Online version of: Nissani, M. (1992). Lives in the Balance: the Cold War and American Politics, 1945-1991.



By now, the corporations that dominate our media, like alcoholic fat cats, treat this situation as theirs by right . . . Their concept of a diversity of views is the full range of politics and social values from center to far right. The American audience, having been exposed to a narrowing range of ideas over the decades, often assumes that what they see and hear in the major media is all there is. It is no way to maintain a lively marketplace of ideas, which is to say it is no way to maintain a democracy.

Ben Bagdikian,1 1987

Both superpowers have succeeded in making a deep imprint on the beliefs and attitudes of people everywhere. Public debate and political thinking have become largely a product of manipulation. It is harder and harder for facts and knowledge to break through the false beliefs. The end result is a profound web of misconceptions . . . . At the heart of the arms race are a series of assumptions that are simply false. But in the superpowers, on the national media, those fundamentals are rarely questioned. Our hope lies in challenging them.

Alva Myrdal,2 1982

Among all the excuses which are alleged to Charon for not entering readily into his boat, he [David Hume] could not find one that fitted him; he had no house to finish, he had no daughter to provide for, he had no enemies upon whom he wished to revenge himself . . . "Upon further consideration" said he. . . . "I might still urge, Have a little patience, good Charon; I have been endeavoring to open the eyes of the Public. If I live a few years longer, I may have the satisfaction of seeing the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition." But Charon would then lose all temper and decency. "You loitering rogue, that will not happen these many hundred years. Do you fancy I will grant you a lease for so long a term? Get into the boat this instant, you lazy, loitering rogue."

Adam Smith,3a 1776


Theories in the humanities and social sciences often trace complex realities to an all-inclusive single cause. Although such theories do occasionally make lasting contributions to knowledge, their ambitious reductionism-despite its intellectual appeal and momentary fame-invariably fails. B. F. Skinner was right in pointing to the operant character of some of our actions, wrong in thinking that it was by far the most important. Plato was right in thinking ideas are important, wrong in thinking that they are the only entities which really count. The same can be said about most grand theories in psychology, metaphysics, politics, and other disciplines. Reductionism has performed wonders in physics, but has no place in history. Only eclectic theories (which mirror to a certain extent the complex realities they seek to understand) come close to explaining these realities. Hence, this chapter will forego grand theorizing. Instead, it will highlight a few of the causes which may have shaped political decisions in Cold War America.

For an eclectic, the selection of topics is particularly difficult, for he sees some merit in just about any explanation he comes across. He must resign himself to presenting a highly simplified and fragmented picture. There is, for instance, no mention in this chapter of important cultural theories, the nature/nurture controversy, or inherent ills of representative democracy. Instead, two criteria determined the choice of material. First, besides throwing light on humanity's woes, this chapter includes explanations which lend additional support to this book's earlier indictment of Cold War America. Second, this chapter prepares the reader for the counterintuitive reform proposal of chapter 10. It does so by giving special prominence to psychological theories which-by sensitizing readers to their own failings-ease their transition from one way of viewing and doing politics to another. It does so, also, by highlighting those features of American politics which are most intimately connected to this proposal.

Collective irrationality and immorality can be explained in almost identical terms wherever they are found. The remainder of this book will therefore extend the discussion to many other social ills besides American disarmament and foreign policies. This comprehensive approach allows cross-fertilization; insights gained, for example, from environmental politics clarify our disarmament policies. Moreover, this more comprehensive approach has practical implications. Nowadays humanitarians conduct numerous battles on numerous fronts. They fight against American support for Third World dictatorships, environmental pollution, soil erosion, wholesale extinction of species, built-in obsolescence of consumer products, monopolies, corporate irresponsibility, corruption, erosion of civil liberties, unemployment, unsafe working conditions, homelessness, and starvation; and this list does not even come close to describing the multitude of humanitarian concerns. If this chapter succeeds in showing that all these social ills spring from the same roots, a different strategy would seem to be in order. Instead of wasting their meager resources in admirable but, in the long run, futile holding actions against so many surface manifestations of a single disease, humanitarians might consider a joint attack on the disease itself at its weakest point, thereby sapping both its roots and surface manifestations (Chapter 10).


Organizational Characteristics

Organizational Callousness

We may begin with a simple, and widely acknowledged, principle: when forced to choose between a course of action which benefits their short-term interests but harms society, and a course of action which benefits society but harms their short-term interests, and when free to make this choice on their own, organizations tend to choose actions that benefit them and harm society.

Organizations in democratic countries (where their harmful actions often come under attack) defend their right to pursue their socially harmful interests with various tactics. The most notable tactic is the Phony Controversy: the covering of straightforward issues in a thick fog of technical details and contentions. The following examples demonstrate the ubiquitousness of organizational callousness and of its phony controversy stock-in-trade.

In some ways, history is one long story of organizational callousness. The Athenian Empire fell in part because it sought its own short-term interests instead of the more general interests of democracy and the Greek World. The Roman Empire fell in part because its army pursued its narrow, private interests, instead of the public's. The Catholic Church broke up during the Reformation, in part because it was concerned with its organizational welfare instead of the public's. Great Britain lost most of its American colonies in part because some British organizations sought their own gains at the nation's expense.

In 1970s' Soviet Union, the simple steps needed to effect badly needed agricultural reforms were not being taken in part because such steps conflicted with the narrowly conceived interests of the Communist Party, of a few other powerful organizations, and of a few individuals. A former high-ranking Yugoslav official explained past collectivizations of peasant holdings in communist countries in similar terms:

The fact that the seizure of property from other classes, especially from small owners, led to decreases in production and to chaos in the economy was of no consequence to the new class [communist party]. . . . The class profited from the new property it had acquired even though the nation lost thereby.4

Similarly, 1991 food shortages in the Soviet Union could be traced, in part, to actions of some still-powerful members of this class.

One could talk about the Charles Dickens' variety of child labor, and one can be reasonably certain, without studying the historical record, that this barbaric practice was vigorously defended by most organizations and individuals who derived short-term benefits from it. One could talk about worker exploitation, of the type depicted by Victor Hugo and John Steinbeck, and again be sure that it was brazenly championed by virtually all organizations, and by many individuals, whose short-term gains it served. One could fill endless volumes with quotations of such ignominious defenses, but in this context one will have to do. Here, then, is what a former employee of the East India Company (and a Christian Minister to boot) had to say about the sufferings of millions upon millions of David Copperfields, Tiny Tims, and Tom Joads:

A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do[es] not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature's mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders.5

In 1906, more than 10 percent of milk samples in New York City contained live tuberculosis-causing bacteria. Though it was well known by then that these bacteria could be killed by pasteurization (heating the milk), the dairy industry's spokesmen and scientists put up the usual fight. Among other things, they claimed that pasteurization would destroy the value of milk and price it off the market. Blessedly, they and the pathogens lost the fight.6

Organizational callousness and phony controversies are ubiquitous in environmental politics. No matter how conclusive the evidence against a substance (or practice) is, you can bet your life on one thing: any private or public organization, and many individuals, who derive short-term benefits from the production and sale of such a substance will fight tooth and nail to preserve it. Take, as just one example, the following 1981 summary of the smoking/cancer "controversy" by a British cancer researcher:

Although there has been conclusive evidence for more than a quarter of a century of roughly the sort of scale of death that tobacco causes . . . spokesmen for the industry . . . still do not accept this. There can never be, really, clearer proof than we now have with tobacco. Yet the industry concerned will not accept in public that it is causing these deaths. I think that this will be true of many other industries which are found to cause deaths. . . . when an industry is found to cause substantial numbers of deaths, with a few exceptions . . . there will be deliberate attempts to mislead government and the public as to what the evidence is. Even if certain individuals in such industries want to be humane and want to work in some kind of way towards the general good, and they are effective at doing so, then they will find themselves rendered impotent or fired, because it is not in the commercial interests of an industry to have its products advertised as causing this, that, and the other kind of disease.7

Most organizations involved in shaping and directing American disarmament policies are similarly callous.8 Arms manufacturers and other commercial organizations prosper from the arms race; in a genuine peace conference, they might be negotiated out of existence. So, like the milk and cigarette merchants, organizational logic tells us, they will always adopt a hard (and profitable) line on the question of disarmament. I shall spare the reader documentation of this obvious, self-serving position.

The rival services of the American Armed Forces might be expected to subordinate their interests to the national well-being. Isn't this, after all, their calling? But, as the following quotations of highly regarded former insiders suggest, the different services obey the dictates of organizational logic with clockwork regularity.

A former high-ranking official and a co-author:

Even in Vietnam . . . service interests were not subordinated to common concerns . . . the Pentagon practiced business as usual . . . the military departments did not give the war priority over the internal needs of the military organization.9a

In Vietnam, according to one Air Force Intelligence officer,

The Air Force had to have the bombing of the North-it was the only real Air Force show in the Vietnam War. . . . Without the bombing the Air Force would hope for little publicity and glory-which would mean smaller appropriations . . . To criticize the bombing claims meant, therefore, to hurt your own organization and to benefit its rivals.10

A noted analyst:

The M-16 rifle had been a brilliant technical success in its early models, but was perverted by bureaucratic pressures into a weapon that betrayed its users in Vietnam. . . . Between 1965 and 1969, more than one million American soldiers served in combat in Vietnam. . . . During those years, in which more than 40,000 American soldiers were killed by hostile fire and more than 250,000 wounded, American troops in Vietnam were equipped with a rifle their superiors knew would fail when put to the test. . . . The original version of the M-16 . . . was the most reliable, and the most lethal, infantry rifle ever invented. But within months of its introduction in combat, it was known among soldiers as a weapon that might jam and misfire, and could pose as great a danger to them as to their enemy. These problems, which loomed so large on the battlefield, were entirely the results of modifications made to the rifle's original design by the Army's own ordnance bureaucracy. The Army's modifications had very little to do with observation of warfare, but quite a lot to do with settling organizational scores.11

A respected nuclear strategist:

