A few days ago, I read that the Berlin Wall has been gone for as long as it existed (28 years, two months and 27 days). In a similar vein, give or take a few years, I spent half of my life living in a world where the possibility of an atomic holocaust was a daily reality and half of my life breathing the massive, collective sigh of relief that came when the USSR collapsed and the imminent, looming threat of nuclear war faded into the distance – or so we thought.
In the years since the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons occasionally figured into public consciousness – think of the threat of terrorists getting their hands on a “dirty bomb” or the standoff between India and Pakistan in the months after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States – but for the most part, since the collapse of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day in 1991, we have largely forgotten that we are, at any given moment, some 30 minutes (the approximate time it would take a ballistic missile to fly from the United States to Russia or the other way around) removed from a civilization-ending catastrophe.
North Korea staged its first nuclear bomb test in 2008, adding a new variable to the planet’s nuclear calculus. But while no reasonable person could be comfortable with the idea of another murderous, totalitarian regime having nuclear weapons, I had a certain confidence that some combination of diplomacy and deterrence would ensure that the North Korean nuclear arsenal would remain unused.
Then the unthinkable happened. In 2016, the world’s largest nuclear power and the only nation to ever use atomic weapons elected a man with no political or military experience and a demonstrated ignorance of the fundamentals of nuclear doctrine to be the person with the sole authority to launch nuclear weapons. Donald Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that he is completely unfit to bear responsibility for the American nuclear arsenal. During his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump revealed that he had no idea what the nuclear triad is, and asked a foreign policy advisor why the United States couldn’t use nuclear weapons. At a July 2017 meeting with advisors Trump reportedly expressed his desire for the United States to raise its current nuclear weapons stockpiles by a factor of ten, a move that would reverse decades of American nuclear policy and violate international treaties.
While Trump denies reports about him wanting more nuclear weapons and the freedom to use them, his public statements about nuclear weapons, specifically how he intends to deal with the North Korean threat, are no less frightening. From his threats to “totally destroy” North Korea (delivered from the podium of the United Nations General Assembly) and to inflict “fire and fury” on the North Korean people, to his tweet about the size of his “nuclear button”, Trump has frequently engaged in careless rhetoric that has played a major role in reanimating the nuclear anxiety that defined much of my life as a child and teenager. That renewed anxiety came into sharp focus on 13 January 2018, when officials in Hawai’i mistakenly triggered the state’s civil defence warning system, causing many residents to believe that they were moments away from certain death.
On 3 February 2018, WNYC’s On the Media featured a number of segments that put our renewed nuclear anxiety in a larger cultural context. The first, “An Apocalyptic Tick-Tock,” discussed the recent decision by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to advance the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight. The second, “The Day After, Today,” recalls the effects that the 1983 made-for-television movie The Day After had on the collective mood at a particularly heightened moment of Cold War tension. The final segment, “What The Simpsons Can Teach Us About Nuclear Apocalypse,” examines how popular culture could play a key role in rebuilding our collective sense of self after a civilization-ending nuclear holocaust.
On 25 January, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic representation of how close we are to nuclear war, thirty seconds forward, setting it to two minutes to midnight, meaning that, in the estimation of the experts, we are as close to all-out nuclear war as we were in 1953, when the Soviet Union tested its first thermonuclear bomb. On the Media co-host Bob Garfield interviewed Lawrence Krauss, theoretical physicist and chair of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Board of Sponsors, who discussed how the scientists responsible for setting the clock do so in response to global events and rhetoric. In 2007 the clock moved forward by two minutes in reaction to the first North Korean nuke test and Iran’s stated nuclear ambitions, among other things; last year, the clock inched forward by thirty seconds in large part because of the “incredibly dangerous statements made by candidate Trump about nuclear weapons.”
