Commentary Magazine

Anti-Nuclear Fantasies

The anti-nuclear movement has typically expressed itself in broad, emotional gestures of public protest—marches and rallies, theatrical demonstrations of the horrible effects of nuclear bombs, popular referenda for some sort of “freeze” on the arms race. But along with this popular protest, a specialized literature has been forming—a growing corpus of “anti-nuclear books” that attempt to provide more specific theoretical underpinnings for the movement. The best known of these books is Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth. Two major new additions to the genre are Indefensible Weapons and Beyond the Cold War—the former a collaborative effort by two activist American professors, Robert Jay Lifton and Richard Falk, the latter a collection of polemical essays by E.P. Thompson, the well-known British Marxist historian and spokesman for the European disarmament campaign.1

In Indefensible Weapons, Robert Jay Lifton and Richard Falk direct our attention to a phenomenon called “nuclearism,” which they define as the “psychological, political, and military dependence on nuclear weapons, the embrace of the weapons as a solution to a wide variety of human dilemmas, most ironically that of ‘security.’ ” At different points in the text, nuclearism is characterized as a “disease,” a fundamentalist “religion,” and an “addiction.”

The book consists of two long essays, one by each author, with a jointly written introduction and conclusion. In the first essay, called “Imagining the Real,” Lifton, who teaches psychiatry at Yale, argues that the sheer presence of nuclear arms and the dangers they pose are responsible for a wide variety of psychic ills in modern societies; that governments have tended to cope with the nuclear peril by taking refuge in the neurotic “illusion” that stockpiling the weapons can provide security; and that the cure for our problem lies in rejecting such illusions—in “casting off our obeisance to the bomb,” through “awareness” and “action” directed toward disarmament. In the second essay, “Political Anatomy of Nuclearism,” Falk, a professor of international law at Princeton, offers an account of the arms race since the close of World War II. He blames the growth of nuclear armaments chiefly on an entrenched “power structure” in the United States, which he claims has promoted the expansion of nuclear arsenals for profit and personal gain. While acknowledging the existence of similar “militarists” in the Soviet Union, he tends to attribute the vast growth in nuclear forces chiefly to a series of unilateral decisions by the United States—most notably, the decision to go forward with the H-bomb—to which the Soviet Union has responded.

Beyond the Cold War has a different focus, reflecting its European origins, but it sounds similar themes. E.P. Thompson’s word for “nuclearism” is “exterminism,” which he describes as an “addiction” to the arms race. Both the United States and the Soviet Union suffer from this addiction, according to Thompson; indeed, they reinforce it in one another. In this book Thompson tends to view the two superpowers as perfectly reciprocal, as a pair of mirror images. In both nations, defense is the “leading sector” of the economy, and the arms race is mainly designed to keep existing elites in power.

Thompson’s announced goal is different from Lifton’s and Falk’s, or at least more geographically specific. While they hope for total disarmament, Thompson speaks of a “nuclear-free” and “nonaligned” Europe, in which Eastern and Western Europe will somehow be rejoined and liberated from what he calls the “clientage” that they experience at the hands, respectively, of the Soviet Union and the United States. He also intimates that this new Europe will bring with it a new political order, combining the virtues of both the Western and the Communist systems.



Like the anti-nuclear movement as a whole, these books begin by directing attention to the unprecedentedly destructive nature of nuclear weapons themselves. But this is not their ultimate focus of concern. For at the heart of the radical anti-nuclear argument is not so much a revulsion against nuclear arms as a moral rejection of Western-style democracies, especially that of the United States, and even a rejection of politics as traditionally understood. It quickly becomes clear that the case against “nuclearism” rests less on an indictment of the weapons than on an indictment of the West.

Falk puts this vividly in his description of the United States at the end of World War II:

The Hiroshima context informs us that it does not take much, at least in the setting of general war, to prepare Americans, and one suspects other similar states with pretensions of geopolitical “greatness,” to inflict atrocities on enemy societies in order to make a point. In a sense, at least for the West, such a capacity has a hallowed heritage. The Old Testament God seemed always ready to plunder an enemy people unto the last woman and child for the sake of His chosen people. In other words, moral arrangements for atrocity and genocide have long enjoyed a high cultural stature and are presumably imprinted on our civilization in a manner that is so deep it is hidden from active consciousness.

In short, in Falk’s vision it is not so much the weapons themselves that are “indefensible” as the institutional arrangements of Western political life.