An officer who is considered brilliant but somehow lacking in service loyalty . . . may as well pack up his things and go elsewhere. He will not rise very far. It . . . follows that some officers will reach very high rank . . . who would not be called brilliant by anyone . . . the officer who is really objective about his own service as compared with the sister services is not going to rise to high enough estate to make that objectivity of much service to the nation. That means that if the Navy is currently committed to aircraft carriers as its "capital ships," the naval officer destined to get on will automatically believe in carrier aviation. . . . An article in an Army journal may well stress the need for more helicopters . . . but it is far less likely to question whether new antitank devices have not made the tank obsolete. That would not look at all good if a congressional appropriations committee got hold of it.12

I have not yet encountered a single dissenting opinion on this subject. This "servicitis" (a term coined by the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee13a) is simply taken for granted, just as the fatal laughing disease was taken for granted by 1930s New Guinea cannibals. In 1985, this chairman's ultraconservative Senate counterpart openly stated:

If we have to fight tomorrow, these problems will cause Americans to die unnecessarily. Even more, they may cause us to lose. . . . I am saddened that the services are unable to put the national interest above parochial interest.13a

As we have seen (Chapter 6), the Defense Intelligence Agency prefers its own short-term interests to the national interest. Similarly, the major veterans' organizations, who "subsist on dues from individual and corporate members and from defense contractors who advertise in their publications . . . support the legislative interests of the services with which they are affiliated by employing large professional staffs."9b

The role of the gigantic Department of Defense is too obvious to be elaborated here, so let us look at the more obscure case of the Department of Energy (DOE), which has been in charge of development and production of nuclear weapons. In 1982, the nuclear weapons program accounted for roughly half of DOE's total budget. Predictably, DOE's views "on how many nuclear weapons we need, on how much nuclear material we should have in the pipeline and in the stockpile for future weapons tend to equal if not exceed the estimates of the Department of Defense itself."9c

Organizational Self-Destructiveness

When left to themselves, organizations not only tend to pursue their short-term interests at society's expense, but they often do so at the expense of their own long-term welfare and survival. A few examples should suffice to demonstrate this suicidal proclivity.

The chemical industry is often a showcase for this self-destructive aspect of organizational logic. There are often advance warnings, as in the case of the chemical PBB,14 that a product might be dangerous, that it might eventually cost the company more money than it will bring in, and that it might even lead to bankruptcy. But such companies often ignore their own long-term welfare and vigorously defend their right to develop the chemical and maximize short-term profits. Appropriate disposal of chemicals in Love Canal would have cost $2 million (in 1979 dollars).15 By 1987, the federal and state governments were suing the parent company for more than the $250 million they had already spent for partial cleanup and relocation.16

Similarly, the first alarms about the Earth's ozone layer were sounded in 1974. Seventeen years later, recurring 50 percent seasonal depletions over Antarctica and a 5 percent year-long depletion over the mid-Northern Hemisphere have been reported. Though the causes of these depletions remain uncertain, the chief suspect is CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), a group of manmade chemicals. Moreover, these same CFCs also account for some 25 percent of the global warming trend (another major environmental peril). Notwithstanding the stakes (humankind's future), for the manufacturers and commercial users of CFCs the situation was clear enough. The observed depletions, they said, are "likely due to poorly understood natural causes."17 As usual, the U.S. government lined up behind them. In a 1990 international conference, for instance, the United States of America cast "doubt on prospects for a global accord to protect the ozone layer"18 (and to slow down the suspected trend of global warming) by declining to help developing countries cut the use of CFCs.

The 1970s whaling industry provides an even more tangible example of built-in suicidal tendencies. We need not concern ourselves here with questions of morality, aesthetics, justice, or ecological balance to see the whalers' folly in needlessly destroying forever the very resource upon which their industry is based.

Finally, consider the arms race. Now, in this case, if all the organizations which promoted this race kept winning, they and their decision makers, like everyone else, would have been wiped out in the most literal sense of the word: crushed, killed, evaporated, hurled, combusted, and irradiated. That they could pursue a policy which might have caused them such grave injuries borders on the incredible. However, the preceding examples strongly suggest that such a patently irrational course of action is eminently probable.

The challenge, then, is not only protecting the public from callous organizational and individual actions, but protecting the public interest, the long-term interests of these organizations, and the long-term interests of their members.19 It follows that the correct approach to organizational callousness is not to think of, or rail against, such organizations' policy makers as public enemies, but to view them as the victims of blind forces. Despite their affluence and power, these victims deserve our sympathy and all the help we can give them to set themselves, and us, free.

In helping them, we must keep in mind those rare historical episodes where organizations moved from excessive preoccupation with the immediate future to long-term planning. These episodes suggest that benign proclivities are already embedded in organizational structure. Thus, the challenge for the reformer is not fighting unmitigated evil, but shifting the balance between the already existing forces of callousness and public-spiritedness.

Institutional Decay

Improperly regulated organizations obey a peculiar logic. With time, they become progressively less efficient, flexible, and responsive. Organizational inefficiencies in the U.S. military, in the British Colonial Office (Chapter 6), and in virtually every other large established organization on earth, illustrate various stages in this process of decay. Those still reluctant to accept the strange conclusion that organizations are far less rational than most of their individual members-that, for instance, the number of employees in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency is unrelated to this organization's achievements or mission-might wish to recall Parkinson's tragicomic warning:

To the very young, to schoolteachers, as also to those who compile textbooks about constitutional history, politics, and current affairs, the world is a more or less rational place. They visualize the election of representatives, freely chosen from among those the people trust. They picture the process by which the wisest and best of these become ministers of State. They imagine how captains of industry, freely elected by shareholders, choose for managerial responsibility those who have proved their ability in a humbler role. Books exist in which assumptions such as these are boldly stated or tacitly implied. To those, on the other hand, with any experience of affairs, these assumptions are merely ludicrous. Solemn conclaves of the wise and good are mere figments of the teacher's mind.20

Institutional Rigidity

History tells us that the future is often unpredictable. President Truman, who began our involvement in Vietnam by aiding French colonial rule, could not foresee that this decision would lead the U.S. to fight a full-scale losing war. He could not foresee the massive demonstrations against this war in the U.S. nor the decline in morale and performance of our troops. The history of science and technology is similarly replete with anecdotes showing that crystal gazing can be dangerous to one's professional reputation. A Report on the Motor Car published in 1908 by a British Royal Commission concluded that the most serious future problem of this infant technology was going to be dust thrown up from dirt roads (not air pollution, traffic deaths, oligopolies, or resource depletion).21a A number of physicists of the very first rank believed, until they were proven wrong by the actual turn of events, that atomic bombs could not be made.

Given this disconcerting historical record, and given the information available at the time such predictions are made, the complexity of the situation, the fact that every action taken in such intricate settings has unintended consequences, and our limited understanding of people, institutions, and societies, it must be assumed that at times even the most rational and disinterested government will adopt faulty policies.

This inherent unpredictability suggests22 that good statesmen should view such policies as the deployment of 450,000 American troops in the Arabian Peninsula, support of the South Vietnamese dictatorship, development of missiles with multiple warheads, use of nuclear reactors to boil water, and generation of massive quantities of CFCs, in the same way that accomplished scientists view hypotheses. At her best, a scientist chooses the most promising hypothesis and proceeds to test it. She may be brilliant, charismatic, energetic, and hardworking, but if she cannot learn from her mistakes, if she cannot draw the correct lessons from chance occurrences and new realities, if she cannot modify or discard her hypotheses, she is unlikely to go far.

The similarity between politics and science at their best, coupled with science's enviable record, strongly suggests that we should treat national policies as scientific hypotheses and view their implementation as a series of experiments which are designed, in part, to refute them. Whenever possible, we should commit an entire nation, or an entire industry, to the new policy only after it proves successful on a small scale. We should give preference to flexible and inexpensive policies which can be readily abandoned. We should, of course, hope that the original policy was correct, and we should not be too quick to abandon it. At the same time, early detection of, and adjustments to, failing policies should be institutionalized. We should be more inclined to forgive politicians their missteps and less inclined to forgive their inability, or unwillingness, to learn from them.

These theoretical considerations explain in part the advantage astronomy and medicine enjoy over astrology and shamanism. In the political arena, they cast light on democracy's superiority over totalitarianism (Chapter 1). However, everyday observations of the political scene tell us that we have not gone far enough in implementing these ideas in our society and institutions22 (or in our daily lives-see below). The obvious tendency of our institutions for precisely the opposite-institutional rigidity-undoubtedly contributes to the collective irrationality of our policies.

Institutional Inertia

Two writers in a celebrated government report:

Over the years, government has tended to wait until crises occur and then has reacted to them-rather than study and analyze issues beforehand."23

A former Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency:

Since government action depends on public demand, the government does not begin to attack a problem until that problem has become severe. The government always has to catch up, to find solutions for problems that long before have grown out of control. Although our government may be responsive, it is so only by delayed reaction. The lag time between need and response is measured in years . . . we are posed with a frightening question: Shall we always be able to afford that delay? . . . Left alone, our government will not always look after the public interest. In the environmental area there is a natural, built-in imbalance. Private industry, driven by its own profit incentives to exploit and pollute our natural resources, uses its inherent advantages to exert political pressure to resist environmental requirements. The machinations of industry explain at least in part why the abuses of pollution became so severe before steps were taken to establish controls. It was not until conditions approached a point of horror that the public woke up to the need for reform. . . . The most important lesson from our environmental experience is that government will not act to face hard national problems until the people demand that it do so. The government normally fails to

see these problems coming, since nearly all top officials are preoccupied with the crises that have already arrived. But the real difficulty is that solutions . . . will require wrenching changes in government policies . . . . This means that the key decisions on government policy will be subject to political pressure. . . . But any restriction . . . will surely encounter stiff opposition. Vested interests will send their lobbyists into action . . . hard policy decisions are unlikely to be made until the problems are so acute that they are obvious to the average citizen.24

Though government inertia is widespread, its presence is particularly frightening in relation to nuclear politics. If here too "decisions are unlikely to be made until the problems are so acute that they are obvious to the average citizen," the correct decisions would not be made on time to avert holocaust. We could perhaps afford this delay with sticks and stones, but we cannot afford it with nuclear bombs.

