Robert J. Lifton

The Hiroshima Connection

VTR Date: July 20, 1985

Guest: Lifton, Robert J.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Robert J. Lifton
VTR: 7/20/85

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Like so much that looms largest in one’s life, my connection to Hiroshima, to death past and future, is through my children, our sons nine and six when we walked them through that fateful city’s Peace Museum 20 years ago. Afterwards, with all due respect to our eloquent friend Norman Cousins and to John Hersey, who’s timeless essay of survival at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, afterwards in her own spare prose, their mother captured best their sense of innocence lost in the place of the bomb, and ours, their vulnerability in the time of the bomb, and ours. As she wrote then, “What they saw at Hiroshima betrayed the only Japanese-American relationship our sons knew: friendship. The Japanese adore and befriend boy children. Taking them later to Pearl Harbor provided nothing, proved nothing. It was not, after all, the historians question when a little boy asked, “Why did we do it?” His question wasn’t “Why did we drop the bomb when we dropped the bomb?” Men can ask that and answer it too. Rather, it was the child’s question associated with death, the death of innocence. “Why do people destroy each other? And if they do, will they not destroy me too? A matter then of vulnerability.”

And it is to vulnerability that today’s guest has devoted so much of his brilliantly accomplished professional life. Medical doctor, psychiatrist, social researcher, Dr. Robert J. Lifton has written extensively about Hiroshima, about genocide, about nuclear weaponry and the symbolism of death. And I want first to ask Dr. Lifton about what he calls “the Hiroshima connection”, and about Albert Einstein’s observation that “The power set free from the atom has changed everything except our ways of thinking”. Do you agree with that, Dr. Lifton?

Lifton: Well, I think our ways of thinking have begun to change, but not fast enough. The Hiroshima connection, to answer the first part of your question, in my mind, is the historical connection. It’s the connection between that city and the rest of us. And its relationship to Einstein’s statement is that Hiroshima began our sense of our capacity to extinguish ourselves as a species with our own weaponry to no purpose. Einstein understood that, and he felt that logically our cast of mind should change radically, and it hadn’t. It’s begun to change, but ever so slowly.

Heffner: You think we do comprehend that notion now?

Lifton: We have an image…it’s not a clear idea. People comprehend it differently and in different degrees. But I think the image is around. I think there is a level of knowledge that we have, and it’s greater now, say, than it was ten years ago. And that knowledge has to do with extinction.

Heffner: And the result of that, not self-knowledge?

Lifton: Well, we need the knowledge as a starting point. The knowledge, of itself, doesn’t do any good. In fact, it’s a source of great anxiety and fear. But one needs the fear and the anxiety as a starting point in order to take appropriate measures to prevent that destiny. So the knowledge is necessary and very useful.

Heffner: You talked about “take steps” my sense of the world around us is not one of in which many steps have been taken. Am I wrong?

Lifton: No, you’re all too correct. There’ve been a lot of steps taken, mostly in the wrong direction. The awareness of vulnerability is now very great and very widespread. And the overwhelming majority of the world’s people want nuclear stockpiles radically reduced or eliminated. But the leaders of the leading nuclear-weapons-possessing countries don’t as yet come to agreements that reduce those stockpiles. If one gets more specific and looks at our own situation, our own administration in its policies is a minority in terms of the American people. But they are in power, and in other ways, they may have considerable trust from the American people.

Heffner: Dr. Lifton, I don’t want to challenge that, but it puzzles me. Are we dealing with fools and knaves? Aren’t we dealing with people who have been duly elected and rather overwhelmingly elected too? Where do you find the solace, and that’s what it is, to believe that most people feel otherwise?

Lifton: Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not solace. The evidence is very sharp and clear-cut that most people believe otherwise on nuclear weapons.

Heffner: What is that…

Lifton: For instance, in the various freeze campaigns, consistently 70 to 80 percent of people voted for a nuclear freeze or something like it. That means the great majority of American people and perhaps even more so in other parts of the world want the arms race interrupted. The question is how it’s done and who does it. The American electorate also trusted Reagan, often in contradictory ways, because the issue of vulnerability led them to seek protection from someone they trusted and who seemed to emanate some aura of authority and some aura of trust, which, for better or worse, Reagan has so far emanated. So there is a contradiction between the person they chose and the direction of policies they seek, at least on nuclear weapons.

Heffner: Dr. Lifton, if those votes and those polls that you refer to, the measurements of public opinion indicated otherwise, would you change your mind about the importance of acting as you think we should act?

Lifton: Well, no, I mean, I would continue to act as I act, perhaps more so. If you’re asking whether, if the polls showed most American people in favor of still greater stockpiles it would make the need to act still more urgent, I think the need is urgent enough right now, and it isn’t a matter of going along with the majority. It’s a matter of taking a position one thinks is right.

