Michael KreponModern Man is Obsolete

Quote of the week:

“It is such a supreme folly to believe that nuclear weapons are deadly only if they’re used. The fact that they exist at all, their presence in our lives, will wreak more havoc than we can begin to fathom. Nuclear weapons pervade our thinking. Control our behavior. Administer our societies. Inform our dreams. They bury themselves like meat hooks in the base of our brains.”
—Arundhati Roy

“Modern Man is Obsolete” is required reading for aspiring wonks. This essay by Norman Cousins, editor of the National Review of Literature, was published on August 18th, 1945. The best first takes on the Bomb still have resonance.

Cousins was an unabashed liberal, president of the World Federalist Society, and chairman of SANE, a citizen action group centrally involved in efforts to end nuclear testing – pressures that helped produce the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty that stopped the signatories from carrying out atmospheric tests. His editorial, published nine days after the atomic destruction of Nagasaki, began with fundamental concerns raised by the militarization of nuclear energy:

“The biggest question of these concerns the nature of man. Is war in the nature of man? If so, how much time has he left before he employs the means he has already devised for the ultimate in self-destruction—extinction? …

“Even assuming that he could hold destructive science in check, what changes would the new age bring or demand in his everyday life? What changes would it bring or demand in his culture, his education, his philosophy, his religion, his relationships with other human beings? …

“What does it matter, then, if war is not in the nature of man so long as man continues through the expression of his nature to be a viciously competitive animal? The effect is the same …

“If this reasoning is correct, then modern man is obsolete, a self-made anachronism becoming more incongruous by the minute. He has exalted change in everything but him- self. He has leaped centuries ahead in inventing a new world to live in, but he knows little or nothing about his own part in that world. He has surrounded and confounded himself with gaps — gaps between revolutionary science and evolutionary anthropology, between cosmic gadgets and human wisdom, between intellect and conscience …

“Given time, man might be expected to bridge those gaps normally; but by his own hand, he is destroying even time. Communication, transportation, war no longer wait on time …

“That is why the quintessence of destruction as potentially represented by modern science must be dramatized and kept in the forefront of public opinion. The full dimensions of the peril must be seen and recognized. Then and only then will man realize that the first order of business is the question of continued existence.”

For Cousins, relief from nuclear danger required “the transformation or adjustment from national man to world man,” the development of a “world conscience,” and ultimately the “basic requisite for world government.”

The nature of man and nationalism haven’t changed all that much since this essay appeared. While they have made the pursuit of world federalism extinct, the fate of the planet still remains up for grabs. Here, the searching questions that Cousins raise retain their relevance. After the Cold War ended with deep cuts in deployed nuclear forces and unprecedented cooperation between Washington and Moscow to increase the security of vast quantities of bomb-making material and warheads, the public enjoyed an extended holiday from thinking about nuclear catastrophe.

Not any more. Nuclear dangers are rising on many fronts, while diplomacy to prevent mushroom clouds is absent in U.S.-Russia, U.S.-China, China-India and India-Pakistan relations. Diplomacy is absent on the North Korean threat. Mr. Trump has directed willing staffers to come up with reasons to exit the nuclear agreement with Iran, even if Tehran remains in compliance. Many of those elected to Congress in the Republican Party no longer believe that diplomacy can be helpful to reduce nuclear dangers. They have placed their faith in military might, deterrence, and freedom of action. The war of choice waged to rid Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction has already faded from memory.

“The full dimensions” of nuclear peril have also faded from memory, seven decades after Nagasaki. The “quintessence of destruction” has slipped from the “forefront of public opinion.” The nature of man still has not reckoned with the destructive capacity in his midst. While man’s relationship to nature is thankfully changing – with the notable exception of the current U.S. administration – man’s relationship to the Bomb in nuclear-armed states remains rooted in atavistic fears. Those in thrall to the Bomb place the fear of being placed at a disadvantage well above the fears of nuclear catastrophe. In this view, the need for remedial steps and keeping options open prevent nuclear catastrophe. The gaps Cousins identified between “cosmic gadgets and human wisdom” and between “intellect and conscience” remain very far apart.


