The Fate of the Earth

fate-of-the-earthThis book by Jonathan Schell presents a stark prediction of the nuclear apocalypse. I found the writing style to be too grandiose, but kept slugging away to consider the author’s point of view. As an example of it being grandiose, the cover tells us, “Schell has taken upon himself the task of speaking for man, and acting for man; and it can be hoped that what he has written here will lead the way for many.” More to the point of the content, “Schell describes, within the limits of what is dependably and unarguably known to science, a full-scaled nuclear holocaust.” He writes as if he needs to convince readers that nuclear war would be bad. The book was written in 1982 when multiple books were written predicting the end of civilization. I recommend this one as being a good example of that genre.

The first section of the book is titled “A Republic of Insects and Grass,” which describes what would survive a nuclear holocaust. Note there is no indication any humans would survive. The book begins with irrefutable facts about the number of nuclear weapons and megatonnage that have been built since the first nuclear detonation at Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16, 1945. The book then gives a brief primer of the horrible effects of a nuclear exchange. President Dwight Eisenhower recognized the risks in a 1956 letter that said, “…one day both sides have to ‘meet at the conference table with the understanding that the era of armaments has ended, and the human race must conform its actions to this truth or die.” There are many examples of political figures making statements that reinforce or confirm that comment. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said in 1974, “…the accumulation of nuclear arms had to be constrained if mankind is not to destroy itself.” President Jimmy Carter said in his farewell address that after a nuclear holocaust, “…the survivors, if any, would live in despair amid the poisoned ruins of a civilization that had committed suicide.” (Those were surprising words for a President who authorized more nuclear weapons programs than any other President.)

The book explains that “Most radioactivity that occurs naturally on earth is emitted by radioactive isotopes created…before the formation of the earth—in supernovae or at the beginning of the universe…” The amounts of radioactivity had been declining by natural decay of those isotopes until man began to split atoms in reactors and bombs, especially in bombs detonated in the atmosphere. An atmospheric test ban treaty was signed by many nations in 1963, with China and France declining. However, there was significant new radioactive material spread by the atmospheric tests before the ban. The outcome is that “…the present per-capita radiation dose in the United States is four and a half percent above the natural background level for this country.

Dr. Henry Kendall describes both operation of both the rudimentary fission bomb (“trigger”) and the hydrogen bomb. “The trigger consists of a carefully fashioned, subcritical, piece of plutonium, with a neutron-initiator device in its interior and a high-explosive jacket surrounding it. Things begin when detonators all over the sphere of high-explosive jacket go off—as nearly simultaneously as the design permits. Now the high-explosive jacket explodes and sends a shock wave travelling inward in a shrinking concentric sphere, and gaining in force and temperature as it proceeds. When the leading edge reaches the plutonium core there is an abrupt jump in pressure, which squeezes the plutonium in on all sides with great precision. The pressure makes the plutonium go from subcritical to supercritical. At this point the neutron initiator fires and the chain reaction begins. The trick is to compress the plutonium as much as possible as quickly as possible because then more generations of nuclei will be fissioned , and more energy will be released, before the explosion, in effect, blows itself out. When that happens, all the energy from the plutonium trigger will have been released, and particles whose atomic identity have been lost will be boiling and surging in an expanded sphere whose temperature exceeds stellar levels. In all the universe, temperatures of equal heat are to be found only in transient phenomena known as exploding supernovae. Now the fusion—also known as the thermonuclear reaction, because of the extreme heat needed to initiate it—can begin. The fusion fuels—lithium and isotopes of hydrogen—fly around with such velocity that they can simply coast right into one another, spitting out nuclear particles as they fuse. This is not a chain reaction, but again the explosion is stopped by the expansion caused by its own heat. By the time that happens however, the last stage—the fissioning, by neutrons release by the fission trigger and the fusion reaction, of the surrounding layer of material, which might be uranium-238—is under way. There is basically no limit to the size or yield of a thermonuclear weapon. The only limits on a bomb’s destructive effect are the earth’s capacity to absorb the blast.”

The book details all the horrors of nuclear war and speculates on what might cause one. Robert Kennedy is quoted, in part, about the moment during the Cuban Missile Crisis when two Soviet ships and a submarine had approached within a few miles of the U.S. blockade: “We had come to the time of final decision…I felt we were on the edge of a precipice with no way off. This time, the moment was now—not next week—not tomorrow, ‘so we can have another meeting to decide;’ not in eight hours, ‘so we can send another message to Khrushchev and perhaps he will understand.’ No, none of that was possible. One thousand miles away, in the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, the final decision was going to be made in the next few minutes. President Kennedy had initiated the course of events, but he no longer had control over them.”

The author mentions many other crises could be postulated that could lead to an attack and dispels the value of deterrence. (I was interested since I advocate the policy was Mutually Assured Deterrence and not Mutually Assured Destruction.) “In the theory of nuclear deterrence, each side would ideally deter attacks as every level of violence with deterrent force at that same level. However, as I understand the author’s reasoning, the U.S. would have no chance to deter the Soviets in a conventional war in Europe. The Soviet conventional forces were much too strong for the allies to combat. “Therefore, throughout the postwar period it has been American policy to deter a Soviet conventional attack in Europe with tactical arms. As of January 1980 President Carter, in effect, extended the policy to include protection of the nations around the Persian Gulf.” President Carter said in his State of the Union address of that year, “Any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States. And such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military.” The author observes “any means” could refer to nothing but nuclear arms.

Back to the book, it isn’t surprising that the author’s solution for preventing a nuclear holocaust is worldwide disarmament. He quotes several renowned people, such as Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, who urged disarmament. The book ends with a comment that there are (were) two possible paths, “One leads to death and the other to life.” (The Soviet Union collapsed after the book was written, so giving that as a third path isn’t considered.)


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