Money and Politics

The intimate links between money and organizational callousness are well-known: "To get elected these days, what matters most is not sound judgment or personal integrity or a passion for justice. What matters most is money. Lots of money."25a This commonsense insight is backed up by a considerable amount of research. For instance, in one study money emerged "as the first and most essential element in political party activity and effectiveness in the 1980s."26a The bidding price of Congressional seats keeps rising. By 1986, campaign expenditures for incumbents were $.3 million in the house and $3.3 million in the Senate.13b Apart from "the exceptionally wealthy," says chief Washington correspondent of a major daily, "raising political money has become a throbbing headache that drains vital time and energy from the job of governing. This chore leaves many members part-time legislators and full-time fund-raisers."13c Naturally, organizations which benefit from the arms race enrich the campaign coffers of politicians who are sympathetic to the arms race, or who are willing to promote it in order to get elected and re-elected. One member of Congress quipped once that "business already owns one party and now it has a lease, with option to buy, on the other."27a Though there must be some incorruptible politicians around, this joke contains a kernel of truth. At the very least, a typical politician will consider favorably the views of arms manufacturers on whose support his career depends, knowing that civic courage would most likely go unnoticed by most of his constituents, that it would grate a small and articulate minority, and that it would lead his financial backers to abandon him and sustain his opponents.

Common sense suggests that political donations are worthwhile investments. Indeed, studies show a "disturbing correlation between . . . campaign contributions and how members of Congress . . . vote on bills important to special interest groups."25b Similarly, a review of the 1980 and 1982 congressional elections suggests that "campaign spending has a significant effect on the outcomes of congressional elections."26b

Take, for example, the late Henry Jackson, who for many years was "the most powerful man in the U.S. Senate in military affairs and matters of national security."28 On such matters, according to one observer, Jackson rarely lost a debate. Jackson's goals "fitted in well with those of the huge Boeing industries" which were headquartered in his home state of Washington, and this earned him the epithet "the Senator from Boeing." Now all this does not necessarily cast a shadow on Jackson's integrity; he might have genuinely believed in the convergence of Boeing's and the nation's interests. The question is rather: Why was a man as misinformed as Jackson elected and re-elected to the U.S. Senate? The money that Jackson received from organizations like Boeing provides a partial answer to this question.

The public is used by now to occasional outbursts on this issue, not only from reformers but from frustrated or about-to-be-retired members of the power elite. Two "old-line conservatives" who, by 1986, "have been senators a combined total of 68 years:" "It is not 'we the people' but political-action committees and moneyed interests who are setting the nation's political agenda and are influencing the position of candidates on the important issues of the day," said one senator. "We are gradually moving elections away from the people," said the other, "as certainly as night follows day."29

A syndicated columnist surveying the 1990 Washington scene:

This is a town of clinical depression, mainly because members of Congress have been reduced to beggars, spending all their time raising campaign money to scare away potential opponents. . . . The inmates have taken over, trapped in an asylum of their own making. . . . The overriding new truth of national politics is that both sides, both Democrats and Republicans, are getting their money from the same PACs [political action committees] and people-that is why there seems to be such new consensus in Washington debate.30

According to an official of the Federal Election Commission, money opens American elections to foreign influences. Federal election laws prohibit in theory direct foreign contributions, but not in practice. For instance, before the 1982 elections, "44 political action committees with ties to foreign corporations and investors contributed just over $1 million to 1,764 candidates for Congress."31

Though the following FBI undercover operation discloses an extreme case, it still highlights the norm. Agents posing as employees of wealthy foreigners requested interviews with congressmen and other public officials. During the interviews, the agents handed them cash in exchange for promises of special favors. Dozens of officials, six representatives, and one Senator were filmed accepting bribes. After exhausting all appeal channels, at least four legislators spent some time in federal prisons.

According to one account, "with predictable media focus on the easily understood issue of corruption, an even more chilling thesis of the . . . case went unnoticed: the fact that supposed agents of a foreign nation could so easily bribe some of the most powerful members of the United States Congress."32 There is at least one other disturbing aspect of this case, for it suggests that the practice of political bribery, albeit the tacit and legal variety, is almost universal.

The Defense Department and the Armed Services cannot give outright gifts or campaign contributions, but they control vast amounts of money. Naturally, some of this wealth, courtesy of the American people, has been used to advance causes which were inimical to the national interest. Until it was disbanded in 1965, the "famous 999th Air Force Reserve Squadron commanded by Major General (Senator) Barry M. Goldwater, USAF . . . permitted eighty-three congressmen and senators to spend short periods of active duty in such prime military observation posts as London and Paris. But the 999th was only a surface manifestation of a more deep-seated and persistent phenomenon."9a

A mainstream analyst commented on a recent scandal, a scandal which led to an open hearing in the U.S. Senate. In this hearing,

The slimy underbelly of American politics slithered into full view, [exposing] how U.S. senators grub for campaign funds from moneyed interests seeking to buy influence. . . . It was the best lesson the nation has yet had on the costs and the consequences of a campaign-finance system that has corroded government at the highest levels. Even if all five senators are cleared in the end, this trial-like procedure is likely to evoke a public verdict that the system itself is guilty of murder, with integrity the casualty. . . . [This scandal] is not different in kind from the defense industry interests that lavish money on members of the armed services committees, the union political action groups that funnel cash to the labor committee lawmaker, or the Wall Street interest that fuel the campaigns of incumbents who oversee securities-industry lawmaking. They are all threads in the dark tapestry that now smothers our political system, like a smelly blanket under which lawmakers lie in bed with those who would procure their favors for cash. There is a name for those who solicit such attention, and it is not "senator."33

My dictionary defines bribe as "a price, reward, gift or favor bestowed or promised with a view to pervert the judgment or corrupt the conduct especially of a person in a position of trust (as a public official)," and corruption as "impairment of integrity, virtue, or moral principle" or as "inducement (as of political official) by means of improper considerations (as bribery) to commit a violation of duty." We only have to add the premise that the duty of a politician is to look after the public interest to conclude that these definitions fittingly apply to American politics.

A former counsel for President Carter concurs with this seemingly harsh judgment: "It's one step away from bribery. PACs contribute because they count on you to vote with them."13d

Let me conclude this section with the sober reflections of two political scientists: [The] political finance system . . . undermines the ideals and hampers the performance of American democracy. . . . Officials . . . are . . . captives of the present system. Their integrity and judgment are menaced-and too often compromised-by the need to raise money and the means now available for doing it. . . . The pattern of giving distorts American elections: candidates win access to the electorate only if they can mobilize money from the upper classes, established interest groups, big givers, or ideological zealots. Other alternatives have difficulty getting heard. And the voters' choice is thereby limited. The pattern of giving also threatens the governmental process: the contributions of big givers and interest groups award them access to officeholders, so they can better plead their causes. . . . The private financing system . . . distort[s] both elections and decision making. The equality of citizens on election day is diluted by their inequality in campaign financing. The electorate shares its control of officials with the financial constituency.34

Revolving Doors

A subtler way of influencing government decisions depends on social contacts. For instance, promoters and politicians might hobnob at the same dives or parties. Needless to say, in such settings a promoter's virtually inexhaustible money supply is highly serviceable.

The cozy relations among the various organizations whose internal logic dictates promotion of the arms race are cemented by another strong tie: the continuous and massive flow of personnel among them. This applies, in particular, to senior-level officials who spend at least part of their time in Washington, D.C.27b For example, the 1987 U.S. Secretaries of Defense and State had been, prior to assuming government posts, vice-president and president of the corporation that was awarded a lucrative government contract for the development of the MX missile.35 To students of organizational logic, this arrangement appears strictly equivalent to the following: awarding a bid for guarding the communal coop to the most notorious pair of chicken-eating foxes.

Thus, many organizations which derived short-term benefits from the arms race were hard at work puffing it. They did this through public relations, propaganda, and mind-manipulation directed at their members and the public at large, and through cultivating special relations with government (relations which included campaign contributions, socializing, favors of all kinds, and a flow of personnel from government ranks to the private sector and vice versa). All this seems to justify the conclusion that the defense industry has been a "de facto participant in the policy-making process,"27c and that national defense policies have been determined by an "iron triangle" made up of the following entities:

I. The Department of Defense and other relevant government organizations, such as NASA and the nuclear weapons branch of the Department of Energy.

II. Congress, especially influential members from districts and states whose economy depends heavily on war-related economic activities.

III. War-related corporations, public and private research institutions, trade associations, media corporations, educational institutions, and labor unions.

It goes without saying that similar triangles (or polygons) slanted decisions in every part of the political arena. It is not only America's foreign and military policies which are "triangulated," but government decisions in every field and at every level; from Sacramento to Albany, from encroachment on California's redwoods to pollution of the Gulf Stream Waters.

Elections and Officials

I have already discussed the unwholesome influence of money. In a rational world, a candidate's campaign chest would have little bearing on his electibility. This chest's decisive influence strongly suggests that our electoral process is a caricature of rationality. Aldous Huxley put it well:

Human beings act in a great variety of irrational ways, but all of them seem to be capable, if given a fair chance, of making a reasonable choice in the light of available evidence. Democratic institutions can be made to work only if all concerned do their best to impart knowledge and to encourage rationality. But today, in the world's most powerful democracy, the politicians and their propagandists prefer to make nonsense of democratic procedures by appealing almost exclusively to the ignorance and irrationality of the electors. "Both parties," we were told in 1956 by the editor of a leading business journal, "will merchandize their candidates and issues by the same methods that business has developed to sell goods. These include scientific selection of appeals and planned repetition. . . . Radio spot announcements and ads will repeat phrases with a planned intensity. Billboards will push slogans of proven power. . . . Candidates need, in addition to rich voices and good diction, to be able to look 'sincerely' at the TV camera."

The political merchandisers appeal only to the weaknesses of voters, never to their potential strength. They make no attempt to educate the masses into becoming fit for self-government; they are content merely to manipulate and exploit them. For this purpose all the resources of psychology and the social sciences are mobilized and set to work. Carefully selected samples of the electorate are given "interviews in depth." These interviews in depth reveal the unconscious fears and wishes most prevalent in a given society at the time of an election. Phrases and images aimed at allaying or, if necessary, enhancing these fears, at satisfying these wishes, at least symbolically, are then chosen by the experts, tried out on readers and audiences, changed or improved in the light of the information thus obtained. After which the political campaign is ready for the mass communicators. All that is now needed is money and a candidate who can be coached to look "sincere." Under the new dispensation, political principles and plans for specific action have come to lose most of their importance. The personality of the candidate and the way he is projected by the advertising experts are the things that really matter.

