“Looking at the prospect of your own death is a lot like looking at the sun. You can only do it for a brief instant and then you have to turn away because it’s quite intolerable,” said Dr. Eric Chivian, a research associate in Harvard University’s new Nuclear Psychology program. “I think the nuclear issue is a lot like that.”
Almost immediately after the devastation of Hiroshima 40 years ago this Tuesday, the world recognized that the atomic bomb was not only the crowning triumph of human technology over nature but an unprecedented threat to the survival of civilization. As such, it posed a relentless challenge to mankind’s spirit, nerve and will to endure.
And a question has haunted scholars, scientists, government officials and ordinary citizens ever since: Faced with so daunting a menace, what course should men and nations follow to survive?
Everything but Thinking
“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything except our modes of thinking, and thus, we are drifting toward a catastrophe beyond conception,” warned Albert Einstein, whose own seminal research had made it possible for physicists to realize their ancient dream of penetrating the heart of matter. “We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.”
Human nature, however, has proved more intractable than the atom. Despite repeated calls, historians and other experts agree, no way has been found to sustain the sense of unprecedented peril that Einstein and others counted on to transform centuries-old patterns of destructive thought and behavior.
Instead, the first four decades of the nuclear age have been marked by a faltering process of adaptation, with governments and individuals backing and filling along an uncertain course as they grappled with the reality of unforgiving weapons in the hands of all-too-fallible masters.
Subtle but Significant
That struggle has exerted profound, but sometimes contradictory influences on the political, diplomatic and military affairs of major powers and lesser states alike. In subtle but significant ways, it has also reshaped the lives and values of millions of individuals:
--In the realm of foreign affairs, the existence of the atom bomb and its even more terrifying grandchildren has contributed to an impressive 40 years without major conflict between advanced nations. However, it has also dominated--some experts say aggravated--relations between the United States and the Soviet Union and fueled a U.S.-Soviet rivalry that has left almost no corner of the globe untouched. It also sometimes beguiled Washington and Moscow alike with costly illusions about their own power.
--In the field of defense, nuclear weapons have made the major powers uncommonly careful about jostling one another militarily. However, they have also saddled the United States with an unprecedented peacetime defense establishment, and nuclear weapons’ wolfish appetite for funds has squeezed conventional forces.
--In politics, American voters have made personal trustworthiness with the nuclear button the ultimate test for presidential candidates. However, the complexities of nuclear weapons policy have overwhelmed the political system. Where other critical decisions are thrashed out as the Founding Fathers meant them to be, in the give-and-take of the political arena, voters have shied away from the specifics of nuclear policy.
--In everyday life, understanding of what nuclear war would involve is so pervasive that tests show even some 5-year-old children can give quite accurate descriptions of how atomic bombs would obliterate life, and, in some, fear of the bomb seems to have entwined itself with innate fears of losing their parents. Adults, meanwhile, oscillate between avoiding the whole issue of the nuclear threat and showing the kind of active concern that fueled last year’s nuclear freeze movement, psychological studies show.
Psychologists see the responses of both children and adults as testaments to the remarkable adaptability of human beings, but they suggest that there are hidden price tags.
“We humans can tolerate a lot. The question is, what price we pay for it,” said Milton Schwebel, a Rutgers University psychology professor and a pioneer in research on the psychological effects of the nuclear threat.
And, at the level of citizenship, the human impulse to turn away from terror has interfered with efforts to develop consistent and coherent frameworks for coping with the problem. As liberals and conservatives have both discovered, the nuclear threat may be the most important issue facing every citizen, but sustaining long-term public support for specific causes has proved difficult.
Samuel Johnson, the 18th-Century moralist, declared that nothing concentrates a man’s mind so intensely as the threat of hanging. And long before Hiroshima, some pacifists wondered if a weapon that could threaten the collective execution of the human race might not impel men to think their way through to the abolition of war.
At the turn of the century, for instance, Alfred Nobel, guilt-ridden by the riches he had earned from the sales of munitions, wished for “a substance or a machine of such frightful efficacy for wholesale devastation that wars should thereby become altogether impossible.”
The nuclear bomb, which seems to fill Nobel’s prescription, is widely credited with helping forestall a third global conflict for 40 years, twice as long as the interval between World War I and World War II.
Indeed, historians note, if wars between Russia and Turkey are counted, there has been no comparable 40-year period of unbroken peace among the nations of the West for more than two centuries.
While warfare on a localized basis has flourished (the Center for Defense Information counts about 130 major and minor wars since 1945--including 41 conflicts involving 46 nations that are raging today), the cumulative death toll (which the Center estimates at an appalling 16 million) does not compare to the approximately 50 million soldiers and civilians who died in World War II or the casualties that would almost certainly result from an all-out nuclear exchange between Washington and Moscow.
Given the overwhelming nature of the problems in the atomic age, many see 40 years of survival itself as no mean achievement. “You’d have to say so far, so good,” contends Ben Wattenberg, an analyst of social and political trends. “Until the advent of nuclear weapons, the scourge of the 20th Century was war between advanced nations. Now, we have reason to think that scourge is a thing of the past--although I can only certify that for the next four minutes, not for the next 40 years.”
