More on Civil Defense
To the Editor:
. . . . Suppose that the Kahn and the Fromm-Maccoby positions on the kind of attack we might experience are equally accurate as statements of probability and that these are the only two possibilities in a war. Now the probability of either of these eventualities occurring is the same as that involved in the toss of a coin, 50 per cent. If we discount the Fromm-Maccoby view by this figure, their argument that we should have no civil defense because it would not be effective in the kind of war we would have, would have to be recast to read: “We should have no civil defense because it would not be effective in the kind of attack we have a 50—50 chance of having.”
Kahn’s position, however, suffers no such debilitation from claiming too much. . . . If his view is discounted by 50 per cent, it comes out: “We should have a shelter program because it would be effective in the kind of attack we stand a 50—50 chance of having.” Certainly this is a meaningful proposition, given appropriate answers to many other implicit questions held constant in both illustrations. . . . Even with a considerably lesser discounting of the Fromm-Maccoby position and a far greater discounting of Kahn’s position, the conclusions just illustrated still obtain. The real problem in the civil defense viewpoint is knowing where the costs of an effective program become too large for advantages only barely discernible. . . .
Of special interest because the statement comes from a renowned psychiatrist is the discussion of the psychological impact of a nuclear attack. Fromm and Maccoby draw heavily on the history of the Black Death to conclude that man could not psychologically survive a nuclear war. But their argument is considerably weakened by the omission of several factors. There had been a whole series of plagues, a weakening confidence in the Church, protracted wars, restrictive trade practices, and a depression that began before the Black Death of 1348—49. And surely individuals in the 14th century reacted very differently to a disease of unknown origin than people would react today to an attack from a known enemy. . . .
Fromm and Maccoby rather surprisingly seem to join those who complain that the “wrong” people would survive a nuclear war. This point is sufficiently answered by noting that in a democracy it is not permissible, as a matter of governmental action, to discriminate on the basis of personal characteristics, whether they be brutality or skin color. . . . Moreover the “gene pool” of traditions is not so narrowly confined as Fromm and Maccoby suggest.
Kahn has frequently pointed out that civil defense is only a partial expedient and that eventually we must get used to the idea of sacrificing some national sovereignty to establish world order and security. Many of Kahn’s critics have inferred that he suggests “digging in” and learning to live underground. This may be a cover for these critics’ failure to come up with much more than hand-wringing and moaning. . . . But generalizations, such as the last paragraph of the Fromm-Maccoby piece, are unfortunately the rule. No one denies the attractiveness of the ideal stated [“universal disarmament, combined with a political settlement in which neither side tries to upset the other's position”]; but as a program for current action, it is utterly useless. . . .
Henry G. Manne
Saint Louis University
St. Louis, Missouri
To the Editor:
For some time I have been haunted by a suspicion that another Herman Kahn existed besides the one I thought I knew. When I read the debate in your January issue, I was relieved of all doubt—it is now clear that there is one Kahn who serves as a target for critics and another who writes things which are so disturbing that few people are able to read them straight. For those whom the debate has left puzzled it will help if the points on which the two Kahns disagree are brought out into the open.
The crucial question, of course, is whether nuclear war would be a catastrophe. Erich Fromm and Michael Maccoby report that their Kahn offers “cheering estimates” and deems nuclear war to be “acceptable” because it need not be catastrophic—obviously, this cannot be the same Kahn who has written that nuclear war would be “an unprecedented catastrophe, if not an unlimited one.” The Kahn of Messrs. Fromm and Maccoby, “rather than frankly accepting the fact that no shelter program could save our urban population in the event of an attack against our cities,” argues “that if the Russians strike first they will try to destroy our missile and SAC bases, not our cities”—whereas the other Kahn said, “a surprise attack out of the blue directed against population presents a virtually impossible problem of defense for those in the target areas” and wrote a major part of his book on the basis of the assumption that the 53 largest U. S. metropolitan areas were totally destroyed. Again, the one Kahn is so “shortsighted” as to neglect the possibility of city bombing because he figures, among other things, that the Russians will not have enough missiles to attack our retaliatory forces and our cities—whereas the other Kahn considers a city attack possible, but argues that it would be poor strategy both from a military and a psychological point of view. And so it goes—the-target-of-the-critics-Kahn “ignores” the effects of sudden shocks of great intensity in order to “make the picture rosier than it really is”—whereas the other Kahn compares the effects of sudden shocks and long continued hardships and ventures the suggestion that the former need not be worse than the latter; the one offers a “science fiction” civil defense program at 200 billion dollars—whereas the other recommends the expenditure of a half billion now and argues against spending more than 5 billion annually in later years. Finally, the one emerges as a monomaniac obsessed with the idea that nuclear war must be shown to be tolerable—whereas the other has made it clear that the civil defense measures he is advocating will at best gain us a few years of increased security, and that in order to prevent the accelerating arms race from overthrowing the precarious balance of deterrence, we must use this short period for establishing a comprehensive system of arms control through international agreement. . . .
