A Personal History of the Bomb

I was born in 1954. I was eight the year of the Cuban missile crisis. I am a member of the generation which practiced nuclear safety in schools.

If you were born later, you have probably heard of this but I doubt you were involved in it, because I suspect nuclear attack drills only took place for a year or so in the school system. A siren would sound and the children would crawl underneath their antiquated wooden desks, put their heads between their knees and their arms over their heads. I remember hearing a commentator on the radio explaining that if you were walking down the street when the flash came, you could immediately roll underneath a parked car to protect yourself.

I realize, in writing this, that the nuclear drills of 1962 led directly to the student protests of 1968 and after. I never saw it before, but adult behavior in 1962, arranging useless drills or recommending that we roll underneath parked cars, established clearly that the grown-ups had absolutely no idea what they were doing. They had lost control of the world and were as frightened as we were. They had no idea what to do and, as adults will, were doing their best to cover up their panic by milling around, barking orders, and planning drills. Drilling, I suppose, is an excellent antidote to losing control entirely, running down the street screaming or shitting yourself.

Around 1968 or 1969, I clipped a cartoon from the East Village Other, and for years after it hung on the wall of my bedroom: "What to do in 15 minutes while waiting for the end." It quoted a news item that acknowledged we would have only 15 minutes forewarning of a Soviet strike, and listed some things you could do while waiting: whip off a quickie, take a really good dump, start reading War and Peace, decide to grow a beard.

What I loved about the cartoon was the fact that it laughed at nuclear holocaust--there was nothing else you could do about it. Stanley Kubrick had captured this reaction perfectly in his movie of a few years before, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Peter Sellers crying out, "Gentlemen! This is the war room! You can't fight in here!" epitomized the absurdity of the world of the grownups. The question remained who was at fault, how the world, which in the '50's had seemed full of well-intentioned people, had become so crazy.

Another movie, which had come out around the same time, told almost the same story from a much more serious perspective. Fail-Safe was almost unbearable to watch. At the end of the film, when the American President decided to sacrifice New York to avert a wider nuclear war, a series of freeze-frames portrayed ordinary people and children just like me on the streets of New York, as the bomb went off. I could not handle the information from the screen and went blank, a reaction no movie again produced in me until The Vanishing, years later.

For seven or eight years of my childhood, from the early 1960's until 1970 or so, I had regular nightmares in which I saw the bomb falling towards me and stood frozen, unable to run or even to cry out. I had read John Hersey's Hiroshima and knew that the bomb could dissolve your eyes and make your hair fall out and your skin peel off in strips. It could remove your limbs and make the rest of your body bubble in sores until you dissolved into slime.

I found a sticker on one of those antiquated wooden desks in school from a society called SANE: Two men armed with bows and arrows were aiming at each other point blank. The caption said, "The tighter I pull, the safer I am." A scientists' group maintained a "Nuclear Clock" which began with the hands at five minutes of midnight. From time to time, they announced that based on the failure of negotiations or the introduction of a new weapon, they were moving the minute hand closer to midnight. They never seemed to move it back.

They were well-intentioned but contributed to that helpless, breathless feeling that we were on the cliff's edge, that the bomb was more likely than not to be dropped on us sometime during my childhood. At the same time, the Vietnam war was heating up and there were racial murders and bombings in the South and riots in the summer in the North; the world was hell and we as children were surrounded by incomprehensible violence against which the adults were powerless to defend us and for which they were somehow responsible, because they were adults and owned the world.

Our fear of nuclear attack was, as we would find out some years later, understated. I was afraid of what might happen to me personally--from Hersey's book I knew there were schoolchildren whose only relic was their shadow immortalized on a wall--but the image of war reflected back to us by the surrounding culture told us that society would survive a nuclear attack. The fear was more that it would be transformed into something unrecognizable than that it would end. You can track the image of Armageddon through movies, TV shows and science fiction novels and, as you go back through the decades, the story actually becomes more benign, almost a dream of rural peace compared to what came later. In a number of episodes of The Twilight Zone, cities are emptied, and there is some wreckage, but there is no radiation and no peeling skin. The survivors come out of their holes and are able to live in the world again. This same future was represented in Hollywood movies like The World, The Flesh and the Devil. No-one understood radiation or thought it would have any continuing effects; an awful force would clean out the city, overthrow a few buildings, and that would be it.

These stories didn't attempt to explain the process by which we destroyed ourselves; the bomb merely set the stage for a morality play. If one person survived, the moral was that he could not live without the others. Burgess Meredith breaking his glasses in The Twilight Zone episode "World Enough and Time" was a small tragedy which spoke volumes: there was no-one in the world to make him a new pair; no man is an island. Other stories, like the episode of the same series with Charles Bronson and a Russian woman soldier, or The World, The Flesh and the Devil, optimistically related that in the post-nuclear quiet wilderness, we would finally solve the Prisoner's Dilemma and learn how to cooperate.

This meme resonated for decades, and was repeated in movies that had no overt relationship to nuclear destruction, such as Hell in the Pacific (Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune learn to cooperate, stranded on a Pacific island during World War II) and Swept Away (an upper-class woman and a lower-class man forget their differences when marooned on an island.) In both these films, a return to civilization at the end restored all of the conflicts. While earlier visions of the wasteland had shown people making the best of a bad situation, later movies indicated that civilization was the problem--a view endorsed by Zygmunt Bauman in his book Modernity and the Holocaust, where he says that humans are innately compassionate and that only civilization makes them inordinately violent.

