The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set the infamous Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight in January 2018, making this our closest call since the 1950s. Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies says the risks are increasingly multipolar. They include the Trump administration’s more aggressive nuclear posture review; the abandonment of key arms treaties with Russia and Iran; tensions between the nuclear-armed India and Pakistan; and the weakening of international institutions such as the United Nations. Possibilities such as a cyberattack that could trigger a missile launch are also worrisome. Frighteningly, says Tom Nichols, a professor with the U.S. Naval War College, decision-makers — and the public they are supposed to answer to — don’t seem to realize how unstable the situation really is.
Pop culture was once full of mushroom clouds and nuclear winters. From the somber warnings of “On the Beach” to the satirical absurdism of “Dr. Strangelove,” mass media continually sounded the alarm about where we seemed to be headed. Authors such as Kurt Vonnegut and performers including Prince and Tom Lehrer obsessed about our tendency toward self-destruction, as did director James Cameron in his movie “The Terminator.”
Nuclear Armageddon provided conveniently heightened stakes for storytellers, but those fantasies made Americans aware of a genuine threat. “Popular culture was an important factor in shaping people’s perceptions and levels of concern about nuclear war,” says Martin Pfeiffer, a PhD candidate at the University of New Mexico who focuses on nuclear weapons. “The Day After” was watched by 100 million people, and many people credit it with contributing to President Ronald Reagan’s change of heart on nuclear disarmament.
Cold War pop culture also demonstrated a perfect response to an existential problem. Works including “WarGames,” “The Terminator” and “Dr. Strangelove” illuminated the abhorrent logic behind choosing to launch such unthinkable weapons, as well as the computer systems that might automate such a choice. Post-apocalyptic movies such as “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” and “The Day After” forced people to imagine the misery of life after a nuclear strike.
Those two approaches, combined with decades of activism, helped build public support for the policy changes that made a potentially civilization-ending conflict less likely.
Let’s hope pop culture starts to warn us once again. Pfeiffer says the challenge of talking about the risk of nuclear holocaust is to raise enough awareness to galvanize people to take small, constructive steps — but not so much that people become paralyzed with anxiety over the enormity of the threat.
The good news is, fictional portrayals of nuclear conflagration don’t have to rehash the same old story lines; it’s no longer just a matter of the United States and the Soviet Union staring each other down. And it’s not merely rogue states that pose a risk, either. There are many ways a possible misunderstanding, including one induced by a rogue hacker, could lead to a nuclear strike.
Creators who are looking for new and terrifying post-apocalyptic story lines could stand to remember that even a “limited” nuclear exchange, involving about 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs, could have far-ranging aftereffects, including failing crops and widespread famine affecting people far from the impact site.
Those of us who remember the Cold War have been left with an indelible impression of atomic horror and of the vivid storytelling that brought this fear home.
Mass media is already awash in apocalyptic visions, but in addition to watching Thanos wipe out half of the universe with a snap of his fingers in the “Avengers” franchise, we need more stories that showcase the lunacy of policy ideas such as “instant retaliation,” “ladders of escalation” and a brand-new nuclear arms race. And instead of looking to superheroes for our salvation, we could also use more positive stories about how ordinary people can work together to persuade our political leaders to go back to the negotiating table.
It’s hard to imagine the enormity of nuclear war — which is why books, movies and TV shows were so vitally important in helping us visualize the worst scenarios. But now that the risk is high once again, many of us are in denial about the peril. We need activism, but we also need new stories, to push us to confront this nightmare before it’s too late.