By now, most of us know quite well what can be said against Kahn, the warmonger, adventurist, and gambler. The critics who have demolished him can be sure of our approval. Is it too much to expect that they might eventually discover and take on as their opponent the author of the book On Thermonuclear War?
Walter W. Marseille
To the Editor:
Opponents of civil defense rely heavily on the claim that a civil defense program would render war more likely. . . . If our only interest were to avoid war, the only reasonable course would be to capitulate immediately to the Russians. . . .
The position of the opponents of civil defense seems to rest on one or both of the following grounds: (1) any civil defense program renders war so much more likely that any such program is too risky a venture; (2) no civil defense program can be at all effective against any kind of attack which the nation might suffer. Neither of these statements is true.
All sorts of civil defense programs can be conceived—from marking existing shelter areas and stockpiling medical supplies to putting the whole country underground. Perhaps some of these would make war very much more likely, but it is plausible that others would hardly increase this likelihood at all, particularly if they were explained honestly to the public. . . .
Obviously, the effectiveness of defensive measures depends on the size and kind of the attack. Against certain kinds of attack no defense at all is possible for certain people. But Erich Fromm and Michael Maccoby, who oppose civil defense, concede that even after an attack against urban centers “millions of people living in rural areas away from population centers and military installations might be saved by fallout shelters.”
War may come despite the best efforts of our leaders. . . . It is to the credit of those who oppose civil defense that they perceive its dangers—of increasing the likelihood of war and of undermining the social fabric. It is not to their credit that they tend to be so infatuated with this insight that they ignore the possibility of devising some program which would decrease the destructiveness of war without intolerably increasing its likelihood and without disrupting the social order. It seems to me callous and irresponsible to oppose civil defense categorically. . . .
Department of Philosophy
Ohio State University
To the Editor:
. . . Fromm and Maccoby seem to miss a few important points: (1) Kahn does not suggest that we give up attempts at a disarmament agreement. He suggests that shelters would offer some degree of protection if all else fails. (2) Fromm and Maccoby, like many opponents of shelters, seem insensitive to the probabilistic nature of the problem with which we are confronted. The Soviets might attack our cities instead of our military bases; they might send a 2X magnitude attack instead of an X one; people might be at work instead of home, etc. But, even if the chances are only 4 in 10 of saving 60 million people, isn’t it worth the effort and money?
I agree with Fromm and Maccoby that Kahn tends to minimize the horrible world with which the survivors would be confronted. However, there are few philosophies which would prefer no chance of survival to one which provided even one chance in 20 of facing that world. Although it is an extreme and distasteful thought, the survivor who is aghast at the devastation can make his own decision about survival; he does have the opportunity to do away with himself. Without shelters, few would have that choice.
The major weak point in Kahn’s argument has to do with the effect of shelter building on Soviet behavior. Kahn suggests a gradual build-up; gradual or rapid, the Russians can add, and our state of defense or intentions of defense will be discernible.
Robert J. Schreiber
To the Editor:
Mr. Herman Kahn has convinced me that a realistic and unsentimental plan is needed to provide information now about all the unknowns that hamper our civil defense.
I propose a scientific study, in which a typical urban American community, say Cleveland, Ohio, would be bombed by the United States military with a 5 megaton bomb. Special observers from the A.E.C. and the Rand Corporation could be stationed at intervals from point zero to distances ranging up to 400 miles from the blast.
In order that this experiment be as humane as possible, the population of Cleveland could be provided with an optimum shelter program and a half hour warning before the drop.
The initial cost of this program would soon be covered by taking expensive guess-work out of nationwide civil defense, and the cost in lives would amount to only a calculated 3.9 per cent in relation to total U. S. population. The information provided could be expected to save millions of Americans later.
The Cleveland survivors would find their grief alleviated by time, and would soon begin “normal happy lives” helping the country to plan for real thermonuclear war.
Mary L. Holman
Astoria, New York
To the Editor:
. . . . Erich Fromm and Michael Maccoby conclude, “Our own fear of Russian preemption will in turn make us more prone to strike first, and so on up the spiral.” . . . . In a footnote the authors observe that Herman Kahn “comprehends the war-provoking aspect of a large civil defense program.” I think this provocative aspect of civil defense should be emphasized, especially since it is masked in Kahn’s article. Characterizing people who appeal to “self-fulfilling prophecy” as “being less rational than superstitious,” Kahn writes, “They object to civil defense in much the same way that some women will object to an examination for cancer or some men will object to buying life insurance. . . . It is an indisputable principle of everyday experience that appropriate precautions taken as a result of realistic fears ordinarily help to prevent such fears from being realized.” This is one of the weakest points in Kahn’s argument. . . . The cold war is not, in Kahn’s sense, an everyday experience, and fear of nuclear attack is not like fear of cancer. The agent of cancer is unknown, but the antagonist in a nuclear war in the 1960′s is not; and if Soviet leaders do harbor notions of attacking us or harbor fears of being attacked, then a civil defense program could affect their policies.
