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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 931

Jonathan Schell, born in New York City in 1943 and educated at Harvard University, began his career as a political writer and reporter. His first two books dealt with the American involvement in Vietnam. The Village of Ben Suc (1967) was an account of how a Vietnamese village was destroyed by American soldiers, and The Military Half: An Account of Destruction in Quang Ngai and Quang Tin (1968) expanded the scope of the first book to consider the destruction wrought by the American forces on an entire province in Vietnam.

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In his next book, The Time of Illusion (1975), Schell shifted his concern to the American home front and the seat of power, Washington, D.C., during the time of the Nixon Administration, while searching for logic and coherence governing political events that seemed arbitrary and contradictory, such as Richard Nixon’s intensification of the war effort in Vietnam while making exploratory peace missions to the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Like The Fate of the Earth, all these books first appeared as series of articles for The New Yorker magazine. The topics of Schell’s investigations, then, moved from the particular (Ben Suc) to the general (Vietnam and the Nixon Administration) and the universal in The Fate of the Earth and its sequel, The Abolition.

In his first chapter of The Fate of the Earth, Schell summarizes the history of scientific discoveries that made the atom bomb a reality, from Einstein’s formulation concerning the conversion of mass into energy to the discovery by Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in 1938 that uranium atoms, bombarded with neutrons, would split—or fission—forming new elements and releasing some of their mass into energy. He then explains how energy is released by fusion, the basis of the hydrogen bomb.

Schell also examines in detail the human consequences of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Horrible as these were, Schell observers, modern bombs are far more powerful than those of 1945 and exist in far greater numbers. A full-fledged nuclear holocaust would “assail human life at three levels: the level of individual life, the level of human society, and the level of the natural environment—including the environment of the earth as a whole.” Nuclear weapons kill indirectly as well as directly.

Schell then pauses to consider the current balance of terror among the superpowers, citing the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and President Jimmy Carter’s threats concerning the Persian Gulf in 1980, in order to show that a deliberate nuclear attack could be within the range of political possibilities. Another present danger, not to be dismissed as novelistic speculation, is that of a nuclear conflict triggered by accident.

Finally, Schell confronts the issue of survival: the effect of widespread radiation on plant and animal life, the broader consequences for the earth’s ecology, and the effect on the ozone layer. Although human extinction may not be a foregone conclusion, depending on the scale of a nuclear holocaust, the possibility cannot be entirely ruled out.

In chapter 2, “The Second Death,” Schell confronts the challenge of living with nuclear knowledge. The nuclear predicament was born out of a scientific revolution for which the world was unprepared; once a scientific discovery is made, it cannot be canceled. The only possible solution, Schell argues, is a “global political one”—not a very promising alternative, given the course of world history, but one born of necessity. Schell then factors the nuclear predicament into what Hannah Arendt called the “common world” and goes on to consider the “worth” of the human species and its “ethical obligation” to protect its own survival. At issue is the possibility of a future for the human race and the extinction of all human accomplishment. The “second death,” then, refers to the potential destruction of the entire human species and its collective memory.

Just as the thrust of the first chapter was scientific and political, so the thrust of chapter 2 is political, philosophical, and metaphysical. At the end of chapter 2, Schell articulates three principles of life in “the new common world”: respect for human beings, respect for the earth, and respect for God or nature. Mankind, Schell suggests, has developed only the power to destroy, not to create: Mankind’s “modest role is not to create but only to preserve ourselves.”

The final chapter goes on to elaborate the ultimate choice between life and death. The English philosopher Bertrand Russell posed this “simple” question to the House of Lords in late 1945, four months after Hiroshima: “Is it possible for a scientific society to continue to exist, or must such a society bring itself to destruction?” Both Russell and Einstein argued for total global disarmament; both were decades ahead of their times in understanding the nuclear predicament. Schell revives, updates, and elaborates that argument, concluding that nuclear weapons have ruined “not only ‘nuclear war’ but all war (that is, war between nuclear powers).”

In this philosophical context Schell evaluates the doctrine of nuclear deterrence, the strategy of Herman Kahn, and Nixon’s “Madman Theory” of the presidency, the belief that other nations would “bow to the President’s will if they believed that he had taken leave of his senses and was willing to risk a holocaust in order to secure some limited national gain.” Add to this Kahn’s argument for a “doomsday machine” that would make a nuclear retaliatory strike fully automatic, and one has reason to question the rationality of the policies that have governed the American nuclear arsenal. Schell argues for more rational approaches that would stress the “unthinkable” response to nuclear confrontations.

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Critical Context