Eminent psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, now 85, has spent his life at the often dark and bloody confluence of psychology and history. He is best known for his research on the human consequences of historic mass traumas such as the bombing of Hiroshima, the Holocaust and the counterinsurgency wars of the past half century.
Dr. Lifton's studies have revealed not only the immense capacity for human cruelty and inhumanity, but also the astonishing resilience of survivors. He has striven to create a model for humane behavior as he has warned of the dangers of "totalism" or totalitarian beliefs that preclude any independent thinking. His profound understanding of pain and suffering led him to become a prominent voice against war and nuclear weapons while advancing constructive, life-affirming strategies for a more just and peaceful world.
In his new memoir, "Witness to an Extreme Century" (Simon and Schuster, $30), he traces his journey from his Brooklyn boyhood to his distinguished career in psychiatry. Dr. Lifton is a lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and distinguished professor emeritus of psychiatry and psychology at The City University of New York. His books include the National Book Award Winner "Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima," Los Angeles Times Book Prize Winner "The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide," "Superpower Syndrome: America's Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World" and more.
Did you see yourself as a doctor when you were a little boy? I did not see myself as a doctor. I was always interested in history. It wasn't clear to me how I would use history in later life.
It seems your parents significantly influenced your views. In my case my father in particular was concerned about social issues and was a progressive person. And my social and ethical concerns are part of those my parents had.
How did you react at age 19 when you heard about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
I was already in medical school because of my accelerated education. I'm rather ashamed of it, but I was joyous at hearing the news because we had a new weapon that would help us win the war quickly and I wouldn't have to fight in it. I quickly got over that response when I found out more about the atomic bomb, but my initial reaction was, unfortunately, a fairly conventional one at the time. I spent the rest of my life atoning for that first response.
American leaders believed the atom bombs would save hundreds of thousands of American lives. You disagree with that opinion. Very strongly. The use of the weapons was a grave mistake, and the war could have been won quickly without them because Japan was absolutely annihilated.
You served in the military after World War II. I was in the military only during the Korean War and served two years because of the doctor draft. I called [military service] a gift because it brought me into the world and took me to Japan and Korea. I discovered Japan with my wife and [that was] an exciting and transformative experience for us, which influenced everything that followed. It was the Air Force that made possible my highly idiosyncratic work.
Of course, my last Air Force assignment was to interview returning prisoners of war who had been subjected to thought reform by the Chinese in North Korea. Then in Hong Kong I interviewed people coming out of China who had been through that process, and that led to my very first study.
When you studied Chinese thought control or brainwashing you mentioned a concern about "totalism." What is totalism? Totalism is a psychological equivalent of totalitarianism and means an all or none system of belief and claim to ethical virtue, which leaves no room for opposition or for alternative views or approaches. It's a closing of the mind over a claim to absolute certainty. It is one of the gravest human dangers and played a major role in all of the research studies of destructive behavior [and] became a leitmotif of my work in general.
My work on thought reform is not as well-known, but it was extremely important because it gave me a chance to study a systematic process that illustrated totalism at its worst.
And I heard of not exactly systematic but parallel tendencies in the United States in relation to McCarthyism of the '50s and the terrible atmosphere. I began to feel much of the world had gone mad in that totalistic direction.
Also, in the George W. Bush years in particular -- but not only the Bush years -- I was intent on the relevance of my thought reform work for this country. Even though our behavior may not be as extreme as elsewhere, if destructive behavior on the part of others can illuminate relatively lesser transgressions on our own part, then it's our responsibility as scholars to make those connections.
Your anti-nuclear activism began even before you did the study of Hiroshima survivors in the 1960s. I came under the influence of David Riesman when I had an appointment as a research associate at Harvard. He had been an early student of nuclear danger not only of what the weapons do, but their impact on American society. It was a way of looking rather interpretively and profoundly and socially at nuclear weapons. And I tried to look at them psychologically as well.
When I was in Japan subsequently, from 1960 to 1962, on a different study on the psychology of youth, I decided after that study to make a trip to Hiroshima. That decision was influenced by Riesman.
You capture the difficulty of interviewing the Hiroshima survivors and mention their psychic numbing and your own professional numbing. I call it selective professional numbing. I could talk to people in Hiroshima about the bomb and what it did, but once I started the actual psychological interview, which meant going over in detail every aspect of the experience and hearing about the extremity of suffering and the experience of a sea of death around them and injuries and burns -- both what they themselves experienced and what they saw in others -- [it] was an overwhelming process for me. After a few interviews, I was anxious and having bad dreams.
A short time later, the anxiety diminished [and] I found myself gaining a very minimum of detachment necessary in carrying out the study. I sensed that I needed to combine compassion with a modicum of detachment to carry that out.
Then I realized that numbing or the diminished capacity to feel is, of course, an overwhelming response of survivors themselves [and] can be life saving. They needed some diminution of feeling just to survive mentally and physically. While most that I talked to were aware of the dreadful things happening in the city -- that people were dying and something extraordinary of a highly destructive nature had taken place -- what was turned off were the emotions or feelings ordinarily associated with such an experience, and that served their capacity to take action and survive. If there was too much numbing, they'd be immobilized.
