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Bernard Baruch

“The basis of a sound foreign policy, in this new age, for all the nations here gathered, is that anything that happens, no matter where or how, which menaces the peace of the world, or the economic stability, concerns each and all of us…

Now, if ever, is the time to act for the common good. Public opinion supports a world movement toward security. If I read the signs aright, the peoples want a program not composed merely of pious thoughts but of enforceable sanctions — an international law with teeth in it…

Let this be anchored in our minds: Peace is never long preserved by weight of metal or by an armament race. Peace can be made tranquil and secure only by understanding and agreement fortified by sanctions. We must embrace international cooperation or international disintegration…

The solution will require apparent sacrifice in pride and in position, but better pain as the price of peace than death as the price of war.”


From Bernard Baruch’s 1946 speech “A Choice between the Quick and the Dead”.

Though he would in the following year coin the term “Cold War”, Baruch concluded this speech with the ungrudging proposal that all nuclear weapons be placed — through a thirteen-step procedure — under some intergovernmental authority. You think that sounds idealistic? Yeah, me too. Or at least anachronistic, especially in a time when the international community flounders purposelessly, not only in its attempt to curb the annexation of Eastern Ukraine, but also in keeping track of a massive commercial airliner with 200 cell-phones on board. What would it possibly do with a couple thousand nuclear bombs?

Though the number of active nukes has shriveled to around 4,100 from a peak of 68,000 in 1985, Baruch’s point is a serious one, especially when our attention is drawn to the Korean Peninsula or the once-unified Pashtun region split between Pakistan and India. Neither of those two neighbors, nor the hermit kingdom of the Kim dynasty, is yet to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, even though they are armed with an estimated 200-plus total (though not all active) warheads.

As someone born in 1989, I’ve never felt the disquiet of a duck-and-cover drill. Nor did I spend geography week in Kindergarten as my mom did: ogling anxiously at the massive Soviet Union — a red Rorschach blot that provoked only ugly words. Fear. Danger. Enemy. Still, if we can form a post-9/11 position toward nuclear weapons, it must rest on the tension between the unfortunate fact and terrifying contingency which follow: The human animal’s technological progress is outpacing its moral progress; what happens when an apocalyptic ideology lays its hands on apocalypse-inducing weaponry? In other words: can there be any doubt that if Muhammad Atta had a nuclear bomb, he would have used it?

There are two additional paragraphs, supplied by Martin Amis in his suggestively titled Einstein’s Monsters (1987), which illuminate a critical generational difference in our attitudes towards the inevitability of living with nukes.

My father regards nuclear weapons as an unbudgeable given. They will always be necessary because the Soviets will always have them and the Soviets will always want to enslave the West. Arms agreements are no good because the Soviets will always cheat. Unilateral disarmament equals surrender. And anyway, it isn’t a case of “red or dead.” The communist world is itself nuclear-armed and deeply divided: so it’s a case of “red and dead.”

Well, dead, at any rate, is what this prescription seems to me to promise. Nuclear weapons, my father reminds me, have deterred war for forty years. I remind him that no global abattoir presided over the century-long peace that followed Napoleon’s discomfiture in 1815. And the trouble with deterrence is that it can’t last out the necessary time-span, which is roughly between now and the death of the sun.

Read on:

  • I describe how Baruch became the original “Wolf of Wall Street”
  • Einstein, Orwell, and Steinbeck riff on the evils of militarism
  • Andrew Bacevich connects the concept of ‘original sin’ to the prospect of future war

Bernard Baruch