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Freeman Dyson, Harper and Row, New York, 1984. Hardcover.
Freeman Dyson has one foot in the world of the military — he works as a technical advisor for the U.S. Department of Defense — and one foot in the world of the peace movement — he works with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament in Princeton, New Jersey. These two worlds, Dyson says, do not understand each other.
“The military establishment looks on the peace movement as a collection of ignorant people meddling in
while the peace movement looks on the military establishment as a collection of misguided people protected by bureaucratic formality from all contact with human realities. “
The argument about nuclear weapons, says Dyson, “remains sterile and disjointed because the two sides lack a common language.” Weapons and Hope is an attempt to provide that common language.
It’s easy to criticize this book. I doubt that Dyson has found that common language he desires. I also doubt that many on either side, after reading Weapons and Hope, will come to understand the other. (Even should this understanding’ occur, of course, the disagreements are likely to remain profound.)
Dyson’s presentation has many gaps. “The chapters of the book,” he says, “hang together as pieces of a broad panorama rather than as links in a logical chain of argument. “
But Dyson’s panorama is quite limited in scope. Although he is interested in history (primarily of the two world wars), he says little about the history of the cold war. he also concentrates on the East/West conflict, and virtually ignores the North/South problem.
Weapons and Hope, then is neither an argument, nor a panorama, some aspects of the nuclear arms race, some of which are enlightening, and some of which are not. I think it would be a mistake to dismiss the book too quickly; although it has some faults, it has many virtues.
In particular, Dyson poses a number of questions which the peace movement must address if it is to move beyond protest and opposition towards the formation of positive alternatives. He asks, for example, “Do we wish to make weapons more destructive and less usable, or less destructive and more usable? “
This question will be increasingly important, as governments move to build up conventional arms as a substitute for nuclear weapons. Is that course acceptable to the peace movement? Or can we reject the question, with its hidden assumption that only two options are possible?
I can’t always agree with the answers Dyson suggests — he is too much of the military world for my liking. But the value of a question often lies not in the answer proposed, but in the critical thinking process initiated. In these terms Weapons and Hope is a book worth reading.