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

Page 4 of 5

The Peace Movement

In the '70s, the vitality and momentum was lost by the peace movement, in the sense that the peace movement was not focused on the atomic issue. Why do you think that that happened? Was it partly the success of the partial test ban? Was it also the focus on the Vietnam War?

We must recognize that an entire generation had come into the world in which nuclear weapons pre-existed, and so nuclear weapons became as familiar a part of the landscape as automobiles, television sets, and telephone poles. To be born into a world in which things exist is almost to feel that they have always existed, and so the new generation didn't have that same primitive sense of horror and dread, and therefore energy, to do something about the problem that those of us who lived in 1945 were able to experience. The fact that the bombs existed but that we didn't have the war created a sense of ease. Well, if not ease, at least of resignation. But the primitive energy that we needed to deal with the problem, I think, ran out very fast during that time.

What are the most salient lessons that you learned from your involvement in the earlier phases of the peace movement that are applicable to today's movement?

One thing that's clear is that the war has not yet begun. We're still alive. We're still in possession of our senses. We can still speak to our convictions, we can still speak to necessity. As long as this horror has not yet been unleashed, it seems to me that we still have an opportunity to keep it from happening. But the notion that we can drift indefinitely is not a sane notion, not a responsible notion. Therefore, I think that those of us who have some sense of the problem, and some sense of responsibility, not just to our families but to the next generation, have a presiding obligation to get moving.

In this struggle -- an international struggle --

It's a human struggle.

-- how do you transcend these ideological barriers that are erected by the nation-state and make it such an ideological struggle? What I have in mind here is identification with peace movements in the Soviet Union or the whole problem of the obsession with anticommunism in this country and how it tends to affect peace movements.

Well, you have a notion of capitalism in the Soviet Union that is certainly flawed. The kind of capitalism that Marx described nowhere exists in the United States, and yet the description of it in the Soviet Union is based on original Marxist interpretation. So they're not dealing with reality when they speak of capitalism in the United States. They really don't understand the implications of a tax rate of 53% on business, or the fact that government is a senior partner in business. Nor do they understand how the incentive system works. They don't understand volunteerism in the United States, how individual Americans take a very large responsibility for what happens in their communities. They don't understand private foundations, or how the tax system fosters the creation of such foundations which, in turn, have to give money away. Their conception of capitalism -- predatory capitalism -- is badly dated. For our part, I don't think we understand that communism, as Marx described it, doesn't exist in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union uses money as a medium of exchange. The Soviet Union has banks, people own their own homes, own their own automobiles. The Soviet leaders like to say they're moving toward communism but the fact of the matter is that they are no closer to it now than they were twenty years ago. Indeed, they're moving away from it in certain vital respects, certainly with respect to incentives to boost production. In respect to religion, more babies were baptized the Soviet Union last year than in the United States. We have in both countries fixed ideas of what the other country is and these slogans become battle cries and they're attached to nuclear fuses. We have to get up to date in our knowledge of each other. But hostility, you see, is very convenient. It's very convenient for increasing the power of certain people, and this is the historical fact. The basic problem in the world today is competitive national governments, which means that we're back where we always were with respect to war, where the national state becomes an entity. Yes, we certainly have to deal with the fact of aggression, because states in history have been aggressive, have been predatory. We have to deal with that, but we also have to deal with the need to create new instruments in the world that bring us up to date, that can cope with the fact of world anarchy and the need for world law to replace the anarchy. This is the clear meaning of contemporary history. But I'm not sure that there's much understanding of the need to create the instruments of world law as the only effective means of achieving security for ourselves and for others. So we work for it.

Next page: Conclusion: The Responsibility of the Individual

© Copyright 1996, Regents of the University of California