The Gift of Time

The Gift of Time

The case for abolition of nuclear weapons.



The late Jonathan Schell's case for the abolition of nuclear weapons, The Gift of Time, later expanded into a book, comprised an entire issue of The Nation in early 1998. This is the introduction.

In early December, a disconcerting piece of news seeped out of the White House. The nation’s plans for fighting a nuclear war had been revised by a Presidential Decision Directive (a so-called P.D.D.) for the first time since 1981, when, at one of the tensest moments of the cold war, President Reagan had just begun his first term in office. No public announcement had been made, but reporters got wind of the change, and the Clinton Administration confirmed the news. It was, of course, disturbing in this peaceful time merely to be reminded that the United States still had plans for nuclear war. On Thanksgiving Day, just days earlier, President Clinton had proclaimed, “In this new world, our children are growing up free from the shadows of the cold war and the threat of nuclear holocaust.” The P.D.D. appended a decidedly jarring footnote to the President’s assurance. If we were free of the threat of a nuclear holocaust, then what need was there for nuclear arsenals, or for revised plans for their use?

The jolt was not eased by the few cryptic fragments of explanation that were offered by the Administration. In an interview with R. Jeffrey Smith of The Washington Post, Robert Bell, who serves on the National Security Council, sought to draw a clear distinction between the new directive and its Reagan-era predecessor. The new one, he proudly stated, “removes from presidential guidance all previous references to being able to wage a nuclear war successfully or to prevail in a nuclear war.” That innovation, however, could scarcely qualify as a bold departure from cold war policy. After all, in 1985 President Reagan and the Soviet Communist Party General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, had jointly declared that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Was the public now to understand that it had taken twelve yearsduring five of which Bill Clinton was Presidentfor this high-level affirmation of rudimentary sanity in the nuclear age to travel down the spinal cord of the military machine from the Commander in Chief to his subordinates at the Pentagon? And was it to understand that this delayed implementation, six years after the end of the cold war, of a policy announced six years before the end of the cold war was the most significant change wrought in U.S. nuclear policy by that revolution in international affairs?

Far more striking than any differences from early-Reaganite excesses was the continuity of the new directive with orthodox cold war nuclear policy. Just as the doctrine of nuclear deterrence had guided U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union, so now it guided our policy toward Russia. Just as the Soviet government and military had been targeted for destruction, so now the civilian and military leadership of Russia was being targeted. In the event of attack, Bell stated, nuclear retaliation “would be certain and overwhelming and devastating.” In light of all this, his general conclusion was not surprising: Nuclear weapons were to remain the cornerstone of U.S. security for “the indefinite future.” There were, it is true, a few modest changes. The directive was to be implemented with a maximum of about 8,000 strategic warheadsthe number mandated by the START I treaty, which was signed in 1991 and went into effect in 1994. The list of targets in China had been expanded (prompting a remonstration from China’s foreign minister). And a few new countriesthose judged to have “prospective access” to nuclear weaponswere added to the list. (No countries were named, but it seems likely that Iraq, Iran and North Korea are among them.)

Russia, of course, also retains large nuclear arsenals and has plans for using them. In other words, nuclear deterrence remains in force on both sides of the now-missing Iron Curtain, dictating that each side maintain nuclear forces that, in the event of an attack by the other side, can destroy its society. The question today is, Who wants these reciprocal threats of annihilation, and why? Communism was the issue between the Soviet Union and the United States. The government now in power in Russia overthrew Communism, and today relations between Russia and the United States are cordial. The great nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union were created as instruments of the cold war. Now that that conflict has been dissolved, can’t the arsenals be dissolved? Now that the war is over, can’t we stand down the arms that were built to fight the war? Over a period of years, the peoples of the Soviet empire dismantled the system of totalitarian terror under which they lived. Can’t we and they together now dismantle the system of nuclear terror under which we have all been living? Can’t we, at long last, abolish nuclear weapons?

