From Hiroshima to Human Extinction: Norman Cousins and the Atomic Age

In 1945 the American intellectual, Norman Cousins, was one of the first to raise terrifying questions for humanity about the successful splitting of the atom.

Top Image: Detonation of an underwater atomic bomb at Bikini Atoll, July 1946. Credit: US Army Photographic Signal Corps. Courtesy of the Department of Defense.

Sixteen hours after the Enola Gay dropped the “Little Man” atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, killing some 100,000 people, President Harry Truman announced to the American public and the world the nature of this new weapon. “It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the Sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East.” While many Americans (and not only Americans) took these words to mean that Imperial Japan was truly defeated—and World War II was almost over—others recoiled at the prospects for the future signaled by what Truman called this “new and revolutionary increase in destruction.”

Opposition to the atomic bomb ensued almost immediately after the obliteration of Hiroshima and then Nagasaki on August 9. In this earliest phase of nuclear abolitionism, opposition did not assume the form, though, of protests or marches. Only much later, after the invention of the exponentially more devastating hydrogen bomb, would masses of people head to the streets in cities around the world. Instead, it was critique and philosophical thought which took precedence. Even before the Japanese delegation officially surrendered on the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, American journalists and intellectuals raised terrifying questions for humanity about the successful splitting of the atom. One of them was the liberal editor of the prestigious Saturday Review of Literature, Norman Cousins (1915-1990.)

Cousins is a name no longer that familiar to Americans. However,  he was once an extremely important figure in the cultural life of the United States. After becoming editor-in-chief of the Saturday Review in 1940, Cousins championed liberal-democratic ideas and established close ties with the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he joined the board of the Office of War Information and enthusiastically participated in the Victory Book Campaign, when the United Service Organizations, the American Library Association, and the Red Cross organized the donation in 1942-43 of more than 18 million books to members of the American armed forces. During the war, Cousins successfully blended attention to political and cultural events with the Saturday Review’s more traditional focus on literature. As a result, the publication grew from a readership of 20,000 to well over 600,000.

Norman Cousins (left) receives a book from Elmer Davis, head of the Office of War Information, as a donation to the Victory Book Campaign. Credit: George Danor, US Office of War Information. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. 

When he read Truman’s announcement about the dropping of the atomic bomb on August 6, 1945, Cousins could not rest. He stayed up that night working on a response to the momentous and, for him, terrifying news.    

Cousins set a precedent for the philosophical acuity of his 1945 analyses of the new menace to civilization posed by the invention of the atomic bomb. Before John Hersey’s powerful work, Hiroshima (1946) and the creation of the Doomsday Clock in 1947, and well before Jonathan Schell’s bestselling 1982 book, The Fate of the Earth, and Carl Sagan’s prediction of “nuclear winter” (1983), Cousins published a seminal essay on August 18, just a few days after Emperor Hirohito accepted Allied demands for surrender. Titled “Modern Man is Obsolete,” he expanded the piece in the fall of 1945 into a short book for the publisher Viking. He was just 30 years old.

Cousins steered clear of what preoccupied many later commentators on the American use of uranium and plutonium weapons against Japan. He did not inquire into whether it was a necessary or a criminal act by the United States. Nor did he worry much about the Bomb’s impact on relations with the other Allied powers, especially the Soviet Union. It was the fate of the human race or “man,” the heavily gendered term of the time Cousins favored, which concerned him in 1945. Here, for all their limitations, Cousins’s texts proved very prescient.

There are three aspects of Cousins’s argument that seize our attention. The first is how he framed history after the destruction of Hiroshima. The latter both heralded the end of World War II and yet was also the day “a new age was born. That day marks the violent death of one stage in man’s history and the beginning of another.” This new age, the “Atomic Age,” possessed a “saturating effect, permeating every aspect of man’s activities, from machines to morals, from physics to philosophy, from politics to poetry; in sum, it is an effect creating a blanket of obsolescence not only over methods and the products of man but over man himself.” Elsewhere in the text Cousins warned that “modern man is obsolete, a self-made anachronism becoming more incongruous by the minute. He has exalted change in everything but himself. He has leaped centuries ahead in inventing a new world to live in, but he knows little or nothing about his own part in that world.” An enormous gap, Cousins feared, had grown between what modern science could accomplish and the current, sluggish state of human conscience and understanding.

To close the gap a resolute confrontation with humanity’s history of warfare had to occur. Cousins spoke of the “savagely competitive impulses” exhibited by humans, but accented “the insufficiency of the goods and the needs of life.” So much of the violent conflicts from the past, he suggested, resulted from scarcity. Groups, nations, and blocs of nations fought each other over “available land, goods, or wealth.” Showing remarkable optimism, given how terrible the Great Depression had been, Cousins contended that the world was entering a time when scarcity—and, thus, the wars ensuing from it—could be conquered. An age of peace was within reach. Yet it would require tremendous wisdom, determination, and, above all, international cooperation and control of atomic energy in order to create an era without war. Since “national sovereignty” was now antiquated, he called, quite controversially, for a world government, along federalist lines, to replace types of governance bound to the nation-state. There was much then and certainly now that is debatable about Cousins’s notion of a world-state but the question he posed about the necessity for a just and effective framework for preventing conflict and meeting human needs persists.

The alternative to such a framework, Cousins did not flinch from emphasizing, was catastrophic. His language in these sections of “Modern Man is Obsolete” became uncompromisingly radical. Now that the “science of warfare has reached the point where it threatens the planet itself, is it possible that man is destined to return the earth to its original incandescent mass blazing at 50 million degrees?” From August 1945 forward, the “complete obliteration of the human species” would constantly threaten, unless a novel international system based on peace and cooperation was forged. Otherwise, how much time remained to “man” “before the means he has already devised for the ultimate in self-destruction—extinction” sealed the fate of human life, indeed of all life. His warnings appeared prophetic when the United States detonated two atomic bombs in July 1946 at Bikini Atoll, in the Marshall Islands, each a thousand times more powerful than the weapons used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  

Norman Cousins’s essay and book won millions of readers in the United States and beyond. His works compelled people to look beyond the understandable jubilation about the end of the Second World War and to consider how the atomic bombs which helped bring the conflict to a conclusion also entailed a new terror: the prospect of humanity’s annihilation. A lifelong advocate for world peace, who personally assisted the Hiroshima Maidens (women who had been disfigured by the atomic bomb) in getting medical care, Cousins anticipated an entire line of anti-nuclear thought that grappled with how to respond to the nuclear threat. This was a threat that steadily worsened as the United States lost its atomic monopoly in 1949 and several countries acquired the Bomb. The task of overcoming this menace and building a world without such superweapons endures.

Recommended Reading:

Boyer, Paul. By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Cousins, Norman. “Modern Man is Obsolete.” Saturday Review of Literature, August 18, 1945.

Cousins, Norman. Modern Man is Obsolete. New York: Viking, 1945.


The Most Fearsome Sight: The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima

On the morning of August 6, 1945, the American B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.


This article is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II made possible by Bank of America. 


Jason Dawsey, PhD

Jason Dawsey, PhD, is ASU WWII Studies Consultant in the Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy. 

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