DATE April 23, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Jonathan Schell discusses his book "The Unconquerable
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
America is the only superpower, and the US military demonstrated its strength
in Iraq. My guest, Jonathan Schell, argues that violence shouldn't be the
only answer to violence. For the last two months, he's written cover stories
for Harper's Magazine about the futility of war and the need to find peaceful
alternatives to solving conflicts. These essays elaborate on the ideas in his
new book, "The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence and the Will of the
People." Schell is also a contributor to The Nation and has written for the
New Yorker and The Atlantic. His best-known book, the "Fate of the Earth,"
was about the likely consequences of nuclear war.
In "The Unconquerable War," he examines the systems designed to prevent war
starting with the League of Nations, which was established by the peace
treaties that ended World War I. The main figure behind the league was
President Woodrow Wilson. The league collapsed in the late '30s and was
dissolved in 1946. I asked Schell about the vision behind the League of
Mr. JONATHAN SCHELL (Author): Well, you have to remember that back at that
time you had a fully developed--what I call a war system, and that consisted
of many great powers jockeying for influence, rivaling one another with arms,
and no one of them dared to sort of back out by having, let's say, a slower
demobilization schedule or a smaller naval gun. And so it occurred to Wilson,
as to many at that time that what was necessary at that time was a full
systemic replacement of the war system. It seemed to them that the World War,
which had claimed about nine millions lives, had really been the product not
so much of one power or another or one ideology or another as of that whole
balance of power system which had to be replaced lock, stock and barrel. So
it was a truly revolutionary proposal, a very, very tall order indeed.
GROSS: Can you explain a little bit more what you mean by the war system?
Mr. SCHELL: Back at the turn of the century and in 1914, 1918, you had four
or five great powers no one of which was obviously supreme. They were
jockeying for vantage. They were seeking to make alliances with one another.
They were trying to beat one another out in arms races. And finally that
system, that system of a balance of power, broke down and produced the First
World War whose actual substance was something incredibly minor, a very petty
conflict in the Balkans in terms of, you know, the interest of the world, but
nevertheless, because it produced an imbalance, it was enough to make the
whole thing collapse into a horrendous war.
And it was in order to get away from that--really a situation that had existed
more or less throughout history, many powers, very powerful, jockeying for
advantage and so on. It was to get away from that that really in a
revolutionary bid Wilson proposed the League of Nations, which would decide by
law, by agreement, by collective security the issues that had always
previously been solved by a balance of power or by war.
GROSS: What was the structure that Wilson proposed for the League of Nations?
Mr. SCHELL: Well, he proposed that there be a council of 10 nations that
would really provide collective security, which is to say that if any one
nation were to mount an aggressive act, the others would band together and
prevent it. So it was really a system of collective security to prevent war
from ever really breaking out in the first place.
GROSS: But the United State never joined.
Mr. SCHELL: No. The United States did not join. And it may have been that
the League of Nations was unworkable in any case, but certainly it was doomed
when the United States Senate voted not to become part of this plan, this
vision, that had been put forward to the world by its own president, President
GROSS: Why did the Senate vote against the US joining the league?
Mr. SCHELL: Well, the senators--for one thing, they felt that it would
compromise the war-making power that they had under the Constitution. They
felt that it committed the United States to almost automatic endless conflict
at any time that aggression would arise anywhere in the world in that the
constitutional war-making power, which, in contrast to today, they took very
seriously at that time, would slip out of their hands. Perhaps more
important, they shrank back from such a heavy--really what amounted to a
military commitment under a collective security system to automatically join
with other nations to resist or attack a country that got out of line and
mounted aggression. So there was really a conflict in their minds between the
Constitution of the United States and what they saw as almost a kind of
surrogate constitution for the whole world that would trump the American
GROSS: So one of the reasons the league failed was that the United States, an
important power, wasn't a part of it, but there were other reasons why the
league failed. What are some of those reasons?
Mr. SCHELL: One of them was that--people didn't realize it at the time, but
the First World War had really been so violent that it had torn apart a number
of the most important societies of the most important powers, especially the
Russian and the German, and it had planted the seeds of a new system of
government that was going to pose the greatest challenge to liberalism that
there had ever been or ever has been, and that was the totalitarian system of
government. So really at just the time that Wilson was trying to extend
peaceful, liberal principles to the world at large, an incredibly ambitious
program, at that very moment the floor was sort of falling out from under his
feet in those other nations and this totalitarian threat was arising. I think
that was one of the main reasons.