In the paragraph following his evasive use of an inaccurate analogy, Kahn recognizes the point of the self-fulfilling prophecy argument but conceals its force. “The problem in launching a civil defense effort,” he says, “is similar to the problem that exists in all our military programs; to find the line above which we cannot go without provoking the Soviets into greatly accelerated efforts.” In pursuing a civil defense program at a “strategic pace,” the United States either would gain a strategic advantage over the Soviet Union, or both countries would develop similar civil defense. The first possibility could easily cause the Soviets to feel endangered and thereby precipitate an attack on the United States. The second continues the kind of nervous balance that exists at present. Finally, it should be stated bluntly that the “greatly accelerated efforts” which a civil defense program could arouse in the Soviets might be military efforts.
The greatest threat of nuclear war lies in one power’s believing that it is weaker than an aggressive enemy. But neither power will allow the other to achieve a strategic advantage. . . . Nuclear war would probably be used only as a desperate defense. Nevertheless, and before millions of suffering people, the world’s two richest countries [could] engage in a useless, and perhaps self-fulfilling, war.
New York City
To the Editor:
Mr. Kahn is so middle class in his saving, so genteel. He speaks about people emerging into a post-atomic-war world and leading “useful and decent lives.” (Why should some not lead useless and indecent lives?) In other words Mr. Kahn always seems to be talking about the solid, respectable, middle-class American when he talks about anyone emerging into a brave burnt world. Has he thought about a shelter program for prisons or mental institutions? And beggars and thieves and pickpockets, shall they not be saved too? . . .
Nor does Mr. Kahn talk about shelters for Indians on reservations who may be endangered by fallout-laden winds, or about Eskimos, or our neighbors the Canadians and the Mexicans, the Haitians, the Puerto Ricans, or our allies who will certainly suffer in case of an atomic war: the British, the Scots, the Turks, the Laplanders, the French, the Belgians, the Sicilians, the Manxmen, the Frisians, the Faroese. . . .
Mr. Kahn talks not only about saving human beings but about preserving ideals, values, institutions—all Western ones, not Far Eastern or Near Eastern ones, to be sure. And economic ones, specifically, I suppose, since he talks about economic not cultural recovery. Why doesn’t he or his colleagues propose vaults under the Rockies for the contents of all our great libraries and museums, copies of all the creative works done by man? We could then come to the surface after the fires have died down and the fallout has been washed away and sit around on rocks and read Shakespeare’s King Lear, Dante’s Inferno, Goethe’s Faust, Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” These I presume the widely read Mr. Kahn has read to gain his knowledge of man.
No, I am afraid that Mr. Kahn is too square. Should we make him our Saviour?
Harold J. Enrico
To the Editor:
In line with Fromm and Maccoby’s final statement that there is only one way out, “universal disarmament, combined with a political settlement in which neither side tries to upset the other’s present position,” your readers may be interested to learn of a positive program initiated here in December.
A group of women has formed a nonprofit corporation called Shares in the Future. Shareholders receive a certificate stating that the dividend is payable “in strengthened hope for a peaceful world.” The shares are available in denominations from $1 to $500. The money goes to the United Nations for the support of peace and disarmament in such a way that it does not reduce the assessment of member nations. We feel that this plan helps to strengthen the United Nations while demonstrating that individuals believe there are honorable alternatives to war.
Minna W. Hewes
To the Editor:
The Kahn—Fromm/Maccoby debate avoids rather than faces up to the “one legitimate accusation” proffered by Eric Bentley in his letter (“Letters to the Editor”) in the same issue. COMMENTARY and other serious magazines go on debating “Western Values and Total War” and the problems of civil defense and survival, but they do it without inviting the participation of the oft-invoked pacifists. . . .
Kahn tells us: “We may have to decide between the risk of immediate war and appeasement or surrender, with whatever that entails in terms of future risks.” The pacifist, contrary to his critic’s charge, does not accept the “appeasement or surrender” half of this equation. As a matter of fact, he chooses “war” but without violence. But who has been willing to listen to, or to sharpen up, the pacifist’s attempt to spell out a realistic, practicable policy based on the social and political organization of nonviolence? The more usual reaction is, simplistically, to say, “It can’t be done,” and to fail to examine what has just been rejected. . . .
