The Marginalian
The Marginalian

E.B. White on Nuclear Weapons and What It Really Takes to Live in a Peaceful World

E.B. White on Nuclear Weapons and What It Really Takes to Live in a Peaceful World

Each epoch creates a handful of grab-bag terms, phrased in its distinctive vocabulary, to hold its central anxieties. But although the concretization of those anxieties into specific catchphrases might differ from era to era, the undergirding psychology springs from the same elemental, perennial source — the fear of having our safety, security, and basic human freedoms violated.

Today, one of the issues that most foment and torment our collective conscience is contained within the phrase “gun control,” which is of course a grab-bag term for a complex ecosystem of issues including violence, freedom, safety, justice, commerce, morality, and human rights. Half a century ago, at the zenith of the Cold War, its counterpart was the phrase “nuclear disarmament.” The focal point of one individuals — their rights, their responsibilities, their vulnerabilities — and of the other, nations. But the most lucid arguments about the underlying issues apply with striking similarity to both.

Among those is a spectacular essay by E.B. White (July 11, 1899–October 1, 1985) titled “Unity,” penned in the spring of 1960 and later included in Essays of E.B. White (public library) — the same timelessly rewarding volume the foreword to which gave us White’s meta-wisdom on the art of the essay.

White writes:

Most people think of peace as a state of Nothing Bad Happening, or Nothing Much Happening. Yet if peace is to overtake us and make us the gift of serenity and well-being, it will have to be the state of Something Good Happening. What is this good thing? I think it is the evolution of community, community slowly and surely invested with the robes of government by the consent of the governed.

Traditional approaches to peace, White notes, have sought to address symptoms rather than causes — an argument that applies equally to the failures of gun control today. He writes:

We cannot conceivably achieve a peaceful life merely by relaxing the tensions of sovereign nations; there is an unending supply of them. We may gain a breather by relaxing a tension here and there, but I think it a fallacy that a mere easement, or diplomacy triumphant, can ever be the whole base for peace. You could relax every last tension tonight and wake tomorrow morning with all the makings of war, all the familiar promise of trouble.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Waterloo and Trafalgar

The very notion of “disarmament,” White cautions, is emblematic of this futile effort to control outcomes while turning a blind eye to causes:

Unfortunately, disarmament doesn’t have much to do with peace… Keeping itself strong is always a nation’s first concern whenever arms are up for discussion, and disarmament is simply one of the devices by which a nation tries to increase its strength relative to the strength of others. On this naked earth, a nation that approaches disarmament as though it were a humanitarian ideal is either suffering from delusions or planning a deception.


Disarmament talks divert our gaze from the root of the matter, which is not the control of weapons, or weapons themselves, but the creation of machinery for the solution of the problems that give rise to the use of weapons.

Disarmament, I think, is a mirage. I don’t mean it is indistinct or delusive, I mean it isn’t there. Every ship, every plane could be scrapped, every stockpile destroyed, every soldier mustered out, and if the original reasons for holding arms were still present, the world would not have been disarmed. Arms would simply be in a momentary state of suspension, preparatory to new and greater arms. The eyes of all of us are fixed on a shape we seem to see up ahead—a vision of a world relaxed, orderly, secure, friendly. Disarmament looks good because it sounds good, but unhappily one does not get rid of disorder by getting rid of munitions, and disarmament is not solid land containing a harbor, it is an illusion caused by political phenomena, just as a mirage is an illusion caused by atmospheric phenomena, a land mass that doesn’t exist.

Illustration from Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers

In a sentiment that resounds with astonishing pertinence to our present predicament, he adds:

Weapons are worrisome and expensive; they make everyone edgy. But weapons are not and never have been the cause of the trouble.

Noting, with his characteristic genius for metaphor, that arms are “among the most intimate of a nation’s garments … which a nation instinctively conceals from view,” White considers the question of transparency and why mere policing is not the path to amplify trust:

National life is secret life. It is always been secret, and I think it is necessarily secret. To live openly, one must first have a framework of open living — a political framework very different from anything that now exists on the international level. A disarmament arrangement backed by controls and inspection is not such a framework, it is simply a veiled invitation to more and greater secrecy.

An adequate approach to the issue, he argues, must reconcile the liberty of a particular nation with the common good of the world — an argument whose analogue is the growing urgency of reconciling the personal freedom of the individual with the good of the society she inhabits. For an elegant articulation of the paradox, White points to an op-ed by the great Spanish diplomat, writer, and pacifist Salvador de Madariaga, which had appeared in the New York Times Magazine several months earlier:

Señor de Madaringa ended his article with an observation that should inform and enliven every free nation.

“The trouble today,” he wrote, “is that the Communist world understands unity but not liberty, while the free world understands liberty but not unity. Eventual victory may be won by the first of the two sides to achieve the synthesis of both liberty and unity.”

Illustration by Soyeon Kim from Wild Ideas

In a sentiment that echoes his contemporary Primo Levi’s vision for a united humanity, White concludes:

Justice will find a home where there is a synthesis of liberty and unity in a framework of government. And when justice appears on any scene, on any level of society, men’s problems enjoy a sort of automatic solution, because they enjoy the means of solution. Unity is no mirage. It is the distant shore. I believe we should at least head for that good shore, though most of us will not reach it in this life.

Essays of E.B. White, it bears repeating, is an indispensable trove of abiding insight into the human experience revealed through lenses as wide-ranging as railroad travel, Christmas ornaments, Walden, equestrianism, and the psychology of humor. Complement it with White on the future of reading, the two faces of discipline, what makes a great city, and his beautiful letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity.

Published June 28, 2016




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