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The Nuclear Analogy

The Nuclear Analogy

I have been intrigued, recently, by how often the media (particularly, the print media, who still enjoy the time to think) are turning to history to find some guidelines amid current uncertainties. It’s great to be reminded of how essential the discipline is, and I hope anti-humanists will take note.

Thus we are told about past attacks on immigrants, including the struggles against Asians in the late 19th century. We are properly reminded of the experience of Japanese-American interns, in a program that it’s widely agreed was a really bad and nasty idea. We are reminded of the perils of labeling racial and religious groups, in other modern societies. We are offered some comparisons with Trump, some of which may be a bit overblown at least so far (he has yet to recruit Stormtroopers, though strongarm behavior at the political rallies is troubling), but which are worth pondering.

A less familiar analogy may also be useful, amid a climate of widespread fear and (at least as bad) blatant emotional exploitation. In the wake of World War II, atomic scientists grew understandably worried about the results of the weaponry to which they had contributed. Briefly, they argued that the American public needed to be jolted by fear into political pressures that would tame the beast. Thus they indulged in what they later admitted was a “preaching of doom” – including some truly exaggerated scenarios of global chain reactions. A 1948 book, No Place to Hide, quickly sold 250,000 copies. Billy Graham got into the act, after the Soviets acquired the bomb, urging that the world was on a path to destruction, the bombing of New York imminent, and people better repent while they could.

But this flurry – arguably, against a threat far more menacing than what is probably facing us today – was largely and deliberately ended. The scientists, particularly, agreed that fear was a bad tactic to use with the public – a “questionable defense,” as one of them put it. Some argued that fear would have a numbing effect, reducing pressure for arms control. Others simply saw no point in constant panic, which would be bad for those who suffered from it and no contribution to sensible policy.

Of course some fears persisted, as the modest popularity of private bomb shelters attested. And perhaps Americans should have been more scared than they were. On the other hand, fairly soon after relative calm was restored, atmospheric testing ended and not too long after that some constructive arms limitation measures were crafted. After the most intense emotion passed, in other words, there were policy responses to the new situation, though of course they have not fully ended the peril.

Historical analogies are tricky – and I say this urging more attention to a relevant past – because no current situation is an exact replica of a previous experience. The analogies do offer some suggestive power, however, and an example of seemingly responsible leadership that decided against fear may be worth considering again today. Or not. At the least, the atomic episode is a reminder that we don’t have to be as scared, in facing challenge, as some segments of the American public seem to be today.