Isn't an overarching theme of your work the need for connection and continuity in the face of the inevitability of death? Yes it is. I focused on death and the continuity of life as a model or a paradigm. Most psychoanalytic work before focused on a paradigm of instinct and defense: Certain instincts were sexual or destructive with various inner defenses against them that we try to mobilize in the self or ego. I sought a more encompassing model with death and the continuity of life.
In your book on Vietnam veterans, "Home From the War," you describe combat survival, death imagery and how survivors move to search for meaning. I developed a series of concepts about the psychology of survivors, but the overarching principle was the quest for meaning. I speak of all human beings as meaning-hungry creatures [who] need meaning, whether we express it or assume it in living out our lives as to why do this or that, or how we treat our children or parents.
A survivor often has had his or her meaning structure undermined or even overturned [and] spends much of his or her life seeking a meaning structure or trying to reassemble or reintegrate meaning.
Some Hiroshima survivors define their meaning and mission in telling the world what that first atomic bomb did and warning the world about nuclear weapons. That became a very important theme in my work: the idea of survivor meaning, then the idea of survivor mission that stems from survivor meaning.
You speak of atrocity-producing situations in Vietnam -- and that concept is now relevant with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. An atrocity-producing situation is so structured that very ordinary people who are in no way particularly bad can engage in atrocities, and that can be the case because of the way the environment is structured. In terms of Vietnam, body counts, free-fire zones, and search and destroy missions were military policy that made killing civilians all too easy. The kinds of experiences of soldiers, especially "angry grief" they suffered [as] buddies were killed when they were unable to engage the enemy, [are] likely to occur in counterinsurgency wars where it's hard to distinguish combatants from civilians.
The concept of the atrocity-producing situation certainly has applied in Iraq and Afghanistan as well. All counterinsurgency wars present difficulty in distinguishing combatants from civilians. There can be this license to fire and this "angry grief" in terms of what one has experienced.
Your study of Nazi doctors moved from victims to perpetrators. These interviews had to be especially challenging for you. I came to recognize that Nazi doctors and others in the biologically related professions were key people in the Holocaust. The Holocaust was a biological vision of getting rid of bad genes and bad races, in what I call the biomedical vision of healing the Nordic race by destroying those groups that had undermined it, especially the Jews, but also other races.
The Nazi doctors were the first group for which I had less than sympathy for the people I was interviewing. I encouraged the Nazi doctors to tell me in full frankness about their feelings and even conversations among Nazi doctors in places like Auschwitz. I found myself seething because they were vicious ideas and so-called jokes, and my being Jewish further intensified my feelings. I was quite aware that I would be among those the Nazis designated as those they wished to kill.
The Nazi biomedical vision of racial purity grew out of eugenics, which was taught in the United States in the early 20th century. America was a leading center for eugenics [with] Great Britain and initially moved further in the direction of eugenics than the pre-Nazi Germans.
The idea of [controlling] genetic transmission to build a more healthy race could be considered idealistic, but there were abuses in the United States and Great Britain, but at least finally it could be stopped. That contrasted with Nazi Germany, which, as a totalitarian country, simply did what was ordered by Nazi leaders, including Hitler, in a policy of forced sterilization and then what the Nazis falsely called "euthanasia" as part of what I call the creation of a biocracy. The democratic possibility of changing one's direction did not exist in totalitarian Germany.
The Nazi T4 "euthanasia" program with the destruction of so-called "mental defectives" in Germany was a step toward the Holocaust. Most of the Nazi death camps where people were systematically killed in gas chambers were constituted by transfers from killing centers for the so-called euthanasia program, which doctors on the whole ran, [establishing] a concrete link from so-called euthanasia to the Holocaust.
What lessons did you draw from your Nazi doctors study? There are many. First, it's important to confront this behavior in a scholarly way to learn exactly what it consists of and, as much as possible, what led to it. Also, [to] take a stand [against] claims of idealism that promise an improved time at the expense of another group when it comes to harming or killing another group because of the needs of the majority. When it comes to claims of the majority, one should be very suspicious.
You're a leading anti-war and anti-nuclear activist. Where are we now with our two wars and continued maintenance of a nuclear arsenal? Not only my work but the work of many others has led to a better understanding of the dangers of nuclear weapons, but that doesn't mean we've cured ourselves of what I call the spiritual disease of nuclearism: embracing the weapons with an exaggerated dependency on them.
There's a large number of nuclear weapons in the world, and there's a grave danger that they'll be used whether by us or by another country. Obama has improved the situation by speaking of nuclear abolition as a goal, but hasn't followed through to the extent many feel he should.
You've also been outspoken on medical complicity in war crimes and torture. Your work supports investigation of our own activities in war. I wrote a short piece in The New England Journal of Medicine on American doctor collusion in torture in Iraq and elsewhere. It's a great disappointment to me that the Obama administration has refused to confront participation in torture and [to determine] historical and ethical responsibility. The fact that the administration has prevented that from taking place, and the war in Afghanistan, have been my major criticisms of the Obama administration.
Where do you find hope? In the most extreme experiences, like Hiroshima or Auschwitz, there were people who managed not only to survive but to help others survive and renew their lives with extraordinary energy and find ways of living that could transform the very pain and suffering into some kind of insight and commitment to life-enhancing behavior.
Resilience is related to what I call the protean self or the many-sided self. I see the individual self in contemporary experience as having many sides and a certain amount of flexibility and capacity to renew itself and avoid dead ends.