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The Old and New Shapes of Nuclear Danger | The Nation

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The Old and New Shapes of Nuclear Danger

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Some of the material in this article is drawn from Jonathan Schell's just-published The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger.

Abolition in the First Era of the Nuclear Age

About the Author

Jonathan Schell
Jonathan Schell is the Lannan Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at...

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In the year of campaigning that lies ahead, we'll find out whether the nuclear question--a "presidential" issue if there ever was one--gets the attention it deserves. Developments in the world's multiplying nuclear hot spots, however, are not going to wait for pundits, pollsters and spinmasters. The need of the hour, with or without the candidates' participation, is to figure out the alarming new shape of nuclear danger, how it got that way and what to do about it. One approach to these questions is to look back at the Reykjavik summit and ask what its larger significance might be and whether it has the relevance to our day that has been claimed. Reykjavik occurred at a turning point of the cold war. Today we have entered what many call the second nuclear age. Does the first nuclear age have relevance for this second one?

The reaction in the immediate aftermath of Reykjavik would suggest that the answer is no. An impression arose that the negotiations had been a chaotic and dizzying bout of improvisation in which a clueless Reagan had somehow been lured into momentarily agreeing to abolition. In this telling, the whole episode, both embarrassing and futile, came off as a freakish event in which the leaders of the major cold war states, departing from their briefing books and perhaps their senses, somehow decided to give an airing to a proposal that all serious people knew to be utterly quixotic. However, the recently declassified Soviet and American Memoranda of Conversation of the event reveal that the summit was in fact a disciplined, sincere exploration and negotiation of the possibility of abolishing nuclear weapons. Each leader knows exactly what he wants. Each listens carefully to the other. Each is a rock-ribbed abolitionist. Each, indeed, has been an abolitionist for several years and has thought long and deeply about the subject. By the second day of the meeting, each is prepared to surrender his country's entire nuclear arsenal on the spot. But their paths to the goal are different, and in the end--heartbreakingly--they cannot agree.

More important for understanding the present moment than this impressive performance is that the negotiation can be seen as the culmination of an evolution of thinking as long as the cold war. The problem presented by the advent of the bomb in 1945 was how to absorb such a stupendous, disproportionate force as the energy released from mass into the fluctuating, frail, contingent realm of historical events. A protracted effort at what might be called translation was required--a slow sifting and weighing, in heart and mind, of each aspect of the nuclear dilemma. For a single modern historical era, the cold war lasted a remarkably long time--and thereby offered a pedagogical advantage. Considered as a laboratory in which to examine the bomb, it provided ample leisure for investigation. You might say that it held the mysterious and elusive atomic fire steady in its tense grip long enough for people to discover some important things about it and to reflect on it quite deeply.

Most important, the bomb's uselessness for war was impressed upon its possessors. In this period, the nuclear-warfighting school, teaching that nuclear arms were just another weapon for war, was gradually eclipsed by the rise of the deterrence, or mutual-assured-destruction, school, teaching that the main objective of nuclear policy must be to assure that the weapons are never used. This strand of nuclear thinking seemed to reach a culmination in 1985, when Reagan and Gorbachev made their famous joint statement at the Geneva summit that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." Observers might have thought the mutual-assured-destruction school had finally triumphed, once and for all. For decades right-wing politicians who rejected the doctrine had maintained that victory in a nuclear war was possible. Now their greatest champion, the ultraconservative Reagan, was standing beside a leader of the Soviet Union declaring otherwise. The decades of danger had not passed in vain. The illusion that anyone could win or gain any advantage from a nuclear war was officially dead.

Yet Reagan had not embraced the deterrence doctrine's corollary: namely, that nuclear arsenals must be preserved forever. It so happened that he despised deterrence, chiefly on moral grounds. He did indeed assess the realities of nuclear war in the same way as his liberal opponents, most of whom were wedded to deterrence, but his prescription for dealing with the situation could not have been more different. Neither, of course, did he agree any longer with his own tribe of nuclear hawks. He was on his own. He was a fervent nuclear abolitionist.

The theme first surfaced on March 23, 1983, in the third year of Reagan's presidency, when he made two radical proposals in the peroration of a speech on his military buildup. The first, later named the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), was to build a defensive system that would "intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies," thus rendering "these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete." That accomplished, the world--and this was the second blockbuster proposal--could proceed to "achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles," which in turn would "pave the way for arms control measures to eliminate the weapons themselves."

Reagan's double shock caught his top officials by surprise--and almost all of them were appalled. They believed, quite correctly, that an impervious missile shield over the United States or any other country was a technological impossibility. Reagan seemed to have escaped from one of the grand illusions of the nuclear age (that a nuclear war could be won) into another (that a nuclear attack could be defended against). Furthermore, support for abolition among Administration officials was nil. Seen from their perspective, Reagan had committed the United States to two impossibilities in one speech.

The reaction of the Soviet leaders was even more unfavorable. One of the often-avowed purposes of Reagan's arms buildup had been to spend the Soviet Union into bankruptcy. SDI appeared to them to accelerate this effort. They were not mistaken. After leaving office Reagan recalled, "We...knew that if we showed the political resolve to develop SDI, the Soviets would have to face the awful truth: They did not have the resources to continue building a huge offensive arsenal and a defensive one simultaneously." SDI also seemed to the Soviets to be aimed at US nuclear superiority after all. Yet just four days after his SDI speech, Reagan addressed this second issue. He announced that if the United States developed effective SDI technology, he would share it with the Soviet Union. Once the two countries were thus defended, he would declare, "I am willing to do away with all my missiles. You do away with yours."

The sharing proposal struck both his own Administration and the Soviets as the most unreal element of the plan yet. Less noted at the time was that, however remote from realization (as was SDI itself), sharing made a kind of conceptual sense. If enacted, it would have precluded any bid for superiority. Moreover, it would radically reduce the burden of proof on SDI. Even Reagan was soon required to recognize that a full, impenetrable shield against a large nuclear arsenal was chimerical. On the other hand, if offensive arsenals were first eliminated, then defenses would face only the lesser and more feasible challenge of defending against the kind of tiny missile forces that a cheater on an abolition agreement might cobble up in secret. Later, Reagan would insist that this objective was the chief rationale for his program.

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