George Weigel

To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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Nuclear Denial

Psychologists call it the “Stockholm syndrome, “after the hostages in a Swedish bank robbery some years ago who began, over time and under the pressure of their fear, to “identify” with their captors. They put on, unconsciously, the mindset of those who held them captive; they could understand, as it were, what could turn a decent man into a kidnapper. Or so they thought.

Something disturbingly similar to the Stockholm syndrome seems to be at work in certain quarters when the issue of U.S./Soviet relations is engaged. In defense of which proposition, three examples:


Exhibit A. The American Bar Association (ABA) concluded an exchange agreement with the Association of Soviet Lawyers (ASL) in 1985. The ABA/ASL agreement was criticized at the time on the grounds that the ASL was simply an instrument of Soviet state policy; that the rule of law was not a hallmark of the Soviet regime; and that one of the Soviet signatories to the agreement, Samuel Zivs, was a notorious anti-Semite and a defamer of Andrei Sakharov.

Those criticisms have been continually pressed by the Task Force on ABA-Soviet Relations, a group of attorneys led by Mrs. Patience Huntwork of Phoenix, who is a lawyer on the staff of the Arizona Supreme Court. Earlier this year, at the New Orleans meetings of the ABA House of Delegates and Board of Governors, Mrs. Huntwork arranged a panel to discuss ABA/Soviet cooperation. The panel included three exiled Helsinki monitors who had direct personal knowledge of the Leninized Soviet legal/political system; a representative of the South Florida Conference on Soviet Jewry; and Ginte Damusis of Lithuanian Catholic Religious Aid. The ABA did not allow Mrs. Huntwork to post a notice of her panel’s meeting on the floor of the hotel where the delegates congregated (she was allowed to post a notice on the floor above); the ABA declined to provide a participant on the panel to discuss the exchange agreement with the ASL; and representatives of the ABA escorted Mrs. Huntwork out of the convention’s press room when she distributed flyers announcing her panel to a team from ABC News. Mrs. Huntwork has also been subjected to a nasty personal attack from ABA officials, who tried to discredit her in a letter to the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews—a particularly distasteful tactic, especially from an organization that signed an exchange agreement with a leading Soviet anti-Semite.


Exhibit B. This past January, the renowned Soviet human rights activist Yuri Orlov, then recently emigrated from the USSR, came to San Francisco to lecture and to meet with some of those who had taken up his cause during his time in the gulag. Dr. Orlov stated his belief in the inseparability of human rights issues, freedom of information and scientific issues, and international security issues. Like Anatoly Scharansky, Yuri Orlov believes, and argued, that these issues must be addressed on a broad front; and Dr. Orlov criticized those in the West who would “uncouple” the human rights issue from the problem of preventing nuclear war (which, one hardly needs add, Yuri Orlov is eager to prevent). Among the “uncouplers” Orlov mentioned International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Orlov argued that groups such as IPPNW that include Soviet officials in their membership “actually support the repressive apparatus of the Soviet Union, and what they provide (to the West) evades me.”

It certainly seems an arguable point, or at the very least one worth serious debate. But no; Orlov was dismissed by Stanford’s Dr. Herbert Abrams (an IPPNW founder) as “an arrogant son of a bitch” if he (Orlov) didn’t think that Abrams knew about totalitarian governments. Which was not precisely what Orlov charged, to our knowledge. And why, in any event, would one of the founders of an organization dedicated to “better understanding” between the United States and the Soviet Union demean a man who had suffered the gulag as an “arrogant son of a bitch”?


Exhibit C. On the day that ABC TV began its series “Amerika,” Harvard’s Dr. John Mack published an op-ed piece in the New York Times. The series, opined Dr. Mack (who is academic director of the Center for Psychological Studies in the Nuclear Age) would make a “deep impression” and “seems likely to provoke fear and hatred of the Soviet Union.” The film’s creators had “indulged in familiar Russian-Nazi stereotypes,” among which stereotypes was the idea that “the Kremlin’s purpose is to crush all independent thinking” in the territories it controls. Why did ABC make a series that, Dr. Mack reported, had reduced a “Soviet journalist” to tears at a preview screening? Well, “the influence of conservative political groups on ABC’s decision to produce ‘Amerika’ has been well documented. Lest there be any doubt about its political purposes, one need only look at ABC’s prime-time commercials for ‘Amerika,’ in which real Hungarian, Czechoslovak, and Polish émigrés, with native accents, talk of the loss of freedom and victims in Eastern Europe who cannot speak…. ‘Amerika,’ for all the denials of its makers, seems to have ridden the crest of fear of the Soviet Union for commercial purposes.”

And then the call for censorship: “Perhaps the controversy surrounding ‘Amerika’ will help bring us closer to the time when material that, by virtue of its ideological extremism, stereotypes another nation or provokes fear and hatred will no longer be acceptable.”

What in the world is going on in these three cases?

It seems to your editor as if what is going on is a variant of the Stockholm syndrome. Forty years of living under the nuclear sword of Damocles have led leaders of the legal and medical professions into an extraordinary pattern of denial—and denial based on a kind of bizarre identification with the mindset of one’s kidnappers. When the crude anti-Semitism of men like Samuel Zivs is tacitly protected from public scrutiny by American professionals whose careers (and fortunes) have been built on the concept of a government of laws; when Yuri Orlov is dismissed as an “arrogant son of a bitch”; when a Harvard psychologist argues that émigré testimony is to be held suspect, and American television censored, so as not to offend the Soviet Union—well, then, something is deeply, deeply wrong.

There can be useful exchanges between American and Soviet professionals, exchanges that help open the windows of a closed society. And no reasonable person doubts that our view of the USSR should be constructed from a variety of materials, not just those provided by émigrés. But have men like Orlov nothing to teach us? That seems unlikely. And is any exchange a good exchange? Would any exchange with Afrikaners, or with the government of General Pinochet, be a good exchange? Would John Mack censor a TV program that “provokes . . . fear” of the apartheid system? Of course not. So what’s the difference?

The difference, we suspect, is that secular survivalism is widespread in the ranks of IPPNW and among the lawyers who adamantly defend doing business with the likes of Samuel Zivs. Like Jonathan Schell in his earliest phase, IPPNW and ABA leaders most probably believe that a nuclear war would be “the death of death,” the absolute terminus of the human adventure. Sheer physical survival thus becomes the value that transcends, by diminishing, all other values. The notion that such a posture leads to both moral and strategic bankruptcy (elegantly argued by Harvard’s Joseph Nye, no Reagan Republican, in Nuclear Ethics) doesn’t get into the debate because the ABA won’t allow a debate, and because Professor Mack wishes us to censor ourselves.

It would be a pitiable thing if it weren’t so dangerous, which is to say, if it didn’t make war more, not less, likely.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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