Heffner: But that’s why I’m a bit puzzled as I look around me. Perhaps you as a psychologist, psychiatrist can see things more deeply than I can. I don’t find that concern.

Lifton: We’re talking about issues of vulnerability and security with which you opened the program. Americans and people throughout the world feel vulnerable and seek security in the deepest psychological, existential sense. Unfortunately, the idea of security is couched in military, national security terms, which are deeply misleading, because in the name of providing security, which really means safety, its true meaning, policies are adopted which, objectively speaking, take us in the other direction, to greater danger. And that’s the very paradox that we find ourselves in.

Heffner: What is the danger, as you see it?

Lifton: The danger is nuclear annihilation. And the danger becomes greater the more weapons we have in the world. For one thing, you have a greater bureaucracy and a greater technology of destruction which can be more readily set off, and it’s harder to interrupt if there are dangerous processes that are initiated, because there’s les and less lead time. Since all these new weapons destabilize and create new levels of fear and suspicion of the other rather than stabilizing or really creating what’s called, often euphemistically, deterrence.

Heffner: You spoke twice now about American and others around the world, is there no difference between our perception of the current danger and others?

Lifton: I think Americans’ perception of the current danger is getting more and more like that of others throughout the world. In the past, Americans have only been locked into the idea of national security, and it’s with some shock that many over the past decade or so have begun to doubt the assumptions made by their leaders about national security, namely that more bombs make us more secure. And it’s during this period of time that Americans have come to realize that it’s really the reverse, the more bombs, the less secure we are. That’s the way many throughout the world have felt for a long time. The psychology of the situation can change if one is a major nuclear-weapons-possessing country, because then the psychology can be significantly determined by what’s seen as an arms race or some sort of opposition toward the so-called enemy, the other possessor of nuclear weapons in large numbers.

Heffner: You say “so-called” enemy. Why do you say “so-called”?

Lifton: Because I feel now that the Soviet Union isn’t an enemy. America isn’t an enemy of the Soviet Union. The enemy is the danger of extinction, and the need is to find some modus Vivendi that prevents that kind of eventuality.

Heffner: As a psychiatrist and a social theorist, if you had to make your bets, how would you bet?

Lifton: Well, it’s not either/or. I think that it’s very likely that we will continue to have all kinds of antagonisms with the Soviet Union. But to the extent that the image that I call “shared fate” takes hold, those antagonisms can be separate from the common problem of extinction. I do think that the idea of shared fate is more and more recognized by important people in both nuclear superpowers and by people throughout the world. And what I mean by “shared fate” is something put very graphically in my writings and in my talks. I say to my soviet counterpart and he or she to me, “If you die, I die. If I survive, you survive”. That’s true as peoples, as nations, as well as individuals.

Heffner: You say “shared fate” and I understand what you mean. But when I think back to August 1945, and when I think to the months that followed and the years that followed, I have to believe on some level that we have become further and further removed from the fears we felt at that time.

Lifton: I think it’s more complicated than that. In some ways that’s true, because right after the first recognition o the atomic bomb or the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was a wave of revulsion. You can see it in the newspaper headlines of that time. And there was a quick editorial and human response to the effect that this is something greater than the end of the war, it has to do with shaking of the foundations of humankind. Then we gradually lost that sense and the phenomenon described all too often as living with the bomb, getting used to it, began to take hold. But there have been waves of revulsion subsequent to that, and we are fortunately in one right now in which those who defend increasing stockpiles are going against some sort of sense of doubt and a widespread revulsion and recognition that this isn’t getting us where we want to go. So I don’t think we should really immerse ourselves in despair, because we are in such a dangerous situation. We should have a double set in which we recognize the situation becoming increasingly dangerous and the consciousness of danger getting increasingly greater, and the latter has to increasingly confront the former.

Heffner: Because you do not want us to be immersed in despair, is that the reason you find it in your heart and in your mind to say that we Americans are moving in the direction you want us to move in?

Lifton: Well, there’s objective evidence to that. For instance, the Yankelovich studies, which show that the majority of Americans recognize that there’s probably no such thing as a limited nuclear war, and doubt the necessity of the present stockpiles, and favor some kind of accommodation with the soviet union. They also have a greater sense of danger about the nuclear threat which goes in with this general constellation. So that is a fact of social studies. In terms of my own position, I don’t consider myself either optimistic or pessimistic. I don’t function on that level, though I have my dark moments. I have hope. And I function from that. And I work from hope, and of course I seek directions of hope. But true hope only derives from looking into the abyss in order to be able to see beyond it. So one can’t minimize or deny the danger, but one has to see beyond the immediate elements of the danger toward possible directions of resolution.

