Tomdispatch Interview: Jonathan Schell, The Bomb in the Mind

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[Note to Tomdispatch Readers: This is the fourteenth in a series of interviews at the site. The last of these was “American Fundamentalisms” with James Carroll. The previous 12 were collected in the book, Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters.]

Trying to Dispel a Mist with a Machine Gun
A Tomdispatch Interview with Jonathan Schell

Enter his small office at the Nation Institute only if you don’t mind experiencing a slightly vertiginous feeling. Books are everywhere — in boxes on the floor, on every surface, in, along, and perilously stacked above shelves. If you took a wrong step, you could at least imagine disappearing in a tsunami of tumbling books. “That’s my Hannah Arendt pile up there,” he says, gesturing toward a shelf I’m examining. He’s sitting at his desk, his legs up and an iMac perched on his knees. Even here, he wears a jacket — black corduroy in this case — a blue button-down shirt, grey slacks, and on his feet the leather shoes of a man who has yet to enter the all-comfort Age of Nike. Glasses are perched on his nose and his face, when he looks up, is welcoming and well-lived in.

Only the titles of the books scattered everywhere hint at the less than mild-mannered reality of his life: Living with the Bomb, Empire, The Next War, Savage Dreams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, The United States and the Legacy of the Vietnam War, and — all in Japanese characters but for a single word in English — Hiroshima. It’s hard to believe that this modest-looking man once rode in a forward air controller’s small plane in Vietnam, surveying the wholesale destruction of two provinces for what became his 1968 book, The Military Half, or that his 1982 bestselling book on the nuclear conundrum, The Fate of the Earth, was one of the sparks for the greatest anti-nuclear movement of our — or any other — lifetime. In one way or another in those days, he jostled with millions of demonstrators and activists; most of the time since, while writing for the New Yorker, then Newsday, and now the Nation, he has remained a largely one-man campaign against nuclear annihilation and nuclear “forgetfulness,” as well as for the abolition of such weapons from the fateful face of our Earth.

Several days after the publication of his latest nuclear book, The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger, at a moment when the Bush administration, long focused on nuclear weapons, fictional and real, was up to its ears in a potential nuclear crisis involving Pakistan, we sit down in the conference room of the Nation Institute, where he is a Fellow (as am I). With two cheap tape recorders rolling and Tam Turse, the official photographer of this site, snapping photos, we begin to explore the mysteries of the nuclear crisis — and conundrum — that has occupied much of his life and threatened the planet for the last 62 years. He speaks with emphasis, but in a measured way, stopping from time to time to carefully consider his answers.

Tomdispatch: So, take us on a little tour of our world in terms of nuclear weapons.

Jonathan Schell: The way I think of it, in the Cold War, the nuclear age was in a sort of adolescence. Just a two-power or, at most, a five- or six-sided affair. Now, it’s in its prime. We already have nine nuclear powers, with lots of aspirers to the club waiting in the wings. The nuclear weapon is fulfilling its destiny, which was known from the very beginning of the nuclear age: to be available to all who wanted it, whether or not they choose to actually build the thing.

In a certain sense, we’re just beginning to face the nuclear danger in its inescapable, quintessential form. At key moments in the nuclear age, the public has suddenly gotten very worked up about its peril. Now, if I am not mistaken, could be another such moment. Everybody who has ever marched or spoken up against nuclear weapons should dust off their hiking boots and get back in the fray.

TD: Once upon a time, of course, we would have said that the Cold War superpower stand-off with tens of thousands of such weapons was its quintessential form.

Schell: But that was not correct. The Cold War was in fact a temporary two-power disguise for a threat that was essentially universal in double sense: Number one, it could destroy everybody; number two, over the long run, anybody was going to be able to acquire it. There’s still a ways to go, but we’ve already reached the verge at which it’s imaginable that a mere terrorist group could get its hands on the bomb technology, or even on a ready-made bomb.

