NUCLEAR WAR is a bad idea. On that we can all agree. But there are differences among us on how best to avoid it. Everyone knows that the various views can be arranged neatly along a continuous political spectrum from left to right. Everyone is wrong. These three books demonstrate that the left end of the spectrum defies one single definition. (No doubt there exist at least three others that lead to a comparable conclusion about the right end.)

Neither E.P. Thompson's Beyond the Cold War nor Thomas Powers' Thinking About the Next War is new. The former is a collection of a dozen of Thompson's recently published articles and letters supporting European nuclear disarmament; the latter gathers 19 Powers essays from Commonweal magazine. Indefensible Weapons is really two books, one by Robert Jay Lifton and the other by Richard Falk, sharing a binding, a title, a preface, a conclusion, and a cause.

E.P. Thompson, the British social historian whose 1980 pamphlet Protest and Survive revitalized the European nuclear disarmament movement, provides in Beyond the Cold War a magnificent mixture of adroit analysis, superior scholarship, caustic criticism, and powerful prose. Thompson states clearly what he's against and what he's for. He opposes "exterminism"-- his term for the economic, political, and ideological characteristics of a society which "thrust it in a direction whose outcome must be the extermination of multitudes." He finds repugnant not just that we are preparing for war, but that "we are preparing ourselves to be the kind of societies which go to war." The United States and the Soviet Union "do not have military-industrial complexes: they are such complexes."

What Thompson is for is a nuclear weapons free zone in Europe. Why just Europe? On this point Thompson is defensive. "There is nothing privileged about Europe nor about European life," he assures us. "A nuclear-free world would, of course, be better . . . (but) we can work, effectively, only for what is within our reach." He sees Europe as the fulcrum of the Cold War--a situation which can end in only two ways: by the destruction of the continent or by the reunification of European political culture. Internationalism--putting Europe back into one piece--is his path to disarmament and to survival. And the benefits would spread beyond Europe. A nuclear-free Europe "might take some of the sting out of the Cold War's venom (and) . . . help to save both giants from themselves."

Journalist Powers introduces his book on a somber note. "Since 1945," he writes, "the United States and the Soviet Union have been preparing to fight each other in a big war, and eventually they are going to do it. . . . When the war comes, we shall fight it with the weapons at hand, and these prominently include nuclear weapons." He expects the war eventually to come, but neither to destroy the world nor to exhaust the nuclear arsenals. A "nuclear war would not end the danger of nuclear war," he observes. Even in this darkly clouded projection, Powers looks for a silver lining. "Nevertheless," he says, "the most favorable moment for true arms control is immediately after the shooting stops, while the odor of the consequences is till in the air. . . . I do not think it is a counsel of despair to suggest that the time to prepare for the next favorable moment is now." It is with these pessimistic--if not desperate--words that Powers ends the second essay in this collection. How should we prepare for the (questionably) "favorable moment" that will be ours in the wake of the next nuclear war? No direct answer is given.

What Powers does offer (in the 16th essay) are some principles upon which a movement to abolish not only nuclear weapons, but war itself, might be founded. These range from realizing that nuclear war can happen, to recognizing that an abolitionist movement "must be personal before it can be political." "What might be the occasion for a spontaneous arousal on the necessary scale, short of a major war?" he asks himself. "This I cannot answer," he replies.

Psychiatrist Lifton and international law professor Falk coin their own "ism" to oppose. Theirs is "nuclearism," by which they mean "psychological, political, and military dependence on nuclear weapons, the embrace of the weapons as a solution to a wide variety of human dilemmas, most ironically that of 'security.' " What these authors are for is less clear. Lifton's book-within-a-book cites as the goal "nuclear awareness." Not much help there. In Falk's sub-book we're told (repeatedly) that overcoming nuclearism presupposes "supplanting the Machiavellian world picture with some version of a holistic world picture"--whatever that means. And their jointly authored conclusion ends with a call "to liberate the planet from the menace of nuclearism," which serves to remind us of what we're supposed to be against, but provides little guidance on what we're supposed to be for. Indeed, at times it seems that Lifton and Falk are trying to confuse us. For what other reason would Lifton feel compelled to create and use labels like "Protean style," "invisible contamination," "symbolic immorality," and "ideological totalism"? And why would Falk at one point characterize as "a typical misguided view" Rep. Thomas Downey's (D-N.Y.) statement that "the only rational purpose of the United States' nuclear weapons is to deter, by threat of retaliation, an adversary's use of its nuclear weapons" and, less than a hundred pages later, himself support "retention of a limited number of nuclear weapons as an instrument of ultimate resort, confined in its potential role to a nuclear retaliation to a nuclear attack"?

Deterrence theory is addressed by the other authors as well. Thompson is tough on it: "a pitiful, light-weight theory," "a very simple, and simple-minded, idea (that) . . . always in the end . . . has broken down." He's even tougher on defense experts, defining one as "a person with a hole in the head where politics and morality ought to be." (Thompson's book would be worth reading just for his piquant puncturing of over-inflated concepts and characters.)

Powers credits the nuclear deterrent arsenals with ensuring that neither superpower would deliberately start a nuclear war for gain, but points out that these forces cannot guarantee that non-nuclear conflicts won't escalate to nuclear ones. For these reasons, he concludes that deterrence is "only a stopgap, not a solution," and that "we have got to find some way of freeing ourselves from the danger of war itself." He's easy on the experts too. "Why do the men who know most about nuclear weapons depend on something so demonstrably feeble as common sense to prevent their use?" he asks. "Because there is nothing else" is his response.

Unfortunately, Powers is right about deterrence as a strategy: it is temporary; it is feeble; and it is all we have. We must take care not to weaken this already fragile shield until we have something stronger to stand between ourselves and nuclear annihilation. The search for a replacement must be intensified and expanded. To give up now would be to formulate the fundamental question about nuclear war as one not of whether, but of when.