Bomb Control

Review of

Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom

New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014, 582 pp.

The provocative title for this provocative book by Elaine Scarry at once declares that humanity’s most destructive weapons of mass destruction are in too few (often just two) hands, and declaims against this reality as dangerous and undemocratic. Scarry is the Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University, and she argues here that thermonuclear weapons violate both the spirit of social contract theory and the letter of the U.S. Constitution. By these societal and legal standards, she concludes, the nuclear arsenal should be abolished. But how?

Scarry is awestruck by the destructive power of the United States’ 14 Ohio-class nuclear submarines, each bearing the equivalent of 32,000 Hiroshima bombs, or eight times the full blast power expended by all combatants during World War II. “The precise arithmetic of this blast power can be hard to keep in mind,” she writes. “But one pair of numbers is easy to grasp: the earth has seven continents; the United States has fourteen Ohio-class submarines.” And that’s just the sea leg of the U.S. nuclear triad: land-based missiles and bombers complete the nuclear array.

Since World War II, the science of nuclear destruction has created “out-of-ratio weapons” that Scarry sees as impossible to control by traditional social or political means. “New weapons,” she says, “inevitably change the nature of warfare but out-of-ratio weapons have changed the nature of government.”

She recounts how President Nixon once quipped, “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone, and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead.” In fact, it’s even easier than that. From anywhere—on a beach in Hawaii, at a diner in Boise, or in a hotel in Helsinki—the president of the United States has within arm’s reach a “nuclear briefcase” (or “black bag” or “football”) containing communication codes he can use on the spot to command a thermonuclear attack. Unless, of course, he misplaces those codes, as President Carter did one day when he sent to the cleaners a suit jacket with the card listing nuclear codes in a pocket, or as President Clinton did for months after binding his code card and credit cards with a rubber band and then losing them. Scarry stresses that controlling these weapons can be not only haphazard but also dangerous, and she cites multiple accidents with H-bombs.

Thermonuclear Monarchy Cover

Equally disturbing are examples of how often U.S. presidents have considered using these weapons since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The list includes President Eisenhower in 1954 during a standoff with China over the islands of Quemoy and Matsu in the Taiwan Straits, and with the USSR in 1959 over Soviet-occupied Berlin; President Kennedy during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis; President Johnson when contemplating whether a strike might prevent China from developing nuclear weapons; and President Nixon during the Vietnam War and at three other times he later mentioned without giving details.

To counter this monarchical threat, Scarry constructs elaborate arguments to assert that the power (or at least authority) to abolish nuclear weapons is already at hand. Declaring that “the social contract is a contract for peace,” she concludes that “maintaining nuclear weapons places a country wholly outside the social contract; there is no minor or even major reconfiguring of a country’s contract that can accommodate these weapons.” Using philosophical reasoning that is sometimes arcane and often complex, she traces social contract theory back to the Greeks and then to Europeans such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Montaigne. “The social contract outlaws nuclear weapons,” she concludes. But while sketching this concept’s origins and evolution, she stops short of explaining its force and functions today.

Similarly, Scarry’s historical analysis overlooks how the Roman Republic allowed for a constitutional dictator during emergencies, and how political theorists in the medieval and early modern period developed the “reason of state” doctrine, allowing a ruler to act independently to preserve the existence of the state.

While crediting ancient philosophical sources for the U.S. Constitution, she especially parses the founding fathers’ original intent as revealed in The Federalist Papers. In particular, she says that Article I of the Constitution requires a “congressional declaration of war” and that the Second Amendment “distributes to the entire adult population shared responsibility for the use of the country’s arsenal—the provision we know as ‘the right to bear arms’.” Congress has delegated to the president, as commander-in-chief, the authority to react promptly to an emergency, and when timing was not urgent, presidents have conferred informally with congressional leaders about possibly using nuclear weapons; although she believes such shared decisionmaking should be more formally delineated. Her argument that the Constitution requires all citizens to share in the use of the nation’s armed force is less convincing because it is based on closely assessing the founders’ reasoning at the time, when the only “arms” they might bear were handled by individuals: rifles they could carry and cannon they could roll.