Another was that you have to remember that the empires, the European empires
of the day--and by the way, it included the recently acquired sort of
miniempire that the United States had gotten in the war with Spain--but those
empires were absolutely at their peak, and the French and the British and so
forth had no intention whatsoever of letting go of those. One of the key
principles of the League of Nations was the self-determination of all nations,
and obviously that was completely inconsistent with these imperial schemes and
the imperial schemes won out.
Although Wilson's plan, of course, was a complete failure--the league was
really just brushed aside by the events that followed--he was a prophet. He
was a prophet because he did say that, `If we do not reign in this war system,
if we don't replace it with something else, then we will go back to war and it
will be a worse war.' And that did happen in the Second World War.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Schell. He's the
author of the new book "The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence and the
Will of the People."
What was the vision that FDR and Churchill had in 1941 when they proposed the
Mr. SCHELL: Well, the United Nations was really an improved version of the
League of Nations. They'd seen the nations had not been able to get on the
same page, that the system of collective security involving 10 or more nations
really had proved unworkable. And they decided really to give the key power,
the key decision-making power to a group of four--pardon me--five, and those
were the victors of the Second World War. They were the United States, the
Soviet Union, France, England and China.
Now the fate of the United Nations was actually quite different from that of
the league. It was similar in that it failed to fulfill its principal
function, which was to head off arms race, head off global competition and
institute a system of law or collective security. Obviously, that didn't
happen. And there were really two reasons for it, and one was quite similar
to what happened to the league, and that is that the group of victors fell out
among themselves; above all, the United States and the Soviet Union. So very
quickly the Cold War began to rage, and very obviously no decision-making body
that depended on agreement of the Untied States and the Soviet Union, as the
Security Council did, was going to be able to make or keep a peace. And so
the UN was, in a way, pushed to the margins of affairs where it did all kinds
of useful humanitarian things and intervened in crisis very useful, but it
couldn't fulfill its central function.
GROSS: Now the UN was conceptualized before a nuclear weapon was used, but
the UN was actually created, actually came into being after Hiroshima and
Nagasaki. So, as you pointed out in your book, the dawning of the nuclear era
just preceded the United Nations. So how was the actual world different by
the time the UN came into being from the time it was conceptualized?
Mr. SCHELL: Well, it was radically different. And the timing there really is
quite extraordinary, because the plans for the UN were laid in the summer of
1945, and then late summer, on August 6th, came the bombing of Hiroshima and
then in the fall came the conference in San Francisco to actually formally set
up the United Nations. So that's a very precise bit of timing. And the
nuclear weapon almost immediately radically transformed the very problem that
the United States had been founded to solve, which was the danger of world
Now it would take some time, more than a decade, for this to be played out and
to be fully realized, but what happened, of course, was that the United States
built a tremendous nuclear arsenal. The Soviet Union did the same. England
and France got into the game; eventually China. And what happened then was
that because of actually the unlimited destructive power that was in the hands
of the great powers, you couldn't fight a war anymore. You could shoot those
weapons at one another and you could have blown one another up 50 times over
and maybe ended life on Earth into the bargain, and we came fairly close to
that a couple of times, including the Cuban missile crisis, but you couldn't
have the kind of event that had really disfigured and shaped the whole history
of the first half of the 20th century, which was a world war, you know, a
tremendous slugging match among the greatest powers that would go on for three
or four, five years until someone won. That was ruled out.
So in a curious way the nuclear weapon and the nuclear standoff became a
surrogate UN, if you want to put it that way. Nuclear weapons became
GROSS: You write in your book that because nuclear war would have ended in
the annihilation of both sides, the superpowers held each other in check, but
that led to a different kind of war, which you describe as a people's war, the
people's war. What do you mean by that?
Mr. SCHELL: Well, of course, the great powers were--I mean, on the one hand,
they were glad to be at peace, I suppose, but on the other hand, they were
frustrated, because great powers want to work their will in the world. They
want to have their way. They want to make things happen. And what happened
was that both went out to what they were pleased to call the periphery; that
is, Third World nations, where anti-colonial struggles were in progress. And
above all, that meant Vietnam. So the war that could not be fought at the
center erupted out there at the edges.