That’s part of the universalization that was written into the bomb’s genetic code. Once a terrorist group has such a weapon, deterrence — a relic of the Cold War — is no longer operable. So this supposed solution, which seemed to work, after a fashion, for more than four decades, is now essentially out the window and we’re in the market for another solution, which must be geared to this matured form of danger in which the weaponry can pop up anywhere.

That’s a different riddle, but one faced way back in 1945 by the atomic scientists of the Manhattan Project, who made the first bomb. They grasped what was coming. That’s why they immediately put together a proposal to ban nuclear weapons altogether — the so-called Lillienthal-Acheson Plan.

It was all or nothing. They, of course, were just projecting, based on the realities of science and the physics of the weapon which they knew so well. Now, the world they feared is becoming a reality: North Korea is a nuclear power — and so is disintegrating Pakistan.

TD: As you point out in your new book, The Seventh Decade, the Bush Doctrine has pushed us into a situation in which we can, strangely enough, see all this far more clearly.

Schell: That’s exactly right. The Bush Doctrine had one virtue. As an imperial solution — the United States will stop proliferation by military force, if need be, wherever it arises — it was also an attempt at a universal solution. Unfortunately, it backfired horrendously. It’s in a shambles. We waged a war in a country that didn’t have nuclear weapons, meanwhile letting North Korea get them.

So once again, as at the end of the Cold War, we’re without a workable policy for dealing with nuclear danger. But, today, for the very first time, we are goaded by events toward creating a policy that fits the essential nature of the danger. Just as that danger is universal because any country — even a terrorist group — can potentially get hold of the bomb, so we need a universal solution, which can only be what the atomic scientists said it was in 1945 — to roll back, ban, and abolish all nuclear weapons and nuclear-weapons technology.


The First Nuclear Proliferator

TD: Before we head into the subject of abolition, let’s go back to the beginning. In your new book, and your past work, you’ve suggested that nuclear weapons, perhaps the most awesome objects in our world, reside most essentially not in arsenals, but in the human mind. What do you mean by the bomb in the mind?

Schell: Well, that’s the foundation of the whole nuclear dilemma. The bomb itself is the fruit of basic twentieth-century discoveries in physics, specifically its most renowned equation — energy equals mass times the speed of light squared — which gives the amount of energy that’s released in nuclear weapons. Being rooted in science, the bomb is a mental construct to begin with, which means it’s always present and will always be present, even if we do get rid of the hardware. The bomb in the mind will be there forever.

So, before any physical bomb existed, there was the bomb as conceived by scientists, destined, sooner or later, to become available to all competent and technical minds in the world. What follows, of course, is that a growing list of countries — at present probably around 50 — are able to have nuclear weapons if they so decide. What, in turn, follows is that, if those countries are not going to have the bomb, it will only be because they have made a political decision not to have it.

And what follows no less surely is that this global issue cannot be solved by any means but the political. More specifically, it can’t be solved by military force.

TD: The story, as you explain it, starts in a specific mind on a specific street corner in London.

Schell: That person, as Richard Rhodes tells it in his wonderful book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, was Leo Szilard, the maverick Hungarian scientist. One day in 1933, he was crossing a London street and the idea of the chain reaction occurred to him. The thought arose by connecting work of the scientist Ernest Rutherford, who had recently given a speech on the transmutation of atoms, and a novel by H.G. Wells, The World Set Free, which described an atomic war. The science fiction writer’s imagination and the scientist’s information fused in his mind at that moment, and he realized that the world was in deep trouble.

TD: Interestingly, you then have your first test of what we would now call “nuclear proliferation” along with attempts to stop it almost immediately.

Schell: That’s right, because Szilard understands what’s at stake instantly. And, remember, the world would soon be on the brink of war. He doesn’t want Adolf Hitler or his scientists to have this idea first or develop it. So he tries to put a secret patent on the process as he understands it. Eventually, he takes it to the British admiralty and they accept it. This was the first attempt at non-proliferation, the first attempt to stop the first proliferator from turning the bomb in the mind into a piece of hardware and, of course, it failed, as every subsequent attempt failed or, at least, proved highly imperfect.

