Newsletter 144 - Landing Page - Prof Carl Sagan

The Common Enemy

Essay by Carl Sagan (1988)

If you are daunted by the length of the text and wonder whether to spend the time to read it, consider these representative excerpts first:

  • We are at risk. [...] What will it take to free us from the trap we have set for ourselves?
  • A good start is to examine the historical facts as they might be viewed by the other side.
  • The US, founded on principles of freedom and liberty, was the last major nation to end chattel slavery; many of its founding fathers -- G. Washington and T. Jefferson among them -- were slave owners; and racism was legally protected for a century after the slaves were freed.
  • [The Reagan Administration] mined Nicaraguan harbors and subsequently fled from the jurisdiction of the World Court...
  • We are fallible, even leaders.
  • Habitual enmity is corrupting and self-sustaining.
  • The challenge then is not in selective glorification of the past, or in defending national icons, but in devising a path that will carry us through a time of great mutual peril.
  • Is it possible that we -- we Americans, we Soviets, we humans -- are at last coming to our senses and beginning to work together on behalf of the species and the planet?
  • Nothing is promised. History has placed this burden on our shoulders. It is up to us to build a future worthy of our children and grandchildren.

Page maintained by Alex Petrov

The Common Enemy

If only, said the American President [Reagan] to the Soviet General Secretary [Gorbachev], extraterrestrials were about to invade -- then our two countries could unite against the common enemy. Indeed, there are many instances when deadly adversaries, at one another's throats for generations, put their differences aside to confront a still more urgent threat: the Greek city states against the Persians; the Russians and the Polovtsys (who once had sacked Kiev) against the Mongols; or, for that matter, the Americans and the Soviets against the Nazis.

An alien invasion is, of course, unlikely…But there is a common enemy -- in fact, a range of common enemies, some of unprecedented menace, each unique to our time. They derive from our growing technological powers and from our reluctance to forgo perceived short-term advantages for the longer-term well-being of our species.

The innocent act of burning coal and other fossil fuels increases the carbon dioxide greenhouse effect and raises the temperature of the Earth, so that in less than a century, according to some projections, the American Midwest and the Soviet Ukraine -- current breadbaskets of the world -- may be converted into something approaching scrub deserts. Inert, apparently harmless gases used in refrigeration deplete the protective ozone layer; they increase the amount of deadly ultraviolet radiation from the Sun that reaches the surface of the Earth, destroying vast numbers of unprotected microorganisms that lie at the base of a poorly understood food chain -- at the top of which precariously teeter we. American industrial pollution destroys forests in Canada. A Soviet nuclear reactor accident endangers the ancient culture of Lapland. Raging epidemic disease spreads worldwide, accelerated by modern transportation technology. And inevitably there will be other perils that with our usual bumbling, short-term focus, we have not yet even discovered.

The nuclear arms race, jointly pioneered by the United States and the Soviet Union, has now booby-trapped the planet with some 60,000 nuclear weapons -- far more than enough to obliterate both nations, to jeopardize the global civilization, and perhaps even to end the million-year-long human experiment. Despite indignant protestations of peaceable intent and solemn treaty obligations to reverse the nuclear arms race, the United States and the Soviet Union together still somehow manage to build enough new nuclear weapons each year to destroy every sizable city on the planet. When asked for justification, each earnestly points to the other. In the wake of the Challenger space shuttle and Chernobyl nuclear power plant disasters, we are reminded that catastrophic failures in high technology can occur despite our best efforts. In the century of Hitler, we recognize that madmen can achieve absolute control over modern industrial states. It is only a matter of time until there occurs some unanticipated subtle error in the machinery of mass destruction, or some critical communications failure, or some emotional crisis in an already burdened national leader. Overall, the human species spends almost $1 trillion a year, most of it by the United States and the Soviet Union, in preparation for intimidation and war. Perhaps, in retrospect, there would be little motivation even for malevolent extraterrestrials to attack the Earth; perhaps, after a preliminary survey, they might decide it is more expedient just to be patient for a little while and wait for us to self-destruct.

We are at risk. We do not need alien invaders. We have all by ourselves generated sufficient dangers. But they are unseen dangers, seemingly far removed from everyday life, requiring careful thought to understand, and involving transparent gases, invisible radiation, nuclear weapons that no one has actually witnessed in use -- not a foreign army intent on plunder, slavery, rape, and murder. Our common enemies are harder to personify, more difficult to hate than a Shahanshah, a Khan, or a Führer. And joining forces against these new enemies requires us to make courageous efforts at self-knowledge, because we ourselves -- all the nations of the Earth, but especially the United States and the Soviet Union -- bear responsibility for the perils we now face.

