The Psychology of the Arms Race
By Barry Zwicker
THE HEART OF THE ARMS RACE, psychologically, is the
perception of a menacing hostile "out-group," namely the
A wealth of independent evidence (see "The Myth of Symmetry"
elsewhere in this issue) shows that the strength of this perception
is not justified. Here, however, the purpose is not to discuss military
equipment, GNP's or geopolitical maps. It is to try to deal with
the Cold War in psychological terms only.
The perceived existence of a hostile out-group automatically creates
an in-group, namely "ourselves," "the West"
or "the free world."
This double creation — the "us" and "them"
— requires in turn a relationship between the two. Walter Lippmann
in his 1921 classic Public Opinion explored the distortions inherent
in such a relationship, a relationship which ". . . mark(s) out
certain objects as familiar or strange, emphasizing the differences,
so that the slightly familiar is seen as the very familiar, and
the somewhat strange as sharply alien."
These distortions have generally been encouraged by tribal and
nation-state leaders. A populace convinced along these lines is
less questioning when it is called upon to make war upon the out-group.
In this sense, simplistic stereotyping of "good guys"
and "bad guys" served to help the tribe survive and conquer.
But such a psychology integrated into the politics of today's nuclear
nation-state becomes a death mechanism. This is because the psychology
requires weapons buildup and leads to confrontation. Today's weapons
are capable of destroying everything. Total destruction is a condition
neither of conquering nor surviving.
Marshall D. Shulman investigated the psychology of the Cold War
in a talk titled "Tell Me, Daddy, Who's the Baddy?" Shulman,
Director of the Averell Harriman Institute for Advanced Study of
the Soviet Union and Adlai Stevenson Professor of International
Relations, gave the talk May 6 at a Symposium on Political and Psychological
Aspects of Soviet-American Relations at Columbia University, New
"The title . . . is not frivolous," Shulman said. "It
suggests an authority figure identifying the hostile out-group,
thereby giving us . . . comfort, identity, stability, orientation
and a relief from complexity."
Shulman assured his audience that he believed there are "real
and serious differences" between the USA and the USSR. "But
familiar psychological mechanisms," he continued, "most
often operating below the conscious level, tend to make these differences
more absolute and therefore more intractable . . ."
What are the "pictures in our minds" of the Soviet Union,
and where do they come from, Shulman asked. "They come from
many different sources, some from preconceptions whose source may
be long forgotten, some from our particular experiences.
"For example, an emigreé from the Soviet Union, who may have
spent years in a labor camp or years waiting for an exit visa, when
he thinks of the Soviet Union, may think primarily of the police
and party bureaucrats with whom he had to deal, and the vision that
comes to his mind is of a bunch of thugs with whom one cannot and
should not do business . . . A businessman, who has dealt mostly with
economic managers, may visualize the Soviet Union as a country
of hard-bargaining but hard-working managers . . . To the professional
military planner, the Soviets are the "reds", the enemy, ruthless, omnicompetent poised to attack."
Of course, very few people have visited the Soviet Union in any
capacity. The prevailing perception, therefore, is fundamentally
a mass media creation.
Shulman went on to list the several anxieties and tensions of
everyday life in North America, ranging from economic insecurity
to vulnerability to nuclear destruction. "Confronted with anxieties
with which (he or she) cannot cope, the individual falls back on
some familiar defence mechanisms," Shulman suggested. They
include displacement, denial and projection.
In displacement, fears, failures and anxieties from other sources
are "commonly attributed to the Soviet Union as the source
of our troubles. We have seen this in the attribution to the Soviet
Union of responsibility for all upheavals in the Third World (as
well as) the anti-nuclear war movement . . ."
The most striking instance of denial, Shulman said, is the false
belief that nuclear war cannot happen.
It is projection, however, which is probably the most widespread
and threatening to our survival. It's as tricky as it is dangerous.
In its simplest definition, it is when we blame others for those
very faults we don't want to admit in ourselves. Its everyday occurrences
are myriad. It's the kind of mechanism which seems to maintain a
reserve of applications in each of us, no matter how many applications
we discover and root out.
For instance, we feel justified in hating the "Soviet Union"
(note we normally avoid the phrase "people of the Soviet Union")
because of our perception that the "Soviet Union" is "bent
on world domination."
Another manifestation of projection, Shulman pointed out, is its
double standard under which we "look with indulgence on what
'we' do or say, and with harsh severity on what 'they' do or say."