TD: Could you say that the greatest illusion, beginning with the American nuclear “monopoly” in 1945, is the idea that the bomb can be nationalized, that it can remain the property of one, or several, countries?

Schell: Yes, and following from that mistake is the second most mischievous idea of the nuclear age — that you can obtain nuclear superiority, an advantage that requires you, or your group of allies in the “nuclear club,” to maintain either a nuclear monopoly or a decisive superiority in numbers of weapons. History has shown that, in the long run, that cannot be.

This second illusion has had many permutations, the most important being the nuclear war-fighting school, which believed such a war was “winnable.” That notion persisted for most of the Cold War, but was essentially abandoned, at least at the presidential level, by Ronald Reagan, of all people, who insisted a nuclear war could not be won and should not be fought. Beginning with this key insight, he went on to become a nuclear abolitionist and almost achieved the goal with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the Reykjavik Summit of 1986.

The Nuclear Archipelago

TD: In this context, I’ve always been struck by the surreality of the superpower nuclear arsenals in the Cold War era. They held tens of thousands of such weapons. You would have had to fight your ultimate battles on five or six Earth-sized planets to use up such arsenals — and you could have destroyed them all. Why couldn’t those war-fighters stop building their weapons, even after the destruction of the enemy had been assured ten, twenty times over?

Schell: I think there’s a historical answer to that question. Because nuclear weapons were born as seeming weapons of warfare, millennia of tradition, of gut feeling about enemies and friends, about what makes you safe and what puts you in danger, were attached to them. The whole psychological apparatus that has made war unstoppable since the beginnings of history, or before, enveloped these weapons. So an understanding that they had in actuality exploded the traditional context for war was, perhaps unsurprisingly, very slow in coming. It meant undoing several thousand years of tradition in all countries — the idea, in particular, that you couldn’t build up too large an arsenal, that if you didn’t match the other side you would lose the war, and that they would then destroy your town and carry off the women and children and slaughter or enslave the men. To understand that nuclear weapons could not be used that way, that they, indeed, made a whole range of warfare impossible, was a lesson that was viscerally, as well as intellectually, difficult to absorb. Above all, viscerally.

TD: By the way, the war-fighting idea was closely linked, early in the Cold War, with the idea of a first strike. If you couldn’t knock out the other side with your surprise attack, you were in trouble, right?

Schell: Yes, indeed, and acknowledgment of that trouble led to the rise of the counter-school, the doctrine of “mutual assured destruction,” which gained the appropriate acronym MAD, and which eventually predominated. It said: No, don’t launch a first strike because you can’t win a nuclear war. Wait for the other side to launch and then retaliate, if need be. The whole purpose of this MAD exercise, of course, was to ward off the first strike that meant annihilation.

TD: It’s always seemed to me that, though the U.S. used atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, deterrence preceded the bomb. We never did, for instance, launch a first strike against the Soviet Union when we could have, when they didn’t have an effective nuclear force to strike back with.

Schell: In a very literal sense, deterrence preceded the very existence of the bomb. After all, Roosevelt started the atomic project in 1939, well before the United States was even in a war in Europe, because of his fear that Hitler would get it first. In other words, he was preparing to deter an arsenal that had not yet — and, in fact, never would — come into existence.

It was the use of the bomb against Japan, of course, that set the stage for the war-fighting school. No deterrence was needed against Japan, since everyone knew it had no nuclear weapons. The way was clear for use, and that use was then considered, however doubtfully, to have won the war. America’s bomb became a war-winning, war-fighting weapon.

TD: To this day, despite coming to the edge of thinking about using the bomb — in Korea, Vietnam, even, if rumors are to be believed, in these last years when the Bush administration may have been preparing to wield “the nuclear option” against Iranian deep-dug nuclear facilities — it has yet to happen.

Schell: That brings us to another dimension of the bomb in the mind. It turned out, as I mentioned, that this weapon was not going to be useful for war-fighting; that, at very best, it was useful for threatening. After all, use was likely to annihilate everyone concerned — and possibly the rest of the human species in the bargain. Thus, nuclear policy became a matter of bluster and bluff, while what we thought of as “the balance of nuclear terror” proved to be a strictly mental operation. Policy became a pure play of psychology and images, of threats as distinct from use.