Our two nations are tapestries woven from a rich diversity of ethnic and cultural threads. Militarily, we are the most powerful nations on Earth. We are advocates of the proposition that science and technology can make a better life for all. We share a stated belief in the right of the people to rule themselves. Our systems of government were born in historic revolutions against injustice, despotism, incompetence, and superstition. We come from revolutionaries who accomplished the impossible -- freeing us from tyrannies entrenched for centuries and thought to be divinely ordained. What will it take to free us from the trap we have set for ourselves?

Each side has a long list of deeply resented abuses committed by the other -- some imaginary, most, in varying degrees, real. Every time there is an abuse by one side, you can be sure of some compensatory abuse by the other. Both nations are full of wounded pride and professed moral rectitude. Each knows in excruciating detail the most minor malefactions of the other but hardly even glimpses its own sins and the suffering its own policies have caused. On each side, of course, there are good and honest people who see the dangers their national policies have created -- people who long, as a matter of elementary decency and simple survival, to put things right. But there are also, on both sides, people gripped by hatred and fear intentionally fanned by the respective agencies of national propaganda, people who believe their adversaries are beyond redemption, people who seek confrontation. The hard-liners on each side encourage one another. They owe their credibility and their power to one another. They need one another. They are locked in a deadly embrace.

If no one else, alien or human, can extricate us from this deadly embrace, then there is only one remaining alternative: However painful it may be, we will just have to do it ourselves. A good start is to examine the historical facts as they might be viewed by the other side -- or by posterity, if any. Imagine first a Soviet observer considering some of the events of American history: The United States, founded on principles of freedom and liberty, was the last major nation to end chattel slavery; many of its founding fathers -- George Washington and Thomas Jefferson among them -- were slave owners; and racism was legally protected for a century after the slaves were freed. The United States has systematically violated more than 300 treaties it signed guaranteeing some of the rights of the original inhabitants of the country. In 1899, two years before becoming President, Theodore Roosevelt, in a widely admired speech, advocated "righteous war" as the sole means of achieving "national greatness." The United States invaded the Soviet Union in 1918 in an unsuccessful attempt to undo the Bolshevik Revolution. The United States invented nuclear weapons and was the first and only nation to explode them against civilian populations -- killing hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in the process. The United States had operational plans for the nuclear annihilation of the Soviet Union before there even was a Soviet nuclear weapon, and it has been the chief innovator in the continuing nuclear arms race. The many recent contradictions between theory and practice in the United States include the present [Reagan] Administration, in high moral dudgeon, warning its allies not to sell arms to terrorist Iran while secretly doing just that; conducting worldwide covert wars in the name of democracy while opposing effective economic sanctions against a South African regime in which the vast majority of citizens have no political rights at all; being outraged at Iranian mining of the Persian Gulf as a violation of international law, while it has itself mined Nicaraguan harbors and subsequently fled from the jurisdiction of the World Court; vilifying Libya for killing children and in retaliation killing children; and denouncing the treatment of minorities in the Soviet Union, while America has more young black men in jail than in college. This is not just a matter of mean-spirited Soviet propaganda. Even people congenially disposed toward the United States may feel grave reservations about its real intentions, especially when Americans are reluctant to acknowledge the uncomfortable facts of their history.

Now imagine a Western observer considering some of the events in Soviet history. Marshal Tukhachevsky's marching orders on July 2, 1920, were, "On our bayonets we will bring peace and happiness to toiling humanity…Forward to the West!" Shortly after V.I. Lenin, in conversation with French delegates, remarked: "Yes, Soviet troops, are in Warsaw. Soon Germany will be ours. We will re-conquer Hungary. The Balkans will rise against capitalism. Italy will tremble. Bourgeois Europe is cracking at all its seams in this storm." Then contemplate the millions of Soviet citizens killed by Stalin's deliberate policy in the years between 1929 and World War II -- in forced collectivization, mass deportation of peasants, the resulting famine of 1932-33, and the great purges (in which almost the entire Communist Party hierarchy over the age of 35 was arrested and executed, and during which a new constitution that allegedly safeguarded the rights of Soviet citizens was proudly proclaimed). Then consider Stalin's decapitation of the Red Army, the secret protocol to his nonaggression pact with Hitler, and his refusal to believe in a Nazi invasion of the USSR even after it had begun -- and how many millions more were killed in consequence. Think of Soviet restrictions on civil liberties, freedom of expression, and the right to emigrate, and continuing endemic anti-Semitism and religious persecution. If, then, shortly after your nation is established, your highest military and civilian leaders boast about their intentions of invading neighboring states; if your absolute leader for almost half your history is someone who methodically killed millions of his own people; if, even now, your coins display your national symbol emblazoned over the whole world -- you can understand that citizens of other nations, even those with peaceful or credulous dispositions, may be skeptical of your present good intentions, however sincere and genuine they might be. This is not merely a matter of mean-spirited American propaganda. The problem is compounded if you pretend such things never happened.