In one way or another, as vigorous he-man or kindly father, the candidate must be glamorous. He must also be an entertainer who never bores his audience. Inured to television and radio, that audience is accustomed to being distracted and does not like to be asked to concentrate or make a prolonged intellectual effort. All speeches by the entertainer-candidate must therefore be short and snappy. The great issues of the day must be dealt with in five minutes at the most-and preferably (since the audience will be eager to pass on to something a little livelier than inflation or the H-bomb) in sixty seconds flat. The nature of oratory is such that there has always been a tendency among politicians and clergymen to over-simplify complex issues. From a pulpit or a platform even the most conscientious of speakers finds it very difficult to tell the whole truth. The methods now being used to merchandise the political candidate as though he were a deodorant positively guarantee the electorate against ever hearing the truth about anything.36a

Aldous Huxley's indictment, which appeared in a 1958 book chiefly concerned with the preservation of freedom, still stands. The "peculiar rules of engagement" in the 1988 presidential campaigns, according to Newsweek, included:

Boil the "message of the day" down to snappy one-line "sound bites" that look good on the news and are reinforced by color visuals; avoid saying something that may drown out the rehearsed message; when forced to play defense, either change the subject or use one-liners to turn your opponent's words back on himself-political jujitsu."37

A skeptical attitude towards elected officials is embedded in American folklore. "I'd rather meet [Satan] and shake him by the tail," said Mark Twain, "than any other statesman on the planet." "All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls" said John Steinbeck.38 Or take this parody:

I've got a letter, parson, from my son away out West,

An' my ol' heart's as heavy as an anvil in my breast,

To think the boy whose futur' I had once so proudly planned

Should wander from the path o' right an' come to such an end!

 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

He writes from out in Denver, an' the story's mighty short;

I just can't tell his mother; it'd crush her poor ol' heart!

An' so I reckoned, parson, you might break the news to her-

Bill's in the Legislatur', but he doesn't say what fur.39

To be sure, these literary pieces simplify reality, overlook exceptions, and come uncomfortably close to stereotypic thinking. Still, it is probably fair to say that the average politician is less adept than his fellow citizens at resisting the temptations of power.

We have seen a similar situation in the Armed Forces, where, according to a mainstream American analyst, "an officer who is really objective about his own service as compared with the sister services is not going to rise to high enough estate to make that objectivity of much service to the nation."12 Similar generalizations hold for many wielders of power in our society. Organizational recruitment and promotion hinge on loyalty to the organization, not to higher values. More often than not, those who make it through the ranks are the subservient, compromising team players; the intriguing backstabbers; the workaholics consumed by the love of money and power; the compartmentalized thinkers. They are the survivors of an evolutionary process-against critical thinking, intellectual integrity, fair play, and principled individualism. It is these pathetic survivors who carry the burden of organizational callousness and self-destructiveness on their shoulders.

Nor can we draw much solace from the professional backgrounds of our "successful" men. In the nature of the case, the judicial branch of government is comprised of lawyers. But in the 1980s, roughly 42 percent of Congress, compared to only some 0.5 percent of the American labor force, have been similarly trained.40 In addition, 33 percent of Congress identified themselves as businessmen or bankers. Similar statistics probably apply to senior officials in the Executive Branch.



In his famous funeral oration, Pericles reportedly told his fellow Athenians that "although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it."41 Pericles' views have been satirized and laughed at ever since, and not without good reasons. Indeed, the working-and remarkably successful-philosophy of sophists, tyrants, and demagogues in both the ancient and modern worlds was more nearly based on the opposite premise-that while just about any George, Dick, and Harry can originate national policies, only few politicians and voters can adequately judge them. Free elections do not by themselves vouchsafe rationality:

Democracy, taken in its narrower, purely political, sense, suffers from the fact that those in economic and political power possess the means for molding public opinion to serve their own class interests. The democratic form of government in itself does not automatically solve problems; it offers, however, a useful framework for their solution. Everything depends ultimately on the political and moral qualities of the citizenry."42

Among other things, these qualities-citizens' ability to decide which policies are consistent with their interests and convictions- depend on a few characteristics of the issues and on the way organizations control the thoughts and actions of their members and of the public at large.

Most critical issues of our age require much study and reflection to be properly evaluated. Recall, for example, the many arguments raised for the arms race and against peaceful coexistence (Chapter 7). The unequivocal picture which emerges from a disinterested review of these arguments is that the case for peaceful coexistence, provided the Russians and Chinese were willing to go along, was unquestionably better. But the point I wish to stress here is the almost hopeless complexity of this issue and the impossibility of adequately dealing with it in public speeches and in the contemporary news media. Even on such comparatively straightforward cases as slavery, contaminated milk, and child exploitation, anti-humanitarians managed to dazzle a large portion of the public. Is it any wonder that they have been more successful on far more technical, complex, and seemingly two-sided issues such as disarmament, foreign policy, or environmental pollution?

Moreover, every voter, politician, and organization man must judge numerous complex issues, not just one. Experts who spend lifetimes studying any of these issues are engaged in endless "controversies." How then can a voter or organization man who must work, sleep, and, if we are to believe current surveys, watch television an average of six hours or more every day of his life, decide which policies would best serve his interests and convictions?

An individual's predicament is further complicated by the absence of clear alternatives. To be sure, we are given a choice, but usually only among staunch defenders of the status quo. "Do you suppose," Khrushchev once asked the tycoon Averell Harriman, "we consider it a free election when the voters of New York State have a choice only between a Harriman and a Rockefeller?"43 Is it a meaningful election, do you suppose, when, in 1984, the voters of the United States had a choice between a man who would, if elected President, increase military expenditures by 13 percent, and a man who would "only" increase it by 3 percent? Or when, in 1988, they had a choice between men who said precious little, and who were probably insufficiently familiar with, such burning challenges as hazardous wastes, energy conservation, thousands of preventable infant deaths, or hundreds of thousands of avoidable teenage pregnancies?

The complexity of issues and absence of meaningful choice are further exacerbated by the close ties between organizations and their members. Take, for example, the membership of war-related entities. In 1990 (before mobilization for the Persian Gulf started), their ranks included over two million Americans in uniform, one million civilians employed by the Defense Department, and millions employed in military industries. The ranks of these millions were, in turn, swelled up by relatives and friends who wished them well or depended on them for financial support. Obviously, not all these good people were hardliners. But being human, and knowing that the arms race served their short-term interests, it is only to be expected that they would be favorably disposed towards any argument in its favor.

Additional factors serve to secure members' compliance with organizational goals and policies. Some principled individuals never try to join faceless institutions. Of those who try, only potential team players who are either misinformed or uninformed about the social implications of the organization's activities are likely to be hired. Once people join, their job security, promotion, and social standing hinge on their ability to conform or identify their organization's interest with the public's.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free," Thomas Jefferson said, "it expects what never was and never will be . . . the people cannot be safe without information."36b Citizens can judge a policy, provided they know what it is; they can judge a politician, provided they know what he or she stands for. In the remainder of this section I shall trace humankind's peril to one of its roots-the unreliability of the majority's chief sources of information.


Corporate Media

This book's reconstruction of the Cold War bears little resemblance to orthodox historical writings. This divergence places me in an uncomfortable position. Both this book and conventional sources of information presume to describe and interpret the same events. Hence, either I am hallucinating or the majority's main sources of information are scandalously inadequate. Before checking into the nearest asylum, I decided to examine the situation in non-military fields. To my relief, I found out that iconoclastic disarmament historians are not alone; the views of some independent specialists in just about any political domain are strikingly at odds with traditional views. Some information specialists (those studying our sources of information directly) note similar discrepancies in surveys of mass media and education as a whole. If these dissenters are right, then the first steps towards political literacy involve overthrow of long-held beliefs, not merely their amplification and refinement; uncovering misrepresentation and humbug, not merely pointing to shallowness and insufficiency. There is no royal road to political literacy and no substitute for open-mindedness. Here I can only try to bolster my case by presenting conclusions reached in two fields-foreign affairs and tobacco-related deaths.

The corporate media's coverage of the Iranian revolution:

By and large the American news media . . . have characterized the [1979] Iranian conflict as the work of turbaned religious zealots in league with opportunistic Marxists, rather than-as they might have-the reaction of people outraged by a repressive regime. By doing so the press has helped to misinform American public opinion and narrow the range of debate.44

A vehement anti-communist commenting on American involvement in Vietnam:

By 1957 the politicians and the press of the United States considered Ngo Dinh Diem the Miracle Man of Vietnam . . . America was being deluged with propaganda praising Ngo Dinh Diem- when in reality he was reigning as a tyrant and sowing the seeds for a National Liberation Front victory, driving South Vietnam into civil war and defeat.45

Media suppression of evidence that tobacco kills:

On February 24, 1936, Dr. Pearl delivered a paper to the New York Academy of Medicine. His paper concluded that tobacco shortens the life of all users, a piece of genuinely spectacular news affecting millions of readers and listeners. The session was covered by the press, but they either remained silent about the news or buried it. . . . In 1954, the American Cancer Society released results of a study of 187,000 men. Cigarette smokers had a death rate from all diseases 75 percent higher than nonsmokers. . . . It was increasingly clear that tobacco-linked disease is the biggest single killer in the United States, accounting for more than 300,000 deaths a year, the cause of one in every seven deaths in the country, killing six times more people annually than automobile accidents. But though the statistics are conclusive to medical authorities, [by 1986 they were still] treated as controversial or non-existent by the news media. . . . The print and broadcast media might make page 1 drama of a junior researcher's paper about a rare disease. But if it involved the 300,000 annual deaths from tobacco-related disease, the media either do not report it or they report it as a controversial item subject to rebuttal by the tobacco industry. . . . Newsweek, for example, had a cover story January 26, 1978, entitled "What Causes Cancer?" The article was six pages long. On the third page it whispered about the leading cause-in a phrase it said that tobacco is the least disputed "carcinogen of all." The article said no more about the statistics or the medical findings of the tobacco-cancer link, except in a table, which listed the ten most suspected carcinogens-alphabetically, putting tobacco in next-to-last place. A week later, Time . . . ran a two-column article on the causes of cancer. The only reference it made to tobacco was that "smoking and drinking alcohol have been linked to cancer."

