Edvard Munch, Evening. Melancholy I (1896). Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
James Carroll [JC]: Robert, on September 7, 2022, the head of the Ukrainian armed forces warned of “a direct threat” of Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons, which would draw other countries into what he called a “limited” nuclear war. He even declared that “the prospect of World War III is already directly visible.” What do you make of that?
Robert Jay Lifton [RJL]: Clearly, that suggests the new nuclear landscape that we’re in now, in relation to the Ukraine war, which was a central theme of your general statement on nuclear danger. And I would start by saying that when such a figure makes that kind of statement, one can recognize at least two possible motivations.
One is that he’s really afraid of tactical nuclear war and all that that entails. And the other is that simply by offering such a warning, indicating how terrible it would be, he may hope to contribute to its prevention—the prevention of the use of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia.
JC: How does the prospect of Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons change the general problem of nuclear weapons?
RJL: Well, the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons changes things all too radically and dangerously, because, by the way they are characterized, they are seen as usable on the battlefield. That’s probably an illusion, because any use of tactical weapons is likely to escalate into a large nuclear war that could destroy humankind.
The availability of tactical weapons certainly changes the nuclear landscape. But two other points do so, as well. With the idea of “usability,” there could be an increased tendency toward proliferation among other countries. And a third element is the pressure coming from what amounts to a war of survival on the part of Ukraine, and a possible war of great humiliation for Putin, a war he cannot afford to lose. That combination creates a situation of extremity on both sides, but particularly so, and dangerously so for Putin. So those are three elements that we have to face.
The issue goes beyond Putin and Ukraine. It has to do with a new general worldwide nuclear landscape, a new nuclear paradigm, one might say.
JC: Doesn’t what you’re calling a new nuclear paradigm, with the actual prospect of nuclear use, involve a sudden calling into question the taboo that was the great feature of our nuclear age until now, the taboo that was put in place after the United States used a nuclear weapon at Nagasaki. Is the Taboo—with a capital “T” as a quasi-religious prohibition—being undercut?
RJL: You’re right to emphasize the importance of the Taboo. It has been a source of all of the important anti-nuclear movements. If you begin with the [Atomic] Scientists’ Movement right after World War II; and then the physicians’ movement [International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War] later on in the eighties, the movement that I was part of; or the SANE movement [National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy], or the so-called moratorium—all of these recognized the Taboo and insisted upon it as key to human security. That security is undermined by what’s now developing in the war in Ukraine. But the Taboo has never disappeared, and it must be reasserted definitively in this new nuclear landscape.
But it’s important to remember that the Taboo has been challenged in the past—the Cuban Missile Crisis is still vivid in some of our memories—and this frightening development in Ukraine can undercut it further.
For instance, when Greg Mitchell and I wrote the book Hiroshima in America, we looked at U.S. presidential views of nuclear weapons use. Every president from Truman on—with the exception now of Biden and Obama—has been ambivalent about nuclear use. Only Biden and Obama have never said the weapon is usable. All other presidents, beginning with Truman, have wavered between affirming the Taboo and viewing the bomb as a weapon that indeed could be used.
So the Taboo has been there, but it’s been unsteady most of the time; and many powerful statesmen have been ambivalent about it. I would add though, and this is darkly hopeful—if that’s a phrase—that even Putin is aware of the Taboo. He and his spokesmen have stated that the weapons are unusable, and that Russia won’t use them. But Putin has also made repeated threats that he will use them. So, it goes both ways.
JC: Is there any way to strengthen the Taboo, or to reassert it definitively now? Given the long history of anti-nuclear efforts going back decades; and given that peaks of anxiety about the use of nuclear weapons have periodically helped to generate those movements, what do you make of the way in which those peaks of anxiety have often—indeed almost always—been bordered by long plateaus of nuclear complacency? In such periods, the nuclear establishments feel free to reinvent themselves, and are able to roll back efforts to advance nuclear elimination. We are living through a period of nuclear anxiety now, and we saw another during the Trump administration, but complacency is what seems most often to reassert itself. So speak to me about the tension between acutely experienced nuclear threat and the broader nuclear complacency that has defined the landscape for, I would argue, most of the last generation. What is your thought about that?
RJL: It’s a very important question. Nuclear complacency is multifaceted. A certain amount of nuclear fear is appropriate to our situation. When we give in to what you’re calling nuclear complacency, it’s because we have insufficient fear of what is actually dangerous. Recall the old distinction between fear and anxiety. Fear can be appropriate. Without it, there is complacency.
The movement from appropriate nuclear fear to complacency has to do with what I call psychic numbing, a diminished capacity or inclination to feel. And the psychic numbing of citizens can often be encouraged by authorities who don’t want too much awareness of the actual dangers involved. With the prospect of nuclear war, there’s a ready tendency toward psychic numbing because of the completely unprecedented dimension of this revolution in technological destructiveness—an unpleasantness that the mind instinctively shies away from. Anti-nuclear movements and collective protests help us to break out of such numbing.
