From the bestselling author of The Fate of the Earth, a provocative look at the urgent threat posed by America's new nuclear policies
When the cold war ended, many Americans believed the nuclear dilemma had ended with it. Instead, the bomb has moved to the dead center of foreign policy and even domestic scandal. From missing WMDs to the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, nuclear matters are back on the front page.
In this provocative book, Jonathan Schell argues that a revolution in nuclear affairs has occurred under the watch of the Bush administration, including a historic embrace of a first-strike policy to combat proliferation. The administration has also encouraged a nuclear renaissance at home, with the development of new generations of such weaponry. Far from curbing nuclear buildup, Schell contends, our radical policy has provoked proliferation in Iran, North Korea, and elsewhere; exacerbated global trafficking in nuclear weapons; and taken the world into an era of unchecked nuclear terror. Incisive and passionately argued, The Seventh Decade offers essential insight into what may prove the most volatile decade of the nuclear age.
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Jonathan Schell, author of The Unconquerable World and The Fate of the Earth among many other titles, is the Nation Institute’s Harold Willens Peace Fellow. His “Letter from Ground Zero” column appears in The Nation regularly. He also writes for Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Affairs, and Tomdispatch.com. He is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The nuclear age has entered its seventh decade. If it were a person, it would be thinking about retirement—reckoning up its pension funds, weighing different medical plans. But historical periods, unlike human lives, have no fixed limit, and the nuclear age is in fact displaying youthful vigor. The birth of nuclear weapons in 1945 opened a wide, unobstructed pathway to the end of the world. Along that route was an end to cities, an end to countries, an end to continents, an end to human life itself. Sometimes one of these perils has moved to the fore, sometimes another, but all have continuously cast their shadows over the earth. After the end of the Cold War, the world’s nuclear arsenals seemed to have been tamed to a certain extent, but now they are growling and baring their teeth again. Indeed, the bomb is staging a revival, as if to declare: the twenty-first century, like the one before it, belongs to me.*
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union made every preparation for annihilation but held back from the final step—launching their globe-wrecking arsenals. With the Cold War’s end, those stockpiles were reduced, and the threat of apocalypse receded. But even as the number of warheads was declining the number of nations that possessed such weapons was growing. Nuclear danger, it seemed, did not so much wane as change shape. There were fewer bombs but they were in more hands. The bomb’s potential, recognized by all informed observers from the first days of the nuclear age, not only to threaten life on Earth but also, as the deadly know-how spread, to spring up at any point of the compass, was advancing toward realization. In that respect, the bomb is only now truly coming into its own. Having outgrown its parochial Cold War breeding ground, it is moving to take up residence in every part of the globe. India, Pakistan, and North Korea have acquired nuclear arsenals. China, a nuclear power since 1964, is doing likewise. Pakistan now targets India, while India targets Pakistan and, perhaps, China, in a new three-way nuclear arms race. Soon after North Korea’s first nuclear test, on October 9, 2006, the prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, called for his country to open a new discussion regarding his country’s decision to do without nuclear weapons. Iran has embarked on a program to create nuclear power fuels that would carry it most of the distance to having the bomb, and Iran’s neighbors in the Middle East are showing fresh interest in nuclear energy and weapon programs. Israel, which has possessed nuclear weapons since the late 1960s, continues to improve its delivery systems.
Unfortunately, the new sources of nuclear danger have by no means replaced the old ones. The Cold War antagonists, rather than dispatching their gigantic arsenals into the historical dustbin that swallowed their geopolitical struggle, have held on to them. What is more, they have begun to refurbish their warheads and delivery systems, build new generations of nuclear weapons, and redeploy and retarget them. The seminal event was the attack of September 11, 2001, which set in motion one of the few true revolutions in American nuclear policy since 1945. In a radical reversal of former practice, which had been to seek to stop the spread of nuclear weapons through diplomacy and treaties, the United States now turned to military means, including overthrow of the offending governments—“regime change.” This policy was a corollary of a far more ambitious one, rightly called imperial by supporters and detractors alike, of asserting “unchallengeable” American military dominance over the entire globe. One result was the Iraq war, launched in the name of dismantling weapons of mass destruction and programs for building of them, of which the most dangerous was said to be an active nuclear program. Confusingly, Iraq, which of course had no such weapons or programs, turned out not to be an example of the evil in question; yet the idea of stopping proliferation by force, though as yet practiced nowhere else, has continued to enjoy wide acceptance and continues to inform policy.
