The Cold War is gone. The nukes aren’t.
According to author Jonathan Schell, there are about 26,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, and any country in the world can be “essentially devastated” by about 350 of them. There’s no city on Earth that can’t be destroyed by a nuclear weapon of appropriate size, he said.
“I want to remind us of what’s at stake here,” he said — basically, that mankind is capable of destroying itself.
“The fact is, the machinery is out there,” Schell said.
Schell spoke during a history seminar class in the Wyse Building at Goshen College Tuesday. The event was sponsored by GC and the Fourth Freedom Forum.
In Schell’s view, the issue of nuclear weapons is “first and foremost an ecological question, if you include our species as one of the endangered ones on the list.” He noted the renewed public focus on ecological issues, including global warming.
“I think there’s a new nexus, a new connection to be drawn,” Schell said, and he hopes that happens.
According to Schell, weapons systems that came out of “highly developed political rationale having to do with the Cold War and resistance of the Soviet Union and so forth outlived any political justification.”
“One of the great peculiarities of the present moment is that there are these gigantic arsenals of thousands of nuclear weapons still capable of blowing us to Kingdom Come several times over, but we don’t know why we have them,” Schell said. “Not only that, but no arguments are even advanced.”
“Why on Earth should the United States and Russia now be aiming arsenals of thousands of nuclear weapons at one another at this moment?” he continued. “We don’t have a quarrel with them that’s worth a single pistol shot, much less a nuclear holocaust.”
Schell said that in the aftermath of the Cold War, several countries were faced with a choice: To be second-class nations without nuclear weapons or move up to the first tier.
“The Indians called it ‘nuclear apartheid,’” he said. “They said this is just a continuation of imperial domination.”
To Indian officials, Schell said, their 1998 nuclear test and declaration that they were becoming a nuclear power was a form of anti-imperialism.
“Pakistan, of course, followed suit,” as did North Korea, Schell said. “Iran is developing fuel for nuclear power, which with a few small turns of the screwdriver could also double as nuclear weapon material.”
Schell said several other countries are looking into nuclear power as well, and by implication a bomb.
The Reagan Era
Schell said that in 1983, then-President Ronald Reagan made some radical proposals.
One was the strategic defense initiative (SDI), popularly known as “Star Wars,” a means to defend America against nuclear attack. According to Schell, Reagan felt SDI would render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.” Schell also said Reagan sought the ultimate abolition of such weapons.
“I can assure you that his entire administration was startled and shocked to hear these words,” Schell said, and felt Reagan had committed himself to folly. Reagan was persistent, though.
Schell calls Reagan both “the biggest abolitionist the country has ever seen” and sincere in his belief. But politics also played a role in Reagan’s actions, he said. Schell noted the strength of the nuclear freeze movement of the early ’80s.
“(Reagan) needed something to gain the moral and political high ground again,” he said.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was another nuclear abolitionist, according to Schell. And at the 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, Reagan and Gorbachev came close to doing away with all nuclear weapons, he said.
Schell said the two “kept bidding up their offers to get rid of nuclear weapons.” But he added that Reagan, after conferring with more hawkish advisers, wouldn’t agree to confine SDI to the laboratory. And the mother of all no-nukes deals fell apart.
Schell feels the lessons of the Cold War have been forgotten, along with the idea of abolition.
“Just as the double standard inherent in the concept of nuclear superiority in the Cold War could not be sustained, so the double standard implicit in the two-class world of nuclear and nuclear-free powers is unsustainable today,” he said. Schell added that it’s time to “give up the illusion that force can stop proliferation and turn to negotiation instead.”
The Bush Administration
Schell said that if the Bush administration can be restrained on the nuclear issue, it won’t be by the public or the Democrat-controlled Congress.
“It will be simple events,” he said, like the drain on U.S. resources due to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I think every fiber in their (the Bush White House) being and every tenet of their doctrine and their philosophy tends to push them toward an attack on Iran,” Schell said. “So it’s kind of a battle between doctrine on one hand and reality on the other.”
Audience member Doloris Cogan asked how to “reach the people” on the dangers of nuclear weapons.
“I think the people are being reached, but they remain sort of passive,” Schell responded, later adding, “I think the moment is right for some type of galvanization.”
“I’m impressed with (Schell’s) thinking,” Goshen resident and retired GC professor Don Blosser said after the event. He also noted that Schell has tremendous credibility in the academic world.
“He really has his data lined up,” Blosser said.
Blosser said he was impressed with Schell’s recounting of the Iceland episode. He himself recalled seeing Gorbachev on TV calling for getting rid of nuclear weapons.
“I found (Schell’s) take on the story matched what I saw,” Blosser said.
“I found it a very provocative way of framing things, reminding us of where we’ve been,” Goshen resident JR Burkholder said of Schell’s speech. He also said Schell is a recognized authority on what he’s talking about.
“I’m aware of how Ronald Reagan surprised people by shifting his thinking on issues back there several times,” Burkholder said, adding that he didn’t realize how close the world came to getting rid of nuclear weapons at Reykjavik.
“I assume (Schell’s) done his homework,” Burkholder said.
The Cold War is gone. The nukes aren’t.
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