The Seventh Decade – Jonathan Schell on “The New Shape of Nuclear Danger”

December 07, 2007



Jonathan Schell

veteran journalist and leading advocate for nuclear disarmament. He is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at The Nation Institute. Author of several books including "The Fate of the Earth." His new book is "The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger."

It’s official: Iran doesn’t have the nuclear bomb. But who does? The United States, Israel, Pakistan, India and five other countries. We speak with Jonathan Schell, author of "The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger." Schell argues that the Bush administration has ushered in a new nuclear age. With a concurrent first-strike policy, a weapons buildup at home and a reduction in monitoring and negotiations, Schell says the White House has encouraged proliferation around the world. [includes rush transcript]


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This week’s top story: Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons. They shut down their nuclear bomb program more than four years ago. But the Bush administration has not backed down from talk of military force. Amidst the ongoing threat of war, little attention has been paid to the ongoing dangers of those nine countries that do have nuclear weapons, including the United States.

In his new book, veteran journalist and disarmament advocate Jonathan Schell writes that the Bush administration has ushered in a new nuclear age. With a concurrent first-strike policy, a weapons buildup at home and a reduction in monitoring and negotiations, Schell says the White House has encouraged proliferation around the world, putting the fate of the planet in new peril.

Jonathan Schell joins me now in our firehouse studio. He is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute, a visiting lecturer at Yale University. His bestselling book The Fate of the Earth is recognized for helping stir up the anti-nuclear movement of the early 1980s. His new book is The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jonathan Schell.

JONATHAN SCHELL: Good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Talk about this week and how things have unfolded, the recognition that Iran doesn’t have a nuclear bomb.

JONATHAN SCHELL: Well, it looks as if there — it looked as if there was going to be a rerun of the situation leading up to the Iraq war. In other words, you had a royal battle in the bureaucracies between elements in the White House led by Dick Cheney, on the one hand, and the intelligence agencies, on the other. But this time the battle came out differently, because the intelligence agencies seemed to be able to finally say what they really believed, which was that this covert nuclear weapons program that they say was there until 2003 was actually suspended. And so, that pretty much cut the legs out from under the Bush policy of getting ready to use military force once the diplomacy had failed in Iran, and he’s left really without a policy now.

So it had a better outcome than at the time of Iraq, but two things need to be added. One is that the fact that this secret program was suspended does not mean that Iran is not heading de facto in the direction of having a nuclear weapon, I have to say. We don’t know what their intentions are. You can’t read people’s intentions. But what they’re doing perfectly openly and avowedly and indeed touting it to the world, which is enriching uranium, in fact takes them down a road that can branch off to the bomb at the end of the day, if they so choose. And so, the proliferation danger has not, in fact, gone away.

AMY GOODMAN: You begin your book, The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger, by talking about Reykjavik, by talking about the famous summit between Reagan and Gorbachev. Describe what happened there and the quote that you begin with.

JONATHAN SCHELL: Yes. Well, this is one of the most surprising and astonishing episodes of recent history that I know of, because it turned out that Ronald Reagan, of all people, was a fervent nuclear abolitionist. His route to that was a strange one. It was through his advocacy of the Strategic Defense Initiative, otherwise known as Star Wars. And his idea was that first you defend your country, and then you could get rid of your nuclear weapons. Well, he backed off that and decided that you didn’t first have to actually have a foolproof defense, that the defenses would be useful after you mutually got rid of nuclear weapons.

Well, it so happened that Gorbachev was another nuclear abolitionist, which was almost as surprising in the context of the Soviet Union, not quite perhaps as Reagan’s abolitionism in the context of the United States. So when they got to Reykjavik, they were both in favor of this, and at a certain point in the negotiations, they actually seemed to have been arriving at the deal. And this is at the moment when Ronald Reagan said, in the quote you mentioned, “Well, Mikhail, we’ll come back in ten years, and we’ll each bring the last missile with us, and we’ll destroy them, and then we’ll throw a tremendous party for the whole world," which I make the title of the third part of this book, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Nuclear proliferation is not talked about as much as what we have been hearing so much about — Iran having a nuclear bomb, well, until this week. Talk about the countries that have nuclear weapons. The last news headline was, for example, about Pakistan and the instability there and the general, the president, Musharraf, cracking down.