* * *

This issue of The Nation proposes an affirmative answer to that question. It is a call for the abolition of nuclear arms, not only in the United States and Russia but throughout the world. Or, to be exact, it is a number of such calls, issued in the voices of people who, in many cases, were engaged not so long ago in framing nuclear policy and planning nuclear war.

Because the nuclear age and the cold war were born at almost the same time and developed together at every point, few observers troubled at the time to distinguish clearly between the two. But now that history has unexpectedly untangled them for us, we face the one without the other, and questions in eclipse for half a century have been placed before us again. What we might call the first nuclear era, which lasted from 1945 until 1991, has come to an end, and a second nuclear era has begun. Its basic shape remains to be decided. Some 35,000 nuclear weapons remain in the world. Whether these are merely a monstrous leftover from a frightful era that has ended, and will soon follow it into history, or whether, on the contrary, they are the seeds of a new, more virulent nuclear era, in which nuclear weapons are held more widely and rooted more deeply, is not a matter for prediction; it is a matter for choice.

By choosing to call for the elimination of nuclear weapons, the new abolitionists have revived a vision that had all but disappeared since the beginning of the nuclear age, when the United States placed the Baruch plan, which called for eliminating nuclear weapons, before the United Nations. The proposal was vetoed by the Soviet Union, and the United States, the sole possessor of nuclear arms at the time, proceeded with a nuclear buildup, which it justified as a desperate, temporary measure to counter a threat that Soviet conventional forces were thought to pose to a ruined Europe. In Western minds, the two evils were soon equated: Nuclear weapons, it was admitted, were a horrifying expedient, but so, many said, was the threat they kept at bayworld domination by a totalitarian power.

In the years that followed, the reasons for ruling out abolition multiplied. Once the Soviet Union acquired the bomb, in 1949, proposals for nuclear disarmament were rejected on grounds that the character of the Soviet regime posed an insuperable obstacle. Nuclear disarmament, the cold war catechism ran, was possible only if the arrangements could be fully inspected; but the Soviet Union, being a closed society, would not permit inspection of its military establishment; therefore, nuclear disarmament was impossible. In other words, the totalitarian character of the Soviet regime became both the justification for building nuclear arsenals and the specific explanation for why it was impossible to eliminate them. Even the most ardent opponents of nuclear weapons had to admit that the obstacles in the way of complete nuclear disarmament were towering. Few in the West were ready to rely on trust alone to guarantee disarmament agreements, and even fewer supported unilateral disarmament. The range of proposals considered feasible was sharply restricted. The opponents of nuclear weapons were most successful, they found, when they confined themselves to ameliorative proposals, such as an atmospheric test ban or a freeze on nuclear arsenals. Hopes of ridding the world of nuclear weapons died, and the superpowers embarked on their four-decade-long nuclear arms race.

* * *

In the 1950s, a reassuring gloss was placed on the nuclear peril by the rise in the West of the theory of deterrence, which taught that safety from nuclear weapons could be found only in the threat to use those same weaponsthat relief from terror could be found only in terror itself. Official acceptance of this doctrine, in which nuclear arsenals appeared to provide their own justification, gave the nuclear buildup a legitimacy and a self-propelling momentum that at first it had lacked. The horrifying expedient came to be seen as a lasting necessity, even a positive good. The belief that great benefit could be extracted from nuclear arms perfectly complemented the belief that their abolition was impossible. If you could not eliminate nuclear weapons, it was comforting to discover that you would not want to anyway. Abolition was doubly ruled out. Nuclear terror, once regarded as intolerable, came to be seen as the new foundation of the world’s safety.