If there was ever any question that . . . in the media . . . advertising influences news and other information given to the public, tobacco makes it unmistakably clear. The tobacco industry since 1954 has spent more than $9 billion on advertising, most of it in newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and television have effectively censored news and entertainment to obscure the link between tobacco and death. During that period more than eight million Americans have died from tobacco-linked disease.46a

For the most part, then, the American mass media are doing a poor job of informing people about policies and policy makers and of educating them about the issues. To be sure, the flaw is not outright lies, but the quality of presentation, the range of opinions, extensive coverage of one side in a controversy-business, government, the comfortable establishment-and little coverage of all others. The media define political reality and proceed to present

the range of permissible opinions. Given the slow evolution of our political world view, the implications are disheartening:

Our picture of reality does not burst upon us in one splendid revelation. It accumulates day by day and year by year in mostly unspectacular fragments from the world scene, produced mainly by the mass media. Our view of the real world is dynamic, cumulative, and self-correcting as long as there is a pattern of evenhandedness in deciding which fragments are important. But when one important category of the fragments is filtered out, or included only vaguely, our view of the social-political world is deficient.46b

In more general terms, the media foster the self-serving illusion that history unfolds on an hourly, daily, or weekly basis. The sensationalism, trivia, and flashy headlines deflect us from the path of unprofitable questions like "why" or "what for." With history's slow and indecipherable ways under cover, consumers are unlikely to break their comforting addiction to intellectual mud baths.

Another deficiency is irrelevance, as Aldous Huxley explains:

In regard to propaganda the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or it might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalistic democracies-the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions. . . .

Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it.

In their propaganda today's dictators rely for the most part on repetition, suppression and rationalization-the repetition of catchwords which they wish to be accepted as true, the suppression of facts which they wish to be ignored, the arousal and rationalization of passions which may be used in the interests of the Party or the State. As the art and science of manipulation come to be better understood, the dictators of the future will doubtless learn to combine these techniques with the non-stop distractions which, in the West, are now threatening to drown in a sea of irrelevance the rational propaganda essential to the maintenance of individual liberty and the survival of democratic institutions.36c

In part, the print and broadcast media's failings can be traced to organizational callousness. Their chief goal-making money-is not necessarily served by disinterested reporting. Moreover, the controls that full commercial competition would have provided are often absent. By the mid-1980s, despite 25,000 media outlets in the United States, 29 corporations controlled "most of the business in daily newspapers, magazines, television, books, and motion pictures."46c The non-cabled television industry suffered from an advanced and obvious case of oligopolism. The great majority of daily newspapers were regional monopolies. Of some 1,700 daily newspapers in the U.S., 98 percent were local monopolies with most of their combined circulation controlled by fewer than 15 corporations. In fact, by 1985, according to the American Newspaper Publishers Association, only 32 cities had separately owned and operated dailies. Similarly, fewer than 12 corporations controlled most American book publishing.1

Senior officials of media corporations and other members of the power elite move in overlapping social circles, enjoy similar lifestyles and incomes, share similar professional backgrounds, interests, and world views, and often move from one type of organization to another (the infamous revolving door). Moreover, media corporations depend on government and business for news scraps and advertising, and literally cannot afford to be their watchdog. Given these conditions, it would take exceptional circumstances such as the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, growing signs of global environmental decline in the early 1990s, or a clash with their own short-term organizational objectives, for the media to begin doing their job.

As in the case of all other organizations, conformity in media corporations is assured through a meticulous process of hiring, promotion, and firing. The crowning achievement of this process is not reporters who daily compromise their principles, but sadly misinformed reporters who mistakenly see themselves as purveyors of truth and justice.

Thus, it is only a meager residue of non-conformity, vision, and originality that must run the gauntlet of censorship (self-righteously described by its Western practitioners as an "editorial process")-a time-honored bit which not only reins in junior journalists, broadcasters, book writers, and artists, but their senior colleagues as well. It goes without saying that the situation has gone from bad to worse since Mark Twain wrote the following words:

The editor of a newspaper cannot be independent, but must work with one hand tied behind him by party and patrons, and be content to utter only half or two-thirds of his mind . . . writers of all kinds are manacled servants of the public. We write frankly and fearlessly, but then we "modify" before we print.47

It takes much more than an occasional airing of the truth to break away from the resultant climate of opinion, for we have by now grown accustomed to a daily diet of irrelevancies and half-truths. By switching channels, subscribing to a different tabloid, and shunning people who are openly critical of conventional beliefs, we too unknowingly discourage efforts to drag us out of the cave of political illiteracy.48


In some ways, the U.S. Government is doing a remarkable job of informing the people. Assessments of the military balance, for example, have so far depended on official U.S. sources, not on Russian, Chinese, or South African sources. However, the institutional constraints which compel our government to disseminate information are not strong enough to curtail its mind manipulation activities. Among other things, it tries to shape our conceptions of reality through public relations campaigns, censorship, timely news releases, official leaks, mock-up incidents like the Tonkin Gulf episode, or spineless presidential commissions. We have seen earlier a few examples of our government's attitude towards the truth, so here we need only recount a few additional aspects.

The Defense Department and other organizational promoters of the arms race employ various tactics to shape public opinion. The ongoing and massive Defense Department's public relations campaigns, which have been planned and executed much better than our recent wars and military missions, had been detailed long ago (1970) in Senator Fulbright's The Pentagon Propaganda Machine. One quotation will suffice:

Of considerable importance to the Defense Department in selling the military point of view is the stream of American citizens who pass through terms of military service. We have become a nation of veterans-now [1970] more than 28 million. This means that more than one-fifth of our adult population has been subjected to some degree of indoctrination in military values and attitudes. And all have been, whether they liked it or not, that dream of the public relations man-a captive audience.49a

Thus, even before organizational promoters of the arms race turn their attention to the public at large, they enjoy the support of a "large and sympathetic audience."49b

As another time-honored public relations tactic, consider Royal and Presidential commissions. All the experts selected to serve on such commissions have the needed credentials and reputations. They may all, in their final report, tell the public the truth-as they see it. However, seasoned observers can readily prognosticate, with only a small margin of error, the commission's recommendations, because only proven conformists, careerists, or upholders of the status quo-and hardly ever those likely to question fundamental assumptions-are asked to serve.

Finally, reflections of a former Secretary of Defense:

U.S. national security officials (myself included) have faced a dilemma about how to speak of . . . [the military balance]. When the balance has been moving adversely, it is important to redress it. That makes it necessary to express some concern in official statements. Yet if the concern is mistranslated as a judgment about the present balance . . . it could lead to unwarranted conclusions about the weakness of U.S. capabilities and thus damage the U.S. political position.50

Whatever else one might think of this revealing passage, it makes one thing perfectly clear: this self-proclaimed democrat takes it for granted that his task is not to tell the public the truth, but to protect the national interest (as he sees it) by shaping public opinion.

Years after the event, the truth might come out, as it did, for example, with the 1979 publication of a book on a CIA-sponsored coup which took place in Iran a quarter of a century earlier. Similarly, by May 1990 Americans learned that in 1962 their country betrayed the anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela. Though this belated emergence of the truth is of great value to scholars, it is of limited value to the public. After all, the public in a functional democracy must judge contemporary issues, not history.


Experts are hired, promoted, and fired, in part, on the basis of conformity to organizational discipline and goals. The consequences are predictable:

The traditional view of expert opinion is . . . radically mistaken. An expert is traditionally seen as neutral, disinterested, unbiased. . . . On the view proposed here . . . an expert is best seen as a committed advocate. . . . It is notorious that the opinion of an expert . . . can often be predicted from knowledge of which group has his affiliation.21b

A 19th century philosopher:

Party interests are vehemently agitating the pens of so many pure lovers of wisdom. . . . Truth is certainly the last thing they have in mind. . . . Philosophy is misused, from the side of the state as a tool, from the other side as a means of gain. . . . Who can really believe that truth also will thereby come to light, just as a by-product? . . . Governments make of philosophy a means of serving their state interests, and scholars make of it a trade.22a

President Eisenhower:

In . . . the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas . . . a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. . . . The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and

the power of money is ever present-and is gravely to be regarded.52

Military experts deserve a special mention in this book. According to one irate historian:

President Kennedy was carried to power by an alarmed electorate who had been informed (by him) of a "missile gap" in the Soviet Union's favour-a gap which was wholly fictional. President Reagan has . . . been swept to power upon a similar tide. . . . An academic discipline which has failed to challenge, frontally, these major exercises in public deception-which has covered up for them, or even provided the trumpeters and drummers for the whole mendacious exercise-a discipline which has left it to a handful of honourable dissenters, outsiders, and amateurs to contest, with small resources, the well-funded lies of State- such a discipline must stand self-condemned.51

Another observer puts it this way:

The defense intellectuals are clever. They have been employed under defense contracts and in government not to find ways of preventing war but of preserving it. Those who speak of limited nuclear war can easily envision an area of common interests which might enable the U.S. and Soviet nuclear giants to achieve an agreement to terminate hostilities short of total destruction, even after a nuclear exchange has begun. It is strange, then, that they can dismiss as unrealistic the idea that similar common interests could lead to an agreement to end all war and all war preparations.53

A retired American arms manufacturer, explaining his objection to the early 1980s' proposal of mobile MX missiles:

Can the Soviets steal the schedule and reprogram their guidance systems . . . to negate the whole idea? It is not very likely, but in the weird world of nuclear strategy, anything that is at all possible has to be considered. I have been around nuclear strategists for many years and I know how they think. I am certain that if the MX missiles are deployed in a mobile configuration, someone will write a paper suggesting that the Soviets could break the scheduling code. Someone else would write a paper suggesting that since we don't know whether the Soviets could break the code or not, we should, for maximum security, assume that they could. This would open a new window of vulnerability, and off we would go to a new level of escalation.54

