Jonathan Schell’s “Too Late for Empire” drew much praise from readers [Aug. 14/21].


Jonathan Schell’s “Too Late for Empire” drew much praise from readers [Aug. 14/21]. Schell was called “the finest analyst of US foreign policy writing today” and “a national treasure.” The article was described as “scintillating,” “insightful…bursting with relevancy and passion” and “a brilliant exposition of humans’ predicament in global historical terms.”    –The Editors



“Too Late for Empire” was an excellent analysis of the limits of military power in the modern world. One point that was brushed against but not explicitly made is the sheer size of modern populations. When Alexander of Macedon (or “Alexander the Great”) conquered the Babylonian Empire, the population of that region numbered in the tens of thousands. When George of Crawford (whom history will certainly never label “George the Great”) attempted to conquer the same region in 2003, the population was 27 million. A population of millions cannot be ruled by military force, as we should have learned from Vietnam.



Exciting though it certainly is to ponder “the aroused will of local peoples everywhere who, collectively, had put an end to the age of imperialism,” we need to give equal time to the modern capitalist phenomenon of a truly global marketplace for weapons. These armaments, available to insurrectionary movements as never before in human history, range from inexpensive handguns to the RPGs the CIA left behind in Afghanistan, and they insure that oppressive regimes in the twenty-first century will find it very difficult to say, as the British Raj could say in India: “We have got/the Maxim gun, and they have not.”


Monument, Colo.

The revamped Strategic Command, and its newer component commands, like Space and Global Strike and Network Warfare, explicitly tout a global-domination philosophy that is far starker than the Joint Chiefs of Staff papers of the superpower era, or the Project for a New American Century think pieces written by neocons in the days prior to George W.’s assumption of power. StratCom, particularly since swallowing up US Space Command in 2002, has become the headquarters for the so-called “revolution in military affairs.” StratCom has always been at the forefront of what Rumsfeld calls “transformational” strategy. It combines the nuclear domination policies of its predecessor, Strategic Air Command, with the desire to blur distinctions between nuclear and precision conventional weapons for regional tactical warfare, a policy borrowed from US Space Command. This does not negate Jonathan Schell’s suggestion that our nation has neither the budget nor the will to mimic British or Ottoman empires of past centuries. But it’s important to pay attention to the high-profile Pentagon commands that still push for world domination.


Kailua, Hawaii

One all-important detail should have been included in Jonathan Schell’s comments about our “impotent omnipotence.” Nuclear weapons have absolutely no military value. Many top military experts have stated this clearly (always after retirement). A major nuclear exchange involving even second-tier powers would have such immense catastrophic global consequences as to render the notion of victory a grotesque joke. Nuclear winter would be only one consequence of war between the big boys. The paranoids and criminals who devised “mutual assured destruction” during the cold war were, in a perverse sense, on to something. They just didn’t know what it was. Judging from the vigor with which they hold on to absurd quantities of nuclear weapons, many on hair-trigger alert, neither do our leaders today (nor do the Russians).

Physicians for Social Responsibility/Hawaii

Mugla, Turkey

What about the military-industrial complex? Giving up “dreams of imperial grandeur” will lead to vast reduction in the necessity for arms and armaments. How will the arms lobby react? It seems to me that the enemy abroad and the enemy within are conceived, manufactured, to perpetuate the vast military-industrial complex, the giant with an insatiable appetite, the giant whose current serving boys, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al., stand to gain. This giant is not likely to relinquish its power voluntarily. It will need a power far greater than Republicans or Democrats–the power of the American people, if only they can be woken up to break the stranglehold of undemocratic control. As Jonathan Schell states, “modern peoples have both the will and the capacity to reject imperial rule and assert control over their own destinies.”


New York City

Schell’s analysis should be the blueprint for the Democratic Party’s foreign policy platform. However, as a woman of color, I am curious about the absence of a discussion of race. Race plays a role in historical European-American imperialism and in the Bushites’ and Israel’s current ambitions. My sense is that overriding the machismo of empire is the “rightness of whiteness” and thereby the wrongness of all others. The genocide of Native Americans, for example, fits that mold. Race matters and cannot be divorced from America’s imperialistic worldview and it’s current policies.


Santa Ana, Calif.

Jonathan Schell was so kind as to sign a copy of one of his books for me a few years ago. “Too Late for Empire” reinforces what he added to his signature that day. He appended “In Hope” to the inscription. As I read his signature tears come to my eyes. I am afraid to hope that this dark and dangerous passage of our nation could be led by diplomats who understand Schell’s scholarship and grasp of history, with its lessons from our horrible misadventures. I will read his book again. I may find the hope that eludes me.




