• Email
  • Print

The Nuclear Difference

In response to:

The Devils of Hiroshima from the October 25, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

We still have great difficulty finding a place in our psyches for nuclear weapons in general and Hiroshima in particular. In his review of The Genocidal Mentality, which I wrote with Eric Markusen [NYR, October 25, 1990], Ian Buruma gropes with this dilemma but does not always convey accurately the book’s ideas and perspectives.

Buruma thinks we make too much of changes in the world brought about by nuclear weapons, pointing out that more people were killed during a raid on Tokyo than in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. But thousands of incendiary bombs were required to destroy Tokyo, while in Hiroshima it was one plane, one bomb, one city. The significance of that new destructive efficiency, whatever Japan’s culpability for that war, lay in the threat posed to the human future—and in an emerging fear of futurelessness. For there has taken hold in the world a general realization that these weapons are not like bullets or torpedos or previous bombs but provide an unprecedented capacity to extinguish ourselves as a species, with our own technology, and by our own hand.

This technological quantum leap also enables people, otherwise quite decent, to ally themselves with genocidal projects, whether by participating in making the weapons or projecting their use, or simply by embracing policies that include a stated willingness to employ the weapons under certain conditions. These references to genocide are not loosely drawn, as Buruma implies, but follow Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term; the United Nations Convention of 1948, which referred to the destruction of “national, ethnical, racial or religious group”; and the more recent writings of Leo Kuper, the leading American authority on the subject, who includes as acts of genocide not only Nazi killing but the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the early treatment of Native Americans and the institution of black slavery on this continent.

Buruma is quite right in saying that genocide is hardly new: Lemkin characterized it as “an old practice in its modern development.” But precisely that “modern development” made genocide a different phenomenon—virtually unlimited in scope and much easier to carry out. Individual men and women could readily take up “professional” positions within elaborate technological and bureaucratic structures, with little sense of responsibility for, or even connection with, what was to happen. To be sure, professional attitudes that replace conscience with conscientiousness also predate the weapons (and could undoubtedly be found in ancient Japanese swordmakers), but they suddenly take on infinitely graver consequences. That misplaced professionalism is reinforced by group and national loyalties and by partial attraction to ideologies that justify genocide.

Concerning the question of intent, also raised by Buruma, we in no way equate the Nazi and nuclear situations, and in fact discuss the important differences between them in some detail. But we also emphasize the extent to which intent becomes obscured in both cases. My own interviews, and even more those of the research psychologist Steven Kull, make clear that leaders’ and strategists’ stated purposes of deterring the adversary and preventing war co-exist with contradictory images of American superiority, superpower balance, technological imperative, mystical necessity, and specific plans for using the weapons (plans required by deterrence policy and theory). Intent becomes problematic within individual minds, and still more so in connection with national policy. Even in the case of the Holocaust, where violence toward Jews was central to Nazi ideology from the beginning, there is active current debate on the question of intent in relation to killing all Jews. It is now generally agreed that the decision for the Final Solution was not made until early or mid-1941; and Michael Marrus, in his even-handed summary of scholarship on the question, concludes that “What finally precipitated this decision…is likely to remain a mystery.”

Because of our critical focus on psychological involvements with technology and science, Buruma sees us as engaging in fashionable modernity-bashing. We in fact identify ourselves with a precious legacy of the Enlightenment that is embodied in the slogan, “Dare to know!”—to which can be added, “Dare to oppose!” Buruma therefore misleads when he implies that our strong antinuclear position parallels a society’s decision to “choose to forget,” and could result in an isolated authoritarianism resembling that of Tokugawa Japan. We advocate the reverse: choosing to remember both Auschwitz and Hiroshima in full and accurate detail, and daring to know all that can be learned on behalf of preventing future holocausts.

Is such a position “religious,” and therefore a contradiction in authors who condemn the religion of nuclearism? It is certainly concerned with ethical and even spiritual questions. The mistake here is dividing the world neatly into secular reason and religious unreason. The truth is that there is plenty of Armageddonist unreason from both camps, whether in the form of religious fundamentalism that anticipates nuclear holocaust as a vehicle for the Second Coming of Jesus, or the nuclear-weapons fundamentalism of an Edward Teller. Both are worlds away from the reasoned discourse of the 1983 Catholic Bishops pastoral letter, the 1986 United Methodist Council of Bishops document, “In Defense of Creation,” or the universalistic message of nuclear danger of the Hiroshima “civic religion,” which transcends the inevitable efforts at political and commercial exploitation.

