Michael KreponFrom Here to Eternity: Hans Morgenthau on the Bomb

Quote of the week:

“Nuclear destruction destroys the meaning of death by depriving it of its individuality.” — Hans Morgenthau

Hans Morganthau was part of a wave of intellectuals who found refuge in the United States as Europe was coming apart at the seams with the rise of Nazi Germany. He is perhaps best known as the author of Politics Among Nations, first published in 1948, and for his philosophy of political realism as applied to international relations. In an essay encapsulating his philosophy for the fifth edition, he wrote, “The main signpost that helps political realism to find its way through the landscape of international politics is the concept of interest defined in terms of power.”

Politics Among Nations is a forbiddingly large and dense book for someone not drawn to IR theory, so I kept a respectful distance. Little did I know, until James McKeon pointed it out, that Morgenthau also wrote a powerful essay on the Bomb as part of a series of columns for Commentary Magazine in the early Sixties. We think of the Bomb, quite rightly, as an instrument of ending life on a massive scale. Mongenthau flipped this switch, focusing on how the battlefield use of the Bomb would deprive death of meaning. Here are some excerpts from “Death in the Nuclear Age,” (September 1, 1961):

“Sacrificial death has meaning only as the outgrowth of an individual decision which chooses death over life. The hero who risks his life or dies for a cause is bound to be one man, an identifiable individual. There is meaning in Leonidas falling at Thermopylae, in Socrates drinking the cup of hemlock, in Jesus nailed to the cross. There can be no meaning in the slaughter of the innocent…”

“Man gives his life and death meaning by his ability to make himself and his works remembered after his death. Patroclus dies to be avenged by Achilles. Hector dies to be mourned by Priam. Yet if Patroclus, Hector, and all those who could remember them were killed simultaneously, what would become of the meaning of Patroclus’s and Hector’s death? Their lives and deaths would lose their meaning. They would die, not like men but like beasts, killed in the mass, and what would be remembered would be the quantity of the killed… not the quality of one man’s death as over against another’s.”

“We think and act as though the possibility of nuclear death had no bearing upon the meaning of life and death. In spite of what some of us know in our reason, we continue to think and act as though the possibility of nuclear death portended only a quantitative extension of the mass destruction of the past and not a qualitative transformation of the meaning of our existence.”

“It would indeed be the height of thoughtless optimism to assume that something so absurd as a nuclear war cannot happen because it is so absurd. An age whose objective conditions of existence have been radically transformed by the possibility of nuclear death evades the need for a radical transformation of its thought and action by thinking and acting as though nothing of radical import had happened. This refusal to adapt thought and action to radically new conditions has spelled the doom of men and civilizations before. It is likely to do so again.”


  1. M B (History)

    A death MUST always be a meaningful death, or else it necessarily becomes meaningless.

  2. centarus (@centarusA) (History)

    Morgenthau, Morgenthau, Morgenthau…such a master of the phrase.

  3. David Clark (History)

    I’m speechless. Morgenthau’s Death in the Nuclear Age quite literally changed my life – as a twenty year-old undergraduate, I stumbled across it in some collection of essays while I was studying to become and aeronautical engineer. By the end of the essay I had decided to become a political scientist and study arms limitation. The idea of the bomb as the destroyer, not just of cities, but of meaning itself changed the way I viewed politics and the human predicament. Sadly, I’d forgotten the name of the essay and the author somewhere along the way, only remembering the themes of the work. Reading this entry tonight I’m suddenly twenty years old again, my blood freezing in my veins as I read in my university’s basement. I’m in your debt for bringing this all back to me.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      There is nothing better for a writer than a meaningful compliment.
      I thank you, and Morgenthau thanks you more.
      Best wishes,

  4. Jonah Speaks (History)

    I guess soaring rhetoric need not be logical to be persuasive. Were the millions of deaths during World Wars I and II meaningless because they were not individual? And, why all the focus on meaning in death? Is it not the living who find meaning in life, whose lives would be cut short by a nuclear catastrophe?