Norman Cousins

The Pathology of Power

VTR Date: March 1, 1987

Guest: Cousins, Norman


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Norman Cousins
VTR: 3-1-87

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And today the year seem once again to bring us full circle at this table. For when my guest – along with Ralph Bunche and Carlos Romulo – joined me on a Fourth of July broadcast in the mid-fifties, even then Norman Cousins, the distinguished, peripatetic editor of The Saturday Review, was known and admired around the world as one who understood that modern man is obsolete if his devotions are more to power than to peace… who knew always that in the world of atomic, than nuclear, destructiveness ultimately there is no defense except peace.

In recent years, of course, as adjunct Professor of Medical Humanities at the University of California at Los Angeles Medical School, Mr. Cousins has perhaps become as well know for his brilliant Anatomy of An Illness and other writings that have focused instead on each individual’s capacity to struggle for personal health and well-being. Indeed, the last time we spoke together on The Open Mind, I had the temerity to ask my dear friend if perhaps his newer focus on personal survival might not reflect a lost hope for survival on a larger, more cosmic scale.

Well, honest and searching as always, Norman Cousins quietly pondered that one. And I won’t characterize his reaction… for this is the man who in a 1966 Saturday Review editorial questioning, ‘is it possible to be an optimist?”, answered that ‘no, one really knows enough to be a pessimist.’

Anyway, now in his new W.W. Norton book, The Pathology of Power, Norman Cousins has returned to the prime issue of war or peace, of human survival in a world so technologically advanced, (if, indeed, that is the proper word) that, as he quoted General Douglas MacArthur, of all people, “war has become a Frankenstein to destroy both sides … no longer does it possess the chance of the winner of a duel – it contains rather the germs of a double suicide.”

The Pathology of Power, initially, however, seems very much to be an attention-riveting adventure in whistle blowing, an indignant survey of the incredible wastefulness that has characterized the way American arms builders and merchants of suicide by weaponry have depleted out nation’s resources. And as I read these familiar horror stories of wastefulness in our war industries, I wonder if telling them all over again reflects a conviction that Americans are by now so jaded or heedless that they first need scandal and dollar concerns in order then to focus their attention on the more important aspect of this book, Pathology of Power, the threat of war. Norman, I really do want to ask you that. Why has this history, you call it your forgotten history of the munitions-makers of our times.

Cousins: I doubt that I have ever been as indignant as when I began to read about the fleecing of the American people in the name of security. And it wasn’t just a matter of a four hundred thirty-five-dollar hammer that you could buy or I could buy for eight dollars or a sofa for which the government paid fifteen thousand dollars that you or I could buy for a thousand dollars. Or nuts and bolts that we could buy for fifteen cents tat the taxpayers are being charged five dollars and more for. I wasn’t just tat. It was that the realization that under the name of security, our security was really being threatened. And that people who couldn’t be trusted with the wealth of the American people could hardly be trusted with their security. And then I began to look into different weapons systems. Not just the aspect of cost, but the performance aspects of this. And I realized that we turned over the problem of military security to people who were looting the American people and were not giving us our money’s worth. And as I say, I became terribly indignant. And I couldn’t help but write this book, Dick.

Heffner: Yes, but if you… it’s funny, you say ‘write this book’, to me the major part of this book is Norman Cousins once again on the real anatomy of survival. World survival. The survival of civilization. Suppose the nuts and the bolts had cost fifteen cents and the sofa had cost a thousand dollars, would you not be as indignant as you are now in terms of the nonsensical nature of the struggle we’re in?

Cousins: Yes, I would be indignant. I would perhaps be at the same white heat. But I think that we have to recognize that we are confronted by a very specific threat. And this is not just casual inflation. It represents something far deeper than that four hundred and thirty-five-dollar hammer. Which is that there is, as I say, pathology of power. An arrogance of power, as Adlaid Stevenson and Fulbright once said, which conceals from the American people the fact that their traditions are being distorted. The perversion of power reflects itself in many ways of which the Iran/Contras spectacle is only one. And it seems to me that what we’re looking at when we look at, for example, the Tower Commission Report, is one aspect of something that goes very, very deep. And that when we were warned by President Eisenhower about the military industrial complex we weren’t…. it was not just a casual warning about the fact that a few people may want to get some medals that they don’t deserve. That warning had to do with the distortion of American institutions. He was deeply worried about it. And now we see why e was worried. Because it works it’s way into the operation of government itself. In 1947, I think this is where we went off the track, in fact. In 1947 when we enacted the National Security Act, the CIA came into being. We had the very quaint notion that if the Russians were doing it, we had to it, too, Which is to say, secret operations subversion. We thought we could protect ourselves by saying, ‘well, we going to do it abroad, not here.” But we were to discover that you can’t imitate the Russians in one respect, without imitating them in all respects. And this is why I call it The Pathology of Power. It’s a disease. And it’s manifested itself right through. I speak about the misuse of atomic power at Hiroshima. We have the power and it really wasn’t understood. And Truman, President Truman as we see form his own diary, didn’t tell the American people the truth.