TD: And yet, somehow, the war-fighting school has made a comeback in the Bush moment

Schell: Exactly, and with a permutation of the familiar Cold War illusion, based once again on the idea of sole, or group, proprietorship of the bomb: That a limited club of good countries, led by the United States, could still more or less corner the market on such weapons.

Well, it’s way too late in history for that! But what flowed from that idea, however, was the entire Bush Doctrine, the Bush revolution in nuclear policy, which proposed that the United States, using its immense military force, could actually stop proliferation in other countries by military means. This is probably the most dangerous permutation of the idea of first use and nuclear war-fighting we’ve had in the nuclear age — and the Iraq War was its first child.

TD: Over a bomb that really was in the mind, by the way.

Schell: (Laughs) Actually, that fiasco illustrates one true fact about the bomb in the mind. The mistake was possible only because everyone knew that Saddam Hussein could have been building the bomb. For the bomb is misconceived as just a piece of hardware, or even many pieces of hardware scattered around the world. It is essentially, originally, and everlastingly a set of scientific and technological capacities open to all and coming at you, in a certain sense, from all directions at all times. As soon as you put out the fire over here, another is likely to spring up over there, and so on. Military force is singularly inappropriate for facing this conundrum and yet that’s what the Bush administration chose. It’s like trying to dispel a mist with a machine gun, just the wrong instrument for the job.

TD: You have a very vivid image related to this in your new book. You call our world a nuclear archipelago.

Schell: Just imagine the science of the bomb as like the white-hot magma at the center of the Earth, always there. The spread of nuclear technology is like volcanic lava spilling onto the ocean floor, and nuclear arsenals are like so many islands that have built up under the sea and suddenly penetrate its surface to form an island chain. The islands seem separate from one another, but in fact are only the highest peaks of an underwater mountain range.

TD: To play out that image, in the Bush years we’ve been focused on just a few of the smaller islands — the Korean island, the Iranian island that may or may not be there, the Iraqi island that wasn’t there — to the exclusion of the larger islands or the mainland.

Schell: In this blinkered vision, we see an aspect of a grand illusion that was born at the end of the Cold War era. A very curious thing happened. The United States — maybe Russia, too — just forgot about its own arsenal. Didn’t get rid of it, just pushed it out of consciousness. But other countries didn’t forget. They saw that every one of the nuclear powers of the Cold War era was choosing to remain a nuclear power. Even as the numbers of weapons were being brought down a little, huge arsenals were retained. So other countries were then faced with a decision: In a nuclear armed world, are we going to remain without nuclear arms? Well, India decided no. It rebelled against what it called “nuclear apartheid,” joined the nuclear club, and Pakistan followed suit.

The Romance of the Bomb

TD: I want to back up a little. We’ve been talking about the bomb in the mind. You were born in

Schell: 1943

TD: and I, in ’44, so we barely beat the bomb into the world. The bomb in my mind was a vivid thing. I still remember my nuclear nightmares from childhood. What about the bomb in your mind — and the path that brought you to your bestselling and seminal book, The Fate of the Earth.

Schell: For some reason, I remember a photo and a headline from the [New York] Daily News announcing that the Soviet Union had set off its first hydrogen bomb in August of 1953. Then, in college at Harvard in the Sixties — it’s only in retrospect that I attach any importance to this — I took a course from one Henry Kissinger. I recall a feeling almost like schizophrenia. It was a very hot spring and I was sitting in sweltering libraries reading these nightmarish texts about nuclear weapons. I remember this thought: That the people who were for the bomb were politically sane but morally crazy, while the people who were against the bomb were morally sane but politically crazy. These seemed like two universes that would never meet.

