Arms and Anxiety
To the Editor:
It was interesting to read “Why an American Arms Build-up Is Morally Necessary” by Patrick Glynn [February] the same week that the article entitled “Danger in Moscow” by Seweryn Bialer appeared in the New York Review of Books. . . . Mr. Glynn and many others have made a good case for the necessity of maintaining sufficient arms to match the Soviets for both moral and strategic reasons. Why, then, in the face of cogent reasoning, is the opposition so strident and narrow-minded, and why does it seem to command such a great degree of popular support?
Bialer paints a picture of the mood of the leadership in Moscow as he experienced it. Describing the anger, the sense of injury, and the determination not to be deprived by the United States of superpower status, and how these have been stimulated by the American arms build-up as well as by the rhetoric of the Reagan administration, he points out . . . that perhaps we are not dealing with cool, calculating rational men seeking advantage in the ancient tradition of power politics, but with irrational men who live with major distortions of understanding about the outside world and about their Western opponents. Rather than (or, possibly, as well as) cynically pressing for military and political advantage, they fear losing respect. Rather than pushing us around, they fear being pushed around by us.
The Glynn article focuses primarily and dispassionately on strategic necessities, and on moral and political culture. The Bialer article is laced with anxiety. In his analysis of the opposition to the administration’s arms policy, I believe Mr. Glynn has paid insufficient attention to the role of anxiety and the ways in which people often handle it.
In the first place, nobody can deny that the notion of nuclear war is frightening to any rational person. What makes it even more frightening are the imponderables involved. For example, what are the real intentions of the Soviet leadership? Were the feelings expressed to Bialer heartfelt, or were they just another blow in the propaganda war? If Soviet leaders are truly paranoid, perhaps we should take care not to provoke them. If, on the other hand, the Soviet leaders are not paranoid, but simply playing power politics (and want us to think they are paranoid as part of their power-politics game), then we should be confrontationist in order to set adequate limits to their behavior. The truth, I think, is that nobody on this side of the Soviet shroud of secrecy really knows what the leadership thinks. . . .
In understanding much of the intellectual rigidity and the stridency of the opposition to our efforts to counter the Soviet threat, it is, I think, important to appreciate how anxiety can lead to certain distortions of thinking. For example, if the Soviet leadership is shrouded in secrecy and inaccessible to the influence of public opinion, and if the Soviet Union might, in fact, constitute a threat to our liberties, then anxiety can be reduced if the reality of the Soviet threat can be denied. . . . As an example of this denial, I have heard mental-health professionals with little first-hand knowledge confidently assure their audiences that any notion that Soviet leaders might have thought processes different from ours and might actually constitute a threat to our freedoms is just a “paranoid projection” by our own leadership.
In addition to denying the reality of something which we cannot control (the Soviet threat), another way to reduce anxiety is to fix the source of the anxiety in something we can have some hope of affecting. Thus, blaming our government, our military, and our policy-makers at least offers some hope of change through the democratic process. After all, we can do little about the Soviet government, but we can influence our own.
We should understand that recognizing the Soviet threat as a real threat increases anxiety by forcing the observer to experience both a threat to our civilization (nuclear war) and a threat to our freedoms (the Soviet Union). It is not hard to see how ignoring the Soviet reality removes at least one source of this anxiety.
As a clinical psychiatrist, I know that the first task that needs to be done with someone who is experiencing great anxiety and who, because of this, is locked into rigid and concrete ways of thinking, is to acknowledge the legitimacy of the anxiety and to seek realistic ways of lowering it. Perhaps the current debate about the defense of freedom in the West as well as the avoidance of World War III would become more amenable to resolution if there were more acknowledgment of the underlying anxieties experienced by both sides.
Tufts University School of Medicine
Patrick Glynn writes:
Ronald Abramson is no doubt right to point out that the debate over nuclear arms is attended by a good deal of anxiety, and it is also clear that many people have a distorted, or at least mistaken, view of the pattern of U.S.-Soviet relations. Whether the mechanism of distortion or denial operates precisely as Mr. Abramson suggests, I am not certain. In any case, it is worth remembering that the “anxiety” in question is always connected with a particular vision of politics, a set of assumptions about how the world works. I am skeptical about how much is to be gained from “acknowledging” the legitimacy of anxieties: politics, after all, is not therapy. Visions of politics, however, can be argued with effectively and occasionally even refuted on the basis of reasoning and fact. Mr. Abramson makes a worthwhile effort to analyze the thinking—and feelings—of the opposition in the nuclear debate. I have less faith, nonetheless, in his ability to “cure” such people (especially since they’re busy trying to work a “cure” of their own). Better in the end, I think, to set psychologistic explanations aside and argue the case for or against U.S. strength and firmness on the basis of its merits.