But another thing I would say about nuclear complacency is that it is never as great as it may appear. Even when, over recent decades, there has been relatively little talk about nuclear weapons, the image of nuclear holocaust, and of something to do with world destroying technology, has never left us. It’s been more or less suppressed.
What’s needed is pressure enough to sustain a measure of nuclear fear—not sufficient to overwhelm us, but sufficient to stimulate us to take the appropriate measures against the weapons, even in the direction of abolition. That potential for recovering our recognition of their danger is always there, and it can happen quickly.
JC: Ukraine is an instance of that. The war has brought to the fore—again—the radical uniqueness of the nuclear weapons threat: that the power to unleash armageddon resides in a handful of human beings.
RJL: In a way, during the years of the Cold War, that very situation you describe also existed. Both the American presidents and the Soviet leaders made threats of using the weapons, and there was, then as now, very insufficient control of a president’s power to initiate that use.
JC: But this is what I call in my piece, the great revelation of the war in Ukraine: that the human future has been put in the hands of an unreliable wielder of power like Vladimir Putin. And Putin, by making this extremity clear and explicit, may be doing us a tremendous favor. And so did Donald Trump, who also made palpable what might happen, should a feckless, irresponsible, deeply immoral person possess this absolute power unchecked. Putin and Trump together reveal how urgent it is that we dismantle this structure of nuclear power that can be so readily abused.
RJL: Absolutely. And one couldn’t think of two more appropriate figures for teaching us that. Putin, motivated by a version of Russian fascism, wanting a great mystical Russian empire. And Trump, with his solipsistic—or self-enclosed—evaluation of everything. There couldn’t be two better examples of the mortal danger here.
JC: And we shouldn’t forget what happened at the very end of Trump’s administration. Imagine—the Speaker of the House writing to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs [of Staff], explicitly and publicly demanding that the Chairman disobey any order for nuclear use from the President of the United States!
RJL: Which he was ready to do.
JC: That is how close to catastrophe we came in the United States, and now we have Russia’s version of the same danger—one man’s mayhem—unleashed in the thick of a firestorm of a war. We are on the edge of tremendous danger here, Robert.
RJL: Well, here are the two nuclear-weapons-possessing powers, each having created a crisis of what feels like near use, or at least willingness to use. What better examples could we have? And I think those two figures—Trump, and now Putin—have already made an impact. But it’s up to us in the anti-nuclear movement to articulate that impact.
JC: So how does the anti-nuclear movement do that now? Having watched arms control and nuclear abolition efforts ebb and flow down through the decades, what do you see on the horizon for the movement going forward, Robert?
RJL: It’s not possible to answer that question without looking at what we said at the beginning of our discussion. The new landscape and paradigm of nuclear weapons and arms control could serve to move us a bit away from the mythology of deterrence, and in the direction of prevention of the use of the weapons. “No First Use” is certainly one principle. New structures of control of the actual weapons is a second, so that no individual president or head of state can by himself or herself be responsible for their use. I think both of those restraints are within the realm of possibility. Much of the energy of protest could emerge from confrontation with other catastrophes. Passions concerning climate, for instance, can readily be shifted into renewed nuclear awareness, in ways that reverse the recent tendency.
There’s something else I want to say about the potential efficacy of protest. You rightly pay tribute to Gorbachev in your piece, and he certainly played a really important role in perhaps being the first head of state to truly recognize and embrace human security in connection with nuclear weapons. I have to emphasize that, although what I’m about to say is not the only source of his wisdom, it could have been a major one.
At the time I was working actively with the physicians’ anti-nuclear movement [International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War], the head of the Soviet delegation was a man named [Yevgeniy] Chazov. A good person, a cardiologist who had become friendly with Bernard Lown, the visionary American anti-nuclear leader, and together they had formed the international physicians group. Chazov was a close friend of Gorbachev. And Chazov systematically fed our papers to Gorbachev—our research into a nuclear-war-caused breakdown of all medical facilities, with the death of medical personnel, and our insistence that no medical group could, so to speak, patch up the victims of a nuclear war.
We developed these ideas systematically, and they came from physicians with professional authority. Chazov and Gorbachev became a team. Through Chazov, the products of an anti-nuclear movement were made available to one of the key heads of state. That suggests that there could be much more connection—perhaps in ways that we don’t always recognize—between anti-nuclear movements, with their energy and wisdom, to heads of state who are not blind and deaf to such findings. It was dramatically so in the case of Gorbachev. That may not be the only example.
JC: I think that we must lift up what Gorbachev and Reagan did achieve, but also what they together embraced theoretically, explicitly agreeing—despite what made it seem impossible—on the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. They even set the specific date at the turn of the millennium. That moment of agreement must be front and center of our awareness, because it shows what is possible. Otherwise, we are doomed to feel trapped by nuclear weapons forever, and that is a formula for their use.