"No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations," wrote Friedrich Engels. At the London conference of 1903, Lenin advocated the "complete right of self-determination of all nations." The same principles were uttered in almost exactly the same language by Woodrow Wilson and by many other American statesmen. But for both nations the facts speak otherwise. The Soviet Union has forcibly annexed Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and parts of Finland, Poland, and Romania; occupied and brought under Communist control Poland, Romania, Hungary, Mongolia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Afghanistan; and suppressed the East German workers' uprising of 1953, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Czech attempt to introduce glasnost and perestroika in 1968. Excluding World Wars and expeditions to suppress piracy or the slave trade, the United States has made armed invasions ind interventions in other countries on more that 130 separate occasions, including China (on 18 separate occasions), Mexico (13), Nicaragua and Panama (9 each), Honduras (7), Colombia and Turkey (6 each), the Dominican Republic, Korea, and Japan (5 each), Argentina, Cuba, Haiti, the Kingdom of Hawaii, and Samoa (4 each), Uruguay and Fiji (3 each), Guatemala, Lebanon, the Soviet Union and Sumatra (2 each), Grenada, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Chile, Morocco, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Syria, Iraq, Peru, Formosa, the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam [the list is based on compilations by the House Armed Services Committee]. Most of these incursions were small-scale efforts to maintain compliant governments or to protect American property and business interests; but some were much larger, more prolonged, and on far deadlier scales.

United States armed forces were intervening in Latin America not only before the Bolshevik Revolution but also before the Communist Manifesto -- which makes the anti-Communism justification for American intervention in Nicaragua a little difficult to rationalize; the deficiencies of the argument would be better understood, however, had the Soviet Union not been in the habit of gobbling up other countries. The American invasion of Southeast Asia -- of nations that never had harmed or threatened the United States -- killed 58,000 Americans and more than a million Asians; the U.S. dropped 7.5 megatons of high explosives and produced an ecological and economic chaos from which the region still has not recovered. More than 100,000 Soviet troops have, since 1979, been occupying Afghanistan -- a nation with lower per capita income than Haiti -- with atrocities still largely untold (because Soviets are much more successful than Americans in excluding independent reporters from their war zones).

Habitual enmity is corrupting and self-sustaining. If it falters, it can easily be revived by reminding us of past abuses, by contriving an atrocity or a military incident, by announcing that the adversary has deployed some dangerous new weapon, ore merely by taunts of naïveté or disloyalty when domestic political opinion becomes uncomfortably evenhanded. For many Americans, communism means poverty, backwardness, the Gulag for speaking one's mind, a ruthless crushing of the human spirit, and a thirst to conquer the world. For many Soviets, capitalism means heartless and insatiable greed, racism, war, economic instability, and a worldwide conspiracy of the rich against the poor. These are caricatures -- but not wholly so -- and over the years Soviet and American actions have given them some credence and plausibility.

These caricatures persist because they are partly true, but also because they are useful. If there is an implacable enemy, then bureaucrats have a ready excuse for why prices go up, why consumer goods are unavailable, why the nation is noncompetitive in world markets, why there are large numbers of unemployed and homeless people, or why criticism of leaders is unpatriotic an impermissible -- and especially why so supreme an evil as nuclear weapons must be deployed in the tens of thousands. But if the adversary is insufficiently wicked, the incompetence and failed vision of government officials cannot be so easily ignored. Bureaucrats have motives for inventing enemies and exaggerating their misdeeds.

Each nation has military and intelligence establishments that evaluate the danger posed by the other side. These establishments have a vested interest in large military and intelligence expenditures. Thus, they must grapple with a continuing crisis of conscience -- the clear incentive to exaggerate the adversary's capabilities and intentions. When they succumb, they call it necessary prudence; but whatever they call it, it propels the arms race. Is there an independent public assessment of the intelligence data? No. Why not? Because the data are secret - So we have a machine that goes by itself, a kind of de facto conspiracy to prevent tensions from falling below a minimum level of bureaucratic acceptability.

It is evident that many national institutions and dogmas, however effective they may once have been, are now in need of change. No nation is yet well-fitted to the world of the twenty-first century. The challenge then is not in selective glorification of the past, of in defending national icons, but in devising a path that will carry us through a time of great mutual peril. To accomplish this, we need all the help we can get.

