Commentary

Modern Man Is Obsolete

in Program

Quote of the week:

“It is such a supreme folly to believe that nuclear weapons are deadly only if they’re used. The fact that they exist at all, their presence in our lives, will wreak more havoc than we can begin to fathom. Nuclear weapons pervade our thinking. Control our behavior. Administer our societies. Inform our dreams. They bury themselves like meat hooks in the base of our brains.”
—Arundhati Roy

“Modern Man is Obsolete” is required reading for aspiring wonks. This essay by Norman Cousins, editor of the National Review of Literature, was published on August 18th, 1945. The best first takes on the Bomb still have resonance.

Cousins was an unabashed liberal, president of the World Federalist Society, and chairman of SANE, a citizen action group centrally involved in efforts to end nuclear testing – pressures that helped produce the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty that stopped the signatories from carrying out atmospheric tests. His editorial, published nine days after the atomic destruction of Nagasaki, began with fundamental concerns raised by the militarization of nuclear energy:

“The biggest question of these concerns the nature of man. Is war in the nature of man? If so, how much time has he left before he employs the means he has already devised for the ultimate in self-destruction—extinction? …

“Even assuming that he could hold destructive science in check, what changes would the new age bring or demand in his everyday life? What changes would it bring or demand in his culture, his education, his philosophy, his religion, his relationships with other human beings? …

“What does it matter, then, if war is not in the nature of man so long as man continues through the expression of his nature to be a viciously competitive animal? The effect is the same …

“If this reasoning is correct, then modern man is obsolete, a self-made anachronism becoming more incongruous by the minute. He has exalted change in everything but him- self. He has leaped centuries ahead in inventing a new world to live in, but he knows little or nothing about his own part in that world. He has surrounded and confounded himself with gaps — gaps between revolutionary science and evolutionary anthropology, between cosmic gadgets and human wisdom, between intellect and conscience …

“Given time, man might be expected to bridge those gaps normally; but by his own hand, he is destroying even time. Communication, transportation, war no longer wait on time …

“That is why the quintessence of destruction as potentially represented by modern science must be dramatized and kept in the forefront of public opinion. The full dimensions of the peril must be seen and recognized. Then and only then will man realize that the first order of business is the question of continued existence.”

For Cousins, relief from nuclear danger required “the transformation or adjustment from national man to world man,” the development of a “world conscience,” and ultimately the “basic requisite for world government.”

The nature of man and nationalism haven’t changed all that much since this essay appeared. While they have made the pursuit of world federalism extinct, the fate of the planet still remains up for grabs. Here, the searching questions that Cousins raise retain their relevance. After the Cold War ended with deep cuts in deployed nuclear forces and unprecedented cooperation between Washington and Moscow to increase the security of vast quantities of bomb-making material and warheads, the public enjoyed an extended holiday from thinking about nuclear catastrophe.

Not any more. Nuclear dangers are rising on many fronts, while diplomacy to prevent mushroom clouds is absent in U.S.-Russia, U.S.-China, China-India and India-Pakistan relations. Diplomacy is absent on the North Korean threat. Mr. Trump has directed willing staffers to come up with reasons to exit the nuclear agreement with Iran, even if Tehran remains in compliance. Many of those elected to Congress in the Republican Party no longer believe that diplomacy can be helpful to reduce nuclear dangers. They have placed their faith in military might, deterrence, and freedom of action. The war of choice waged to rid Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction has already faded from memory.

“The full dimensions” of nuclear peril have also faded from memory, seven decades after Nagasaki. The “quintessence of destruction” has slipped from the “forefront of public opinion.” The nature of man still has not reckoned with the destructive capacity in his midst. While man’s relationship to nature is thankfully changing – with the notable exception of the current U.S. administration – man’s relationship to the Bomb in nuclear-armed states remains rooted in atavistic fears. Those in thrall to the Bomb place the fear of being placed at a disadvantage well above the fears of nuclear catastrophe. In this view, the need for remedial steps and keeping options open prevent nuclear catastrophe. The gaps Cousins identified between “cosmic gadgets and human wisdom” and between “intellect and conscience” remain very far apart.​

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on August 3, 2017.

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