A Conversation with Carl Sagan, Part III: Disarmament

(Note: Forty years ago I exchanged letters with Carl Sagan. In his letter, he asked me two questions. The first focused on how we might move people to think more in terms of the interests of the “human species as a whole,” rather than of individual nations. I answered this in Parts I & II.. His second question: “Since the threat of nuclear war is clearly the most likely cause of the imminent end of our civilization, what practical measures could be taken to achieve global disarmament without tempting any nuclear power to a preemptive strike?”)

Dear Professor Sagan, You seek disarmament which is a noble but very ambitious goal, probably too ambitious. Disarmament seeks to eliminate arms between rivals, a tough standard to reach given the absence of any over-arching world government or “watchman,” the primacy of national security in a state’s foreign policy, the lack of certainty in assessing a rival’s intentions, and finally the element of mistrust among states.

Arms control is a more reasonable and achievable goal. Instead of eliminating a class of arms completely, it seeks to limit arms races by setting limits on the number and types of weapons states may possess.

Before your passing in 1996, you may recall the many arms control agreements reached by the US and the Soviet Union after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. After this crisis, my family actually built a modest fallout shelter, but happily we never had to use it. Eventually, there were more than 25 conferences and agreements which lowered tensions, stabilized the military balance, helped to build trust, and reduced the risk of war.

These began with the Hot line Agreement of 1963 and included the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks of 1972 and 1979, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987, and the first two Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START) of 1991 and 1993.

After you left us, there were two more START agreements, 1997 and 2010, and also the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty of 2002.

All these agreements served to curtail the nuclear arms race and stabilize it. Nonetheless, when the Cold War—the state of tension which existed between the US and the Soviet Union since World War II—ended in 1991, the U.S. and the Soviet Union still had an excessive amount of nuclear weapons.

Since the peak in 1986 of about 70,300 nuclear weapons, the sizes of their nuclear arsenals have declined over 80% to about 13,890 in early 2019. (Other countries, possessing much smaller numbers, include France, China, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea.)

Despite this great progress made over decades by the US and Soviet Union/Russia, recent trends are not positive. During this past year, the INF Treaty, controlling nuclear weapons ranging from 300 to 3400 miles, has lapsed. The US accused Russia of violating the agreement with its new 9M729 missile system and also stated concerns about the large number of INF missiles that China, free from any treaty obligations, has built.

In response, Russian stated that it would withdraw from the treaty. President Vladimir Putin stated: “We will wait until our partners are ready to carry out an equal, substantial dialogue with us on this very important topic ….”

In February of this year, the Pentagon announced a new warhead—the first in decades for the US—to counter the alleged Russian threat. This warhead, the W76-2, will sit atop Trident long-range ballistic missiles in submarines.

Expressing the gravity of the situation, that same month former American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov published an essay in the New York Times pleading for the renewal of the New START Treaty, set to expire in February 2021. “Time is critical. Doing nothing while waiting for a ‘better’ agreement is a recipe for disaster: We could lose New START and fail to replace it. The treaty’s agreed limits on nuclear arsenals are too important to be put at risk in a game of nuclear chicken.”

It is not only between the US and Russia regarding nuclear weapons, but also elsewhere, that the trends in arms control are negative: that states are acting more according to the principles of realism and nationalism rather than liberalism. They are turning more to confrontation and power to protect their interests rather than to cooperation, diplomacy and compromise.

 In February the New York Times reported that at least six nations are “fueling mayhem in Libya,” supplying weapons, mercenaries or military advisers to rival factions battling for control of the oil-rich country.”  These states include: the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Egypt, Jordan, France, and Turkey.

In July the Wall Street Journal reported that India and China, two nuclear powers, were locked in an arms race at high altitude. High in the Himalayas they “have been engaged in a competitive military construction spree, expanding bases and building airfields….” In June the tension had boiled over into violence with 20 Indian and an unknown number of Chinese troops dead. This month both sides accused the other of firing gun shots at the other.

In August the New York Times reported that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s party in Japan, celebrating its 75th anniversary of essentially renouncing offensive warfare, has begun to consider whether Japan should acquire weapons capable of striking the missile bases of potential enemies, China and North Korea. 

A few weeks ago, the New York Times also reported on Taiwan’s efforts to upgrade its military forces in response to the increased threat it perceives from mainland China, which has suppressed protests in Hong Kong and has long threatened to use force, if necessary, to prevent Taiwan’s formal independence. President Tsai Ing-wen’s government has responded by increasing Taiwan’s defense budget last year by 5% and has stated its intention to raise it 10% this year.

In the final chapter of your book, you make a strong pitch for science, knowledge, and reason to address the problems facing humankind. You state that “… more rather than less knowledge and intelligence seems so clearly the only way out of our present difficulties and the only aperture to a significant future for mankind….” You lament the ways of thinking and “doctrines” shared by others which put faith in other things, e.g., astrology, flying saucers, ancient astronauts, photography of ghosts, scientology, psychic surgery, and “the doctrine of the special creation, by God or gods, of mankind despite our deep relatedness …with the other animals.”

Here you and I differ. The future peace and prosperity of the human species will not be secured by facts, reason, and science alone. It will rest also on our capacity to feel and communicate deeply, to empathize with and trust in each other, and when necessary, to elevate the bonds of common humanity above national or tribal bonds. (This last item is exactly what you seek in your first question to me.) Religion and art enable these better than reason and science. Not just molecules and materials but also hearts and souls.

In your second question you ask for practical measures that might be taken to pursue disarmament. At the international level, we need more communication and more agreements limiting arms.

At the state level, we need more science to verify and enforce the agreements, but also more diplomacy. Perhaps diplomats should not only meet and negotiate with fellow diplomats, but they should also come to know their extended families, especially their children.

At the citizen level, we must choose leaders that have enough liberalism to believe in agreements and enough realism not to be deceived.

Also, we should not only become expert in discovering and counting each other’s weapons, but also become expert in learning each other’s culture and worldview: learn each other’s languages, live in each other’s countries, and know each other personally. This will help us communicate better, avoid miscommunication, and promote mutual respect and understanding.

Lastly, we must continue to believe in peace. Let’s not fall into the pit of fatalism and hopelessness, but continue to sing “Peace Train” with Cat Stevens. “I’ve been smiling lately/Dreaming about the world as one/And I believe it could be/Someday it’s going to come”

“Cause I’m on the edge of darkness/There ride the Peace Train/Oh Peace Train take this country/Come take me home again.”

See also Part I (Wonder & Theory)

and Part II (Nationalism and Liberalism)


Albright, Madeleine and Igor Ivanov. “A Plea to Save the Last Nuclear Arms Treaty.” The New York Times, February 10, 2020.

Blanton, Shannon L. and Charles W. Kegley. World Politics: Trend and Transformation, 17th ed. US: Cengage, 2021.

Gettleman, Jeffrey. “India and China Accuse Each Other of Firing Shots.” The New York Times, September 9, 2020.

Lubold, Gordon. “U.S. Adds Warhead to Nuclear Arsenal.” The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2020.

Mearsheimer, John J. The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

Miller, Nicholas L. and Vipin Narang. “Is a New Nuclear Age Upon Us?” Foreign Affairs, December 30, 2019.

