Commentary Magazine

The Civil Defense Debate

To the Editor:

I hope you will accept my congratulations on “A Debate on the Question of Civil Defense” [Herman Kahn—for: Erich Fromm and Michael Maccoby—against; January]. The debate is a brilliantly effective journalistic stroke, a major contribution to public understanding of a vexing question.

Norman Cousins

Saturday Review
New York City



To the Editor:

I do not think the civil defense debate in COMMENTARY really made a positive contribution to the discussion. I do not find discussions like that of Erich Fromm and Michael Maccoby serious in an intellectual sense, although I respect the seriousness of their feelings.

To put the matter simply: a thermonuclear attack may come, despite our best efforts to find the President’s third choice between holocaust and surrender. If it does come, civil defense can save millions, and perhaps tens of millions of lives, although many more lives may be lost. The lives saved are not only valuable in themselves, but they may mean survival as a nation, not survival as scattered tribes. Survival after an attack could be incredibly difficult, but I do not believe it would be impossible. Finally, I cannot agree that the President’s civil defense program encourages a bellicose attitude, or makes war any more likely.

Adam Yarmolinsky
Office of the Secretary of Defense
Washington, D. C.



To the Editor:

Fromm and Maccoby say rather patronizingly that they do not doubt Mr. Kahn’s “good will and great ability”; yet their concluding statement reads: “At best, what these experts are giving the American public is a piece of optimistic guesswork governed by the logic of a gamble. With the life of a nation and perhaps all mankind at stake, it is neither wise nor sane to gamble. Herman Kahn’s arguments leave us convinced that there is only one moral and rational way out of the grim predicament we are in: universal disarmament, combined with a political settlement in which neither side tries to upset the other’s present position” (my italics).

It is clear from this that Mr. Kahn and those who agree with him are not to be regarded as wise or sane or moral or rational, despite the demurrer. . . . More important is the unwillingness of Messrs. Fromm and Maccoby to see the risks in their own position: unlike Mr. Kahn, they wish to gamble with the lives of millions of human beings by neglecting civil defense. In any case, it is obvious that any position one takes on the treacherous issues of the cold war, including the unilateral disarmament of the West that Mr. Fromm was advocating not so long ago, involves in some degree a “gamble.” Further, the implication that Mr. Kahn is opposed in principle to universal disarmament (with proper controls) is absurd and malicious on its face. His doubts as to whether this goal can be reached in the immediate future are certainly not absurd, however; hence his desire to reduce the risks inherent in our “grim predicament” as much as possible with an appropriate civil defense program.

Finally, I was puzzled by the proposition of Messrs. Fromm and Maccoby that awareness of the truth that thermonuclear war is possible will lead to “old illusions” being replaced by “even more dangerous ones.” This apparent contempt for truth, even unpleasant truth, seems odd coming from individuals who claim to speak in the name of sanity, morality, and (I presume) democracy, but perhaps it explains a great deal about some of their other statements.

John B. Jones
New York City



To the Editor:

Fromm and Maccoby have given too little attention, and Kahn has ignored completely, the use of the bomb as an incendiary weapon. Gerard Piel, publisher of Scientific American, has discussed the firestorms generated by ordinary incendiary bombs in World War II: “the firestorm at Dresden is estimated to have killed 300,000 people in a single night; at Hamburg, some 70,000; at Tokyo, some 200,000. Blastproof bomb shelters afforded no protection in these storms; their occupants were found suffocated and cremated when the shelters were opened. The firestorm at Hiroshima burned inside the perimeter of the blast effect.”

Then Piel points out that the area of the bomb’s effectiveness as an incendiary weapon increases as the square root of its nominal power, while its blast effect goes up only as the cube root of its power. . . . (One estimate computes that a single 1,000 megaton bomb could incinerate six Western states.) It is most “profitable,” therefore, to use the bombs as incendiary weapons by exploding them high in the air rather than at, or close to, the ground.

Used as an incendiary weapon, the bomb produces little or no local fallout, so the fallout shelter becomes merely a death trap for tens of millions close to the incendiary perimeter, who might otherwise save themselves by fleeing radially away from the zero point before the firestorm—which might take several hours to develop—engulfed them.

These facts would seem to negate the main technical argument for the shelter program, i.e. some protection is better than none. . . . Increasingly, in view of these facts, we may come to realize the force of Einstein’s statement that nuclear weapons and national sovereignty are incompatible. Many of the intelligent people I talk to nowadays seem to agree with this proposition. Most, unfortunately, also agree that such a position is politically “unrealistic,” even unthinkable; which reminds one of David Riesman’s observation that almost all his college students agreed that though advertising had no effect on them, everyone else was taken in.

Morton Clurman
Croton-on-Hudson, New York



To the Editor:

Fromm and Maccoby . . . conclude that civil defense is a gamble and it is neither wise nor safe to gamble. . . . The question to which they never address themselves is: which gamble is the greater risk, civil defense or non-civil defense? . . .

To be sure, some of Fromm and MacGoby’s arguments can be translated into terms of a theory of comparative risks; but obviously they are not in the same intellectual league as Kahn because they fail systematically to treat the problem in these terms, and introduce many arguments which merely insist that civil defense is inconvenient, uncertain, and highly imperfect—all of which is irrelevant to the main point: is it more uncertain, imperfect, and in the long run less dangerous?

Lewis A. Dexter
Belmont, Massachusetts



To the Editor:


. . . Ideals are what men must live by. . . . But what ideal will survive a nuclear war? What ideal has now led us to the brink of this thermonuclear game? . . . Fromm and Maccoby have most poignantly and sadly portrayed the “American Dream” of the afterworld. Congratulations to them both.

(Mrs.) Linda Bell Zimmer
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania



To the Editor:

There are two ways of thinking about nuclear war. One is to consider it a natural event for which, since it might be unavoidable, we must prepare with realistic circumspection. The other is to consider it as a moral problem, a view that might, of course, lead to a refusal of being in any way involved in a crime [without] parallel in history.

The necessity to consider nuclear war as a moral problem is also particularly great because the “realistic” discussion reveals loopholes in our assumptions which we cannot fill—because fortunately we have no comparable experience. In such factually undetermined situations a moral position can become most helpful. Yet we stubbornly refuse to make . . . attempts in this direction.

The January issue of COMMENTARY offers an example in point. A few pages after Messrs. Kahn, Fromm, and Maccoby finish their “realistic” debate, Martin Buber [“Samuel and Agag”], trying to divine God’s will, has no doubt that the prophet Samuel misunderstood God when he killed, as he thought on His command, one heathen prince. Why does nobody connect religious thought with our preparations for killing, “if necessary,” 60 million “heathens”? . . .

Could it not be that the American people’s apathy toward civil defense comes from a conviction that any preparation for nuclear war could be indecent? Might it not reflect the sound revulsion against becoming directly and visibly involved in preparing for a moral impossibility?

Hans Zeisel
University of Chicago Law School
Chicago, Illinois

[More Letters on the “Debate” will follow]



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