Cousins Founds SANE Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

At a time of public concern about the effects of nuclear testing on the environment, Norman Cousins helped found the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, which lobbied for a ban on all testing of nuclear weapons, as well as eventual nuclear disarmament.

Summary of Event

Norman Cousins and the other peace activists who founded the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) believed that misguided American nuclear policies could be remedied by educating citizens about the true nature of atomic weapons and their consequences. SANE played an important role in making the Limited Test Ban Treaty Limited Test Ban Treaty (1963) of 1963 a reality, but the organization was plagued by divisions between moderate and radical members, by disagreements among its leaders, and, periodically, by confusion about its methods and goals. When SANE had a compelling cause that motivated citizens to activism, its membership grew; when its causes were weak, confusing, or irrelevant to the original goals of the organization, its membership declined. [kw]Cousins Founds SANE (Nov. 15, 1957) [kw]SANE, Cousins Founds (Nov. 15, 1957) SANE Nuclear weapons;testing Nuclear weapons;disarmament Pacifism SANE Nuclear weapons;testing Nuclear weapons;disarmament Pacifism [g]North America;Nov. 15, 1957: Cousins Founds SANE[05660] [g]United States;Nov. 15, 1957: Cousins Founds SANE[05660] [c]Cold War;Nov. 15, 1957: Cousins Founds SANE[05660] [c]Organizations and institutions;Nov. 15, 1957: Cousins Founds SANE[05660] [c]Environmental issues;Nov. 15, 1957: Cousins Founds SANE[05660] [c]Science and technology;Nov. 15, 1957: Cousins Founds SANE[05660] Cousins, Norman Pickett, Clarence Muste, Abraham J. Pauling, Linus Spock, Benjamin

This packaging from a children’s educational toy in the early 1950’s demonstrates the pervasive fear of atomic warfare to which Norman Cousins responded by founding SANE.

(Library of Congress)

The early history of SANE cannot be understood without Norman Cousins, nor can Cousins’s crusade against nuclear weapons be understood without understanding his reaction to the dropping of the first atomic bomb. Within a day of the destruction of Hiroshima, Cousins, then a young editor of the Saturday Review, composed one of the most famous editorials in U.S. history, “Modern Man Is Obsolete.” "Modern Man Is Obsolete" (Cousins)[Modern Man Is Obsolete] The themes expressed in the article characterized his thinking before, during, and after SANE. He stressed that the atomic bomb had so altered human existence that a centralized world government had become necessary, since only it could effectively control the power of the new weapon. Individual nations were ill-equipped to manage the new energy source for the good of the environment and every human being.

Through this editorial, which was widely anthologized and then expanded into a very popular book, Cousins became the atomic age’s expositor. He delivered more than two thousand speeches around the world on nuclear themes and spread his ideas through his involvement in organizations such as the United World Federalists, which advocated global government. Through his participation in these organizations and through his travels and lectures, he met people who shaped his thinking about nuclear weapons, among them the radical pacifist Abraham J. Muste, whose stand against nuclear war was uncompromising.

Cousins also met scientists, some of whom had formed the Federation of Atomic Scientists, which through its publication, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (periodical) helped make scientists and interested citizens aware of the new problems created by nuclear weapons. During of the early 1950’s, the House Committee on Un-American Activities House Committee on Un-American Activities[House Committee on UnAmerican Activities] HUAC cited several of these organizations as subversive; these denunciations polarized the discussion of nuclear issues and made it difficult to engage ordinary citizens in the crusade against these weapons.

In 1954, however, an event occurred that changed this tense ideological climate dramatically. The United States conducted a hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific that accidentally rained fallout—debris and radioactive isotopes—on Japanese fishermen in a boat many miles downwind of the test site. When it became known that all the fishermen developed radiation sickness and that one died, the world had graphic evidence of the very real hazards of atmospheric testing.

Linus Pauling, Barry Commoner Commoner, Barry , and other scientists used this incident to alert the public to the dangers of fallout from nuclear tests. Radiation also caused increased cancers Cancer;and nuclear radiation[nuclear radiation] in present generations and genetic abnormalities in future ones. Cousins, who found the scientists’ arguments convincing, was especially impressed by the fact that fallout was contaminating milk supplies with the element strontium 90, a cancer-causing and gene-deforming isotope that threatened children whose growing bodies mistook radioactive strontium for calcium.

