The Common Good
January-February 1999

Unfinished Business

by Jonathan Schell | January-February 1999

The end of the Cold War presents an unparalleled opportunity to abolish nuclear weapons--once and for all.

The political environment of the post-Cold War has set a paradoxical challenge before those who oppose nuclear weapons. On the one hand, never before in the nuclear age has the opportunity been greater than it is today to remove nuclear danger—not just reduce the arsenals, "stabilize" them, or otherwise "control" them, but actually to banish them from the face of the Earth. On the other hand, never before has general public awareness of the nuclear question been lower than it is today. Closing this gulf between opportunity and action is the first task that faces the new abolitionists.

But before we can close the gap we must understand it. Three aspects of the nuclear question have appeared both in the Cold War and the post-Cold War periods. The first is the shape of nuclear danger itself—its magnitude, its level of urgency, and its points of origin. The second is the moral riddle posed by nuclear arms. The third is the degree to which opportunities for action to solve the dilemma are present or lacking.

In the Cold War, nuclear danger became total and immediate. The arsenals of the two blocs of nations that faced one another across the Iron Curtain jointly placed hundreds of millions of people, most of them entirely uninvolved in any military activity, in jeopardy of prompt annihilation. Before long, these arsenals grew to a point at which the survival of the human species itself was placed in jeopardy. The political point of origin of the danger was simple and obvious. It was the worldwide struggle waged between the Soviet Union and the West.

The moral riddle during the Cold War was whether such threats could be justified by any moral code worth the name, and, if so, how. For some, the slaughter of hundreds of millions of people and jeopardy of the human race could not, in principle, be justified by any goal. For others—certainly the majority—the threat of annihilation was morally balanced by other immense threats, which they placed on the other side of the moral scales. Acceptance did not come slowly—it came immediately.

The first balancing evil, let us recall, was not the Soviet Union but Hitler. It was Albert Einstein—a sort of pacifist, and later a tireless nuclear abolitionist—who in 1939 recommended to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that he build atomic weapons. The next threat cited was Japan—against which the bomb was twice used. Finally, of course, it was the Soviet Union. But whether the threat was from Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, or the Soviet Union, the moral logic of those who accepted the bomb was the same: a great evil required a great remedy, namely the bomb, which although itself an evil, had to be reluctantly accepted.

The opportunities for action against nuclear danger in the Cold War were ever present but sharply limited. There is no doubt what fueled the protest movement against the bomb in this period. Fear did. The pattern is clear. Crises arose out of the Cold War: the detonation of the hydrogen bomb, the various Berlin crises, the development of the intercontinental ballistic missile, the Cuban missile crisis. Great gusts of fear—of terror, in truth—then would sweep around the world, and anti-nuclear protest would suddenly blossom. But soon after it arose it invariably would fade away again.

THE VERY CONFLICT that produced the fear that produced the protest ruled out full success. Complete nuclear disarmament required agreement—above all on inspection of nuclear disarmament agreements. Agreement required trust. Trust was utterly lacking between East and West. Therefore nuclear disarmament was, politically speaking, found to be almost impossible. The protest movements therefore had to make do with accomplishments which, though real, were sharply limited: an atmospheric test ban; a ban on some defensive systems; the elimination of certain secondary offensive systems (such as space-based nuclear weapons and intermediate range missiles).

All of us involved in these movements remember the frustrating conversations of the time: We would call these modest accomplishments "first steps," but then no second or third steps would come. Discouragement—a kind of despair, in fact—would set in, and the public would sink back into apathy. We could scarcely hope for—much less achieve—the goal that, since the first bomb went off in 1945, alone made moral sense: the abolition of nuclear weapons, and, with them, our complicity in the potential for unprecedented mass slaughter and in the jeopardy of our species. No wonder, then, that the history of the anti-nuclear movement was one of boom and bust—of oscillation between hyperactivity and inertia, between remembering and forgetting, between desperation and denial.

Then one fine day the event that almost no one foresaw came suddenly to pass: The Soviet Union disappeared, the Cold War ended, and we entered a new age.

What is the shape of nuclear danger today? Here we find a mixed picture. The Cold War is over, and nuclear danger in that central arena of confrontation is sharply reduced. The danger of a premeditated use of the leftover Cold War arsenals is minimal. And thank God! We who oppose nuclear weapons will make a terrible mistake if we seem not to know this—if we seem to seek to artificially keep up a feeling of immediate terror that once fueled our movements. We will risk being seen by the public as ourselves leftovers of the Cold War—people somehow nostalgic for the horrors of that period and unable to make the transition to the new age. We must, on the contrary, try to cultivate a deeper and fuller awareness that the Cold War is over, for it is exactly this revolution in international affairs that provides the foundation for the ambitious undertaking that we propose.