The conviction that abolition was impossible played a pivotal role in moral as well as political thinking about the nuclear question. Nuclear weapons are distinguished above all by their unparalleled destructive power. Their singularity, from a moral point of view, lies in the fact that the use of just a few would carry the user beyond every historical benchmark of indiscriminate mass slaughter. Is it necessary, fifty-three years after Hiroshima, to rehearse the basic facts? Suffice it to recall the old rule of thumb that one bomb can destroy one city. A large nuclear weapon today may possess a thousand times the explosive power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshimafar more than enough to annihilate any city on earth. A single Trident II submarine has the capacity to deliver nearly 200 warheads, which could lay waste any nation, giving the further rough rule of thumb: one boat, one nation. The use of a mere dozen nuclear weapons against, say, the dozen largest cities of the United States, Russia or China, causing tens of millions of deaths, would be a human catastrophe without parallel. The use of a few hundred nuclear weapons, not to speak of a thousand, would raise these already incomprehensible losses by orders of magnitude, leaving the imagination in the dust. Because so few weapons can kill so many people, even far-reaching disarmament proposals would leave us implicated in plans for unprecedented slaughter of innocent people. The sole measure that can free us from this burden is abolition. But abolition, during the forty or so years of the cold war, was ruled out.

The moral crisis created by the invention of nuclear weapons, then, lay in the fact that politically realistic people have felt themselves virtually barred during the cold war from being able to champion the only measure that would return governments and their peoples to the realm of minimal moral sense.

The resulting gap between political and moral requirements left us for almost fifty years with a fracture down the center of our beings. In the words of James Agee, in August 1945, just a few weeks after Hiroshima, “All thoughts and things were split.” Rudimentary moral principle taught that we must never, even in “retaliation,” threaten to kill millions of innocent people, but nuclear strategy required us to do so. Common sense rebelled against offering up every person in our country as a hostage to a hostile power and seizing every person on the territory of that power as a counter-hostage, meanwhile placing the whole arrangement on a hairtrigger; yet policy called this logically necessary. The experience of our century taught us that genocide was the worst of all crimes, but a nuclear “priesthood” taught us that to threaten it, and even to carry it out, was not only justifiable but our inescapable duty. Every scruple in the human conscience declared that we must never risk extinguishing our speciesthe supreme crime against humanity, and the only crime greater than genocidebut solemn doctrine declared that it was essential to threaten this act. All thoughts that led toward other conclusions had to go unthoughtand unacted upon. These were the truly “unthinkable” thoughts of the cold war period. The morbidity of the era consisted of more than the threat of universal death with which it was overhung; it consisted also of the prohibition, so humiliating to the human spirit, against taking action to remove the threat. Thus did the reasoning of the age seemingly compel not only totalitarian regimes but great democracies to enter, against all their better instincts and understanding, into a hated complicity in potentially limitless killing.

* * *

Today, the terms of the nuclear predicament have been altered fundamentally. The barrier of impossibility has fallen. The Soviet Union has unexpectedlyalmost magicallycleared itself out of the way. Gone is the murderous, implacable hostility between global rivals, which just a few years ago seemed destined to last forever; gone the totalitarian empire; and gone the obstacles to inspection that have been considered the main brake on nuclear disarmament. The elimination of nuclear weapons has always been much to be desired. What distinguishes our moment is that, for the first time since the invention of the weapons, it is entirely reasonable to believe that the goal actually can be reached. The opportunity for action that has now opened up is, above all else, an opportunity to heal our fractured selves. It is an opportunity to end the forced cohabitation with horror, the shotgun marriage with final absurdityto snap out of the trance of the cold war, annul the suicide pact dictated by the doctrine of deterrence and take the step that alone can free us from nuclear danger and corruption, namely, the abolition of nuclear weapons. Abolition is the great threshold. It is the logical and necessary destination because only abolition gets us out of the zone of mass slaughter, both as perpetrators and as victims.