Myers, Steven Lee and Javier C. Hernandez. “As China Flexes, Taiwan Revamps Its Military. The New York Times, August 31, 2020.

Rich, Motoko. “A Fraught Proposal for a Pacifist Japan: Should It Acquire Missiles?” The New York Times, August 17, 2020.

Sagan, Carl. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. NY: Ballantine, 1977.

Simmons, Ann M. and James Marson. “Russia’s Exit Unravels Arms Agreement.” The Wall Street Journal, February 4, 2019, A6.

Spindle, Bill and Ann Rajesh Roy. China and India Locked in High-Altitude Arms Race. The Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2020, A7.

Walsh, Declan. “United Nations Effort to Limit Arms in Libya Is Flouted on All Sides.” The New York Times, February 3, 2020.

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Alice Paul and the Silent Sentinels Spearheaded Suffrage Campaign

(This essay is the first in a series on Famous Women. It was originally published by the Newport Daily News on August 29, 2020. )

I am always stunned by the fact that, until one hundred years ago and only after a hard-fought campaign of over 70 years, women in the U.S. did not have the most basic political right in a democracy—the right to vote. Alice Paul played a central role in effecting this dramatic change.

In the election of November, 1916, Woodrow Wilson, not a supporter of women’s suffrage, had won a second term as president. Despite many meetings, speeches, rallies, parades, and other actions, women still did not have the right to vote in national elections. They had made some progress on the state level; by 1914, ten western states (+ Kansas) had given the vote to women in state elections. Illinois had given it in presidential elections. (In Rhode Island, women would win the right to vote in presidential elections in April 1917.)

Led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, women suffragists—people who supported women’s right to vote—of the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage, met in early January 1917, at their new headquarters located near the White House.

Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of suffragist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, told the group: “We have got to bring to the President, day by day, week in, week out, the idea that great numbers of women want to be free, will be free, and want to know what he is going to do about it. We need to have a silent vigil in front of the White House until his inauguration in March.”

On January 10, 1917, a dozen or so women did what no one had ever done before: They picketed the White House. They braved the winter cold, marched to the sidewalk in front of the White House, and stood silently holding signs: “MR. PRESIDENT, WHAT WILL YOU DO FOR WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE?” “HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR LIBERTY?” These were the “Silent Sentinels.”

Silent Sentinels (wikipedia.org)

Alice Paul informed the press that the pickets would be there from 10 am to 6 pm, every day except Sundays, until the presidential inauguration.

The impact was immediate and mostly negative, even among suffragists, but this only stiffened Paul’s resolve. The pickets continued day in and day out. In foul weather, the women rotated shifts ever two hours.

In April, the U.S. joined the world at war. This had a positive effect overall on the suffrage campaign. Young men willing to die overseas for liberty made the country more sympathetic to the cause of women’s political rights.

Nonetheless, with the warmer spring weather came occasional violence involving the pickets and also continued embarrassment for the White House. The White House and the police of the district became increasingly frustrated with the turmoil and tried to negotiate with the women. Alice Paul was unmoved. On June 21, 1917, District Superintendent of Police Raymond Pullman told Paul: “If anybody goes out again on the picket line, it will be our duty to arrest them.”


The police arrested the women and charged them with blocking traffic and unlawful assembly.

After a series of protests and arrests in July, Judge Alexander Mullowney offered those arrested fines or three days in jail. The suffragists chose jail.

With the protests and arrests continuing, the judge increased the punishment to 60 days in the Workhouse in Occoquan, VA, or a $25 fine. Again, the women chose jail. The Workhouse offered harsh living conditions, horrible food, and limited contact with the outside world.

On October 20, 1917, Alice Paul herself was arrested and sentenced to seven months in the district jail. As she left the courtroom, she said: “I am being imprisoned …because I pointed out to the President Wilson the fact that he was obstructing the cause of democracy and justice at home, while Americans fight for it abroad.”

Alice Paul

In November she began a hunger strike which led to force-feeding. She was taken to the psychiatric ward, strapped down, and a tube placed up her nose, through which the staff forced raw eggs and milk, three times daily.

More protests, arrests, hunger-strikes, and force-feedings of women followed.

On June 9, 1918, President Wilson finally relented, announcing his support for the 19th Amendment, the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment.” He noted that public sentiment for it had grown and cited America’s standing in the world as a beacon of democracy.

The amendment passed Congress on June 4, 1919, and took effect when the 36th state, Tennessee, ratified it in August 1920.  Overnight the voting population of the country doubled. Whether women of color had the ability to vote is another question—and another column.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.


Alice Paul. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Paul.

Accessed August 24, 2020.

Cassidy, Tina. “The Silent Sentinels: Unyielding Warriors in the Brutal Fight for the 19th Amendment.” National Geographic History, July/August 2020, 58-70.

Davidson, James West et al. Experience America: Interpreting America’s Past. NY: McGraw Hill, 2011.

Editorial Board, The New York Times. “The Milestone and the Myth Called the 19th Amendment.” The New York Times, August 8, 2020.

Stevens, Elizabeth C. “The Struggle for Woman Suffrage in Rhode Island.” http://library.providence.edu/encompass/the-struggle-for-woman-suffrage-in-rhode-island/the-struggle-for-woman-suffrage-in-rhode-island/#:~:text=The%20struggle%20to%20achieve%20women’s,skills%20to%20gain%20the%20vote.

Accessed August 24, 2020.

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World War Two Ends with Great Impacts on US

(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on August 14, 2020.)

Seventy-five years ago today, Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allies, ending World War II. In 1984, historian, actor, and broadcaster Studs Terkel published an oral history of the war and entitled it, “The Good War,” winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1985. It was indeed the last of America’s “good wars:” clear provocation, clear enemies, clear battle lines, clear objectives, a unified nation, and—most important—a clear and satisfying victory.

There was jubilation across America, especially in mid-town New York City, where police estimated that 2 million people celebrated. One of those people was Middletown native George Mendonsa, a sailor on leave. Amid all the celebration and revelry, George suddenly grabbed and kissed a woman unknown to him, dental assistant, Greta Zimmer Friedman, an iconic moment captured by photographer George Eisenstaedt.

In an interview in 2012, George said: “The excitement of the war bein’ over, plus I had a few drinks. So when I saw the nurse I grabbed her, and I kissed her.” For her part, Greta explained: “I did not see him approaching, and before I know it I was in this vice grip.”

In human terms, over 16.1 million men and women served in the U.S. armed forces. There were 406,000 deaths—292,000 battle deaths and 114,000 non-combat deaths—and 672,000 wounded.

Because of the opportunities and training available in the services, minorities enlisted in unusually high numbers, but prejudice and segregation remained high. In the Army, blacks were given generally non-combat roles; in the Navy, they served as cooks and servants. The American Red Cross kept plasma separated for blacks and whites, with a touch of irony as the process for storing plasma was invented by a black physician, Charles Drew.

Despite these handicaps, more than one million African American men and women served during the war. Included in these were the Tuskegee airmen, the first black military aviators in the Army Air Corps. Over two years, they flew over 15,000 sorties in Europe and North Africa, earning over 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

The war had tremendous impacts on our country on many levels. Economically, the Gross National Product shot up from $91 billion annually to $166 billion. The war put a definitive end to the Great Depression of the 1930s. New industries, such as synthetic rubber, were created, and others, such as electronics, were greatly boosted.