It is true at the same time, however, that the Cold War arsenals remain—on full hair-trigger alert, as before—and that the government has explicitly renounced any plan for dismantling them. This policy raises the following question: Did we use nuclear weapons to fight the Cold War, or did we, to some extent, use the Cold War to build nuclear arsenals, which we wanted for some more comprehensive reason—one we have yet to fully articulate, or perhaps even to understand? The question will be answered not so much by scholars of the Cold War as by our decisions regarding nuclear weapons now that the Cold War is over.

EVEN AS NUCLEAR DANGER has declined in the old Cold War theater, however, it has sharply increased, thanks to nuclear proliferation, in what we Americans arrogantly used to call the "periphery"—namely, the rest of the world. The tests last May in India and Pakistan have made this danger abundantly clear, as have the programs for building nuclear weapons in both Iraq and North Korea. Nuclear danger, which used to emanate from a single point of origin—the Cold War—now emanates from many parts of the world, from many conflicts.

The two sources of nuclear danger in the new period—the leftover Cold War arsenals and the rise of new ones through proliferation—are closely related. By clinging to their arsenals, the Cold War powers are setting an example for the rest of the world. Nuclear weapons, they are in effect saying, are to be the currency of power as much in the new age as they were in the old, and that lesson is being carefully studied and learned by governments around the world.

What of the moral riddle? What threat do the United States and the other nuclear powers place on the moral scales today to balance the unspeakable horror of nuclear danger? Not very much. The United States mutters about "hedging" against dangers that might one day arise again in Russia and deterring "rogue" states that might threaten us. In a word, the moral balance—to the extent that one existed—has been lost completely, and we maintain nuclear arsenals seemingly without any awareness of the extraordinary moral challenge they pose. Moreover, this indifference—this domestication of the bomb—is probably a necessary condition for the policy of holding on to the Cold War arsenals in the absence of the Cold War.

But it is in the third realm—the realm of the opportunity for action—that the deepest and most important change has occurred, for the collapse of the Soviet Union has removed the principal obstacles that for 50 years stood in the way of full nuclear disarmament. That brings us back to the paradox with which we began. The old problem—achieving abolition under conditions of the Cold War—has been removed. But so has that old asset of the peace movement, the fear that was produced by Cold War crises. Today, the anti-nuclear movement cannot ride any wave of public concern, because there is none. The goal we have always dreamed of reaching is at last in view, but at present we lack the energy and inspiration—in a word, the political will—to get there.

What sort of action, then, might be suited to the new time and the remarkable opportunity it presents? First, it should be positive and constructive in character. Second, it should be national in scope, since in the last analysis, it is only the president of the United States who can frame and execute an abolitionist policy. Third, it should be sustainable over the long term.

It is in this context that some here in the United States are suggesting a civil-society strategy, in which the new abolitionists, organized into a suitable group, would invite any and all other groups in civil society to formally ratify a simple resolution calling on the United States to negotiate a global treaty to abolish nuclear weapons. The specific activity of this movement would, initially, be the act of deliberation within every organization. Representatives of the groups would then gather in an abolition congress, which would decide how to bring the support it had marshaled into the political process, where, ultimately, decisions regarding nuclear weapons are made. The elections in the millennium year provide the obvious opportunity.

In a word, with the end of the Cold War we have lost fear but gained hope. The task is to turn hope into action, and action into accomplishment. An anti-nuclear campaign, instead of merely being driven from behind by terror, can now be lured forward by the prospect of historic accomplishment, the abolition of nuclear weapons.

JONATHAN SCHELL is the author of eight books, including The Fate of the Earth and, most recently, The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons Now (Henry Holt and Co., 1998). He teaches at Wesleyan University and The New School in New York City.

For more information, check these out:

  • Abolition 2000 - A Global Network to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons
  • Ban the Bomb II. A new movement emerges to abolish nuclear weapons. David Cortright. Sojourners January-February 1999 (Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 25-26). Cover. The new movement consiously draws a moral parallel to the earlier historic struggle to abolish slavery.
  • The Subcontinent Goes Nuclear. - By Duane Shank. Sojourners July-August 1999 (Vol. 27, No. 4, p. 11). Commentary. The U.S. cannot expect to retain its weapons while lecturing other nations not to acquire them.
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