Here is a typical episode:

When Lawrence Korb moved into private industry after five years as an assistant secretary of Defense, and then, in 1986, as a private citizen, endorsed a group statement opposing further Pentagon budget increases, two of [John] Lehman's [Reagan's Secretary of the Navy] close lieutenants protested to Korb's new employers, the Raytheon Company. Those pressure calls [which jeopardized Raytheon's ability to get contracts] cost Korb his high-salaried job as Raytheon's vice president for corporate operations. . . . "I think [Korb said] people who use methods like that should not be entrusted with public positions . . . I was outraged, because my feeling was that people ought to be free to express their opinions. I couldn't imagine a great company like Raytheon caving in to that kind of pressure.13e

By 1990, our war intellectuals were getting desperate. A formal study by the RAND Corporation-a paragon of establishment respectability-was fretting about an alleged Soviet plot for starting World War III. A columnist in the mainstream press commented:

What is it that provokes this insane flight of fancy in otherwise normal men? It is the prospect of peace, and with it the impending reduction of the $300-billion U.S. defense budget. Included in that sum is an estimated $2 billion a year paid to defense consultants . . . who concoct the scenarios to justify new weapons . . . For so many years they have lived off these kinds of articles and speculation, and now they are going to lose their bread and butter.55

All this runs counter to textbook lore, in which scholars are often portrayed as bowing to nothing but the truth. To be sure, some experts still live up to this ideal, but these courageous individuals operate outside, or on the fringes, of the political system. Most scholars yield to the practical needs of professional survival in an imperfect world. Take, for instance, the case of a respected cardiologist who was contracted by a certain pharmaceutical outfit to test the safety of a new drug. Despite his comparative affluence and professional independence, despite the potential risks to thousands of heart patients, he doctored the experimental data to conform to the outfit's commercial interests. At the time, 50 other researchers were similarly disqualified by the Food and Drug Administration, suggesting that, even in this limited area of drug testing, cold-blooded fraud is more prevalent than one would like to think.56

Admittedly, this is the fringe. Most pundits are too decent or prudent to engage in outright lucrative fraud, and they are rarely asked to do so. They are only expected to defend the highly improbable, but not inconceivable, views which happen to suit organizational interests. When they don't, they suffer much and accomplish little. When they do, they retain their jobs and promotional opportunities, receive the approbation of their colleagues, supervisors, and society at large, and do not even lose caste in the academic community. In short, they have nothing to gain and much to lose from rocking the boat. Under such conditions, the record shows, indistinct shades of morality are usually put aside.


Throughout the Cold War, the typical, virtually standardized, educational curriculum presented a grossly inaccurate picture of American society, history, and politics. Besides these institutionalized distortions of the past and present, the curriculum gave short shrift to subjects essential to comprehending contemporary politics, e.g., logic, the scientific method, radical ecology, or Russian literature. It made little effort to foster individualism, a love for justice, compassion for the underdog, critical thinking, and open-mindedness. It showed little interest in the quality of interaction among students. It highlighted trivia and bypassed critical issues. For instance, it seems more important for our children to know that millions of Americans live in abject poverty and helplessness and be aware of the arguments that could be raised for and against this state of things, than to know the name of the 34th American President or the correct spelling of "quibble."

Our educational system aims at meaningless test scores, conformity, and information storage. It attempts to shape students' behavior and beliefs, not to give them the tools they need to form their own opinions. A 1982 proclamation of the Texas State Board of Education reveals the usually unstated goals of America's prevailing educational theories and practices: "Textbook content shall promote citizenship and the understanding of the free-enterprise system, emphasize patriotism and respect for recognized authority . . . Textbook content shall not encourage life-styles deviating from generally accepted standards of society."57

To give democracy a chance, students must know something more than comforting fairy tales about their country's history and politics. They must understand how their government is supposed to work, and how it really works. They must be acutely aware of their country's strengths and failings. They must be familiar with the characters and philosophies of key historical figures, not with contrived caricatures. They must not be shielded from the truth- any truth-regardless of how uncomfortable this truth might be. They must be able to spurn the financial and emotional rewards of conformity and obedience to authority. At least under extreme circumstances, they must be willing to place the public good above their narrow self-interest. A truly democratic educational system, in other words, would try to combine individualism and compassion, rationality and public-spiritedness. It would never compromise the truth. It would replace hymns to successful knaves and make-believe heroes with dispassionate efforts to recapture the past and present, complete with their fools, scoundrels, and idealists.

For the sake of analysis, I have treated each of the foregoing information sources independently of the others. In the real world, they all form a single web:

Indoctrination is to democracy what coercion is to dictatorship . . . In a totalitarian society, the mechanisms of indoctrination are . . . transparent. . . . Under capitalist democracy, the situation is considerably more complex. The press and the intellectuals are held to be fiercely independent, hypercritical, antagonistic to the "establishment," in an adversary relation to the state. . . . True, there is criticism, but a careful look will show that it remains within narrow bounds. The basic principles of the state propaganda system are assumed by the critics. . . . An independent mind must seek to separate itself from official doctrine, and from the criticism advanced by its alleged opponents; not just from the assertions of the propaganda system, but from its tacit presuppositions as well, as expressed by critic and defender. This is a far more difficult task. Any expert in indoctrination will confirm, no doubt, that it is far more effective to constrain all possible thought within a framework of tacit assumption than to try to impose a particular explicit belief with a bludgeon. It may be that some of the spectacular achievements of the American propaganda system, where all of this has been elevated to a high art, are attributable to the method of feigned dissent practiced by the responsible intelligentsia.58


Human Characteristics

Individual Callousness

Since 1953, Russian leaders were intermittently pursuing peaceful coexistence. From 1985 through 1991, especially, and at a great personal risk to themselves, they were preaching and practicing the philosophy of global interdependence. At the same time, and at a great risk to humanity, American leaders were deftly playing the time-honored game of Machiavellian politics. Armed with the belief that the enemy was nuclear war, environmental decline, poverty, and economic chaos, Russia was making unprecedented concessions in an effort to convince American voters and politicians that it was sincere and reasonable. The United States expressed delight with these developments, but utterly failed to extend a helping hand to Russian humanitarians or make a single meaningful concession of its own.

A similar situation prevails in most nations-between those who practice civil disobedience and those who run them over; between principled political aspirants who speak about the issues and the opportunists who obfuscate the issues-between the Gandhis and Churchills, the Berrigans and Reagans, the McGoverns and Nixons.

Callousness played a key role in history's stage long before the Persian Wars of the ancients and will surely continue to do so long after our own Persian War. Take, for instance, the city-state of Athens. Following the conclusion of the Persian Wars, the still present Persian threat prompted some Greek states to enter into a voluntary alliance with Athens. Shortly thereafter, the Athenian confederacy was turned into a benign but much resented empire. Secessions were suppressed by force, strategic decisions were made in Athens alone, and money collected from member states for the common cause was used for strictly Athenian purposes. A historian of this period, writing in 1900, attempts to explain this failure of Athenian democracy (a failure which contributed to Athens' downfall):

Most Athenian citizens were naturally allured by a policy of expansion which made their city great and powerful without exacting heavy sacrifices from themselves. . . . The empire furthered the extension of their trade, and increased their prosperity. The average Athenian . . . was not hindered by his own full measure of freedom from being willing to press, with as little scruple as any tyrant, the yoke of his city upon the necks of other communities."59

Or take 1914 Europe. The prospects of World War I, Bertrand Russell says,

filled me with horror, but what filled me with even more horror was the fact that the anticipation of carnage was delightful to something like ninety percent of the population. I had to revise my views of human nature.60

One laboratory study61 examined the practical effectiveness of humanitarian strategies. In this artificial setting, American college students can make money by delivering messages through a computer. They are led to believe that monetary gain depends on the cooperation of a similarly placed fellow "student" (in reality, a computer program). However, if neither side cooperates with the other, a mutually paralyzing deadlock results and both suffer monetary losses. The other "student" employs a pacifist strategy. He always concedes the first round to the subject. He does so even though this concession puts him at a serious disadvantage-if the subject wins the first round the subject can, by administering painful shocks to the pacifist, win all other rounds. In subsequent rounds, the pacifist insists on fair play, thereby forcing the subject to either concede equality or use painful shocks to retain an unfair advantage and make a few shekels. When the pacifist is shocked as a result of his principled stand, he steadfastly eschews retaliation (he can shock the subject too). So we have here a situation in which a cooperative person always concedes an advantage in order to demonstrate his good will and avoid a mutually detrimental deadlock. He then presses for equality. If he fails to attain equality, he receives painful electric shocks. Although he can retaliate, he never does. In this setup, all subjects believe themselves to be under pressure from two teammates (in reality, a computer program) urging a callous strategy.62 Also, all subjects are led to believe that the pacifist is a Quaker who is morally committed to nonviolence.

In the first four rounds, 87 percent of the subjects behaved callously. In later rounds, and especially after direct appeals from the pacifist, this fraction declines to 59 percent. That is, under social and monetary pressures, close to two-thirds consistently dominate and hurt a cooperative and nonviolent person.

The results for these . . . experimental manipulations suggest that when the pacifist fails it is not primarily because he fails to project a clear image of his intentions. Naively we had assumed that the various manipulations would only serve to strengthen the pacifist's case-the personal profile information, the availability of communication, the opportunity to forgo harmful actions-all of these would ostensibly contribute to the effectiveness of the pacifist's bargaining strategy. Behind this lay the assumption that the pacifist would more than likely benefit from anything that served to bring his character, his claims, and his commitments into sharper focus. Our results suggest that this assumption needs to be questioned or at least seriously qualified. While the pacifist appeal can persuade some adversaries away from their initial positions, and it does influence a small proportion to do so, particularly under the condition of personal communications, it also fails to influence many [subjects] who plan to dominate. But beyond these obvious alternatives it may have another effect; it may encourage exploitation among [subjects] who otherwise do not entertain such plans prior to interacting with the pacifist. . . . Reassured by their knowledge of the pacifist that they could dominate with impunity, they did not soften their demands but planned for continued exploitation. The pacifist's tactics apparently invite exploitation and aggression even among those who do not begin with such intentions.61


"There is no nonsense so arrant," says Bertrand Russell, "that it cannot be made the creed of the vast majority by adequate governmental action."63 The evidence for our susceptibility to suggestion, propaganda, and indoctrination comes from various sources.

