From the Vietnam era to the war on terror, Jonathan Schell (1943–2014) produced a body of work as brave, humane, and consequential as any in the history of American journalism. His legacy rests especially on three books about the threat of nuclear weapons—“the gravest danger of our age”—and the changing nature of modern warfare. On the 75th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Library of America brings together these essential works in one volume for the first time.
What exactly would happen, to people and to the planet, in a nuclear war? With vivid, meticulous, and increasingly harrowing answers to this simple question, The Fate of the Earth (1982) shook the nation and the world to attention. An immediate international best seller, it dramatically illuminated the stakes involved in abstract discussions of “survivability” and the balance of power, prompting fierce criticism from foreign policy hawks, electrifying public consciousness, and leading many readers to question the sanity, and the inevitability, of the status quo. In the wake of its publication, an emboldened nuclear freeze movement would ultimately prevail upon the Reagan administration to alter its rhetoric and to pursue substantive arms reduction talks.
In The Abolition (1984), Schell makes the case that a world without nuclear weapons is achievable. The pursuit of pathways to disarmament, he argues, is neither naive nor utopian but a matter of urgent, practical necessity. Answering critics for whom the “mutually assured destruction” of conventional deterrence theory seems the only realistic option for national security, he proposes concrete steps toward a new international order, a system of “weaponless deterrence” and continually negotiated peace.
Situating the unimaginably destructive forces of the atomic era within a broad history of nation-state conflict, Schell’s magisterial The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People (2003) looks forward to the future with a surprising degree of hope. A sweeping, richly detailed analysis of the changing nature of military confrontation, both nuclear and conventional, from the horrors of the twentieth century to the beginnings of the Iraq War, it argues that war itself has atrophied in the nuclear age, indeed it has increasingly become a self-defeating instrument. Meanwhile another power, the “will of the people,” as expressed in popular nonviolent movements, has more and more come to the fore to replace it.
Martin J. Sherwin, editor, is one of America’s leading writers on nuclear history. His books include A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies; the Pulitzer Prize–winning American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of Robert Oppenheimer, written with Kai Bird; and, most recently, Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis. A professor emeritus at Tufts University and University Professor of History at George Mason University, he lives in Washington, D.C., and Aspen, Colorado.
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