In opening the box of the atom’s secrets, man did not unleash evil, he merely acquired the capacity to unleash it. This left him with the oppressive burden of free choice—the power to decide whether or not to blow up the world. So the earth’s fate continues to depend on an unanswered question of potentially tragic dimensions: Are men and women sufficiently mature, psychologically and institutionally, to make that decision rationally? Or will history prove Homo sapiens a biological monster with his scientific faculties grotesquely overdeveloped in relation to his political or moral evolution?
Nothing in the history of the race has taught us poor human beings how to cope with such a predicament. The bomb is insensitive to any appeal; it offers us no chance for appeasement through ritual or expiation, no chance for forgiveness or hope for redemption. Once a nuclear war begins, we shall have exercised our free choice and lost it in the exercise, since there will be little, if any, chance of halting the carnage and avoiding ultimate destruction. Events, in Emerson’s phrase, will be irretrievably “in the saddle, and ride mankind.”
Although thoughts such as these have obsessed our society ever since Hiroshima, new generations have regarded the power of the atom as a familiar, if vaguely disturbing, phenomenon and have accepted the bomb as an instrument of war. Yet this is a pernicious fallacy; on the day the soviets acquired that instrument and the means to deliver it, the bomb lost its military utility and became merely a means of mutual suicide. Clausewitz would never have regarded it as a weapon; there are no political objectives commensurate with the costs of an all-out nuclear exchange.
We have found that reality difficult to accept. Many—though not all—of our military professionals seek instinctively to treat the bomb as merely another weapon of formidably increased power. President Reagan, who appears uncritically to echo this pattern of thought, would encourage us to pursue the traditional pattern of weapons evolution: the development of defensive weapons to match the offensive, then more offensive weapons to overcome the defensive, and so on.
Even more influential than soldiers in shaping America’s weapons policy has been an elite group of economists, mathematicians, and political scientists who, beginning in the 1950s, preempted the bomb as their special intellectual property, established themselves as a proprietary priesthood, and sought to impose logic on inherently irrational nuclear conflict. Some of these people are still on display in Strobe Talbott’s book, along with the younger men who succeeded them.
The bomb offered them a unique chance for theorizing free from empirical challenge, for, although the practices and doctrines of conventional warfare have been tested in a thousand battles, the conduct and consequences of a nuclear exchange are, and must remain, pure speculation—unless and until such an exchange blows up large parts of the world including the intellectual speculators.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
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.