Arms and the Mind



None megaton nuclear bomb explodes over downtown Boston. The vast destructive force of the blast levels every building in the city. Huge amounts of deadly radioactive fallout cascade from the explosion. Boston is engulfed in a raging firestorm. Everyone within four miles of the blast--everyone in Cambridge, Everett, Dorchester. Watertown--is killed istantly. Ninety percent of the survivors elsewhere require immediate attention for severe burns. But because most hospitals have been destroyed an most health workers are dead, each person must wait in agony for 26 days to be seen by a physician for just five minutes. Epidemic diseases flourish in the absence of any public sanitation or health care. Since transportation, water, food, and housing are virtually non-existent, community spirit and public order vanish in the scramble among traumatized survivors for what is left.

If you find it difficult to think about what will happen in a nuclear war, you are not alone. As Dr. Eric Chivian, an MIT psychiatrist, told Harvard's Convocation on Nuclear War last November 79 percent of the public surveyed "tries not to worry about nuclear war." And these attitudes persist despite--or perhaps because of--the view among 86 percent that their chances of surviving a nuclear war are 50-50 or less. As Chivian puts it, imagining nuclear war is a "little like looking at our own deaths. We can only do that the way we look at the sun--very briefly."

Psychiatrists and psychologists see two main reason for our emotional inability to face the prospect of nuclear war. First, says Dr. Jerome Frank of Johns Hopkins, "the psychological unreality of nuclear weapons facilitates the human tendency to ignore emotionally upseting information. 'Denial' is an appropriates protection against sources of anxiety which cannot be eliminated."

Dr. Rita R. Rogers, chairman of the American Psychiatric Association's (APA) Task Force on the Psychosocial Impact of Nuclear Advances, agrees. The task force's survey research found that the most common response to questions about nuclear war was "nothing." We have "no emotional platform on which to place these issues." Rogers argues. "The issues are too big for our participation."


Second, in addition to psychologically blocking out the danger, people grow numb to the meaning of the arms race by a perverse process of "adaptation" or "habituation." As Frank puts it, "if an animal kept attending to every environmental stimulus, its capacity to sense new dangers would be swamped, therefore the animal stops attending to continuing stimuli. So do humans."

Dr. Stephen D. Chorover, professor of psychology at MIT, argues that people resolve the conflict between there fears of impending disaster and the need to live from day to day by desensitizing themselves to the threat. He compares this to the way Americans learned to eat their dinners calmly while watching the bloodshed of the Vietnam War on TV--familiarity and repetition diminish the meaning of violent horrors.

Moreover, actually thinking about nuclear destruction may produce damaging psychological effects in itself, especially among children. The APA's task force survey of over 1,000 children and adolescents found that kids fear the possibility of nuclear armageddon. As Dr. John Mack, a psychiatrist at Cambridge City Hospital and survey participant reports, the arms race makes children doubt their own long-term survival. Moreover, it creates cynicism about raising families of their own and fosters feelings of "sadness, bitterness, helplessness."

Mack even suggests that the arms race may have devastating longterm effects on personality. Many children are "growing up without the ability to form stable ideals or the sense of continuity upon which the development of stable personality structure and the formation of serviceable ideals depends." Chivian goes further, wondering. "What is going to happen to a generation of people that may have great difficulty making long-term commitments and relationships?"

YET ANOTHER DIMENSION of arms race psychology is coming under expert scrutiny: the attitudes of policy makers who direct the weapons build-up and plan to fight nuclear war. Mack divides military planners into two psychological categories--"unthinkables" and "thinkables." "Thinkables, the psychiatrist believes, have an emotional "hold" on nuclear war. They respond to their terror of atomic weapons by thinking about war in conventional terms of winning and losing--they are thus ensured in "the unending process of seeking security through more arms." Frank adds that military men have achieved a psychological assimilation" of the new instruments of mass destruction--to thinkables," a nuclear missile is just a bigger and better bullet. "Emotionally our leaders remain back in the days of spears and clubs." Frank charges.

Unlike "unthinkables," who believe it is pointless to plan for nuclear war in light of the havoc it would wreak, "thinkables" claim we must plan as if nuclear war might happen at any time. And, say the "thinkables," we must prepare for survival in the aftermath of an atomic battle. Hence, the twin goals of "thinkable" planning are to devise ways to "limit" nuclear war once it starts, and to provide for civil defense in anticipation of the holocaust.

Ronald Reagan has placed a host of "thinkables" in key positions within the national security apparatus. Frank Carlucci, deputy secretary of defense, says flatly: "I think we need to have a warfighting capability (In nuclear arms)." Eugene V. Rotow, a veteran hard-liner who is now director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, expresses views that lend an Orwellian tone to his job little. "We are." he declared on June 1, 1976, "in a pre-war and not a postwar world." So it should come as no surprise that the administration's defense program calls for building 17,000 new nuclear weapons--in addition to the 30,000 we already have-- at a cost of $222 billion over the next six years. Moreover the "thinkable" view on surviving nuclear war is embodied in the president's request for $132.8 million in civil defense funds.

DETERRENCE--the notion that we must build up our nuclear stockpile in order to confront potential Soviet first-strikers with the certainty of their own annihilation--is the rationalization for Reagan's program, as it has been for each previous step-up in the arms race. As Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger '38 declared, "We set out to...achieve improved capabilities to entiance deterrence and U.S. capabilities to prevail should deterrence fail. "This is a difficult principle to live by--it requires constant restatement and re-justification by America's leadership. Hence the recent reply of New York's Cardinal Cooke to pro-disarmament Catholic clergymen: "A policy of deterrence may be morally tolerated if a nation is sincerely trying to come up with a rational alternative."

The problem with this and all other arguments for deterrence is its assumption that nuclear missiles do no harm as long as they stay in their silos. But as recent studies of the arms race's psychological impact suggest, the very existence of nuclear weapons and the prospects of their use inflicts damage--with untold implications for the future--on the minds and spirits of children. Moreover, the public's emotional respones to the incessant spiral or arms--denial and desensitization--greatly diminish a democratic society's ability to implement "rational alternatives." We are, says Dr. Chorover, "learning helplessness" in the face of a problem utterly beyond individual control. Moreover, he argues, to draw any shocked or outraged response from an increasingly desensitized public requires "more and more chilling demonstrations" of the horror of nuclear war. But paradoxically people simply grow desensitized to the demonstrations. This most vicious of vicious circles creates a kind of consensus by default for the bellicose plans of "thinkables" in the Pentagon and the Kremlin.

The circle must be broken if we are to remove the "thinkables" from power and make "rational alternatives" possible. The challenges is to unlearn helplessness and to channel fears of nuclear destruction not into apathy but into action. In Dr. Mack's words, "We must move away from the win/lose, the mental and emotional context of win/win, lose/lose, of we and they, that the development of nuclear weapons requires." This struggle is far from easy, and it ultimately must be waged within the mind of each individual. But one need not struggle completely alone--groups such as The Council for a Liveable World and Physicians for Social Responsibility provide information to counter both apathy and ignorance. If it is apparent that mass fear and widespread illusion sustain the arms race, it is also becoming clear that to halt it, such emotions must be replaced by courage and intelligence on a similar scale. Human history offers no precedent of such a transformation.

Try to imagine it.