Heffner: What is “living with the bomb” as we used to call, what has it done to us as a people? What has it done to our psyche?

Lifton: Well, it blunts sensibility. There is a danger out there. People increasingly sense it at some level of consciousness, often pre-consciously, or just outside of consciousness. They until recently have not wanted to in any way let it into consciousness. If one begins to undergo blunting of consciousness, or what I call “psychic numbing” in one major area, it’s likely to extend into other areas. It is death-related to start with, and it extends toward areas of death in general, and therefore into areas of life. So it become a kind of blunting. But i also, I think, becomes associated with what I call increasingly a sense of futurelessness. A fear that the human experiment is going to be ended. And that has other consequences.

Heffner: Has that numbness taken hold of us?

Lifton: Well, yes it has, but it’s not some monolithic process. It still is a major force against awareness. But there also has been significant breakthrough in the very consciousness of nuclear danger that I referred to before, which we have evidence is increasing. So the numbness is by no means permanent, and there are all kinds of breakthroughs, minor and major, that have occurred in relation to it.

Heffner: You are so eloquent and so determined and so clear in what you say. How do you explain those who reject almost totally what you’ve said?

Lifton: Unfortunately there are many who reject almost totally what I say. And I think it has to do with – I think they’re wrong, of course, and that’s why I say these things – but I think it has to do with an alternative vision of, or an alternative relationship to nuclear weapons in a very basic way. It would have to do with what I call “nuclearism”. The attraction to the weapons and the dependency on the weapons for a way of getting out of the very problem that the weapons, along with certain attitudes toward them, create.

Heffner: What do you mean ‘attraction to the weapons”? A macho attitude?

Lifton: It’s more than macho. Nuclearism in its more intense form is something close to worship of the weapons, so they become close to being a deity. From a deity we expect protection, we expect solution for our gravest problems. We even expect salvation and if that sounds extreme in talking about these tools of ours, these technological instruments of destruction, just look at what people have written about the weapons, whether leading scientists or political and military leaders, approaching them not only with awe, which is understandable, but with respect and love with the statement often made by Edward Teller, for instance, that we should never reject building more of the weapons and never reject the possibility of using them at the right place and in the right time. This is what I call “nuclearism” and it’s the ultimate spiritual disease of our time.

Heffner: The path to Armageddon?

Lifton: Well, if unchecked it is a path to Armageddon.

Heffner: And welcomed as such, do you think?

Lifton: Well, there are different sorts of nuclearism. The most extreme kind is expressed in a kind of nuclear fundamentalism, those fundamentalist cults which really welcome Armageddon in their very dubious theology, because they see nuclear Armageddon as a biblical realization, a realization of biblical prophecy. But I think the wider nuclearism which is in virtually everybody in some greater or lesser degree has to with, first of all, the deep attraction to technology that pervades the twentieth century. It’s a kind of culmination of that worship of technology, or what I call “technocism” on the one hand, and something like attraction to ultimate power on the other, because, you know, the weapons can do now what in the past only god could do: destroy the world. So it’s almost inevitable, being psychologically constituted as we are, that there would be attraction to this source of ultimate power.

Heffner: You haven’t used the phrase “death wish”. Is there any of that to what you are saying?

Lifton: There’s…I don’t like to use that kind of phrase, because it sounds like the Freudian death instinct, which I simply don’t believe in. I think there is plenty of death orientation in us, and plenty of suicidal inclination on a collective scale in regard to nuclear weapons. But I don’t think it’s inherent in our genes or in our biology. But I think it has to do with what was depicted in Dr. Strangelove for instance, the ultimate nuclear high, a kind of transcendence that can be experienced only through that exciting moment when the weapons go off, which ends all the anxious anticipation and worry and fear. And there’s on culminating event, and there is an attraction to that. You can call it a death wish if you want, but I think one should be more specific about what it is. And it has to do with transcendence more than with the death instinct.

Heffner: The relationship of nuclear power used as a death-dealing mechanism, to nuclear power for energy purposes generally, do you have feelings about that?

Lifton: Well, I like to distinguish nuclear weapons threat from nuclear power. I think the weapons are the ultimate danger, and I direct most of my attention to that. I think that some of our attitudes toward nuclear power though are fundamentally affected by the weapons, because after all, people sense that even though they’re quite different, they are of the same stuff. And there’s an association to the weapons from nuclear power which is inevitable. And I think some of the attitudes in being so loath to give up nuclear power has to do with this deification process around nuclearism that I mentioned.