And I think that this is a very seminal event and one that deserves our
attention, because it turned out that in those parts of the word, first in
China, then in Vietnam, also in Algeria and other places around the world,
they invented people's war. And people's war turned out to be an instrument
that unexpectedly enabled poor so-called backward peoples to hold their own
against tremendous, you know, globe-straddling empires such as the United
States or the Soviet Union. We saw that for the United States in Vietnam; we
saw it for the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
So, for instance, if you look at the Vietnam War, it was--a very strange thing
happened there. I was a reporter there, so I witnessed this at first hand.
And what you actually saw day after day was the United States winning battle
after battle after battle after battle. I mean, 99 percent of the battles
were being won by the United States, and yet we lost the war. Now how could
it be? The answer was that for every military battle that we won, the
opponent was winning a political battle for the hearts and minds of the
Vietnamese people, which meant chiefly their passion and intense will to win
the independence that they'd been fighting for already for 30, 40 years
against the Japanese and the French before us, so that as long as we were
losing the political battle, we could not leave and put behind us and leave
behind us a government that would survive our departure 'cause the second we
did that the will of the local people would prevail and they'd set up whatever
kind of government they had in mind, which is, in fact, what happened.
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Schell. His new book is called "The
Unconquerable World." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Schell, author of the new book "The Unconquerable
World." It's about war and alternatives to war. He wrote the March and April
cover stories for Harper's Magazine.
You quote President Bush from his 2002 State of the Union address when he said
that the United States will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to
threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons. And you go on to say
that if the United States followed through on that logic, it would become a
disarmament empire. What do you mean by that expression?
Mr. SCHELL: Well, down to the present, the United States and other countries
have sought to deal with the problem of the proliferation of nuclear arms and
other weapons of mass destruction by diplomatic means. And, in fact, under
the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is really a kind of masterpiece of
diplomacy, you actually have 182 nations that have agreed to do without
nuclear arms altogether. It's quite an accomplishment.
Now the Bush administration has really reversed that policy, and it said,
`We're going to deal with weapons of mass destruction not with diplomacy, not
with agreements as all other presidents have done; we're going to do it by
force, by pre-emption, by regime change,' and that is what we have begun to do
in Iraq and that is what we are threatening to do to maybe Syria, Iran, North
Korea and on and on.
GROSS: But you could argue that the Bush administration is only doing this or
thinking of doing this with countries that either are nullifying their
treaties or not signing the treaties in the first place...
Mr. SCHELL: Well...
GROSS: ...that the treaties aren't working in these cases. It's not--instead
of dealing with treaties, it's as an alternative when the treaties don't work.
Mr. SCHELL: Well, you could argue that, but you have to bear in mind that
under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, nations have a right to give
notice of withdrawal, so actually there's no country that is simply compelled
to remain part of that treaty. And let's notice that in North Korea they have
given notice of withdrawal.
So what the United States has really done is to say, `We are going to
establish a double standard for the world in which the existing nuclear
powers'--very much including the United States--`can have our chosen weapons
of mass destruction'--that is nuclear weapons--`and other countries that don't
yet have them,' whether in or out of the treaty, `are forbidden from doing so,
and we will go to war to prevent them from getting them.' So it's a kind of
war to preserve a double standard. I don't think it's tenable.
GROSS: The argument on the other side would be that the United States is a
democracy and we can be trusted to use nuclear weapons only if they were used
against us, only if, you know, the lives of many Americans were threatened,
whereas, there are a lot of rogue states with tyrants or psychopathic tyrants
who have nuclear weapons and could use them, you know, at will without the
kind of serious deliberation that the United States would go through. I mean,
look at how long the United States has had nuclear weapons and it only used it
at the end of World War II.
Mr. SCHELL: Well, Terry, what you have to bear in mind there is that actually
it is not the policy of the United States to use nuclear weapons only when
attacked by them or by something else. We actually have put forward in a new
and more radical form under the Bush administration a doctrine of first use
and even pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons. And, in fact, before the Iraq
war began, Andrew Card, the president's chief of staff, went on television and
said that if the Iraqis were to use chemical or biological weapons, that we
reserve the right to use any means necessary, which is diploma-tease for
nuclear weapons, against them.
And we actually have a new targeting directorate out there at STRATCOM in
Omaha that is right at this minute defining and seeking out those targets.