  1. Andrew Locke (History)

    I would argue that “modern man” was obsolete, in this context, from December 1938-onwards, when Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch discovered that Uranium nuclei were being split in two. Certainly the discovery of the neutron by James Chadwick in 1932 was synonymous with the creaking of the lid to Pandora’s box being opened. The discovery of how to utilize the Strong Nuclear Force for the rapid conversion of matter to energy, with it’s resulting million-fold increase in the potential explosive power of devices utilizing such a transformation, versus chemically-based (i.e. “electrons-only”) high-explosives, is inevitable among any species that comes to understand the fundamental structure of matter, energy, and the universe we all inhabit. What we do with that knowledge is up to us. Our ability to manipulate the forces inherent in our Universe has been, and is still presently incompatible with, our ability to deal with the consequences of mastering these abilities, thanks to the divisive nature of our species politics, beliefs, and cultures. A prompt result of the development and detonation of the Gadget, Little Boy, and Fat Man was a call for world government among a certain number of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. These informed people realized long ago what Michael Krepon is striking at in this article, that things have changed, and that we need to adapt, for the sake of our very existence. I hope we still have time to do so.

  2. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    The repetition of the word “man” is hard to take in today’s world. I think some of the ideas are worth engaging, but the framing is dated.

    • Dan Gilchrist (History)

      It is winceable, but the rest is so well written I can easily forgive. It was the language of the day.

      Though, in a way, the well written words are a little depressing. Not to suggest anyone is being defeatist (I think it’s fair to say the Cousins and Krepons of the world have fought harder than most), but I can’t see the gap between intellect and conscience growing smaller at anything like the rate it needs to. I can’t help but suspect that humanity can’t possibly change fast enough to keep up.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      When I was in high school, I was taught that “man”, “he”, and “his” could generically refer to both men and women. Back then, it was a rule of grammar that the masculine was used when generically referring to both men and women. Also back then, it was only males who started the wars and fought the wars. Female leaders and fighters might have chosen more peaceful paths, since women, on average, are substantially less violent.

      Nine days after the bombing, Cousins could do no better than state the problem, not offer up a solution. His years as President of World Federalist Association tell us what he regarded, after careful consideration, as the most plausible solution. It was a doable solution involving a change in political arrangements, not an infeasible change in human nature.

  3. Jonah Speaks (History)

    The rise of the World Federalist movement was a result of direct experience with World Wars I and II. These wars also motivated formation of the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations. The supporters of federal world government felt that the United Nations was insufficiently strong to prevent World War III. One can conjecture that if nuclear weapons had not been invented, and if the United Nations failed to prevent a conventional World War III, there would be calls to strengthen the United Nations.

    The U.N. can be strengthened to prevent or impede unbridled warfare: by eliminating or curtailing the 5-way veto within the UN Security Council, by requiring significant national arms reductions, and by some arming of the United Nations to enforce the peace. Modern warfare can be made obsolete.

    • Jon Q (History)

      No it can’t.

      The United Nations, as its very name attests, is a congress of individual nations, each beholden to its own priorities, motivations, cultural identity(ies), values, insecurities, etcetera . . . the list goes on. And as history readily demonstrates, the United Nations is not capable of creating the utopian world you fantasize.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Jon, I agree with you that the U.N. as currently structured cannot prevent major war.

      The U.N. is currently hobbled from preventing armed conflict by the 5-way veto power in the U.N. Security Council. The history of the U.N., so far, has always included this crippling veto limitation on its exercise of power. However, reform the U.N. in the manner indicated, then peace (absence of interstate warfare) becomes possible. It is a matter of political choice, not human nature.

  4. Tony Fleming (History)

    Cousins was president of the World Federalist Association, not Society. The Federalist Society was a far right, nationalist organization. The WFA was its antithesis.

  5. Bradley Laing (History)

    AUG 14, WASHINGTON – A recently declassified U.S. document confirms that Japan gave the United States its official consent to bring nuclear weapons to Okinawa shortly before the 1969 bilateral accord that led to the occupied island’s 1972 reversion to Japanese rule. The finding is significant because it shows Japan’s leaders officially agreed during the Cold War to violate the Three Non-Nuclear Principles set out by Prime Minister Eisuke Sato in 1967 while publicly telling the rest of Japan that nuclear weapons would not be brought to the prefecture.


  6. Gregory Matteson (History)

    My belated comment here is the result of a conversation with an old friend, who informed me that Nuclear Threats, by which I mean threats of nuclear annihilation against a specific nation state or people, “is what nuclear weapons are good for”. It is my view that this is comparable to private gun owners, and I am one, making gun threats, both as a practical and a moral matter. The US and Russia, these states in particular, have a long history of making explicit nuclear threats. The earliest explicit American nuclear threat against North Korea that I have found is from September of 1950, and was renewed many times. We are Shocked! Shocked, I tell you, that a poor, weak, corrupt little state on the far side of the world has managed after 66 years, to return the compliment.

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