Jonathan Schell, anti-war activist, dead at 70
NEW YORK (AP) — Jonathan Schell, the crusading author, journalist and anti-war activist who condemned conflicts from Vietnam to Iraq and warned of a nuclear holocaust in terrifying detail in his galvanizing best seller, “The Fate of the Earth,” has died at age 70.
Schell’s companion, Irena Gross, told The Associated Press that he died Tuesday at their home in New York City. The cause was cancer, she said Wednesday.
With a hatred of war shaped in part by his firsthand accounts of U.S. military operations in Vietnam, Schell wrote for decades about the consequences of violence — real and potential — with a rage and idealism that never seemed to wane.
As gentle in person as he was impassioned on paper, Schell was a reporter and columnist for The New Yorker and Newsday among others and most recently the “peace and disarmament correspondent” for The Nation, where his last column appeared in the fall. He wrote several books, notably “The Village of Ben Suc” about Vietnam and “The Fate of the Earth,” published in 1982 during an especially tense moment of the Cold War. With the conservative Ronald Reagan in the White House, “Fate of the Earth” seemed to capture the fears of anti-nuclear protesters, who at the time were calling for a weapons freeze and staged a massive rally in Central Park just months after the book came out.
“The machinery of destruction is complete, poised on a hair trigger, waiting for the ‘button’ to be ‘pushed’ by some misguided or deranged human being or for some faulty computer chip to send out the instruction to fire,” Schell wrote in the book, which drew upon a series of articles for The New Yorker and was inspired by talk of fighting a limited nuclear war. “That so much should be balanced on so fine a point — that the fruit of four and a half billion years can be undone in a careless moment — is a fact against which belief rebels.”
Some reviewers found Schell’s book shrill and overstated, but “Fate of the Earth” received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was praised for compelling readers to think about the arms race.
“There are moments when it seems to hurtle, almost out of control, across an extraordinary range of fact and thought,” Kai Erickson wrote in The New York Times when the book came out. “But in the end, 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.”
Schell’s other books included “The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons Now,” ″The Unfinished Twentieth Century” and “The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger.” He taught at several schools, including Princeton University and Wesleyan University, and was a visiting lecturer at Yale at the time of his death.
“The power and persuasiveness of so much of Jonathan’s work came not only from his elegant style, clarity of analysis and powerful logic but also in the enduring belief that there is no idea so powerful as a moral one,” The Nation’s editors wrote in a tribute posted Wednesday.
“Schell was an invaluable voice in this country — as an observer, as a writer, as a moralist,” New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote Wednesday.
A native of New York City, Schell grew up in a family of thinkers and dissenters. His father, the late Orville Schell Jr., was an attorney and human rights activist. His brother, Orville Schell, is a longtime journalist and activist and former head of the journalism school at the University of California, Berkeley.
Jonathan Schell was born just two years before the U.S. dropped two atom bombs on Japan and was conscious of nuclear weapons from an early age, remembering headlines in 1953 that the Soviet Union had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb. As a Harvard University undergraduate, one of his teachers was Henry Kissinger, the future secretary of state and target for the anti-war movement.
“I recall a feeling almost like schizophrenia,” Schell recalled in a 2007 interview with the writer and editor Tom Engelhardt. “It was a very hot spring and I was sitting in sweltering libraries reading these nightmarish texts about nuclear weapons. I remember this thought: That the people who were for the bomb were politically sane but morally crazy, while the people who were against the bomb were morally sane but politically crazy. These seemed like two universes that would never meet.”
Schell was a graduate student in Far Eastern history at Harvard when he began reporting on Vietnam, ostensibly for the campus paper, the Harvard Crimson. Only in his early 20s, Schell quickly impressed (and sometimes disturbed) readers with his vivid, devastating articles on the destruction of Vietnamese villages, writings that eventually appeared in The New Yorker and were anthologized by the Library of America. Viewing battles from attack helicopters, he described “strings” of air attack vehicles “filing across the gray-morning sky like little schools of minnows.” He witnessed the interrogation of a young villager by South Vietnamese lieutenants, who laid out a map and asked about the whereabouts of enemy Vietcong soldiers.
“When he replied that he didn’t have the answers they wanted, one lieutenant beat him in the face with a rolled-up sheet of vinyl that had covered the map, then jabbed him hard in the ribs,” Schell wrote. “The prisoner sat wooden and silent.”
He was so highly regarded at The New Yorker that editor William Shawn considered him as a potential successor. When the job went to Robert Gottlieb instead, in 1987, Schell left the magazine. At The Nation, Schell opposed the Iraq war, supported the Occupy Wall Street protests and called repeatedly for the elimination of nuclear weapons. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was nearby when two hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan.
“My specific neighborhood was violated, mutilated,” he reported days later. “As I write these words, the acrid, dank, rancid stink — it is the smell of death — of the still-smoking site is in my nostrils. Not that these things confer any great distinction — they are merely the local embodiment of the circumstance, felt more or less keenly by everyone in the world in the aftermath of the attack, that in our age of weapons of mass destruction every square foot of our globe can become such a ground zero in a twinkling. We have long known this intellectually, but now we know it viscerally, as a nausea in the pit of the stomach that is unlikely to go away. What to do to change this condition, it seems to me, is the most important of the practical tasks that the crisis requires us to perform.”