The federal government became larger and more complex, centralizing more power and extending its reach into American life, a process  begun in World War I.

Internationally, the United States now became the world’s greatest power, soon to be labeled a superpower, accentuated by our vast production capabilities, our untouched homeland, and our monopoly of atomic weapons. While France and the United Kingdom were on the winning side, they were devastated and exhausted from six years of war. The Soviet Union, our other major ally, had lost 26 million military and civilians.

Close to home, long before the U.S. entered the war, the Naval War College was preparing for it, specifically, how to wage war against Japan. During the inter-war period (1919-1941), naval officers war-gamed the many scenarios of such a war and refined the Navy’s war plan against it—War Plan Orange. When war came, the navy was well-prepared for all contingencies.

After the war concluded, Admiral Chester Nimitz said that every tactic used by Japan, except for the kamikaze attacks, had been anticipated and planned for.

Naval Station Newport, of course, was a very busy place during the war. About 150,000 sailors trained there. On Goat and Gould Islands, thousands of torpedoes were made by the Torpedo Station. At Melville in Portsmouth, sailors—including future president John F. Kennedy—underwent PT boat training.

In 1943, 15-year old Nora Sliva, sister of three brothers serving in the military, saw a notice on a school bulletin board in Durfee High School, Fall River. The Torpedo Station was seeking workers. In an interview for this paper in 2016, she related her story. “It was the war. They needed help.” Hired in June 1943, she had three different jobs before the war ended: nuts and bolts, explosives, and finally office work.

Every Friday night, she and her friends would stay in Newport and go dancing at the local USO club. Sailors were everywhere.

I am sure that one of the songs she danced to many times was “Moonlight Serenade,” a song released in 1939 which became the signature song of the Glenn Miller Band.

I stand at your gate and the song that I sing is of moonlight
I stand and I wait for the touch of your hand in the June night
The roses are sighing a moonlight serenade

The stars are a glow and tonight how their light sets me dreaming
My love, do you know that your eyes are like stars brightly beaming?
I bring you and sing you a moonlight serenade

Let us stray till break of day in love’s valley of dreams
Just you and I a summer sky, a heavenly breeze kissing the trees
So don’t let me wait come to me tenderly in the June night

I stand at your gate and I sing you a song in the moonlight
A love song, my darling, a moonlight serenade
We can stay, till break of day

[Source: Musixmatch. Songwriters: Glenn Miller / Mitchell Parish

Moonlight Serenade lyrics © Chappell & Co., Emi Robbins Catalog Inc., Emi Music Publishing France, Emi Robbins Catalog Inc]

In 1942, Glenn Miller, 38 years old, chose to leave his successful civilian career as bandleader and to volunteer for military service, eventually forming a 50-piece military band. On December 15, 1944, Miller was flying from England to Paris when his airplane disappeared over the English Channel.

He once said: “America means freedom and there’s no expression of freedom quite so sincere as music.”

A retired Army officer, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.


Baker, Joe. “Days of Old: Woman Recalls Time Spent Working on Goat Island at the Torpedo Factory during World War II.” The Newport Daily News, October 22, 2016, p. 1.

Calvocoressi, Peter and Guy Wint. Total War. NY: Penguin, 1972.

 “George Mendonsa, sailor kissing woman in iconic V-J Day photo, dies.” CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/george-mendonsa-died-wwii-sailor-kissing-nurse-in-times-square-from-iconic-photo-dead-age-95/  Accessed August 10, 2020.

“Glenn Miller.” Wikipedia.org. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glenn_Miller. Accessed August 10, 2020.

“The Good War.” Wikipedia.org. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Good_War, Accessed August 10, 2020.

“Moonlight Serenade.” Wikipedia.org. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moonlight_Serenade, Accessed August 10, 2020.

Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of World War II. NY: William Morrow and Company, 1980.

Sweeney, Phil. “Education, Training, and Research.” The Newport Daily News, December 31, 1999, p. 5

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A Conversation with Carl Sagan, Part II: Nationalism over Liberalism

(Note: Forty years ago this month, I finished reading Carl Sagan’s book, “The Dragons of Eden.” I wrote him a long letter. He wrote back and asked me two questions. The first: “What would be necessary to make the reader [of a possible book on international relations] consider not just what is best for one nation or power group in a single nation, but for the human species as a whole? I never answered him; this is Part II of my answer. Part I was published in the Newport Daily News on July 25. This was originally published in the Newport Daily News on July 27, 2020.)

To see how these theories of realism and liberalism stand up, let’s look at how the U.S. and China are acting during this COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the early 1990s, the U.S. has been the world’s only genuine superpower, though it has been buffeted by challenges such as the attacks on 9/11, the Great Recession of 2008, and now the Coronavirus Pandemic. China’s power and influence have been rising during this same period.

Amid the pandemic, liberalism theory would suggest that these two powers would think not just of their own people but, in your words, think “for the human species as a whole.” The theory would predict that they would combine their efforts to save lives across the globe, which has seen virtually every country struck by the virus. At this writing, there have been almost 14 million cases and 590,000 deaths. In the U.S., there have been 3.5 million cases with 138,000 deaths.

But while the U.S. and China have cooperated at times over the past six months, both countries now appear to be acting according to political realism and not political liberalism.

Rather than open and robust cooperation in addressing the pandemic, there is increasing tension over trade, technology, and China’s punitive measures against Hong Kong and its Xinjiang region. Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, stated recently that the US has worsened relations to their lowest level since the two countries re-established diplomatic relations in 1979. He stated: “The current China policy of the United States is based on ill-informed strategic miscalculation and is fraught with emotions and whims and McCarthyist bigotry.”

Liberalism theory would also suggest that the World Health Organization (WHO), the responsible United Nations agency, would provide some leadership and coordination in the pandemic and that states would cooperate with it for the common good. However, the U.S. has not done so. On May 18, President Donald Trump, in a letter to the director general of the WHO, accused it of an “alarming” dependence on China. It stated: “It is clear the repeated missteps by you and your organization in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly for the world.”

Early this month the U.S. formally notified the WHO that it will withdraw from it, ending its 72-year membership, a move which critics believe will hamper international efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rather than open and aggressive medical cooperation and coordination between the U.S. and China to develop a vaccine, on May 14 the U.S. accused Chinese hackers of targeting American universities, pharmaceutical and other health-related firms to steal intellectual property related to coronavirus treatments, vaccines, and testing. The U.S. government alert stated: “The potential theft of this information jeopardizes the delivery of secure, effective, and efficient treatment options.”

All this does not portend well for your hope of international cooperation among states for the good of the human species rather than confrontation and competition. States remain the most important actors in the world political system, and they control the majority of the means of violence. They are led by humans who perceive and misperceive, trust and mistrust, and in situations where the intentions of other states are shadowy, they put the interests of their state first.

Since the global scourges of climate change, nuclear proliferation, and now the coronavirus have yet to lead to an over-riding concern for the human species, as you wished for, perhaps the only answer may come from outer space, in the field close to your heart—extraterrestrial life. If aliens invade, as in the films “Independence Day” and “War of the Worlds,” perhaps then states would finally unite to save the human species.

See Part I (Wonder and Theory)

and Part III (Disarmament)


Albright, Madeleine and Igor Ivanov. “A Plea to Save the Last Nuclear Arms Treaty.” The New York Times, February 10, 2020.

Blanton, Shannon L. and Charles W. Kegley. World Politics: Trend and Transformation, 17th ed. US: Cengage, 2021.

Gettleman, Jeffrey. “India and China Accuse Each Other of Firing Shots.” The New York Times, September 9, 2020.

Lubold, Gordon. “U.S. Adds Warhead to Nuclear Arsenal.” The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2020.

Mearsheimer, John J. The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

Miller, Nicholas L. and Vipin Narang. “Is a New Nuclear Age Upon Us?” Foreign Affairs, December 30, 2019.

Myers, Steven Lee and Javier C. Hernandez. “As China Flexes, Taiwan Revamps Its Military. The New York Times, August 31, 2020.

Rich, Motoko. “A Fraught Proposal for a Pacifist Japan: Should It Acquire Missiles?” The New York Times, August 17, 2020.

Sagan, Carl. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. NY: Ballantine, 1977.

Simmons, Ann M. and James Marson. “Russia’s Exit Unravels Arms Agreement.” The Wall Street Journal, February 4, 2019, A6.

Spindle, Bill and Ann Rajesh Roy. China and India Locked in High-Altitude Arms Race. The Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2020, A7.

Walsh, Declan. “United Nations Effort to Limit Arms in Libya Is Flouted on All Sides.” The New York Times, February 3, 2020.

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A Conversation with Carl Sagan, Part I: Wonder and Theory

(Note: This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on July 25, 2020.)

Forty years ago this month, I had just finished reading Carl Sagan’s book, “The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence,” a book for which he earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1978. The David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Cornell University from 1976 to his death in 1996, Sagan was a famous scientist of many fields relating to the universe: astronomy, planetary science, astrophysics, and astrobiology.

He became best known for his research on extraterrestrial life. He was the author, co-author, or editor of over 600 scientific papers and over 20 books. He narrated and co-wrote the award-winning television series: Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.  

As the sub-title suggests, Sagan takes the reader on a wonderful and stimulating journey around the brains of our ancestors—human and non-human—and our brains today. He then speculates on the growth of our intelligence by explaining the various parts of our brain, their functions, and why we think, speak, act, feel, and even dream the way we do.

The book is magisterial in its scope, its composition, and its readability. He casts a wide net in quoting from the ancients, like Plato and Aristotle, and important writers and thinkers of the past five centuries, like John Milton, William Shakespeare, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and Sigmund Freud.

Among other things, the book gave me the gift of wonder. Many times throughout Sagan brings the reader to a certain point and then, he “wonders.” In his section dealing with human emotions, he wonders: “Do horses on occasion have glimmerings of patriotic fervor? Do dogs feel for humans something akin to religious ecstasy? What other strong or subtle emotions are felt by animals that do not communicate with us?”

He wonders: “Are our nighttime dreams of flying and daytime passions for flight … nostalgic reminiscences of those days gone by in the branches of the high forest?”

In his section on the competition among early smaller hominids and later humans, he wonders: “I sometimes wonder whether our myths about gnomes, trolls, giants, and dwarfs could possibly be a genetic or cultural memory of those times.”

Upon reading the book in 1980, I was so moved that I wrote him a long letter. Six months later, he wrote back and asked me two questions. The first: “What would be necessary to make the reader [of a possible book on international relations] consider not just what is best for one nation or power group in a single nation, but for the human species as a whole? I never answered him; this is my answer.

Dear Professor Sagan: This possible book would have to deal with how the world political system works and would therefore have to deal with the two major theories of the system. A theory or model of the system is necessary, as in your work, because the system is complicated with many moving parts and unknowns. It does not conform to a clear and definitive set of mathematical equations which exist, for example, in astrophysics or planetary science.

My own definition of “theory” is: a set of assumptions and descriptive statements about a field of study which explain and predict behavior. When I say “explain,” I mean that it must deal with the “Why?” the causality, of things. Leonardo Da Vinci said: “He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards a ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.”

The two major theories in world politics are: realism and liberalism. In very simple terms, political realism views the world political system as anarchy with no fixed, agreed-upon rules and no over-arching government or “watchman.” States are the most important actors, not humans or international organizations. In this environment, states are compelled to look after their own interests. They do this by seeking power and influence. Virtues, such as kindness and generosity, may be laudable for individuals, but they should have no place in a state’s decision-making. They will get you into trouble.

Political liberalism, on the other hand, emphasizes the unity and goodness of humankind. States may be the most important actors, but individuals make decisions for states, and they can make a difference. While it accepts that the system is one of anarchy, it has faith in people and in diplomacy to create institutions and to establish rules to lessen inequality and the use of violence to settle disputes.

You can see, Professor Sagan, that you—and I—both hope that more states conform and adhere to the principles of liberalism.

See also Part II (Nationalism and Liberalism)

and Part III (Disarmament)


Albright, Madeleine and Igor Ivanov. “A Plea to Save the Last Nuclear Arms Treaty.” The New York Times, February 10, 2020.

Blanton, Shannon L. and Charles W. Kegley. World Politics: Trend and Transformation, 17th ed. US: Cengage, 2021.

Gettleman, Jeffrey. “India and China Accuse Each Other of Firing Shots.” The New York Times, September 9, 2020.

Lubold, Gordon. “U.S. Adds Warhead to Nuclear Arsenal.” The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2020.

Mearsheimer, John J. The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

Miller, Nicholas L. and Vipin Narang. “Is a New Nuclear Age Upon Us?” Foreign Affairs, December 30, 2019.

Myers, Steven Lee and Javier C. Hernandez. “As China Flexes, Taiwan Revamps Its Military. The New York Times, August 31, 2020.

Rich, Motoko. “A Fraught Proposal for a Pacifist Japan: Should It Acquire Missiles?” The New York Times, August 17, 2020.

Sagan, Carl. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. NY: Ballantine, 1977.

Simmons, Ann M. and James Marson. “Russia’s Exit Unravels Arms Agreement.” The Wall Street Journal, February 4, 2019, A6.

Spindle, Bill and Ann Rajesh Roy. China and India Locked in High-Altitude Arms Race. The Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2020, A7.

Walsh, Declan. “United Nations Effort to Limit Arms in Libya Is Flouted on All Sides.” The New York Times, February 3, 2020.

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Slavery Today

(Note: This essay was originally published on June 27, 2020, by the Newport Daily News. It is the 10th and final essay in the series: Slavery in Rhode Island. For the complete series, go to www.zilianblog.com)

To many Americans the term “slavery” evokes an image of people of color in chains enduring the horrible middle passage or toiling in cotton fields in the antebellum South. However, not only in distant lands but also in our own country, slavery—in one form or another—thrives today.

Modern slavery is one of several terms used today to distinguish it from the earlier slavery that flourished for centuries. The State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) (June 2019) states: “The United States considers ‘trafficking in persons,’ ‘human trafficking,’ and ‘modern slavery’ to be interchangeable umbrella terms that refer to both sex and labor trafficking.” The United Nations includes in these terms forced labor, debt bondage, and forced marriage.

At the end of the 20th century, increasing attention was paid to this growing scourge of modern slavery. In June 2000, the New York Times reported: “Trafficking in people is now the fastest-growing business of organized crime, and it is being run by new, barely understood networks that have sidelined traditional criminal syndicates,” according to Pino Arlacchi, then director  general of the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention.

To combat the trafficking in persons, the United States passed into law the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, which has been renewed by successive administrations. That same year the international community enacted the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (the Palermo Protocol), the first international legislation to define “trafficking in persons” and offer insight into the criminal system. As of March, 2019, 173 parties had ratified the Palermo Protocol and 168 countries had passed domestic legislation criminalizing human trafficking.

From a global perspective, the magnitude of the problem is stunning. The International Labour Organization of the UN gives these figures: 40.3 million people are victims of modern slavery which includes 24.9 million in forced labor and 15.4 million in forced marriages. Of the millions in forced labor, 16 million are exploited in the private sector such as domestic work, construction, or agriculture, 4.8 million in sexual exploitation, and 4 million in labor controlled by state authorities. Women and girls account for 99% of the victims in the commercial sex industry. It also estimates that 150 million children are subject to child labor, almost one in ten children worldwide.

Child laborer in India (antislavery.org)

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, in his cover letter to the TIP Report, focuses on victims in forced labor: “Right now traffickers are robbing a staggering 24.9 million people of their freedom and basic human dignity….”

The TIP Report offers typical examples of modern slavery. In Brazil, after victims join certain religious groups or cults, traffickers exploit them in forced labor in farming, factories, and restaurants.  In Cambodia, women and girls who leave rural areas and come to tourist destination cities are exploited sexually by traffickers in massage parlors, karaoke bars, and beer gardens. In Ethiopia, traffickers may deceive parents living in rural areas into sending their children to major cities as domestic workers. In the United Kingdom, gangs force children to carry drugs. Here in the U.S., traffickers tend to exploit children in foster care by engaging them in sex trafficking.

In March the Wall Street Journal reported on sex trafficking networks in the United States and the many lawsuits being filed against major hotel chains, such as Hilton, Marriott, and Wyndham, for ignoring the sex trafficking at their hotels. The lawsuit by “S.Y.,” one of dozens filed across the country, states the hotels, including  Hilton and Wyndham, profited from sex trafficking and that they were aware of it or should have been aware of it. At that time there were 40 lawsuits filed in federal courts, others in state courts, with dozens more to follow in the next year.

The lawsuits describe the common patterns. Rooms were paid for in cash, sometimes for weeks at a time. Many alleged victims were minors. The lawsuits assert that hotel staff should have recognized the signs of trafficking: bottles of lubricants, boxes of condoms, excessive requests for sheets and towels. Men came to the same rooms, often more than a dozen times each night, without luggage.

One accuser, “H.H.,” stated that a hotel staffer found her chained in the bathroom in one hotel and tied to a bed in another.

S. Y. filed her suit about three years after local police discovered her in a hotel room in 2016. They arrested her two pimps who had given her unlimited drugs and kept all her earnings.

She indicated: “I wasn’t chained here, but I had invisible chains holding me to these guys.”

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.


Crossette, Barbara. “Trafficking in People: World’s ‘Fastest-Growing Criminal Market.” International Herald Tribune, June 26, 2000.

Helplineri.com. Human Trafficking. https://www.helplineri.com/human-trafficking

Accessed June 24, 2020.

“International Day for the Abolition of Slavery 2 December.” https://www.un.org/en/events/slaveryabolitionday/index.shtml

Accessed June 24, 2020.

Ramey, Corinne. “Lawsuits Accuse Big Hotel Chains of Allowing Sex Trafficking.” The Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2020.

U.S. Department of State. Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. https://www.state.gov/bureaus-offices/under-secretary-for-civilian-security-democracy-and-human-rights/office-to-monitor-and-combat-trafficking-in-persons/#:~:text=The%20Office%20to%20Monitor%20and,efforts%20and%20identifying%20global%20trends%2C

Accessed June 24, 2020.

U.S. Department of State. “Trafficking In Persons Report.” Washington, DC, June 2019.

“Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victims_of_Trafficking_and_Violence_Protection_Act_of_2000. Accessed June 24, 2020.

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A Reflection on Marriage and the Family

(Note: An abridged version of this essay was published by the Newport Daily News on June 13, 2020.)

Fifty years ago this weekend, my wife, Geri, and I were married on a sun-drenched day at the Catholic church at West Point, overlooking the picturesque Hudson River Valley.

Reaching such a milestone is at once quite celebratory and sobering; it is also a good occasion for reflection.

Sadly, that time, as today, was a period of great strife and turmoil in our country. The late 1960s were fraught with political and social unrest, spurred on by several movements: civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, feminism, and the counter-culture. Six weeks before our wedding on June 14, 1970, Ohio national guardsmen shot and killed four college students and wounded nine others at Kent State University, during a protest against the recent U.S. military incursion into Cambodia. On May 15, state police shot into a dormitory at Jackson State College in Mississippi, killing two students and wounding 12 others.

Despite our progress in civil rights since that period, a resilient racism persists in America, and we have paid for it this past month. Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, journalist William A. Galston stated: “I fear, as never before, for the future of my country.”

Living four blocks apart in the same hometown in New Jersey, Geri and I have known each other since the age of five. Marriage, unmarred by divorce, was the rule in both our extended families.

On my side, in addition to my own immediate family, I had the example of a total of 14 sets of aunts and uncles, with only two divorces. I learned that marriage was commitment.

With all these relatives, most living within a 30-minute drive, my immediate family of five shared Sundays, holidays, weddings, funerals, and other special events. They became important and reliable sources of happy times, dependability, and mutual support.

When the furnace died, Uncle Mike showed up. When godfather Uncle John could not make it, older Cousin George filled in as my sponsor at Confirmation. Uncle Frank showed up with his camera at special family events; he took my Confirmation picture. When the kitchen ceiling was in need of repair, Uncle Gus helped my father fix it. When my mother started to fail, her many sisters went to the local Shop-Rite for the groceries. I learned service to family and dependability. When in need, family shows up.

As early baby-boomers from middle class, suburban America, both raised in an American-Italian culture, Geri and I searched for mates in our college years. To me personally, it was another essential preparatory step—a rite of passage—to launch into true adulthood. We shared two presumptions: Our marriage would be a life-long commitment. Second, we would have several children early. Without children, we would not have a genuine “family.”

The young tend to define love as physical attraction and sexual passion, giddily wonderful and enthralling. It is this; however, whether in six months or in six years the passion eventually wanes. The honeymoon euphoria evolves into the unglamorous everyday—cutting the lawn, packing lunches, emptying the house gutters, completing the tax forms, changing the diapers, driving the kids to soccer practice. Over our 50 years, I have learned that love is also a decision—a decision which one makes often.

In its special report on marriage, “A Looser Knot,” the influential British magazine, The Economist, looked at marriage worldwide and made three major observations: Marriage decisions are increasingly made by the young people getting married, not their older relatives. Second, “marriage has changed from a rite of passage to a celebration of love and commitment—a sign that two people who already live together are ready to commit themselves further.” Third, there is a growing acceptance of divorce.

In his essay, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” (The Atlantic, March 2020) David Brooks explains that historically extended families were the rule—several generations living together. He argues that the nuclear family—two parents + children—flourished in America for only a short period of time, 1950-1965. The successful family of that period has been replaced “by the stressed family of every decade since.”

