Courtesy Reuters

The Postwar Era: Between an Unfree World and None

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Would nuclear war endanger civilization or even the human species? Does that possibility require us to subordinate all considerations of freedom to survival and to dismiss any possibility of responding justly to a nuclear attack—or at least without committing suicide? The question has a familiar ring to anyone whose memory stretches back as far as 1958 to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the famous controversy between the philosophers Bertrand Russell and Sidney Hook over whether it was better to be "Red or Dead."

The question, at any rate, is not dead. It is implicit in nightmare visions like "The Day After" that continue to flood our television and movie screens, and it appears in even more gruesome form in the cold and dark post-nuclear world described by some scientists. The horrors revealed by science can exceed, it seems, those of science fiction: the sense of one meeting, in 1983, was that there may not be any world after nuclear war. As biologist Anne Ehrlich summarized it:

In the northern target regions, it is unlikely that more than a tiny fraction of the original population could survive the first few months after a nuclear war of appreciable scale. . . . Nuclear war would render all but uninhabitable the only known habitable planet in the universe. Nothing of value to anyone alive today is likely to survive such a catastrophe—and least of all, the ideologies that supposedly motivated it. The virtues of freedom—or communism—pale when survival is not an available option and there may be no future generations to whom it can be bequeathed.

This particular meeting was based in good part on a draft study by the scientists Richard Turco, Brian Toon, Thomas Ackerman, James Pollack and Carl Sagan (now generally called "TTAPS," an acronym of the authors’ last names). Though they have greatly overstated the scientific consensus, TTAPS does have prestigious support. It extended the results of an international study in 1982 sponsored by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (published

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