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Our Founder's Story

By: Edward Cornish

  Edward Cornish

Back in 1960 I would never have dreamed that within a few years I would become something called a “futurist” and take a leading role in creating the World Future Society. As a future futurist, I failed completely to anticipate my own future!

My life in 1960 was rather idyllic. After spending six years working all hours of day and night as a United Press correspondent in five different cities of America and Europe, I had secured a nice quiet 9-to-5 job with the National Geographic Society in Washington. All I had to do was write feature articles on science, natural history, and geography. For me this was like paradise. I got married, and my wife and I bought a comfortable house in the suburbs where we lived with our two young sons. We socialized with neighbors and friends.

But far away from Washington, the Soviet Union and its allies were threatening to overturn noncommunist regimes around the world, and the United States and its allies felt increasingly imperiled. In South Vietnam, Communist rebels menaced the newly independent government; in East Germany, the Communists were tightening their grip on Berlin; and, in Cuba, Fidel Castro’s rebels had toppled a noncommunist government and were now allying Cuba with Moscow.

To make matters worse, the Soviet Union and the United States were in an arms race, focused largely on building nuclear rockets that could obliterate cities thousands of miles away. Both nations now had thermonuclear weapons, whose power dwarfed the horrors wrought by the atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

John F. Kennedy was elected president in November 1960, and, as soon as he assumed office, he began responding forcefully to Communist expansionism. Kennedy went to Berlin to reassert American support for West Berlin’s independence. He sent thousands of American military “advisors” to assist the South Vietnamese government in resisting Communist aggression, and he approved an invasion of Cuba to oust the Castro regime.

These moves demonstrated American determination not to tolerate further Communist advances, but they also antagonized the Soviet leadership. As tensions increased, both the Soviet Union and the United States accelerated preparations for war.

War between two nations armed with thermonuclear rockets was too ghastly even to think about. When an obscure physicist named Herman Kahn at the RAND Corporation did think seriously about the consequences of a thermonuclear war, he was roundly denounced as some kind of monster, like the half-maniac, half-bionic “Dr. Strangelove.” True enough, Kahn’s 1960 book On Thermonuclear War may well be the scariest book ever written, but only because the facts are so horrendous. The human mind has difficulty comprehending a war in which millions of people might die on the first day of the war — and most of the survivors would wish themselves dead.

My work rarely touched on politics, but it was impossible to be a journalist working only five blocks from the White House and a member of the National Press Club and not be aware of the increasing international tension. My office window looked out on the Soviet Embassy just across Sixteenth Street, and my colleagues and I knew that FBI agents were stationed in nearby buildings to monitor the comings and goings at the Embassy. When we crossed the street, we joked about the FBI eavesdropping on our conversations.

When the Soviet Union sent a new ambassador to Washington, I went to the Press Club to hear him speak. The ambassador was a seemingly genial fellow named Novikov, who spoke excellent English and gave a friendly speech. We journalists applauded enthusiastically, so the event became a love feast of Soviet–American amity. Unfortunately, our friendly reception seems to have misled the ambassador into thinking that the United States would not go to war even if the Soviet Union supplied Cuba with nuclear missiles. In any event, this Soviet miscalculation almost brought about thermonuclear war.

During the mounting crises of 1961 and 1962, I experienced a personal crisis. I had to assume that the Soviets had one or more nuclear missiles aimed at Washington, and, at any moment, such a missile might be launched, either intentionally or accidentally. So what should I do? Just ignore the mounting danger?

I had no power to prevent the march toward Armageddon, but I could at least get my family and myself someplace far away. It would not be easy, but it was possible. I got literature from the Australian Embassy and began seriously thinking about moving my family there. I agonized for months over this question, but it became clear that my wife would not go with me, so if I did I would have to leave her behind and probably my sons as well. I was not ready for that, so I remained in Washington, hoping that the crisis would pass but continuing to agonize. The year 1962 was the darkest period of my life psychologically and perhaps also for my wife, who was very much affected by my own anxiety.

The 13-day Cuban crisis in 1962 has been described by historian Arthur Schlesinger as the most dangerous moment in history. Some of President Kennedy’s advisors urged him to order an immediate “preemptive strike” by U.S. missiles to keep the Soviets from obliterating us first. Happily, we’ll never know what would have happened if their view had prevailed, because the crisis was resolved after an extraordinary meeting — outside normal diplomatic channels — between a journalist whom I knew slightly, John Scali, and a Soviet contact who had the ear of the Kremlin. The Soviet leaders finally became convinced that the Americans might really be crazy enough to launch a missile attack against them, so they called back the ships carrying nuclear weapons to Cuba.


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