Far less visible but no less important has been an equally radical change in American nuclear strategic policy—that is, the guidance given the United States’ nuclear forces. To the old Cold War targets have been added new ones in the third world. The Nuclear Posture Review of late 2002 specifically assigned nuclear weapons a counterproliferation role, soon rendered operational in a new Pentagon command called Global Strike, whose mission is to deliver “conventional or nuclear” strikes on any target anywhere on the planet at a moment’s notice. Other Western nations have followed suit, declaring that state supporters of terrorist groups around the world are fitting targets for attack by their nuclear forces. France opposed the Iraq war, but it is building a new, nuclear-capable bomber, the Rafale, and a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, and its former president, Jacques Chirac, has declared that terrorist threats to France may be met with a nuclear response. The British government has similarly announced that Britain will replace its fleet of aging nuclear-armed submarines with a new, improved model, whose Trident missiles are to be purchased, like the last ones, from the United States. Britain, too, cited the dangers of proliferation and terrorism as reasons for remaining nuclear armed deep into the twenty-first century.
The old and new arsenals have thus begun to hone in on one another, as nuclear weapons always do, missile targeting missile, bomb countering bomb. A highly volatile and violent contest—no longer bipolar but global—between some of the existing possessors of the bomb and new entrants or petitioners to the club, who hope to “deter” the great ones with tiny but potent arsenals, has begun to churn international affairs. Already, it has helped to produce the misbegotten American invasion of Iraq, launched in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that weren’t there, and could in time produce other wars—with Iran, North Korea, or countries as yet unknown. As in the Cold War, the nuclear danger has become an axle around which the wheel of geopolitical events is turning.
In an inseparably related and long-predicted development, the world is also awash in nuclear-weapon technology, adding a new dimension to the dangers of proliferation, and raising the terrifying specter of a terrorist group that acquires and uses a nuclear weapon, or perhaps several of them, to lash out against a great city somewhere in the world. Tens of thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands of people might die. The city would be rendered uninhabitable by radiation for decades. If it were a national capital, the nation’s government could be destroyed. Beyond these direct consequences lie indirect ones that are no less real for being veiled in great uncertainty. For example, if the country were the United States, would the government survive? What emergency measures might it adopt, and for how long? Would the Constitution remain in effect, and, if it were suspended, would it ever be restored? Would liberty around the globe be taken away by governments straining every nerve to prevent new attacks? Would terror-stricken populations of other cities flee to the countryside? Might the global economy collapse? Although such an attack, involving only one or a few of the world’s twenty-seven thousand or so existing nuclear warheads, would be the merest fraction of the kind of global holocaust that seemed so near at hand during the Cold War, its consequences bring us to a verge beyond which the imagination falters.
Talking Our Extinction to Death
Yet while the bomb has been showing fresh energy, the people have grown tired. Even as the bomb was setting forth on new, worldwide adventures, the issue of the bomb was acquiring a stale, anachronistic air in the public mind, a sort of 1960s feeling, as if a youth entering his prime were forced to go abroad in antique clothing. One reason for the waning attention has been the peculiar structure of the nuclear dilemma, which tends to circumvent ordinary mechanisms of response to danger. Consider the ways in which it differs from global warming—the only other catastrophe on the horizon whose consequences are in the same league with a nuclear holocaust. The two perils have a great deal in common. Both are the fruit of swollen human power—in the one case, the destructive power of war; in the other, the productive power of fossil-fuel energy. Both put stakes on the table of a magnitude never present before in human decision making. Both threaten life on a planetary scale. Both require a fully global response. Anyone concerned by the one should be concerned with the other. It would be a shame to save the Earth from slowly warming only to burn it up in an instant in a nuclear war.
Yet the two menaces obtrude in life in very different ways. Global warming has conformed to a pattern that is familiar from other gathering dangers, such as the AIDS epidemic or the threat to the ozone layer from man-made chemicals. First, the peril appears and is disclosed to the world in specialized journals and to a certain extent in the press but is largely ignored by politicians and the public. Then the evidence grows, and alarm increases. As the predictions begin to come true, frightening reading material is supplemented by disturbing concrete experiences. In the case of global warming, these have included hotter summers, more frequent and powerful hurricanes, rising sea levels, more flooding in low-lying areas and more drought elsewhere, vanishing species, disintegrating coral reefs, melting glaciers and polar ice. Photographic evidence becomes available, and the problem can be shown on television—or made into a film, such as former vice president Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Apathy and denial now have a potent competitor in the pressure of events. The question, complex in practice but simple in principle, becomes whether the unpleasant initial consequences can inspire political action fast enough to head off utter calamity later on.