A central lesson of science is that to understand complex issues (or even simple ones), we must try to free our minds of dogma and to guarantee the freedom to publish, to contradict, and to experiment. Arguments from authority are unacceptable. We are all fallible, even leaders. But however clear it is that criticism is necessary for progress, governments tend to resist. The ultimate example is Hitler's Germany. Here is an excerpt from a speech by the Nazi Party leader Rudolf Hess on June 30, 1934: "One man remains beyond all criticism, and that is the Führer. This is because everyone senses and knows: He is always right, and he will always be right. The National Socialism of all of us in anchored in uncritical loyalty, in a surrender to the Führer."

The convenience of such a doctrine for national leaders is further clarified by Hitler's remark: "What good fortune for those in power that people do not think!" Widespread intellectual and moral docility may be convenient for leaders in the short term, but it is suicidal for nations in the long term. One of the criteria for national leadership should therefore be a talent for understanding, encouraging, and making constructive use of vigorous criticism.

So when those who once were silenced and humiliated by state terror now are able to speak out -- fledging civil libertarians flexing their wings -- of course they find it exhilarating, and so does any lover of freedom who witnesses it. Glasnost and perestroika exhibit to the rest of the world the human scope of the Soviet society that past policies have masked. They provide error-correcting mechanisms at all levels of Soviet society. They are essential for economic well-being. They permit real improvements in international cooperation and a major reversal of the nuclear arms race. Glasnost and perestroika are thus good for the Soviet Union and good for the United States.

There is, of course, opposition to glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union: by those who must now demonstrate their abilities competitively rather than sleepwalking through lifetime tenure; by those unaccustomed to the responsibilities of democracy; by those in no mood, after decades of following the norms, to be taken to task for past behavior. And in the United States too, there are those who oppose glasnost and perestroika: Some argue it is a trick to lull the West, while the Soviet Union gathers its strength to emerge as a still more formidable rival. Some prefer the old kind of Soviet Union -- debilitated by its lack of democracy, easily demonized, readily caricatured. (Americans, complacent about their own democratic forms too long, have something to learn from glasnost and perestroika as well. This by itself makes some Americans uneasy.) With such powerful forces arrayed for and against reform, no one can know the outcome.

I both countries, what passes for public debate is still, on closer examination, mainly repetition of national slogans, appeal to popular prejudice, innuendo, self-justification, misdirection, incantation of homilies when evidence is asked for, and a thorough contempt for the intelligence of the citizenry. What we need is an admission of how little we actually know about how to pass safely through the next few decades, the courage to examine a wide range of alternative programs, and, most of all, a dedication not to dogma but to solutions. Finding any solution will be hard enough. Finding ones that perfectly correspond to eighteenth- or nineteenth-century political doctrines will be much more difficult.

Our two nations must help one another figure out what changes must be made; the changes must help both sides; and our perspective must embrace a future beyond the next Presidential term of office or the next Five Year Plan. We need to reduce military budgets; raise living standards; engender respect for learning; support science, scholarship, invention, and industry; promote free inquiry; reduce domestic coercion; involve the workers more in managerial decisions; and promote a genuine respect and understanding derived from an acknowledgment of our common humanity and our common jeopardy.

Although we must cooperate to an unprecedented degree, I am not arguing against healthy competition. But let us compete in finding ways to reverse the nuclear arms race and to make massive reductions in conventional forces; in eliminating government corruption; in making most of the world agriculturally self-sufficient. Let us vie in art and science, in music and literature, in technological innovation. Let us have a honesty race. Let us compete in relieving suffering and ignorance and disease; in respecting national independence worldwide; in formulating and implementing an ethic for responsible stewardship of the planet.

Let us learn from one another. Capitalism and socialism have been mutually borrowing methods and doctrine in largely unacknowledged plagiarisms for a century. Neither the US nor the Soviet Union has a monopoly on truth and virtue. I would like to see us compete in cooperativeness. In the 1970s, apart from treaties constraining the nuclear arms race, we had some notable successes in working together -- the elimination of smallpox worldwide, efforts to prevent South African nuclear weapons development, the Apollo-Soyuz joint manned spaceflight. We can do much better. Let us begin with a few joint projects of great scope and vision -- in relief of starvation, especially in nations such as Ethiopia, which are victimized by superpower rivalry; in identifying and defusing long-term environmental catastrophes that are products of our technology; in fusion physics to provide a safe energy source for the future; in joint exploration of Mars, culminating in the first landing of human beings -- Soviets and Americans -- on another planet.

Perhaps we will destroy ourselves. Perhaps the common enemy within us will be too strong for us to recognize and overcome. Perhaps the world will be reduced to medieval conditions or far worse.

But I have hope. Lately there are signs of change -- tentative but in the right direction and, by previous standards of national behavior, swift. Is it possible that we -- we Americans, we Soviets, we humans -- are at last coming to our senses and beginning to work together on behalf of the species and the planet?

Nothing is promised. History has placed this burden on our shoulders. It is up to us to build a future worthy of our children and grandchildren.


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