Friday, October 8, 2021

My hero / Jonathan Schell by David Hare


From left: Stephen B Oates, Jonathan Schell and Ethel Kennedy in 1983.

My hero: Jonathan Schell by David Hare

The playwright on the US author who wrote The Fate of the Earth, the groundbreaking book about nuclear war

Friday 4 July 2014


ow many people in my lifetime have published books that permanently change the terms of debate on the subject they address? Rachel Carson, yes, with Silent Spring, and going back to when I was two, Simone de Beauvoir with The Second Sex. But who else? The answer is Jonathan Schell. When, as will inevitably happen, someone lets off the next nuclear weapon, and everyone remembers what they seem to have temporarily forgotten, then the document that every citizen and politician is going to have to turn to is The Fate of the Earth.

When it was first published in 1982, arguing conclusively for the need for complete nuclear disarmament, the boot-boys from academia were dispatched worldwide, some of them by the old thug Henry Kissinger, to try to give the book and its author a good kicking. Before he became lead writer of editorials in the great days of William Shawn's New Yorker, Jonathan had already made himself a target with his terrifying 1967 expose of an American military operation in Vietnam, The Village of Ben Suc. But it was typical of his gentleness and sweetness of nature that when Jonathan asked me to read him some of the most committedly vitriolic attacks on The Fate of the Earth by British cold warriors – "Wow!" he said, "They're even stupider than ours" – he admitted that he couldn't find it in himself to be hurt. "Their arguments are just so poor."

Jonathan died in March this year at the age of 70 after a long and excruciating illness. When I was young, everyone believed overpopulation and nuclear annihilation to be the two greatest threats facing the world. I have no idea why they have slipped down the fashionable list of anxieties. In 2007, an article by four writers appeared in the Wall Street Journal arguing for "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons". One of its authors was Henry Kissinger. Jonathan had routed his critics and been vindicated intellectually within a generation. But where is the action?


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