JONATHAN SCHELL: Yeah. Well, proliferation is absolutely real, and it’s a possibility in Iran, and we see it also with Pakistan, which is a nuclear power. There, the problem is that the state might be — we can’t really tell — but on the verge of fracturing or disintegrating, in which case the command and control over the nuclear arsenal there could fall into heaven-knows-whose hands. So that just has to play itself out politically.

But I want to make a comment about proliferation, and that is that it’s real, it’s growing. It is a part of this new shape the nuclear danger has taken, and it’s sort of like a noose that’s closing around us, in a sense, because it’s in the very nature of the technology that’s used for nuclear weapons that it spreads, that it spreads from mind to mind, from country to country, and maybe from countries to those who are not countries.

But at the same time, one of the great sleights of hand of the twenty-first century, or maybe the post-Cold War period, was to convince people that the nuclear danger consisted of proliferation alone, as if it was countries that didn’t have nuclear weapons that posed the danger, whereas those who did were somehow invisible. And our own nuclear arsenal became invisible to us for that period — same, likewise, even with the Russian arsenals — a very curious situation that arose.

But the further irony was that it was that possession which fostered and fueled the proliferation, because very obviously countries that see they’re going to be living in a nuclear-armed world very often may decide they don’t want to be without that instrument. That’s what happened in India and Pakistan.

So, really, you have to look at this thing as a whole. And when you do, what you see is that it’s sort of like a rising flood now. It’s like a — it’s something — or a tightening noose, as I say. And the dangers are mounting, but not only in the proliferation sphere, but also between the United States and Russia, where there are new tensions and the arsenals still exist, not to mention England, France, China, and so forth.

AMY GOODMAN: How has the threat increased under the Bush administration?

JONATHAN SCHELL: Well, they adopted a policy that was really revolutionary, even in terms of traditional American policy. For instance, in regard to proliferation, the previous policy was to deal with that — and all presidents followed this — through diplomacy, through negotiation, through treaties. And the mother of all the treaties was the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a very successful operation, by the way, maybe one of the most successful in all history, and under it 183 nations actually have vowed to do without nuclear weapons. The Bush administration moved to a radically different, 180-degree different policy of trying to stop proliferation with force.

Result number one: the war in Iraq. Result number two: the threat of war with Iran, which now seems to have faded because of this National Intelligence Estimate, at least for the time being. But I wouldn’t rule it out even now, but it seems to have faded; it may be taken off the table. There are even people who are talking, believe it or not, of intervening militarily in Pakistan, should things get politically chaotic there. Well, they looked at that and realized that if they did, that would probably be the best way of guaranteeing that nuclear weapons would go loose and get into someone else’s hands.

AMY GOODMAN: How many nuclear bombs are there in the world?

JONATHAN SCHELL: There are about 26,000.

AMY GOODMAN: And the nine countries that have them?

JONATHAN SCHELL: The nine countries that have them are the United States, Russia, England, France, Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea — whom have I missed? I’ve missed one of the nine.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll figure it out as we go.


AMY GOODMAN: So you have nine countries that have them, and —-




AMY GOODMAN: Israel hasn’t admitted they have them.

JONATHAN SCHELL: Israel has a very curious policy. They don’t admit that they have them; they don’t deny it, either. They say that they won’t be the first country to “introduce” nuclear weapons into the Middle East. So it seems that there’s some idea that if you don’t sort of announcement it, then somehow they’re not there. A very curious policy.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jonathan Schell. We’re going to break and come back to him. His book is The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Jonathan Schell. The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger is his new book. He is famous for The Fate of the Earth, the book that he wrote. How long ago was that?

JONATHAN SCHELL: 1982, so it’s a quarter-century ago.

AMY GOODMAN: And now you’re talking about the fate of the earth again.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about the nuclear bomb.


AMY GOODMAN: But it is not an ever-present discussion that is going on in this country, or anywhere -— well, in this country, I can say.

JONATHAN SCHELL: Yeah. Well, people really forgot about it entirely. It really dropped off the charts of public opinion. But at the same time, it was rising to the top of the charts of the real world. And it’s a peculiar story, because at the end of the Cold War, it looked as if there was going to be a golden opportunity to do something very serious or radical about nuclear weapons, even get rid of them, as Gorbachev and Reagan wanted to do at Reykjavik. But instead, something very curious happened, which is that they just faded out completely from public consciousness, and that included the government, presidents, the news media, universities, foundations, what have you, just kind of across the board.

