Jonathan Schell’s penetrating mind has long sounded the single, most perplexing question humankind has ever faced: how can we avert nuclear Armageddon? His solution is as simple as it is complex: through the universal abolition of nuclear weapons.
For a generation of progressive, antinuclear thinking Americans, people who took to the country’s streets and Central Parks to wage peace in order to pass on to their children a nuclear-free world, Schell’s The Fate of the Earth (1982) was the Good Book. He followed it in 1984 with The Abolition, and in 1998 with The Gift of Time – works that, unlike the best-seller Fate of the Earth, quickly turned up on remnant tables. Now, as the international order is once more in a state of upheaval (Schell: “The world has entered a new nuclear age, a second nuclear age. The danger is rising that nuclear weapons will be used against the United States. Just as bad, the danger is rising that the United States will use nuclear weapons against others.”), he has published The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, a compelling meditation on the alternatives to nuclear blackmail and force as ways of shaping human destiny – and the chart of our lone escape route.
Schell cut his teeth as a journalist in Vietnam, writing two eyewitness accounts of the hostilities for The New Yorker. In 1988, he expressed a key lesson learned from that failed American war: “There is abroad in our world a force mightier than force – call it popular will, call it political action. Repeatedly, the possessors of overwhelmingly superior force – the United States in Vietnam, the Shah in Iran, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines – have, to their disbelief, found themselves overmatched by it.”
“There is abroad in our world a force mightier than force – call it popular will, call it political action.”
In The Unconquerable World, Schell overhauls and enlarges on this insight, identifying a spontaneous, planet-wide spirit which has given rise to what he refers to as “the people’s war” – a grassroots movement cutting across boundaries of nation, age, faith and social status to challenge by nonviolent means the neo-colonial aggressors of Nuclear Age II. In an April 14, 2003 article for The Nation (where Schell is the peace and disarmament correspondent), he refers to the millions of Earth’s citizens who rushed out to demonstrate against the pre-emptive attack of Iraq as the world’s “other superpower.” It is on the shoulders of the people that Schell’s solution rests.
Schell’s work – informed by his compelling intuition that where there is a will there is a way (and its stark corollary that without that will there is no way) – has shaped abolition discussion for the past three decades. He honestly trusts the democratic power of informed consensus to set the world upon the path of universal nuclear disarmament – make ballots, not war. Schell brings to his subject a keen sense of history, seemingly inexhaustible patience, and a clear vision of what remains possible. On talk-shows and campus tours, Schell is no aging confidence man of Dick Cheney’s ilk, no engineer of morbid pep, but a charismatic progressive thinker with an inspiring, positive message: abolition now! Despite the mass graves, tortured dreams and burning towers that pock the world’s political landscape, Schell sticks to his guns: one day humanity will discover within itself the means to relinquish its grip from all implements of mass destruction.
The Atomic Age was begun by humankind; only by humankind can it be ended. Thank you Jonathan Schell for lighting the course we must undertake.