And on top of that, we're seeking to develop new nuclear weapons, these
so-called bunker busters, which are capable of knocking out various
underground installations in a first nuclear strike. So actually our nuclear
posture has never been more aggressive or pre-emptive, if you like, than it is
now. So that trust might be misplaced, especially if you consider what our
GROSS: Jonathan Schell is the author of the new book "The Unconquerable
World." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross. And
this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, alternatives to military force. We continue our
conversation with Jonathan Schell, author of "The Unconquerable World." Also,
Geoff Nunberg on the language wars.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Jonathan Schell. His
new book, "The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence and the Will of the
People," is about alternatives to war. Schell wrote the cover stories for the
March and April editions of Harper's magazine on the futility of war. He's
the peace and disarmament correspondent for The Nation and has written for The
New Yorker and The Atlantic. His best-known book, "The Fate of the Earth,"
was about the likely consequences of a nuclear war.
Looking back over the history of attempts to keep the international peace, do
you think that the war in Iraq is going to be seen, in retrospect, as a
landmark event in the history of the United Nations, as a kind of vote of no
confidence in the United Nations because the war happened in spite of the fact
that the majority of countries on the Security Council would have voted
against it had it come to the Security Council for a second vote?
Mr. SCHELL: Very clearly it is. In other words, the Bush administration has
said, in no uncertain terms, that the United Nations had to vote in one way in
order to be, as they've said, relevant, and that was with the United States.
So when the United States overriding what was the clear will, as you say, of
the Security Council and went to war anyway, that was a watershed in the
history of the institution. I don't have a crystal ball. It's very, very
hard now to see how we're going to get back to a functioning United Nations.
I mean, it was always a question how well it functioned anyway, but it was a
hope. It was a basis. And now it's clearly suffered a grievous blow.
And, in fact, if you read some of the apologists for the administration, that
was part of the point of the exercise. They do not want a multilateral
cooperative world in which the United States depends on other nations for
permissions to use force. They want a unilateral hegemonic world in which the
United States has military superiority and is free to use its forces in any
way and at any time it so chooses.
GROSS: You are very critical of how the United States is using its power now
in the post-Cold War world. You think the United States is being a bully. Do
you have an alternate way for how you'd like to see the United States use its
power now that it's the only superpower in the world?
Mr. SCHELL: Absolutely. I happen to think that there are real choices in
history, in other words that sometimes there can be a path to hell and a path
not, I would say, to heaven, because I don't believe in heaven on Earth, but
just something a little better than what we have now. And I think that we are
at such a moment. I think the United States has made an epic wrong choice in
seeking to rely principally on its overwhelming military force to have its way
in the world. I think that's going to be a disaster for the world and for us.
I think it's going to literally blow up in our faces. I think it's going to
cause the very problems that it seeks to solve.
Now on the other hand, I do think that there is a path open to us that is one
of remarkable promise. You know, I think that we're living at the first time,
certainly in the modern period, certainly for the last two or 300 years--I
don't know how far you want to go back, but it's the first time that all of
the greater powers in the world--I mean Japan, Russia, Europe, the United
States and so forth--are very much on the same page ideologically or
philosophically, for want of a better word. There's no ideological or
religious division, let's say, of the kind that previously separated those
So from my point of view this quarrel that has arisen over the Iraq war was an
entirely unnecessary and self-inflicted wound that has led us to forgo a
marvelous opportunity to enter into cooperation with other powers and with
lesser powers on Earth who would be very happy to go along with this to get
down to business and solve the terrible global problems that we all face
together, because we don't have the kind of division in the world we had
previously. And those problems, I think, you know, are the obvious ones.
It's keeping the global economy running. It's creating greater justice
globally and nationally. It's dealing with environmental problems.
But the United States, tragically, has withdrawn from all of that, has said no
to the treaties, no to the environmental treaty, the Kyoto accord, to the
international accord, and so on and so forth, and decided to go alone on this
military path. So I'd like to see us make a U-turn and get back to a path
that's more consistent with our principles as a constitutional democracy and
republic here at home and start acting in a cooperative way with the rest of
the world. I think there's tremendous promise in that path.
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Schell. His new book is called "The
Unconquerable World." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Schell, and his new book is called "The
Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence and the Will of the People."
You know, we've talked about the United Nations and the League of Nations and
their attempts to keep world peace. You kind of float the idea in your new
book, "The Unconquerable World," for a democratic league. What's your vision?
