Avoiding Apocalypse by Jeff Colvin [A Review]

In Avoiding Apocalypse, Jeff Colvin shares an alternative narrative of the causes of the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union. But, he stresses the work on preventing nuclear annihilation is far from done and if the lessons of what has prevented it thus far are not properly understood we run the risk of failing to prevent it in future.

Avoiding Apocalypse is essentially a political history book. Its subject is how the Cold War – between the Soviet Union and Western allies led by the United States – ended. However, its conclusion is one that goes against the popular narrative of that history. It instead delivers an alternative view of the key factors that ended a decades-long standoff between superpowers, each with enough nuclear firepower to cause a mass extinction event on this planet.

Cover image of Avoiding Apocalypse by Jeff Colvin

Anything that challenges accepted versions of events should rightfully trigger scepticism. Anyone wishing to swim against such currents must bring with them sufficient aids. Often those who take up such challenges will appeal to preconceptions, emotions, tribalism and use every rhetorical device in their arsenal. Unfortunately, reason and evidence can often be less persuasive at least in the short term.

The popular narrative of how the Cold War ended is that it was achieved by America vigorously outspending the Soviet Union in military defence. This is mostly the interpretation of the American political Right who consequently claim the Cold War did not ‘end’ but was ‘won’ by America.

There are many on the right who claim today that Reagan’s peace-through-strength confrontationalism is what won the Cold War by forcing the Soviet Union to spend itself into bankruptcy. These claims, however, do not withstand scrutiny.

Any serious examination of Soviet responses to Reagan’s belligerent rhetoric and the U.S. military build-up shows that while there was concern and worry among Soviet military planners there was no panic, no over-reaction. […] The Soviets reacted to [the Strategic Defence Initiative] more with confusion than with alarm […] they also believed that the American proposals were technically unworkable, and in any event, could be easily counteracted at far less expense than what the U.S. was proposing to spend to develop and deploy a defensive system. The fact that the Soviets did not spend even modest sums on SDI countermeasures, or on an SDI of their own, shows that the American right’s claim that SDI forced the collapse of the Soviet Union is just nonsense.

Alternatively, the political Left see the end of the Cold War as a triumph of their favoured strategy – bilateralism. But, bilateral agreements are meaningless without verification which cannot be achieved without a free and open society.

In Avoiding Apocalypse, author Jeff Colvin argues that both of these interpretations of events are deeply flawed and presents an alternative cause for the end of the Cold War – the Scientist’s Boycott.

Colvin is a scientist. He spent much of his career at the US’s two nuclear weapons design laboratories at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore. As well as co-authoring more than one hundred peer-reviewed papers he is also co-author of Extreme Physics; a standard graduate-level textbook of physics which grew out Cold War era nuclear weapons development.

And while the subject of Avoiding Apocalypse is political history, Colvin takes on the subject as a scientist. By which I mean, he is careful with words and what he means by them; he supports his arguments clearly with evidence; he considers alternative explanations and uses reason to measure their strengths and weaknesses and similarly reaches his conclusions based on the weight and strength of evidence. That is not to say that Colvin does not also make use of metaphor and analogy to explain his ideas.

The Scientist’s Boycott grew spontaneously and organically out of Western scientist’s reaction to appalling treatment of scientists in the Soviet Union. In the West, scientific organisations formed committees and subgroups for human rights to support the refuseniks and dissidents targeted by the Soviet regime, to draw public attention to the interference by the Soviet government and to promote scientific freedom. Boycotts of smaller conferences eventually leads to calls for a complete moratorium on scientific cooperation with the Soviet Union in 1980 dependent on the outcome of the Conference in Madrid to monitor the Helsinki Accords. From this Colvin outlines a chain of events ultimately leading to the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. He argues persuasively that ending the Scientist’s Boycott was a greater motivating force in the decisions that ended the Cold War than any effect imagined by the Right and Left.

One very important aspect of this boycott was that it was, unlike the trade moratorium of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, entirely a grass-roots effort. The scientists’ boycott was conceived, organized, and carried out entirely by individual scientists acting collectively and independently of their governments. This is what made it so powerful, and an action that the Soviet Union could not ignore.

Key to Colvin’s theory is the concept of what he terms “Linkage”. Science cannot function in a vacuum. It requires the foundational aspects of a democracy, such as free expression, in order to thrive. Democracy in turn, functions best with a vigorous scientific ethos and output. The third corner of this triangle would be economic performance which also thrives when science and democracy are both functioning healthily. Linkage implied that arms control policy must also consider peace, democratisation and human rights.

According to Colvin, the Soviet scientists were so ill-treated because they were outspoken advocates for Linkage. The Western scientists who boycotted the Soviet Union were also acting on this principle. The same cannot be said for the majority on the political Right and Left in the West. The Right, for example, looked past the human rights abuses of third world dictators in making agreements. But Colvin argues the main opposition to Linkage in the West came from the Left who saw the inclusion of human rights demands as an unnecessary obstacle to creating the types of arms agreements they favoured. The Cold War ended in Colvin’s view when those in the Soviet Union understood the importance of Linkage and took steps to bring it about.

Soviet scientists, of course, understood from the very beginning the fallacies in the official Soviet position. They already understood and accepted the concept of linkage between science and democracy, much in the same way it was understood by the American revolutionaries of two centuries before. They then made further linkages to human rights and world peace. Thus, contrary to the Soviet government argument that world peace is the only issue that matters, it was the scientists who understood and argued that peace and human rights and democratization – are integrally linked, through the scientific paradigm, and must advance together.