Of particular concern to Krauss right now is the recently-released Nuclear Posture Review, a document that sets out America’s “nuclear policy, strategy, capabilities and force posture for the next five to ten years.” The emerging American nuclear policy broadens the range of circumstances in which the country might resort to using nuclear weapons “to include non-nuclear strategic attacks on civilian populations, infrastructure, and U.S. nuclear forces” and for increased capabilities in terms of small-scale tactical nuclear weapons. This second aspect is particularly troubling to Krauss because smaller weapons may be thought to be a class apart from strategic nukes, making their use more likely and thereby undermining the concept of deterrence.
Trump’s erratic comments about nuclear weapons and the resulting decision to move the Doomsday Clock forward have led Marsha Gordon, Professor of Film Studies at North Carolina State, to ask if it isn’t time for “a 21st-century version of The Day After,” the controversial nuclear war drama that ABC aired in 1983. As Gordon points out in her discussion with On the Media’s Brooke Gladstone, the airing of The Day After, which happened exactly thirty years after the famous broadcast of the “Iron Mike” thermonuclear test, came at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. That year, the Russians shot down a Korean airliner that had accidentally wandered into their airspace, a radar glitch made it appear that the USA was launching a nuclear attack on the Soviets, and NATO war games convinced some Russian military leaders that an attack on their country was imminent. The Day After brought those tensions into American living rooms. The movie focused national discussion on the threat of nuclear war: ABC even released a viewer’s guide complete with questions to help people discuss what they had just seen.
Moreover, it had lasting effects on a generation of television viewers. Wayne, an On the Media listener who lives in Hawai’i and went through January’s false alarm episode, wrote in to talk about how watching The Day After as a teenager shaped how he experienced being notified that a nuclear missile was potentially on its way. When the alarm went off, he didn’t feel panic or fear. Rather, he felt resignation, telling himself “well, it finally happened.” This sense of finally facing the inevitable grew out of the fact that he, like me, as part of “the last generation that grew up during the Cold War,” knew that “nuclear annihilation was always a possibility…That anxiety was always there, and it never left us.”
I remember watching The Day After, and I also remember watching the even-more-chilling Threads, a similarly-themed BBC film that came out the same year. These films were just a small part of the nuclear culture that permeated my youth. Knowing that it was only a matter of time before a nuclear war broke out, I prepared myself as best as my young mind would allow me to. For years I read, at least once a week, 11 Steps to Survival, a probably completely useless civil defence pamphlet published by the Canadian government, and I pored over books and encyclopedia articles about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I can still recall the chilling fear that came over me every Saturday morning when my cartoons were interrupted by a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. I knew, even as a kid, that one day, I’d hear that buzzing sound for real and I, my family, and everything I knew would disappear in a flash.
…there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to go around suggesting that we are having a collective mental breakdown caused by the Trump presidency, the fears and anxieties I’m talking about did not originate with the campaign and eventual election of Donald Trump; the optimism for the long-term well-being of humanity that bloomed with the end of the Cold War long ago died a death by a thousand cuts dealt by terrorist attacks, illegal wars, bloody occupations, and torture regimes, all unfolding on a planet getting too hot to sustain human beings. That said, the dawn of Trump’s America has played a huge role in amplifying those feelings and intensifying their contagion.
I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, a condition that makes it very difficult for me to live the life that I want to live, and that, at its worst, has led me to contemplate suicide. As I read the news now I realize the extent to which growing up in the Cold War had important effects on the mental health of individuals and, as Wayne points out, on collective generations of people. It’s impossible to spend your life with the awareness that a nuclear war is possible and not, individually or collectively, be deeply scarred by that experience.
I’m fifty years old now, and I understand that what we thought was the end of the nuclear threat after the end of the Cold War was a lie. It is impossible for humankind to exist in a world where individual men have the power to unleash Armageddon; it’s simply a matter of time before brinksmanship, failed diplomacy, fear, naked aggression, or a technical glitch leads to that buzzer interrupting whatever we’re watching on television and putting us on a half-hour countdown to a brutal end. Trump’s reckless words may accelerate the process, but it’s going to happen one way or another. And like Wayne, I expect that I will not be panicked. I’ll simply hold my wife close and wait for an end that I always knew would come.