Mr. SCHELL: Well, you know, many people have pointed out that democracies--I
mean constitutional democracies, liberal democracies, what have you--are less
likely, way less likely, to go to war with one another than authoritarian or
totalitarian regimes. And there are reasons for that because I think liberal
democracy really is a kind of system at home that tries to conduct your
political affairs without egregious use of force, without coup d'etats and so
forth, and so it's very natural to extend that to the international sphere.
Now tragically we have to just face right up to the fact that those same
liberal democracies historically have been imperial powers, instigators of
war, of domination, of conquest. And we saw that in the 19th century, and now
we see that same tendency arising in the present moment in the United States.
But if we could forego and suppress and check our imperial tendency and get
back to our constitutional bent, which runs very deep in the United States, as
well as in Europe and in other parts of the world. Then I think there's a
chance that we again have never had before to move towards very radical goals,
such as peace in the world by incremental means, without having to do what
failed so miserably for Wilson, namely to build up a gigantic structure, such
as the League of Nations or something that, you know, would be like the United
Nations or a replacement of it or what have you. I think there's tremendous
room for progress on an incremental basis.
GROSS: How would that happen? How would that progress?
Mr. SCHELL: Well, in a certain way it's modest stuff, although some of it is
quite dramatic. For instance, I think at the very heart of it you'd want to
have an agreement--actually we already have it; it's called the Nuclear
Nonproliferation Treaty--but you would observe the agreement to move away
altogether from weapons of mass destruction. And that means that you wouldn't
be only trying to prevent new countries from getting them; you would have an
agreement among the existing countries that have them to move gradually, with
inspections galore, with enforcement--let it take 10 years, 15 years, whatever
it would take--to get out of that business altogether.
This would be an immeasurable step towards the safety of the world, and I'm
afraid that without such commitment we're not going to be able to stop
proliferation because I don't think we can enforce that double standard. I
think the price of being safe from weapons of mass destruction is to give up
GROSS: You're suggesting the United States give up its nuclear weapons?
Mr. SCHELL: Together with the other nuclear powers, yes. They are actually
committed to do so under the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
We've committed ourselves to that repeatedly; it's just that we didn't mean
it. I think the United States should propose that. Already we're on a path
of reductions, but I think we should name zero as the goal and invite the
other nuclear powers to join us in that commitment. And then on that basis,
on that hugely strengthened basis--morally, politically and even militarily
strengthened basis, I would argue--to go before the world and say, `We will
not permit any other countries to get into this business that we were getting
out of.' And then I think we could really make some progress.
GROSS: Outside of being able to claim the moral high ground, what's the
difference whether the United States has nuclear weapons or doesn't have
nuclear weapons when it says, `We're going to stop other countries from having
weapons of mass destruction'?
Mr. SCHELL: You know, you can't distinguish, in this case, between the moral
and the practical. You know, the lesson of history is that countries get
nuclear weapons because they fear nuclear weapons in the hands of the other.
That's why the US did it, because it was afraid that Hitler would get it.
Soviet Union, China got it because the US had it. India and Pakistan got it
because they were afraid of one another and India was afraid of China and so
forth. So that's the way it goes. So the practical consequence of possessing
them is that you terrify other countries. They, too, want to be safe in this
And the United States, and the other nuclear powers too, in every single
action they've taken in the whole nuclear age, have taught a single lesson,
and that is if you want to be safe from nuclear weapons in the hands of
others, get some for yourself. And as long as this is our operative lesson,
we're going to have proliferation.
GROSS: Looking back on the past few months, what do you think have been the
strengths and the weaknesses of the international peace movement?
Mr. SCHELL: You know, a couple of months before the war broke out there was
almost no international peace movement. It was very, very hard to spot one.
And then, in one of those sort of gales of political concern and action that
will occur from time to time, you saw what was really a kind of a miraculous
rise all over the world of a very vigorous and active peace movement, which I
think is going to be hugely important for the future, even though it failed
actually to stop the war. Obviously the war in Iraq, or at least the
conventional part of it, is over, although I'm not clear at all what the
future's going to be there, because that's an unwritten chapter of history.
But here in the United States I think we need to try to--the goal of a peace
movement should be to pull us back from this hegemonic, imperial path.
