Nuclear Sense and Nonsense

The Nuclear Delusion: Soviet-American Relations in the Atomic Age

by George F. Kennan
Pantheon, 207 pp., $13.95

With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War

by Robert Scheer
Random House, 285 pp., $14.95

Any European citizen who picks up the two books under review hoping to inform himself about the nuclear dangers that bedevil East-West relations could well be excused were he to gain the impression that George Kennan was brought up within a culture wholly different from the one out of which the characters in Robert Scheer’s pages emerged. How, one might well ask, could a politically sophisticated analysis of American-Soviet relations, of the kind which George Kennan provides, appear in the same country and at the same time as the proclamations of a band of military camp followers who pretend to provide intellectual backing for the controversial defense policies of Ronald Reagan and Caspar Weinberger? How is it that senior and experienced American military leaders who have spoken out have so far failed to refute the martial vaporings of a handful of civilians who offer guidelines for all-out nuclear war, as though its consequences would be little worse than a succession of severe droughts? Can it be that the enormous momentum of the arms race, and the pervasive power of the military machine, have in recent years so conditioned the environment of American opinion that, for all that may be said in favor of free speech, public expressions of dissent have so far had as little impact on the formulation of government policy in the US as the whimpers of dissent have in the USSR?

Whatever the answer, the belligerent noises now coming out of Washington are certainly sharpening the anxieties of ordinary citizens in parts of Western Europe where public expressions of concern can still have an impact on government policies. People are scared by talk of protracted nuclear war; by the fact that there is no let-up in the nuclear arms race; by the lack of progress in the START and “theater weapon” talks. And, however regrettable, and quite apart from differences of view about steel imports into the US, or trade relations with the USSR, strains in the Atlantic Alliance will increase the more it becomes clear that European governments are unable to influence the East-West military confrontation.

The recent admissions that the Pentagon, with presidential blessing, is embarking on preparations that would ostensibly provide the US with the means to fight a “protracted” nuclear war against the USSR have generated a new wave of alarm, and more than a little astonishment, in those European quarters where questions were already being asked about other aspects of nuclear strategy. Caspar Weinberger’s efforts at retraction, culminating in his “open letter” to some seventy newspapers, have done nothing to allay anxiety or to reduce bewilderment. Theodore Draper’s “open reply”1 indicated that the Weinberger letter will more likely than not intensify fear among those of America’s European allies on whose territory such a war, were it ever to occur, would be fought.

But the whole concept of a nuclear war in nonsense, and the purpose of Mr. Scheer’s book is to reveal the degree of nonsense it is. If theā€¦

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.