Since the beginning of the nuclear age, it has been a commonplace to say that humanity’s technical achievement has outstripped its political achievement. Now the situation is reversed. The world’s political achievements have raced ahead of its technical achievements. In the political realm, peace reigns, but in the technical realm hostilityindeed, threats of “mutual assured destruction”remain the order of the day. Today, we require a technical event as great as the political event that was the end of the cold war. To use a homely metaphor, the West in the wake of the Soviet collapse is like a person who has won $50 million in the lottery and then declares, “Wonderfulnow I can redecorate my living room!” Why not buy a whole new house? History has handed us a political windfall. Why do we refuse to spend it? Political assets, unlike financial ones, are not apt to increase over time. If not made use of, they can, in an instant of crisis or war, evaporate.

* * *

The questions that need to be addressed are moral, political and strategic. The moral question for the United States is whether, during the cold war, we so accustomed ourselves to threatening nuclear annihilation that it became second nature to us. Why shouldn’t America’s leaders, by agreeing together with Russia’s leaders to abolish nuclear weapons, rescue our people from the threat of annihilation by a Russian nuclear attack when the only price to be paid is giving up the threat, itself morally intolerable, of annihilating our new friends the Russian people? Was the cold war not, as we first hoped, the apogee of the era of nuclear weapons, to be succeeded by an era of disarmament and peace, but instead a period of initiation, in which not only Americans and Russians but Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, Israelis, Koreans, Iraqis, Iranians and others were unlearning their horror of nuclear destructionwere learning to think the unthinkable? Was the cold war a sort of Trojan horse whereby nuclear weapons were being smuggled into the moral and political life of the world? Have we, in a silent but deep moral revolution in which the United States has played the leading role, come to regard threats of mass destruction as normalas the proper and ordinary procedure of any self-respecting nation, whether or not it faces an extraordinary danger from without? Can we still remember that to destroy hundreds of millions of human beings is an atrocity beyond all history? Or have we, so to speak, forgotten this before we had ever quite learned it? And have we, accordingly, adopted the strange vocationso deeply at odds with the principles on which our nation was foundedof salesman of terror to the world?

The chief political question is whether nuclear proliferation can be stopped and reversed while the current nuclear powers declare by their actions as well as their words that they believe that nuclear bombs are indispensable instruments of power. Or should proliferation perhaps be reluctantly accepted, or even enthusiastically embraced? The development that sets the stage for proliferation is, of course, the spread of nuclear technology. Although politically speaking it may in a sense be 1945 again, technically speaking it is much later than that. While the world was understandably transfixed by the mortal rivalry between the two superpowers, dissemination of the knowledge underlying the bomb and the technical wherewithal for building it was proceeding. During the cold war, the “secret” of the bomb was held by a few governments. Now it is published in magazines. Back then, the nuclear club was exclusive. Now just about anyone can join. Then, the necessary scientific knowledge was centralized in a few places. Now it is ubiquitous, protean, osmoticfully up- and down-loadable, just like any other information in the information age.

The principal strategic question is whether the doctrine of deterrence, having been framed during the cold war, will now be discredited as logically absurd and morally bankrupt or, on the contrary, recommended to nations all over the world as the soundest and most sensible solution to the nuclear dilemma. The question then will not be whether a particular quarreling pair of nations or blocs (the United States and the Soviet Union during the cold war) is better off with nuclear arsenals but whether any such pair (India and Pakistan, Greece and Turkey, Iraq and Israel, or Iran and Iraq will do as examples) is better off. If, as many analysts say, deterrence was a successful solution to the dangers of the cold war, then why should it not be adopted by all nations prone to conflict? Why resist proliferation? Wouldn’t it be better to step it upto proceed knowingly and deliberately to an increasingly nuclearized world? This is the direction in which events now appear to be drifting, and a few theorists are honest and unflinching enough to champion the goal. For example, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago has called nuclear weapons a “powerful force for peace” and advocates “well-managed proliferation.” He hopes that Germany will acquire nuclear weapons and advises the world to “let proliferation occur in Eastern Europe.” In statements like his, we can see the elements of a new conventional wisdom, in which nuclear weapons become entrenched in the plans and policies not just of a few great powers but of the world at large.

