Schell’s companion, Irena Gross, told the Associated Press that Schell died Tuesday at their home in New York City. The cause was cancer, Gross said Wednesday.
With a hatred of war was shaped in part by his eyewitness accounts of U.S. military operations in Vietnam, Schell wrote for decades about the consequences of violence ― real and potential ― with a rage and idealism that never seemed to wane.
Schell wrote for The New Yorker, Newsday and The Nation among others, and published several books, notably “The Village of Ben Suc” about Vietnam and “The Fate of the Earth,” published in 1982 during an especially tense moment of the Cold War.
“The machinery of destruction is complete, poised on a hair trigger, waiting for the ‘button’ to be ‘pushed’ by some misguided or deranged human being or for some faulty computer chip to send out the instruction to fire,” Schell wrote in the book, which drew upon a series of articles for The New Yorker. “That so much should be balanced on so fine a point ― that the fruit of four and a half billion years can be undone in a careless moment ― is a fact against which belief rebels.”
Although some reviewers found Schell’s book shrill and overstated, “Fate of the Earth” had a powerful impact on public awareness of nuclear weapons and received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
“There are moments when it seems to hurtle, almost out of control, across an extraordinary range of fact and thought,” Kai Erickson wrote in The New York Times when the book came out. “But in the end, it accomplishes what no other work has managed to do in the 37 years of the nuclear age. It compels us ― and compel is the right word ― to confront head on the nuclear peril in which we all find ourselves.”
Schell’s other books included “The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons Now,” “The Unfinished Twentieth Century” and “The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger.” He taught at several schools, including Princeton University and Wesleyan University and was a visiting professor at Yale at the time of his death.
A native of New York City, Schell was a graduate of Harvard University. His brother, Orville Schell, is a longtime journalist and activist and former head of the journalism school at the University of California, Berkeley.