F E B R U A R Y 1 9 5 6
by Vannevar Bush
Return to Flashback: "Can We Live Without War?", (May, 1999).
Flashback: "Prophets of the Computer Age," (October, 1997)
In light of new breakthroughs, two prescient Atlantic articles -- Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think" and Martin Greenberger's "The Computers of Tomorrow" -- seem all the more remarkable.
James foresaw, with a clarity which was remarkable, that war would sometime
end. At a time when warfare and the applications of science were poles apart,
he said, "And when whole nations are the armies, and the science of destruction
vies in intellectual refinement with the sciences of production, I see that war
becomes absurd and impossible from its own monstrosity."
And so he turned to what might follow, with evident apprehension that men would become soft -- that the virility which had brought the race thus far would give place to flat insipidity.
He first stated the case of the apologists for war, better than they themselves had stated it, repeating the only alternatives they offered: "a world of clerks and teachers, of co-education and zo-ophily, of 'consumers' leagues' and 'associated charities,' of industrialism unlimited, and feminism unabashed. No scorn, no hardness, no valor any more! Fie upon such a cattleyard of a planet."
With this extreme point of view he evidently had a genuine sympathy, for he added: "So-far-as the central essence of this feeling goes, no healthy minded person, it seems to me, can help to some degree partaking of it. Militarism is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood, and human life with no use for hardihood would be contemptible. Without risks or prizes for the darer, history would be insipid indeed; and there is a type of military character which every one feels that the race should never cease to breed."
But when he then sought a moral equivalent for war he was far from convincing. His alternative was the struggle with nature as a substitute for the struggle between men and nations. Rugged though the struggle with nature sometimes is, we can hardly believe that it would fully serve to keep the red blood flowing hot in our veins, and to release the adrenaline which is the messenger between a virile mind and a fighting body. For the conquest of nature today involves only relatively few of us, and it is becoming an intellectual effort rather than a matter of brute strength. So James left me, at least, disappointed with his alternative and bewildered. Let us review his line of argument, in the present setting, and see whether there may be a way out of the dilemma.
His first point may indeed now be underlined. We strive for peace today with conviction and intensity, for great wars must cease if we are to pursue further the path of progress. And our striving is by no means hopeless. If great wars are outlawed -- not by treaty, perhaps, but by a general realization of their absurdity -- secondary wars will go on for a time by conventional means, and nations will maintain their postures of readiness to fight. But the end of all war is now definitely in sight for the first time in human history. No nation can today attack its prepared neighbor with the expectation of profiting immensely and securing a place in the sun, as has been attempted twice within our memory. The result today would be devastation for all, cities utterly destroyed, populations killed and maimed, starvation and disease rampant. That this is the brute fact is now obvious to the most obtuse. Nor can a tyrant or ruling clique, by bringing on a war, hope to advance their private interests or provide a diversion from popular discontent; no modern all-out war will leave in power anywhere those who perpetrated it.
War might, to be sure, come by accident, and this we must guard against assiduously. Little wars with the foolhardy use of weapons of mass destruction could lead to a great war; and if tempers rise, we shall need to curb the trigger-happy fools among us. Were we so gullible as to let down our guard too soon and invite a surprise mass attack which would prevent our retaliation and end the conflict at a single stroke, the invitation might be seized upon by those who still think of conquering the world by force of arms. It is not impossible that a group of desperate men could pull the temple down on all of us. But the conditions and concepts which brought on most of the great wars of history have now disappeared. We are all on notice, if we can read or listen, that indulgence in all-out war would be suicide. Self-preservation is a very powerful primary urge, and an understanding of the present monstrosity of war is increasing among the masses of people in spite of both iron and bamboo curtains. There is certainly more chance than ever before that we may now look forward to peace. In fact, we may conclude that we can have peace if we are not utterly gullible or careless.
Where do the virtues of war lie today? Is courage needed to watch a radar screen or adjust a guided missile? Where is the daring of the soldier when the folks at home encounter equal risks? When one man guides a plane that can destroy a city, what becomes of the infectious influence of comradeship, the sense of being engaged with many others in a common hazardous campaign, the identification of self with a group which could inspire, or was supposed to inspire, even the common soldier with ideals and courage? Great war has become complex and must now be fought at a distance, if at all. It has lost forever those qualities that once had a real appeal for the red-blooded man.
