The passing of our friend Jonathan Schell last week is a profound loss for journalism and for the international peace movement. In twenty years at The New Yorker and sixteen at The Nation, Jonathan’s work insisted on seeing through the headlines to the deeper currents of history swirling below. His great theme was the survival of humanity, both as a species and as a general principle of common decency and purpose. In addition to his incredible early reportage, works like The Fate of the Earth (1982), The Gift of Time (1998), and The Unconquerable World (2003) conveyed in bracing prose Jonathan’s fearless idealism, his unique combination of justified alarm and unbridled optimism which forever changed the way the United States understands itself and the way the entire world understands matters of war and peace.
As our peace and disarmament correspondent and a fellow at The Nation Institute, Jonathan filed for The Nation well over one hundred eloquent, elegant, passionate and forcefully argued essays on topics ranging from nuclear abolitionism to the Iraq war, from the Clinton impeachment proceedings to the fallout from September 11th, from the disclosures of illegal NSA spying in 2005 to the even more alarming Snowden files of 2013. To read through those essays now—especially his special series, “The Republic on Trial” and “Letter from Ground Zero”—is to watch one of the most important journalists this country has ever produced grapple with unfolding trends and historical themes he had been tracking for decades—and at a prolific, often weekly pace—about which he always had original and clarifying things to say. It is also to discover once again that Jonathan, as he once wrote in The Nation of history itself, was “no respecter of conventional wisdom”—that being among the loftiest legacies a journalist can leave behind.
“The Gift of Time” (February 2, 1998):
“To succeed in the task would, by securing human survival through human resolve and action, go far toward restoring our faith, so badly shaken in the century, in our capacity to make use of the amazing products of our hands and minds for our benefit rather than our destruction. It would bring undying honor to those who carried it to fulfillment and to their generation. It would have the character not of a desperate expedient resorted to under pressure of terror but of a tremendous free act, following upon calm public deliberation in every nation—among all humankind. In a way, it would be the foundation of humankind.”
“The Republic on Trial: What Works: The Constitution” (February 15, 1999):
“In most respects, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton—now destined to go on for yet more weeks—is different from the proceedings against President Richard Nixon a quarter-century ago. Nixon was accused of abuses of the power of his office. You had to be President to bomb Cambodia secretly, to use the IRS to harass your political enemies or to ask the CIA to squelch an investigation by the FBI. Clinton, on the other hand, is accused of violations of law in his individual capacity. It is within the power of almost anyone to fool around at the office, to invite a colleague to dissemble about the affair in court or to ask a friend to do the lover in question a favor.
“The historical circumstances were different, too. In the immediate background was the cold war, in whose name the presidency had accumulated powers that Nixon used to break the law. The question before the country was whether to embrace this ‘imperial’ presidency or to restore the constitutional balance, and it chose the latter. Today, by contrast, one would be hard put to name and large public controversy that is going to be settled one way or another by the impeachment trial. If anything, the trial has created fresh issues (mostly regarding abuse of the impeachment power itself) rather than resolved existing ones.”