While characterizing Western political institutions at the end of World War II as “moral arrangements for atrocity and genocide,” Falk decribes the Soviet Union in the same period as “an extreme instance of a powerful state with a self-help orientation.” This curiously abstract formulation is based on—to put it mildly—an interesting conception of “self-help.” For if Americans have been willing, in most of the postwar era, to sustain the build-up of our nuclear arsenal, it is because they have understood the abhorrent nature of the Soviet regime. Nor has there been a shortage of evidence to support this understanding. During the same postwar years in which the United States was aiding the economic recovery of Western Europe and planting democracy in Germany and Japan, the Soviet Union was closing its grip ever more tightly on the nations of the Eastern bloc—a grip which even today the massed protest of the Polish populace seems incapable of loosing. By 1946, the year to which Falk is referring in this passage, some 30 million Soviet citizens had died at the hands of their own government, consigned to the Gulags and to the torture chambers of the secret police.

Under the circumstances, Falk’s resort to euphemism is instructive. In light of his professed concern about atrocity and genocide, it is remarkable how far a non-Western government actually needs to go in the direction of exterminating its own citizens and brutally subjugating its neighbors before it earns, at last, his reluctant disapproval.



It would be tempting to dismiss this perspective on politics as transparently Marxist and pro-Soviet, and indeed, in no small measure, it is both. Neither Falk nor Thompson seems quite capable of passing up an opportunity to disparage the United States or to frame an excuse for the Soviet Union. But it is important to recognize that this habit stems less from a genuine sympathy for the Kremlin than from a deep antipathy to the American political order—an antipathy that, in the outlook of many anti-nuclear activists, chiefly amounts to a rejection of political arrangements as a whole. This feeling about politics goes far toward explaining the curious and troubling resonance that such radical insights seem to find in the general culture nowadays. In a happier, more sensible age, writers like Lifton, Falk, and Thompson would be dismissed by the vast majority of educated people as irresponsible extremists bent simply on our undoing, but in the present cultural context they have come to speak a language that is inwardly echoed and instinctively understood by a large portion of the educated middle class. The anti-nuclear movement appeals deeply to a widely shared alienation from traditional political life.

Indeed, to read the literature of the anti-nuclear movement is to be struck by the degree to which, in its self-understanding, it is an “anti-political” political movement—a protest not primarily against weapons or even war but against political life as such. This anti-political vision, moreover, appears to have taken hold with equal force on both sides of the Atlantic. It is as evident in Germany’s Green party as in America’s ecological and anti-nuclear Left. As Thompson puts it, reflecting on the greening of his own basically orthodox Marxism: “I am, as I get older, more and more anti-statist: I do not trust state power.”

In short, the anti-nuclear movement is driven forward not by orthodox Marxism but by a viewpoint that in its most concrete form imagines a world somehow freed of government and the power of elites, in which something that Falk terms “the Machiavellian world picture” is replaced by something called “the holistic world picture.” The tyranny of what is darkly termed “bureaucratic oversight” disappears from human affairs, and a new age dawns. In this new world, humane feeling overcomes or at least bypasses politics. E. P. Thompson speaks of “profound, worldwide changes in public consciousness” that will produce “a détente of peoples rather than states.” In Falk’s words, nuclear disarmament when it comes will be simply “the most dramatic dimension” of a mysterious and sweeping change in consciousness, which will bring “a new leadership” supported by “appropriate mass beliefs and values” and by “a new network of institutional arrangements, that is, in short, by a new world order” that will enable us to experience “the interrelatedness of life on this planet.”



If the outlines of the new order never appear more sharply than this, it is because the vision takes its origins less in attraction toward the new order than in revulsion from the existing one. But precisely because the movement’s goal is a rejection of all politics, it is incapable of making essential political distinctions. Nowhere does this become clearer than in the movement’s portrayal of the Soviet Union.

It is not that Falk flatters tyrants or applauds tyranny. He does not, for example, go as far as E. P. Thompson, who refers to subjugated Eastern Europe as “a protective belt of client states” around besieged Mother Russia, and who calls the invasion of Afghanistan “aggressive defense.” Falk insists that the anti-nuclear movement must “premise” its “concern” with “an acknowledgment that Soviet society and bureaucratic socialism more generally present us with an unpleasant version of collective life, something to be avoided for ourselves.” But the language he chooses is once again revealing. For surely something more than “unpleasantness” is at stake here.

And yet it appears to be the very “unpleasantness” of Soviet “collective life”—the psychological discomfort accompanying it—that forms the basis of any reservations Falk may have. This curious perspective is reflected everywhere in the language of Indefensible Weapons. Thus Falk speaks of the tendency during the cold war to portray the Soviet Union as “an inhuman political system that tormented its citizenry with cruelties and bureaucratic tedium.” This is to use the word “tormented” in two very different senses. Bureaucratic tedium is one thing, arbitrary imprisonment and torture at the hands of the authorities is quite another; yet this professor of international law shows a disconcerting propensity to treat the two as though they were merely different aspects of a single problem. Falk writes elsewhere in the book of the “cruelty and grinding inefficiency” of the Soviet state. No one likes government inefficiency; yet to speak in the same breath of the inefficiency of a government and its willingness to torture its own citizens is to confess blindness to the most rudimentary practical and political distinctions. It is to give equal weight to literal and to figurative “oppression,” to set horrible physical suffering and deprivation of rights on a par with minor states of psychological discomfort.

