FEW PEOPLE HAVE looked as deeply into the nuclear abyss as has the writer Jonathan Schell. His latest book, The Seventh Decade, may be Schell’s most important book yet. In it he examines the roots of the Nuclear Age and its current manifestations. He unearths the truth, which once brought to light seems obvious, that the bomb began as a construct in the mind. “Well before any physical bomb had been built,” he says, “science had created the bomb in the mind, an intangible thing. Thereafter, the bomb would be as much a mental as a physical object.”

One of the key concepts of the Nuclear Age is deterrence, the belief that the threat of nuclear retaliation can prevent nuclear attack. Schell takes a hard-headed look at deterrence, and finds the concept “half-sane and half-crazy”. While it seems sane to seek to forestall a nuclear attack, the half-crazy part “consists of actually waging the war you must threaten, for in that event the result is suicide all around”. That suicide writ large becomes “omnicide”, the death of all.

In the post-Cold War period, deterrence is no longer the mental task of threat and counter-threat aimed at keeping a fixed and powerful opponent at bay. Now, states must consider the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorist groups, not locatable and not subject to being deterred. In such circumstances, the rationality of deterrence is shattered and even great and powerful states are placed at risk of nuclear devastation by far weaker opponents. In such circumstances, overwhelming nuclear superiority is of no avail.

The “bomb in the mind” can only do so much. It cannot deter those who cannot be located or are suicidal. Despite their devastating power, nuclear weapons in the hands of powerful states are actually a tepid threat. Yet they stand as a major impediment to the post-Cold War imperial project of the United States, a project failing on many fronts, but poised to fail far more spectacularly if nuclear weapons find their way into terrorist hands.

Schell examines the US imperial project under George W. Bush and its role in shaping US nuclear policy, and found that, “In responding to the universal danger posed by nuclear proliferation, the United States had two universalist traditions that it could draw on, one based on consent and law, the other based on force. Bush chose force. It was the wrong choice. It increased the nuclear danger it was meant to prevent.”

In the final section of his book, Schell, who is himself an ardent nuclear abolitionist, reviews earlier attempts to achieve abolition of these weapons. He goes into heartbreaking detail of the efforts of Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev to achieve the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. The two leaders, acting on their own initiative, without the advice or support of their aides, were incredibly close to agreement to eliminate their nuclear arsenals, but faltered on the issue of missile defences, which Reagan saw as key and which Gorbachev couldn’t accept. After coming so close to agreement on abolition, the world settled back to nuclear business as usual.

The possibilities of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism led Schell to the conclusion that “with each year that passes, nuclear weapons provide their possessors with less safety while provoking more danger.”

Schell concludes that the “bomb in the mind”, with us from the outset of the Nuclear Age, will remain with us, but that this is not necessarily a detriment. He points out, “even in a world without nuclear weapons, deterrence would, precisely because the bomb in the mind would still be present, remain in effect. In that respect, the persisting know-how would be as much a source of reassurance as it would be a danger in a world without nuclear weapons.”

Schell has provided an essential book for our time. He peels back the layers of veils and myths surrounding nuclear weaponry and strategies, and offers a sound set of guidelines for moving to a nuclear-weapons-free world. It is required reading for every person on the planet who cares about assuring the future.

David Krieger is the President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. www.wagingpeace.org