It is a matter of common experience. Most Russians used to believe in the curious brand of Marxism they imbibed from their social environment. Hitler came to power, in part, by appealing to his listeners' emotions. Closer to home, propaganda is a key element in our elections, government pronouncements, news broadcasting, various cults, and education. Similarly, "our" religion is almost always a function of just one variable: the indoctrination we received in early childhood. A character in a Steinbeck's novel puts it thus: "Let's say that when I was a little baby, and all my bones soft and malleable, I was put in a small Episcopal cruciform box and so took my shape. Then, when I broke out of the box, the way a baby chick escapes an egg, is it strange that I had the shape of a cross? Have you ever noticed that chickens are roughly eggshaped?"64

Experimental evidence similarly confirms our susceptibility to manipulation, suggestion, propaganda, and indoctrination. Our behavior can, for instance, be influenced by subliminal perceptions. For example, messages played too fast on a tape recorder to be assimilated on the conscious level can reportedly reduce the incidence of shoplifting.

Some genuinely ill individuals can be cured, and some healthy individuals made ill, through the power of suggestion. In Australia's Northern Territory, I have been told, a spell cast by a reputed medicine man is potent enough to ail, wither away, or even kill tradition-bound Natives.

Hypnosis seems to give one person impressive powers over another. Yet, about 15 percent of the adult population can become deeply hypnotized.65 An even more striking example is provided by post-hypnotic suggestion. In one demonstration to which I was a witness, the subject was instructed to open the nearest window as soon as the hypnotist lights a cigarette. Following his release from the hypnotic state, the subject took an active part in the ordinary conversation which followed. When the hypnotist lit a cigarette, the man was visibly distressed. He apparently wished to open the window, but this wish placed him in an awkward position. It was too cold outside to open a window and just then he was engaged in a conversation which could not be politely interrupted. Yet, he excused himself and opened the window.

Conceptual Conservatism

As we have seen, our susceptibility to indoctrination is exploited by the power elite. As much as we hate to do so, we must concur with Aldous Huxley's views:

It is perfectly possible for a man to be out of prison and yet not free-to be under no physical constraint and yet to be a psychological captive, compelled to think, feel and act as the representatives of the national State, or of some private interest within the nation, want him to think, feel, and act. . . . The victim of mind-manipulation does not know that he is a victim. To him, the walls of his prison are invisible, and he believes himself to be free.36d

As far as politics is concerned, and regardless of educational background, class, or party, most of us are sadly misinformed. We often have strong feelings about politics. We are convinced that we understand what is going on, that our political actions are in line with our convictions and interests. But in all this we are often mistaken. To perceive political realities, we must do much more than acquire new information. We must, rather, open-mindedly weigh the evidence and, if need be, discard old beliefs and adopt new ones. In the world as it is constituted now, political liberation presupposes a series of conceptual shifts. As we shall see, both psychology and history show that human beings are not very good at letting go of strongly held but unreasonable beliefs.

Let us examine failed prophecies first. As a rule, a prophet takes care to make his prophecies vague enough, or to project them far enough into the future, so that they cannot be proven wrong in the prophet's lifetime. Sometimes, however, prophets throw professional caution to the wind and make testable predictions. And here is an interesting question: What happens when prophecy fails? A group of psychologists66 observed members of a small occult sect who were convinced that the world was soon coming to an end. After that fateful day came and went, most believers still clung to their faith. As in the case of Mohammed's followers, these occultists managed to rationalize the knockout blow to their creed. All this suggests that one common response to a disconfirmation of belief is not its abandonment, but "increased fervor among the true believers."66

These historical and psychological observations cast perhaps some light on the hardliners' conduct. For instance, the conversion of the Acheson-Lilienthal Report into the Baruch Plan was based in part on the expectation that our atomic monopoly would last 20 years. In September 1949 this prediction was laid to rest by the first Soviet atomic test. Surely, now that prophecy failed, was the time to talk to the Soviets? Not for the true believers; five months later, the U.S. chose to develop the H-bomb without trying to negotiate with the Soviets. And sure enough, by 1955 (at the latest)67 both sides conducted their first successful H-bomb test. The repeated disconfirmation of the hardliners' beliefs and policies in the one-third of a century which followed did not lead to their abandonment, but to "increased fervor among the true believers."

Even Gorbachev's quiet revolution failed to meet their exacting standards:

Just what might it take to get such "hard line conservatives" to believe otherwise? Notwithstanding a stream of astonishing and courageous initiatives and concessions by the Soviet leader, the critics' complaints and warnings about "the perfidious Russians" are unabated. A length, one might begin to wonder if the conservatives' suspicions of Mr. Gorbachev are susceptible to any imaginable refutation. This is a significant question, albeit a question that is rarely posed.68

One can only hope that one day, reason and kindness alone, and not the simultaneous explosions of thousands of "superbombs," will suffice to shake their faith.

Experimental work on chicken behavior provides a powerful metaphor for the hardliners' misconduct. Baby chicks can be fitted with distorting goggles which make an object appear one-sixth of an inch off its actual position. Unable to learn that their eyes can deceive them, that the food they see is not in the spot it appears but a minuscule distance away, such chicks, if left alone, starve to death in the midst of plenty. Our leaders' distorting goggles similarly induced them to forget the grave risks of accidental war, nuclear proliferation, environmental decline, and the existence of other potential adversaries besides the Soviets, prompting them to peck unswervingly in the direction of Moscow. And, like those emaciated chicks, if left alone, they (and the rest of us) might have perished because they could not adjust to new realities.

It is difficult to demonstrate the critical importance of conceptual conservatism in politics. Most historians invoke such explanations as greed, blind ambition, or saving face instead of invoking the difficulty of abandoning discredited beliefs. This psychological difficulty has, however, been noticed by some perceptive power brokers.

Before the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, according to a former special assistant to the President for national security affairs, no one seriously considered a warning to Japan's rulers that they could no longer put off the bitter pill of surrender. Sustained consideration of such a warning

would have required a reversal of the most deeply ingrained of all the behavior patterns of the Manhattan Project, the commitment to secrecy. . . . The secrecy that had begun with a proper concern not to arouse Hitler's interest had become a state of mind with a life and meaning of its own, so deeply ingrained that anyone who had asked . . . just why it was a secret now . . . might have had to wait for the answer. It was a secret now because it had been a secret throughout the war . . . But would it really be better or worse, now, if he [the enemy] did know? That question went so deeply against the grain, even for the most farsighted men in the undertaking, that they never examined it thoroughly. It is no accident that the two men to raise the question of warning directly with Truman . . . did not begin with any ingrained assumption that continued secrecy was somehow vital to success.69

A former under secretary of state:

It will not be easy for America to conform its foreign policy to the recognition that the Cold War is effectively ended, since, among other reasons, many political leaders . . . formed their view of the Cold War in the vicious days of Iosif Stalin and have never since altered that frozen impression . . . The rhetoric emanating from Washington still often reminds me of . . . the [late 1970s] report of a lonely Japanese soldier discovered hiding in a cave on one of the more remote Pacific Islands. He was still cowering in fear of discovery for no one had ever come by to tell him that World War II had long been over. . . . Even our most flexible-minded political leaders may . . . be appalled at the prospect of breaking their well-entrenched habit of regarding the Cold War as the fundamental framework in which policy must be formulated.70

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev:

Revolutions always begin in the mind. The way to save civilization and life itself does not lie in thinking up new technologies for ever more accurate and lethal weapon systems, but rather in liberating the mind from prejudices-political and social, national and racial-from arrogance, self-conceit and the cult of force and violence.71

Though conceptual conservatism permeates every aspect of our lives, it is particularly noticeable in science. Unlike ordinary voters and policy makers, scientists are trained to be objective and flexible, to detach their egos from their theories, to think it possible that they are mistaken. Yet, in some ways, the history of science is comprised of endless tales of the innovative individual's struggle against his own, and then against his colleagues', conservatism.72

Take, for instance, the history of childbed fever, a disease which once claimed countless lives in maternity wards. After many false starts, Ignaz Semmelweis discovered a simple preventive measure. "If you do not wish to kill your patients," he told his fellow gynecologists, "you must disinfect your hands before handling a patient. You cannot, in particular, dissect a cadaver or examine a sick patient and then proceed to deliver a baby with soiled hands." Now, one could scarcely imagine a more conclusive proof than the one proffered by Semmelweis, a greater urgency, a smaller sacrifice or inconvenience, or a better educated public than the one to which his pleas were directed. Yet, Semmelweis and his plea had been ignored for years and years and young women kept dying at childbirth.73

If stories like this have been repeated hundreds of times, if this conceptual malady afflicts science (which is often regarded as humankind at its intellectual best), then it goes without saying that the same forces play an important role in politics too. There is a more pronounced ideological component in politics than in science. Political decisions are enmeshed in practical considerations. They are not made by professional truth-seekers but by professional power-seekers. They are not judged by experts but by depressingly misinformed and insufficiently educated lay people. It stands to reason, therefore, that conceptual conservatism plays a critical role in the irrationality of our political decisions.

Perhaps the strongest experimental evidence for conceptual conservatism comes from recent studies.74,75 In one such study, scientists from two major research universities were given a false formula which led them to believe that balls are 50 percent larger than they really are. They were then asked to transfer water from two actual balls to a box. Their own measurements dramatically discredited the formula in both instances. While they were getting, say, four quarts using the water transfer method, the formula was wrongly leading them to expect six.

Under such circumstances, not one of these highly qualified participants flatly rejected the formula. In response to questions about the volumes of balls, including balls identical in size to the ones they have been working with a short time before, over 90 percent based their replies on the false formula, not on the evidence of their senses.