No such sequence has been exhibited in the evolution of the nuclear danger. The most important reason is that the transition from warning to experience has not—most fortunately—occurred. No nuclear weapon has been exploded in anger since the destruction of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Instead, a welcome if tenuous “tradition of nonuse” has developed. To be sure, the worldwide buildup of the machinery of nuclear power and nuclear war has exacted a significant medical and environmental price. The fallout from nuclear tests has caused a worldwide increase in deaths from cancer. The Chernobyl disaster of 1986, in which a nuclear power plant exploded in Ukraine, contaminated several hundred square miles of the surrounding territory with radiation. Nuclear wastes from both nuclear weapon production and nuclear plants, some of which will remain radioactive for as long as a million years, are heaping up around the world, and no one is certain what to do with them over the long run. However, grave as these costs may be, they obviously have not had the overwhelming impact on the public mind that would be produced by the sudden, colossal devastation of a nuclear war, which continues to hide its face.
In this singular situation, in which nuclear war has yet to happen, and so sheer foresight is asked to play the role usually played by punishing experience, the awful facts of nuclear life have repeatedly been taught and learned, only to be forgotten again, in a pattern of boom and bust. In 1945, many of the scientists in the United States who created the bomb in the wartime Manhattan Project tried to make use of their authority to wage a campaign to educate the public about nuclear arms and to call for their elimination. From them, the world learned that an aspirin-size quantity of mass, when released as energy in a nuclear explosion, can, in obedience to Einstein’s law that the energy released from a split atom equals mass times the speed of light squared (E=mc2), level a city. It learned that any city on Earth could be destroyed, together with its population, by a nuclear weapon of the appropriate size. It learned that although the United States was the first to acquire an atomic bomb, other nations would be able to do the same before long, and that the bomb could be mass produced. However, with the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s, fear of the Soviet Union eclipsed fear of the bomb in Western opinion, and awareness of the nuclear danger faded.
It revived after the explosion of the first H-bomb by the United States, on November 1, 1952, on Eniwetok atoll, in the South Pacific, followed by the first Soviet H-bomb test, called “Joe 1,” after the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, less than a year later. The moral issues raised by weapons that could kill tens of millions of people in an instant weighed on the public mind. Using a newly current word, a majority of the General Advisory Committee created by President Harry S. Truman to counsel him on whether or not to build the H-bomb—a weapon that could release hundreds of times the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb—warned that it “might become a weapon of genocide.”2 A lively antinuclear movement developed on both sides of the Atlantic. Statesmen, too, spoke in a new tone of awed horror. Winston Churchill, who had embraced the A-bomb, now found that “there is an immense gulf between the atomic and the hydrogen bomb.” For “the atomic bomb, with all its terrors, did not carry us outside the scope of human control or manageable events in thought or in action, in peace or war. But [with the H-bomb], the entire foundation of human affairs was revolutionized, and mankind placed in a situation both measureless and laden with doom.”3
Yet even this somber awareness faded, and, after the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis in the autumn of 1962 and the signing in 1963 of a treaty banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere, once again died away. Widespread public concern about the nuclear danger did not revive until the early 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan’s nuclear buildup and the breakdown of arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union inspired a “nuclear freeze” movement. Teams of physicians toured the country with slide shows depicting how just a few hundred such weapons targeted on American cities could wipe out two-thirds of the population of the United States; how a single Ohio-class submarine, with its twenty-four Trident ballistic missiles capable of carrying almost two hundred warheads, was a nation- or continent-smashing boat; how a “nuclear winter,” in which dust and smoke would be hurled into the atmosphere by nuclear explosions, would bring on a catastrophic cooling of the earth; and how the other global ecological effects of nuclear war would put the world’s ecosphere, including its human component, at risk. But when, in the mid-1980s, arms control negotiations resumed and Cold War tensions began to wane, the awareness yet again died away, in obedience to the familiar pattern.
With the Cold War’s end, consciousness of the dilemma sank to its lowest ebb yet, apparently in the mistaken belief that the Cold War and the nuclear predicament had been one and the same, and that the end of the first must mean the end of the second. Liquidation of the global quarrel did indeed increase the world’s safety as well as permit a continued reduction of nuclear arsenals. But at the same time it left immense arsenals in place. The issue of nuclear arms had died but the nuclear arms themselves remained, now curiously untethered from political justifications ...
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