Of far greater importance was going to Vietnam in 1966 and becoming a reporter on the war. The experience led me to think seriously about nuclear arms. When I began to study the origins of the war and the American search for “credibility” through victory in Vietnam, I saw the connections with the nuclear policies of the day. Even before the United States had many troops there, Vietnam was conceived of as a “limited war.” Limited in comparison to what? Well, in comparison to a general war, which was a nuclear war, which you couldn’t fight. I began to believe what I still believe: You cannot think about any aspect of international politics without finding the bomb located somewhere at the center of it. Manifestly, that was true throughout the Cold War, and now it’s true again.

TD: This leads me to one of the more fascinating, stranger parts of your new book The Seventh Decade — your complex discussion of the attraction of these weapons to various nations. Since they can’t be used, why in the world do states want them?

Schell: Often only as a kind of symbol of power and prestige, another bomb in the mind, if you will. This is easily demonstrated if you look at a country like India. There, getting the bomb was never primarily a matter of countering manifest foreign threats. Instead, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party mainly wanted to elevate India to great-power status in the world. It also saw joining the nuclear club as a continuation of the anti-nuclear, anti-colonial struggle, as an escape from nuclear apartheid. If the superpowers would not disarm, India would arm.

But if you happen to think of this motivation as strictly Indian, you’d be quite wrong. If, for instance, you look at the record of British deliberations on the bomb in the late 1940s and early 1950s, there’s very little discussion of the Soviet Union, or of any enemy for that matter. All the talk is about keeping in the game with the United States. This was the post-World War II moment. Britain was losing its empire and its leaders were desperate to find some way to maintain a semblance of being a great power.

At one point, for instance, when Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin returned from Washington, having been talked down to by U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes, he told [British Prime Minister Clement] Atlee that Britain must have the Union Jack on the bomb, because he didn’t ever want a foreign secretary of Britain to be spoken to that way again.

In France, we find very much the same story. In fact, [President Charles] De Gaulle actually said at a certain point: It’s precisely because we’re not a great power that we have to have the bomb.

TD: I noticed that, in your book, you link this horrific weapon to a word that normally wouldn’t be associated with it. You call those like the Indian leadership who wanted the bomb “nuclear romantics.” The romance of a world-destroying weapon. Please explain.

Schell: Again, getting the bomb is like striking a pose, like a Byronic or Napoleonic hero. Seeming to be a great power. There is a nice line in the new Richard Rhodes book, Arsenals of Folly, in which someone says: The reason we don’t want to get rid of nuclear weapons is that then we’d walk down the street in a different way. That may be close to the essence of what it’s all about. Without these weapons, you can’t be quite so cocky.


TD: There’s another aspect of our nuclear world that we should touch on. Call it: the bomb out of the mind. In the U.S., there have been periods of mass fascination with, and panic over, the bomb, of dreaming about the bomb and making movies about it, but for long periods the bomb seems to fall out of collective consciousness. I mean, right at this moment, I can’t say you’re quite a one-man movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons, but Anyway, can you talk about denial and the bomb?

Schell: I mean, these are deep, deep mysteries. The more I’ve thought about the psychology of the bomb, the more puzzling it’s become. It’s true that there’s been a habitual denial of the problem, broken, as you say, every now and then by awareness, and then a movement arises. In a curious way, you could think of denial of the bomb as a pathological form of the bomb in the mind — in the sense that denial once again, in a way, removes the bomb from the world.

Now, what all this points toward is a final bomb in the mind in which the terror of the weapon would inspire people to take the action that fits that emotion, which is to get rid of the hardware. What’s left over is still the scientific bomb in the mind, but standing guard over it, so to speak, is our horror at its return and the political arrangements that we will have put in place to eternally keep that thing in its grave. Finally, in other words, you move to a kind of bomb in the mind that inspires positive action, rather than just deters or inspires terrors.

TD: The abolition of these weapons has always been presented as hopelessly utopian. As you describe it in your new book, however, it’s not that at all. If we wanted to head in that direction, you believe, there’s an actual, practical path open for us to do so.

