An Interview with John Mack

by the staff of The Harvard Psychological Review

February 26, 1987

After the blows to egocentrism of Copernicus, Darwin and Freud, the myth of rationality in the conduct of relations between nation states remains – a last bastion of man’s collective narcissism.
— John E. Mack, MD

For over ten years, Dr. John E. Mack, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, has been concerned with the psychological issues which fuel the nuclear aims race. In 1982, he helped found the Nuclear Psychology Program at the medical school, which recently became the Center for Psychological Studies in the Nuclear Age. The Center serves as a meeting ground for a variety of academicians to study the psychosocial aspects of the nuclear arms race, and to propose ways of stopping it.

Dr. Mack graduated from Oberlin College, and received his MD from Harvard in 1955. Following medical school, he took his residency at the Mass Mental Health Center. He now teaches at the Cambridge Hospital, where he founded the department of psychiatry, and is a member of the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute. In addition to writing numerous articles on aspects of the nuclear age, Dr. Mack won a Pulitzer Prize in 1977 for his psychobiography A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T.E. Lawrence.

Last October he gave the 1986 Atherton lecture at Kirkland House, in which he discussed reconciling the roles of being an academician and an activist (see the Jan-Feb issue of Harvard Magazine). He recently presented a paper to the American Association for the Advancement of Science entitled “The Challenge of Political Self-Responsibility in the Nuclear Age”, and wrote an editorial in the New York Times (Sunday, February 15) on the mini-series Amerika.

The Harvard Psychological Review recently had the honor of interviewing Dr. Mack in his office at Cambridge Hospital. The following includes excerpts from that interview.

Q: How did you get interested in the issue of nuclear arms? How does that interest relate to your role as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst?

A: I basically moved into the nuclear issue by steps, some of which were accidental, some of which were deliberate. Probably the place to start would be being 15 and hearing about these nuclear explosions, first in White Sands, New Mexico, and then over Hiroshima… I remember the sense of incommunicable horror and fear that I had, that this thing was so out of proportion in terms of destruction and sheer power. I didn’t really know what it meant, but I felt that everything somehow changed…

I have always been interested in what might be called the real world, the social environment. When I was in college, I debated whether I would go to medical school or into something more like history or social psychology I was interested in the mind, and somehow medical school seemed to offer more opportunities thru psychiatry, and as a profession seemed a surer thing. This strong social interest stayed with me at medical school. As a resident at Mass Mental Health Center, I seemed to gravitate toward what later came to be called community psychiatry, which was an interest in the social environments of patients. I always had this somewhat contentious feeling as a psychoanalyst that the analytic movement tended to focus too exclusively on the inner life as if it were universally the same, and although there are human strivings and inner struggles which are present across cultures or across socio-economic groups, what goes on in a family, in couples, in the community and neighborhoods, in the system of a person’s life, is terribly important.

In my early work as a psychiatrist, I ran an inpatient service at Mass Mental for a couple of years, and during that time again tried to look at the hospital as a social system, and what was the impact of the surrounding society. I was also beginning to apply psychiatry to nonclinical phenomena – this was the same time when l started to work on the biography of T.E. Lawrence. I’ve seemed to gravitate towards how the political and social environmental context impacts on individuals. As a result of my involvement with Lawrence, I began increasingly to be interested in the conflicts in the Middle East… and spent a number of years on conflict resolution, in relation to the Arab/Israeli struggle and the psychology of it, and how the psychology and historical reality relate to each other, and what the impact of historical grievances is on whole peoples. Until that point, I had had very little directly to do with the nuclear issue.

In 1976-77, two things happened; one was that one of my kids came back from Law Day at his high school, in which they had presented some details about the nuclear arms race, and said, “My God, what is this all about? This is absolutely crazy; we’re are going to get ourselves blown up here. What are you doing about it?”. I said, “Well, I don’t know, I’m troubled about it too…”. Another son soon after that started at Berkeley, and was very interested in nuclear protests that were then going on about the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant that was being developed. [He told me that] “nuclear weapons… are developed so secretly… there’s no way that us students (and as I experienced this conversation, I was thinking ‘or maybe us professionals’) can possibly penetrate the arcane, walled-off secret world of nuclear weapons decision-making…the public really doesn’t have access to it.”