We have been lulled to sleep on many of these matters by the dramatic improvement in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. The recent crisis in the Middle East should be a rude awakening. Since none of us can claim absolute virtue or wisdom on such formidable questions, we do well to extend our efforts—those of Markusen and myself, Buruma, and everyone else—to (in the phrase of the Quakers) “reason together.”

Robert Jay Lifton
Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology
City University of New York
New York City

Ian Buruma replies:

How right of Professor Lifton to uphold the enlightened virtues of “daring to know” and “daring to oppose.” By all means let us reason together.

First of all, there are several points upon which we can agree. As I think I made clear enough in my piece, I also believe that the nuclear bomb is a far more devastating weapon than bullets, torpedos, or previous bombs, indeed (if I can quote myself), that it can “wipe out much of the human race and ruin the ecology of the planet.” So I am as anxious as Mr. Lifton that such a weapon not be used and that nations live in peace.

The question is how to preserve the peace and at the same time our capacity to oppose the tyranny of those who might threaten us. I do not believe that nuclear weapons can be wished away, nor, I daresay, does Mr. Lifton. We can of course decide to abolish all our own nuclear weapons. But other, less democratically run powers may not follow our example, which would, to say the least, make us vulnerable to their tyranny. Perhaps they would never dare to use their weapons, but I would prefer not to put it to the test.

I believe it is likely—I cannot of course prove it—that the balance of nuclear power between the US and the Soviet Union has saved us from devastation, and helped to break up the Soviet Empire. Mr. Lifton probably does not. But this is a fruitful subject for reasonable debate.

What is less fruitful, I think, is the analogy between Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat (the subtitle of Mr. Lifton’s book). He might say that he and his coauthor “in no way equate the Nazi and nuclear situations,” but this is simply untrue. They do indeed equate them, with many, more or less weaselly qualifications of course; but the analogy is the central idea of the book.

The chapter in Mr. Lifton’s book entitled “Learning from Nazi Genocide,” has the following quote, from Archbishop Raymond G. Huntinghausen, as its heading: “I say with deep consciousness of these words that Trident is the Auschwitz of Puget Sound.” Later on in the chapter we are told that of course we cannot equate the Nazi Holocaust with nuclear threat, but that “there are certain parallels having to do with levels of destruction and casts of mind.” This is typical of Mr. Lifton’s reasoning, which is too often a mixture of emotive rhetoric and false logic: Trident is Auschwitz; but we cannot equate Auschwitz with the bomb; but there are certain parallels. Now where does that leave us?

If there are psychological parallels between those involved in the Nazi genocide and those in nuclear arms, the differences are so fundamental as to make the parallels irrelevent. For whereas many Nazi doctors working in the death camps believed that the killing of Jews was necessary for racial hygiene, there is no evidence that many, or indeed any, nuclear scientists think that killing Russians, or Chinese, or whoever is a good thing per se. Whether the Nazi project was to kill all the Jews or just most of them strikes me as a red herring; the point is that they believed that killing was necessary, not out of self-defense, or to end a war (as Truman thought when he dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki), but for purely ideological reasons: the inferior races had lost the right to live. That this idea attracted anybody was bad enough, but the involvement of medical doctors was particularly reprehensible, since it was their profession to heal human beings, not harm them.

Mr. Lifton insinuates that there are genocidal maniacs on the loose in modern nuclear labs. He does this by first citing bizarre American fringe groups, such as the Aryan Nation, then by stating that “Armageddonist imagery can also be held by those close to the weapons,” and finally by saying that “While that should not be seen as the dominant inclination, there is interview evidence that at least some strategists may not be free of the lure of Armageddon.” This is the sort of reasoning one expects from some callow campus radical, not from a well-known scientist.

As to the dangers of Fachidiotie (literally, “job madness”), it is obviously desirable to have decent men and women working in our labs and security councils. Of course they are dealing with matters of life and death. Naturally this means that strategists have to imagine scenarios which could result in catastrophe. But this does not necessarily make them evil or mad. As long as we have a system of nuclear defense, scientists and strategists must deal with it to the best of their professional abilities. And whether or not we should have that type of defense is not for them to decide but should be a political decision, in which morality plays an important part. In other words, it isn’t scientific inquiry as such that should be subject to moral strictures, but the uses to which scientific knowledge is put. It should be part of democracy that such decisions are subject to public debate.

Tokugawa Japan was not a democracy, which was the reason I brought it up. Mr. Lifton missed this point entirely. It was not “society’s decision” to almost totally abolish firearms in eighteenth-century Japan, but a command handed down by a military regime, which wanted to control that society. So, let me repeat: I like peace as much as Mr. Lifton, but I do not wish it to be imposed on the terms of dictators, from East, West, North, South, or indeed the Middle East.

  • Email
  • Print