Schell: It’s not utopian; it’s a necessity, and the path to abolition you mentioned remains open, at least in the sense that the nearly insurmountable ideological obstacles of the Cold War struggle aren’t in the way. If the U.S. were to join with Russia and China in putting their arsenals on the bargaining table and then demand that proliferators not proliferate, we would quickly find ourselves in a different world.

In writing The Seventh Decade, by the way, I’ve had a chance to reconsider the bomb in the mind, something I first brought up in 1982 in my book The Fate of the Earth. My new thought is this: You have to see the acquisition of this knowledge not as something that might have been avoided but as a kind of coming of age of humanity. We are inquisitive creatures, homo sapiens, capable of plumbing certain secrets of the universe. We embarked on that path three or four hundred years ago when the scientific method was invented. We were then destined to discover that the basic building block of nature, matter, contained energy — and that we could get it out.

It’s therefore as useless to lament our lost innocence as it is for an adolescent to lament lost childhood. The task is to live — that first means survive — with our new powers, however troublesome or unwanted they may be. We have to incorporate those powers into our thinking at a fundamental level and learn how, forever after, to live as a species that can destroy itself, but has chosen, through an enduring act of political will, not to. Making that choice would mark the culmination of an evolution which began with the scientific discovery of the energy in the atom, continued through deterrence, and now would be transformed into a kind of eternal vigilance to prevent the bomb from ever returning to our midst.

A Crisis Breaking the Bounds of War

TD: Let’s move back, for a moment, to the immediate crisis. Let’s talk about the Iranian nuclear situation. What do you make of it?

Schell: The Bush administration has framed the Iranian issue in such a way that, as everyone likes to say, there are no good options. On the one hand, Iran is de facto heading down a path that leads towards the bomb. Whether they actually want to turn themselves into a nuclear power or, like India for many decades or Japan today, simply be ready to do so in a couple of months, I don’t know. But they’re enriching uranium. They have that technology. The United States has said: No! You mustn’t enrich, even though you say it’s for nuclear power, because that gets you nine out of ten steps to the bomb.

So the United States and Europe mount diplomatic efforts. Iran spurns them. They make threats. Iran ignores them and goes on with its program. The diplomatic path conceivably might work if the United States were more forthcoming in what it offered Iran, but success even then looks doubtful at best. It appears that Iran is determined to have that technology and keep it, not roll it back. So you are left with the only other option within this framework — the use of military force.

I would say, though, that the surefire way of ensuring that Iran will go for the bomb is to attack them. If, the day before, they were ready to stop short of having the bomb, the day after, they’ll go for it and they’ll get it, too. So, just as people say, there are no good options — but that’s only within the framework of the Bush Doctrine. And the key element in that doctrine is that a few countries, almost all of them nuclear powers, are supposed to stop other countries from getting the bomb. But the record of the last half decade has shown that this is an unworkable plan.

The option which is never explored, although I’m convinced it’s the key to breaking an impasse like this one, is for the nuclear powers to bring their own weapons to the negotiating table and say: We will reduce ours — eventually down to zero — on condition that you proliferators stop proliferating.

Let me give you an example. Right now the United States says: Iran is going on with its enrichment, so we want to impose harsher sanctions. Russia and China say: No, we don’t think that’s necessary, we don’t want to do that. They worry that the United States may attack Iran; they also have financial deals with Iran; and so on. In other words, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, all of whom are nuclear powers, are divided among themselves and can’t present a united will to proliferators.

Now, imagine a situation in which these powers have decided they are ready to surrender their own nuclear arsenals and rely on an abolition agreement in the same way they now rely on those arsenals for their security. There would be no disunity among them in approaching Iran. In addition, the 183 countries which have already agreed, under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to remain without nuclear weapons, would join this consensus. You would have a united global will which, in my opinion, would simply be irresistible to any country — whether Iran, North Korea, or Israel — that proposed to hold on to its own little arsenal in defiance of the united resolve of the Earth.

So, to me, the idea of abolition has tremendous practical force as an immediate solution to proliferation. It kicks in the second you make that commitment and signal that it’s serious and irrevocable

TD: Even if you were going to build down your nuclear arsenals over a long period?

