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REVIEW: Living with Nuclear Weapons

David Cleary (reviewer) — May 1984

By the Harvard Nuclear Study Group. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983. Also available in a Pocket Books edition.

Living with Nuclear Weapons could have been subtitled How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Although it is not entirely fair to characterise it in this fashion, the book is an argument in support of the nuclear status quo, with a few proposals for cosmetic changes in arms policies.

The book was jointly written by the six members of the Harvard Nuclear Study Group, four of whom have served in US administrations since Kennedy. It presents itself as an attempt by university scholars to raise the awareness of the public concerning nuclear weapons policy. In addition to presumptuously assuming that the public is uninformed about current policies, ‘the book dismisses the alternatives proposed by the peace movement as naive and misguided. Although purporting to be an objective look at the serious issues facing us, the book is far from objective.

Unfounded assumptions

The problem with Living with Nuclear Weapons is the unfounded assumptions it makes. The authors assume that because the knowledge exists to produce nuclear weapons they cannot be abolished. And so, rather than taking a position in favour of disarmament, they advocate arms control. Their conclusion is that we have to learn to live with nuclear weapons, or, in their own words, “living with nuclear weapons is our only hope.”

From these premises, the book moves through a discussion of the “historical” and philosophical problems posed by nuclear weapons, the military balance, and the options open to us. However, with the exception of the present course, the authors consider few of these options worthy of support: for them, our hope lies in a managed arms race. They do not endorse even a bilateral, verifiable freeze, arguing that any move towards disarmament is more risky than nuclear escalation.

Like many supporters of deterrence, these men believe that the global situation can be managed indefinitely by the superpowers to prevent war. Even the proliferation of nuclear weapons to nations outside the present nuclear club is viewed as inevitable. Their faith lies in the superpowers, particularly the US government, who they believe is powerful enough and wise enough to control international events. we all know that the sun set on the British empire, and that Rome fell. The question this book does not answer is, will the world change with or without the consent of the superpowers, with or without violence, with or without nuclear war. One thing is certain; the world will change whether these men like it or not. h3. Supports present policies

The book also assumes that the use of nuclear weapons, even first use of them, can be morally justified. Althouph they feel compelled to respond to the moral questions raised by the US Catholic bishops, they are unable to present a convincing arpument to support their own position. As an example of their faulty topic, they argue that national security is a moral goal because all nations pursue it. In 1800, governments could have arguued similarly that, because all people were engaped in slave trading, the slave trade was moral.

In the end, the authors of Living with Nuclear Weapons offer no alternatives to current trends. For them, the world is unfolding as it should. To its credit, the book distances itself from the “peace through strength” rhetoric of the Reagan administration by supporting the idea of “rough parity.” But where it comes to advocating the least dangerous military policy, the authors support nearly all of the present arms procurement policies.

This book will be useful to those who are interested in learning some of the arguments used by supporters of arms control. But, despite their stated objective of raising our nuclear awareness, the Harvard Nuclear Study Group has simply repackaged the old line — a good paint job for the nuclear status quo.