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The Pathology of POWER by Norman Cousins (Norton: $15.95; 228 pp.)

February 15, 1987|Jack Burby | Burby is assistant editor of The Times' editorial pages

Norman Cousins is a man of letters and of peace. What he has produced with "The Pathology of Power" is a sermon for a choir of like-minded Americans that somehow is less compelling than the case he makes ought to be.

Most of the book is a recitation of the consequences of America's failure to take seriously President Dwight D. Eisenhower's warning of the dangers of a then-manageable military-industrial complex and of the possibility that public policy would be taken over by a "scientific-technological elite." The last few pages are an eloquent appeal for world government as the only way to deal with the anarchy of nationalism that threatens mass extinction. But it is an appeal, not a blueprint, skipping over the question of how a free people who are unable to control pathological power in their own country can hope to persuade people in other nations who are far less free to submit their sovereignty to a higher authority.

There is little of Cousins' case with which to argue. In a foreword, George F. Kennan warns that humans will not last long if they keep treating nuclear weapons as nothing more than modern artillery pieces. No argument there.

Cousins devotes much space to the thesis that it was morally wrong to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with moving descriptions of suffering that lingered years after World War II to make his point. When that decision was made, of course, the bomb was indeed just a bigger bomb for all anyone in Washington knew--radiation sickness came later, and the specter of nuclear winter wasn't raised until very recently.

Cousins describes a nation going about its business, ignoring warnings from Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who helped the Japanese write a pacifist constitution after his American troops defeated them in the Pacific. MacArthur said 30 years ago that war was no longer a "weapon of adventure whereby a shortcut to international power and wealth--a place in the sun--can be gained" but a "Frankenstein that will destroy both sides." His prime target is the team of the Pentagon and its retinue of defense contractors and their cornucopia of flawed weapons. "It is an empire that sucks up two-thirds of the country's annual revenues and paralyzes our will to resist internal inefficiency, waste and incompetence," he writes. For Cousins, President Reagan's nuclear defense project, best known as Star Wars, is the prime symptom of the pathology of power. "The only defense in the atomic age is peace," he says, and Star Wars runs directly counter to that dictum because it "assumes that nuclear war is survivable."

He finds heroes, among them Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), whose basic conservatism led him first to support the President's call for a strong defense and then to investigate whether the Defense Department budget was indeed producing a strong defense. What Grassley concluded was that taxpayers get about 30 cents of defense for every dollar the Pentagon spends, and he chips away at the waste as best he can as a member of the budget committee. Another hero is a familiar whistle-blower, A. Ernest Fitzgerald, most of whose adult life has been spent fighting, and never quite winning, a battle with waste as an auditor at the Pentagon. His contribution is a memorable line describing the standard answer the Pentagon gets from contractors when it asks for a final estimate of the cost of a project: "It's too early to tell and too late to stop."

One thing "The Pathology of Power" lacks is more of Cousins, himself, who turned the Saturday Review of Literature into a formidable magazine during his years as editor and has been deeply involved for decades in the cause of peace. There are brief anecdotal passages, recalling conversations with MacArthur, acting as an emissary to Moscow on behalf of John F. Kennedy, visiting Hiroshima after World War II. But mostly, he serves as a literate go-between, passing on to the reader glimpses of what others do or fail to do. Perhaps the truth is that if Cousins cannot make the case, nobody can.

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