Heffner: But in a sense my question was oriented differently. I wondered what you own fix is on nuclear power not used specifically for weapons purposes but used for energy.

Lifton: Well, I’m worried about it. I’m against it because I think that it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because it contains the same kind of dangerous substance that the weapons do. And even though safeguards can be taken and degree of danger has been scandalous in some of our nuclear power plants, I think there’s always some danger involved with human error and related patters. And the consequences are so fundamentally great that I think we’re unwise to use that technology.

Heffner: So that you would move us away from the development…

Lifton: Oh very much so. And I think there are many people in the society that are coming to that point of view once the initial wave of enthusiasm for that form of power has diminished, as it indeed has. I think that that wave of enthusiasm has to do with the hope or expectation that there’s something good coming out of this technology finally. It has to do with twinges of guilt from using the bomb, and also from the idea that if this is a deity, well, the deity has to beneficent as well as destructive.

Heffner: Do you think that the public, understanding your opposition to the development of nuclear energy aside from the bomb, would find that an argument that would in some way diminish the impact of your arguments against the bomb and the further development nuclear bombs?

Lifton: I don’t think so, because I think that it’s because of what know from my experience in studying the effects of the bomb, that I take a position toward nuclear power. If I were to place all of my energies in opposing nuclear power rather than the weaponry, then I think that would be true. But that isn’t the case. I don’t direct myself to the issue of nuclear power in at al as fundamental a way as I do toward the weapons.

Heffner: No, no. I understand that you don’t. but I just wondered to what degree you feel that, before you said you felt that Americans were moving away from a kind of nuclearism and becoming aware, more and more aware of its dangers, the danger of the bomb.

Lifton: Oh, I see what you mean.

Heffner: And I just wondered whether they would accept and tolerate too a movement away from what is promised them through nuclear energy.

Lifton: Well…

Heffner: Have we become that sane?

Lifton: They are seen as two separate issues, despite the connection. If you look at a man like Hans Beter, who is a very appealing person – I know him somewhat and I’ve talked with him about various things – he has over time become an eloquent spokesman about nuclear weapons danger. Unfortunately, in my view, he’s an ardent advocate of nuclear power. And there are such people. I think that the opposition to increasing nuclear stockpiles, that is the sense of danger from the weaponry is much greater, as it should be, than is the awareness about danger from nuclear power. But that doesn’t mean that the opposition to weapons isn’t authentic and significant.

Heffner: Do I understand correctly that in Japan, where the use of the weapons took place, there is much less concern about the development of nuclear energy? They have done so, they have been more successful, more accepting.

Lifton: Well, Japan is a very special story. For a long time after the initial response, and then with a certain kind of isolating of the more militant anti-nuclear groups in Japan, as Japan became more and more conservative, which indeed it has, there has been a strong desire to turn away from any opposition even to nuclear weapons. It’s true that in Japan you cannot politically, openly, aggressively advocate Japan’s becoming a nuclear power, which it has the technological capacity to do very easily, as we all know, because of its experience of being victimized twice by nuclear weapons. But it’s also true that Japan in the last couple of decades has turned more and more away from its strongly anti-nuclear position in general. I think in Japan the distinction is also made between nuclear weapons and nuclear power, and as in France for instance, there has been a widespread development of nuclear power along probably more careful technological lines with perhaps more of the population being convinced of its safety or at least not worry8ing too much about that safety. On the other hand, in the last five or ten years there have been strong rumblings of questioning in Japan too about not only nuclear weapons but nuclear power. So these patterns are by no means permanent. And it may be that the greatest and most significant opposition to nuclear power is yet to come.

Heffner: What paths will your own opposition, not to power, but to weaponry, take?

Lifton: Every possible path. I’m, I mean, I’m kind of an activist for a university professor, but I’m not primarily an activist. I’m a scholar and writer. But I’ll continue to look for ways of understanding the danger, because I think that’s my special value, to understand it from a psychological position, but one that also has a politics. And in this case, an anti-nuclear politics, it’ll have to do with weapon stockpiling, it’ll certainly have to do with attitudes, it’ll have to do with an interesting area that’s now developing of the psychological mindset of nuclear strategists which is now being observed systematically perhaps for the first time by various research that’s being done, notably by a young man named Stephen Cole. The mindset of nuclear strategists is now being found to have the exact contradiction that our nuclear weapons policy has, namely, a full awareness that the weapons are of a different order from conventional weapons and that there’s o fighting a nuclear war without the danger of extinction, and on the other hand, following policies which are known to be illusory in which there is war fighting as one option.

Heffner: Dr. Lifton, I hope that Hiroshima, Hiroshima plus 40, plus 80, we’re all around to talk again about matters like this. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Lifton: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”