This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.

Excerpted from the July 10, 1982 Issue

What, we must ask as we proceed into the 1980s, is the cold war all about? It is about itself. The cold war may be seen as a show put on by two rival entrepreneurs. The show has grown bigger and bigger; the entrepreneurs have lost control of it, as it has thrown up its own managers, administrators, producers and a huge supporting cast, all of whom have a direct interest in its continuance, in its enlargement. Whatever happens, the show must go on.

The cold war has become a habit, an addiction, supported by very powerful material interests in each bloc. Yet a contradiction has arisen. Today’s military confrontation has been protracted long after the reasons for it have vanished into history. If the cold war is at once obsolete and inexorable—an ongoing, self-reproducing road show that has become necessary to ruling groups on both sides—can we find, within that contradiction, any resolution short of war?

A general revolt of reason and conscience against the instruments which immediately threaten us—a perception, informing multitudes, of the human ecological imperative—this is a necessary part of the answer. For if the cold war has acquired a self-generating dynamic, then as soon as public concern is quieted by a few measures of arms control, new dangers and new weapons will appear. We must do more than protest if we are to survive.

How do we put the causes of freedom and of peace back together? This cannot be done by provocative interventions in the affairs of other nations. No popular movements in the East will ever obtain civil or trade union rights because the West is pressing missiles against their country’s borders. On the contrary, this only enhances the security operations and the security-minded ideology of their rulers. What is needed, from and for all of us, is a space free from cold war crisis in which we can move.

A transcontinental discourse must begin to flow, in both directions, with the peace movement—a movement of unofficial people with a code of conduct which disallows the pursuit of political advantage for either side—as the conduit. There would not be decades of détente, as the glaciers slowly melt. There would be very rapid and unpredictable changes: nations would become unglued from their alliances; there would be sharp conflicts within nations; there would be successive risks. We could roll up the map of the cold war and travel without maps for a while.

Our species has been favored on this planet, although we have not always been good caretakers of our globe’s resources. Our stay here, in geological time, has been brief. No one can tell us our business. But I think it is something more than to consume as much as we can and then blow the place up.

We did not choose to live in this time. But there is no way of getting out of it. And it has given us as significant a cause as has ever been known, a moment of opportunity which might never be renewed. The opportunity is now, when there is already an enhanced consciousness of danger informing millions. We can match this crisis only by a summoning of resources to a height like that attained by the greatest religious or political movements of Europe’s past. I think of 1944 and of the crest of the Resistance. There must be that kind of spirit abroad once more. But this time it must arise not in the wake of war and repression, but before these take place. Five minutes afterward, and it will be too late. Humankind must at last grow up.

E.P. Thompson’s (1924–1993) The Making of the English Working Class (1963) was a foundational text in the development of social history. In 1981, The Nation devoted an entire issue to his “Letter to America.”