I can still remember sneaking with two friends into the balcony of some Broadway movie palace to see the world end. The year was 1959, the film was On the Beach, and I was 15. It was the movie version of Neville Shute's still eerie 1957 novel about an Australia awaiting its death sentence from radioactive fallout from World War III, which had already happened in the northern hemisphere. We three were jacked by the thrill of the illicit and then, to our undying surprise, bored by the quiet, grownup way the movie imagined human life winding down on this planet. ("We're all doomed, you know. The whole, silly, drunken, pathetic lot of us. Doomed by the air we're about to breathe.")
It couldn't hold a candle to giant, radioactive, mutant ants heading for L.A. (Them!), or planets exploding as alien civilizations nuclearized themselves (This Island Earth), or a monstrous prehistoric reptile tearing up Tokyo after being awakened from its sleep by atomic tests (Godzilla), or for that matter the sort of post-nuclear, post-apocalyptic survivalist novels that were common enough in that era.
It's true that anything can be transformed into entertainment, even versions of our own demise -- and that there's something strangely reassuring about then leaving a theater or turning the last page of a book and having life go on. Still, we teenagers didn't doubt that something serious and dangerous was afoot in that Cold War era, not when we "ducked and covered" under our school desks while (test) sirens screamed outside and the CONELRAD announcer on the radio on the teacher's desk offered chilling warnings.
Nor did we doubt it when we dreamed about the bomb, as I did reasonably regularly in those years, or when we wondered how our "victory weapon" in the Pacific in World War II might, in the hands of the Reds, obliterate us and the rest of what in those days we called the Free World (with the obligatory caps). We sensed that, for the first time since peasants climbed into their coffins at the millennium to await the last days, we were potentially already in our coffins in everyday life, that our world could actually vanish in a few moments in a paroxysm of superpower destruction.
Today, from climate change to pandemics, apocalyptic scenarios (real and imaginary) have only multiplied. But the original world-ender of our modern age, that wonder weapon manque, as military expert, TomDispatch regular, and author of Prophets of War: Lockheed and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex Bill Hartung points out, is still unbelievably with us and still proliferating. Yes, logic -- and the evidence from Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- should tell us that nuclear weapons are too staggeringly destructive to be usable, but in crisis moments, logic has never been a particularly human trait. How strange, then, that a genuine apocalyptic possibility has dropped out of our dreams, as well as pop culture, and as Hartung makes clear, is barely visible in our world. Which is why, on a landscape remarkably barren of everything nuclear except the massive arsenals that dot the planet, TomDispatch considers it important to raise the possibility of returning the nuclear issue to the place it deserves in the human agenda. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Hartung discusses the upside-down world of global nuclear politics, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Tom
Beyond Nuclear Denial
How a World-Ending Weapon Disappeared From Our Lives, But Not Our World
By William D. Hartung
There was a time when nuclear weapons were a significant part of our national conversation. Addressing the issue of potential atomic annihilation was once described by nuclear theorist Herman Kahn as "thinking about the unthinkable," but that didn't keep us from thinking, talking, fantasizing, worrying about it, or putting images of possible nuclear nightmares (often transmuted to invading aliens or outer space) endlessly on screen.
Now, on a planet still overstocked with city-busting, world-ending weaponry, in which almost 67 years have passed since a nuclear weapon was last used, the only nuke that Americans regularly hear about is one that doesn't exist: Iran's. The nearly 20,000 nuclear weapons on missiles, planes, and submarines possessed by Russia, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, China, Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea are barely mentioned in what passes for press coverage of the nuclear issue.
Today, nuclear destruction finds itself at the end of a long queue of anxieties about our planet and its fate. For some reason, we trust ourselves, our allies, and even our former enemies with nuclear arms -- evidently so deeply that we don't seem to think the staggering arsenals filled with weaponry that could put the devastation of Hiroshima to shame are worth covering or dealing with. Even the disaster at Fukushima last year didn't revive an interest in the weaponry that goes with the "peaceful" atom in our world.
Attending to the Bomb in a MAD World
Our views of the nuclear issue haven't always been so shortsighted. In the 1950s, editor and essayist Norman Cousins was typical in frequently tackling nuclear weapons issues for the widely read magazine Saturday Review. In the late 1950s and beyond, the Ban the Bomb movement forced the nuclear weapons issue onto the global agenda, gaining international attention when it was revealed that Strontium-90, a byproduct of nuclear testing, was making its way into mothers' breast milk. In those years, the nuclear issue became personal as well as political.
In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy responded to public pressure by signing a treaty with Russia that banned atmospheric nuclear testing (and so further Strontium-90 fallout). He also gave a dramatic speech to the United Nations in which he spoke of the nuclear arms race as a "sword of Damocles" hanging over the human race, poised to destroy us at any moment.
Popular films like Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove captured both the dangers and the absurdity of the superpower arms race. And when, on the night of October 22, 1962, Kennedy took to the airwaves to warn the American people that a Cuban missile crisis was underway, that it was nuclear in nature, that a Soviet nuclear attack and a "full retaliatory strike on the Soviet Union" were possibilities -- arguably the closest we have come to a global nuclear war -- it certainly got everyone's attention.
All things nuclear receded from public consciousness as the Vietnam War escalated and became the focus of antiwar activism and debate, but the nuclear issue came back with a vengeance in the Reagan years of the early 1980s when superpower confrontations once again were in the headlines. A growing anti-nuclear movement first focused on a near-disaster at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania (the Fukushima of its moment) and then on the superpower nuclear stand-off that went by the name of "mutually assured destruction" or, appropriately enough, the acronym MAD.
The Nuclear Freeze Campaign generated scores of anti-nuclear resolutions in cities and towns around the country, and in June 1982, a record-breaking million people gathered in New York City's Central Park to call for nuclear disarmament. If anyone managed to miss this historic outpouring of anti-nuclear sentiment, ABC news aired a prime-time, made-for-TV movie, The Day After, that offered a remarkably graphic depiction of the missiles leaving their silos and the devastating consequences of a nuclear war. It riveted a nation.