All CISAC Multimedia

Salutary Fear: Hans Morgenthau and Nuclear Catastrophe

Abstract: For a decade and a half after the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hans Morgenthau struggled to come to grips with the radical novelty of the nuclear threat. His early postwar work repeatedly deploys conventionalization arguments that treat nuclear weapons as quantitative “improvements” on the destructive capacities of conventional weapons. However, in the early 1960s, Morgenthau’s writings shifted dramatically, as he began offering an existentially bleak and terrifying account of nuclear apocalypse. This shift is puzzling because, in contrast to other more familiar cultivators of nuclear fear, Morgenthau was fundamentally wary of both apocalyptic thinking and the politics of fear. This paper seeks to account for this dramatic change and to consider what Morgenthau might have hoped to achieve by it. Politically, I suggest that this change was prompted by an understandable anxiety about the nuclear optimism of public intellectuals like Herman Kahn. Intellectually, I suggest the change emerged from a close engagement with the work of Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers who, together, gave Morgenthau a way to imagine and represent the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Ultimately, I argue that Morgenthau’s goal was to cultivate the kind of salutary fear required to construct new forms of political order that will provide the most effective bulwark against nuclear catastrophe.
Speaker Bio: Alison McQueen is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Stanford University. Her research focuses primarily on the intersection of religion and politics in early modern political thought, the history of International Relations thought, and the use of digital methods in political theory. She is currently finishing a book manuscript, Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times, which explores how Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and Hans Morgenthau responded to hopes and fears about the end of the world.