Others feel this limited assurance is not nearly good enough. Acknowledging that the nuclear age has seen an uneasy peace among the great powers, historian Barbara Tuchman nevertheless argues that neither nations nor individuals can feel secure under the specter of the mushroom cloud. “Fear of the bomb has destroyed any sense of stability,” she said.
“I wouldn’t put too much trust in the record,” she added, “because, unfortunately, new fools are always being born and then taking power.”
If scholars disagree on the question of whether the record thus far offers encouragement or only evidence of blind luck, there is widespread recognition that the existence of nuclear weapons has exerted a powerful--sometimes deceiving--influence on government decision-makers.
Certainly in the realm of foreign relations, nuclear weapons policy has greatly shaped the postwar rivalries between the United States and the Soviet Union--and vice versa. In the view of George F. Kennan, former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union and one of the principal architects of U.S. policy toward that country, the bomb has greatly exacerbated the conflicts between the two countries.
“The nuclear rivalry,” Kennan wrote,” . . . begins to ride along of its own momentum, like an object in space, divorced from any cause or rationale, other than the fears it engenders, corrupting and distorting a relationship that, while not devoid of serious problems, never needed to be one of mortal antagonism.”
From the beginning, the atomic bomb was widely presumed to offer this country an advantage--"the great equalizer in the face of Soviet land power,” in the words of Helmut Sonnenfeldt, Brookings Institution fellow and State Department and National Security Council official during the Gerald R. Ford Administration. And the bomb, Sonnenfeldt believes, made the United States inclined to undertake commitments for the defense of Europe that Washington would not have made if it had expected to meet them with conventional forces.
“I don’t think the United States would have ever envisaged having large conventional forces abroad,” said Sonnenfeldt. “The irony is that it has ended up having them anyway.”
During the early post-Hiroshima era, when communism made significant gains in Europe and Asia despite unquestioned U.S. dominance in nuclear weaponry, future Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger lamented: “We added the atom bomb to our arsenal without integrating its implications into our thinking.”
As for the Soviets, their initial public reaction to nuclear arms was disdain; Stalin dismissed them as weapons “intended to frighten people with weak nerves.”
Yet some experts believe the existence of the bomb served to check Soviet territorial ambitions. “Churchill argued in 1955 that if the West hadn’t had atomic bombs, the Soviet army would have invaded Western Europe some time ago,” recalled Fred C. Ikle, undersecretary of defense for policy. “Stalin was quite aggressive, and the bomb clearly made the Soviets more cautious.”
At the same time, many believe the Kremlin’s own nuclear arsenal worked to its advantage by sheltering Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe in the immediate postwar years. “If it hadn’t been for the Soviet atomic bomb, the United States would have been much less cautious about considering intervention--not just military intervention--against the Soviet land grab,” Sonnenfeldt said. “There wouldn’t have been the same acquiescence.”
Indeed, in certain respects, the bomb--which was initially regarded as a U.S. trump card--has been of more strategic benefit to the Soviets, or so some U.S. analysts assert. They contend that the tendency of U.S. military strategists to depend on nuclear weaponry and the inability to use such weapons except in time of all-out war combined to allow the Soviets to make incremental gains.
To remedy that situation, critics of U.S. military policy have urged greater readiness to wage limited wars, through which this country could use its military muscle to curb communist aggressiveness without touching off a nuclear conflict. Success in limited war has proved both frustrating and easier to prescribe than achieve, however, as the prolonged U.S. ordeals in Vietnam and Korea demonstrated.
“The military establishment finds the notion of ‘limited war’ unsatisfying and psychologically frustrating,” said William J. Taylor Jr., executive director of Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. He added that in terms of manpower and equipment, the Pentagon is ill-prepared for such conflicts, even though they are the most likely type of war to break out in the nuclear age.
One major reason for the lack of preparation is the enormous drain spending for nuclear arms puts on the Pentagon budget. This spending pattern in part reflects the tendency of Presidents, faced with the immense cost of maintaining a huge peacetime military establishment, to put by far the lion’s share of their defense dollars into nuclear arms, because they supposedly offered “more bang for the buck.”
“There is no doubt there has been an enormous over-investment in nuclear force since 1950,” said Robert W. Komer, former undersecretary of defense in the Jimmy Carter Administration. But, Komer added, “The area of greatest neglect has been in conventional warfare. We simply do not have the conventional capabilities to meet a lot of our commitments, because of the nuclear investment.”
All this money is being invested, of course, for weapons that it is fervently hoped will never be used. The big question is whether that hope can be sustained for another 40 years.
Some of the available evidence is reassuring. “In a world where you have the two superpowers with nuclear weapons,” said Georgetown’s Taylor, “studies show the probability of a calculated nuclear exchange are near zero.” However, those studies do not--and really cannot--take into account the possibility of miscalculation either by one of the superpowers, or what is more likely in the view of some experts, by one of the lesser nuclear powers.
