Remembering Norman Cousins

Wednesday, January 30, 2008 | 4:32 p.m. CST; updated 5:55 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

One of the 20th Century’s finest journalists was writer, editor and citizen, Norman Cousins. In 1942, at the age of 27, he became editor of The Saturday Review of Literature (later The Saturday Review) a well known, well respected publication with a circulation of more than 600,000. At The Saturday Review, Cousins’ editorials not only energetically expressed his own ideas, but also strongly encouraged others, including critics, to “not just appraise literature, but to try to serve it, nurture it and safeguard it.”

Throughout the 1950s, Cousins wrote and campaigned against atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. In 1957, he joined with television personality Steve Allen to found the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE). In the early 1960s , President John F. Kennedy asked Cousins to work with the Kremlin and the Vatican, via shuttle diplomacy, to gain support and approval of a U.S./Soviet ban on the testing of nuclear weapons. When, in fact, a limited test ban treaty was jointly agreed upon and ratified in 1963, President Kennedy publicly praised Cousins for his tireless efforts on behalf of the treaty, and Pope John XXIII awarded him his personal medal.

During the 1970s, Cousins was an outspoken critic of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and continued to oppose the continuing U.S./Soviet nuclear arms race. In addressing the militant enthusiasm of the superpowers at that time, he wrote: “The essential lesson most people still resist is that they are members of one species. It is in this that we all share — the emergence of a common destiny and the beginning of the perception, however misty that something beyond the nation will have to be brought into being if the human race is to have any meaning.”

Sometime in late August or early September 1970, The World Federalists USA (WFUSA) organization — now known as Citizens for Global Solutions — held its national assembly at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. As was often the case at WFUSA meetings, Norman Cousins was one of the major speakers. His topic that day had to do with the expanding nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. During the course of his talk, he discussed various aspects of the U.S. Air Force’s deployment of more than 1,000 Minuteman intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles (ICBMs) throughout several Midwestern states, including Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. While describing the mission and configuration of the overall Minuteman complex, he looked down from the podium to the third row of the audience and said to me: “ Bill, you live fairly close to Whiteman Air Force Base, whose commander is in charge of some of these hydrogen bombs, and you have protested their presence near your home, why don’t you come up and tell us about the situation in Missouri.”

In response, I moved to the platform and told the audience that, because the missiles deployed in Missouri represented about 15 percent of all deliverable Minuteman warheads, our area was unquestionably a prime target for very large Soviet ICBMs (perhaps as many as 450) which were on hair-trigger alert ready for immediate launch. Therefore, it was possible for the Missouri missiles to be launched near towns like Arrow Rock, Boonville, Sedalia, Versailles, Higginsville, Warrensburg, etc., and kill millions of men, women and children in various locations in the Soviet Union. In a like manner, the Soviet Rocket Corps could launch its ICBMs at our missile silos, the result of which would be a hole called mid-Missouri.

Following my extension of Norman’s remarks, he and former U.S. Sen. Joseph S. Clark, of Pennsylvania, and president of the organization, huddled in the back of the room and approached me with a job offer to become the group’s national field director. Given the fact that I had recently been fired by the dean of the MU’s School of Social and Community Services for matters related to anti-war activities and protests against the nuclear war mission at Whiteman Air Force Base, I jumped at the chance to become their new field director. Norman’s assistance to me was typical of his concerted efforts to help student writers and political activists in exploring career possibilities in the field of peace education and politics.

When Norman died in 1990, there were “Celebration of the Life of Norman Cousins” ceremonies held in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. The Washington celebration was held at the Washington National Cathedral on April 26, 1991. A highlight of that ceremony was the reading of Norman’s will, a portion of which stated: I die with the faith that (international) anarchy will yield to law, that the reluctance of nations to live under statutes will yield to the good sense of their citizens in insisting that the United Nations be given workable sovereignty. I have confidence, too, that the slowness of people to comprehend the fragility of life will lead to the moral awareness of its ultimate uniqueness, of its potentialities for beauty and splendor.

Bill Wickersham is an MU adjunct professor of peace studies, a member of Veterans for Peace, and a member of the national steering committee of Global Action to Prevent War.

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