These results are counterintuitive. When asked to predict theirs or others' behavior, most psychologists and lay people grossly underestimated the tendency to cling to the discredited formula. In addition to confirming the near universality of conceptual conservatism, these findings suggest that human irrationality is often attributable to the psychological difficulty of replacing one belief with another:

The . . . outcome-all subjects clung in practice to an observationally absurd formula and none rejected it outright even on the verbal level-is surprising. Even when we deal with ideologically neutral conceptions of reality, when these conceptions have been recently acquired, when they came to us from unfamiliar sources, when they were assimilated for spurious reasons, when their abandonment entails little tangible risks or costs, and when they are sharply contradicted by subsequent events, we are, at least for a time, disinclined to doubt such conceptions on the verbal level and unlikely to let go of them in practice.75


Imagine that you have volunteered to take part in a study of visual discrimination. When you show up, eight other subjects are already in their seats. You sit down in the only empty chair and the session gets under way.

The session consists of eighteen rounds of tests. At each round, all nine of you are shown a single line along with a group of three lines of varying lengths. Each of you is then asked, in turn, which of the three lines is equal in length to the single line. The seating arrangement is such that you usually hear the answers of all but one of your fellow subjects before your turn to answer arrives. To your surprise, they often give answers which your senses tell you are wrong, and which, if you were alone, you would have rarely given.

This was a study in conformity, not visual discrimination. You were the only subject; the other eight were accomplices who were instructed beforehand to give wrong answers. About one-fourth of all subjects successfully withstands this form of social pressure; one-twentieth completely succumbs; the remainder ranges in between (conforms to the majority's manifestly incorrect opinion only in some experimental rounds). This study confirms everyday intuitions: although all people are susceptible to social pressure, a few can overcome it successfully, a few cannot, and most can overcome it only in part.76 Also, while in Rome we do as the Romans do, not merely as a matter of conscious policy, but partly because of a strong, subconscious tendency to go along: "The optimistic assumptions that underlay the [Bay of Pigs] invasion were not seriously challenged . . . partly because . . . all the members of the advisory group surrounding the President . . . felt it better to . . . conform to the dominant optimism."77

Obedience to Authority

Imagine yourself taking part, along with another subject, in a study of memory and learning. The session begins with explanations of the study's goals and your tasks. Your respective roles- teacher and learner-are determined by drawing lots. You land the teaching position. During the experiment, the learner is strapped into an "electric chair" from which he cannot escape, with electrodes attached to his wrist. His task is memorizing word associations. Your task involves teaching him these associations and giving him electric shocks of increasing severity when he fails to remember them. Throughout the experiment you are seated in front of an impressive shock generator, with 30 switches which go up in intensity from 15 to 450 volts. The shock level these switches produce is marked in words on the shock generator, beginning with "slight shock," going through "moderate," "strong," "intense," "extremely intense," all the way to a point beyond the reading, "danger: severe shock."

As the session unfolds, the learner keeps making irritating mistakes. If you ask, the experimenter demands that you go on raising the shock level, up to the very highest. At 150 volts (the tenth switch), the learner demands to be released. The experimenter, if you ask, tells you that the session must go on. If you continue beyond this level, the learner's protests grow increasingly vehement and emotional. At 285 volts the protests "can only be described as an agonized scream." At 300 volts, the learner tells you that he will no longer take part in the session, nor provide answers to the memory test. The experimenter tells you to continue and to regard silence as the wrong answer. If you go on, the learner keeps screaming violently up to 330 volts. Beyond that point he is completely silent. For all you know, he might be dead. Nevertheless, the experimenter urges you to go on. This, more or less, is the protocol of Stanley Milgram's celebrated study of obedience to authority. The teacher is the subject, while the learner is a skilled actor who actually receives no shock. Two out of every three subjects went all the way to 450 volts. They did so even though they were under the impression that they missed being in the other person's shoes merely by chance. They went to the very end despite the warning signs on the shock generator and despite the pleas and anguish of a fellow human being.

With numbing regularity good people were seen to knuckle under to the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe. Men who are in everyday life responsible and decent were seduced by the trappings of authority . . . into performing harsh acts.78

Most subjects did not relish the suffering they inflicted on fellow humans. They gave the learner the weakest shock possible when the choice was left to them. They showed no signs of malice or spite. They were transparently ill at ease during the experiment; often trembling or sweating excessively. They protested and continued only after the experimenter demanded that they go on. Their conduct is traceable to obedience, conceptual conservatism, and conformity, not to sadism.79

In one variation, both the teacher and learner were the experimenter's accomplices. The subject was in charge of recording experimental "results." Here the subject's dilemma was not between defying authority or actively inflicting pain, but between defying authority or helping one person inflict pain on another. In this case, over 90 percent cooperated to the very end. The similarity between these experimental situations and the predicament of organization men is self-evident. Just like the passive recorder in this experimental variation, these men play a minor, and often passive, part in organizational misdeeds. The similarity between this situation and the predicament of all of us who indirectly contribute to organizational misdeeds by paying taxes, buying certain products, or declining to become informed about the issues, is equally self-evident.

One incomplete analogy to the arms race is provided by Nazi Germany. The victims of Nazi atrocities often cooperated with the authorities. At any given point, cooperation seemed rational. At every point the victims could rebel, but rebellion seemed to involve greater risks than going along. According to one thoughtful observer, the most frightening idea about the Nazi holocaust is not that something like this could be done to us, but that we could do it to others. Also, the holocaust suggests the ability of modern power to induce actions "jarringly at odds with the vital interests of the actors."80 Like the guards and prisoners of Treblinka, "we collaborate day by day in maintaining the institutions of the warfare state which seems . . . plausibly set to destroy us."81

This chilling analogy is instructive, but only if we bear its incompleteness in mind. Though arguments in favor of the arms race were as unscientific as were the intellectual foundations of Nazi concentration camps, they were not as morally repulsive. The horrors of Treblinka were daily experienced by its occupants, but the horrors of the arms race and nuclear war required considerable mental efforts to visualize or grasp. It is precisely such differences that made it possible for the modern warfare state to gain the support of good people who would have been among the first to fight the obvious evils of the Third Reich.

The Stalinist holocaust provides another incomplete analogy to the arms race. In both Stalinist Russia and Cold War America, deception was accomplished through extensive control of the media and the educational system. In both, such forces as conceptual conservatism and obedience to authority led decent people astray. In both, a seemingly humanitarian ideology played a key role. "To do evil," says one Gulag veteran, "a human being must first of all believe that what he is doing is good, or else that it's a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. . . . The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses because they had no ideology. Ideology . . . gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination."82a

Other Human Failings

The foregoing account of individual failings is obviously incomplete. Nothing has been said, for instance, about selfishness, hero worship, greed, and compartmentalized thinking. Little has been said, in particular, about weakmindedness and lack of familiarity with logic, the scientific method, and empirical rules of evidence; about our inability or unwillingness to consistently apply the little we are familiar with to either politics or our daily lives. "It is not their character so much that I have a contempt for, though that contempt is thoroughgoing," said Woodrow Wilson of the hardliners who torpedoed America's membership in the League of Nations (thereby helping to write the scripts for World War II and Cold War I), "but their minds."83

Yet, something seems to be lacking in this chapter's long indictment of human behavior, for it contradicts our everyday experience. Most of us are capable of kindness, courage, and compassion. We come up at times with extraordinary insights into ordinary problems. Almost everyone has some admirable qualities and can do certain things better than many of his or her fellows. Can all the bad things psychologists tell us about human behavior be reconciled with such common observations?

Maybe they can; in the final analysis, our misbehavior might be largely attributable to ignorance. Our educational system and cultural influences could be designed to strengthen the rational component of our nature and "vaccinate" us against unkindness, irrationality, conceptual conservatism, unwarranted obedience, and conformity. Moreover, such steps are sorely needed to improve the democratic process, make us freer and happier, and make the future of both democracy and civilization more secure. But, as everyday experience and opinion surveys suggest, most of us might already be human enough to achieve these goals. We may act as we do because we lack one thing: the truth about the things that really matter. Once we wrest this truth from its self-appointed guardians, our obvious failings notwithstanding, it is conceivable that we shall begin voting for our interests and principles, not against them; for statesmen free to serve us, not for politicos forced to serve somebody else.

Long ago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn asked: "What . . . will happen in our country [USSR] when whole waterfalls of Truth burst forth?" He then went on to say: "And they will burst forth. It has to happen."82b "How could he make such a rash forecast?" I asked myself upon reading these lines in the mid-1970s. Soviet totalitarianism and lies, I thought then, were good for a few centuries. And yet, if only for a few years, truth did triumph on Russian soil. So, before the scientist in me begins hedging, let me quickly conclude this chapter by saying: Waterfalls of Truth will one day burst forth in our country too. It has to happen.



This chapter highlights a few of the institutional and individual characteristics which underlie the collective irrationality and heartlessness of American politics. On the institutional level, it notes the tendency of improperly regulated organizations to promote their short-term interests at society's expense. Such organizations are inclined towards self-destructiveness, gross inefficiencies, inflexibility, and inertia. They outlive their usefulness, accumulate power, and promote anti-humanitarian actions by stirring phony controversies, contributing money to political campaigns, providing jobs for former and would-be government officials, and turning elections into circuses and politicians into puppets and clowns. Above all, they do this by skillfully manipulating the worldview, opinions, and beliefs of the public. Under the best of circumstances, voters would be faced with a formidable task in trying to (1) make sense of the great diversity and complexity of contemporary issues, (2) realize the absence of meaningful alternatives, and (3) disregard their economic and other ties to callous organizations. Given the decisive influence of America's mass media, government, hired experts, and cradle-to-grave educational system on our political worldview, given the proclivity of these information sources to promote the status quo by inventing reality, the climb from the cave of political illiteracy takes exceptional qualities. Moreover, many individual failings contribute to our tendency to vote and act against our convictions and interests. Under social pressure and when given a chance, the majority would take advantage of a principled and well-meaning fellow human being. All people are susceptible to propaganda and indoctrination. We often cling to discredited beliefs. We tend to think and act as others do. We tend to obey immoral commands as long as these commands are handed down by respected authority. Overall, we are not as informed, rational, resistant to social pressure, and charitable as we would like to think.


Chapter 10: Reform Strategy Back to Main Menu Moti Nissani's Homepage