* * *

It’s plain that the moral, political and strategic aspects of the question are in practice tightly linked. The fundamental choice in all three areas is between, on the one hand, condemnation of nuclear weapons and their abolition and, on the other, their normalization and universalization. Normalization and universalization go naturally together. Normalization will be complete when no extraordinary external threatand perhaps no threat at allis thought necessary to justify building nuclear arsenals. Universalization is the natural consequence, because if possession of nuclear weapons requires no special justification, then almost any nation would be justified in having them. The implications for U.S. policy of the resulting “new deterrent framework” (in the phrase of Robert Joseph, director of the Center for Counter-Proliferation Research) would be deterrence à tous azimuts, in the official French phrase, which is to say a policy of nuclear deterrence aimed at forestalling threats that might arise at any point on the globe. (And, in fact, the new Presidential Decision Directive takes a few steps in that direction.) The question today is: Will the world be better off with or without nuclear weapons? This is the debate that has now begun.

It’s plain, too, that in addressing the new issues our assessment of the nuclear policies of the cold war will be of the first importance. Was the nuclear buildup a story of wise management of a terrible dilemma that had no other solution? And was it, further, a fortuitous training session, in which the world was introduced to the previously unsuspected virtues of nuclear arms? Or was it a tale of the reckless endangerment of mankind? If the first is true, then nuclear weapons are a marvelous gift of proven worth to the world. If the latter is true, then abolishing nuclear weapons is the unfinished business of the end of the cold war. In the first case, we cannot do without them. In the second, we must get rid of them.

* * *

In the face of these questions, the citizens who oppose nuclear arms are as sorely in need of fresh thinking as the governments that possess them. The starting point of this thinking must be recognition that even as the main obstacles to abolition have been removed the main goad to getting therethe immediate danger of a full-scale nuclear holocausthas been greatly reduced. The fact is that the public at large, enjoying a reprieve from immediate, universal terror bestowed by the end of the cold war, is not paying much attention to the nuclear question. It’s also true that the public is actively worriedand with good reasonthat a terrorist group or government will use one or more nuclear weapons somewhere in the world. But the feeling of relief dominates. During the cold war, abolition, though perhaps highly desired, was found impossible. Now it appears possible but is not so urgently desired. The combination of comparatively low nuclear danger and high opportunity to solve the nuclear dilemma is new. During the cold war, opposition to nuclear arms was driven by immediate, overwhelming fearfear that ran headlong into the wall of political impossibility. Today, in sharp contrast, fear has been radically reduced. Our primary inspiration for attending to the nuclear question, accordingly, should not be fear but fear’s opposites, hope and faithhope that, in the transformed and brightened political scene, the goal of abolition is achievable, and faith that we possess the nerve, stamina and wisdom to reach it. At the very least, all who, at one terror-stricken moment or another of the cold war, picked up a sign or shouted a slogan or organized to protest nuclear danger should now stir themselves again to seize the present opportunity actually to rid the world of the weapons. Protest is not something undertaken for its own sake; it is supposed to inspire constructive action. And the time for action has come.

It may be that the initiative for such a radical challenge to the status quo must be taken by the public, as has happened so often in the past, and especially in the United States. But there are no rules in such matters, and the initiative could also come from the political class. Rarely in history has a riper opportunity for political leadership presented itself. An achievement that, soberly speaking, is of measureless value is within reach, if only the will to act can be found. This leadership might come from some unexpected quarter, but the obvious candidate is a President of the United States. It could beit should beBill Clinton. If it is not Clinton, it could and should be Vice President Al Gore, whose concern for the earth’s environment ought to lead him to try to preserve it from the greatest by far of the perils that threaten it. No cause is greener than the abolition of nuclear weapons. But the abolition movement need be no respecter of the political or party divisions of the cold war. In the contest that is about to begin, we can be sure, lines will be drawn, ambitions and interests will clash and political battles will be fought. But it is by no means clear yet that these will occur along the familiar fault lines of left and right, liberal and conservative. A Republican may step forward. The most fervently abolitionist President of the cold war period, let us recall, was Ronald Reagan, who regarded his scheme for antinuclear defenses as a path to abolition. His meeting in 1986 at Reykjavik with another abolitionist, Mikhail Gorbachev, was the only occasion on which the heads of state of the two superpowers seriously discussed abolition. There may well be a successor in his party who will take up his forsaken cause.

