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From the author of The Fate of the Earth, a stirring new call to the nuclear age.
When Jonathan Schell's monumental best-seller The Fate of the Earth was published in 1981, it was hailed by The New York Times as "an event of profound historical importance." Harrison Salisbury called it "the most important book of the decade."Now Schell has produced a work of equal--or greater--historical significance and literary accomplishment. Just as The Fate of the Earth became the seminal volume of the Cold War era, The Gift of Time is destined to become the same for our age. In a series of conversations with officials as diverse as Vietnam-era defense secretary Robert S. McNamara, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and the last commander of the Strategic Command, General George Lee Butler, Schell finds support for the abolition of nuclear weapons in the unlikeliest places, among the very generals and politicians who presided over nuclear strategy and its implementation during the Cold War.
Writing in a spirit of optimism and hope, Schell calls upon all Americans--indeed, all of the world's citizens--to snap out of our cold-war trance, this forced cohabitation with horror, and take the step that alone can free us from nuclear danger and corruption, namely the abolition of nuclear weapons.
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While baby boomers make their plans for those looming retirement years and take pride in their IRAs, Jonathan Schell wants to pull us yet again from complacency and self-absorption. But hasn't the fate of the Earth, well, you know--blown over? What new news about the necessity of nuclear disarmament can Schell bring?
The gist of his long introductory argument is this: since nuclear weapons proliferated in order to face down Communism, and since Communism has been faced down, and since the U.S. and Russia are, presumably, pals, isn't it time to dissolve the arsenals? Decency cries out, "Yes!" But, he writes, "the nuclear policies of the Clinton administration have been both tentative and vague, and their articulation mainly left to lower-level officials." This upsets Schell. As does the egregious fact that deterrence is still the policy mainstay. "In the words of Bruce Blair, of the Brookings Institution, 'No major change in the U.S.-Russian nuclear equation has occurred--not in war planning, not in daily alert practices, not in strategic arms control, and maybe not even in core attitudes.'" Schell is upset, but who is going to listen?
It's never entirely clear what facts, what hard news has unleashed Schell's passions. When he writes, for example, "gone [are] the obstacles to inspection that have been considered the main brake on nuclear disarmament," one wonders where he was when the stories on the stalled attempts at inspection in North Korea and Iraq aired. Perhaps he does not own a radio? Such discrepant statements make the reader querulous and grumpy.
The Gift of Time is nothing less than a cry for the abolition of nuclear weapons throughout the world. Schell is peeved that this has only been a whisper in the Clinton agenda, while outmoded policies and vague planning reveal the stronger belief in abolition's undesirability. Schell illustrates this fork-tongued approach to the crafting of nuclear policy by citing the testimony of Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Walter B. Slocombe, quoted as saying that the U.S. would like to pursue a negotiated reduction of nuclear arms but can't, because other countries are unlikely to embrace disarmament. Schell finds this argument absurd, an admission that the goal can be achieved, but no one really wants it. He concludes, "The fear of breakout animates all those who wish to retain nuclear weapons indefinitely," as if such a fear itself had no basis in reality.
If his book were, instead, the collection of the interviews that follow, the reader might embrace Schell's thesis with less belligerent equivocation. He has talked with an impressive group of leading nuclear policymakers during the cold war, who have made stunning ideological reversals. Included are General Charles Horner (air force commander), whose 1994 quote, "The nuclear weapon is obsolete; I want to get rid of them all," stunned officials in D.C. (he's now on the steering committee of the Stimson Center's Project on Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction); Robert McNamara, "one of the quintessential men of the Cold War" and crafter of the Vietnam War, whose last vision is of a nonnuclear world; Joseph Rotblat, the Manhattan Project scientist who resigned eight months before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima--the only scientist who quit the project on ethical grounds; and many others. The section "European Voices" includes a talk with, among others, Helmut Schmidt; "Russia" includes an interview with Mikhail Gorbachev.
A contentious read, The Gift of Time will animate and annoy. After all, Schell purports to yank ours heads from the sands of denial, but he seems to try with such pap as, "Our primary inspiration for attending to the nuclear question ... should not be fear but fear's opposites, hope and faith--hope 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." What "we" will set aside the security, however bogus, derived from nuclear arsenals in favor of some hope-based, fuzzy "should"? --Hollis GiammatteoAbout the Author:
Jonathan Schell is one of the major American thinkers of our time. A New Yorker writer for more than two decades, Schell is the author of eight books, including the best-selling The Fate of the Earth and The Time of Illusion. He lives in New York City.
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