Schell: Even then. You could simply start off with a freeze everywhere. Everybody just stops where they are and then begins to head toward the common destination with coordinated steps in a single negotiating forum in which, for instance, Russia and the United States would initially agree to go down to 500 weapons from their present combined 25,000 or so weapons. In exchange for that, Iran would stop its enrichment activities, or begin to dismantle its enrichment facilities. There would be all sorts of bargaining and deals between proliferators and nuclear powers. At the same time, you would be creating an architecture of inspection housed in the International Atomic Energy Agency that would be founded for the purpose of going in and making sure the rules were being followed.

TD: By the way, I noticed that you mentioned the Israeli arsenal. It’s usually left completely out of the Iranian discussion. I’m struck sometimes that our news is so filled with stories about the Iranian bomb, which doesn’t exist, and yet you’d be hard-pressed to find a single mention of Israel’s perhaps 200-weapon arsenal, including city-busters, not to say civilization busters, on any given week, even though that arsenal puts it in a league with other major powers

Schell: Britain, say. Israel probably has more active warheads, in fact. It only gets mentioned when people are asking whether Israel might attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. But, believe me, Israel’s capacity doesn’t go unnoticed or unmentioned in the Middle East, only here. I mean, Israel has done something ingenious. It’s taken the psychological fact of denial of nuclear weapons and made it a policy. So they won’t confirm or deny that they have them, but they have this curious phrase: “We will not introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.” Evidently, in some abstruse way, possessing them is not introducing them. You’d have to do something more to introduce them. You’d have to brandish one or make a threat with one, or maybe just acknowledge that you had them. As long as they keep them in the basement and don’t make any introductions, then it’s alright. And that policy seems to have had a certain success in dampening criticism, amazing to say.

TD: A last topic. When we grew up there was one world-destroying thing, whether you were obsessed with it or not: the bomb, the nuclear arsenals. Today, for young people, there appear to be several paths to the end of the world, ranging from the fictional to pandemics to global warming. Nuclear weapons seem to be in a jostling queue of world-destroying possibilities. What kind of a mental landscape, especially for the young, goes with such a situation do you think?

Schell: Global warming, which is a whole new way of doing ourselves in, does create a radically new context. You know, when I wrote The Fate of the Earth, back in 1982, I said that, first and foremost, nuclear weapons were an ecological danger. It wasn’t that our species could be directly wiped out by nuclear war down to the last person. That would only happen through the destruction of the underpinnings of life, through nuclear winter, radiation, ozone loss. There has been an oddity of timing, because when the nuclear weapon was invented, people didn’t even use the word “environment” or “ecosphere.” The environmental movement was born later.

So, in a certain sense, the greatest — or certainly the most urgent — ecological threat of them all was born before the context in which you could understand it. The present larger ecological crisis is that context. In other words, global warming and nuclear war are two different ways that humanity, having grown powerful through science, through production, through population growth, threatens to undo the natural underpinnings of human, and all other, life. In a certain way, I think we may be in a better position today, because of global warming, to grasp the real import of nuclear danger.

The fact that the nuclear crisis grew out of war obscured this deeper significance. In truth, nuclear weapons effected a revolution in warfare that made it impossible, at least among the greatest powers. The bomb really isn’t a military thing at all.

In a sense, the nuclear dilemma is the easy crisis to solve. It does not require us to change our physical way of life; it just requires a different sort of political resolve. Technically, ridding the planet of such weapons is very feasible. We’ve already gotten rid of half the ones that existed at the peak of the Cold War. So, it’s almost as if it’s a preliminary item, something to get out of the way as we try to save the Earth from the other, newer ecological dangers that threaten our existence.

Copyright 2007 Tomdispatch

Jonathan Schell, a fellow at The Nation Institute, a TomDispatch regular, and the peace and disarmament correspondent for the Nation magazine, died on March 25, 2014. Among many other works, he was the author of The Real War, a collection of his New Yorker reportage on the Vietnam War.