Lecture and Panel Discussion with Jonathan Schell

Lecture & Panel Discussion:
“‘The Fate of the Earth’ Revisited: Nuclear Dangers Then and Now” 

On November 5, 2010, the GHI welcomed writer and public intellectual Professor Jonathan Schell (Yale University) as the guest speaker for a lecture and panel discussion on “The Fate of the Earth Revisited: Nuclear Dangers Then and Now.” This event was part of a conference entitled “Accidental Armageddons: The Nuclear Crisis and the Culture of the Second Cold War, 1975-1989,” which sought to explore the political and cultural discourse on nuclear weapons and atomic energy in the last two decades of the superpower rivalry between East and West.

In his talk, Schell revisited this particular discourse from the early 1980s using the example of his bestseller The Fate of the Earth (1982), which started out as a series of articles in the New Yorker. Discussing the relationship of U.S. President Ronald Reagan to nuclear weapons throughout his political career, Schell described Reagan’s presidential turn to nuclear abolitionism after 1983. This surprised many political observers at the time, most of all members of the Nuclear Freeze campaign. Combined with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev coming to power, the 1986 summit at Reykjavik, and the 1987 INF Treaty (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty), Reagan’s change of course brought the nuclear conflict emanating from the Cold War to an end.

Schell, however, insisted that the end of the Cold War by no means rid the world of nuclear danger: “We banned nuclear arms from consciousness, not from reality.” As Schell explained, the nuclear arsenals entered a “policy-free zone.” In addition to this problem, humankind also faced “a crisis of the entire natural order” which continues today, namely, that the species extinction rate is accelerating rapidly. Denial and ignorance of this ongoing ecological catastrophe was and remains comparable to our attitudes toward both past and present nuclear dangers and still constitute one of the greatest challenges of our time.

The lecture was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Frida Berrigan (New America Foundation, New York, NY) and Philipp Gassert (University of Augsburg). The event was co-sponsored by the New School for Social Research/Eugene Lang College, the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, and the National Security Archive, Washington, DC.


Impressions from the Lecture

Welcome by Hartmut Berghoff (GHI Washington):

Introduction by Jeremy Varon (New School for Social Research, New York City):

Talk by Jonathan Schell (Yale University):