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“Atomic warfare means universal extermination”

In 1946, Lewis Mumford penned an article in The Saturday Review of Literature under the none-too-subtle title “Gentlemen: You are Mad!” Over the course of two pages Mumford denounced as “madmen” those who were dreaming of researching, building, and perhaps using atomic weaponry. In impassioned tones Mumford spoke of the “awakened ones” who were trying desperately to raise the alarm, but were finding their warnings falling on uncaring ears. The article was published less than a year after the end of WWII, and even as the images of mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki represented for some a conclusive end to a horrible conflict, Mumford saw such horrid clouds as simply a premonition of dark times to come. In that moment, the “message of the awakened ones” was that:

“The madmen are planning the end of the world. What they call continued progress in atomic warfare means universal extermination, and what they call national security is organized suicide. There is only one duty for the moment: every other task is a dream and a mockery. Stop the atomic bomb. Stop making the bomb. Abandon the bomb completely. Dismantle every existing bomb.” (Mumford 1936: 5)

One of the key sentiments undergirding Mumford’s short article – as well as much of his other writing regarding the atomic (and then nuclear) threat – is the recognition that as long as such weapons exist all life is imperiled. Hence the call not only to “stop making the bomb” but also the exhortation to “abandon” and “dismantle” it entirely.

Of course, nuclear paranoia goes in and out of fashion.

Mumford’s early warnings may have been unfashionably bleak at first, but as atomic weapons proliferated during the Cold War such warnings began to seem less hyperbolic and more astute. Granted, with the end of the Cold War the atomic/nuclear menace ceased being the bogeyman haunting daily life. And even as “rogue states” or the possibility of a terrorist somehow obtaining nuclear material were still evoked as serious threats, these rarely took on the apocalyptic tenor of a confrontation between rivals armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons. Gradually, climate change came to replace nuclear weapons as the apocalyptic fear du jour, and even as stockpiles of warheads still sat tucked away all over the world nuclear paranoia took on an odor of outdatedness. Yet Mumford, and his ilk, had cautioned that insofar as atomic/nuclear weapons continued to exist being warily aware of their doom laden danger was always necessary.

Alas, 72 years (almost to the day) after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the threat of nuclear war is once again making people squirm with anxious anticipation. Only a few short years after Iran was persuaded to curtail its pursuit of nuclear weapons, the current standoff pits the DPRK (North Korea) against the United States. There is something somewhat absurd about this nuclear saber-rattling, for even if the DPRK is framed by many as the aggressor that country must know that if it truly attacked the US (or one of its bases, or one of its allies) that it would be utterly destroyed. As a country that still bears the memory of the devastation wrought during the Korean War (which is called “the forgotten war” in the US for a reason) it seems unlikely that the DPRK would invite its own annihilation. Frankly, the DPRK has much more to fear from the US, than the US has to fear from the DPRK. This is the point at which many jump up and with language tinged with xenophobia and old imperialistic imagery tut that the leader of the DPRK cannot be trusted. Yet part of what makes this particular moment so dangerous is not that the leader of the DPRK is unpredictable but that the same can be said of the President of the United States.

Returning to Mumford it may be tempting to treat both leaders as “madmen” – but the key thing to recognize is that for Mumford what would earn them the title “madmen” has nothing to do with their personal foibles or political ideologies and everything to do with their seeming willingness to deploy these weapons of “universal extermination.” In such situations promising to wield “fire and fury” is the mark of a “madman.” Especially as an unleashing of such apocalyptic power portends death for millions of civilians, risks beginning a third world war, and pretty much represents game over for the climate.

Let us all hope that cool heads prevail and that this situation is deescalated as swiftly as it has escalated!

And yet, in this moment, it is worth remembering the warnings issued in the twentieth century regarding the threat posed by nuclear weapons. Such warnings may have gone out of style, but it seems that they are once more fashionable – and tragically as long as weapons of mass destruction still exist such warnings will never truly go out of style. Yes, some of the people who doggedly advanced these dire predictions found themselves denounced as “prophets of doom” for their pessimistic prognosticating, but it is hard to deny their prescience when the threat of nuclear conflict is again screaming from the headlines. The current sparring match between “madmen” may pass without serious incident (and hopefully it will), but the passing of one such faceoff does not mean that the threat posed by nuclear weapons is truly gone. And it is essential to remember that for many of the world’s people the nuclear threat that they fear is symbolized by the United States. After all, the only country in history to have used atomic weaponry on its opponent is the United Sates. When he was writing in 1946 the “madmen” that Mumford was denouncing were not foreign potentates, hostile governments, or rogue actors – Mumford was trying to warn his fellow citizens in the US about what their own leaders were doing.

