Norman Cousins In search of statesmen
New York — Sitting in the apartment he keeps on the exclusive southern perimeter of New York City's Central Park (he lives in California), Norman Cousins insists he still looks forward to the not-so-distant day when we shall all beat our swords into plowshares.
But he worries constantly about the dangers that conspire against that day.
He's been talking about these dangers for a long time. Twelve days after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, he wrote in the Saturday Review, "Now that the science of warfare has reached the point where it threatens the planet itself, is it possible that man is destined to return the earth to its aboriginal incandescent mass, blazing at 50 million degrees?"
Today, he says, the world is well off because "we're still alive. And to be able to say that is always a triumph." But he feels the problem of world destruction "has widened in direct proportion to the profusion of planet-shattering gadgets," and our collective future depends largely on the caliber of men who will inherit the governing power of the world.
He is looking for a new generation of statesmen.
"Woodrow Wilson, one of my favorite characters in history," he muses, "said that the role of a statesman is to represent the next generation." Although he himself has headed no governments and wielded no official power, Mr. Cousins has come as close as any private citizen to filling President Wilson's definition of a statesman.
"For me," he says softly, sitting beside a sky-high window and a wall full of books, "the ideal education would be to take a human being, when he's old enough to appreciate things, on a trip to the moon. Then we'd look at this planet and realize that it is blue, that it has oxygen and water, and that it is one planet out of millions that does. When he thinks about the exquisite conditions that support life, he is apt to become rather reverent toward this beautiful planet."
Mr. Cousins himself has had ample opportunity to contemplate the "exquisite conditions that support life." when he was 11, he was required to spend a year in a sanitarium -- an experience that, he later wrote, gave him "a respect for the preciousness of human life." Several years ago he was told he had another serious disease, and successfully undertook his own cure through the use of ascorbic acid and what he calls "the salutary emotions."
Having written a book about his self-cure, entitled "Anatomy of an Illness," and lectured widely on the question of a patient's ability to participate in his own healings, he is reluctant to talk about his own experiences, saying that it smacks of self-congratulation.
But there are plenty of others ready to congratulate him.
He has won more than 35 major awards, including the Thomas Jefferson Award for Advancement of Democracy in Journalism; Benjamin Franklin citation in magazine journalism; the Eleanor Roosevelt Peace award; the City of Hiroshima Award; the Overseas Press Club award for best interpretation of foreign affairs in magazine writing; the Family of Man award; the United Nations Peace Medal Award.
An example of the type of activity that earned such awards was his campaign to bring women who had been disfigured by the atom bomb -- the so-called "Hiroshima maidens" -- to this country for reconstructive surgery. (Mr. Cousins and his wife adopted one of these young ladies.) Later, he made a similar effort on behalf of Polish women disfigured in Nazi experiments.
For a man who has been heaped with so much public acclaim, Mr. Cousins is remarkably modest. He speaks slowly, in a voice as slender as a spider's thread , pausing frequently to collect his thoughts. His soft, brown eyes and thin, white hair are as understated as his voice; only the flash and luster of his smile interrupt the calm poise of his careful demeanor. He is an attractive man who seldom sets off conversational fireworks, but relies on the force of ideas to carry his argument.
So far, these ideas have served him well. The details of his career fill several pages in Current Biography -- a publication known for the stinginess of its space. He transformed the Saturday Review from an arcane, stuffy journal of books of a major voice in the mainstream of American and international ideas, and later, after buying it back from new owners, rescued it from the brink of ruin. He developed a proficiency as a photographer and organist between trips around the world during the years when "the editor's chair was an airplane seat"; he has served in numerous organizations dedicated to world peace and other issues of critical importance; and he fills (as Current Biography puts it) the varied roles of "lecturer, foreign correspondent, humanitarian, Presidential adviser, teacher, crusading activist, and intimate of the world's greats."
Frequently, Mr. Cousins has been at odds with these "world greats" for their policies and decisions, and today he gives short shrift to world leaders who he feels have played fast and loose with the lives of millions.
"If one were in a position to hold people to accounts," he says flatly, "then I think there would be a stern reckoning for a lot of people who were more concerned about their two-year or four-year terms than they were about the next generation. And, however kindly we feel toward some presidents philosophically, I don't think that historically they will stand very high.
"Harry Truman was a very courageous man, but the decision to drop that bomb on Hiroshima was one of the most terrifying decisions in history. What it did was to create a precedent for its use, make it a normal part of the arsenal of nations, and set off the nuclear arms race. If only we had recognized our tremendous responsibility to humankind, not just to ourselves!"
Mr. Cousins subscribes to a theory, held by few historians, that one reason the US incinerated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and much of their populations was that we were anxious to end the war before the Soviet Union disentangled itself from the European front and made its way across Asia to bring its armies into Japan. We simply didn't want the Russians to gain a cheap share in the occupation of Japan, he claims, after we had sustained the brunt of the fighting in the Pacific.
