Sunday, November 25, 2007

Can We Disinvent Nuclear Weapons?

There is an axiom about movie plots: If a gun is seen in an early scene, it will be fired before the final credits.

So it is now in the international movie of our lives after the unreeling of more than half a century with weapons that could bring total devastation. In today's New York Times Book Review, Martin Walker considers new histories of that period by writers who have chronicled it from the start, Jonathan Schell and Richard Rhodes.

"When the Soviet Union collapsed," Walker writes, "five declared nuclear powers and Israel constituted the nuclear club. Today India, Pakistan and North Korea have joined their number. Iraq under Saddam Hussein came within perhaps a year of doing so, and Iran is waiting in the wings. We are poised on the brink of a new age of multiple nuclear powers."

The Presidential candidates talk glibly about managing this volatile world--Republicans with more macho than realism, Democrats with more faith in muscular rationality than realism can support--but evade the basic issue: Is there any way to rid the world of weapons that endanger all of human civilization?

In "The Seventh Decade," Schell blames the Bush Administration, particularly Dick Cheney, for overturning all previous efforts toward nuclear controls by embracing
a first-strike policy to combat proliferation and pursuing new generations of WMDs.

To avoid a global calamity, Schell argues, disarmament is no longer an idealistic pipe dream but a practical bipartisan necessity, pointing to a call earlier this year by former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn for “a world free of nuclear weapons.”

Rhodes, in "Arsenal of Folly," cites a missed opportunity when, after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev started down that road at the Reykjavik summit of 1986 but stumbled over disagreement about testing of Stars Wars systems of defense against surprise attack.

Since then, generations have come of age with only hazy awareness of the ultimate threat, but they should be reminded of what it was like in the early scenes of civilization's nuclear movie during the Cold War, when schoolchildren were drilled in ducking under desks and every siren that sounded set off visceral fears that a mushroom cloud was coming.

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