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Capsule Review

Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom

In This Review

Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom
Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom
By Elaine Scarry
W. W. Norton & Company, 2014 592 pp. $35.00 Purchase

This curious book addresses what Scarry describes as the incompatibility of nuclear weapons and democracy. But her knowledge of nuclear matters is superficial, and she says very little about the weapons, other than to draw attention to their awfulness and to the fragile, illegitimate, and dangerous structures that govern their possession and potential use. The book is mainly a treatise on the social contract between individuals and governments. It includes some interesting ruminations on the sources of consent and on human behavior in emergencies. Even on such abstract matters, Scarry is reliably readable. But having underlined the absurdity of the nuclear condition, in which fallible human beings can inflict terrible destruction in a matter of minutes, she offers only a feeble remedy. Her proposal is to reassert those provisions of the U.S. Constitution that distribute responsibility for war-making among the population rather than concentrating it solely in the hands of the executive. She does not explain, however, how ordinary people in the United States and other nuclear countries might come to share her views, much less act on them.

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