The second thing that happened was that two colleagues… came to me and said that the American Psychiatric Society was starting a task force on the psychosocial dimensions of nuclear developments. A professor at MIT in electrical engineering, who is involved in designing electrical systems for antiballistic missiles…consulted to our group and said, “look at the psychological causes that drive people to go on producing these things in this extraordinary redundancy.” I took that very seriously, that fascinated me, and I began to read more about the way nuclear strategists think, and one of the projects of the Center now…is the interviewing of decision-makers in the nuclear weapons area.

So, over the next couple of years I began public speaking about the arms race, more particularly about what I felt was the seeming irrationality of it, that it seemed to have a momentum of its own, that people proceeded to develop these weapons, to talk about them…with an array of obscure terms and technical language and acronyms that utterly obscure the reality of what these instruments were, and what actually fighting a nuclear war or even threatening to fight one was all about. I was interested in the institutional, and mass psychological, and personal psychological mechanisms that distanced people from the reality of what nuclear weapons are, and I wanted to study that more. At that time I met Roberta Snow, who was interested in these same issues from the standpoint of talking with children in schools and bringing some realistic education in the school systems about nuclear weapons…and she, I, and Robert Lifton…started this Center in 1982 as a way of bringing together people who were interested in these questions.

We’ve gathered around us increasingly people who are interested in the human dimension of the arms race, who are seeing that a purely economic, mathematical, or technological military look at these things doesn’t make any sense. It grows out of something in the way we organize ourselves as human beings. It has to do with certain rigidities of thought which make it difficult for us to move from the way we think about force in relation to weapons where it really does matter if you have more of them beyond a certain point… to these weapons where they are essentially boomerangs. You put yourself in as much jeopardy as you would anyone else — in no sense are they weapons.

Then the argument comes, “well, you know that, but the other guy doesn’t know that (the Soviets presumably being the other guy). They think that these are weapons and that they can use them for force.” If you look at it that way, then you’re basing your policy decisions on psychological assumptions, you’re playing amateur psychologist…[but] then it seems your first responsibility would be to know something about those other guys, and not simply what their capabilities are, which is what the defense department tends to look at, but what are their intentions?

The bankruptcy of the use of nuclear weapons as instruments of military or political policy has brought in a lot of new actors into the whole question of how we order our security relationships with other powers. There’s a psychological dimension to this, of how people think and feel and organize relationships… the whole question of enmity, what I call the ideologies of enmity, or enmity structures. How do they develop in society, how do we designate who an enemy is, do we need enemies, and under what conditions? What is the process whereby we no longer hold an adversarial relationship with another power? I am struck by the fact that we seem very reluctant now to grant the Soviets any benefit of the doubt. Do we need to maintain them as the bad guys in order not to look at some of the ways in which we ourselves have contributed to the arms race?

The whole question of enmity — how do we get beyond that to more constructive images? One of our projects that we’re doing in the Center now is the entertainment summit, which is organized by Mark Gerzon, a Harvard student who graduated in the 1960’s. He decided that if you really want to reach people, you should go to Hollywood and develop new images thru television… that create possibilities of different kinds of relationships than the more hostile, brutal, enmity-stimulating films which we ‘ve seen such a rash of — Amerika, and Rambo. The plan is to bring the leading Soviet filmmakers together with their American counterparts…so that the two groups can begin to know eachother, have some sense of responsibility towards each other. I think [that it] is only prudent in the nuclear age that we should develop a more collaborative kind of relationship…

Q: In various articles on war and man’s inherent “dark side,” dating back to Einstein and Freud’s exchange in “Why War?”, the possibility of a transcendence of such a part of human nature is often raised. You speak of this transcendence in terms of a “psychological evolution,” While Joseph Nye calls it a “process utopianism.” How realistic is this view? What form could it take?

A: It’s a matter of commitment. Nothing happens in human individual or group life except by the commitment to the possibility of it. What I try to do, and what we try to do at the center, is to expand the circle of people who are committed to the possibility of something different, who won’t play the enemy game. We are committed to the breaking-up of the enmity pattern, and there is some evidence that this is happening at a higher level, even in this [Reagan] administration. There is still a wish to reach out in a more human way. The President told Gorbachev that if only there could be an invasion from outer space and we and the Soviets would get together. That’s a psychological statement; it’s saying that the enemy thing is something that we do out of fear. Gorbachev himself is beginning to introduce the notion that the enemy relationship is not simply based on differences of values and real threat and real competition, but that it grows out of some creation of images which is more a matter of perception and of a distortion of the intentions of the other — based on fear without knowledge. We work in our center with people who are involved in the actual technology of negotiation, because I think that’s where much of the application of some of these group psychological principals will have to take place. We’re in this new paradigm which is beyond enmity without even knowing that we ‘re in it.