This is precisely what Lifton and Falk have a habit of doing. In characterizing the impact of nuclear weapons on ordinary life, Lifton stresses the importance of what he calls “images of extinction”: “Here I would include Nazi genocide during World War II; various nuclear accidents involving weapons (the coming apart of a bomb in Arkansas in 1980) or energy (Three Mile Island, in 1979). . . .” Now Three Mile Island was indeed an unhappy episode. But there is something radically questionable about a perspective in which Nazi genocide and Three Mile Island (where no one was killed or even seriously injured) count equally as “images of extinction.”



At the root of these confusions is a myopic, even solipsistic approach to evaluating political realities, whereby events gain in importance simply by virtue of occurring nearby. So preoccupied do Lifton and Falk seem with their own bitter sense of alienation from American political life that all other political ills are totally eclipsed. In this vision, America is so evil that it is hard to imagine anything worse. Falk even goes so far as to claim that American citizens are in effect more subject to government deception than inhabitants of totalitarian regimes:

One of the high costs of modern nationalism is a decline in the willingness, perhaps the capacity, of leaders, especially of powerful countries, to speak the truth to their citizens.

This deterioration of public discourse is especially dangerous where citizens generally trust the government. In Soviet society citizens know how to read the morning edition of Pravda. They often get hints from what is not said or about how official policy is celebrated, but they have few illusions about the completeness or reliability of what they are told. We in a democratic society are less on guard, partly of course because we enjoy the benefits of freedom and because the media nurture our trust in their independence and objectivity.

By an Orwellian logic, a free press is thus shown to make the truth less accessible to the public than the state-controlled media of totalitarian states. Behind this twisted reasoning is the assumption that the Soviet Union differs from the United States not in kind but simply in degree. It is not that state power in the Soviet Union is more malignant; it is that its malignance is more obvious.

Oddly enough, even after acknowledging that the Soviet leadership engages in systematic deceit, Lifton and Falk show a remarkable willingness to accept the statements of Soviet rulers precisely at face value. At the very same time that they applaud Soviet citizens for taking a jaded view of Soviet government statements, they disparage American leaders for doing the same: “In this regard we take positive note of the significant pledge never to use nuclear weapons first that Leonid Brezhnev made on behalf of the Soviet Union in his June 15, 1982 message to the United Nations, and we are disturbed by our government’s dismissal of the proposal without offering any constructive response of its own.” One can only speculate what such a “constructive” response might be.

In short, the treatment of the Soviet Union in Indefensible Weapons is never the least bit honest and evenhanded, and, as Orwell might have predicted, the book’s use of language constantly betrays it. Thus we are told that “Gulag revelations of the extensiveness of Stalinist death camps, post-Stalinist repression of dissidents, and periodic Soviet interventions in Eastern Europe to destroy the strivings of the people by way of restoring stability to Communist rule [have] lent credibility to the claim that our rival embodies evil in the primary sense” (emphasis added)—as though such accusations were not entirely “credible.” Similarly, it is asserted that “American foreign policy has been supposedly organized around [the] central tenet of defensiveness,” and that during the period of détente the United States “allegedly slowed its pace of arms racing” (emphasis added). Unable to contradict these facts openly, Falk does his best to discredit them. But there is a notable reluctance to get beyond the “allegedlys” and “supposedlys” to the actual realities of the situation.

Lifton notes that the concept of limited war has persisted “among some American and presumably Soviet strategists” (emphasis added). But there are dozens of volumes that could be consulted to determine whether this presumption is true. The frightening reality is that from the earliest days of the nuclear age, Soviet strategists have taken seriously many different scenarios of limited nuclear war, always presuming such war to be winnable, whatever its size. Yet such considerations have little allure for the likes of Lifton and Falk, whose interest lies not in grasping the truth of our situation but rather in disseminating anti-nuclear dogma. Thus, we are assured, nothing short of total war is possible; it is an “illusion” that deterrence can prevent it; all preparation for this horrible eventuality is “social madness”; suspicion of the Soviet Union is basically neurotic; nothing can save us short of the coming “holistic world picture.” “[O]n the American side,” Falk predicts, there will be a “powerful grass-roots movement outside the framework of politics” pressing for disarmament, while “on the Soviet side the challenge will have to be mounted by a faction of the Politburo and then win wider support throughout the common structure of the topheavy Soviet bureaucracy.” Such is the movement’s brilliant formula for peace: disarm, sit back, and wait for the Age of Aquarius to dawn in the Politburo.