Scarry argues that thermonuclear weapons violate both the spirit of social contract theory and the letter of the U.S. Constitution.

Yet by Scarry’s reading of the Constitution’s origins, “the existence of either is premised on the disappearance of the other: either the Constitution, as now seems to be the case, will disappear and our arsenal will thrive; or alternatively, our Constitution will be reaffirmed, causing our nuclear arsenal to disappear.”

But how? This either/or reasoning seems too simple in historical context, and overlooks gains by the United States, Russia, and other nuclear powers in destroying their arsenals, though not yet making them all disappear: from more than 60,000 warheads worldwide in the late 1980s to about 10,000 today. (This spring, the United States had 4,717 nuclear warheads, 1,597 deployed on delivery systems; Russia had about 4,500, with 1,582 deployed). That still leaves plenty more than enough to obliterate all life on this planet—to “make the rubble bounce,” as Churchill once put it—but it’s at least a significant trend in a safer direction.

Scarry also overlooks the tense and testy struggle that has persisted within and around the U.S. government since World War II. She gives scant credit to U.S. arms control and disarmament efforts by scientists and statesmen; initiatives that began with the Acheson-Lilienthal Report in 1946 calling for international control of all nuclear materials and that continue through official and other channels to this day. She seems to make no use of standard works that over the years have helped to clarify the puzzling issues she pursues; for example, by analyst Bruce G. Blair, who studies command-and-control hazards and options; by democratic theorist Robert A. Dahl, who speculated about controlling nuclear weapons by possible forms of civic “guardianship”; by physicist Freeman Dyson, who seeks a more rational understanding of how science and society may yet curb nuclear dangers; or by author Jonathan Schell, who analyzed societal responses to the unstable nuclear threats that still abound.

A chief complaint by Scarry is that the president’s monarchical powers are intensified by his need to order a possible nuclear attack so swiftly, deciding in a few minutes whether to retaliate by launching land-based missiles before they might be destroyed by the enemy. But as the Union of Concerned Scientists and other analysts have suggested, it is quite possible to eliminate this “hair-trigger” danger simply by removing these vulnerable land-based missiles from high-alert status. Then, instead of having mere minutes to respond, the president would have hours or days to confer with others—in the administration, in Congress, and abroad—knowing all the while that those invulnerable Ohio-class subs can still retaliate if needed.

Scarry describes her own evolutionary thinking about nuclear weapons as a search for philosophical and legal clarity, although in the years-long “transformation from a set of oral arguments into a book” she has retained a few glib lines that seem better suited to the podium than to the page. Examples include such items as “Nuclear weapons cannot be fired. They can only be misfired,” or “A free-standing missile is the realization of everything that ever was feared in a standing army.”

In her opening pages there is an implicit call to action, as when she urges readers to help dismantle the thermonuclear monarchy by taking “in our own hands” the Constitution’s Article I powers to declare war and its Second Amendment provisions to bear arms. Yet after detailed chapters that analyze the origins of social and constitutional principles, building what seems to be a historical basis for political reform, she concedes that “they will become very great tools once human hands pick them up and use them. We should use whatever tool can best accomplish the dismantling. If there is a better tool, please tell us what it is, and help us to see how to use it.”

Still, if her approach is ultimately more descriptive than proscriptive, this is an important and intrepid book that raises and questions the assumptions supporting these most awesome of weapons. The problem with controlling thermonuclear nuclear weapons may not be just hers, but ours: that no rational analysis can correct a profoundly irrational reality. Many people would agree that these menacing and now useless weapons need to be abolished. But how?

Cite this Article

Lanouette, William. “Bomb Control.” Issues in Science and Technology 31, no. 4 (Summer 2015).

Vol. XXXI, No. 4, Summer 2015