One could argue that these films represented a liberal or left perspective on society: lets flush the whole evil thing and we'll do better without it. There is also a rightist counter-meme, represented by stories in which society returns to a Hobbesian war of all against all after the bomb. Robert Heinlein wrote two linked stories in the early '60's--under a pseudonym, if I remember correctly, possibly because they were so unpleasant. Accepting the relaxed, pastoral vision of nuclear destruction in which everybody has time to flee, Heinlein portrayed a middle class father transformed into a Nietszchean superman, abandoning his weak wife and son because he knows they will not survive, then protecting his daughter, a sexual asset, against predators. The stories were filmed as Panic in Year Zero, with Ray Milland.

The pastoral post-bomb wilderness may first have been displayed in a movie made before the bomb: 1939's Things to Come contained a striking image of a future in which a car was drawn by horses because there is no gasoline. The apocalyptic future is now by far the most popular one in the movies, which decades ago stopped trying to show us a Worlds' Fair style future in which everything is for the best. Mad Max and its sequels and scores of imitations portray man restored to the level of a primitive tribe, cowering in fear of the power of his ancestors and their ability to wield forces he no longer understands. Man is portrayed as a scavenger, using the available pots and remaining gasoline from the past, dressed in ludicrous rags and leavings, and displaying bits and pieces of nonfunctional technology as totemic items to hang on a door or vehicle or wear attached to a hat. The Hobbesian view of the future has triumphed; in very few of these movies is cooperation more than evanescent and desperate. At the end of each of the Mad Max movies, Max, who has usually been tricked or manipulated even by the forces of good, is alone and more destitute than before. At the end of the second film, he had a vehicle and enough gas to carry on; at the start of the third, his truck is pulled by camels; at the end he has nothing left but a stick.

The best expression of the post-nuclear future is in Russell Hoban's novel Riddley Walker. Hoban's future lies in between the pastoral and the Hobbesian: agrarian societies have reformed in which there is room for morality and compassion; however, mystics are racing to discover a formula for the bomb, unaware that their technological abilities fall far short of the necessary. The novel has two extremely poignant moments: Riddley discovers a monument with a date on it in the two thousands. He ascertains from a wise man that several thousand years have elapsed since then, and realizes that in all that time men have not recaptured the intellectual ability, and the technology, they realized in the first two thousand years A.D. Later, the "arms race", which cannot possibly lead to the rediscovery of nuclear technology, incidentally results in the re-invention of gunpowder instead.

Many of these stories, from the 1960's on, shade over into a ludicrous subgenre of science fiction involving mutants with bloated faces or glowing bodies; we have now assimilated the skin-peeling effects of the radiation, which no movie except the Japanese Black Rain has been willing to portray for what it is. Instead of an injury happening to a person who has been exposed to a bomb, the ugly distortion of the body becomes a permanent condition of a race of monsters, who are correspondingly telepathic or have the ability to pop up from the sand like sharks from the ocean.

Anything so powerful in physical nature and in our thoughts eventually becomes a character in itself, via the same process from which our ancestors crystallized thunderstorms into gods. The political cartoonist Herblock portrayed an obnoxious character called the Atomic Bum; in several novels of Philip K. Dick, lethal android-bombs only reveal their nature when they stop behaving like human beings and float to the ceiling just before detonation. A series of movies, mostly bad, in which powerful computers go mad is a reflection of this same meme: man has created technological forces which exceed him, take on a life of their own and may not even need him or find him convenient on the planet. The funniest, most frightening synthesis is in John Carpenter's science fiction comedy Dark Star, in which a spaceship crewman must suit up and attempt to dissuade an intelligent bomb, stuck in the bomb bay doors, from exploding. He tries to do so by retailing undergraduate philosophy to it: how does the bomb know that an external stimulus, namely the order to detonate, was really received and not a hallucination?

Sometime in the '70's, the revelations of "nuclear winter" emerged and we realized that the world-view which had seemed so bleak had actually been pastoral and optimistic. We had believed that there would still be a world, but had acquired the power unbeknownst to ourselves to destroy it completely. It seems paradoxical, but I believe this is when the world began to calm down. We had spent thirty years calculating the odds of survival and wondering what the world would look like; the knowledge that there would be no world cleared the mind marvelously. Some patients panic and despair until the diagnosis is clear; once they know there is no hope they organize themselves to make the best of "the remains of the day". I believe that as soon as the superpowers--or, perhaps, their citizenry--acknowledged that no-one could survive a war, realpolitik shifted to the question of how to avoid one. And everyone knew it. There was a period where we no longer feared and hated the Soviet Union as before, and then the Soviet Union itself evaporated "into air, into thin air".

From age seven until I was fifteen or so, I thought about the bomb every day, and woke up gasping after dreams of it. I no longer think about it very much at all, even though the nuclear risk may be growing again. This time around, we will be back on the ground we were on in the fifties: the danger is of a very limited attack with a homemade weapon against a single city, not of world destruction. But perhaps the capacity for fear wears out like everything else; the French say, "tout lasse, tout passe, tout casse" (everything wears out, passes, breaks down.) I have entitled the following series of essays "The Unregarded Bomb" because it is still with us but we do not think very much about it.