Note: This is part three of a four part series.
Union City native Norman Cousins was a prominent political journalist, author and advocate for world peace who left his mark worldwide through his writings and strong liberal views.
Beginnings of a writer
Cousins was born on June 24, 1912 in Union Hill, now Union City, but was educated in the New York City public school system.
At the age of 11, Cousins was misdiagnosed with tuberculosis and placed in a sanatorium. Despite his troubles, he claimed that as a little boy, he had “set out to discover exuberance.”
After receiving his bachelor’s degree at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, Cousins joined the staff of the New York Evening Post in 1934 as an editorial writer.
The following year he was hired by Current History, where he began as a book critic and was later promoted to managing editor. While at Current History, he befriended the staff of the Saturday Review of Literature, which had its offices in the same building.
By 1940, Cousins had joined the staff of the Saturday Review. He was named editor-in-chief in 1942, where he remained until 1972. Under his direction, the Saturday Review expanded from a literary magazine to a review of all aspects of contemporary life, and circulation increased from 20,000 to 650,000.
Cousins instilled in his staff, “not to just appraise literature, but to try to serve it, nurture it, safeguard it.” Cousins believed, “There is a need for writers who can restore to writing its powerful tradition of leadership in crisis.”
A call for peace
A tireless advocate for various liberal causes, particularly touching upon the issue of nuclear disarmament, Cousins promoted his ideals as a writer and a citizen activist, and even utilized the Saturday Review to speak about the need for world peace through various editorials.
“On the day the bomb was dropped, I wrote a rather longish editorial, and it had to get into the next issue of the Saturday Review,” said Cousins in 1984 at a University of California at Berkley forum entitled “Quest for Peace.”
“I did the editorial – that was on a Monday I think – and on Tuesday it came out in the magazine. Then one of the publishers wanted to enlarge it into a book [which was reprinted in different languages]. A number of newspapers around the country reprinted as well.”
The piece was entitled “The Modern Man is Obsolete” (1945), which discussed the social and political implications of the atomic bomb and atomic energy.
Cousins also wrote a collection of non-fiction books focusing on the same issues, such as “Who Speaks for Man?” (1953), which mounted a plea for world federation and nuclear non-proliferation.
Cousins also served as president of the World Federalist Association and chairman of the Committee for Sane Nuclear Policy.
During the 1950s, the Committee for Sane Nuclear Policy reiterated it was a scientific certainty that the world was bound for a nuclear holocaust, as evident by the bombing of Hiroshima in 1942 – unless humanity contrived the physical elimination of the nuclear threats.
“I experienced the deepest guilt over [the bomb’s] use on human beings,” said Cousins about Hiroshima.
Thanked by Kennedy, pope
According to the Notable American Unitarian Friends Web site, “In the early 1960s [Cousins] became an unofficial citizen diplomat, facilitating communication between the Vatican, the Kremlin, and the White House, which helped to lead to the Soviet-American nuclear test ban treaty. Upon ratification of the treaty in 1963, President Kennedy publicly thanked Cousins for his help with the treaty, and Pope John XXIII awarded Cousins his personal medallion. Cousins was also the recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Peace Award in 1963, the Family of Man Award in 1968, and the United Nations Peace Medal in 1971.”
Despite these recognitions, his proudest moment, stated in his obituary in the 1990 National Review, was when Albert Einstein called him to Princeton, “where together they discussed the need for world federalism and for an arrest of the nuclear threat. Cousins was adamant in insisting that we could not reasonably hope to survive unless the nuclear engine was dis-invented.”
Laughter cures all
In addition to his writings and advocacy work, Cousins had also served as adjunct professor of Medical Humanities for the School of Medicine at the University of California, where he began to do research on the biochemistry of human emotions.
Cousins had a long-held belief that human emotions were the key to human beings’ success in fighting ailments. It was a belief he held on to all his life, especially after successfully battling a life-threatening illness that he claimed to beat through training himself to laugh and writing a book on the subject, as well as taking massive doses of vitamin C.
“Even when faced with his own death, he initiated the ‘laughter is the best medicine’ theory,” said Kathie Pontus, a private historian in Union City.
As a result of his success, Cousins went on to write another collection of best-selling non-fiction books about illness and healing, as well as a memoir entitled Human Options: An Autobiographical Notebook, which was published in 1980.
Cousins was awarded the Albert-Schweitzer Prize in 1990 before dying of heart failure on Nov. 30, 1990 in Los Angeles, CA.
Cousins and his wife Ellen raised five daughters.