A decade after publishing “Gentlemen: You are Mad!” Mumford was still striking a similar tone. Addressing the Prayer and Conscience Vigil that was held in Washington, D.C. in 1957, Mumford warned his listeners that:

“The life of every creature on this planet hangs from moment to moment by a thread. No pious professions of peace, no imbecile threats of counter-destruction and counter-extermination, can hide that fact.” (Mumford 1958: 4)

He continued:

“What should cause the deepest concern at this moment is not our technological but our moral backwardness; and what should awaken our well-justified fears is not only Russia’s powers of unlimited extermination, but our own.” (Mumford 1958: 4)

Read in 2017, Mumford’s mention of “our own” powers of “unlimited extermination” should receive particular notice. And so too should Mumford’s comment about the “thread” by which life hangs by.

Admittedly, it is a thread that has gone ignored for quite some time. And the philosopher Günther Anders had a particular word for such a willful ignoring of the atomic/nuclear threat, he called it “apokalypseblindheit” which translates as “blindness towards the apocalypse.” For Anders the development, and use, of atomic weapons represented the beginning of “die Endzeit” (“the end times”) as the existence of such weapons meant that the “end” could come at any moment. That the “end” did not come during his lifetime does little to undermine Anders’ overall argument, as he had claimed that what humanity was living in after the onset of “the end times” was actually a period that he referred to as “die Frist” (“the reprieve”). This “reprieve” represented a precious pause within “the end times” even as it did not change the overall nature of the period – to Anders the goal became to prolong this “reprieve” as long as possible and to thereby keep “the end times” at bay. In this context Anders did not view the conflict as being one between nations, but similar to Mumford, as one between a nihilistically destructive principle and life itself, as he put it in his “Theses for the Atomic Age”:

“What we are fighting is not this or that enemy who could be attacked or liquidated by atomic means, but the atomic situation as such. Since the enemy is the enemy of all people, those who, up to now had considered each other to be enemies, have now to become allies against the common menace.” (Anders, 187)

To Anders the threat of the “atomic age” united all of humanity, as all of humanity now found itself at risk of weapons of “unlimited extermination.” For Anders the weapons themselves were “totalitarian” as he put it:

“To threaten with atomic weapons is totalitarian…by threatening with atomic war, thus with liquidation, we cannot help being totalitarian; for this threat amounts to blackmail and transforms our globe into one vast concentration camp from which there is no way out. Thus, whoever bases the legitimacy of this extreme deprivation of freedom upon the alleged interests of freedom is a hypocrite.” (Anders, 188)

And this totalitarian blackmail is on display again in 2017, at this moment when we are briefly shaken from our “apokalypseblindheit,” at this moment when we are once more reminded that “the reprieve” in which we have been living is not a permanent state but merely a shaky interregnum. The totalitarian specter under whose scythe we walk was not for Mumford or Anders any particular world leader – it was these weapons of destruction themselves. The problem was not that people were too panicked or too afraid, but that they were not nearly worried enough. As Anders put it:

“Don’t fear fear, have the courage to be frightened, and to frighten others, too.” (Anders, 190)

In short, there is nothing wrong with feeling unsettled – scared even – by the current escalation in animosity. Yet, in this fear it is essential to recognize that this is a dread shared by (or perhaps felt even more acutely) by many others the world over. Yes, people in parts of the US may sweat at the thought of a missile fired from the DPRK, but take a moment to recognize that there are millions of people in the DPRK who have much more reason to fear such missiles being fired by the US at them.

The threat of nuclear annihilation will be with humanity as long as these weapons exist – this was the warning being made by twentieth century thinkers like Mumford and Anders. And, alas, recent developments are forcing us to recognize that these warnings have lost little of their relevance over time.

