Skip to main content

Review: Jonathan Schell's New Book on the Nuclear Dilemma

The head of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation reviews journalist and professor Jonathan Schell’s new book, which examines the nuclear policies of the current Bush administration, and finds some required reading.

Few people have looked as deeply into the nuclear abyss, seen the monster of our own making and grappled with it as has the writer Jonathan Schell. But Schell, more than a writer, is also a philosopher of the nuclear age and an ardent advocate of caging the beast and rendering it harmless. Schell’s first book on the subject, The Fate of the Earth, awakened many people to the breadth and depth of the nuclear danger and is now a classic. Several of his other books cover the issue of nuclear dangers (nuclear insanity?) as well, always providing penetrating insights into the confrontation between humanity and its most deadly invention.

Schell’s latest book, The Seventh Decade, The New Shape of Nuclear Danger, may prove his most important work yet. Examining the roots of the Nuclear Age and its current manifestations, in this book he unearths the truth, which, once brought to light, seems obvious: The bomb began as a construct in the mind. “Well before any physical bomb had been built,” he writes, “science had created the bomb in the mind, an intangible thing. Thereafter, the bomb would be as much a mental as a physical object.”

One of the key concepts of the Nuclear Age is deterrence, the belief that the threat of nuclear retaliation can prevent nuclear attack. Schell takes a hardheaded look at deterrence and finds the concept “half-sane and half-crazy.” While it seems sane to seek to forestall a nuclear attack, the half-crazy part (perhaps more than half) “consists of actually waging the war you must threaten, for in that event the result is suicide all around.” That suicide writ large becomes what philosopher John Somerville termed omnicide, the death of all.

“In short,” Schell deduces, “to threaten seems wise, but to act is deranged.”

In the post–Cold War period, deterrence — no longer the mental task of threat and counter-threat aimed at keeping a fixed and powerful opponent at bay, as it was during the Cold War standoff between the U.S. and the USSR — has become even more complex and less certain, tilting toward the “deranged.” Now, states must consider the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorist groups, not locatable or subject to being deterred. In such circumstances, the rationality of deterrence is shattered, and even great and powerful states risk nuclear devastation by far weaker opponents; moreover, overwhelming nuclear superiority is of no avail.

The “bomb in the mind” can only do so much. It cannot deter non-locatable or suicidal entities. Despite their devastating power, nuclear weapons in the hands of powerful states actually pose a tepid threat, yet they stand as a major impediment to the post–Cold War imperial project of the United States, a project failing on many fronts but poised to fail far more spectacularly if nuclear weapons find their way to terrorist groups.

In today’s world, when deterrence has for nearly all sane thinkers lost its magical power in the mind (although in truth it was always a highly risky venture), it has become far harder to justify nuclear arsenals, and the United States has resorted to the vague possibility of a reemergent threat. In considering this, Schell finds, “In the last analysis, the target of the U.S. nuclear arsenal became history and whatever it might produce — not a foe but a tense, the future itself.”

Schell correctly concludes that the George W. Bush administration had far more ambitious and sinister plans for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Despite the existence of no clearly definable enemy, the administration harbored a strongly held vision and normative goal of U.S. global dominance, set forth in the 2001 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review. Nuclear weapons were required, in Schell’s careful study of the NPR, “to dissuade, deter, defeat or annihilate — preventively, preemptively or in retaliation — any nation or other grouping of people on the face of the earth, large or small, that militarily opposed, or dreamed of opposing, the United States.”

Schell examines the U.S. imperial project under Bush and its role in shaping U.S. nuclear policy. He points out that the Bush administration ordered its nuclear threats in this way: Iraq, with whom it went to war; Iran, with whom it threatened war; North Korea, which withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and developed nuclear weapons; and Pakistan, which already had nuclear weapons and a chaotic political environment.

Of course, Bush chose exactly the wrong order in terms of the actual security threats posed by these nations. Schell finds, “In responding to the universal danger posed by nuclear proliferation, the United States therefore had two suitably universalist traditions that it could draw on, one based on consent and law, the other based on force. Bush chose force. It was the wrong choice. It increased the nuclear danger it was meant to prevent.”

In the final section of his book, Schell, himself an ardent nuclear abolitionist, reviews earlier attempts to achieve abolition of these weapons. He goes into heartbreaking detail of the efforts of Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev to achieve the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. The two leaders, acting on their own initiative, without the advice or support of their aides (excepting George Shultz), came incredibly close to agreement to eliminate their nuclear arsenals but as we know faltered on the issue of missile defenses, which Reagan saw as key and Gorbachev couldn’t accept.

After such a close brush with an agreed-upon plan for abolition, the world settled back to nuclear business as usual. As Schell points out, after the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit at Reykjavík, “Nuclear arsenals may remain not so much because anyone wants them as because a world without them is outside the imagination of the leadership class.”

The possibilities of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism leads Schell to the conclusion that “with each year that passes, nuclear weapons provide their possessors with less safety while provoking more danger. The walls dividing the nations of the two-tiered (nuclear) world are crumbling.” The Reagan-Gorbachev vision gained new advocates in former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former chair of the Senate Committee on Armed Services Sam Nunn. Their basic premise is that deterrence can no longer be the foundation for 21st-century security.

Schell suggests that should the will for nuclear abolition materialize — something already favored by the majority of Americans — the following principles could guide the effort:

  • At the outset, adopt the abolition of nuclear arms as the organizing principle and goal of all activity in the nuclear field.
  • Join all negotiations on nuclear weapons — on nuclear disarmament, on nonproliferation and on nuclear terrorism — in a single forum.
  • Think of abolition less as the endpoint of a long and weary path of disarmament and more as the starting point for addressing a new agenda of global action.
  • Design a world free of nuclear weapons — not just a destination to reach but also a place to remain.

Schell concludes that the “bomb in the mind,” ours from the outset of the Nuclear Age, will remain with us but that this is not necessarily a detriment. He points out, “Even in a world without nuclear weapons, deterrence would, precisely because the bomb in the mind would still be present, remain in effect. In that respect, the persisting know-how would be as much a source of reassurance as it would be a danger in a world without nuclear weapons.”

Schell has provided an essential book for our time. He peels back the layers of veils and myths surrounding nuclear dangers and strategies and offers a sound set of guidelines for moving to a nuclear weapons–free world. This book — required reading for every person on the planet who cares about ensuring the future — can help create the necessary political will to achieve this end.

David Krieger is the president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation ( and a leader in the global effort to abolish nuclear weapons.