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Review: The Abolition

Roy McFarlane (reviewer) — October 1984

By Jonathan Schell, Random House, 173 pages, ‘$15.50 (hardcover).

In The Abolition, Jonathan Schell attempts to provide the answer to our nuclear arms predicament. Unfortunately, his solution docs not bring us onto a surefooted path decisively away from annihilation. The direction that he docs offer seems to be a route that Schell may feel military planners are likely to accept; it is in accordance with their current maps. Schell’s plan for the abolition of nuclear weapons is based on the continuation of a policy of deterrence.

The book is divided in two parts. In the first he outlines the history of government policy in relation to the development of the present arsenal; as well he describes the evolution of views on disarmament. His description of the problem has nowhere near the power or vision of his earlier statement, The Fate Of The Earth; it is not as sweeping or insightful.

The second half of The Abolition, in which he details his argument for his remedy based on deterrence, is a further disappointment. One may wonder if Schell is reacting to the criticism he received for his conclusions in ‘f7le Fate ()f’ The Earth, because he argues here that world government is not entirely necessary in implementing a reversal of the arms race. Instead he suggests the unappealing process of disarmament based on the continuation of deterrence. The cornerstone of the idea is drawn from an observation first laid out in his earlier book, where he offered an intriguing solution to the problem that the human species can never ‘forget’ how to make (and use) nuclear weapons.

In The Fate Of The Earth, Schell observed that we are potentially a moment away from annihilation. He suggested that if we were to remove all the nuclear warheads from their launchers, we would then distance ourselves, in time, from annihilation by that amount of time it would take to replace those warheads. Furthermore, if we were to take apart all the nuclear weapons, that time factor separating us from annihilation would expand to the amount of time it would take to rebuild all those nuclear weapons. And so, despite our inability to ‘forget’ how to build, or rebuild, nuclear weapons, we can, through disarmament, move ourselves away from a time factor of a moment to one of months, if not years – a considerable improvement The concept is valuable in addressing the dilemma that the acquisition of our knowledge of nuclear weaponry has put us in namely that the knowledge will be with us for all time – but Schell turns the formula around and sets it as the centerpiece of his disarmament proposal.

In The Abolition Schell reintroduces the idea as a way to assure governments and military planners that they have a way out if the disarmament process breaks down.

Looking at the formula from another angle, Schell asserts that governments, once they have come to an agreement on the goal of disarmament, and begin to proceed toward it, could at any time reverse themselves, and rearm. In this instance they would be, in terms of time, only as far a way from the military security to which they are accustomed by the amount of time it would take to build again any weapons they had dismantled in the interim. Schell falters gravely when he suggests that either side would be deterrred from breaking any abolition agreement for fear of shame in the eyes of the international community. The recent military build-up offers no indication that the super powers are motivated by their moral standing when it comes to building weapons of mass destruction.

Schell admits that he takes as a starting point the current military and international political situation and suggests movement from there.

In so doing he ignores Einstein’s famous remark, which Schell himself quotes in The Abolition, that the splitting of the atom changed everything except our modes of thinking.

It is sad to say, though, that while Schell does not provide the ultimate solution, neither has anyone else.

In the West there are currently two alternatives, easily defined, and understandable from historical precedents. They are: nuclear war and communist rule. The possibility of one is the reason for accepting the other. The third option, which we commonly call disarmament, is an intangible; it has no historical precedent, and unlike the other two possiblilities, it is virtually impossible to relate to either emotionally or intellectually.

There have of course been clear proposals to begin the process of disarmament. For example, George Kennan, a former U.S. Ambassador to the U .S.S. R., has stated that both sides could cut their arsenals in half and not lose any strategic strength. Another example is the nuclear weapons freeze which is receiving growing support as the rallying call for an immediate end to the arms race. While both are decisive first steps, neither is the complete answer. One is 25,000 nuclear weapons away from disarmament, the other is 50,000 nuclear weapons away.

Schell’s The Fale Of The Earth was written at a time when a growing awareness of the problem of nuclear weapons was emerging. The numbers of people participating in peace demonstrations grew from month to month. The issue began to be dealt with by the media and by politicians. The problem, eloquently defined by Jonathan Schell, had come to the forefront of people’s thinking.

In writing The Abolition, Johnathan Schell is aware that we are now at a new stage in dealing with the threat of nuclear war. No longer can we simply say that there is a problem; we are in need of a solution. Schell, to his credit, has at least offered his.