How Not to Think About Nuclear War

The Fate of the Earth

by Jonathan Schell
Knopf, 244 pp., $11.95

Suddenly, “no-first-use” and “the freeze” have become the talismanic slogans of the antinuclear war movement. They have been around for years, but they have recently gained renewed urgency both by having been taken up by outstanding proponents and by increasing popular support. They are not similar, and the freeze may be left for later in another connection.

No-first-use owes its present prominence more than anything else to the plea made in its behalf by four distinguished advocates, McGeorge Bundy, George F. Kennan, Robert S. McNamara, and Gerard Smith, in the Spring 1982 issue of Foreign Affairs. As they put it in their admirably measured and tentative approach to the problem, they have aimed “to start a discussion, not to end it.” If I am skeptical about their proposal, it is not for lack of respect for the reasonableness of their effort and the authority they bring to it.

The first thing that strikes one about no-first-use is that it belongs to the declaratory school of diplomacy. The authors refer to it variously as a “policy,” a “pledge,” and a “declaration.” In fact, it amounts to little more than the latter. Nothing would or could enforce it. At best, both the United States and the Soviet Union would jointly declare that they intend to renounce the first use of nuclear weapons. They need do nothing more.

The second striking thing about the proposal is that it has one unnecessary or superfluous word. It is really equivalent, if taken seriously, to no-use of nuclear weapons. If no nuclear weapons are ever used first, they will never be used at all. Why, then, should the slogan or declaration be no-first-use? The answer, I suspect, is that no-use would immediately expose the nature of the proposal as a disembodied exhortation rather than as a practical policy. The use of “first” somehow appears to give a specious operational character to the declaration. No-use would make it too clear that we are dealing with a statement of the problem, not a step toward its solution.

If a declaration of peaceful intentions were enough to prevent any kind of war, the deed would have been done a long time ago. The history of war and peace is littered with such professions of virtue. In 1928, for example, sixty-two nations signed a pact outlawing war. Its enforcement was supposed to rest on the moral strength of world opinion. It was signed, celebrated, and forgotten. With evident understatement, the four authors themselves say that “such declarations may have only limited reliability.” The awful truth is that they have no reliability at all.

There has been no first use of nuclear weapons for almost four decades because it has not been in the interest of any nuclear power to use them; and that condition will—or will not—continue to prevail whether or not declarations of self-denial are made. The reliability of that continuing self-interest, not the reliability of any declaration, is what matters. It is, moreover, hard …

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How Not to Think About Nuclear War’: An Exchange September 23, 1982