In 1974, India became the sixth and latest nation to set off a nuclear device--the others being, besides the United States and the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China. Several more countries, notably Israel, South Africa and Pakistan, are believed either to possess a secret cache of nuclear weapons already or to be on the verge of joining the nuclear club.
“We have had more success in non-proliferation than we expected,” said the Pentagon’s Ikle of the Reagan Administration’s efforts to curb the growth of nuclear-armed nations. “But,” he conceded, “more countries are moving toward nuclear capability.”
The crucial task of deciding how to find better ways of dealing with the nuclear threat is one of the things that carries nuclear issues into the domain of politics. Theoretically at least, in a democracy such matters should be decided by the electorate, but experience so far suggests that the system is not well suited for grappling with the dilemmas of nuclear arms.
“Arms strategy and nuclear control are such incredibly complicated issues that they become impossible to treat in presidential campaigns, which usually deal with issues in very generalized terms,” said Stephen Hess, Brookings Institution senior fellow and a former White House aide in the Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon administrations.
Style vs. Substance
The threat of nuclear war has entered campaigns usually only in broad and emotional terms, and its effectiveness has appeared to depend more on the perceived character and stumping style of individual candidates than on substance. Thus, in the 1964 presidential campaign, the Democrats succeeded in depicting Republican standard-bearer Barry Goldwater as likely to be too quick on the nuclear trigger. But similar tactics used in 1980 against Republican nominee Reagan failed, largely because Reagan was more adroit about reassuring the citizenry.
One of the few occasions when a candidate sought to make a major substantive point about nuclear arms was in the 1956 presidential campaign when Democratic challenger Adlai E. Stevenson called for the suspension of hydrogen bomb testing. But Stevenson shifted his position during the campaign, and Republican incumbent Eisenhower dealt with the test-suspension proposal mainly by relying on his prestige as a military hero.
“The issue, the most important substantive one of the campaign, simply was never joined,” Hess said, and the popular Ike won in a landslide.
Nuclear Freeze Movement
Early in Reagan’s first term, the emergence of widespread support for a nuclear freeze convinced some arms-control advocates that they had finally found a way to appeal to the political grass roots. But it swayed few voters in the 1984 campaign.
Some freeze advocates now acknowledge that much of the original backing stemmed from voters’ response to Reagan’s hard-line, anti-Soviet rhetoric, rather than from a grasp of the complex implications of the freeze proposal.
“When the President moderated his rhetoric and began to talk about negotiating with the Russians, the freeze ran into serious trouble,” an arms-control lobbyist admitted.
As in politics, so in everyday life, many people deal with the daunting realities of the nuclear age by shutting them out of their minds, a reaction that City University of New York Prof. Robert Jay Lifton, a specialist on nuclear psychology, called “psychic numbing.”
“The pattern of psychic numbing was very widespread in the early postwar years and even decades, and numbing is very close to denial,” Lifton said. “People then would say, ‘They’ll never do it--nobody will ever drop one of those things. Nobody would be that crazy.’
Numbing Has Diminished
“You don’t hear that so much any more. People are now more aware of the possibility of somebody using the weapons. In that sense, one can say the numbing in American society has probably diminished.
“People waver back and forth between numbing, resignation and taking a stand or withdrawing from it. Nobody can maintain an awareness of an extreme threat 24 hours a day,” he said.
Another reason for the swings of mood in persons involved with the nuclear issue comes from what Larry Smith, national security studies director at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, called “the problem of scale.” The available evidence, Smith said, suggests that a single, one-megaton explosion in a big city would take more lives from heat, blast and radiation than the 650,000 Americans who died in battle in all the wars fought by the United States in 200 years.
“It’s beyond our ability to conceive of such a thing,” he said. “Just to make the attempt to think about it will take all the imagination and creativity of the human race.”
No Firm Rules
After four decades of testing and studying, psychiatrists still have no firm rules for dealing with nuclear anxieties. Instead, it remains for every group and every individual to work out their own adjustments.
Ronald Doctor, a specialist in children’s nuclear psychology at California State University, Northridge, said his interviews show children as young as 5 have fairly accurate and graphic impressions of what a nuclear war would be like, although they view the primary consequence not as the end of the world but as separation from their parents.
The most profoundly worried youngsters, Doctor said, are 10 to 13, the age when concerns about leaving one’s parents are greatest.
For all their research, psychiatrists say it is difficult to measure the impact of nuclear stress on children. “I don’t believe it means a large number of our kids are breaking down or are going to break down,” said Rutgers University psychologist Schwebel.
Though no one knows what the price of nuclear stress may be in the case of any given individual, in the long run, the emotional cost of living with the bomb may point the way toward the resolution of the 40-year-long dilemma. For it may serve to remind man of what World War II Secretary of War Henry Stimson referred to as “his psychological power of self-control and group control--his moral power.”
The development of the bomb, Stimson wrote only a few months after Hiroshima, underlined the worrisome divergence between his moral force and man’s growing technical skill. “The focus of the problem does not lie in the atom,” Stimson declared. “It resides in the hearts of men.”
Times staff writers James Gerstenzang, Doyle McManus and Michael Wines contributed to this article.