If the United States defaults on its responsibilities, leaders in other countries can take up the cause. (If the movement is not American, it can easily turn out to be anti-American.) No country is unqualified to lead a movement for the abolition of nuclear arms, since all are threatened by them. In Australia and New Zealand, to give just two examples, the antinuclear movement has been especially vigorous and effective recently.

* * *

In the meantime, a new generation, innocent of the divisions of the cold war, is coming of age. Its thoughts and feelings, which have yet to make their weight felt on any great issue of public concern, are largely unknown. If its members do not feel the urgency to escape the nuclear danger that some of its parents felt, neither has it developed the deep attachment to nuclear arms also often found among their parents, including most of the governing class. The minds of the young, it appears, are open. A call for abolition should therefore be, among other things, a call from an older generation to a younger one. Among the many links between people that this effort would forge would be a new link between generations. And since the project, if successful, would save the lives of future generations, that link would be the first in an everlasting chain.

The task is of course immense. But history has given us the gift of timea limited time, perhaps, but enough to proceed, without haste, to scout the obstacles in our path, to weigh carefully and thoroughly the course to be followed, and then to create the structures that will carry us to the goal and keep us there. If we use the gift properly and rid the species for good of nuclear danger, we will secure the greatest of time’s gifts, assurance of a human future. Of course, some will say the goal is a utopian dream of human perfection. We needn’t worry. There will be more than enough sins left for everyone to commit after we have taken nuclear bombs away from ourselves. Others will say the obstacles in the way of success are too great. We can answer, as George Washington once did, “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God.”

If it seems paradoxical to call for the greatest exertions at a time of relaxed urgency, we should remind ourselves that the opportunity is greater for the same reason that the danger is less: the end of the cold war. That people can be inspired to act as much by the appeal of reaching a great goal in a time of peace as by immediate and overwhelming terror in a time of conflict is admittedly an unproven proposition. Terror, unquestionably, is a powerful spur to action. If we wait for terror to revive, however, what price will we pay? Will it be New York City? Teheran? Berlin? Beijing? And are we sure that after such a catastrophe we would act wisely? Our reasons for acting are bound to shape the character of our action. Measures taken abruptly, after the abrupt end of fifty years of nuclear peace, possibly in an atmosphere of global suspicion, bewilderment, panic and calls for revenge, seem unlikely to be as sensible as measures adopted now, after thorough and careful discussion and preparation.

The nuclear crises of the cold war called for the swift, sharp shock of protest. On June 12, 1982, a million people, dismayed by the acceleration of the arms race, gathered in New York City to call for a freeze on nuclear arms. In the years that followed, their wishes were more than granted: Nuclear arsenals were not merely frozen, they were reduced. The million never gathered again. In our new circumstances, what is needed is not just a moment of protest but the steady engagement of citizens and their representatives over many years of constructive purpose. Can a movement based on hope, confidence in the concerted powers of human beings and faith in the human future be as great as one based on terror? It must, in fact, be greater. In the words of Jody Williams, on the day her campaign to ban landmines became a treaty signed by 121 nations, “Together we are a superpower. It’s a new definition of superpower. It’s not one of us; it’s all of us.” The abolition of nuclear armsto cite a chapter of American historywould be to the end of the cold war what the Constitutional Convention was to the War of Independence. The end of the cold war was a liberation. Abolition is the act of foundation toward which that liberation points as its natural consequence and completion.

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 this 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 nationamong all humankind. In a way, it would be the foundation of humankind.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy