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Author examines nuclear abolition

Liz Miller | Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Near the end of the Cold War, the heads of state of the U.S. and the Soviet Union came close to doing away with nuclear warfare, bestselling author and nuclear abolitionist Jonathan Schell told an audience in the Hesburgh Center for International Studies Tuesday.

The author of “The Fate of the Earth” focused his lecture, titled “Nuclear Abolition in 1986 – And Now,” on a 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, where President Ronald Reagan met with Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

During this summit, the leaders of the superpower nations came extremely close to abolishing nuclear weapons altogether, he said – a fact many people may find difficult to believe.

Opting not to simply reemphasize the potential danger of nuclear weapons, Schell aimed to explore this historical episode and use it to illuminate the present nuclear armament situation.

Schell said he finds a surprising ally in Reagan, whom he referred to as “the most right-wing president of the Cold War period.”

The content of the 1986 summit reveals Reagan was vehemently opposed to nuclear weapons, Schell said. The negotiations centered on a potential significant reduction of nuclear arms, which both leaders desired.

Reagan, to the surprise of his advisors, announced “it would be fine with me if we eliminated all nuclear weapons,” Schell said.

Dissuaded by Richard Perle, his assistant secretary of defense, Reagan eventually declined any such agreement, Schell said. But despite this, he said the two leaders jointly stated “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.”

And their ability to see eye-to-eye on this matter, he said, proves the issue of nuclear warfare poses serious threats to mankind, and these should outweigh political and military motivations.

“We have a common humanity that extends beneath the partisan quarrels,” Schell said.

While many argued a heavy nuclear arsenal acts as a “deterrent” from nuclear war, Schell considers the weapons to be a “proliferant.” By keeping a nuclear arsenal, world leaders have created a “two-tier world,” dividing those nations who have nuclear power from those who do not, Schell said.

And this only creates more incentive for countries to implement nuclear weapon programs in order to join the first tier.

Moreover, recent events, Schell said, are forcing the question of nuclear weapons back into the public sphere.

Schell pointed to the Pentagon’s new offensive initiative, called the “Global Strike.” Its mission includes developing the ability to launch a missile strike on any place on the globe in a timeframe of 30 minutes to one hour.

He also said that in the past year alone, a dozen countries ranging from North Korea to Brazil have expressed interest in possessing nuclear weapons.

But public opinion is decidedly against nuclear weapons, he said. Schell cited a recent poll taken by the University of Maryland, which found that 73 percent of Americans are in favor of abolition of nuclear weapons. That led Schell to believe the public would back nuclear disarmament if politicians moved in that direction.

“But,” he asked, “where is the political will?”

Schell ended his lecture with a story he said Reagan originally imagined about a future meeting with Gorbachev.

“[Reagan] and Gorbachev would come to Iceland, and each of them would bring the last nuclear missile from each country with them,” Schell said. “Then they would give a tremendous party for the whole world. … The president would be very old by then and Gorbachev would not recognize him.

“The president would say ‘Hello, Mikhail.’ And Gorbachev would say, ‘Ron, is it you?’ And then they would destroy the last missile.”