Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth addresses the foremost problem of the twentieth century, the issue of human survival in the face of a worldwide nuclear cataclysm. Such a disaster could, at the least, destroy the fabric of civilization that provides order and stability; at worst, it could destroy all human life on the planet. Though certainly not the first book of nuclear warning, Schell’s work quickly came to be regarded as the bible of the antinuclear movement during the 1980’s.

Schell’s approach is digestive and comprehensive. It is particularly useful in the way it translates technical information available in other sources—such as The Effects of Nuclear Weapons (1950), edited by Samuel Glasstone and Philip J. Dolan and published in several updated editions by the Department of Defense and the Energy Research and Development Administration—into language comprehensible to laypersons.

Besides The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, which Schell considers a classic textbook on the subject of thermonuclear weapons, Schell has consulted other specialized surveys, such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki, prepared by Japanese scientists and published in the United States in 1981, and the National Academy of Sciences 1975 report “Long-Term Worldwide Effects of Multiple Nuclear-Weapons Detonations.” The purpose of the first chapter is informative; later chapters become increasingly reflective,...

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The Fate of the Earth

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

In 1945, fifty-one countries approved the charter of the United Nations Organization at its founding. Today, over 150 states claim membership in the United Nations, and it is certain to grow in the future. Independence movements presently rage in East Timor, Tigre and Eritrea, Puerto Rico, Corsica, Quebec, the Basque region of Spain, Kurdish areas of Turkey and Iran, Namibia, and even in Soviet Armenia. The aim of these struggles is national sovereignty, the main components of which are: a unified system of binding law administered by a unitary structure of authority; the right to raise a standing army and police power for internal and external defense; eminent domain over all national assets; and access to all normal diplomatic channels and institutions.

The first three of these components either imply or entail the monopolistic possession of armed power. Since the rise of the modern nation-state in post-Renaissance Europe, the world has increasingly subscribed to Thomas Hobbes’s dogma that, where Leviathan is not the sole master of the instruments of death, there is no Leviathan. Despite having Mahatma Gandhi as its principal founder, India has been a highly militarized state from the start. She is so not only because of palpable threats from her neighbors, but because she is obedient to the requirements of sovereignty. Experiencing no substantial external challenges, Brazil is very heavily armed; indeed, the Brazilians are one of the world’s foremost arms suppliers. Regional and worldwide collective security arrangements notwithstanding, modern nations betray few signs of foreswearing sovereignty as a fundamental goal of policy. With the exception of several recent attempts (all failed) by Arab states to submerge sovereignty into higher Islamic unities, there are no cases in modern history of independent states freely surrendering their sovereign status.

Despite these all-too-familiar realities, Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth boldly appeals for a sovereignty-free international order. Like a Hebrew prophet preaching destruction and chaos at the high tide of his nation’s power, Schell demands that we “lay down our arms, relinquish sovereignty, and found a political system for the peaceful settlement of international disputes.” He does not shrink before the magnitude of this transformation: “We are asked to replace the mechanism by which political decisions, whatever they may be, are reached.” The task, he recognizes, “is nothing less than to re-invent politics: to re-invent the world.”

Such words remind one of those halcyon moments in 1928 when, in their horror of what had happened in World War I, more than a score of nations signed the Kellogg-Briand pact which renounced war “as an instrument of national policy.” One must regard the “spirit of Locarno” with suspicion, since it most certainly invited the aggressiveness of Hitler, and thus helped create the preconditions of World War II. Is Schell, despite being a seasoned war correspondent of the Vietnam era, simply a reincarnated Locarno optimist, a professional pacifist, naïvely ignorant of the peace-producing function of armed sovereignty?

While “realist” critics mock his counsels, Schell insists that his is the truly realistic position. For something fundamentally new has entered the world since Locarno—something so overwhelmingly new that even though we live and move and have our being in its presence, we refuse to recognize it. That new thing is nuclear weaponry. Schell’s jeremiad is meant to awaken us all—and for all time—to the full truth of the Nuclear Age. Under his guidance, we must be fully disabused of the notion that nuclear weapons are simply modernized TNT devices, mere quantitative improvements on traditional ordnance. Most important, he would have us understand that nuclear weapons utterly negate the codes, standards, and structures for whose protection they were invented. It is not too much to say that for Jonathan Schell, history completely turned a corner on July 16, 1945, when the United States detonated the first atomic bomb near Alamogordo, New Mexico. The test site was called Trinity; for Schell, a better name would have been Armageddon.

The Fate of the Earth has quickly become a very famous book. Major newspapers all over the world have printed long excerpts in their magazine sections. In West Germany, a television special dramatized key elements of the book’s first chapter. Dr. Helen Caldicott, the ubiquitous nuclear-freeze activist, has proclaimed the book the Bible of the antinuclear movement. On the face of it, this notoriety is a curious development, for what Schell mainly attempts—to picture in the most graphic detail the destruction of a possible nuclear exchange—has been done by other writers and documentarians before him. “Scenario construction” (the clearer the better) has long been a favored method of defense analysts. Novels such as Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957) have shaped and haunted the imagination of millions of readers. Antinuclear proponents have prepared extremely effective tableaux, films, and case studies to make vivid the consequences of a nuclear attack. United States Defense Department footage of major above-ground tests has long been publicly available. There are yearly observances of Hiroshima Day which invariably present potent visual reminders of the attack. Why, then, the commotion about Schell?

Several factors account for the exceptional power of Schell’s work. First, he takes pains to acquaint the reader with those principles of nuclear physics that explain the difference between nuclear and non-nuclear explosions. One learns that the violent explosive power of the Hiroshima blast derived from the sudden release of atomic energy resulting from the splitting of nuclei of an extremely stable element such as plutonium or uranium by neutrons in a very rapid chain reaction. Some 12,500 tons of TNT (whose power resides in its unique chemical bond) would have been required to reach the same level of destruction. The...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Choice. XX, November, 1982, p. 504.

Christian Science Monitor. April 9, 1982, p. B1.

Draper, Theodore. “How Not to Think About Nuclear War,” in The New York Review of Books. XXIX (July 15, 1982), p. 35.

Erikson, Kai. “A Horror Beyond Comprehension,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII (April 11, 1982), p. 3.

Gregory, Donna Uthus, ed. The Nuclear Predicament, 1986.

Library Journal. CVII, April 15, 1982, p. 799.

Miller, Jim. “A Vision of the Apocalypse,” in Newsweek. IC (April 19, 1982), pp. 97-98.

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Saturday Review. IX, April, 1982, p. 61.

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Sierra. LXVII, July, 1982, p. 77.

Times Literary Supplement. July 16, 1982, p. 757.