Looking back on it, I think there was a reason for it. And I think the reason was that the United States and Russia and a couple of the other nuclear powers were making a tacit decision that, Cold War or no, they were going to hold onto nuclear weapons in the thousands. And I think that they didn’t want to draw attention to that. It was a kind of non-decision that became a critical decision of the nuclear age, and it set the stage for what we’ve been talking about, which was proliferation, because it meant that that era, the post-Cold War era, was going to be nuclear-armed. Nobody was talking about it. Nobody was looking at it, especially in this country.

I say “nobody,” but in fact in India and Pakistan and North Korea and Iran and in many other countries around the world, they were looking at it, and they were seeing what the example was, what the superpowers were doing, what kind of a world it was that we were actually entering, as opposed to what people said was happening. And they decided, we better go for the bomb, as well. So now what’s happened is that it’s come back, and in a new incredibly more complicated way than in the Cold War.

But my hope, frankly, is that young people and old will return to this issue, will understand once again that it is the greatest and the most urgent danger, even today — alongside global warming, I would say — those two belong together — that we face. And we can’t afford to forget about it, because it’s not forgetting about us.

AMY GOODMAN: The presidential candidates and their stances on the nuclear bomb?

JONATHAN SCHELL: Well, on the Republican side, there are no takers for Ronald Reagan’s abolitionism, even though with every other breath they declare that they are the heirs of Ronald Reagan.

On the other hand, on the Democratic side, there are a couple who have called for the elimination of nuclear weapons, which, at this point, is the only sensible thing to do, in my opinion. One of those is Barack Obama. Another is John Edwards; Bill Richardson in a kind of muted way; and, of course, all the way through and persistently and constantly, Dennis Kucinich. So it is creeping back into the public discussion.

Another important thing happened, which was that there was an Op-Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal by George Shultz, who had been Reagan’s — who had actually been at Reykjavik as the secretary of state — Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn and [William] Perry, all former Cabinet officials, calling for a revival of the idea of a world free of nuclear weapons. So, this gave sort of very high-level — I mean, these are four huge sort of archbishops of the nuclear priesthood, and their advocacy of this position gave political cover to those Democrats that I just mentioned. And so, suddenly that idea does seem to be coming in from —-

AMY GOODMAN: You didn’t mention Hillary Rodham Clinton.

JONATHAN SCHELL: Well, Hillary Rodham Clinton does not favor the abolition of nuclear weapons. In fact -— very, very interesting — in a speech in — rather, an article that she wrote in Foreign Affairs, she mentioned the Wall Street Journal article and said that she favored their policy of reducing the importance — some words like that — of nuclear weapons. Well, of course, what they called for was eliminating them. So she sort of ducked the question in that way. And as far as I’m aware, she has not said in any of her campaign statements that she favors actually eliminating nuclear weapons the way Obama and Edwards and the others, Kucinich and the others, have done.

AMY GOODMAN: Next week, Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Climate Change Panel will win the —- be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on climate change.


AMY GOODMAN: You talk about climate change and nuclear weapons, and you say with climate change we’re aware of it, because we are watching it all over the world happen. The warning signs are there. But it’s not the case with nuclear weapons.

JONATHAN SCHELL: Yeah. Well, let me say first that I think that the nuclear question, which is the only means, other than global warming, that we’ve ever invented for doing ourselves in completely, that those two issues are a pair. They belong together, because they are both threats in which the immense power that humanity has developed for itself throughout the modern age has actually reached a point at which it threatens the natural underpinnings on which our life and all life on earth depends. So, really, these are two threats of a kind, and I can’t think of one without thinking of the other. And I think that the global warming issue creates a new context in which the nuclear question can be seen. The problem with the nuclear threat, in terms of public consciousness and so forth, is that, most fortunately, no weapon has gone off since 1945. So the danger is -—

AMY GOODMAN: Since the US dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

JONATHAN SCHELL: Exactly. So, in a way, that issue hides its face, and it’s one reason that it’s so easy to forget about it. And I pray that we don’t have to wait until we have the third use of a nuclear weapon in history — Hiroshima and Nagasaki being the first two — before we return our attention to it.

AMY GOODMAN: What would happen if a nuclear bomb did go off?

