Beyond Nuclear Thinking


168 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-0802-3
DDC 327.1




Reviewed by Thomas M.F. Gerry

Thomas M.F. Gerry is a professor of English (Canadian Literature) at
Laurentian University.


Although the title of this work may give a first impression of
overambitiousness, Malcolmson commendably fulfills its implied promise.
The book concisely presents a historical overview of the Nuclear Age,
referring to many of the most significant studies and documents on the
subject. In a brief epilogue, the author explicitly delineates the
central theme of the Nuclear Age, a theme that informs the historical

Malcolmson argues that his focus on the past of the Nuclear Age, as
distinct from many people’s highlighting the present, is a valuable
approach both because almost half a century of events have left a legacy
that in large part shapes current realities and because “nuclearized
thinking” has been “highly resistant to fundamental change,” even
though “the nuclear threat,” as Malcolmson puts it, “is
objectively central to modern world history.” For example, even with
the recent thawing of superpower relations, nuclear weapons systems
continue to proliferate, and their possessors continue to use their
powers “threateningly, and unilaterally, in the interest of the
sovereign state.”

The opening chapter is entitled “The Great Deterrent.” I have been
so numbed by the slogans attending the notion of deterrence that only on
my second reading of the book, having been sensitized by Malcolmson’s
astute presentation, did I once again appreciate the insantity of this
so-called “thinking,” which dominates us to this day. Malcolmson’s
epigraph quotes the 1951 chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee
on Atomic Energy, Senator Brien E. McMahon, who proposes that the United
States make nuclear weaponry “the real backbone of our peace power.”
The idea was not new then, Malcolmson points out, since U.S. President
Truman, in announcing the destruction of Hiroshima, had called for
nuclear weapons to become “a powerful and forceful influence towards
the maintenance of world peace.” Nor has the idea yet exhausted
itself. Richard Cheney, George Bush’s Secretary of Defense, “has
continued to demand,” Malcolmson writes, “that Congress fully fund
just about every nuclear weapons programme that had been launched in
previous years; otherwise, he assert[s], America’s security would be
gravely imperilled.”

The lethal and inevitable double-cross that nuclear weapons perpetrate
was articulated by Lester Pearson (then Canada’s un Ambassador) a few
months after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts. In November 1945 he
foresaw that without an international agreement to restrain the
proliferation of nuclear bombs, “there [would] be competition . . .
the most bitter and disastrous armament race ever run. Like every other
armament race in history, it would follow the same course, of fear,
suspicion, rivalry, desperation and war; only in this case the war would
probably mean international suicide.” Despite such warnings from
Pearson and from many of the bomb’s developers, the nuclear states
chose the arms race rather than a means of control beyond national

The epilogue reiterates the various deadly paradoxes nuclearism has
imposed. In stating that “modern power means both control over nature
and the ever present peril that this power might escape control and
consume its possessors,” Malcolmson links the problem with other
“manifestations of our new state of global interdependence,” such as
environmental and economic concerns. He concludes with a warning: “A
planet dominated by the rules of power politics has only a bleak future.
Unless these rules can be overhauled, the fittest to survive may not
even be human, much less the best of civilization.” Beyond Nuclear
Thinking provides a firm starting point from which to begin such a


Malcolmson, Robert W., “Beyond Nuclear Thinking,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 21, 2024,