Are We Finally Waking Up? Signs of New Awareness of the Nuclear Threat

Posted on April 30, 2024 By

by John Whitehead

Nuclear weapons have threatened humanity’s survival for almost 80 years. During the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the nuclear threat received substantial attention and inspired significant anti-nuclear activism, such as the June 1982 rally against nuclear weapons in New York City that drew roughly 1 million people. In the 21st century, however, the nuclear threat has not galvanized the same kind of action, at least in the United States, that it did in the 20th, despite the nuclear threat growing amid various conflicts among nuclear-armed nations.

Americans’ comparative neglect of the nuclear threat in the 21st century may finally be ending, though. In the first half of 2024, elements of the media and entertainment industry, which can play a major role in shaping public opinion, have given renewed attention to the colossal threat posed by nuclear weapons. These signs of serious concern about the nuclear threat are very encouraging and worth noting.

The Times’ “At the Brink”

The New York Times ran a series of opinion pieces in March on the nuclear threat, entitled “At the Brink.” The series’ introduction declared “The risk of nuclear conflict is rising . . . Is anyone paying attention?”

One opinion piece gives a sense of how pressing the nuclear threat is today by revealing the Biden administration’s fears of Russia using a nuclear weapon in Ukraine. In late 2022, when Russia was losing ground to the Ukrainian counter-offensive, such a resort to nuclear weapons loomed as a real possibility. The opinion piece notes “The possibility of a nuclear strike, once inconceivable in modern conflict, is more likely now than at any other time since the Cold War.”

Seeking to remind readers of the precise nature of the threat, “The Brink” series portrays, through words and graphics, what a nuclear strike would be like: “A brilliant white flash envelops the sky for miles, briefly blinding everyone who witnesses it  . . . Temperatures inside the explosion reach millions of degrees, hotter than the surface of the sun . . .  The wreckage — what once was asphalt, steel, soil, glass, flesh and bone — is suctioned into the roiling stem of a mushroom cloud rising for miles.” The article also covers the long-term health and environmental consequences of nuclear weapons’ use.

Another opinion in the series examines the president’s authority, without any checks or balances, to order nuclear weapons’ use and the dangers this authority presents. The opinion piece makes the modest but significant proposal that “Congress should immediately establish a new legal framework that restricts the president from being able to issue a nuclear launch order without the consent of another senior official unless the United States is already under attack.”

A different “At the Brink” piece identifies further concrete steps to reduce the nuclear threat and makes the welcome declaration that “It’s Time to Protest Nuclear Weapons Again.”

Turning Point: The Bomb and the Cold War

Another encouraging sign is a documentary series that debuted on Netflix in March, Turning Point: The Bomb and the Cold War. This nine-part series surveys the history of both of first Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union and the second, current Cold War between the United States and Russia. As the title suggests, nuclear weapons and their threat are the series’ central concern.

The Bomb and the Cold War has limitations and flaws. Its emphasis on the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia and focus on Europe means huge parts of Cold War history receive minimal coverage or are left out altogether. China’s role in the Cold War receives a cursory treatment and the wars in Korea and Indochina are scarcely mentioned. The treatment of the second Cold War is disappointing, as the series largely embraces the view that the conflict is the result solely of Vladimir Putin’s malevolence and neglects the west’s responsibility for the current situation.

Nevertheless, the series doesn’t adopt a simplistic, jingoistic view throughout. Many Cold War-related injustices committed by the United States are covered, from the harm caused by nuclear testing; to the US role in overthrowing democratic governments in Iran, Guatemala, and elsewhere; to the civil liberties violations of the Red Scare. Particularly refreshing is the careful treatment of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, where the series gives time to both supportive and critical views. The episode recounting the Berlin Wall’s collapse (by far the most moving part of the series) also offers an excellent case study in the power of nonviolent resistance.

Most important, The Bomb and the Cold War devotes significant time and attention to the ongoing nuclear threat. As noted, nuclear testing and the atomic bombings of Japan are covered in detail, with powerful testimonials from bombing survivors included. The series also covers the nuclear arms race in detail, including such terrifying events as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Able Archer scare, and cases of narrowly averted accidental nuclear war.

Among the many historians, journalists, and former officials interviewed for the series, perhaps the most significant commentator is whistleblower and peace activist Daniel Ellsberg (who appears in what must have been one of his last interviews before his death in 2023). Ellsberg describes his time working for the US military establishment and his exposure to nuclear war planning, which might be more accurately called “mass murder planning.” He sums up a US nuclear war plan that would cause the deaths of over 600 million people as being “the most evil and insane plan that had ever existed in the history of humanity.”

The series correctly highlights that the nuclear threat is not merely a matter of history but a very real and pressing danger today. The concluding episode features the apt warning from Tom Nichols, a professor at the US Navy War College, who comments, “I worry about a cataclysm . . . That we wake up in the morning and the world is a peaceful place, and by that evening, for any number of contingent reasons — accidents, miscalculation, misunderstanding — suddenly we’re facing the extinction of billions of people.”

“An Open Letter from Hollywood”

One reason the nuclear threat is receiving more attention is the impact of the movie Oppenheimer. While flawed from a peace advocacy standpoint, Oppenheimer has at least re-started public debates about nuclear weapons.

A welcome direct consequence of the movie’s critical and commercial success is the “Open Letter from Hollywood on Oppenheimer and Nuclear Weapons.” Published in the Los Angeles Times and online on March 6 and signed by a variety of actors, directors, and others, the letter states “As artists and advocates, we want to raise our voices to remind people that while Oppenheimer is history, nuclear weapons are not.” The signatories declare “To protect our families, our communities, and our world, we must demand that global leaders work to make nuclear weapons history.”

A notable signatory is writer-director Nicholas Meyer, who directed the 1983 TV movie The Day After. The movie, which dramatized the likely consequences of nuclear war, was one of the most-watched programs in American TV history. Among those deeply affected by the nightmarish story was a former member of the entertainment industry, President Ronald Reagan. The Day After may have contributed to Reagan eventually softening his ultra-hawkish policies.

The recent “Open Letter from Hollywood” raises the hope history might repeat itself and latter-day versions of The Day After will emerge to motivate renewed opposition to nuclear weapons.

Continuing the Work

Whether the concerns about the nuclear threat reflected in the opinion pieces, series, and statement described above continue to gain prominence remains to be seen. Nevertheless, these expressions of concern are hopeful signs that the nuclear threat may yet become a major public concern again in the United States. These signs show peace advocates that at least some people are listening and should serve as a spur to further advocacy efforts.

In his final comments in The Bomb and the Cold War, Daniel Ellsberg offered some simple, sobering yet, to me, encouraging words: “I do have to say now, in this point in my life, the chance of actually affecting [the nuclear threat] is lower even than I thought it was [previously] . . . Can it be worth, then, risking your life, your freedom, for a very low chance of saving lives? And the answer is ‘yes.’ Of course it can be worth it.”

Let’s keep moving forward with the work of Ellsberg and others to raise awareness about the nuclear threat and ultimately to end it.

one of the quarterly anti-nuclear vigils we do with a coalition of groups. Christy Yao is at the microphone.

Those wishing to witness against the nuclear threat can join the Consistent Life Network on May 18th outside the White House for a Vigil to End the Nuclear Danger.

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