Norman Cousins Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Quest for Peace: Conversation with Norman Cousins, 9/12/84 by Harry Kreisler

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The Dropping of the Atomic Bomb

Welcome to Berkeley, Mr. Cousins.

Thank you.

I wonder if we might go back to that day in August when the world learned of the dropping of the atomic bomb. As editor of a leading magazine in the United States, what was your reaction? What were your thoughts, and what did you do?

Well, we're talking about something that happened on the calendar 39 years ago, but in the memory, yesterday morning. One comes down for breakfast and there's a copy of The New York Times, and on this morning, streamer headlines three deep on the atomic bomb and Hiroshima. The article by William Lawrence, who had been brought into the confidence of the military several months earlier (and so he had a background for writing about it), talked about the development of atomic energy for military purposes. And one had a feeling, or at least I did, that a curtain had dropped on human history and that a new curtain was going up, and that no one quite knew what the new script would be. But the fact that the old play had ended seemed rather clear. It also seemed to me that a blanket of obsolescence had been thrown over human history, because all the things that human beings did, in terms of civilization, suddenly seemed to have no validity because there was now no mechanism by which human beings could provide for a reasonably secure future. We had always lived with the habits of war, and now methods for fighting war represented an entirely new dimension in warfare which threatened the species as a whole. But the habits of war, and the habits of thinking about relations among nations, hadn't changed, and so we were trapped. And so I say there was a sense that the curtain had come down on one stage in human history and a new curtain was going up, the script for which had not been written.

You wrote a very long editorial, "Modern Man is Obsolete."

On the day the bomb was dropped I wrote a rather longish editorial. And it had to get into the next issue of the Saturday Review, and my life in those days was shaped by deadlines. It was not just that I had a subject to write about, but a fixed time in which to do it. And so on that first day, I did the editorial (that was on a Monday, I think), and on Thursday it came out in the magazine. And then one of the publishers wanted to enlarge it into a book. And it went into different languages; a number of newspapers around the country reprinted it.

What was your conclusion that nation-states were now, potentially, in possession of a weapon that could destroy all of our civilization?

My conclusion was that the nation had come into existence, historically, as a device for protecting the lives, the institutions, and the property of its people, at least in those states in which property existed. And the function of the state had been just that, which is to provide a means of protecting the group, an extension of the tribal philosophy. But with atomic weapons, no nation was able any longer to perform its historic function. And yet we persisted in thinking that it did. The form existed but the ability to fulfill that particular function was annihilated along with the city of Hiroshima. But we continue to pursue the folklore of the nation without any of the benefits, or the prime benefit, that the nation was intended to give.

And you became an even more intense an advocate of world government and world federalism as a way out.

Since I am opposed to anarchy, and since the principle danger in the world was anarchy on a world level, I couldn't take leave of my convictions about the dangers of anarchy just because nations created this situation.

You wrote in the Christian Science Monitor a couple of years ago, when the Saturday Review died, "My hope, from my earliest days at the Saturday Review, was that the magazine would help to develop a language that transcends force. That was why Saturday Review was one of the first journals to call attention to the implications of nuclear weapons." Have we been successful in creating an image of the bomb that will carry us through these times? I mean, hasn't that battle been lost in some ways?

No battle is really ever lost as long as you're alive. The piece that I did for the Christian Science Monitor was written five or six years after I left the Saturday Review, and I was asked to reflect on the place of a magazine in society. The awareness of the implications of nuclear weapons was really not very great, but you can't blame the American people for not understanding the implications when President Truman, I think, did not understand the implications of the nuclear bomb. He thought of it as people thought of it, as a superior weapon, and used it as a superior weapon not recognizing that this represented a new age in human history, and that the United States, which was the first to develop the bomb, had some responsibility at least to think through the implications of the bomb. They dropped it on a living target, despite the fact that we were the only country that had the bomb, and he thought this was a quick way of ending the war. That was the only thing that interested him. The fact that this might, through that use, thus become a source of great danger to the United States in the future and that our failure to set up controls when we had the ability to do so, before the other countries had the bomb, this did not figure in his thinking. So, as I say, if the President of the United States didn't understand it, how can you blame the American people for not understanding it?