RJL: Yes. I agree very strongly. What Reagan and Gorbachev realized as individual human beings was that the very existence of the weapons was intolerable. Of course, as you know, they were overtaken by bureaucrats—including bureaucrats who were strengthened by all sorts of corrupt financial relations in the so-called military industrial complex.
But our work as anti-nuclear people attempting to affect consciousness in general never ends. Even if we succeeded in bringing about the abolition of nuclear weapons, we’d have to be taking a continuous stand against their reappearance. There will never be a moment where we’ve done it, once and for all.
Still, the fact that the weapon has not been used since Nagasaki. I think that anti-nuclear movements deserve some credit for that. We’ve come all too close, and perhaps some of it has been “dumb luck,” but certainly the anti-nuclear movements, with their focus on human security as a continuing effort, has served the world, and can continue to serve it in still greater ways.
JC: What prospects do you see for the currently proposed United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?
RJL: It looks weak because no one who possesses weapons has joined that treaty. But the movement, ICAN, which is the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons, is of the greatest importance, because it is bringing to the UN—which still matters, despite its limitations—a nuclear truth. The treaty states that creating nuclear weapons, stockpiling them, becomes internationally illegal. That’s far from a firm solution. But it’s a kind of frame for a solution.
We must never forget that nuclear abolition is the only safe position in relation to the weapons. On the other hand, there’s a realpolitik in nuclear diplomacy, in which we have to look toward policies that would diminish their likelihood of use. One thing we can agree on is a “No First Use” commitment. That has been elusive, unfortunately, especially for American leaders. But Biden has himself articulated it, flirted with it, backed off it, been a little inconsistent. But it is not out of the order of possibility. We must continue to press for “No First Use,” and other forms of arms control, even though our ultimate goal is abolition.
JC: The anti-nuclear movement emerged with great power in the early eighties, centrally symbolized by your own work with the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Do you see any equivalent possibility of grassroots resistance to nuclear complacency ahead of us now?
RJL: I can’t say that I see a particular group, but I do see the possibility of a new group emerging in a way appropriate to its moment. Before there was a mass anti-nuclear movement in the eighties, there was first the scientists’ movement, which was very powerful in the immediate post war period, especially since those same nuclear scientists who had created the weapon in the first place were now warning us about what it really did. In the physicians’ movement in the early eighties, we saw ourselves as successors to the scientists’ movement. And that had to do with what I call witnessing professionals, where we made use of our professional knowledge to make known what the weapons did to human beings.
Perhaps now there could be another group with professional connections that made use of that very professional knowledge to combine it with passionate opposition to nuclear weapons. Maybe it could be less a group involved with science and medicine than something to do with human behavior or social policy. I’m not sure. But perhaps another group could play a similar role, and I’m not sure what that group would be.
JC: One would hope it would be the experts, policy elites, academics, and think-tankers who comprise what might be called the national security community. The very people who are entrusted with thinking about and supervising our nuclear weapons structure. If the nuclear physicists could turn against the bomb, why not the nuclear custodians? They know better than anyone how fragile the entire system is. They know better than anyone how dangerous the status quo is. They actually offer warnings against that status quo, and yet they nearly all are bound, in the end, to maintain it.
No one knows the arguments against what we’ve called here the mythology of nuclear deterrence better than the people who uphold it. If finally they defend it rather than dismantle it, that may be because they see the short-range dangers of nuclear elimination as more immediate and more threatening than the long-range danger. The short-range danger is a Vladimir Putin, yet the long-range danger is the apocalypse.
RJL: It’s not entirely hopeless that these same authorities on the weapons can move away from deterrence and toward diminished stockpiles, approaching abolition. I think that the American security community is now in conflict because they see Putin as a real danger. They recognize in him and in his nuclear threats a grave danger to the world that simply cannot be denied. And they recognize the various transgressions of Trump, including the search of Mar-a-Lago where the FBI discovered that he kept nuclear secrets, which he may or may not have made use of.
The arbiters of the nuclear weapons control community can see the vicissitudes here. Perhaps with the continuation of a progressive presidential administration, they could move more toward human security—and away from the weapons.
Of course that would mean, as you make clear in your piece, standing up to all kinds of social and economic forces in the society. But it’s not impossible, and it would be an example of what you point to—about closeness to the brink leading to wiser policies.
JC: It’s a paradox, isn’t it? The closer to the brink, the livelier the possibility of a better day. From the brink of the war in Ukraine, may there be a better day for that nation’s people—and for the world.
James Carroll is the author, most recently, of The Truth at the Heart of the Lie.
Robert Jay Lifton is Lecturer in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance; Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Psychology at City University of New York; and formerly Director of the Center on Violence and Human Survival at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Click here to read James Carroll’s six-part series reckoning with nuclear weapons, peace activism, and war in Ukraine.
2 thoughts on “Robert Jay Lifton on Psychic Numbing and the Warning from Ukraine”
I would love to hear Dr. Lifton’s thoughts about the Hopi Indian apocalyptic vision, which seems to me the possible ultime thule of modern day apocalyptic visions.