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Nukes' Seventh Decade

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Jonathan Schell's latest book "The Seventh Decade" places our current situation in the context of the past 62 years of the nuclear age, or the past 68 years as Schell might prefer to date it.  It was 68 years ago that scientists concluded a nuclear bomb was possible.  Scientists and politicians immediately began trying to develop nukes out of fear that someone else would do so first.  And as soon as nukes had been developed in one country, spies began passing the information to other countries out of fear that they would fail to develop their own nukes, thus leaving one nuclear nation unchecked.

We arrived 18 years ago in a situation in which the first nuclear nation is largely unchallenged.  This has led to aggressive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but not the use of nukes.  In fact, nuclear powers have time and again lost brutal wars to smaller states without making use of nuclear bombs.  It is highly unlikely that a small state developing a nuclear bomb in a nuke-free world would be able to bend other states to its will.  And nukes are no weapons at all against non-state terrorists with box cutters.  So why don't the nuclear powers disarm?

New nations are rapidly pursuing membership in the ranks of nuclear states largely because there are nuclear states, and the proliferation of nuclear technology facilitates additional proliferation, fueling a vicious cycle that makes nuclear war ever more likely.  Schell's book lays out an overwhelming case that we have two and only two choices before us:

"If a person gets lung cancer, a doctor may prescribe a harsh regimen of chemotherapy to prevent the disease's spread and save the patient's life. The patient may reject the recommendation, but then must expect metastasis and all its consequences.  The diagnostician's advice regarding nuclear danger today must be of the same kind.  Do you want to stop the spread of nuclear weapons?  Then prepare yourself to get rid of your own.  But perhaps you want to hold onto your bombs?  All right, but then get ready for proliferation.  Get ready for new cold wars - or hot.  And get ready for nuclear explosions in your cities."

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Schell recounts how tragically close Reagan and Gorbachev came to complete nuclear disarmament.  The point at which the negotiations fell apart was Reagan's unwillingness to disarm without creating a missile defense system, and Gorbachev's refusal to believe that Reagan would share such a system with the Soviet Union.  Had Gorbachev realized that such a system would fail, he might have conceded the meaningless bargaining chip and disarmed the two largest nuclear states.  

Now the clear purpose of so-called "missile defense" systems is aggressive war from space.  And the goal of non-proliferation rhetoric is to provide excuses for launching aggressive wars with conventional (or perhaps even nuclear) weapons.  But the whole idea of using military force to block proliferation is very new.  It may also be short-lived, having shown itself to be both fraudulent and a failure on its own terms.  

Short-lived also was the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s.  Schell points out that we now live in a time when excuses for nuclear arsenals must be even more strained and fantastical, but pressure to disarm has evaporated.  Ridding the world of nukes now seems so 80s.  Schell notes that none of what he calls "major" presidential candidates are talking about disarmament.  But Schell must still be living in the media universe of the 1980s if he does not realize that talk of disarmament would be enough to immediately disqualify one as a "major" candidate.  

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Schell imagines a nuclear-free world, but cannot imagine influencing the national conversation by supporting a candidate, like Dennis Kucinich, who agrees with him.  

Schell does place some hope, as do I, in the possibility that a movement to end global warming will grow to include a movement to eliminate nuclear weapons.  The two movements would seem to be perfect allies, as it would be quite a shame to save the world from one of the two dangers we face and lose it to the other.


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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)

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