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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Political Leaders and Public Opinion

In a sense, this whole period is a struggle over political education of the American people, and this element of obfuscation, deception, by our leadership is a continuing phenomenon. I don't want to sound too hard, but I mean manipulation of the image by which we will see the weapon and how we will define its use.

Well, we also have to take into account the fact that people in a position of power have to deal with day-by-day situations. Also, they have to deal with the reality of politics. They have to deal with public pressures, and President Truman, as it has been explained since, feared that if the war ended and it was discovered that we had this weapon and didn't use it to shorten the war by a single day, he would be severely criticized politically and this would represent a severe political loss. It's very easy for us, at this remove in history, to look back and see what a responsible decision should have been. But at the same time, we have to recognize that there were people at the time who did attempt to understand the full implications of this new age in which we lived, and who recognized the cost to the United States and the cost to the world of not exercising restraint when we were in a position to do so, and not seeking to achieve controls before the Soviet Union had the bomb.

I remember very clearly a debate I had on this subject with General Groves, who was the head of the Manhattan District Project, that being the code name for the development of the atomic bomb. We had a debate at Town Hall in New York. The date was 1946, after the bomb was dropped. And I was arguing at that time for the United States to take the leadership in setting up controls before the Soviet Union got the bomb. General Groves thought this was absurd. He said, "Do you realize that the Soviet Union can't even make a wristwatch, and you expect them to be able to make an atomic bomb!" Well, it was that curious sense that no one else could do what we could do. It was not just a sense of superiority, it was a sense of dangerous narcissism. We were aware of the difficulty of making the bomb, and it didn't seem possible to us that anyone else could solve the same difficulties. But of course, in a world in which you have spies, a world in which you have scientists, a world in which you have the example that something could be done, it was inevitable that other countries would be able to make the bomb, and they did it in a much shorter time than the United States said was possible. And then the atomic race, the atomic armaments race, began.

The danger to the United States in the world today is not represented by a shortage of our atomic bombs, but the fact that these bombs are now distributed around the world and that atomic wars can be started and we can be drawn into such wars. We tend to think of this just as a bipolar world, the United States and the Soviet Union, but the fact of the matter is that any number of things can start a nuclear war, including an accident. Now these are the things that I think a responsible leadership should have anticipated. But in American politics, you see, you don't even think beyond the next election. I've discovered unhappily that when you talk to people in politics about anything that is going to happen beyond their term of office, a glaze comes over their eyes. When you talk to senators and you talk about something that's going to happen more than six years hence, or representatives about something that may happen two years hence, or a president about something that's going to happen more than four years hence, it's as though you are talking about some extra-planetary problem. And this is one of the great problems in our society, that we have not developed a faculty for the anticipation of crisis beyond the period of those who are in office. The political requirements are such that they tend to think only in the short term. But most of our important problems are long term. And this is the one great thing we have not been able to do in our society, which is to develop long-term perspectives. When you deal with civilization, you're dealing with the life of society where the political problems that are going to happen in the next four years are not the only problems that you have to deal with.

You saw Eisenhower shortly before he left office. What did he tell you in that meeting about his future vocation?

I'd had a series of meetings with the president, whom I regarded very highly, incidentally. I think that history is going to accord him a much higher place than he's received so far, although I see in the new books coming out that the awareness of certain things that he did are becoming understood. But Eisenhower's great concern, even during the 1950s, was with the worldwide nuclear arms race, and the difficulty of stopping that race once it began. What especially troubled him was the fact that some of his advisors, indeed this was not just among his advisors but you could find it in many places, people who believed that an arms race was a good idea because this would put a strain on the Soviet economy, and that one way of bringing the Soviet Union to heel would be by conducting an all-out arms race so the Soviet Union would not have enough resources, or general means, to take care of its people, that this would apply political pressures on the government. So, the arms race could be used, as they saw it, as a political weapon.

This is not an idea we are unfamiliar with today.

Not only are we not unfamiliar with it, but it's apparent that that point of view has achieved its objective. This deeply troubled Eisenhower, because Eisenhower realized that this was an argument offered as an excuse for pumping billions of dollars into, and building up the power of, what he called, the military-industrial complex. And the people in the military and in industry were not unaware of the fact that this gave them an open shop at the U.S. Treasury. And so the arms race was a very good way of justifying the increase in power and profits, which Eisenhower recognized. In his closing talk to the American people, he tried to warn them about this.

Cousins standing at podium The presidency is a place that is hemmed with all sorts of constraints and limitations. I don't think the American people quite know that the presidency is really a juggling act of competing pressures. The president sits at the head of the table, meanwhile you get all these agencies that are appointed to create a basis for policy. And then you get the confusions, we think we have just a State Department that's supposed to make foreign policy, but in addition to the State Department you have the White House desks, which deal with the same questions. And so you can have conflicts, differences of opinion and therefore advice offered to the president. The military have, in effect, their own State Departments where they have their appraisals branch and they have the representatives around the world making decisions on the basis of their own analyses. Then you have the CIA and the National Security Council. And so the president has all these streams of sometimes-conflicting advice, not always conflicting but sometimes conflicting. And then you have the public agencies to deal with and public opinion. And the wonder is not that we have a foreign policy that doesn't make much sense, but that we have any foreign policy at all, considering all of these multiple sources.