He states that the pressures on the family have been mostly cultural. The “self,” privacy, and autonomy have become more important than the family. The women’s movement has given women more freedoms and choices. Much more so today, marriage has come to be about individual fulfillment. In my case, my children and grandchildren came to be a part of my fulfillment rather than hindrances to it.

He ends his essay on a positive note, indicating that the stressed nuclear family is giving way to larger “chosen families” and “forged families,” composed of family and friends, these offering the same kinds of benefits the extended family once gave.

My immediate and extended families, coupled with my “forged family” of lifelong friends, have been sources of great happiness, comfort, security, and practical help, as they continue to be. During a downturn in my health years ago, my wife and family pulled me—at times dragged me—through it, sometimes making decisions for me when I could not make them myself. We all pulled each other through the passing of my son, Tom, last year. On a practical note, my twin grandsons, Anthony and Vincent just finished helping me with back-breaking yardwork.

On the level of American society, I believe the family—along with community—are the best “incubators” of good citizens, teaching important values needed not only for family but for citizenship: commitment to something larger than self, responsibility, rules and order, the limits of individual freedom, civility and manners, along with other important intangibles, such as faith and trust. They, rather than schools or government, are the best developers of character and the best inculcators of virtues, such as patience, civility, and empathy, sorely needed today.

Second, in his farewell address to the nation in 1989, President Ronald Reagan said: “All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” I wonder if our great challenge of anti-racism really begins at our family dinner tables.

Of course, I lament the negative trends for the American family I have witnessed in my lifetime: increased divorce rates and increased births to unwed mothers. Since the Great Recession of 2008, the U.S. fertility rate has dropped; last year it hit a record low of 1.7, well below the rate of 2.1 needed to sustain a population.

With all the restrictions and isolation forced upon us during the pandemic, I did observe some benefits. Instead of working out alone at the local fitness center, I frequently took walks with Geri. On our walks on Water Street here in Portsmouth, we encountered whole families walking and biking together, rather than the solitary walkers and bikers before the pandemic. On our walks we greeted more people unknown to us than ever before. My hard-working son-in-law, Marc, was able to spend quality time with his children, my grandchildren. Geri has finally begun to paint for pleasure with our granddaughter, Mary Jane. And after 20 years, without my wife begging me, I finally painted the cellar stairs.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.


Adamy, Janet. “U.S. Birthrates Fall to Record-Low Level.” The Wall Street Journal, May 20, 2020.

Brooks, David. “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” The Atlantic, March 2020, 55-69.

Galston, William A. “I’ve Never Been So Afraid for America.” The Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2020.

A Looser Knot. Special Report: Marriage. The Economist, November 25, 2017. 1-5.

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Little Richard Helped to Birth Rock ’n’ Roll

(Note: This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on May 25, 2020.)

The passing of Little Richard earlier this month was a good occasion for me to take an easy stroll down the memory lane of music to the beginning of Rock ’n’ Roll. I dove deep into my music vault to find his first big hit, “Tutti Frutti,” released September 1955, but I was able to find only “Good Golly, Miss Molly.” Sitting back and listening, I was not disappointed—wild, loud, electrifying exuberance and energy.

Sixty-five years ago, Richard Penniman, known as Little Richard, was there at the dawn of Rock ’n’ Roll. He joined the other originators and shapers, including Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, and Elvis Presley and groups like the Platters (Only You, The Great Pretender), the Penguins (Earth Angel), the El Dorados (At My Front Door), and the Spaniels (Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite).

Speaking of Little Richard, rock historian Richie Unterberger said, “He was crucial in upping the voltage from high-powered R & B into the similar, yet different, guise of rock ’n’ roll.” Richard would succeed in having ten Top-40 hits before he turned to God and gospel music in 1959.


In that transformative year of 1955, I was just a young lad of seven; however, I was lucky enough to have a sister six years older who played this new sound of rock ’n’ roll on the family radio and on her portable phonograph. Sister Diana and girlfriend Arlene sat on the floor in the corner of our living room, clad in slacks or skirts and bobby socks, and swooned to Elvis’ big hits in 1956: “Heartbreak Hotel”; “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”; “Don’t Be Cruel” with flip side “Hound Dog”; and “Love Me Tender.”

In addition to this music, two movies were released in 1955 which helped to articulate, shape, and propel the raucous and rebellious teenage culture. In March, “The Blackboard Jungle” was released, starring Glenn Ford as a high school history teacher in an inner-city school and Sidney Poitier as a rebellious and musically talented student. Bill Haley and the Comets had released their song, “Rock Around the Clock,” the year before, without great success. However, when the group sang it at the beginning of the movie, teenagers in theaters across the country danced in the aisles. Sixty-five years ago this month, it entered the Top 40 charts, rose to No. 1, and remained there for eight weeks, becoming an iconic song of the birth of Rock ’n’ Roll.


The second significant movie was “Rebel Without a Cause,” starring a young, hard-edged, 1950s –cool James Dean. The film focused on the decay of youth morality, parenting, and generational conflict. Dean died in a car accident one month before its release. Like Sylvester Stallone’s hooded look in “Rocky” twenty years later, James Dean’s look and sense of alienation came to permeate youth culture.

Rock ’n’ Roll and youth culture blasted off in the mid-1950s with Little Richard and these other artists and songs that I remember in particular: In July 1955, Fats Domino released “Ain’t That a Shame,” which hit No. 10 and remained on the charts for 13 weeks. Fats went on to have 37 top-40 hits, 1955-1963.

In August 1955, Chuck Berry released “Maybellene,” which rose to No. 5 and stayed on the charts for 11 weeks. He followed it with “Roll Over Beethoven” in 1956, and “School Day” and “Rock and Roll Music” in 1957.

First recording for Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1954, 19-year old Elvis Presley signed with RCA Records in November 1955. His first big hit on the Pop Chart, “Heartbreak Hotel,” entered the Top-40 in March 1956. It rose to No. 1 and remained there for eight weeks. In that year alone, Elvis had five No. 1 hits, including “Don’t be Cruel”/”Hound Dog.” With 11 weeks at the top spot, this hit tied the record for most consecutive weeks at No. 1, a record which held for decades until Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” (14 weeks at No. 1).

The emerging rock ’n’ roll culture brought on a wave of criticism and condemnation from worried pastors, parents, and commentators who branded it “devil’s music.” After all, the up-tempo songs and the dancing at times could exude such sensuality and sexuality.

Some hoped that it was just a passing flash. In “Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll,” authors Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker state that some people thought it “was nothing but a momentary craze, something the teens would grow out of, like the Davy Crockett fad that had swept the nation in 1955.”

But it would be neither tamed nor terminated. As Danny and the Juniors sang in early 1958: “Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay/It will never die/ It was meant to be that way/Though I don’t know why/I don’t care what people say/Rock ‘n roll is here to stay.”

“Closet DJ” Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.


Kot, Greg. “Rock and Roll.”


Accessed May 19, 2020.

Ward, Ed, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker. Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stones

  History of Rock & Roll. NY: Rolling Stone Press, 1986.

Weiner, Tim, “Little Richard, Flamboyant Wild Man of Rock ’n’ Roll, Dies at 87.”

The New York Times, May 9, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/09/arts/music/little-richard-dead.html. Accessed May 10, 2020.

