Western Values and Total War
To the Editor:
It is regrettable that some of the participants in the stimulating discussion “Western Values and Total War” [October 1961; Sidney Hook, H. Stuart Hughes, Hans J. Morgenthau, and C. P. Snow] reveal a lack of moral insight:
- Unilateral disarmament is morally unavoidable if all other alternatives for securing world peace should fail. To insist upon total nuclear-war preparedness in the interest of freedom sounds hollow. With the possible total annihilation of mankind all Western values would die forever. They would survive an enslavement under Communism.
- The nuclear defense program can be accepted on moral grounds only if we believe in its war deterrent capacity. The advocacy of shelters destroys this moral foundation.
(Rabbi) Simon Friedeman
To the Editor:
The unstructured tedium of your discussion was relieved for me, in some perverse way, by the most garrulous of your contributors, Sidney Hook. On several occasions he insisted that H. Stuart Hughes, another participant, offer “evidence” in support of his contentions. . . . I should like to ask Professor Hook what evidence he can offer in support of his unhesitating statement that in the Soviet Union illegal departure from the country is punishable by death. To my knowledge, the penalty actually on the statute books for “unlawful departure abroad” is one to three years (Art. 20, Decree on Criminal Liability for State Crimes, December 25, 1958). The circumstances of illegal departure may, of course, involve actions likely to be construed as treason within the rather liberal definition of same by Soviet law. . . .
Samuel L. Sharp
Seminar on Soviet Studies
School of International Service
Washington, D. C.
To the Editor:
I want you to know how much we in this department enjoyed the publication of the round-table discussion “Western Values and Total War.” . . . Our congratulations for this outstanding feature in your generally outstanding magazine.
To the Editor:
. . . Many of the statements in COMMENTARY’S discussion will no doubt provoke contention and agreement, but for me the primary failure lay in the lack of any real confrontation with how Western values can be preserved. . . . I doubt that any members of the panel would disagree with the assumption that the cold war, carried on long enough (a generation?), must result in an increasing resemblance between the contending power blocs. This is the best we can hope for—the alternative is war, planned or accidental. And in neither case is there survival for Western values. . . .
The fact is that the cold war cannot be won. . . . I would suggest in this connection that our “deterrent” capacity has never even been a factor in the lack of war to date. The Soviet Union has been winning enough of its struggles not to need war, and we haven’t deterred them from something which they haven’t yet felt necessary. The cold war cannot be won—to be it can only be abandoned.
I suggest also that perfectly controlled multilateral nuclear disarmament, with the power struggle continuing, would mean war. Science, like society, is not static. . . . The first nation to develop a mass weapon not controlled, will be in a position to dominate the world—and in such a context will do so. . . .
I suggest still further that it is the power struggle itself which is the enemy of Western values, and that our only recourse is to opt out. Unilateral disarmament is certainly one method of showing this decision, and there are undoubtedly many others, all of which should be investigated. If we cannot win the cold war, we must end it.
I agree with Mr. Hughes in that I do not believe that unilateral disarmament would necessarily lead to a Soviet invasion. This possibility does exist to be sure, but there are many other factors in the situation; and it is totally unscientific to assume that such invasion would inevitably take place. My own guess is that forces would be unleashed, in the unaligned nations and in the Soviet camp which would turn the course of history and would for the first time permit a world without war. This may not occur, but there is at least a good chance for it. The alternative is a certainty, as Sir Charles has so eloquently told us. . . .
One further point. If Western values are inoperative in crises, they are not values but luxuries. And if they are luxuries, be sure we will be taught to live without them. To me, values, to be valid, must be attuned to man’s deepest drives. If so, they are the most potent forces we have at our command. Let us defend Western values by Western values.
To the Editor:
Frederick Martin Stern is mistaken [in his comments on “Western Values and Total War,” January “Letters”]. “Nicht der Mörder, sondern der Ermordete ist schuldig”—is not by Leonard Frank, the author of Der Mensch ist Gut. I believe it is by Franz Werfel. Incidentally the effort to join the art of war, or any kind of military organization, with ethics is unethical. War has as little to do with ethics as shoes, and a nation which tries to forget that war is at best a dirty business, is indeed abandoning its cultural values for militarism.
Henry M. Pachter
New York City
To the Editor:
Reading your discussion outside of America—in my case, while surrounded by the soothing landscape of Kyoto—gives one a strange sense of both terror and unreality. The terror is caused mostly by the subject itself, reduced as it is to its atrocious nakedness. The sense of unreality, however, does not come from the subject alone but rather from things said and unsaid—and especially from the surprising absence of a clear statement by any of these philosophically-minded men on the value of human life itself.