JONATHAN SCHELL: Well, you know, the simple rule of thumb is that there is no city in the world that can’t be annihilated with a nuclear weapon of the appropriate size. And, you know, it occurs in many ways. First is the tremendous flash of heat, called the thermal pulse, which radiates out perhaps ten miles in every direction, setting fire on everything that it touches, that it reaches, and creating a firestorm. Second, you have the blast. And finally, you have the radiation. So it’s a kind of overkill exists, even within a single nuclear explosion, so to speak.

And I think that if that were to happen — and we’re pushing in that direction; that’s the direction that we’re heading in right now — I think that if that were to happen, it would be a greater change in the international order, it would be a historical verge, more consequential even than the end of the Cold War.

AMY GOODMAN: You write it could be the end of governments, it could be the end of countries, not to mention the end of populations.

JONATHAN SCHELL: Well, just imagine even one — not to speak of three or — I mean, if it’s a hundred, then countries and continents are gone. Imagine any country on earth without its top hundred cities. If it’s one or two weapons, then you have a political convulsion of the first order, and you’d have to ask first: if it was a country that enjoyed liberty, would those liberties survive? I think they’d be gone the next day. I think that would be the first casualty. You’d have to wonder whether the government itself would survive under those conditions. So, you’d be in a different and unpredictable world.

And then, immediately, you’d have to be asking: well, what response would there be? In other words, if it were the United States that were hit, would it retaliate? Would it strike back? And then, would other countries get involved, and so forth? But you’d be way off the charts in terms of being able to predict what would happen in any part of the world. For instance, what would citizens do? Might citizens in other cities flee their cities because they feared the same thing happening to themselves? That’s the sort of thing that you’d be — not to speak of economics, which is almost a detail in such a context.

AMY GOODMAN: What about China?

JONATHAN SCHELL: Well, China is interesting. They are a nuclear power, as we finally recalled. And, you know, it’s fascinating, because back in 1964 when they conducted their first test, the idea was that, whereas you could trust the Soviet Union, because they were supposed to be bad people, but they were saying they wanted to stay in power, but on the other hand, China was going to be the radical, the crazy one that might go ahead and use their nuclear weapons first, and so on. Mao Zedong was in power. But it turned out that China was the most conservative of almost all the nuclear powers. For instance, it has a no-first-use policy. It really hasn’t put that much money into its nuclear program, although they’re stepping it up right now. And so, it was surprising.

And I think it forms an interesting precedent when we — we started by talking about Iran. And it’s true that they talk an extreme game, especially their president, Ahmadinejad, in Iran, but my suspicion is that it would turn out, if they were to become a nuclear power, that they probably — and I can’t say — they would be a conservative one, the way China turned out to be. Countries tend to talk big before they get the bomb. When they get it, it kind of sobers them up.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Jonathan Schell, if you were a presidential candidate, what would you be proposing today?

JONATHAN SCHELL: Yes. I think that it’s way too late in the game to talk about partial solutions, to nibble around the edges, merely arms control and so forth. Those are all good things; I’m all for them. But the only sane, sensible, decent thing to do is to declare that our objective in the United States and around the world is to move to, you know, what those Wall Street Journal authors wanted, and that’s a world free of nuclear weapons.

I think that the nuclear powers should bring their own arsenals to the table with the proliferators and say, “Look, we have a deal for you. We’re ready over a period of, let’s say, ten years” — that’s what Reagan and Gorbachev wanted to make it at Reykjavik — “We’re ready to get rid of our arsenals, if you will agree not to get into this business.” And then everybody will be out of it. The 183 countries that don’t have them, the ones that do have them, the ones that are interested, will all be on the same page and will be moving towards a nuclear weapon-free world.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think it’s at all possible?

JONATHAN SCHELL: I absolutely think it’s possible. If we were to have a president — again, like Reagan — it’s strange to say. It surprises me. Usually, he’s not the political company I keep, as you might imagine, Amy, but on this, he really had a human response, a moral response, to nuclear weapons. If we had a president who was dedicated to this aim, I think it could become a reality.

The problems — it’s not like global warming, where you perhaps have to change the whole way that we live on a global basis. We know how to get rid of these things. Already, we’ve come down about halfway since the height of the Cold War. We just have to keep going in that direction. It’s a tremendous task, but it’s a notably doable one.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Jonathan Schell, the author of The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger.