This book gathers important information on the politicization of the schools, even the elementary schools, at the cost of facts—and flight from the world. The means of politicization: “nuclear education” is widespread, according to London’s rudimentary evidence. He contacted over 300 major school districts, and 16 of the 162 districts that answered had formal nuclear education programs either at the primary or secondary level, a figure that led him to extrapolate between 12 and 15 percent throughout the country.

But formal curricula do not tell the whole story: every one of the 162 districts reported a “unit” on nuclear weapons somewhere between first and twelfth grade. Of the 16 schools with formal curricula that answered, six found nuclear materials “balanced.” The rest found them biased but justified their use with the excuse “that nothing else is available to teach the subject.” Asked whether the subject should be taught at all, they replied that “this is a life or death issue that we must confront”—in the schools.

The teachers who had to live with the consequences of the administrators’ readiness to yield to pressure were more blunt, the bluntness that comes of living in contradictions: “I don’t want to indoctrinate my students, but I am in a trap. The board wants me to teach about nuclear weapons, but the only guides available to me are written by one side.”

Ninety percent of schools with formal programs use seven manuals written not by scholars and scientists, but by activist groups whose revealing pedigrees London does not mention. For instance, the Union of Concerned Scientists, responsible for one of the manuals most used. Choices: A Unit on Conflict and Nuclear War, numbers few scientist members: a random poll in 1982 of 7,741 scientists, turned up only one member, a result that led to the extrapolation of less than 200 members from the 130,000 scientists listed in American Men and Women of Science. Or take International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the Nobel Prize in 1985, whose copresident, with Dr. Bernard Lown of Harvard, is Dr. Eugene Chazov, Soviet deputy minister of health, and which divides its membership between members of the Soviet Academy of Medical Sciences and American doctors, “a loony symmetry,” an American journalist called it. “Never forget the appeal that the idea of disarmament has in the outside world. All you have to do is say, I’m in favor of it,’ and that pays big dividends,” Khrushchev in September 1960 told Arkady Shevchenko, who worried that the sudden Soviet offer of complete disarmament would undo serious, much more limited, negotiations to control armaments.

Besides their luminous pedigrees, the organizations that design these curricula have cash, a good deal of it from foundations. In 1985 the MacArthur Foundation gave 25 million dollars, over three years, for nuclear education programs—most of it for universities and “think-tanks” but some also for schools, with Ruth Adams (former editor of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists) as director. In 1987 the Ford Foundation spent four million dollars for peace studies programs, the Carnegie Corporation five to seven million dollars, specifically for “risk reduction centers” in Moscow and Washington to foster contacts between Soviet and American scientists and scholars. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund also gives money to “scholars” in search of ways to prevent a nuclear crisis. Because most of this work does not study the events leading up to our present situation, because it never thinks of learning from the past, it can only provide academic endorsement for political activism.

The manuals and school curricula pretend to openness, but it is an openness that brooks no opposition: “No particular political view other than the desire to end the arms race is embraced,” is one of the peace organizations’ self-descriptions. They rarely mention deterrence, because mentioning deterrence would mean recognizing actual danger, recognizing that there may be good reasons for nuclear weapons, reasons other than adult irresponsibility.

The “all or nothing” psychology of these groups makes discussion with them next to impossible: “The peace advocates argue that if all Americans were only sensitive to the destructive efforts of nuclear war, we can put the genie back in the bottle.” They want to “sensitize” those who disagree, and assume their opponents want nuclear war, not to prevent it through firmness. “Sensitizing” means exciting fear: “I am very scared—very, very scared. Because with a nuclear war, you don’t have a chance to survive,” the Harvard Educational Review quoted a student in August 1984. In Jamestown, Pennsylvania in 1985 the intercom system announced a Soviet attack on an American ship, a civics lesson “to make the kids consider the implication of an international crisis in a more realistic way,” John Chancellor of NBC commented.

“Experts” blame this fear on the situation, not on activist groups. Robert J. Lifton of Yale came close to relating teenage suicide to fear of nuclear war. A psychoanalytically-oriented historian, an associate of Lifton, found young men haunted by the unreality of nuclear weapons, the unpredictability of existence, the bland vocabulary of annihilation, and the world’s insanity—”not at all surprising fears” of scenarios presented out of historical context, London writes, and fears incidentally that flourished long before nuclear weapons. One result of this education: the White House received in 1983 more than 100 letters a day “from frightened, ill-informed children, who in writing to the President, are fulfilling classroom assignments” (according to Senator Orrin Hatch in the Congressional Record).

This mobilizing of children, a classic totalitarian technique, assumes children can face realities adults cannot—adults “not yet civilized enough to allow a child to lead us.” London correctly writes that “the young have been made pawns in a political movement they did not create and cannot possibly understand.” But there are indications that some of the young have more sense than the organizations seeking to manipulate them. John Mack of Harvard Medical School and another “researcher” betrayed impatience-with many high-school students who offered grimly to “go to war” to “fight the Russians” after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. To put some good sense into his colleagues, Robert Coles argued that nuclear fears existed largely among the affluent children exposed to campaigns and with fearful parents, not among “workers [who] resent being told they’re dumb and numb by upscale preachers of nuclear doom and gloom.”

Why do schools, especially school administrators, yield so readily to the pressures of these activist organizations that make them uncomfortable? Why are they not able to say that nuclear education is not an academic subject, as Roger Scruton and Caroline Cox argued in Encounter in 1985, and that manuals like Choices are “not education . . . but political indoctrination,” as the Washington Post wrote? This is the real question this book raises.


[Armageddon in the Classroom: An Examination of Nuclear Education, by Herbert I. London; Lanham, MD: University Press of America]