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Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom

Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom

by Elaine Scarry

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Scarry (The Body in Pain) takes a long, hard look at America’s nuclear arsenal and finds its existence to be completely incompatible with democracy. She shows how “out-of-ratio weapons”—those that allow a single person or small number of people to kill millions—are by their nature monarchical rather than democratic. Despite the fact that the U.S. Constitution gives the power to declare war to the legislative rather than the executive branch and places the distribution of armaments in the hands of the population as a whole through the Second Amendment, current executive policy arrogates these rights to itself. Scarry’s work is an appeal to the American citizenry and to that of other nuclear powers to reassert their control over these weapons in order to abolish them. While her main arguments are straightforward and readily understood, she strays into lengthy forays on political philosophy and examples of questionable relevance. While 30-plus pages devoted to translations of The Iliad make the point that as long ago as Homer, the consent of soldiers was crucial in the prosecution of warfare, this and other arguments could have been made with more brevity. Specialists will applaud this work, but it will miss the mark with the general public, which most desperately needs to read it. (Feb.)
Noam Chomsky
“A few years ago General Lee Butler, former head of the U.S. Strategic Command, condemned the ‘faith in nuclear weapons’ to which his life had been wrongly dedicated and the ‘breathtaking audacity’ in maintaining them when ‘we should stand trembling in the face of our folly and united in our commitment to abolish its most deadly manifestations.’ In this fascinating study, Elaine Scarry adds rich historical, philosophical, literary, and legal depth to Butler’s grim warnings, with novel and provocative insights. That we have escaped disaster so far is a near miracle. Scarry’s remarkable contribution should inspire us to abolish this colossal folly.”
Marcelo Gleiser
“The premise of this book is as relevant as it is horrifying, that the power to inflict great harm doesn’t belong to those that it supposedly protects. I congratulate Elaine Scarry on her intellectual courage and moral clarity and in proposing the only possible way out.”
Rowan Williams
“A really remarkable work, ranging across ethics, law and politics to pose genuinely radical challenges to the confused and potentially lethal systems that pass for democracy in our world. A painfully timely intervention.”
Martin Rees
“Elaine Scarry offers a coruscating critique of current policies, arguing that they are antithetic to the spirit of the U.S. constitution, and indeed to basic democratic principles. This eloquent and scholarly book offers a compelling case for swifter progress toward their elimination.”
Laurence H. Tribe
“Scarry’s book requires any thoughtful reader to revisit the basic postulates and the deepest human purposes of our system of government.”
Richard Rhodes - The New York Times
Kenneth Baker - San Francisco Chronicle
“[U]rgent and lucid … [a] prolonged rallying cry of a book.”
Kennette Benedict - Bulletin of Atomic Scientists
“Elaine Scarry is right: Americans live in a thermonuclear monarchy.”
Nathan Schneider - Chronicle of Higher Education
“Scarry’s assault on the reigning complacency about nuclear weapons rests on her belief in the capacity of an interpretation to reconfigure the world.”
Nick Smith - Engineering & Technology (U.K.)
“Thermonuclear Monarchy is a work of deadly serious political science by an analyst dwelling on the constitutional implications of giving a democratically elected president sovereign-like autocracy.”
Kirkus Reviews
Nuclear weaponry has stealthily altered the substance of our form of government, contends Scarry (Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value/Harvard Univ.; Thinking in an Emergency, 2011, etc.). Americans generally give little thought to the policy under which the president can order a first strike using nuclear weapons, and yet the president's power to order, at his sole discretion, the destruction of millions of people is a power far greater than anything imagined by earlier absolute rulers. Scarry presents a frightening argument that the president has assumed extra-constitutional control of weapons of mass destruction and that the doctrine of presidential first use of nuclear weapons has effectively eviscerated our democracy and rendered us a monarchy. She goes on to show how the possession of nuclear weapons is contrary to the social contract as described by the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Scarry's argument is intriguing, but its presentation is flawed. Her philosophical analyses of social contract, consent and emergencies are learned and thorough but far more extensive than necessary to support her thesis. The author's arguments about American constitutional law, though creative, suffer from superficial analysis and factual misperceptions. For example, she never articulates how the congressional authorizations of hostile action employed since 1941 differ significantly from a resolution formally styled as a declaration of war. Throughout, Scarry fails to differentiate between circumstances arising specifically from the existence of nuclear weapons and those equally attributable to other technologies or political theories. While she regards certain American constitutional provisions as tools through which the people could regain their control over war-making powers, which would likely require renouncing nuclear weapons, she gives no hint of how this might be done and suggests no means for persuading nations that care nothing for our constitution or Hobbesian analysis to abandon their nuclear weapons. An important discussion that deserves a more disciplined presentation.

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
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Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.50(d)

Meet the Author

Elaine Scarry is the Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University. Her book The Body in Pain was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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