The scientists who developed the bomb did understand the implications, and they begged the President of the United States not to use the bomb just because we had the bomb. At the very least, they begged him, before using it on human beings, to have a test demonstration, perhaps somewhere in the Pacific, under the auspices perhaps of the International Red Cross. And, the effects of the bomb would thus be viewed by an international agency which would then report on it. And then Japan would have to make the decision as to whether the bomb should be dropped at all. And we could deliver an ultimatum to Japan on the basis of that test. So the issue was not whether we were going to save lives by dropping the bomb, the real issue was whether the United States was going to try to do everything possible to avoid using the bomb. If it had to use the bomb, that was something else. Of course, no one could ever know what the reaction of Japan might have been. It's quite possible that they would not have attached the same value, or depth, to a demonstration of the bomb as they did to the actual bombing at Hiroshima, but at least the United States would have been able to fulfill, it seems to me, the requirements of responsibility at that particular time.

So we have to ask ourselves: why was it that the United States did not have a test? It can't be, as the President said, "...because we wanted to spare the lives of Americans that might be required to invade Japan," because Japan still would have made the decision as to whether the bomb would have been used or not. So that argument doesn't count. The only argument that really makes sense historically has to do with the sequence of events at the time. You will recall that President Roosevelt, meeting Stalin at Yalta, tried to get the Soviet Union to fight a two-front war. The United States was fighting a two-front war, we were fighting in Europe, we were also fighting against Japan in Asia, and the president had been under severe pressure by the American Congress and the press to persuade Stalin to fight a two-front war too. And so at Yalta, he did everything he possibly could to get this commitment by Stalin. Stalin's argument was that if the Soviet Union were to divide its forces at a critical time in Europe, then we would lose in Europe and, by the time they might draw their forces back, it might be too late. And so Stalin felt that the important thing was to concentrate on the primary objective, which was to defeat the Germans in Europe. Roosevelt was not unmindful of the logic of this, but at the same time, he wanted a commitment by Stalin that the moment the war in Europe ended, Stalin would use his forces to help end the war in the Far East as well. They argued on this and Stalin finally agreed. But Roosevelt was not content just to get agreement in principle, he wanted a date by which the Soviet Union would enter the war in the Far East. And it was agreed that Russia would enter that war 90 days after the V-E Day. Now here chronology becomes important. At the time of Yalta, we did not know for sure that we would have a successful nuclear explosion. We had some indications, but hadn't yet tested a device. Now think of what happens. The war ends in Europe, the United States successfully tested its atomic reaction and we knew we could make the bomb, but we also knew that since we had the bomb, we could end the war without giving the Soviet Union a claim on the occupation. The moment that happened, therefore, all of our energies turned toward ending the war in the Far East before the Soviet Union would come in under the terms of the agreement.

So President Truman did not come clean with the American people. He made it appear that we were trying to spare lives from an American invasion. But the fact of the matter was that what we were trying to do was to end the war in the Far East before the Soviet Union would come in fully. We had a deadline. This explains why we had the second bomb on Nagasaki. After all, Japan had the example of Hiroshima. But we didn't want to have any discussions about peace terms. We wanted to have unconditional surrender by a certain date. Now this is history, this is what happened. As I say, if the American people don't understand the implications of nuclear weapons, we can't blame them, considering what happened at the end of the war.

So in this case, our leadership was blinded to the problem of what the bomb represented by its obsession with the international competition with the Soviet Union?

Yes. I think that we were thinking in terms of the bomb as a superior weapon, and not, in effect, as a symbol of a new age in human history in which we had to find an answer to war other than through force. Where we had to find an answer to international conflict through means that could ensure justice. We had to find some way of creating instruments in the world that could be able to prevent war and deal with the basic causes of war. We had come to that stage in human history when our failure to achieve these different means could also represent a colossal human failure in terms of the price that human beings all over the world would have to pay in the event of a nuclear war.

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