Indeed, Mr. Hook’s logic seems to lead us up a strange street: first we are told that in Western tradition, as embodied in Aristotle, it is not life as such that is of value, but only the good life. We are almost led to believe that survival per se is a Communist value, since “survival is the be-all and end-all for them.” One wonders what has happened to the tradition of Western humanism. Surely there is great, if not supreme, value in the sequence of human existence—in the continuity of historical generations which gives us the opportunity to be noble, evil, creative, or to just passively exist, all in relationship to those who have gone before and those who shall come after. Aristotle’s distinction between “mere life” and the good life is important, but it hardly comprehends the revolutionary human situation in which man can put an end to all life.
The participants, of course, recognize the new and highly tragic relationship between nuclear weapons and human life: Mr. Hughes and Sir Charles Snow imply this knowledge in their remarks; Mr. Morgenthau has written eloquently of it in a past issue of this magazine; and Mr. Hook, however much he attempts to argue around it, is too sensitive and too honest to permit himself to wholly ignore it. Yet any discussion of nuclear dangers that does not place this matter at its center is bound to suffer from a high degree of unreality and a dangerous form of historical provincialism.
We find further evidence of this unreality in Mr. Hook’s willingness to “count on the sanity of the men in the Kremlin.” (He is apparently so certain of America’s virtue and steadiness that he never raises the question of our own leaders’ mental balance.) But sanity is not the issue: a perfectly sane man on either side (by all current medical-psychological standards) could be quite capable of giving the order setting off a nuclear war—through ideological passion, through momentary fear or anger, or through use of the very “logic” of fight rather than surrender that Mr. Hook, and to some extent Mr. Morgenthau, espouse.
By focusing on an ultimate confrontation—nuclear war or surrender to Russian Communism—instead of upon the new and shocking relationship between human life and nuclear weapons, the participants, during the first three-fourths of the discussion, succeed mainly in wrenching from one another painful moral inconsistencies. Mr. Hook seems to take special delight in those of his colleagues, though it seems to me that his own are by far the most serious. This focus confines the major part of the discussion to utterly absurd (as Mr. Morgenthau was wise enough to point out) alternatives; and only after Sir Charles comes upon the scene do we get a sense of return to what I would consider to be reality. By rejecting both alternatives, and insisting instead upon constructive historical possibilities, Sir Charles brings us to the sudden realization that there has been something more than a little odd in the tone of the previous discussion, something, unfortunately, specifically American.
We realize that three outstanding American intellectuals, all of them authorities on their subject insofar as anyone can be an authority on it, have been almost solely preoccupied with two dreadful eventualities, one highly imaginary (Soviet occupation of America has never been an issue in the cold war), and the other encompassing the likely destruction of humankind. We can only conclude that the enormity of our dilemma has created in America a dangerous form of social pathology: in response to our overwhelming anxiety, either we contemplate the most wildly destructive actions or else freeze in impotent expectation of inevitable disaster. Rarely do we apply our intelligence to rescuing ourselves and the rest of the world from the grave danger we face in common (here one must respect Mr. Hughes’s willingness to come to grips with the problem, even if one has doubts about his specific approach).
Historical provincialism is also evident in references to Communism and socialism in relationship to America and to the uncommitted countries. Attention is fixed on a polarity and a contest: Communism versus American democracy—which will win under what circumstances? What we particularly miss is a broader understanding of the complex feelings of intellectuals and political leaders of uncommitted countries—particularly in the Afro-Asian bloc—toward both Soviet Russia and America. Instead we find Mr. Hook equating Communism with Nazism (and Mr. Hughes, when forced into a corner, pointing out the greater evil of the latter) in a typical example of the misleading form of historical comparison indulged in these days by so many Americans.