Do we then look forward to some sort of Utopia? James had little use for Utopias, for he wrote in "The Dilemma of Determinism": --
Why does the painting of any paradise or utopia, in heaven or on earth, awaken such yawnings for nirvana and escape? The white-robed harp-playing heaven of our sabbath-schools, and the ladylike tea-table elysium represented in Mr. Spencer's Data of Ethics, as the final consummation of progress, are exactly on a par in this respect, -- lubberlands, pure and simple, one and all.... If this be the whole fruit of the victory, we say; if the generations of mankind suffered and laid down their lives; if prophets confessed and martyrs sang in the fire, and all the sacred tears were shed for no other end than that a race of creatures of such unexampled insipidity should succeed, and protract ... their contented and inoffensive lives, -- why, at such a rate, better lose than win the battle, or at all events better ring down the curtain before the last act of the play, so that a business that began so importantly may be saved from so singularly flat a winding-up.We need have little fear of any such dismal outcome. Struggles will not cease even if armed conflict ends. Between nations there will continue to be political jockeying for position and very intense economic competition. We shall still need to cope with penetration and subversion and face the difficult task of guiding our friends among the younger nations to positions of true independence and stability.
Nor will struggle and conflict end in our internal affairs. We shall have much to quarrel about.
Our racial antagonisms have by no means vanished. We hope we have learned to avoid great depressions, but on this score we should by no means be sanguine. Whether we can maintain full employment without forcing inflation remains to be seen. The division of our product between capital, labor, and management can still lead to paralyzing strikes. We have narcotics, juvenile delinquency, defiance of law. The preservation of our liberties demands eternal vigilance. If we are easygoing, a swollen bureaucracy will certainly regiment us. Our political contests can still be embittered and sordid.
If war ceases, it will be a different sort of world; and the apologists for war usually overlook one of its primary attributes, the ending of which might greatly influence our lives in subtle ways. During the past two decades this country has forged ahead at an unprecedented rate until it stands as the unquestioned leader of the free world, powerful, disciplined, even wise as it attempts to press further by lifting its neighbors with it. War and the fear of war produced this result -- produced also our present great prosperity. And this did not occur because of war profits; for there are no such things as war profits for a country as a whole; war merely wastes man's goods and man's labor. In many nations the waste has overbalanced all else, but we were fortunate. Our advance has come about because the nation became internally united and went to work, because secondary quarrels were submerged or tempered in the common cause, because public opinion forced the channeling of all effort in a single direction, because men's spirits rose and their blood ran hot as they faced together an enemy that all could recognize. Where would we now be had there been no such cement to hold us together during the past twenty years -- if we had worked at cross-purposes, occupied ourselves with petty quarrels, or succumbed to the vices of intrigue and treachery?
Does this mean that, if peace comes and the fear of war is lifted, we shall again return to all the old quarrels and become a nation divided, split into factions with animosity and petty intrigues paramount? Does it mean that we shall lose the vision of a happy and prosperous nation, brought about by our own unity and determination, in which we can approach our disagreements objectively and in a spirit of relative good will? Does it mean that we shall forget how to battle with one another vigorously and with full conviction and determination, but standing up, and shall again thrash about in the mire of mutual suspicion? Do biting and kicking have to take the place of honest blows given and received?
We have by no means reached perfection in this regard. There are still artificial barriers of race, birth, and resources. Nor would we banish the paternal instinct, forbid the father to aid his son to make a good start in life, or frown on any effort of a man to help one of his fellows. There is a fundamental difference between this mutual aid -- even the banding together of groups with mutual interests for mutual advancement -- and the throwing of artificial obstacles in the path of a young man struggling to rise by his own efforts. We shall always have with us those who will drift, who will refuse to pull their weight in the boat, to whom opportunity means nothing; but the problem of their place in society is not one that concerns us here. It is the artificial obstacle in the path of the ambitious and able that we would banish, and this has not as yet been fully accomplished.
But we have proceeded much farther toward the ideal than ever before in any country at any time. The workman at the bench recognizes the artificial limitations that surround him; and his own ambitions may be ended. But he knows, too, that for his son, his neighbor's son, or the bright attractive boy down the street there are genuine opportunities to rise to positions of influence and satisfaction. Luck, the caprice of men in high places, loyalty to dependents, an insidious bacterium or virus -- any one of these may stop him in his tracks. Only a few will have the ambition to rise and the skill and personality that must go with it. But the opportunity is there, and it is real. The son of a tailor on the east side may become the honored surgeon, respected by men of power, loved by patients who owe their lives to him. The peddler of bananas may come to rule an industrial empire he has built. The painter's helper may become a labor leader and treat on equal terms with the captains of industry. The haberdasher may become president. It has happened. The bans and taboos are less than they ever were before. This is the land of opportunity, and we had better keep it so and enhance this central aspect of our liberty.
It is this which may yet bind us together in the ideal of brotherhood among men, not as a vague generality to which we pay lip service but as a living reality, exemplified by the opportunity for all to develop their talents to the utmost for their own benefit and the benefit of their fellow men.
We look forward to living in a new sort of world. The flowering of science, which has rendered war absurd, is also giving us wealth, comfort, and freedom from disease of the body or the mind. Our contests for position in the intricate fabric of society need no longer require that the unsuccessful shall suffer want and distress.
When individual progress is artificially barred, when men are divided into classes with impenetrable barriers, when men are serfs or slaves, or fettered by false restraint so that they cannot move, struggles on any subject are bound to be bitter. When a man knows that if he loses out, in competition with his fellows, those he loves will be ill-nourished and neglected, he must fight too desperately to care for the conventions of fairness and decency.
But when artificial barriers are gone, and men may rise if they have what it takes -- when there is a floor beneath which no man need fall, a floor that will ensure a decent life -- then the contests of men with one another may well be on a different plane. The key is the preservation and enhancement of individual opportunity in all its forms. Few will rise, for few are the places to fill at the top. But all will have dignity and satisfaction; and those who prefer for any reason to remain in humble and peasant status will do so by choice.
We can have peace. And with it we can have prosperity, greater than the world has ever seen, with a distribution of its blessings that preserves the necessary order of an industrial society while avoiding both arrogant opulence and cringing poverty. As we attain these things, whenever we do, shall we return to petty bickering and strife, sordid intrigue, and bitter recriminations? Or shall we tackle our problems as men, vigorously, with courage and convictions, pulling no punches, but with decency and fairness? We may, indeed, be able to rise to the latter if we keep our senses and our objectivity -- and, above all, if we open the door of opportunity wide so that we battle as free men, in the pride and dignity to which only free men may aspire.
Here, indeed, may be an acceptable equivalent for war, preserving and enhancing in our people those virile attributes which conquered the old frontiers and built an industrial civilization beyond compare. When the foolhardy nature of international combat is fully recognized and great wars are banished, we may still struggle with nature and with one another and thus keep the vitality of the race from being sapped by insipid ease. If we do so as free men, independent, proud, seizing our opportunity in an open field from which artificial barriers have been removed, we may find that struggle, so necessary for the health of our race, can be entered upon in decency and dignity, and the vulgarity of war may give place to strife for worthy causes conducted with fairness and good will.
Yet, having said this, we have not come to the end of the matter. Man needs to exercise his virile attributes -- in sport, in coping with the hazards of the wilderness, in honest and decent conflict with his fellows for just and worthy causes. No man has fully lived who has not experienced the fear, the exultation, of meeting great odds and struggling to prevail. But no man has fully lived who has not also experienced the joy of close association with worthy fellows or who has not known the thrill of individual creation. He who can say honestly to himself that he has discovered a set of facts or a relation between phenomena not known to any man before him in all history, and that by his insight and skill he has made them comprehensible to the human intellect -- such a man experiences the same uplift of spirit as the one who first climbs a high mountain or first runs a mile in four minutes. And when the accomplishment results not from the lonely acts of individual genius but from the efforts of a team or group having mutual trust and confidence, supplementing one another's skills, compensating for one another's weaknesses, carrying the unfortunate over the rough places, heartening the leader by steadfast support -- then all members of the group enjoy a satisfaction transcending that of accomplished creation, a satisfaction of success in their margin of effort to attain something that was beyond the capacity of any individual.
If war ends, we must still have outlets for our inherited energies; we need only attempt to render them dignified and worthy. But we shall also have increased opportunities for other satisfactions, not so intense but far more lasting and substantial. The unifying bond of war will be gone, but it can give place to a nobler bond, less universal, far more genuine and strong. This can appear in the midst of diverse careers. To me, naturally, the field of science stands out uniquely in its opportunities.
The country will be full of struggle and conflict as diverse causes are fought over. As individuals and citizens we enter if our consciences and inclinations so dictate. And by entering we may help to raise the level of the contests and render them worthy. But research centers such as the Carnegie Institution stand aside from all this.
Within the institutions dedicated to scientific research lies opportunity for the individual. They do not care about a man's origins -- his country, race, or religion. They seek men who have an ambition to rise to the heights in their scientific professions, and insist, moreover, that among their talents should be a large measure of ability to rise by effective collaboration with others. They want men of generous instinct, and men who are devoted to science because they believe that the life of a scientist yields more satisfaction than any other career on earth and contributes more genuinely to the public weal. When they find a young man of this sort they welcome him with open arms. After that no artificial barrier stands in his path. He can rise as rapidly and as high in his profession as his own effort, judgment, and skill will carry him. He will be judged only according to the estimation in which he is held by fellow scientists -- his peers. The requirements are rigorous, but the opportunity these institutions offer is real and complete. We must always keep it so.
No more war? Peace is indeed in sight if we are wise. But not an end of contest or struggle. And certainly not an end of opportunity, which may render the lives of those who follow us not insipid but virile, not belligerent but creative.
Copyright © 1956 by Vannevar Bush. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1956; Can Men Live Without War?; Volume 197, No. 2; pages 35-38.