In fact, there's a precedent that I think could be very useful. There was
something at the turn of the century called the Anti-Imperial League. There
were all kinds of distinguished people who belonged to it, including William
James, Grover Cleveland, Carnegie, all kinds of university presidents. Mark
Twain was a member. A very strong, powerful, well-connected political
movement whose theme was, `Let's not become an imperial power in the world of
the kind that we rebelled against back in our revolution. Let's be a
constitutional republic and deal cooperatively with the world.' It was a very
strong movement, and I think that something like that should be the focus of
the peace movement at this time. Maybe we should refound the Anti-Imperialist
GROSS: And you...
Mr. SCHELL: Anti-Imperial League, rather.
GROSS: You've said that although you're a strong advocate of world peace
you're not a pacifist.
Mr. SCHELL: No, I'm not.
GROSS: How do you know?
Mr. SCHELL: I know because as soon as I say to myself that I'm a pacifist
either I or someone else can start inventing 500 different situations in which
I would either favor the use of force or I myself would use it. You know, the
problem with that word for me is not its root pax, which is, I think, a
wonderful foundation for vigorous and very effective action in this world.
This problem is the suffix ist, which suggests that this one rule suffices for
all human situations. And when I examine myself I just find that I don't
GROSS: Since you prefer non-violence to violence in solving problems, are
there examples from recent history where you think that there were non-violent
solutions to political problems that likely would have ended in war?
Mr. SCHELL: Yes, indeed. You know, I mentioned people's war and the
discovery that people with inferior military force could defeat great empires.
Well, some people had the wit to ask, `Would it be possible to defeat great
empires without any force at all?' One of the most beautiful examples of that
was the solidarity movement in Poland, rebelling against the Communist regime
there, and eventually against the whole Soviet empire. Where is the Soviet
empire now? They had a collection of weapons in their hands, such as no one
has almost ever had before, from the nuclear weapon to the Red Army to the KGB
exerting control in every department of life there under that totalitarian
regime, and yet it proved possible to bring them low, as Lech Walesa said in
the beautiful boast, `without breaking a single pane of glass.'
Now I don't think we've absorbed the lesson of that incredible triumph of
non-violence. And when you look back at it, in the first half of the 20th
century it was the non-violent rebellion by Mahatma Gandhi that was the
specific instrument that brought down the British empire, the greatest empire
of its time. So down somewhere at the bottom of these hopeful possibilities
that I see, if only we could get off this path of force, is this marvelous
discovery during the 20th century that there is a way of exerting tremendous
power, of making things happen in this world, of winning that does not involve
the use of force.
GROSS: I'm guessing here, but I would bet that the phrase that you hear the
most from critics of your political books is, `You're naive. You're naive
about the possible end of nuclear weapons.'
Mr. SCHELL: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: `You're naive about international peace breaking out. You're naive
that we can keep peace without the threat and the use of force.' Do you hear
that all the time that you're naive? And if you do, what's your answer?
Mr. SCHELL: You know, I do hear it from time to time, quite honestly. In my
own opinion, I am an arch realist. You know, there are two kinds of realism.
One is the idea that force is sort of ideology of force, that force always
prevails. There's another kind of realism that says, `Let's look at what
happened historically and take our cue from that.'
Now I mentioned the collapse of the Soviet Union. How was that accounted for
by a philosophy that says that force is always the final arbiter? Does the
United States rule Vietnam today? No. All our military power was negated.
Does the Soviet Union rule in Afghanistan? No. Is there a Soviet Union? No.
Again and again--in the Philippines, a non-violent movement kicked out the
dictatorship. We saw dictatorships in Spain, in Greece, in 10 other countries
that I could mention that I won't, that were dictatorships thrown out of power
by entirely non-violent movements. Now those are realities. If you don't see
them, you're not living in the real world.
You have to grant force its scope. You have to come to terms with it. You
have to see what it can do and what you can't do. But if you see only force
and you shut out all the rest, you're indulging in what George Kennan called
the naivete of realism. If the two greatest empires in the 20th century could
be brought down without violence, you have to take that into account. If you
don't, you're not living in the real world.
GROSS: Well, Jonathan Schell, I want to thank you very much for talking with
Mr. SCHELL: Well, thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Jonathan Schell is the author of the new book "The Unconquerable
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg on the international language wars.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Commentary: International language wars
TERRY GROSS, host:
The movement to rename french fries freedom fries has been met by a response
from some German professors who want to replace a lot of the English words
that Germans use. But there are some interesting differences between the way
the Europeans and the Americans go about this kind of linguistic patriotism,
as our linguist Geoff Nunberg explains.