It remains to be seen what particular diplomatic steps need to be taken to deescalate the present situation. Yet one thing remains undeniably clear: Mumford was right in 1946.

If we genuinely want to banish the threat of nuclear war, if we genuinely want to extend “the reprieve” indefinitely, than we must:

“Stop making the bomb. Abandon the bomb completely. Dismantle every existing bomb.”

That we think the prospect of nuclear annihilation more probable than that of such dismantling is a harrowing sign of how close we are to “the end times.”

 

Works Cited

Anders, Günther “Theses for the Atomic Age” in Bischof, Gunter, Dawsey, Jason, Fetz, Bernhard (eds.) The Life and Works of Günther Anders: Émigré, Iconoclast, Philosopher, Man of Letters. Innsbruck: StudeinVerlag, 2014.

Mumford, Lewis. “Gentlemen: You are Mad!” The Saturday Review of Literature. March 2, 1946. Pgs. 5-6.

Mumford, Lewis. The Human Way Out. Wallingford: Pendle Hill Pamphlets, 1958.

 

Related Content

The “Good Life” or the “Goods Life” – The thought of Lewis Mumford

The Apocalyptic Turn

Towards a Productive Pessimism

Living in the Exterminable Epoch

Burning Conscience – Günther Anders and Claude Eatherly

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

3 comments on ““Atomic warfare means universal extermination”

  1. notabilia
    August 9, 2017

    Fine essay, as usual.
    The only interjection I would make is that war and death had an extra dimension for the architecture critic from NYC, Mr. Mumford – he had broken ranks with other pacifists over joining the Allies war campaign, but his only son, whom he had named Geddes Mumford after his guru Patrick Geddes, was killed in the Italian theater of that hideous war.

  2. Eric
    August 9, 2017

    Excellent article. It seems the times are screaming for Mumford’s insights and warnings. I wrote about Mumford this week as well in The Spectacle Blog:

    https://www.thespectacle.net/blog/2017/8/7/lewis-mumford

  3. Leo Xof
    August 11, 2017

    So many people have written so much on the concept of atomic annihilation, I find it hard to really say anything–people so much more articulate than myself have exhausted whole lives to stave off this particular apocalypse… to little apparent effect.

    All I can really say is: it is scary. It is really, really scary.

    We live in a world that is–by our own making–extraordinarily lethal. It is a situation that is absolutely intolerable to the sane and rational mind. That we can now exist and function in the world at all is because we have been forced to embrace the delusion that We Are Safe. And, I think, this delusion is a likely culprit behind our collective inaction on climate change. We have spent so long convincing ourselves that the existential threat of atomic war is not really all that threatening after all. Small wonder, then, that the less explosive existential threats of climate change (or astronomical catastrophe) fail to register. These fears now exist on the same spectrum as an angry god smiting us from on high.

    But the realities at play here are scary, and they’re only going to get scarier. Atomic annihilation is an Apocalypse Scenario that’s rather unique because there are so few means to avoid it, let alone cope with it once it finally happens. It is also unique in that we bear complete responsibility for the End of the World in the event of atomic war–we have known about the profound destructive capacity of nuclear weaponry for longer than we have had the actual capacity to construct nuclear weapons.

    Today, the Doomsday Clock, maintained since 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board, is set at two-and-ah-half minutes to midnight. In other words, we stand now right at the precipice. We have only been this close the The End once before–in 1953, with the invention of the hydrogen bomb.

    Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union approximately thirty years ago, we have edged closer and closer to midnight. And that is unlikely to ever change. Atomic war is, without total and complete disarmament (a political impossibility thanks to decades of sustained delusion) a mathematical inevitability. The more atomic bombs there are, the more people will be in a position to use them; the longer atomic bombs exist, the more people will be able to use them; it is, therefore, an absolute certainty that one day someone *will* use them.

    And even if we’re aware of this sobering fact, we still cannot quite believe it. Even I am tempted to end this sorry tirade with some sort of pat comment to the effect of, “Well, not in my lifetime.” The same self-sustaining lie my parents–and their parents–have been telling themselves since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the odds of atomic war are increasing every day. At an exponential rate. I can hope all I like that I might die before the shit hits the fan, but each new morning makes that dream just a little bit less likely.

    Scary. Really, really scary.

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