So I have great deal of sympathy for the President of the United States, whoever he may be. But, at the same time, this is the job of the president. He has to orchestrate, and he has to somehow keep all these balls in the air, and he has the responsibility for making these ultimate decisions and not allowing others to make that decision for him. Eisenhower had great difficulty, as he said, in coping with all these forces, because things would be done that would force his hand. The same thing would happen with President Johnson. No matter what President Johnson tried to do to get the North Vietnamese into negotiations, there were people in the field who had the power to commit the U.S. flag and the president had to fall in behind it. And, not infrequently in Vietnam, the military undertook measures under what they described as their "field authority" that limited the ability of the president to make effective decisions. In Vietnam, for example, at a point where we were able to arrange for behind-the-scenes negotiations, at least to explore the possibility of negotiations, the military bombed Vietnam and the president himself was surprised. This happened not once but twice on the eve of negotiations, which destroyed the negotiations. So a President of the United States, you see, has to cope with all this. President Johnson fell in behind the flag in both these cases. Truman dealt with General Douglas MacArthur as he believed he had to. But you do have these problems.

Now Eisenhower, recognizing all these limitations on the presidency, could hardly wait until he got out of office so he could speak for peace in his own terms. He was really looking forward to his retirement so that he could work for peace in an unfettered way. And I found that rather poignant, that a President of the United States has to anticipate leaving office so he can speak out for peace as he would like to speak out for peace. These vast aggregations of power inside the United States government impose severe constraints on the presidency. I'm not sure that we fully understand how severe these constraints are, or how great that power is, but every once in a while, as in the case of Eisenhower, you have a specific warning for the American people. And what concerned President Eisenhower was the fact that the military-industrial complex saw in the Soviet Union an opportunity to build up its own power. And indeed, wanted the Soviet Union to build up its own power as an excuse for us to extend ours. And the rationale that they used was, "This will build up pressures inside the Soviet Union. It's a good thing: let's force the Soviet Union to compete with an arms race, let's force the Soviet Union to spend all this money; it will put severe pressures on the Soviet economy." But what about the danger of war that that will produce? What about the dangers of an arms race? What about the dangers of accident? What about the weapons that were being produced, the fact that this thing could get out of control? What about the fact that the lives of 60 million Americans might be taken in the first wave of a nuclear attack? "Well these are things for someone else to worry about," because this was beyond their time, I suppose, as they thought. But these problems still remain, and I hope that we're going to face up to them.

What creates the political counter-weight to these forces that want to adopt such a strategy? You were a cochairman of SANE, you've been involved in other kinds of political groups. How do we take a consciousness and relate it to a political action that will meaningfully change the minds of leaders who can't confront these pressures?

The only pressure that is greater than all the pressures I have described is public pressure. This government was created, was given a design, in which the underlying theory was that the ultimate power belongs to the American people. That design has very rarely been tested. Once or twice it has been. I think it was in Vietnam, where the convictions of the American people became a political force which dictated government policy. It happened then; it can happen again. And that has to be the hope. When you talk about political pressure, you have to talk about awareness, you have to talk about language, you have to talk about the means by which people communicate with one another and with their government. You talk, in short, about the processes of a free society. And this where a free society comes into its own, this is where a free society vindicates itself. So that has to be the hope.

Don't some of our leaders use a strategy of anesthetizing people to these issues? Even in your newest book on medical issues you have a chapter on the dangers of nuclear war and you remark about the words that we use for our sophisticated weapons, the MX as a "peacekeeper" and on and on. There is a conscious effort on the other side to not have this kind of political mobilization.

I think it's safe to assume that the beneficiaries of the billions are not going to acquiesce in their own diminution. I think it's safe to assume that they will use all the means at their disposal to preserve and enlarge their power, and they have billions to work with. As I say, they've got an open shop at the U.S. Treasury, and they're making the most of it -- and you can't blame them. If they're in a position to do so, in a society based on initiative and aggregation, they're going to take full advantage. And so what we have now, I think, is a military welfare state. We don't have a welfare state for the poor, but I think we have a welfare state for those who are benefiting from this vast expenditure, and indeed, utilizing every political means at their disposal to extend that particular power, which in turn can produce yet larger expenditures. It's so interesting that whenever President Reagan talks about reductions in stockpiles, he always couples it with creating something new. "We will do away with one weapon, but we'll create two others in their place." In short, what this means is that we use arms control, or reduction, as a device actually for justifying the extension of the arms race in an additional dimension.

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