GEOFF NUNBERG reporting:
Turnabout is fair play. Last week a couple of German university professors
announced a campaign to eliminate a number of English-language words that are
popular in Germany in favor of their French equivalents. Germans were urged
to replace date by rendezvous, playboy by bonvivant and cool by formidable.
Even the ubiquitous OK is on the hit list. From now on Germans are supposed
to say d'accord. (German spoken). There's no chance that any of this will
catch on, no more than freedom fries and freedom toast are going to take up
permanent residence in our speech. But then these language wars are really
intended as symbolic exercises, and unlike other kinds of trade actions
linguistic boycotts are always for the benefit of a domestic audience. After
all, it's no skin off our nose what words the Germans use or vice versa. Who
knew they were saying playboy in the first place?
For those German professors, the object of the campaign is to reproach the
local Americophiles who have left the German language strewn with English
words, but they want to do that without recalling the linguistic nationalists
of the early Nazi period who wanted to purify the language of all foreign
elements. German has perfectly good words of its own for notions like OK and
date, but adopting the French equivalents makes it clear that the point is to
demonstrate solidarity, not chauvinism.
But the German approach isn't really appropriate for us; not that English
doesn't have thousands of words of French origin; in fact, when I looked at
the list of English-language words that the Germans were proposing to replace
with French ones, it turns out that more than half of them were originally
from French themselves, from date and tour, to couch and model. But nobody
registers those now as anything but native English stock. And when you look
at the more recent borrowings that we still recognize as having a French
origin, they turn out to be unsuitable for patriotic renaming, too.
It's hard to imagine the House Republicans vowing to replace blase by kicked
back or tete a tete by meeting, and the congressional cafeteria wasn't about
to rebaptize pate as freedom meat loaf or quiche Lorraine as patriot custard.
What kind of fare is that to serve in a US government dining room? In that
sense, this is very different from the frenzy of renaming during the First
World War, when sauerkraut became liberty cabbage and hamburgers became
Salisbury steaks. Germans were a sizable presence in America back then, and
renaming their dishes was a way of purging the signs of their foreignness.
But this time around we took a very different tack. We decided to replace the
English word french with another English word, freedom. Of course, wags had a
high time with that, pointing out the absurdity of freedom horn or freedom
doors, not to mention freedom kiss. That phrase comes up 7,000 times on
Google, an indication of how all smart alecks think alike. What made the
business seem even more ridiculous to critics was that french fries aren't
even French in origin; they come from Belgium. Heck, we don't even capitalize
the F anymore. But then, this isn't so much about the French as about
Frenchness, particularly the insidious Frenchness that works its way into our
language and our culture and saps our sense of national purpose.
This has less to do with them than with us. That might explain why the
boycotters have generally given the other Europeans a free pass in all this.
In the last two months' newspapers, boycott shows up near French 20 times as
often as it does near Germany. To judge from the stories on TV, nobody's
pouring Schloss Johannisberger into the gutter along with the bottles of
Chateau LaFayette. Actually, I noticed that the footage always shows the
bottles already open before they're poured out, and I can't help but wonder
whether--well, never mind. That's what I do, too.
For that matter, this would also explain why patriots aren't crushing bottles
of Allegra pills, pouring out containers of Dannon yogurt or tearing up copies
of Woman's Day and Car and Driver. True, most people aren't aware that those
products are made by French-owned companies. But even if they were, they
wouldn't care. The products may be French, but they aren't Gallic. Crushing
a bottle of Allegra isn't going to get a rise out of the Sauterne-sipping,
Roquefort-sniffing intellectuals and movie stars who took the French side when
the war was being debated.
I suspect that's why all those congressmen and restaurant owners seized on
french fries for renaming. Of course they know that french fries aren't
French, but that's the point. The gesture was so patently irrelevant and
irrational that it was certain to drive the administration's critics up a
wall. And maybe that's why the France bashing is still going on hot and heavy
even now that the war is--if you'll excuse the expression--fait complet.
France may be irrelevant now, but some people still have a score to settle
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford and the author of "The Way We
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with a recording by the tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards. He died
Sunday at the age of 78. This is his 1960 recording of "What's New?"
(Soundbite of "What's New?")
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