Q: You write about the need to establish a “web of relationships” with individuals in the Soviet Union. Many ‘people are concerned that we should not promote such relationships without exerting efforts to help dissidents and refusenicks. Also, there is concern that as psychiatrists you are dealing with Soviet colleagues who abuse fundamental ethics of the profession. How do you react to such challenges?

A: I think that the two have to be related to eachother. I am not saying linkage in the hard-nosed government way, that we won’t talk about nuclear war prevention unless you do what we say on human rights issues. What I am saying is that those of us who have cultivated relationships through our mutual concern with the Soviets to avoid nuclear war, are in a good position to also be advocates of human rights. We are not simply critics attacking their system for its noteworthy faults. I co-moderated [a conference in the Soviet Union on the images of the enemy ]… and in the course of discussing real deeds that each could do to improve the perception that the other side has, I spent several minutes addressing this audience of 200 people… specifically about the holding of Jews against their will who want to come here — the refusenick groups. I spoke specifically about Koryagin [a Soviet psychiatrist imprisoned for refusing to diagnose several dissidents as insane], and I spoke about a friend of mine who I met in 1979 in the Soviet Union by the name of Mikhail Meylakh, whose main crime (he had been in a gulag for three years) as far as I could tell was that he was too friendly with Westerners. When I spoke about this publicly… it was very well [received]. Since then I’ve heard that Koryagin has been released and I know that Mikhail Meylakh has been released. I think that those of us who have developed some trusted relationships through the nuclear effort really are in a particularly [good position]… we are trusted …they know that our intentions are to work with them, we’re not simply embarrassing [or] attacking them. I think that it’s important that alongside of our work in the nuclear area, we push on things that are important to us. If its done in a context of friendship, of partnership, of trying to solve problems, not just who can make the most political points… then I think that we can do so. I see the two issues going hand in hand. Since the arms race is fueled by distrust, if you can be responsive to each others concerns, it can help take out the intensity of the fear and hatred which plays into the arms race.

Q: In the 1986 Atherton Lecture, you related your experience of having recently become more of an activist when you took part in a protest at a nuclear testing site in Nevada. Do you see yourself continuing with this new role?

A: I think that’s its a tension. You try to be an academician, [but] it’s very hard to be purely academic, intellectual and detached about these matters. I do my activism outside of the center…! don’t get the center’s support. What one does in one’s personal commitments, and what one studies intellectually, are related to eachother, but to a certain degree have to be kept separate. Everybody has their own personal views and values, and I think that the fact that someone is physically active in some way doesn’t mean that they are any less scholarly. Not to act in the nuclear age is also to act as well: it means to surrender responsibility to other people who will act instead. It’s just as activist to take a job in the defense department with responsibility for decision-making to deploy nuclear weapons; that’s being a certain kind of activist as well as someone who goes out to a test site in Nevada and tries to stop the [nuclear] testing. Activism isn’t just those who object to the system, its also those who perpetuate the system — they are activists in their own way.

If you are interested in reading more by Dr. Mack, the following is a selected list of several of his papers.

Nuclear Weapons and the Dark Side of Humankind. Political Psychology, Vol 7, No. 2, 1986.

Resistances to Knowing in the Nuclear Age. Harvard Educational Review, August, 1984, – 54(3); 260-270.

But What About the Russians? Some Psychological Dimensions of the Nuclear Arms Race. Harvard Magazine , March/April, 1982, pp.21-25, 53-54.

Action and Academia in the Nuclear Age. Harvard Magazine , Jan-Feb, 1987, pp.25- 31.

The Perception of US-Soviet Intentions and Other Psychological Dimensions of the Nuclear Arms Race. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 1982,52: 590-599.

  • John E. Mack, M.D. was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

© 1987 The Harvard Psychological Review
Credited to “The HPR Staff” (which may have included publisher Marc E. Agronin and managing editor Shawn L. Rose, et al). The Harvard Psychological Review is the official publication of the William James Society, an undergraduate organization founded at Harvard College in 1985. The WJS is dedicated to the promotion of psychological inquiry and research among students.
The sentences presented in bold appeared as call-out quotes in the original publication.