The goofy and false cultural memory of the period loosely known as the sixties that Neal Pollack’s generation cherishes informs his review of the Timothy Leary biography [“A Burnt-Out Case,” Aug 14/21]. It has been for decades de rigueur to piss on the sixties, especially for hipper-than-thou perennial adolescents like Pollack. He would do well to read Storming Heaven: LSD & the American Dream by Jay Stevens and thereby get a clue.


University Place, Wash.

I stopped reading the latest hatchet job on Timothy Leary when I encountered this phrase: “…the most famous proponent of narcotics-fueled social change.” Uh, narcotics? Let your reviewer go to any dictionary and look up “narcotic,” then meditate–no need for drugs here–on its nonrelationship to LSD, peyote, psilocybin or any other substance promoted by Leary and his acolytes.


Charlottesville, Va.

The counterculture, despite all its loopiness and blind spots, was, and is, more than its famous names. I suggest that Neal Pollack visit places like Athens County, Ohio, where low-impact communal living and alternative business creation have been the lasting products of the long, strange trip. The least-famous of the swirly, crystal-touting former trippers have been the most creative in actually countering the culture.


Albion, Calif.

I disagree that Timothy Leary “burnt out,” a term that echoes the government’s smear campaign against him. The government–in the new vernacular–freaked out to find a culture countering its ideology. Frightened by the appeal of mind-altering substances–whose adherents were universally against their war in Vietnam–the politicians declared all such substances illegal and made punishments for using them as severe as for armed robbery or murder. Dr. Leary was their poster boy. What he got was a thirty-year prison sentence after being entrapped and later, when he was campaigning for governor of California, was summarily pulled from a car and thrown in jail. The offense: a marijuana roach the police said they found in the vehicle. He was humiliated, denigrated by the corporate media and put in jail. He escaped, was recaptured, hammered again in public and did his time. Consequently, I think it better said that Dr. Leary was stamped out, not burnt out.


Sonoma, Calif.

Neal Pollack inanely parrots the hatchet job Robert Greenfield has penned as a “comprehensive biography” of Timothy Leary. Apparently, mainstream publishers and national magazines still can’t resist the temptation to pontificate in moral judgment over a generation of seekers who were turned on by the creative possibilities of consciousness expansion and turned off by their culture’s addictions to consumerism and militarism. (Pollack approvingly quotes Greenfield’s condescending dismissal of the sixties counterculture as “a freaky mirror image of mainstream celebrity-obsessed America.”) Pollack thinks Greenfield’s book is “an epically thrilling, wicked epitaph for the vain, bizarre, self-promoting guru.” But you have to wonder, why spend 600 pages on a sustained job of character assassination of a man who’s been dead for almost ten years and presumably no longer a threat to anyone?

Greenfield has zero understanding or, apparently, real interest in the potentials of psychedelics or of Leary’s bold and irreverent attempts to explore these potentials. As a close collaborator of Leary and Alpert at Harvard and Millbrook and a lifelong friend of both men, I regret having naïvely agreed to talk with Greenfield; this is tempered only by the realization that he would have written his hit piece anyway. Of course, Leary had his faults, like any man. He also had the capacity to laugh at himself and his failings, to treat everyone he encountered with total respect and generosity, and without malice. At a time when university research projects are starting to replicate studies that our Harvard project published more than forty years ago, those who would like a deeper understanding of the man and his visionary work should read the eminently fair biography by John Higgs, published only in Britain so far, I Have America Surrounded.

Professor emeritus, California Institute of Integral Studies
The Psychedelic Experience

New York City

As Neal Pollack notes, “psychedelic” was coined by the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond; the little-known circumstances of its birth are worth recording here. In March 1956 Aldous Huxley, in a letter to his close friend and neighbor Osmond, proposed the term “phanerothyme” for psychotomimetic agents such as mescaline and LSD: “To make this trivial world sublime,/Take half a gramme of phanerothyme.” Osmond found this coinage unpleasant to the ear, and in his answer to Huxley he suggested: “To fathom Hell or soar angelic,/Just take a pinch of pychedelic.” And so the word was born, in April 1956, from Greek psych– (soul or mind) + deloun (to show). Unfortunately, Osmond did not use the well-established prefix “psycho-,” and so we are stuck with his eccentric spelling “psychedelic.” But we can count our blessings: Osmond at least prevented Huxley from inflicting “phanerothyme” on us. (Phanerothyme? The sixties just wouldn’t quite have been the sixties.) Another oddity we got stuck with is the German abbreviation LSD (Lyserg-Säure-Diäthylamid) instead of a good English LAD (lysergic acid diethylamide).


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