Testing became an overriding moral issue for Cousins, and he convinced Democratic presidential candidate Adlai E. Stevenson Stevenson, Adlai E. to make the banning of nuclear tests an issue in the 1956 election campaign. Cousins also traveled to Africa in 1957 to convince Albert Schweitzer Schweitzer, Albert , the great theologian and humanitarian, to speak out against nuclear tests. Schweitzer’s radio address to people all over the world, “Declaration of Conscience,” "Declaration of Conscience" (Schweitzer)[Declaration of Conscience] successfully communicated his concern about the dangers that fallout posed for human life.

Hoping that the public outcry against nuclear testing generated by Schweitzer’s stirring appeal would compel nations to do what was morally right, Cousins urged President Dwight D. Eisenhower Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;nuclear technology unilaterally to suspend nuclear tests. Eisenhower believed, however, that national security required bigger and better nuclear bombs, and that this outweighed the potential harm to human life caused by the tests. Members of Congress even accused Cousins and Pauling of spreading Soviet propaganda; Congressman Lawrence H. Smith Smith, Lawrence H. of Wisconsin called Cousins a communist dupe for enrolling Schweitzer in the test-ban crusade.

During the spring of 1957, when the debate over testing and fallout was becoming increasingly polarized, various pacifists met to try to find the most effective way of ending the nuclear tests. Lawrence Scott Scott, Lawrence , who was in charge of peace education for the American Friends Service Committee American Friends Service Committee in Chicago, used the names of such leading pacifists as Muste to attract influential members of established peace organizations to Philadelphia in April. Differences between the radical and moderate pacifists led to the formation of two groups, one for the radicals who wanted to use civil disobedience to bring about a test ban, the other for the liberals who wanted to use education, lobbying, and persuasion for the same end. The ad hoc liberal nuclear-pacifist organization that was formed at this meeting eventually evolved into SANE.

To mitigate the fragmentation that was threatening to make the test-ban movement ineffective, Scott contacted Cousins and Clarence Pickett to urge them to participate in a New York meeting of nationally prominent people who wanted to stop nuclear tests. Cousins agreed, but he wanted the new organization to unify rather than polarize. With Cousins’s caveat understood, twenty-seven national leaders—scientists, churchmen, businessmen, and authors—met at the Overseas Press Club in New York City on June 21, 1957.

The group’s members realized that the problems facing them were a complex mixture of science, politics, and ethics, but they agreed on the necessity of halting the bomb tests. The group tentatively named itself the Provisional Committee to Stop Nuclear Tests and decided to reconvene in September. The Friends Committee on National Legislation supplied money for a newsletter, and Cousins contributed several thousand dollars from his own savings. Leonore Marshall Marshall, Leonore , a wealthy New York peace activist, eventually became a sustaining patron for SANE in its early years.

At the fall meeting, the famous psychoanalyst Erich Fromm Fromm, Erich suggested that the new organization’s name should reflect the sanity of its positions, as opposed to the great insanity of nuclear weapons. By piling up nuclear arms, the United States and the Soviet Union were creating a system that depended on sane people acting insanely. In fact, Fromm found it pathological that the nuclear arms race did not cause profound fear. The committee members thereupon adopted the name National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy for their organization. The formation of SANE was formally announced in The New York Times on November 15, 1957, and the committee made public its intention to end all nuclear tests as a first step on the road to sanity.

When it was first formed, SANE was an ad hoc and informal venture intended to educate the public about the dangers of nuclear tests. It was, however, so popular that it became a permanent organization. SANE initially attracted scientists, educators, clergymen, writers, and other professionals, but as the campaign against testing grew, many middle-class people joined. Within one year, the membership of SANE had exceeded twenty-four thousand. Its very popularity fomented a debate within the organization about what the primary emphasis should be. Some members desired a broad and high-profile attack on the whole problem of disarmament; others preferred a quiet approach to policy makers on the single issue of the test ban. As SANE developed, it became clear that the organization would have to adapt its operations to changing conditions if it wanted to influence national policy.

