Of the neologisms coined by early nuclear strategists to plan for World War III, “overkill” is the great crossover success. As a metaphor, it ranges as far from its original context as a word can—“The pony on her birthday was overkill”—but from common usage a child can intuit its first meaning as applied in nuclear war-fighting: When you can obliterate a city with 10 megatons, it’s excessive to use 20 or 200 megatons. As the firepower of Cold War arsenals began to exceed that required to destroy any conceivable list of enemy silos and cities, sometime in the mid-1950s, overkill went from being a technical factor used in target selection, to a description of the entire East-West face-off, which for three decades resembled a contest devised in the game room of an asylum, with teams vying to achieve the highest possible factor of apocalyptic redundancy. In 1986, the apogee of overkill, Washington and Moscow sat on a combined arsenal of 64,000 warheads with a yield approaching 20,000 megatons, or half a Hiroshima for every girl and boy born in the United States that year.
It was during the disorienting final sprint of this arms race that Jonathan Schell produced two of the only enduring books ever written about nuclear weapons. A new edition from the Library of America testifies to their status as classics in a genre full of out-of-print artifacts from long-forgotten and acronym-laden moments in Cold War time—the birth of the triad, the ABM Treaty, SALT II. As a mid-career staffer at The New Yorker, Schell wrote The Fate of the Earth and The Abolition in 1981 and 1983, when talk of imminent nuclear war was less the domain of street-corner prophets than of a Strangelovean cast of senior Reagan administration officials. Rejecting the deterrence paradigm of Mutually Assured Destruction that undergirded decades of nuclear stability, the first Reagan administration pursued policies consistent with Vice President George H.W. Bush’s claim that nuclear war was “winnable.” This shocking disconnect from reality was most evident in the administration’s fantasies of nuclear defense, from space lasers to the dig-a-hole civil defense program advocated by T.K. Jones, Reagan’s undersecretary for Research and Engineering, Strategic and Theater Nuclear Forces, who in 1981 told the journalist Robert Scheer, “If there are enough shovels to go around, everyone’s going to make it.”
Most of the protest literature written during this period can be placed, understandably, somewhere on a spectrum between panic and extreme panic. This includes works by Schell’s British analogue and closest competitor, the social historian and peace activist E.P. Thompson, whose books and essays of antinuclear protest are long out of print. The Fate of the Earth and The Abolition alone have lasted. With few mentions of Pershing II deployments or Helmut Schmidt to distract modern readers, they focus on the permanent underlying condition that Schell called the “nuclear predicament.” This predicament is less about the weapons themselves, let alone specific missile programs and their strategic configurations, than about the meaning of our “second fall from grace,” the bite of the atomic apple revealing the secrets of matter and energy, followed by the Trinity test, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and soon the “fantastic, horrifying, brutal, and absurd fact that humans had wired the planet for its and our destruction.”
Nearly three-quarters of a century later, this wiring remains in place, spreading and fraying in ways that give Schell’s writing a startling and unwelcome currency across the decades.