Perusing the archives of a 150-year-old magazine is always a pleasure, but at its most exciting, it is also an education. The argument the magazine put forward against the development of the hydrogen bomb, the pursuit of which President Truman inaugurated on this day in 1950, was not an obvious one: The Nation’s editors argued that the bomb should not be developed because doing so would prompt the creation of a vast security apparatus and the repressive measures required to keep it in place. When Edward Snowden revealed the NSA’s massive spying programs fifty-three years later, one argument that was not frequently heard was that such a secret security state would not be necessary if there were not so many precious state secrets to keep secure. By dropping the A-bomb and developing the H-bomb, Truman made a bed we are all still sleeping in—or uneasily trying to, at least.

In the atmosphere of a cold war such development work can be the source of civil repressions on a scale not yet experienced. It becomes elevated to the status of the secret, and defense of the secret will be used to justify anything. We have seen how the necessity of guarding the secrecy of the A-bomb has been used as the basis for civil repression….

The American state of mind today is very similar, and at this point panic is to be given the added impetus of a new secret to defend. Nobody has the vaguest idea what this secret is or whether it even exists. It is the nearest thing to an invisible, intangible, impersonal, all-powerful god that has been conceived of in the past five thousand years. It comes at a time when the appropriate religious fervor—panic and repression—is gathering momentum….

In the fairy tale it did no good for cautious courtiers to finger the king’s non-existent garments and murmur that the cut wasn’t exactly up to his standards or that the color was unbecoming. No evasive formula satisfied him. The little boy had to stand up and speak the blunt truth. What this country needs today is sixty millions grown-ups who will stand up and speak the blunt truth.

January 31, 1950

To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.