SANE’s first great success was the advertisement that it placed in The New York Times on November 15, 1957. The advertisement, Advertising which had been largely composed by Cousins, carried the headline “We Are Facing a Danger Unlike Any Danger That Has Ever Existed.” It emphasized Cousins’s favorite theme, that the human community and its needs transcended the narrower interests of nations. Human beings had basic natural rights to breathe unpoisoned air and work on uncontaminated soil, but as a result of the bomb tests, a radioactively poisoned environment was being created for them without their consent. The ad, whose sponsors included theologian Paul Tillich, social critic Lewis Mumford, novelist James Jones, and humanitarian Eleanor Roosevelt, helped bring in many new members and donations. By the summer of 1958, SANE had approximately twenty-five thousand members and 130 local chapters.

In the early months of 1958, SANE continued the public campaign against nuclear tests. SANE’s second advertisement, entitled “No Contamination Without Representation,” appeared on March 24, 1958, in The New York Herald Tribune. The text was taken from an editorial by Cousins that had appeared in the Saturday Review, which stated that no one had the right to risk other people’s lives or health without their consent, but that this was precisely what some nations were doing by testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., liked the advertisement, but others thought that it was too emotional and appealed to people’s anxieties with facts and ideas of only questionable scientific worth. Still others believed that SANE was taking an entirely wrongheaded approach, that it should spend less time educating the public with editorials and more trying to influence the government through civil disobedience.

Some of the criticisms had an effect on the leaders of SANE. After March 31, 1958, when the Soviet Union informed the world that it was unilaterally stopping all nuclear tests, SANE staged a nine-day rally in New York City, urging the United States to follow the Soviet example. These rallies and the picketing of the United Nations did not change President Eisenhower’s mind. The majority of the people agreed with him; a Gallup poll revealed that they agreed, by a two-to-one margin, that the United States should not stop testing. Cold War;nuclear test bans

Despite these setbacks, SANE and other peace groups pressed their case against testing. The tide began to turn in August, when the United States followed the lead of the Soviet Union and voluntarily suspended nuclear weapons tests. Furthermore, the two countries agreed to meet in Geneva, Switzerland, to begin negotiations for a test-ban treaty. SANE cochairmen Cousins and Pickett sent a telegram to President Eisenhower praising him for his courageous action.

The negotiations to achieve even a limited test-ban treaty proved very difficult. As the talks dragged on, the public lost interest. One of the issues causing the deadlocking was the detection of underground atomic tests. SANE published an ad stating that the answer to the deadlock was an inspection system staffed by an international team of scientists. With this ad, SANE began a campaign promoting the success of the Geneva negotiations.

During the spring of 1959, the organization inaugurated a series of peace demonstrations in several American cities. In Brooklyn, SANE sponsored a rally, the centerpiece of which was a speech by Linus Pauling, who warned that the increased level of strontium 90 created by the bomb tests would lead to 100,000 deaths in the next generation. These and other actions by SANE had an effect on public opinion: In a Gallup poll taken in mid-November, more than three-quarters of the people questioned wanted to see the agreement to stop testing nuclear weapons extended for another year.

These were banner years for SANE. Increased membership and a growing number of local committees meant increased financial stability, which in turn meant that the organization could run more ads and distribute more literature. College students became part of the movement and organized a student branch of SANE. In the early 1960’s, members of SANE felt confident in their power to maintain the moratorium on testing and eventually to pressure leaders into a test-ban treaty. What many did not realize, however, was that public opinion would change unexpectedly.

In May, 1960, Thomas J. Dodd Dodd, Thomas J. , a senator from Connecticut and temporary chair of the Subcommittee on Internal Security, Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security continued his opposition to test-ban advocates by stating that he had evidence that Communists McCarthyism[Maccarthyism] Communist Party, U.S. were members of SANE; he demanded that they be purged. Even before Dodd made his attack, Cousins had realized that Communists had infiltrated some local chapters, but he had wanted to handle the problem quietly. Dodd’s first step, on the other hand, was to subpoena Henry Abrams Abrams, Henry , a cochair of a local New York chapter of SANE. When asked if he was or ever had been a Communist, Abrams refused to answer, citing the Fifth Amendment. In a private meeting with Cousins, Abrams also refused to answer the question, whereupon Cousins dismissed him from SANE. Further investigation by the SANE leadership of Communist infiltration led to the elimination of many local chapters.

Even though Dodd’s committee eventually exonerated SANE’s leadership of any wrongdoing, the damage had been done. The effects of the Senate investigation of SANE were disastrous. Membership declined drastically, and several prominent members and sponsors resigned over what they saw as SANE’s weak and confused response to Dodd’s accusations. Many also opposed the policy of questioning members and sponsors about their political beliefs. Pauling resigned, as he told Cousins, because he did not think that the cochair of SANE had the right to subject him to an interrogation.

Pauling was also unhappy about the dismissal of many members and sponsors from SANE because of their political affiliations, since he wanted SANE to be a peace organization open to all. Like Pauling, Muste resigned because he believed that Cousins had grossly mishandled Dodd’s attack, and he adamantly opposed the loyalty procedures SANE used to conciliate the Senate subcommittee. Cousins’s response to Pauling and Muste was that SANE would lose most of its members if it were open to Communists.

President John F. Kennedy’s Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;Cold War administration, which began in January of 1961, offered new hope to the country and to SANE as well. Unfortunately, Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev Khrushchev, Nikita S. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;Cold War decided to test the young president by resuming the testing of massive Soviet nuclear weapons. SANE condemned the resumption of the Soviet tests and called for international protests. The organization also tried to prevent the United States from following the Soviet example, but to no avail.

Shortly before the resumption of American atmospheric tests in 1962, Benjamin Spock joined SANE, and the organization made use of his membership by issuing an ad entitled “Dr. Spock Is Worried.” Spock had come to see the tests, whose radioactive debris Nuclear fallout Radioactive contamination was particularly damaging to children, as a moral matter. The very popular ad was reprinted in seven hundred newspapers around the world, and it helped SANE recover from the loss of membership it suffered as a result of the Dodd investigation.

All these concerns became secondary, however, during the Cuban Missile Crisis Cuban Missile Crisis Cold War;Cuba of October, 1962, when the world came very close to nuclear war. After the crisis was resolved, Kennedy and Khrushchev became willing to compromise on a test-ban treaty. Cousins, who acted as unofficial liaison between Kennedy and Khrushchev, broke an impasse in the negotiations by convincing the Soviet premier that Kennedy was acting in good faith. Because Cousins had sponsored fruitful contacts between Russian and American intellectuals, Khrushchev trusted him.

Khrushchev’s pacifist remarks to Cousins freed Kennedy to make conciliatory statements about the Soviet Union during his June, 1963, commencement address at American University in Washington, D.C. The Kremlin responded favorably to Kennedy’s speech, and soon the deadlock in the Geneva talks was resolved. The Limited Test Ban Treaty was signed in Moscow on July 25. SANE thereupon helped get the treaty ratified in the U.S. Senate.

With the ratification of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, SANE’s initial goal was partially achieved. Since the treaty permitted underground nuclear tests and led to more weapons being tested than ever before, the treaty actually accelerated the arms race. On the other hand, people who had been worried about fallout poisoning them and their children felt they could turn to other concerns. SANE needed to find another galvanizing issue. The leaders chose the Vietnam War, but this proved to be more divisive than the test ban had been.

In 1967, the differences created by the war led to the resignation of many key SANE officials, including Cousins and the executive director, Donald Keys. Not only the moderates resigned, however. Spock, too, who was a radical opponent of the war, left the organization over the issue that had so disturbed Pauling, namely, SANE’s lack of openness in cooperating with other peace organizations and individuals, irrespective of political allegiance.


With Cousins gone, SANE’s leadership suffered. During the years of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, SANE’s membership, finances, and influence declined precipitately. SANE changed its name in 1969 to SANE, A Citizens’ Organization for a Sane World, and it also changed its focus, turning to a campaign against the construction of antiballistic missile systems in both the United States and the Soviet Union. Despite this return to a traditional antinuclear issue, SANE suffered a severe financial crisis in the 1970’s. To resolve the crisis, SANE’s board found a new executive director, David Cortright Cortright, David , who did indeed revitalize the organization. Real resurgence did not occur until the early 1980’s, however, when the freeze movement caught public attention.