The pacifist can accept “disarmament” not because he sees the absence of weapons as an end of conflict, but because he would “arm” himself and his side with a new weaponry which would make nuclear war and conventional war outmoded. . . . This would mean the training and equipping of nonviolent armies nationally and internationally, plus training whole populations to defend their civilization and its values by being true to those values even when the chips are down. It would mean spending large sums to refine, improve, and make more powerful our methods of nonviolence, just as we now become ever more adept at violence. . . .
Roy C. Kepler
To the Editor:
The tactics of Herman Kahn’s liberal critics are certainly curious. First, consider their target. Living in a jungle of nation-states; in desperate need of world political institutions; in the midst of a global population explosion; victimized by mass culture and megalopolis on the one hand, or by hunger, disease, and colonialism on the other; in short, faced by unprecedented social and political problems, we seem to listen increasingly for advice from the politique de la physique. Plumed in white (laboratory coats), the savants speak in the voice of ostriches, saying: “Start digging holes in the ground.”
I suppose it isn’t surprising to hear such words of political wisdom from men who have spent their most creative years with physical apparatus talking mathematics to each other. But I am amazed that their critics regard them so seriously. Fromm and Maccoby, for example: “Kahn, whose good will and great ability we do not doubt. . . .” (Why not?) “In debating the position of Kahn and other experts on civil defense we have been forced to accept their data. . . .” (Why?)
Why is it that the liberal critics insist on confronting Kahn on his best ground—the physics of extermination—and so rarely attack the political framework from which it proceeds? At first I wondered if they shared certain political assumptions. But I doubt it and am now thankful to Fromm and Maccoby for speaking to my puzzled condition most explicitly when they say: “With the life of a nation and perhaps of all mankind as the stake, it is neither wise nor sane to gamble.” They ask for “. . . a political settlement in which neither side tries to upset the other’s present position.”
But neither wise nor sane, what if it is necessary to gamble? What if one’s “present position” is intolerable? And if the status quo ante is not a highly desired goal? Fromm and Maccoby may not face these problems in their daily lives, but I suggest this is a fair description of the state of affairs endured by upward of two-thirds of the world’s population. And I suspect that the critics of Herman Kahn focus on his physical calculations or the provocative features of CD rather than his political inadequacy in world affairs, because to take the latter, more difficult course might reveal some of their own inadequacies in dealing with world political problems.
At least, that’s the only explanation of such behavior I’ve been able to deduce.
Angel Island Publications, Inc.
To the Editor:
. . . Erich Fromm and Michael Maccoby, matching Mr. Kahn’s soothing assurances word for word with the futility of it all (for the sake of a point, I hope), present us with a callous, degraded society as a result of instant, widespread destruction of life and property, not to mention mass disorientation and loss of identity due to a grand rending of the social fabric. They relegate any potential for heroism, piety, and sacrifice to a few brave souls, neglecting even to consider such a possibility for society as a whole. And Mr. Kahn’s optimism is hardly any better; betting on a resurrection of bourgeois values, as if they would need resurrection, is nothing more than varnish, a belief that there is enough fundamental authoritarianism in society to cope with any crisis. He is relying on herd instinct rather than Western ideals and institutions, as he would like us to believe.
If, however, seeing possibilities for human achievement in a nuclear war sounds overly optimistic, let me say that I am merely pointing out that death and suffering, even on a grand scale, is not necessarily degrading. And, to go a step further, I don’t think it is too much of an assumption to say that the determining factor in most cases will be one’s attitude to the war. . . .
My main point then is not a rejection of civil defense because I refuse to admit the possibility of a nuclear war. But rather that the war is not in any way just, and therefore one should refuse to participate in it even to the extent of preparing for its possibility. If it should come despite my modest dissent, I would probably make the best of it, even to the extent of actively participating in it, simply because there would be no choice in the matter. As things stand now there is a choice. One can choose not to participate in it now, though later one may be involved in it, like it or not. But those people who advocate civil defense with a passion, and especially those individual shelter owners who are stockpiling firearms, are already fighting a nuclear war of their own. . . . They make life the summum bonum in a war that places the least value on life, which, if not hypocritical, is at best a refusal to confront the possibility of nuclear war in any other way than the conventional. . . . If nuclear war is not accepted as something unique, demanding a unique response, then a brutalized society is already upon us and exceeds all the estimates of Messrs. Fromm and Maccoby. . . .
The object of this letter is to suggest that the very things which will help this country deter or avoid war—desire for peace, concern for social justice internationally as well as domestically, accommodation of differences, the gradual education of Americans to world realities—will also be the things that will most prepare the country for any eventuality, including nuclear war, should it come.
Paul D. Velde