was a combination of all this other stuff.

      And this goes back to, where in your life development cycle do these moral dilemmas occur?  And how mature are you emotionally, and how much do you know yourself, and how much do you translate this moral cognitive dissonance into action and into whatever? And the older you are, the more life experience you have, I think, and the more aware you are  — hopefully! — the more it’s going to translate into action. I think. And the younger you are, the less mature, it’s not going, it’s going to take years to unfold, and it’s part of the total life individuation, to use a Jungian term.

      You know, you unfold. And what you accepted as a challenge at one stage in your life, you may not have accepted as a challenge earlier. And this is part of the unfolding of your development as a person. So it isn’t, yes, it isn’t just a strict thing, “Oh, this is wrong, I won’t do it.” It’s a whole context, a whole life context, to which this decision gets placed.  Before this decision, I perceived myself as a bubble or a piece of seaweed floating

on the ocean because I didn’t feel any direction in my life.  This decision really set me onto a different life journey.

      Would your father, the rabbi, have supported your decision if you’d talked it over with him?

      Probably not. I mean, I don’t know. It gets to how did I perceive my parents. Well, I never perceived them as people to talk to.  When I was thirteen, just before my Bar Mitzvah, I had a black teacher in my homeroom. And I loved him.  I respected him. And I invited him to my Bar Mitzvah. I didn’t realize what I was doing. Probably the first time a black man had been inside a synagogue for a Bar Mitzvah in the history of the city of Trenton [NJ].  I look back at it now and I see this guy had guts and character. He came. He sat there. Everybody must have wondered.  Nobody had ever seen a black man [there]. This was in 1948. And afterwards, my parents say, “Why didn’t you tell ushe was black?”  And I looked at them, I say, “Why?” And then I realize, my parents really aren’t color blind like they were bringing me up to be. And other stuff like that.  So I don’t think I really trusted them after that on religion and these types of questions.

      If you’re the son of a rabbi —maybe this goes back to the question of, well, you didn’t believe all this stuff [about the Soviet nuclear threat]—If you’re the son of a rabbi or a minister, preacher’s kid — they call them PKs or TOs, theological offspring—you see the inside of a religious institution. And you see all the crap.  I think maybe this thing about not believing comes partly from this cynicism I got from being the son of a religious functionary.

      And what about these three days in the bunker?  Suppose everything had happened as far as testing the models, but you hadn’t experienced this simulation in the bunker?

      I don’t think I would have had the reaction I had. I don’t think. It kind of crystallized in that.  I mean, I really felt it.  I’m not claustrophobic, but being three days in the mountains in these florescent lights — I remember these tunnels, with these stupid colonels.  I don’t remember any generals in there, because we were just testing the system.  Those generals, it was like they were playing Monopoly. And I was thinking, these are people! These are people!  So that’s why I say, for me, it’s a situation where you see it and you feel it.

       I think, the source of a lot of moral failure in our society — We don’t have the emotional connection.  Or we don’t feel the visceral connection of our actions. They’re all second-, third-, fourth-hand. So we don’t feel responsible for them.

Postscript, November 24, 2009

I know how memories change over the years, with more and more filters and experiences between the event and the recording.  I tried to be as honest and accurate as I can, but I really wonder how my feelings were 46 years ago.

It was a very dark time in my life in many ways.  The decision to leave military work was the first step I took toward the life and person I am now.  The big question was why more people don't take that step even when they feel uncomfortable about what they are doing.  What energizes the moral imperative?


* Excerpted and condensed from:  Kohn, Ammi.  (2009, March 28).  A psychologist’s moral experience of participation in a simulated Soviet nuclear attack.   Oral history interview conducted by Jean Maria Arrigo & John Crigler, Los Angeles, CA.  Intelligence Ethics Collection, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.  [To be deposited in 2010].