The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger

By Jonathan Schell. New York: Holt, 2008. $28 Can.

By Metta Spencer (reviewer) | 2008-04-01 12:00:00

Jonathan Schell is the most influential intellectual advocating the abolition of nuclear bombs. His new book traces the history of global nuclear policies.

The saga reminds one of a Greek tragedy, for the participants could foresee the ghastly results of their own actions but seemed unable to stop themselves. For example, Winston Churchill was at the Potsdam conference with Truman when they heard the news of the Alamogordo test success. As Churchill later wrote, "There was never a moment's discussion as to whether the atomic bomb should be used or not."

The same inexorable momentum has propelled the bomb along its subsequent developments. There are now some 27,000 bombs in the world's nuclear arsenal. In the past decade India, Pakistan, and North Korea have "joined the club" and several Middle Eastern nations have shown the same ambition. Each new nuclear nation gains the capacity to help other aspirants, if only by the illegal maneuvers of its spies. For example, the Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan developed a clandestine nuclear technology trade that manufactured components in Malaysia and sold weapon-producing materials to Iran, North Korea, and Libya.

Regrettably, a "Trojan Horse" was written into the text of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). All states then possessing nuclear weapons were permitted to keep them a while, whereas the non-nuclear states agreed to forgo obtaining any. To compensate them for this unequal status, Article IV of the treaty guaranteed them access to nuclear power technology. The kicker in this set-up is that nuclear power plants inevitably produce about nine-tenths of the wherewithal for producing nuclear bombs. And if nuclear states continue delaying to disarm, they cannot expect nuclear states to keep their side of this lop-sided bargain indefinitely.

This has forced US administrations to make hard decisions about how to treat "upstart" countries that have tried to get the bomb. Until George W. Bush took office, each president had addressed the problem with diplomacy. (Lyndon Johnson had been tempted to attack China's nuclear facilities to keep that country from gaining weapons technology, but when Moscow rejected the idea, he dropped it.) But George W. Bush has abandoned diplomacy and treaties to restrain proliferation, preferring the military option instead. Thus he attacked Iraq and has threatened North Korea and Iran, without results. North Korea now has the bomb and Iran is on the way. Schell's solution is simple: Give up the double standard. Nuclear states cannot keep their monopoly.

Fortunately, since his book went to press, there is new interest in disarmament, especially in the United States. Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn are calling for complete nuclear disarmament and Barack Obama agrees. Now is the time for Canadian activists to resume our long-running struggle against nuclear weapons. It may succeed this time!

Reviewed by Metta Spencer, an emeritus professor of sociology, U. of Toronto, and editor of Peace Magazine.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2008

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2008, page 29. Some rights reserved.

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