This thinking in its extreme form leads to "a Manichean struggle
between God and Demon, between absolute good and evil." This
aberrational double standard is suffered and promoted by U.S. President
Reagan when he describes the Soviet Union as "an evil empire"
while he fails to see or mention the number of corrupt and despotic
regimes the United States has aided, protected or in some cases
(such as the Shah's Iran or in Pinochet's Chile) even established.
But to blame Reagan for everything is itself an exercise in projection.
Each of us is responsible for projection insofar as we practice
it. And although we do not do so equally, we all do practice it.
That is why Sylberberg's 7-1/2 hour tour de force film Our Hitler
was so aptly titled.
By exploring some roots of projection, Shulman showed how deeply
ingrained it is. Yet that very realization gives added hope that
we can at least root it out from that misshapen corner of our minds
reserved for the Cold War and all its hostile appurtenances. This
is especially important for journalists to do. For as gate-keepers,
we control a flow of "facts" about the Soviet Union (and
the "free world") to the public. Yet an important lever
in our control mechanism is a projected prejudgment about "us"
and "them." Thus are we instruments for our own deception.
Projection can be seen in infants as young as eight months, and
in animals. To put Shulman's observations into layman's terms, infants
develop a sense of identity through building on bonds of affection
and the familiar. At the same time infants reject those people and
events which are unfamiliar and which seem to act aggressively.
These "exaggerated beliefs associated with a category"
enable the simple mind of the infant or animal "to handle countless
small stimuli." The exaggerated beliefs also offer stability
and certainty. The price is that the infant gives up what psychologists
call "validity". In ordinary language this might be expressed
as "the truth."
Psychiatrist Charles Pinderhughes goes so far as to suggest that
any constant relationship which is without ambiguity is "basically
Shulman gives as examples the common acceptance that Soviet military
programs necessarily "reflect hostile intentions; American
military programs are by definition defensive. The expansion of
Russia and the Soviet Union to the Pacific is proof of inherent
Soviet tendencies to expand until it conquers the world; the continental
expansion of the United States is a matter of right. Soviet activities
in the Third World are manifestations of aggression; United States
activities in the Third World are altruistic. Soviet espionage is
traitorous; American espionage is patriotic."
The terrible danger in all this is that the "enemy" is
de-humanized. Thus "our side" is relieved of inhibitions
against immoral behavior; any action is justified. This de-humanization
process in the minds of the Nazis (and in the minds of large numbers
of Germans, it must be said) against the Jews, communists, Slavs
and others led to atrocities including the gas chambers. The Roman
Catholic bishop in Washington state who referred to a Trident nuclear
submarine — each one can unleash 2,040 Hiroshimas — as the "U.S.S.
Auschwitz" is helping us see what, psychologically, we have
become, insofar as we countenance the unleashing.
Shulman concluded: "The human mind needs its stereotypes .
. . But what we can do is to seek continuously to refine our stereotypes .
. . so that they come closer to a reflection of reality. This will
in turn make possible a mobilization of the intellect . . . It may
be that only under great duress do human beings bring their intellects
into play to give a sense of proportion to the urges and beliefs
that arise from instinct and emotion. The present head-long course
of events surely constitutes that great duress."
A layman might add that the media have greater responsibility than
any other institution to refine stereotypes, to explode myths.
The media have the capacity to do it. Long gone, for instance, are
the racist stereotypes once common in the press. Previously taboo
subjects such as venereal disease and incest have been brought out
into the open.
In the last few years stereotypes about the aged and the handicapped
have been exploded vigorously and repeatedly enough that they have
lost much of their stultifying power. We are freer and can think
more clearly because of these stories and the attitudinal changes
within the media that have followed. This is the finest gift journalism
can bring: understanding, refinement. On too many subjects journalism's
contribution is endless rehashes of stereotypes in the guise of
We now face the last-bastion stereotypes, those most fervently
and universally held, the mutually-supporting ones about life-and-death
issues. At the heart is the stereotype about the all-time baddy,
the "red menace." If we cannot find the courage to take
a fresh look, and a historical look, at this pervasive "given"
we increase the risk of a "war" against people most of
us have never met. — B.Z.
Published in Sources Summer 83
Sources, 489 College
Street, Suite 201, Toronto, ON M6G 1L9.
Phone: (416) 964-7799 FAX: (416) 964-8763
Include yourself in Sources
Mailing Lists and
Media Names & Numbers
Names & Numbers