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, 1 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 Northern Hemisphere would be damaged or killed.”
Like Jonathan Schell, we must all hope that man’s knowledge of the environmental consequences of a nuclear war will never be based on experience; indeed, that it will always remain surmise.2
To accept uncertainty is essential in facing the nuclear peril honestly, and to learn to make judgments, and to act on them, in the midst of uncertainty is the beginning of wisdom in dealing with the nuclear predicament.
But almost in the same breath Schell reminds us that in his earlier book he warned that “we have no choice but to address the issue of nuclear weapons as though we knew for a certainty that their use would put an end to our species.” The nuclear peril is something that was “instantaneous in its appearance,” something that is “unlimited in its scope… everlasting in its staying power,” something that is now lodged “at the very heart of international decision-making.” But—and here comes the rub—it is all but impossible to reconcile, from the point of view of action, Einstein’s view that the peril will be with us until world government abolishes sovereign states with the view, associated in the United States with the name of Bernard Brodie, 3 that in a nuclear world safety is to be found in the fear of nuclear retaliation, in “a balance of terror,” and with the associated concept of nuclear deterrence, which has deliberately led—in Schell’s view—to the nuclear arms race. It would be a reassuring thought if this were indeed the only explanation for the “race.”
Schell then goes on to explain that deterrence has now revealed the
unresolvable contradiction of “defending” one’s country by threatening to use weapons whose actual use would bring on the annihilation of one’s country and possibly of the world as well. And the emergence of the contradictions was in turn propelled…by a recognition—this time on the part of nuclear strategists rather than citizens at large—of what a doomsday machine really is, and what it means to intend, in certain circumstances, to use one.
Hence “the crisis in public confidence and the crisis in policy,” which in a sense
are part of a single, deeper crisis. Both, in their different ways, are responses to the fantastic, horrifying, brutal, and absurd fact that we human beings have actually gone ahead and wired our planet for its and our destruction.
Schell is one the side of the angels. Not only would he never “press the button” but, and here he would go further than the Catholic bishops, his “unwillingness to support the use or the threat to use nuclear weapons is unconditional…it is as wrong conditionally as it is eternally.” The “peace movement” does not go far enough. The task is to find “a way of abolishing nuclear weapons that does not require us to found a world government, which the world shows virtually no interest in founding.”
Jonathan Schell’s way is set out in the final and shorter section of the book, headed “A Deliberate Policy.” For those who might have been led to expect some shattering revelation, it will prove a sad letdown. Schell seems to move blindly in circles over ground with which he is unfamiliar but which, in fact, has been explored ceaselessly over the years. The answer with which he ends all but negates the noble sentiments that were expressed in his first book, and that are repeated in the first part of this one. The first step toward the goal of nuclear “abolition” has, we learn, already been taken. We cannot allow ourselves to be wrecked on the rocks of world government, so we shall necessarily continue to live in a state of nuclear deterrence.
According to Schell, the “most honest argument in favor of the possession of nuclear weapons…is that upholding liberty is worth the risk of extinction.” Now our task is “to preserve the political stalemate—to freeze the status quo,” at the same time as we “avert a nuclear holocaust.” That is his solution. But whose status quo; who are “we” who will preserve the stalemate; how is that to be done?—all these are questions that the reader can ask. Schell provides no answers. All that he demands is that the superpowers should agree to abolish nuclear weapons, the abolition to “be enforced not by any world police force…but by each nation’s knowledge that a breakdown of the agreement would be to no one’s advantage….”
There is no need to follow Schell further in his luxurious circumlocutions. His message is straight and clear: agree to agree, and in the meantime, don’t fool around with the doomsday machine. Those who may have hoped that he was going to reveal the road to man’s deliverance will be left high and dry, and I fear that the professionals who have been concerned over the past thirty years or so with the problem of reaching agreement will not find any new guidance in what he has to say.
Alas, the same is true of Jonathan Schell’s fellow evangelist, Freeman Dyson. Dyson is a romantic—even a fantasist. This is strange for a man whose brilliance as a mathematician and physicist was manifest by the time he had reached his early twenties. Dyson, like Schell, wants to save the world. If he were running the United States “as an absolute monarch,” he would rid his country of nuclear weapons by an act of unilateral disarmament, and “accept the risks of leaving the Soviet Union as the only major nuclear power in the world.” He couldn’t be clearer about this view. He supports his prescriptions with sweeping, but often dubious, generalities, and makes assertions that are sometimes outrageous. And unlike Freeman Dyson the scientist, Dyson the savior has failed to check many of his presumed “facts.”
For example, who told him that “the first and most important fact to remember about Russian generals is that they start out by reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace,” or that “the Soviet Generals still regret that Stalin would not allow them to preempt Hitler in 1941”? How comes it that Dyson’s admiration for Gandhi and his policy of satyagraha leads him to believe that the cessation of British rule in India represented a bloodless victory for the Mahatma when, in fact, he, the preacher of nonviolent resistance, was very much alive during the period when hundreds of thousands of Moslems and Hindus murdered each other, when the subcontinent split into two, and later, after his death, into three warring sovereign states? And who are the Indians who “today have still not forgiven Gandhi for depriving India of the glory of winning its freedom properly in a national war of independence”? And in what fictional world did Margaret Thatcher pay a state visit to see Chairman Brezhnev in Moscow? She met Kosygin at a Moscow airport during a brief stopover on the way to the Tokyo economic summit. But her first known official visit to that city was earlier this year to attend Chairman Andropov’s funeral.
What Freeman Dyson has given us is not so much a book as a patchwork of articles in which, over the past fifteen years or so, he has told us mainly what he feels about the East-West hostility that divides the developed nations of the world. He has “never seen a shot fired in anger”; but nonetheless, he says, he is partly a warrior and, because he lives in two worlds, “the world of the warriors and the world of the victims,” he is “possessed by an immodest hope that [he] may improve mankind’s chances of escaping the horrors of nuclear holocaust” by helping “these two worlds to understand and listen to each other.”
Freeman Dyson is the product first of an illustrious and ancient English public school, Winchester, and second of Cambridge University, which he left, after a curtailed wartime two-year course, just before his twentieth birthday in 1942. Then began what he calls his “career as a military expert.” Total mobilization was the order of the day in the United Kingdom, and those scientifically trained were directed to jobs by an administrative body presided over by the late C.P. Snow. Dyson was sent to the Operational Research Section at RAF Bomber Command, from where, he tells us, he was sent as “scientific adviser” to the officer commanding No. 3 Group of the Command—a certain Air Vice-Marshal Harrison. Harrison, a senior officer who had survived the First World War, did not want advice in detail on “the technical problems of operating a force of bombers.” Hardly surprising, one might say, since presumably the twenty-year-old Dyson knew nothing at the time about bombers or bombing operations.
A commission under the auspices of the International Council of Scientific Unions is now reviewing the evidence that relates to these matters.↩
Bernard Brodie, in The Absolute Weapon (Harcourt Brace, 1946).↩