Colvin details the lives of a few of the prominent Soviet dissident scientists but the hero of his story is Andrei Sakharov. Colvin devotes an entire chapter to Sakharov’s life story. As a physicist appointed to work on Soviet nuclear capability during Stalin’s reign, Sakharov’s radical ideas led to the development of the thermonuclear bomb. In later years, when in exile, his ideas gained international attention for its insights into quark theory and the matter-antimatter symmetry problem. But his work on nuclear weapons also directed his thinking on how nuclear arms control could be realistically achieved. His thinking convinced him of the need for Linkage between arms control, democratisation and human rights.

The linkage of arms control with democratization was a crucial insight. It was then a relatively easy step to make the further linkage with human rights. It was painfully obvious to Sakharov that there were all sorts and sizes of citizen constituencies for arms control in the Western countries that had no counterparts at all in the Soviet Union because Soviet citizens were not free to express their opinions, come together in groups and associations, publish, meet with foreigners, or lobby their government, let alone criticize it. Without these fundamental freedoms, which are exactly the same freedoms required for science to flourish, arms control and world peace, according to Sakharov’s thinking, were impossible to achieve.

The Soviet government punished Sakharov in several ways for being outspoken on his ideals before eventually internally exiling him for speaking against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 and, as Colvin tells it, Sakharov’s release from exile and the support given to his ideas by the Gorbachev regime was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.

Meanwhile, it must have become clearer to Gorbachev that the boycott was not going to be forgotten or abandoned anytime soon. He was, at the same time, becoming less tolerant of the boycott, because it was interfering with the business of reform and modernizing of the Soviet economy. Gorbachev needed certain things from the West, things he was not getting because of the boycott. He needed high-technology imports, like computers, high-precision machining tools, electronics of all kinds. He needed access to scientific and technological information. In order for Soviet scientists to play the critical role in Perestroika that he had defined for them, he needed for them to be fully integrated into the world community of scientists. None of this was happening. For all of these reasons, he needed to find a way to end the boycott.

Avoiding Apocalypse contains much else besides. As well as some general history of science and its Linkage, Colvin analyses various arms agreements since the Second World War, critiquing their strengths and failings. As Colvin argues, the best were the ones that used the idea of Linkage as an underlying principle. Colvin also details how new developments in nuclear science have made arms agreements more plausible. Safe and novel experiments removed the need for nuclear testing, for building new weapons to replace aging ones and to keep aging ones safe. This is Colvin’s forte; he specialised in the behaviour of matter at extreme conditions. He also shares his own experiences of attending conferences during the Boycott period and petitioning attendees to their cause.  

My quibbles about this book are relatively minor. For example, Colvin provides notes explaining fission and fusion, at least to a high-school level understanding, once they come up, but he uses terms like ‘Perestroika’ early in the book without explaining them until much later. The book’s examples – of historical science and efforts at nuclear treaties – are American-centric and the book does read at times like it is meant for an American audience. But otherwise it is a book difficult to fault. It is a short easy read; Colvin writes very succinctly; his arguments are well-made and I believe his conclusions could only be discredited with considerable difficulty and nuance.

Avoiding Apocalypse will be published this week but was written in 2020. It is near enough our time to include how arms limitation went backwards during the Trump Administration, threatened to be further regressed had he been re-elected, some of which has been avoided by his 2020 electoral defeat. And yet matters have evolved and escalated so significantly in recent years I can’t help but wonder what Colvin would have to say about them and how he would use his ideas to explain them.

For example, it has recently been reported that the BRIC economies have overtaken the G7 in GDP. Given that the BRIC countries comprise non-democracies and questionably functioning democracies, while the G7 are generally considered to be well-functioning mature democracies, what does this mean for the health status of the Linkage between science, democracy and economic growth? What are the nuances that account for this? Alternatively, is it a meaningless statistic between two arbitrarily chosen groups that can be discounted by a more insightful one?

Also, even conceding Colvin’s main ideas that a major contributor to the end of the Cold War was the Scientist’s Boycott and that lessons from this have not been absorbed; it does not necessarily follow that such an approach could work again. The Cold War period divided the world into very black-and-white terms, but the world is far more integrated today. As evidence, witness how difficult it has been for Europe to boycott Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. Investigations into whether Apple and other large Western corporations can decouple themselves from reliance on China has also raised a lot of concerns and highlighted previously underappreciated issues.

Or perhaps I am not comparing apples with apples.

These questions arise because Avoiding Apocalypse does more than just offer an alternative narrative of the end of the Cold War. In its last few chapters, Colvin considers how things have not necessarily improved since then. The Soviet Union may have ended but, since democracy did not eventuate in Russia, it could be argued that the Cold War is still with us. Colvin reflects on how the lessons of Linkage have not been absorbed if they were ever properly learned. It ends with a rigorous defence of science and an urgent plea to not forget the efforts of those who have succeeded in avoiding disaster so far.

Just as ideological rigidity on both sides of the Cold War conflict had prolonged the conflict, ideological rigidity now threatens reaching a final and permanent ending of the Cold War. And just as it was the scientists on both sides who provided the pathway to ending the Cold War, it could be scientists again who guide us down the path to a final and permanent end of the Cold War.

Avoiding Apocalypse will be released on April 28 2023. Publisher Chronos Books provided an advanced copy in return for an independent review.


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