Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom
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From one of our leading social thinkers, a compelling case for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
During his impeachment proceedings, Richard Nixon boasted, "I can go into my office and pick up the telephone and in twenty-five minutes seventy million people will be dead." Nixon was accurately describing not only his own power but also the power of every American president in the nuclear age.
Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon each contemplated using nuclear weapons―Eisenhower twice, Kennedy three times, Johnson once, Nixon four times. Whether later presidents, from Ford to Obama, considered using them we will learn only once their national security papers are released.
In this incisive, masterfully argued new book, award-winning social theorist Elaine Scarry demonstrates that the power of one leader to obliterate millions of people with a nuclear weapon―a possibility that remains very real even in the wake of the Cold War―deeply violates our constitutional rights, undermines the social contract, and is fundamentally at odds with the deliberative principles of democracy.
According to the Constitution, the decision to go to war requires rigorous testing by both Congress and the citizenry; when a leader can single-handedly decide to deploy a nuclear weapon, we live in a state of “thermonuclear monarchy,” not democracy.
The danger of nuclear weapons comes from potential accidents or acquisition by terrorists, hackers, or rogue countries. But the gravest danger comes from the mistaken idea that there exists some case compatible with legitimate governance. There can be no such case. Thermonuclear Monarchy shows the deformation of governance that occurs when a country gains nuclear weapons.
In bold and lucid prose, Thermonuclear Monarchy identifies the tools that will enable us to eliminate nuclear weapons and bring the decision for war back into the hands of Congress and the people. Only by doing so can we secure the safety of home populations, foreign populations, and the earth itself.
that they be followed. In, for example, the manuscript on “A Dysentry” sent to Locke in 1670, Sydenham writes: Take 4 gallons of whey, let the patient drinke thereof . . . and let him doe the same successive . . . and let the rest be put up by way of clyster. . . . let him goe to bed and in a little time he will of his owne accord fall into a gentle breathing.8 Again, in a 1679 letter responding to Locke’s request for advice on the treatment of a particular patient, Sydenham writes: I would
well as writings on cognition: De Anima, Sense and Sensibilia, On Memory, On Dreams. Hobbes’s Leviathan opens with chapters interrogating the nature of the mind—“Of Sense,” “Of Imagination,” “Of Reason, and Science”—an interrogation also present in De Corpore, an early exemplar of the computational theory of mind. And Locke wrote not only The Second Treatise of Government but the Essay on Human Understanding and Conduct of the Understanding. John Stuart Mill wrote On Liberty and Considerations on
(that is, once the philosophic context is explicitly political) the examples change from the domestic and psychological movement across a floor to persons moving across the national terrain. 57Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (London: Hutchinson, 1949), pp. 71, 67. 58Ryle, The Concept of Mind, p. 63. 59William James, The Principles of Psychology, 1890 ed. (New York: Dover, 1950), vol. 2, p. 486. James’s descriptions of physical movement are stunning; see, for example, his account of the
enemy city of Athens to address the Lacedaemon assembly explaining their position.34 Tested in the Athenian assembly is the proposition that the entire male population of Mytilene should be executed for the city’s betrayal of Athens. A political or military leader who has decided to carry out a massacre does not ordinarily return to the assembly and lay out the case; here, the assembly listens to arguments for and against; votes yes; then, with ships already sailing to carry out the execution,
kings enrich their subjects, a “tyrant” impoverishes them.162 Certainly in his translation of the Iliad, Hobbes captures the public violation that would convert a legitimate sovereign into an illegitimate tyrant—or, in the term Hobbes preferred, hostis, enemy.163 A striking instance occurs in the Thersites passage invoked earlier: But kings ought not their private ease to buy With public danger and a common woe. (Hobbes II. 209, 210) In one crisp line—“With public danger and a common