Whitburn, Joel. The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits. NY: Billboard Books, 1992.

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Coronavirus May Generate New Civic Spirit

April 13, 2020

(Note: This essay was originally published at thehill.com on April 23, 2020, as “Could the coronavirus create a new civic spirit in America?”)

While the coronavirus does unutterable harm to Americans, it also presents us with a great opportunity to think and act once again more as citizens, rather than consumers, techno-internet citizens, and hyphenated Americans, as many of us have become during the last decades.

As a human body is only as healthy as its individual cells, so a civilization or modern state is only as healthy as its individual citizens, a word we draw from the Latin word “civis,” meaning citizen. From this word we also derive our words: “civic,” “civilized,” and “civilization.” The related Latin word “civilitas” could mean civility or politeness, but to the ancient Romans it could also refer to civic unity or civicism. Mary Beard, the author of “SPQR,” explains it as: “we are all citizens together.”

The ancient Greek concept of citizenship was crucial to the identity and functioning of the Greek city-state. Citizens together took responsibility for the functioning of city government and defense, and for maintaining the proper relationship with the gods. In return, they shared in the city-state’s successes. As the concept evolved, it acquired the meaning of a shared ownership of the common good, not just a legal status, but rather the sense that the citizen was actively involved in the affairs of the city and contributing to its welfare.

To the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, a human could reach his full potential only through the city-state. Involvement in public affairs was part of the essence of being a human being. Our word “idiot” stems from the Greek word “idiotes,” used for someone who put private pleasures before public affairs.

Also during the ancient Roman Republic (509 BCE-27 BCE), the idea of shared citizenship among Romans evolved into a key concept. In his book, Rubicon, Tom Holland argues that to a Roman, nothing was more sacred or cherished. He states that in republican Rome “to place personal honor above the interests of the entire community was the behavior of a barbarian—or worse yet, a king.”

Roman culture socialized the citizen to place the common good before personal ambition. Indeed, historian Jackson Spielvogel states that the highest Roman virtue was pietas, “the dutiful execution of one’s obligations to one’s fellow citizens, to the gods, and to the state.”
For two decades after World War II, American citizenship, in my experience, hewed fairly closely to that of ancient Greece and ancient Republican Rome. I heard my uncles talk of their roles in World War II, TV shows glorified American valor and victory on land and sea, and we had a clear and present danger—the Soviet Union.

My classmates and I practiced scurrying to our battle stations under desks or in protected hallways during the nuclear war drills. I was nine when in 1957 the stark and arresting news came of the Soviet’s success in orbiting the Earth with Sputnik. In the succeeding years of the Cold War, we witnessed the arms race, Cuba going communist under Castro only 90 miles off the coast, and then the tense thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

I marched in the annual Memorial Day parades and can remember the ceremonial reading of the list of names of the fallen. At the ripe and receptive age of 14, I heard John F. Kennedy’s famous words which actuated my generation: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

John F. Kennedy at his inauguration


The united early-1960s eventually gave way to the divisive latter-1960s. The 9/11 patriotic moment notwithstanding, the last five decades have seen a shift in many an American mind from the American as citizen to the American dominated by the SELF and by sub-cultures based on such things as race, gender, sexual orientation, and now even technological virtuosity.

The coronavirus pandemic has challenged these mindsets. Since the second week of March, the “I,’ “you,” and “them” of American society and culture have been displaced dramatically by the collective “we” and “us.” Vice President Mike Pence: “We will get through this together.” Dr. Deborah Birx: “We shall move through this together in solidarity.” In Rhode Island, Governor Gina Raimondo: “We are all in it together.” CBS News and local news: “We are all in this together.” A local car dealer: “Together we’ll get through this.” ESPN: “Let’s all do our part;” “#one team.” American citizens—all together.

Our renewed civic vocabulary is being matched with civic action on many levels: Digital titans Apple and Google are collaborating to build software for individual smartphones which will enable digital contact tracing. People will be able to determine if they have had contact with those infected. Numerous Facebook community groups have arisen for mutual assistance. Three New Yorkers created Invisible Hands, a website matching volunteers with seniors and other at-risk people needing food and medication. Firefighters have assembled outside of the Brooklyn Hospital Center to cheer workers. And there is the nightly Clapping in New York City: neighbors expressing civic spirit with those across the alley. Of this new ritual, Amanda Hess: “The Clapping is a communal outburst. It is a reminder that though we are isolated, we are not alone.”

The coronavirus pandemic, despite all the damage and death, will benefit us in many ways and make us more prepared for the next one, which may be much more lethal. The mortality rates of the 14th century Black Death and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic were much higher. The Black Death mortality rate was exceptionally high. European cities lost 20-60% of their populations. In England and Germany entire villages simply disappeared. Between 1347-1351, historians estimate that the European population declined 25-50%.
In the 1918 Influenza Pandemic a total of about 500 million people worldwide were infected, one-third of the world’s population at the time. At least 50 million people died, with some estimates as high as 100 million; indeed, far more deaths than the fallen in World War I.

Having gone through a genuine pandemic and not just a simulation, we will develop effective vaccines and therapies, we will stockpile the necessary personal, protective equipment (PPE), and we will refine our federal, state, and local organizations and protocols to wage effective war against the next pandemic.

However, one of the greatest benefits may be a new American civicism which can counter the mindsets of self and sub-culture, inimical to sustaining a truly American civilization.

Fred Zilian, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, Rhode Island. He is the author of “From Confrontation to Cooperation: The Takeover of the National People’s Army by the Bundeswehr.” Follow him on Twitter @FredZilian.

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50th of Earth Day, Occasion for Hope and Action

(Note: This essay originally appeared on the History News Network (https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/175118, on April 22, 2020. An abridged version of this appeared in the Newport Daily News on the same day.)

In his No. 1 hit, “Eve of Destruction,” Barry McGuire sang of the many national and international issues plaguing the world in 1965, including: violent conflict (The eastern world, it is explodin’/Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’), nuclear war (If the button is pushed, there’s no running away), racial prejudice (Think of all the hate there is in Red China!/Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama!), human hypocrisy (Hate your next door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace), and simple fear (And can’t you feel the fears I’m feeling today?) and frustration (This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’).

Though the song did not address any environmental issues, perhaps song writer, P.F. Sloan, should have. Five years later, on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day underlined the many such issues the earth faced. Organized by Denis Hayes, the first Earth Day was celebrated in ceremonies at some two thousands colleges and universities, ten thousand (nasa)primary and secondary schools, and in hundreds of communities across the U.S.


On that first Earth Day, Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, George Wald, addressed an audience at the University of Rhode Island, warning that unless immediate action was taken, civilization would cease within 15-30 years. Writing in this month’s National Geographic magazine, Charles C. Mann paints the unsettling picture of the world in 1970. About 25% of the world’s population was undernourished; about half was living in extreme poverty. The average life expectancy in Africa was less than 46. Famines in West Africa had just killed about one million people. Violent conflict raged in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.

Environmentally, a flu pandemic originating in Asia in 1968 was still spreading to other parts of the world, eventually killing over a million. Major harbors around the world (London, Boston, Bombay/Mumbai) as well as many great rivers (Danube, Tiber, Mississippi) were polluted. Fumes from leaded gasoline and also smog filled the air. In early 1970, “Life” magazine predicted that “by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching Earth by one-half.”