Heffner: Suppose, Norman — I was impressed by that point because one hears constant that hits nation made the decision to drop the bomb to save American lives. A million American lives, that’s the figure that is almost invariably used. You dispute that

Cousins: Yes.

Heffner: You indicate that there were many military people who felt that the contrary be true.

Cousins: Well, the documents are very clear. The Joint Chiefs of Staff prepared a document that shows that Japan, Japanese were getting ready to prepare to surrender. And that if we could give them what they wanted, namely assurance that they could retain the institution of the Emperor, that the war could end almost immediately. This was in the summer of 1945. We have Truman’s own diary at Potsdam in July, 1945, where he makes his own entries. And where he met with Stalin and Stalin gave the President reassurance that the Soviet Union would come into the war by August the fifteenth, the date originally had been August the eight, they put it off for one week. And then Truman said is his own diary, ‘the moment the Russians turn up on the battlefield, finis Japan.” This was the President’s own words.

Heffner: Finis the Japs. If I remember…

Cousins: Finis the Japs. Yes, ‘the Japs is exactly the way he put it. Then sudden other entries by Truman who discovered at Potsdam that we had the atomic bomb, indicated that he knew that the Japanese couldn’t go on. Eisenhower when informed by Secretary Stimson that the President had decided to use the bomb on human beings said that he had this feeling of sickness overcoming him that the United States would use this weapon, especially under circumstances when he felt, and he knew, that it was not necessary. Admiral Leahy, who was the… Truman’s military advisor inside the White House argued with the President. And he used rather strong language. He said ‘this is a barbarous weapon.’ And there is no military justification for the use of this weapon. Well, we see all the evidence and then we have to ask ourselves the question, why, if the President knew that he could end the war without the bomb, what justification could there be for taking more than two hundred thousand lives at Hiroshima and Nagasaki?” And then we begin to get a clue in the records with respect to Secretary Burns and what emerges from this is that the United States felt that it had to demonstrate the power of the bomb in order to make the Russians more manageable in the post war world. The American people were not told this. The American people were told that we had to drop the bomb in order to spare lives that would be cost in an invasion. But he Joint Chiefs of Staff had alerted our field commanders to prepare for Japanese’s surrender without an invasion because they knew that Japan couldn’t continue for very long.

Heffner: Norman, I began my professional career, as you know, as a historian. And I know that there are movements in historical interpretation and that there are those will agree with you r interpretation of the past and those who will disagree. And there will be a time when one point of view prevails and times when another point of view prevails. Suppose we say, yes, that is all correct.” Where does it leave us now, once the genie is out? Once the power was there. And you saying there was no way to put it back and that Lord Action was correct that the tendency of power to corrupt and absolute power to corrupt absolutely is unlimited?

Cousins: Dick, could we just go back for a moment? I feel it would be monstrously irresponsible to say that President Truman didn’t tell the American people the truth about the decision to drop the bomb. And I’ve struggled with this for many years. Especially when I’m in Japan, because after all, you don’t want to disadvantage your own country. I’ve struggled with this. But the evidence is really over-whelming, Dick.

And I don’t think it’s any longer a matter for historical interpretation because you have Truman’s own diary saying that Japan was ready to surrender. You have reports on Forrestal of the Navy. You have, as I say, Admiral Leahy’s advice to Truman. Eisenhower’s own statement to Stimson. General Hap Arnold, for example, was asked about his evaluation. He didn’t feel they could go on. And then, as a matter of fact, you have Stalin saying to Truman at Postdam that he had a request from the Japanese to act as an intermediary in ending the war. So as I say, you can’t have two dozen ore more items of evidence and say this is really a mater of interpretation. It’s a matter of the misuse of power. Ad I say, we’ve seen this right along. Somewhere along the line we got the notion that power represents a warrant to do whatever the leaders think is advantageous. And we’re seeing that same syndrome today.

Heffner: You say somewhere along the line, a product of the twentieth century, or a product of human nature?

