Irresponsible Warnings


The Fate of the Earth, by Jonathan Schell, New York: Knopf, 1982, 244 pp., $11.95.

In The Fate of the Earth, Jonathan Schell does essentially three things. First, he analyzes the effects of nuclear war on the earth, concluding that the human species is in dire danger of extinction. Next, he embarks on a philosophical discourse on the meaning of human extinction, which he regards as morally unacceptable. Finally, he demands that mankind choose between extinction and survival by eliminating nuclear weapons from the earth and constructing a world without war. Since his philosophy and his recommended solution stem from his fundamental conclusion that nuclear weapons and the possibility of nuclear war are placing mankind in mortal jeopardy, and since my professional expertise lies in the area of nuclear weapons and nuclear war, I shall restrict my review to his nuclear war analysis—an analysis that is grossly in error.

Schell simply hasn't addressed himself to the real world of nuclear weapons and how nuclear war might be fought. He shows a profound ignorance of actual nuclear stockpiles and of strategies developed by the United States and the Soviet Union that are not leading toward the global holocaust he predicts. This is not to say that the two nuclear superpowers may not blunder into a nuclear war, which would be insane. Rather, it is to say that neither side has been insane enough to develop nuclear arsenals and strategies that seriously threaten to exterminate mankind. In fact, at least on the Soviet side, there are no indications that Soviet nuclear doctrine envisages the extermination of the American population, which Schell assumes the Soviets will do, dwelling upon this horror at great length.

"It is fundamental to the nuclear strategy of both the Soviet Union and the United States that each preserve the capacity to devastate the population of the other," he states. Responsible strategic analysts, in making such a far-reaching premise, would refer to appropriate source material, including Soviet military doctrinal literature, which currently exists in abundance. Schell has not done this, nor is it apparent that he has even taken the trouble to find out what the Soviet declaratory strategy may be. Had he done so, he would have seen statements such as the following from Military Thought, the official journal of the Soviet General Staff: "The objective is not to turn the large economic and industrial regions into a heap of ruins…but to deliver strikes which will destroy strategic combat means, paralyze enemy military production, making it incapable of satisfying the priority needs of the front and rear areas and sharply reduce the enemy capability to conduct strikes."

But Schell seems oblivious to such statements and, in drawing up the basic assumptions for his analysis, states that among other targets, the Soviets will attack "the population centers of the United States." With this assumption "established," he goes through the horrors of wiping out American cities. And it shortly becomes evident that he is taking great pains not to spare these cities; for time and time again Schell describes the horrendous effects of 20-megaton bombs, in a degree of technical detail that would leave any respectable weapons effects scientist incredulous.

"…knowing that the thermal pulse of a 20-megaton bomb can give people at least second-degree burns in an area of two thousand four hundred and sixty square miles.…" (emphasis added), Schell goes on to tell us the results of 100 of these monstrous weapons. My professional colleagues prefer to use numbers instead of words when describing weapon effects, so allow me to convert Schell's words into numbers: 2,460 square miles. To predict thermal radiation effects to this degree of accuracy, three significant figures, is absurd. We cannot predict these effects to even one significant figure.

Schell finally leaves his abstract world of weapon effects and bursts a 20-megaton bomb over a real-life city, New York, explaining that this weapon "is more likely to be used against New York" than a mere one-megaton bomb. He informs us, again with great accuracy, that 20-megaton bombs actually exist in the Soviet arsenal: "The Soviet Union is estimated to have at least a hundred and thirteen twenty-megaton bombs in its nuclear arsenal.…"

One might wish to show some patience with Schell's technical ignorance. After all, he is not a technologist. But for him personally to decide what nuclear bombs they have completely erodes my tolerance. Many years ago (in 1971) Dr. Carl Walsker, the senior advisor on nuclear weapons to the US Secretary of Defense, testified: "We have little certain knowledge of the Soviet warhead designs, of their vulnerability, or of Soviet testing or development philosophy.…"

Today we know even less about the Soviet nuclear stockpile. However, what we do know, because we can reasonably monitor the yields of Soviet underground test explosions, is that for almost 20 years the Soviets have not tested at the 20-megaton level. Moreover, since 1974, when the so-called Threshold Test Ban Treaty was signed, the Soviets have pledged to keep their tests below 150 kilotons and within reason have done so. Unless they have a desire to use antiquated nuclear warheads, it is clear that the Soviets' strategic stockpile is taking on a far lower yield complexion than Schell ascribes to them. For that matter, so is the stockpile of the United States. There is no evidence that either side is retaining the monstrous bombs of the past that Schell describes to demonstrate the end of the world.

By badly distorting the issue and misinforming his readers, Schell has done a great disservice in kindling emotions on the already controversial subject of nuclear war. Man may have been mad enough to build up enormous nuclear arsenals; but he has not yet built up a serious threat to life on earth and does not seem to be heading in that direction.

Jonathan Schell is entitled to his views on the nuclear threat—and there is one. I only wish that he had displayed some objectivity and had responsibly addressed the threat before sounding his dire warnings of nuclear holocaust.

Physicist Samuel Cohen has spent his professional career on the design and analysis of nuclear weapons. His articles have appeared in Orbis, Strategic Review, the New York Times Magazine, and other publications.