The Fate of the Earth Critical Essays

Jonathan Schell


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 931 words.)