Cousins: A product of history, Dick. The pathology of power goes back a long way. And perhaps the most searching examination of the way power’s misused you can find through Thucydides’ History of the Pelopennesian Wars which bears a very unhappy resemblance to recent history. Here you had, in the case of Sparta, a country which originally was on eof the most cultured of all the Greek states. And yet because of it’s geographic position, its feeling on how to protect itself against attack, it’s large standing army… yet it began to discovery that its institutions changed under the weight of its security perceptions. Athens, on the other hand, which could keep a military at a distance… the seas… it was a maritime empire… was able to develop in a democratic fashion. But even Athens wants able, because of its inability to understand the need to have an organized peach and not a peace backed by force, Athens, too, crumbled. So as I say, I think that the problems of power and nations are historical and not just contemporary.

Heffner: And with us today though?

Cousins: Yes. Especially with us today.

Heffner: Well, I guess I wanted to ask you as I read The Pathology of Power, Norman, the question that kept coming up is, how do you explain the psychology of those who do not recognize that the only peace will be found, not in war and conquering, but in ending war?

Cousins: Here I cite as my authority two probably figures. General Douglas MacArthur… and John Foster Dulles. Douglas MacArthur in a speech in Milwaukee shortly after he came back from Korea called attention to the fact that we live in a time when it is a mistake to think that you can achieve security by military means. The nature of the force is such that the use of that force produces universal loss and he didn’t feel that this country properly understood the implications of nuclear weapons. That was why he was arguing for institutions of world law and he felt we ought to put our emphasis in that. The second authority, John Foster Dulles, said that when you have people who profit from the manufacture of arms, and you put them in a position of power, you must expect that that power is going to be used for their advantage. And that they will soon occupy positions of policymaking and will be able in short to foment crises in order to justify the large expenditures. And he says that’s the easier road to war.

Heffner: Do you think that has happened in this country at this time? You use an historical approach, I know, when you talk about the munitions makers and the munition traders, the merchants of death in the past. Do you think that’s true now?

Cousins: Not in the same way and perhaps not even to the same extent. The chapter dealing with the merchants of death was an attempt to summarize the work of Newell Baker the private manufacturer of armaments and the study called Merchant of Death by Englbrecht and Hanighen in the 1930s where they were able to document the fact that the munitions makers secretly sold weapons to both sides through dummies, dummy organizations…

Heffner: In World War I.

Cousins: … in World War 1. And that they were actually able to create circumstances of tension which could justify the expenditures of arms. This is the point that John Foster Dulles made. We do have today a somewhat different situation. We do have a real challenge, a real problem. I don’t think that we can ignore the fact that the Soviet Union is heavily armed and will continue to be powerful. But at the same time, as Eisenhower said, we have to be ready for the fact that if there is a slight opening in the Soviet Union which recognized that in their own interest, they have to control… seek a situational control over weapons. He said at the precise time we ought to be prepared to take advantage of the opening rather than be trapped ourselves in a dependence on munitions. And rather than be in a position where we have to allow people who make the weapons, also make the decisions. So we do have, in a different way, a somewhat similarly…. Well, a hazardous situation today.

Heffner: Norman, suppose there is no such minor opening which might be widened by a wise response. Suppose there is no such opening. How do you respond to those who an increase, an ever-increasing involvement with military supplies; more and more nuclear weapons.

Cousins: I would like to ask them what their goal is. For example, is the goal to manufacturing nuclear weapons, enough weapons to destroy the Soviet Union ten times over, twenty times over, one hundred times over. I would ask them if they want enough nuclear weapons to destroy ten other countries, twenty other countries, and thirty other countries. I want to find out what the goal is. Right now we have about forty thousand nuclear weapons. Now this is enough to destroy every country in the world. I say that literally, Richard. The Soviet Union many times over…. Including the other large countries. Why then do we continue spending six millions dollars, six billion dollars a year on building additional nuclear weapons? Why do we keep turning them out at seven to eight a day, or twenty-five hundred a year? What are we going to do with them?

Heffner: All right, that’s a rhetorical question. I want to put it to you. Why do we, what is your estimation of the reason? Are we dealing with people who are careless of human life?

Cousins: No. I think this is what is meant by the pathology of power, which is that we’ve got a macho notion that as long as we can keep turning them out, that we’re strong. We have this false reliance on physical strength. I don’t think we quite recognize yet the wisdom of Eisenhower’s statement, that the security of the American people in today’s world depends on the control of force, rather than on the pursuit of force. If you’re worried about a leak in your roof, that’s your security and you’d want to fix the leak. And you’d want, perhaps at some point to say ‘let’s have a new roof.” Right? Have a new roof. And then the roofer would say to you, well, let’s have a very tick roof you see. Or let’s have a tick roof. But then you’d continue building roof on roof on roof. Finally you have a twenty foot roof, how’s the foundation going to support that thickness? The same thing is trust about security. There is absolutely no justification, no military justification for the continued manufacture of nuclear weapons for beyond any conceivable need.