Along with other peace organizations, SANE proposed an immediate freeze on the testing, production, and deployment of all new nuclear weapons. The freeze movement increased SANE’s membership and funds, and the organization prospered once again. A drive to raise money for a permanent building for SANE in Washington, the Benjamin Spock Center for Peace, was successful. In the late 1980’s, SANE merged with the organization Freeze, which resulted in the largest peace organization in American history. SANE/Freeze, as it was known, began in January, 1988, with William Sloane Coffin as its head. The leaders of SANE/Freeze hoped that it would become an institution as large, long-lived, and influential in peace issues as the Sierra Club had been in environmental issues.

Throughout its history, SANE tried to work within the political system to convince people and their leaders that a rational nuclear policy was possible. When SANE focused on issues that excited public enthusiasm, its membership increased and its finances improved, but when these issues were unpopular, as in the case of the Vietnam War, the organization suffered. Because of SANE’s methods, it was highly sensitive to public opinion and political climates. SANE certainly contributed to the test-ban treaty. If, however, the measure of its success was the actual number of weapons destroyed, it was a failure, because the test ban actually led to a tremendous increase in the number of these weapons.

SANE did play an important role in the American peace movement, however. Its methods helped legitimize antinuclear protest and expand political alternatives in ways that U.S. leaders initially seemed disinclined to consider. By concentrating on what was possible within the U.S. political system, SANE scored some successes and helped shape the perception that nuclear war was by definition unwinnable. SANE Nuclear weapons;testing Nuclear weapons;disarmament Pacifism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barash, David P. The Arms Race and Nuclear War. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1987. Gives a comprehensive analysis of the many issues raised by the development of nuclear weapons. Covers the history of the arms race and the peace movement, and is intended for undergraduates. Includes lists of journals and organizations, sources for figures and tables, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cousins, Norman. “The Literacy of Survival.” In Hiroshima’s Shadow, edited by Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz. Stony Creek, Conn.: Pamphleteer’s Press, 1998. Essay by Cousins that summarizes his response to the threat of nuclear annihilation and his philosophy for survival in the post-Hiroshima world. Bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Divine, Robert A. Blowing on the Wind: The Nuclear Test Ban Debate, 1954-1960. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. A thorough history of the events that led to the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963. Emphasis on the health issues raised by nuclear bomb testing rather than on the issue of arms control. Includes a chronology of the nuclear test ban debate, 1950-1963; an “Essay on Sources”; a comprehensive bibliography; and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Katz, Milton S. Ban the Bomb: A History of SANE, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, 1957-1985. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986. An account of SANE from its founding in 1957 to its work on the nuclear freeze movement in the 1980’s. Also assesses the historical and philosophical roots of SANE and its changing strategies over the years. Includes illustrations of the well-known SANE ads, an extensive bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pauling, Linus. No More War! New York: Dodd, Mead, 1983. Effectively explains the science necessary to understand nuclear weapons. Primarily a plea for reason and morality to guide human beings in their conduct of world affairs. In this twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the book, Pauling added an addendum to each chapter with developments from the intervening years. Includes appendixes, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schell, Jonathan. The Fate of the Earth. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982. Considered by many one of the most important books ever written about the implications of nuclear war for our planet. Depicts what the earth would be like after a massive nuclear war, a “republic of insects and grass.” This book was widely discussed, reviewed, and analyzed in the early 1980’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United Nations Treaty Collection. Treaty Handbook. Available at An excellent resource on the international treaty process. An online handbook provided by the Treaty Section of the U.N. Office of Legal Affairs.

Atomic Bombs Destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Hiroshima Recounts the Story of Surviving a Nuclear Explosion

Teller and Ulam Develop the First Hydrogen Bomb

Scientists Campaign Against Nuclear Testing

International Atomic Energy Agency Begins Operations

Nuclear Powers Sign the Limited Test Ban Treaty

Union of Concerned Scientists Is Founded

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Goes into Effect

Categories: History Content