As a passionate humanist and a brave writer, Jonathan Schell was a powerful voice illuminating again and again the perils our civilization faces, especially from nuclear war.
After graduating from Harvard in 1965, a round-the-world air ticket landed Schell in Vietnam, where a chance encounter with journalist Bernard Fall put him on a helicopter to witness firsthand the destruction of the Vietnamese village of Ben Suc by US troops and the forced removal of its inhabitants. A series of New Yorker articles and his book, The Village of Ben Suc, published when he was 24, gave America one of the first accounts of the senseless killing of Vietnamese civilians by American forces. Through his eloquent writing, he would become an important antiwar witness to the horrors of Washington’s Vietnam.
A year later, after spending time flying with US forward air controllers, his next book, The Military Half: An Account of Destruction in Quang Ngai and Quang Tin, was published: a stunning description of the way in which, from the air and on the ground, the US military was tearing South Vietnam apart. In 1976, he took on the Watergate scandal in his classic work, The Time of Illusion.
First published as a four-part series in the New Yorker, Schell’s 1982 international bestseller The Fate of the Earth — on the devastating human consequences of nuclear war — was undoubtedly his seminal work. In that great book, Schell dared to raise the most elemental questions about our existence as a species that “has brought itself face to face with a second death [in addition to our own] — the death of mankind.”
“The possibility that the living can stop the future generations from entering into life compels us to ask basic new questions about our existence,” he writes. “[T]hat the fruit of four and a half billion years can be undone in a careless moment — is a fact against which belief rebels.”
Calling The Fate of the Earth “an enormous force” in a New York Times book review, sociologist Kai Erikson wrote, “It accomplishes what no other work has managed to do in the 37 years of the nuclear age. It compels us — and compel is the right word — to confront head on the nuclear peril in which we all find ourselves.”
The Fate of the Earth and Jonathan Schell’s life work have moved us to reflect on the harm humans have inflicted on the planet, especially due to global warming (the subject of his final, uncompleted work, provisionally titled The Human Shadow) — and inspired us to look forward to what must be done next by fostering original work on the fate of the earth and its inhabitants through this lecture series.
For twenty years, Schell was a lead writer for the New Yorker, penning hundreds of Notes and Comments. There, he offered an ongoing passionate critique of American military intervention in Vietnam, described what he called “the inverted moral order” of President Richard Nixon’s White House, and documented the ways in which it threatened both the Constitution and freedom of the press.
Schell remained a staunch critic of American intervention in foreign wars throughout his life, launching what would become a weekly column at The Nation, “Letter from Ground Zero,” just days after 9/11. In an unsigned open letter published on that magazine’s cover in October 2002 — just before Congress authorized an attack on Iraq — Schell urged members of Congress to “be faithful to your oaths…Say no to empire. Affirm the Republic. Preserve the peace. Vote against the war in Iraq.” — a prescient, powerful, and ultimately unheeded call for sanity. Months later, also in The Nation, he wrote “The Case Against the War,” a compelling argument, rich in history, against both the specific war at hand and for starting down the path to the abolition of nuclear weapons:
The movement against the war in Iraq should also become a movement for something, and that something should be a return to the long-neglected path to abolition of all weapons of mass destruction. Only by offering a solution to the problem that the war claims to solve but does not can this war and others be stopped….
True democracy is indispensable to disarmament, and vice versa. This is the power — not the power of cruise missiles and B-52s — that can release humanity from its peril. The price demanded of us for freedom from the danger of weapons of mass destruction is to relinquish our own.
Jonathan Schell was a columnist for Newsday from 1990 until 1996, and a senior fellow at The Nation Institute from 1998-2014. He spent nearly two decades as The Nation’s peace and disarmament correspondent. Throughout his life, he taught at universities including Princeton, Emory, New York University, the New School, Wesleyan University, and the Yale Law School. In total, he authored more than a dozen books.
To honor his life and work, the Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture Series on the Fate of the Earth was established by The Nation Institute and The Gould Foundation in 2016. This annual lecture will feature original work, delivered by a speaker on the topics to which Schell devoted his life: issues on which the future of humanity and other life on the Earth might depend.