Because it springs not from particular observations but rather from an overall attitude toward politics, this anti-nuclear view is effectively insulated from argument. No number of facts marshaled in defense of Western security policy could make any difference to partisans like Lifton, Falk, or Thompson. It is the self-sealing logic of anti-nuclear thinking that helps to explain the tendentious reading that the activists give to the American political order. Falk speaks, incongruously, about “fighting to regain democracy” in America, as though at some point in the recent past the whole nation somehow slipped unawares into totalitarian rule. Thompson offers a wilder fantasy. “At a certain point,” he warns us, “the ruling groups come to need perpetual war crises, to legitimate their rule, their privileges, and their priorities; to silence dissent; to exercise social discipline; and to divert attention from the manifest irrationality of the operation.” In light of the inexhaustible profusion of dissent and paucity of social discipline in modern American life, it is amazing just how poor a job our leaders have been doing.

It is important to realize the degree to which these protests focus less on objective political arrangements than on subjective psychological states—the degree to which “oppression” in such writing is merely a metaphor for “alienation.” Indeed, the preoccupation of the anti-nuclear movement as a whole is overwhelmingly psychological, carrying to ludicrous lengths what Henry Kissinger has called the liberal propensity to treat foreign policy as “a subdivision of psychiatry.” Both Indefensible Weapons and Beyond the Cold War tend to address the problem posed by nuclear weapons as though it were primarily or even exclusively a psychological predicament, a simple matter of altering one’s state of mind.

This is reflected in Lifton’s lengthy disquisition on the psychological ills or “spiritual corrosion” that result in all of us from the mere existence of nuclear weapons. By the time one has completed Lifton’s essay, it is hard to imagine a psychological problem that does not proceed from our nuclear anxieties. Increasing divorce rates, greater incidence of premarital sex, expanded extramarital relationships, deteriorating relations between parents and children, nihilism in modern art, the growth of the hippie movement, the rise of the Moral Majority—by hook or by crook, Lifton manages to relate them all back to our worry about the Bomb.

To point to the absurdity of this train of reasoning is not to deny that nuclear weapons have darkened the human horizon, just as plague and barbarism darkened the horizon of previous ages. But even if all that Lifton asserts were true, one might still wonder whether psychic discomfort is not a small price to pay, in the long run, for the practical deterrence of nuclear war. For all the anxieties nuclear weapons may have caused us, we have, through prudential political and military measures, thus far prevented the outbreak of thermonuclear war. Lifton shifts all too easily between literal statement and metaphor when speaking about nuclear arms: “Spiritually they destroy and kill, even without being used.” While this may be true in a sense, it is useful to keep in mind the distinction between “spiritual” and literal killing.



To a remarkable degree the anti-nuclear movement is understood by its intellectual leaders as an effort to exorcise anxiety and in the process to attain a kind of personal authenticity. “If we address these problems seriously,” Lifton writes, “with reasoned thought and appropriate passion, we find ourselves recovering certain qualities that we had very nearly lost. . . . We become more genuine professionals, more genuine working people attuned to the central dilemma of our time.” To strive for authenticity is well enough; but Lifton seems to ignore the fact that becoming “attuned” to a dilemma can be a very different thing from soberly and practically coping with it. Indeed, nothing could have graver consequences for Western political life than for such an intractable and delicate political predicament to become implicated in the middle-class quest for “authentic” mental states.

Because the problem of nuclear weapons is viewed as simply psychological, the solution to “nuclearism” is to be found, as though by magic, in new patterns of thought. As Lifton confidently assures us, “[T]he weapons are a product of human imagination, and human imagination is capable of getting rid of them.” Or in Thompson’s jaunty prose: “Since the weapons are useless, and function only as symbols, we could commence to behave as though they do not exist.” So, following this advice, we should simply imagine our way out of our predicament. Indeed, as Falk explains, ridding the world of nuclear weapons is simply a matter of shedding one way of looking at the universe—one form of consciousness—for another, more advanced version. Behind all this lies an enormous confidence in the power of the counterculture, or what is left of it, to lift us above the sublunary imperfections of political life and usher in the golden age. Thompson writes:

There is a shift at a level below politics—expressed in style, in sound, in symbol, in dress—which could be more significant than any negotiations now taking place in Geneva. The PA systems of these popular music bands are already capable of making transcontinental sounds. The bands may not be expert arms negotiators; but they might blast the youth of Europe into each others’ arms.

These are putatively serious men; but they come very close to telling us that the deepest political dilemma of our time will be solved by rock and roll.


1 Indefensible Weapons: The Political and Psychological Case Against Nuclearism, by Robert Jay Lifton and Richard Falk, Basic Books, 301 pp., $15.50. Beyond the Cold War: A New Approach to the Arms Race and Nuclear Annihilation, by E.P. Thompson, Pantheon, 198 pp., $15.00.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.