A pioneer in the field of psycho-history, National Book Award winner and psychiatrist Robert Lifton explores why fundamentally decent individuals commit atrocities. As the author of more than 20 books, Lifton has covered such topics as the effects of Hiroshima on its survivors and the Nazi doctors who served in Hitler's death camps. Here, Lifton tells us about his book, a memoir entitled Witness to an Extreme Century, which Kirkus said was a “a call for a moral awakening by a deeply compassionate chronicler of our times.”

Read more Best of 2011 Nonfiction.

What was your purpose in writing the memoir?

I have done very unusual kinds of research in different parts of the world, but in my books I did not discuss my own reactions and struggles. In the memoir, I want to convey the impact of that work on me, including what it mean to experience the pain of the people I talked to.

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Like the interviewing the survivors in Hiroshima?

Yes, and I also wanted to understand the motivations of the Nazi doctors involved in such evil.

How do you connect the role of a scholar and taking social responsibility?

I think it is important to study cruel and destructive behavior, but I also believe one has the responsibility to take steps to oppose it. There's never a decisive movement when one's goals are fully achieved. Rather the struggle is continuous, always with gains and losses. What one achieves may be modest yet the effort is always worth making.

In your first book, you described Chinese use of coercion for thought control in the 1950s, and you used the word totalist to describe their society. Can you explain what you mean by totalism? Do you mean a totalitarian regime?

In Thought Reform I explored the systematic process used by the Chinese to manipulate minds. Totalism is the psychological equivalent of totalitarianism, when we are discussing the minds of individuals alone or in groups. Totalism describes an all-or-nothing attitude toward a claim to absolute truth and absolute virtue.

Do you think America is moving in the direction of totalism?

In the 21st century, America has shown troubling tendencies toward its own form of totalism. For instance there is evidence that American interrogators at Guantanamo have been instructed to follow the methods that were used by the Chinese to effect thought reform. Also we have been involved in torture at various levels under the Bush administration. American lawyers redefined torture in order to render it acceptable, and psychologists and psychiatrists have colluded in torture by consulting with interrogators.

This is by no means the same as what the Nazi doctors did, but it is all too reminiscent of it. But let me emphasize we are still a democracy with the opportunity to sharply protest.

You wrote about your work with Vietnam vets who were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Along with others, my work on PTSD contributed to the recognition of it as a psychological disorder.

In Vietnam, soldiers were thrust into a counterinsurgency war in which it was difficult to discriminate between combatants and civilians.There was a military focus on body counts of the number of dead Vietnamese. Soldiers also suffered psychological states of grief and humiliation over the death of fellow soldiers. Under these circumstances mistakes were made and over time atrocities were frequent, even ordinary. There have been similar patterns in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Veterans must deal with these experiences when they face civilian life. There is some controversy about over-diagnosis of PTSD today, but any diagnosis has problems. What is important is to give structure and dignity to the veterans' suffering. I see a real contradiction in people who glorify armed service while at the same time opposing benefits for vets.

I imagine you must feel personally concerned about the nuclear crisis in Japan.

Yes, I am deeply concerned. There was a partial meltdown. The experience of Hiroshima is relevant.

I am completely opposed to the use of nuclear energy as a power source. There is always the possibility of human error and acts of nature. The dangers to human beings from exposure to radiation are extreme and unacceptable. I have seen the results of invisible contamination in Hiroshima, acute effects such as internal bleeding and chronic effects such as leukemia.

Governments and corporations have succeeded in convincing people that technology can make nuclear power safe, but I disagree.