According to this theory, the Japanese sent a coded message to Moscow asking Stalin to be a go-between in a negotiated peace with the US. The Soviet Union stonewalled the Japanese, the theory goes, to gain time. The US government, meanwhile, had decoded the message but ignored it, so as to be able to proceed with the coup de grace that would give it sole control over the Japanese occupation.
"We dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki so that we could end the war in a matter of days," Mr. Cousins maintains, "and this is something that will be on the conscience of the US forever. Harry Truman was not unscrupulous. He was a very spunky President, a scrapper. But I don't think he had the moral imagination to recognize our obligations at the time. And I think he did a great disservice to the American people."
This little history lesson a la Cousins is important, because it illustrates what he thinks is the linchpin of human history: the ability of statesmen to stand for what is right, regardless of the consequences to their personal futures.
"I don't think Woodrow Wilson or FDR would have dropped that bomb," he comments. "They would have seen the real issue and been strong enough to stand up against any criticism. They would have been able to stand the heat, because in their souls they would have known they were acting as statesmen have to act."
These men are obviously among Norman Cousins' heroes, people who qualify as true "statesmen." ("Franklin Roosevelt is the greatest American produced so far in the 20th century," he says, adding that FDR was one of the few men of his time with world-size vision.) Another Cousins hero who can loosely be classed in the "statesman" category is Albert Schweitzer. Mr. Cousins visited the doctor in Africa to enlist his aid in the movement to bring about nuclear disarmament, a visit that inspired Dr. Schweitzer's "A Declaration of Conscience."
"No one has made a greater claim on the moral imagination of the world in recent times than he did," Mr. Cousins observes. "Dr. Schweitzer in person was not what people thought he was. He tended to be very arbitrary, and he tended to be autocratic. His dealings with blacks [Dr. Schweitzer spent long years in Africa caring for primitive tribesmen] were, I think, heavily influenced by 19 th-century attitudes.
"But that was not what was important about him. It was that people still believed there were heroes in the world and needed them; and there was enough in him that was heroic, of moral stature, to meet this need."
He says the other "great moral figure" of Dr. Schweitzer's time was Pope John XXIII, on whose behalf he lobbied in Moscow for the release of Cardinals Josyf Slipyi and Joseph Beran, then archbishops of the Ukraine and Czechoslovakia, respectively. Pope John conferred his personal medallion on Mr. Cousins in appreciation for his efforts.
"When I asked him what was the most important thing he had learned in life," he recalls, "he said it was to always accept the oustretched hand." This outstretched hand, which Mr. Cousins describes as "a symbol of reconciliation," figures strongly in his theory of true statesmanship.
"Anwar Sadat is moving in that direction," he reflects."It's so interesting that anyone who is holding out a hand in forgiveness, proving that there is strength in forgiveness, strength in reconciliation, will generally [be perceived as a hero]."
A careful historian, Mr. Cousins has seldom been proved wrong on matters of record, but it has happened (as, for instance, when he misquoted Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, as calling Anwar Sadat "a misguided moderate"). It can also be pointed out that almost every cause Mr. Cousins has championed has lately fallen on hard times: The SALT process has been shelved, perhaps permanently; the death penalty has been reinstated in this country; dangerous tranquilizers have become the candy of the young; environmental concerns are taking a back seat to the demand for energy.
Does Mr. Cousins ever feel as though his favorite causes are destined to failure?
"No, I think we'll come out right-side up. America has a beautiful built-in equilibrium. We make dreadful mistakes, like Vietnam and Watergate. But we have this interesting quality that we always have sober second thoughts. We recognize the error and expunge the evil. The American people have had a magnificent response in times of crisis."
In his book "Present Tense," a history of the Saturday Review and a collection of his editorials there, he quotes German philosopher Georg Hegel as saying there is no problem that is not penetrable by mind. And that appears to be a basic tenet he has used to plumb the anguishing problems swirling through his region of the 20th century.
"War represents a breakdown of the regulatory system of societies," he says. "The consequence of war is that our attitude toward life becomes cheapened. And I think a demonstration of that was Hiroshima."
In turning to solutions to the problem of wars, he characteristically falls back on Hegel's article of faith and looks to an idea for an answer:
"What security really requires," he insists, "is an idea large enough, literally, to embrace the world. It requires a way of making the world safe for its differences. An idea that the world can be governed in the human interest, that the human interest is supreme, and that nations have to recognize that they must accept law."
If there were a Norman Cousins award for lifetime achievement, one given in his name to some statesman every 10 years, what would the award be given for?
He ponders the question for a moment, pausing to look out the window at Central Park, which by now has become covered in smoky twilight, then answers deliberately: "For the recognition of the reality of human unity and for the creation of those institutions that would enable it to become manifest."
There would be no lack of ready voices to nominate Mr. Cousins as the first recipient.