Happily since that first Earth Day, there has been great progress on many fronts. Average life expectancy has increased by more than 13 years. Nitrogen fertilizers, better irrigation, and improved seed varieties have boosted food production, allowing it to outpace population growth. Fewer people are malnourished. The proportion of the population with access to healthier water has jumped from 81% in 1990 to 90% in 2015. Better hygiene, health care, and nutrition have dropped the maternal death rate 50% from 1990 to 2015. Pollution has fallen in many places. Masses of people, probably numbering in the billions, have been lifted from poverty to the “middle class”.

Mann concludes: “Thanks to technological advances, political and economic reforms, and cultural changes, average human well-being has, by almost every measure, improved since 1970.”

This substantial progress notwithstanding, the environment on many levels still beckons us to act. Many of its challenges are rooted in runaway CO2 emissions causing global temperatures to rise. From the pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million (ppm), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that it stands today at 407 ppm. The Administration also states that it was three million years ago when the atmosphere last had such a concentration.

In October 2018, a report by a United Nations scientific panel stated that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, the atmosphere by 2040 will warm by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels. Consider how a person feels with a minor temperature of just one degree.

Today’s environmental challenges, both internationally and nationally, are many and significant. Internationally, scientific projections indicate that the oceans stand to rise one to four feet by 2100. Along with stronger storms and higher tides, this rise will threaten the estimated 600 million people who live on the world’s coastlines.

The September 2019 National Geographic magazine focused on the arctic and reported that the “trend is unmistakable. The Arctic Ocean will be ice free in summer by mid-century.”

Along with the Arctic, the Himalayan glaciers are melting. The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment, completed by 210 writers with input from 350 researchers and policymakers from 22 countries in February 2019, states that rising temperatures in the Himalayas, with most of the world’s tallest mountains, will melt at least one-third of the region’s glaciers by 2100, even if the world’s most ambitious environmental targets are met.

Tiny pieces of plastic—microplastics—in the world’s oceans have become a major concern over the past decade. Several studies have detected high levels in marine life. In 2017, microplastics were found in 83 per cent of tap water samples around the world, 94 per cent in samples from the U.S. Douglas Quenqua, writing in the New York Times in 2018, gave a sense of the scope of the problem: “in the next 60 seconds, people around the world will purchase one million plastic bottles and two million plastic bags.”

In January, researchers from Tel Aviv University concluded that Africa, with rising temperatures over the past seven decades, is experiencing bigger and more frequent thunderstorms.

Last fall Italy, especially Venice, experienced historic environmental events. While the country experienced rain-swollen rivers, high winds, and an out-of-season avalanche, Venice in the space of one week had three floods over 1.5 meters. Since records began in 1872, the city had never had two such floods in a year.

Down under in Australia during the past few months, there has been a string of weather events: first drought, then ravaging bush fire, capped with a foot of rain. Scientists call such a cycle: “compound extremes.” Former dairy farmer, Peter Ruprecht, buffeted by the extreme weather, stated: “We speak about the warmth of Mother Nature, but nature can also be vicious and wild and unforgiving.”

Off the shore of Australia stands the Great Barrier Reef, which recently experienced its third mass bleaching due to warming temperatures in five years. The Reef is one of the world’s most important marine ecosystems, supporting thousands of marine species. Scientists have indicated that other reefs around the world also have been dying at an alarming rate.

Great Barrier Reef


In the past five years, the United States has had its own fair share of dramatic environmental events. Last year across the South, many areas faced both elevated temperatures and drought, even though summer had turned to fall. In October, new record highs were set across the region, with temperatures in the high 90s in cities such as Nashville, Tallahassee, and Louisville. This unusual heat wave struck as the NOAA reported that last summer tied for the hottest on record for the northern hemisphere.

In California in 2017-2018, six of the top ten most destructive wildfires took place, destroying many homes and forested areas. Insurers indicated that increasing population density and a warming planet add up to more uncertainty. According to the state’s Department of Insurance, the wildfires cost insurers $23 billion.

In March, 2019, late-winter rains and snowmelt led to record-breaking floods which inundated the Midwest, causing dozens of levees to fail and billions of dollars of damage. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, at least 50 levees were breached. Counties in Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri were especially hard hit.

Despite these environmental calamities, I remain optimistic about our ability to address and manage these challenges, both nationally and internationally. First, I believe the coronavirus pandemic may stun us, especially the go-it-alone nationalists, into thinking more globally. Global challenges require global cooperation and action.

Second, there are some truly positive trends regarding renewable energy sources. The U.S. government projects that the renewable contribution to our electricity will increase from 19 percent today to 38 percent by 2050. National Geographic reports that renewable energy—mainly wind and solar—is projected to top all other sources of electricity by 2045. During the past decade, electric charging stations for vehicles have finally shown a dramatic increase, with tens of thousands now across the country.

Third, I have tremendous faith in American technology and innovation. For example, scientists are working on technology which will allow the capture and storage of carbon emissions.

Fourth, in my studies of not only American civilization, but also civilizations throughout history, I still believe in the power of human agency: the ability of societies—with the right leadership—to make smart decisions to address clear threats to their civilizations.

Finally, and most importantly, leadership will soon pass to the younger generations, and in my experience—the reporting I read, the undergrad students I teach, the grandchildren I help to nurture—the world’s youth overwhelmingly supports addressing the environmental challenges vigorously. It is they who shall inherit the Earth.

Laura Parker writing in National Geographic (April, 2020) states: “Millions of children have come of age watching ice sheets melt and temperatures rise, and they are fed up with waiting for government leaders to act.” Political scientist Stephen Zunes states: “The Vietnam War served as a trigger to radicalize a generation. Climate change is going to do the same thing.”

Some examples: Beyond Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish activist who has been in the headlines, there is Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, 19, a youth director for Earth Guardians in Colorado. He is one of 21 young people suing the national government over their constitutional right to life by demanding action on climate change.

Ghilain Irakoze, 20, is the founder of Wastezon in Rwanda. It uses a mobile app to connect consumers with the recycling industry. Mayumi Sato, 25, from Tokyo, has done environmental work in Thailand, Laos, Nepal and elsewhere. She states: “We all have to take part in climate justice.”

Kehkashan Basu, 19 and now living in Toronto, started the Green Hope Foundation to give young people a voice. He has been active in planting trees in India and Bangladesh. Felix Finkbeiner, 22 in Germany, founded Plant for the Planet in 2007 which has planted 8 million trees in 73 countries.

Delaney Reynolds, 20 in Florida, states in her speeches that at five foot two, she can look forward to age 60 when the sea level in her home state will be at her waist. She says: “It’s incredible that kindergartners can grasp this as a problem and politicians can’t.”

To paraphrase the final line of “Eve of Destruction:” I don’t believe we’re (yet) on the eve of destruction.

Fred Zilian is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, RI (www.zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian)


“The Arctic Is Heating Up.” National Geographic. September, 2019.

Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. NY: Penguin, 2011.

Friedman, Thomas. Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—And How It Can Renew America. NY: Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

Mann, Charles C. “New Challenges for Us All.” National Geographic. April, 2020, 36-41.

Parker, Laura. “Fighting for Their Future.” National Geographic. April, 2020, 36-41. 70-79.

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