Heffner: Norman, if that is true and let’s accept it as true, you still…beyond talking about the macho psychology, and maybe you do want to limit to that, you don’t explain what, in your own estimation, motivates those people who see this as clearly as you see it. Who see the facts upon which you build your conclusions as clearly as you do.

Cousins: Dick, the arms manufactures in this country have on their payrolls today more than two hundred former employees of the Pentagon, many of the Generals, who are awarding contracts. Congress required competitive bidding for military contracts. And so the large companies have been turning in the lowest bids. But a few months later they turn in revised estimates. Once they get their contracts, they turn in revised estimates on a much higher level which are approved. What I’m trying to say is that it’s the kind of situation we see with the Contras, going around, getting in the back door, and become a very unhappy but perhaps standardized aspect of American foreign policy. And has perverted our security.

Heffner: Yes, but you know, in The Pathology of Power, you write, “nor could school children be blamed if they concluded after a Ronald Reagan statement that psychological factors rather than ideology or other supposedly intrinsic problems are at the heart of the volatile antagonisms in the world today. You still haven’t struck through what you believe are the reasons unless you’re saying it’s all economically motivated.

Cousins: I get what you’re driving at. But I think that you might want to read the initial statement…

Heffner: Reagan’s.

Cousins: By President Reagan and then we’ll take it from here. Why don’t you read the…

Heffner: All right. That’s fair enough. What he said, if I remember correctly was that it was a statement about the meeting between him and Gorbachev, wasn’t it?

Cousins: What he said, yes.

Heffner: Yeah. Shortly after the President returned form his meeting in 1985 he said, “I couldn’t help but to say to him (Gorbachev), just think how easy this task and mine might be if suddenly there was a threat to this world from some other species, from another planet outside in the universe. We’d forget all the little local differences that we have been our countries and we would find out once and for all that we really are all human believes here on this earth, together.

Cousins: And so the school children might well ask, was it necessary for these men, who are at the head of great nations, to wait until we have an invasion from outer space before we come to our senses?

Heffner: But you see, in a sense that’s the question I’m asking you. How can we explain, how can we explain the thought that MacArthur’s injunction, Eisenhower’s injunction, the understanding of these military men being swept aside, not just by the two hundred men on the payroll of the munitions manufacturers today, but by those of us who vote for the people who build the big budgets. Build more nuclear weapons.

Cousins: Dick, I see your point. You’re saying that these things don’t happened outside context.

Heffner: Yes.

Cousins: The context is one in which you have large sovereign units in the world today. These sovereign units are given the right, or insist on the right to decide for themselves what their security requires, which is to say they insist on reserving for themselves the right to act arbitrarily outside their own borders. So long as that right persists, in short as Eisenhower says, “as long as we have a condition of anarchy rather than law in the world, everything is going to work back from that particular fact. The power that we exercise will be a direct reflection of the fact that we think we have no responsibility, anymore than other nations think that they have responsibilities to act according to any other standard other than that which they define for themselves. What I’m trying to say is that we live at a very primitive time in human history. We’re trying to make due with institutions, which were obsolete the moment these large weapons came into being. We need security. I think security is important. But we have yet to understand exactly what our security requires. If President Eisenhower was right, our security requires first of all an understanding the limitations of force. It requires an understanding that we have to replace that force with international institutions. If it is said that we can’t build international institutions because of the state of other nations and their own behavior, Eisenhower would say, since he was asked, The fact of the matter is, we try. We try, we try. And one day there will come an opening. I think we may have that opening today.

Heffner: Well, we have one minute left. And you at the end of The Pathology of Power talk about what you want to have as first principles. Read them in a moment… in a minute I should say.

Cousins: If there is a conflict between the security of the sovereign state and the security of the human commonwealth, the human commonwealth comes first. If there is a conflict between the well being of the nation and the well being of mankind, the well being of mankind comes first. If there is a conflict between the needs of this generation and the needs of later generations, the needs of the later generations come first. If there is a conflict between the rights of the state and the rights of man, the rights of man come first. The state justifies its existence only as it serves and safeguards the rights of man. If there is a conflict between public edict and private conscience, private conscience comes first. And finally, there is a conflict between the easy drift of prosperity and the ordeal of peace, the ordeal of peace comes first.

Heffner: Norman Cousins, thank you so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND. And Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I’ hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s topic, please write THE OPEN MIND, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. In the meantime, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation, the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey, the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney, the Richard Lounsbury Foundation, Mr. Lawrence A. Wien, The New York Times Company Foundation.