Weapons and Hope
The Illogic of American Nuclear Strategy
Some two years ago Jonathan Schell, a staff writer on The New Yorker, caused a considerable stir with The Fate of the Earth, a book he had written with the passion of a man who had unexpectedly become aware of a hideous prospect which neither he nor the ordinary American citizen had apparently grasped, before—even though it had been expounded for well over two decades in book after book, popular and specialist, as well as in widely distributed United Nations publications.
Having painted an awe-inspiring picture of a world destroyed by nuclear bombs, Mr. Schell ended his short book with an essay called “The Choice.” Its final paragraph opened with a purple passage in which we were warned that only two paths lie before mankind.
One leads to death, the other to life. If we choose the first path—if we numbly refuse to acknowledge the nearness of extinction, all the while increasing our preparations to bring it about—then we in effect become the allies of death, and in everything we do our attachment to life will weaken: our vision, blinded to the abyss that has opened at our feet, will dim and grow confused; our will, discouraged by the thought of trying to build on such a precarious foundation anything that is meant to last, will slacken; and we will sink into stupefaction, as though we were gradually weaning ourselves from life in preparation for the end….
“The task we face,” he wrote, “is to find a means of political action that will permit human beings to pursue any end for the rest of time…. In sum, the task is nothing less than to reinvent politics: to reinvent the world.” But this, Mr. Schell admitted, was not his business. His job was to define the problem: “I have left to others those awesome, urgent tasks, which, imposed on us by history, constitute the political work of our age.”
As it turns out, he has been too impatient to wait. So in The Abolition, Schell addresses “the question of deliberate policy—specifically, the question of how we might abolish nuclear arms.” To start with he spells out again “the chief features of our predicament.” He therefore goes over ground covered by his earlier book, and in doing so reiterates many a point that those who bought The Fate of the Earth will have already noted.
In that book he painted a picture of an earth devastated by nuclear explosions, of flames raging through the ruins of cities, of hundreds of millions of dead, of survivors beset by genetic defects. Now, referring to his more recent reading, he writes that we also have to consider the consequences of a world plunged “into a frigid darkness for several months” by the failure of the sun’s rays to penetrate the smoke which had filled an atmosphere already loaded with toxic chemicals. People and animals would freeze and starve and—he quotes Paul Ehrlich—“virtually all land plants in the …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.