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Why we need to start worrying and fear the bomb

Opinion: As North Korea and America ratchet up tensions, there are Cold War echoes—a fear that must be harnessed to deter every kind of war
Spencer Weart
150-megaton thermonuclear explosion, Bikini Atoll, 1 March 1954.The unexpected spread of fallout from the test led to awareness of, and research into, radioactive pollution. Courtesy UNO. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
A 150-megaton thermonuclear explosion at Bikini Atoll on Mar. 1, 1954. Courtesy UNO. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
A 150-megaton thermonuclear explosion at Bikini Atoll on Mar. 1, 1954. Courtesy UNO. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Spencer Weart is Director Emeritus of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics, and the author of The Rise of Nuclear Fear (Harvard, 2012).

The ongoing confrontation between the United States and North Korea awakens memories—memories with consequences. President Donald Trump’s impulsive threats of “fire and fury” and his tweets with photos of America’s B-1 heavy bomber, along with the North Koreans’ promises of missile launches alongside their earlier warnings of a “sea of fire,” call up familiar images. Older people, like traumatized soldiers suffering flashbacks, feel again the dread of imminent destruction that suffused the Cold War years. The legacy of nuclear fear has power over younger generations too, bringing an odd mixture of promise and danger.

But while public forebodings of war in Korea multiply, experts—from political analysts to the bond markets—are reacting calmly to the confrontation. After all, the Korean affair is not likely to destroy the world, and it is distracting us from larger historical and technological forces that do merit great fear. But the spectre of nuclear holocaust will be useful if it can teach us to dread not just the crisis of the day, but war in all its forms. Our problem today is not too much anxiety—but too little.

Throughout the Cold War decades, displays of nuclear war imagery showed up obsessively in newspaper and magazine articles, science-fiction and non-fiction books, radio reports and movies and television specials. Most of these pictured a post-apocalypse world, a desolation of radioactive ruins. This was typically a fantasy world stocked with a few solitary yet somehow healthy survivors and perhaps some mutant monsters. Not until the 1980s did film and television venture to show a realistic nuclear war in progress, with horrific scenes of ordinary citizens burned to ashes or dying slowly in makeshift fallout shelters.

When the Cold War ended and people no longer feared a massive attack from an enemy nation, nuclear anxieties transferred to a different target: the individual perpetrator. He was a centuries-old archetype: the mad scientist, the brilliant criminal, the deranged individual or cabal. Newspaper editorials, official declarations, and James Bond movies all taught the public to fear the terrorist with a nuclear bomb. The imagined criminal often consorted with another ancient archetype, the wicked tyrant. This familiar role was assigned at various times to Muammar Gadhafi, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini, or Kim Jung-il.

Imagery has consequences. Narratives of the nuclear-armed mad scientist-criminal-terrorist-tyrant helped to mobilize public support for attacks on weak nations like Iraq. The influence of the older and greater apocalyptic nuclear terror is even more problematic. If nations have built prodigious arsenals and keep them poised, it is partly because people were so obsessed with this uncanny and superhuman power that they felt they had to possess it—and the more of it, the better. They hoped to hold off not only their enemies, but their own fear of annihilation.

The irrational conviction that nuclear war means the literal end of the world is not always harmful, however; it has also served as a deterrent. Historians may debate whether fears of a nuclear holocaust staved off a Third World War, but the fears undoubtedly restrained national leaders. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, both U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev said privately that if they did not resolve the confrontation it would bring the end of humanity. In reality, a nuclear exchange in 1962 could not have destroyed the world, but the idea of apocalypse imbued decisions. And when President Ronald Reagan joined 100 million Americans in viewing one of the new realistic portrayals of nuclear war, the 1983 television movie The Day After, he was depressed for days, according to his diaries. He subsequently foreswore his lifelong anti-Communist belligerence and began working toward detente. Whatever Reagan’s personal motivation, he was impelled by a tremendous popular anti-war movement inspired by media imagery. Evidently, mobilization of the public can be a crucial effect of nuclear fear.

Today, the younger generations that will determine our future did not experience terrifying emotions as part of their nuclear education. For them, the gigantic mutant ants and degenerate war survivors that stalk the memories of their grandparents are obvious myths, evoking only the kind of ironic amusement that young people find in video games, TV shows and superhero movies. These post-Cold War generations should therefore be more ready than their elders to face nuclear missiles dispassionately, not as supernatural prodigies but as plain machinery. Our children too know that nuclear war is rationally unthinkable, and they could eventually recognize that these tens of thousands of costly devices can never realistically be put to a practical use (even if some nations might reserve a few bombs as deterrents). However, people who lack the old mindless horror could be misled into believing that all we need to do is abstain from a nuclear holocaust, when there are other weapons that would cause equivalent devastation. They could learn a wrong lesson from other powerful stories that we have inherited from the past, stories even older than the Cold War.

The Cold War that most people remember followed the advent of hydrogen bombs around 1960. Before that there existed only fission bombs, which are a thousand times less powerful. The “Duck and Cover” civil defence exercises of the 1950s strike people today as ridiculous, but they made perfect sense in the context of bombs with a kill radius of barely a mile. Studying the fire-bombing of Hamburg and Tokyo—and noting that there were far more casualties in Tokyo than in Hiroshima—Cold War strategists developed stories in which fission bombs were just another tool in an ancient tradition of mass slaughter.

What is the actual nuclear threat from North Korea? Not the end of the world, but a few missiles with 1950-grade fission bombs. Comparable destruction can be produced with conventional, non-nuclear weapons, like the immense North Korean artillery battery that threatens to obliterate Seoul. Military planners recognize these facts, of course, and incorporate them in their strategic plans. Plans that are another legacy from the past, plans that mathematically assign targets to every bomb in every contingency, plans formulated before the ashes of Hiroshima settled and that have been regularly updated down to the present. This heritage of cold-blooded military analysis is shaping the specific threats that the North Korean and U.S. leaders are throwing at each other, implying just how they will dispatch their bombs.

Yet technology is working toward a situation where even hydrogen bombs will hardly matter. The obliteration of Mosul gives a warning of how armies will soon be able to target each of us individually with our own personal explosion, and even more efficient warfare is in the offing. If an escalation of belligerence convinces the North Koreans that they must shatter American civilization, they might devise techniques to shut down our indispensable electricity system. Still more doorways to mass death are opening in biological laboratories. The fear of total annihilation may be a residue of the Cold War nuclear standoff, but the fear has become much more broadly applicable. In our obsession with nuclear weapons we fail to see that if we could magically remove them all from Korea, indeed from everywhere, we would remain at risk. It is not only nuclear war that should be unthinkable—but it is a start.

Decision-makers may be drawing on the wrong legacy, menacing opponents in an outdated tradition of aggressive atomic bomb narratives. Dreadful threats lead only to more dreadful threats. Whatever the problems caused by overwhelming nuclear fear, it at least points us in the right direction—that is, definitively away from war. As such, the fear can be useful. Everyone from politicians to the public needs to base their thinking on appropriate emotions. In predicaments like the Korean confrontation, and in all the crises to come, we might well draw on the heritage of automatic, visceral, and unconditional horror of war. Nothing less can inspire the kind of action our situation demands.