How to Be a Prophet of Doom

In FOREIGN RELATIONS, Military and War On


In September 1961, Hans J. Morgenthau decided to terrify the world. Morgenthau, a German Jewish émigré professor at the University of Chicago, had already written “Politics Among Nations,” a work that would help define the study of international relations for a generation. Now he had become convinced that the threat of a nuclear apocalypse was real and that people needed to be afraid. Very afraid.

His response was “Death in the Nuclear Age,” an essay in Commentary magazine that detailed in stark terms the cost a nuclear war would exact on humanity. It was both a warning and an attempt to spread existential fear.

One might think that Americans in the 1960s were already afraid. This was, after all, the era of the doomsday clock, duck-and-cover drills and home fallout shelters.

But we tend to forget how strong the culture of nuclear denial was at the time. In 1956, two years after the United States’ largest thermonuclear detonation, at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, President Dwight Eisenhower’s National Security Council ordered a classified study of the effects of the threat of nuclear annihilation on American attitudes. The report concluded with an extraordinary statement of optimism. An all-out nuclear war might provide an opportunity “to make the very best of the very worst” and to “raise hope for a new dynamics of the human race. It is a vision, indeed, but where visions flourish nations endure.”

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