Jonathan Schell, thinker on peace, dies

Jonathan Schell, a visiting lecturer at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a prominent critic of nuclear weapons, died Tuesday night at his home in Brooklyn after an extended battle with cancer. He was 70.

As a public intellectual, Schell advocated for non-violence. He began his career with The New Yorker, where he wrote from 1967 to 1987. Schell first rose to national attention when he published “The Village of Ben Suc,” a book that described the devastation of a South Vietnamese village by American forces during the Vietnam War. During his years at The New Yorker, Schell published his best known book, “The Fate of the Earth,” which was nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In 1999, a panel of experts convened by New York University declared the book one of the century’s best 100 works of journalism.

Jolyon Howorth, a political science professor at Yale and a friend of Schell, said the book cemented Schell’s reputation as the intellectual father of the 1980s anti-nuclear proliferation movement in Europe and as a strong voice in the debate involving nuclear proliferation on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.

“Jonathan Schell was not only my brother, but one of the most elegant and eloquent voice’s of this generation on the important issues of the day,” said Orville Schell, Jonathan’s brother former Dean of the Journalism School of University of California, Berkeley. “For me, this makes his death a double loss.”

After leaving The New Yorker, Schell wrote for a number of other publications, including Newsday, The Nation, Foreign Affairs and Harper’s. In 1998, Schell became the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute and the Peace and Disarmament Correspondent for The Nation magazine. He taught at Emory, Princeton, New York University, Wesleyan, Harvard and Yale Law School before coming to Yale College as the Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization in 2005.

Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor and publisher of The Nation, wrote in a statement on the publication’s website that Schell was unique among America’s public intellectuals in bravely proposing non-military actions in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 in a regular column he titled “Letter From Ground Zero.”

“It’s a tremendous loss because he was a unique figure who devoted his life and immense energies and unusually brilliant talent in writing and communicating in person the arguments that he believed in so deeply about the cause of peace,” said Charles Hill, a distinguished fellow at the Jackson Institute and a faculty member for the Grand Strategy program. “He was the absolute greatest example of what intellectual and moral debate at a university should be.”

Though Hill said he and Schell often disagreed about the efficacy of non-violence in the face of oppressive regimes, he added that Schell was a gentle debater who never exhibited any animosity when confronted with dissenting ideas. He added that Schell’s constant movement between journalism and academia was a testament to his life as a public intellectual who sought to convey his beliefs through every avenue possible.

Schell was frequently consulted by members of Congress and the media, appearing on television shows such as “The NewsHour” with Jim Lehrer, “The Charlie Rose Show” and “Hardball” with Chris Matthews.

“Jonathan, while obviously on the left in certain matters, was truly a civic-republican,” said political science lecturer James Sleeper. “He was a great soul and a wonderful writer.”

As a visiting professor at Yale from 2010 to 2013, Schell taught two courses: “Strategic, Political, and Moral Dilemmas of the Nuclear Age” and “Nonviolence and Political Power in the Twentieth Century.”

Students described Schell as a generous, enthusiastic and knowledgeable professor.

Mitchell Jones ’16, a student in Schell’s course last spring, said the class challenged him to look at the subject of nuclear policy more closely.

Anirudh Sivaram ’15, a student in the “Nonviolence” seminar last spring, said Schell had a remarkable ability to link events across different regions and time periods and explain broader political trends and paradigms. He added that Schell never imposed his strong opinions to the class and encouraged intellectual diversity within the classroom.

“I remember someone once mentioned to me that Professor Schell’s greatest strength was his ability to hone in on what mattered amidst all the clutter in background,” Sivaram said. “I really loved interacting with him. He was razor sharp, incredibly kind and his humility was the only thing more inspiring than his incredible experiences. His absence will definitely be felt both at Yale and by general civil society.”

Schell also worked with students in Global Zero, a nuclear disarmament group, said Keni Sabath ’16, the organization’s president at Yale. Despite his tough years in the gritty reality of disarmament politics, Schell staunchly maintained his conviction that idealism was vital for the survival of human civilization, she said, adding that Schell was an inspiration to his students.

Born in New York, Schell graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in Far Eastern History in 1965. After studying for a year in Japan, Schell flew to Saigon in the midst of the Vietnam War. According to a Wednesday obituary penned by David Remnick, the editor in chief of The New Yorker on the magazine’s website, Schell obtained a press pass in Saigon under the guise of being a reporter for the Harvard Crimson.

Schell is survived by his companion, Irena Gross, three children, his now-separated wife, two siblings and two grandchildren, among other family members.

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