The actual attitudes of leaders in the non-Western and uncommitted world are not only more complex than we are led to believe, but also possess specific bearing upon the possibilities for preserving peace, or at least for avoiding nuclear war. These intellectual and political elites, however, confronted by the inescapable cruelties of organized Communism (and there is an increasing recognition of these cruelties among them, intensified though not initiated by recent Russian nuclear testing), embrace in common with Communism various ideological elements. Their great concern is not only with economic modernization, but with transforming what they experience as unworkable remnants of their cultural traditions, and ultimately with transforming themselves. At the same time these non-Western elites often experience an equally strong urge to restore to viability some of these same traditional cultural elements. This combined mood of revolutionary transformation and restoration is usually non-Communist, often socialist, frequently Marxist, and not infrequently Leninist. It is a mood, or combination of moods, that we continuously fail to grasp; yet it represents one of the great dynamic forces of the contemporary world. We may, as Mr. Morgenthau states, face “existential” handicaps in courting the favor of those who share this mood, but this does not mean we can deal with it by a simple tally of who is on “our” side. There is much we could do to ally ourselves with its more humanistic elements, and thereby have some influence in encouraging the development of its open and free, rather than closed and totalist, potentialities. Here I am afraid that Mr. Hook’s remarks on Asian intellectuals are particularly inadequate. In Japan, for instance, to which Mr. Hook specifically refers, intellectuals of many political colorings share the mood I have described. Most are highly critical of both America and Soviet Russia; yet many of these critics would look upon themselves as friendly disposed to both. Nor is it quite true that Japanese intellectuals do not consider themselves part of Asia: it is more accurate to say that they are ambivalent about being Asians—and this ambivalence can sometimes make them wish to be “100 per cent Asian,” as is frequently true of the younger ones among them.
I submit that we should worry less about whether the Soviet Union is in a better position to court Asian and African intellectuals, and instead think a good deal more about how all three groups can find common cause in the shared goal of preserving the human race. It is dangerous nonsense to speak of the possibility of preserving the Western tradition through a war that destroys everything human: Western tradition—as well as Eastern, Communist, and for that matter, neutral tradition—can only be preserved by finding accommodation, and this is our common moral imperative. There is no use in our nervously reassuring ourselves that Soviet Russia has been more aggressive and more intransigent than we have been during the postwar period. I believe this to be true, but I also believe that our own record has been spotty enough to make us think twice about parading our moralism—as Sir Charles gently suggests. Exaggerated moralism on either side is indeed one of the great dangers, for it encourages a kind of militant polarization which could close all avenues of discussion and give one side or the other—or both—the feeling that there is no way out but war.
The necessary accommodation may be roughly outlined as follows. Members of the three blocs must jointly recognize their common adherence to the principle that human life is valuable and worth preserving, as a basis for finding a means of working together for its preservation. Directions of accommodation can then evolve for each of the three groups. America will have to move into closer and more sympathetic (though never entirely uncritical) relationship to the widespread social revolutionary forces I have mentioned, particularly in the non-aligned countries but also in Communist countries, in the West, and in America itself. This form of accommodation becomes more, not less, necessary following Russia’s shocking actions in resuming large-scale atmospheric testing, and exploding the 50-megaton bomb; we still have evidence, as Sir Charles indicates, that there are significant groups in Russia with whom we may be able to work (and whom Mr. Khrushchev frequently has supported) which are as much concerned with peace as are any of us. Similarly, the failure of the non-aligned nations to take the stronger stand on Russia’s actions makes it all the more imperative that we work with these nations now, not turn from them. Soviet accommodation must correspondingly take account of the genuineness—even the excesses—of American idealism, and the complexities of American political life. Russia must also develop, however grudgingly, greater openness to non-Communist influence; some such increase in openness would be an inevitable consequence of a profound acceptance of the principle of working together for survival. The neutral nations would have to accommodate themselves by moving toward a more genuine universalism in their attitude toward peace: for to them would fall the task (to which they have up to now insufficiently dedicated themselves) of active leadership in the definition and regulation of truly international programs for peace. This means they will have to transcend their anti-colonialist passions—not give them up, but see them in the wider perspective of the common need for survival. And this accommodation would also entail, for all three groups, a continuous effort to dampen chauvinistic and belligerent influences from any source—whether Moscow, Peking, Washington, Paris, or Bonn.
I am well aware that these directions of accommodation are precisely the directions in which all three groups have been unable to move. Yet there is hope in the fact that, in each case, there have been small steps forward taken at one time or another, however hasty and violent the subsequent retreat. Nor are these by any means the only, or even the basic, accommodations to be made. I have not, for instance, spoken of the enormous scientific and economic cooperation that could follow upon these explorations in accommodation, once the joint goal of survival had been universally accepted. Whatever the difficulties—and I do not minimize them—I am certain that it is to these possibilities for life, and not to the explosive and paralytic polarities of death that dominate the COMMENTARY discussion, that we must begin to apply our energies.
Robert J. Lifton