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The Decision to Wage Nuclear War Should Rest With the Body Politic, Argues Author

Book Review: Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom

Elaine Scarry has written a clarion call for action against nuclear weapons that deserves to be heard. Not since Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth has a book come along that lays out the case against such weapons, from a legal and democratic ethics position.  (Schell died in March, a great loss of an excellent writer.  I highly recommend his book.)

Santa Rita MountainsPhoto courtesy the US GovernmentA 15-megaton thermonuclear device was detonated at Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands in 1952. Elaine Scarry says that the power of only a few people in our government to go to war with atomic weapons is a violation of the US Constitution.

In Thermonuclear Monarchy, Scarry, an award-winning social theorist, centers her case around a quote by President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal.  At one point during his impeachment, Nixon chillingly stated: “I can go to my office and pick up the telephone and in twenty-five minutes seventy million people will be dead.” Scarry argues that this power — the power of only a few people in our government to go to war with atomic weapons and destroy — is inherently anti-democratic and constitutionally illegal.

The biggest danger that nuclear weapons might be unleashed on the world is the mistaken idea that governments can legitimately use them under certain circumstances, she argues. Quoting widely varying sources, from Homer to the founding fathers to political philosophers like Locke and Hobbs, Scarry makes a strong case for the body politic to take steps to end, what she calls, the nuclear monarchy. She explains how when a country gains nuclear arms, its governance is deformed in some ways.

Scarry breaks down the issue into two major constitutional issues:  The power to make war and the Second Amendment.  Under our Constitution, Congress has the deliberative power to declare war.  But since World War II and the advent of nuclear weapons, the power now effectively resides not with elected members of Congress, but with the President and a few of his appointees. They can declare war, as President Nixon boldly said, in five minutes, with no deliberation to speak of.

book cover

Scarry argues that this is totally illegal and a violation of our Constitution.  She uses the Second Amendment in a surprising manner to make her case.  Her argument is that the power of keeping guns in the hands of citizen militias clearly implies that the public has the power to resist their own government if needed to prevent tyranny. But the possession of nuclear weapons by the Executive Branch clearly puts the public at a stark disadvantage if such issues arise.  Should we not restore the balance of power between the people and our leaders?

 Thermonuclear Monarchy, which was published this spring, is a dense book that is well-documented with an extensive section of footnotes and a large bibliography. However, the case against nuclear weapons is argued in a very detailed style that won’t appeal to some readers. If you are looking for a book on the facts of nuclear weapons, this is not the book for you. But if you are looking for hope in a troubled world, for hope that the nuclear menace can at last be abolished, Elaine Scarry has written a book giving us a legal blueprint on how to we can get rid of nuclear weapons and bring the power to decide whether to go to war or not back into the hands of the Congress and the people.


Mark J. Palmer
Mark J. Palmer is Associate Director of the International Marine Mammal Project.

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