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Jonathan Schell and the End of the Cold War

A few months ago, in the course of trying to reestablish contact with a dear friend, Jonathan Schell, I learned, to my consternation, that he had passed away.  It was more than a shock, after the many years of silence that had intervened between us.  It felt like an immeasurable loss, not just to me personally but to the world.

I first met Jonathan in 1986 when I invited him to the International Monetary Fund to speak to a group of about twenty colleagues about his brilliant book The Fate of the Earth. I had read it years before and had been impressed not only with the content—a clinical analysis of the after-effects of a limited nuclear war between the two major powers— but also by the elegance of the writing, the beauty of the logic, and the power of Jonathan’s arguments. He combined an incisive mind with an exceptionally articulate pen.

“Usually, people wait for things to occur before trying to describe them,” he writes in the book’s opening section. “But since we cannot afford under any circumstances to let a holocaust occur, we are forced in this one case to become the historians of the future — to chronicle and commit to memory an event that we have never experienced and must never experience.”

Jonathan made a deep impression on us during that 1986 visit.  We were bowled over by his luminous mind, and his wholly unpretentious character which seemed impervious to the dangers of self.  We invited him back in 1988 and once more in 1990, in order to listen to him expand upon the themes he had first touched upon in The Fate of the Earth.  On each occasion his words moved us as being entirely free of the usual egoism to which the famous often fall prey.

The next time I saw Jonathan was in 1993, in Moscow, where I had been posted as resident representative for the International Monetary Fund. My wife, Mirta, and I together with our two teenage children, Olivia and Sebastian, had moved to Russia a few months after the collapse of the Soviet Union in early 1992 and Jonathan came and stayed with us there on two occasions. The issue which seemed to occupy his mind most during his Moscow meetings—some of which I had the privilege to attend—was what had led to the demise of the Soviet Union.  What were the factors, what were the reasons, what were the forces and influences and conditions that had brought about the extraordinary collapse of a seemingly solid system of governance?

One night, during that first visit, we organized a special gathering at home, so that Jonathan could speak to a select group of prominent Russian thinkers and experts, including several who had been closely associated with and supportive of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost or “opening up.” It was a memorable evening, not only for the quality of the discussion, but also for the warmth and deep respect shown to Jonathan by the group. In the course of the evening, two of the most eminent Russians among them shared some particularly poignant memories with us.  One was a leading Dostoevsky scholar and former member of the Supreme Soviet (the highest legislative authority during the time of the Soviet Union); the other was a senior member of the Duma (the Russian parliament), a former ambassador and significant figure in Russia’s foreign policy establishment.

They told the assembled guests that when The Fate of the Earth had been published in the West in 1982, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had ordered the book to be translated.  One hundred, carefully numbered, top-secret copies were then printed and circulated, on a strictly “need-to-know” basis, among leading members of the Soviet political and military establishment. These two gentlemen managed to get hold of a copy from a friend who had temporary access to it, and locked themselves up for a weekend in a dacha outside Moscow to read it from cover to cover. It was an experience they described as being utterly mind-expanding and soul-stirring. They told us that in the years immediately following, these one hundred copies as they made the rounds, contributed to an unprecedented degree in transforming the mindset of top policymakers. They were read by the top echelons of Soviet power, many of whom began to recognize as a result the futility of the arms race and the extent to which a Soviet economy based on an oversized military industrial complex was unsustainable. Jonathan’s arguments made them see that even in the best of circumstances, the arms race was a recipe for continued economic misery and, at worst, it would lead to the nuclear annihilation of mankind.

Jonathan visited us in Moscow for a second time in 1996 and my wife and daughter were guests at the Schells’ home in New York several years later, when Mirta was representing the Baha’i International Community at a gathering of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. And that was the last time we were to have the privilege of meeting this great man before he died of cancer in 2014, aged 70.  Margalit Fox in her obituary written for the New York Times on March 26 of 2014, spoke for many of us when she said:

“With The Fate of the Earth Mr. Schell was widely credited with helping rally ordinary citizens around the world to the cause of nuclear disarmament. The book, based on his extensive interviews with members of the scientific community, outlines the likely aftermath of a nuclear war and deconstructs the United States’ long-held rationale for nuclear buildup as a deterrent.”

While I regard our friendship as one of our family’s blessings and while he will always remain in my mind as an exemplar of the very best of America——I do have one regret. Jonathan deserved greater, world-wide recognition than he was given. He was worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. And had I been in a position to do so I should have moved (as we say in Spanish) “earth and heaven” to bring his writings to the attention of the Committee in Oslo. In the minds of those of us assembled in Moscow that night in 1993, few deserved such recognition more than Jonathan. At that moment of history, at any rate, he played his part in saving us from collective disaster.  Let us pray that we will not regret our collective failure to heed his warnings in the future.

“We have organizations for the preservation of almost everything in life that we want but no organization for the preservation of mankind. People seem to have decided that our collective will is too weak or flawed to rise to this occasion. They see the violence that has saturated human history, and conclude that to practice violence is innate to our species. They find the perennial hope that peace can be brought to the earth once and for all a delusion of the well-meaning who have refused to face the “harsh realities” of international life—the realities of self-interest, fear, hatred, and aggression. They have concluded that these realities are eternal ones, and this conclusion defeats at the outset any hope of taking the actions necessary for survival.”

Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth*

*Schell, Jonathan. 1982. The Fate of the Earth, Jonathan Cape, London, p. 185.

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