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Nuclear weapons: how we learned to stop worrying – until now

North Korea’s sixth nuclear test and the ongoing war of words between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have once again raised fears about the enormous destructive powers of nuclear weapons.

But throughout their 70-year history, the public attitude to these weapons has changed considerably. The reaction to nuclear weapons has been a rollercoaster of emotions, ranging from indifference to panic and fear about the threat of nuclear annihilation.

The bomb that ended a war

When the news broke in August 1945 that the US had dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the public reaction could at best be described as ambivalent. Years of war had brutalised many and ensured few questions were raised.

In late 1945, Lewis Mumford the American philosopher noted: “Not the least extraordinary fact about the post-war period is that mass extermination has awakened so little moral protest.” Gallup polls seemed to support his observation. One conducted two weeks after the bombings showed that 85% of those surveyed were in favour of using the bomb, and that only 1.7% of newspaper editorials were opposed to it.

In the 1940s then US president, Harry Truman claimed that the bomb had been necessary to end the war. The onset of the Cold War – during which the bomb was viewed as a deterrent to Soviet expansion – helped push worries about nuclear weapons to the back of people’s minds.

But in the late 1950s, when the US and the Soviet Union had both acquired an arsenal of nuclear weapons, including more powerful hydrogen bombs, worries about the destructive capabilities of these weapons became the focus for debates about the bomb. With a destructive power thousands of times greater than normal atomic bombs, the hydrogen bomb forced people to contemplate the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse, as seen in films such as On The Beach, released in 1959.

In Britain by the late 1950s, fears of nuclear destruction had become acute, giving rise to an organisation called the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Gripped by this very real fear of nuclear conflict, many people were attracted by the group’s aims – that Britain should take the initiative and get rid of its nuclear weapons – including large sections of the Labour Party and the church.

In 1960 the Committee of 100, led by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, was set up to organise non-violent direct action. This included protests and sit-downs outside the MoD in Whitehall and at Holy Loch near Glasgow where UK nuclear submarines armed with US-loaned Polaris nuclear missiles were based. Soon protesting CND members found themselves being arrested and imprisoned, including Russell who was 89 at the time.

The peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 temporarily alleviated these concerns. The crisis showed that, when threatened with the prospect of nuclear annihilation, cooler heads prevail and leaders step away from the brink. Coupled with the easing of the strained relationship between the US and the Soviet Union during the late 1960s and 1970s, public worry about nuclear weapons gradually diminished.

Large-scale protests have always accompanied nuclear weapons. Pixabay, CC BY-SA

Slipping out of focus

What this reveals is that worries over nuclear weapons come in and out of focus, mirroring the cycles of activism and dormancy that have come to characterise our attitudes to nuclear weapons. Most people normally ignore the nuclear peril. Each period of anxiety about the bomb has been followed by longer periods in which issues of nuclear weapons have been forgotten by all but the nuclear specialists.

The breakdown in relations between the US and the Soviet Union in the late 1970s ushered in a new era of nuclear awareness. This wave was a symptom of larger international events such as the establishment of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy (CPD) and the advent of Ronald Reagan’s administration.

In the early 1980s the anti-nuclear movement was spurred on by the fierce rhetoric and military expansion undertaken by the US government. Media focus on nuclear issues soared, and in June 1982, 700,000 anti-nuclear demonstrators blocked New York’s Central Park.

The following year NATO’s infamous Able Archer 83 military exercise put both sides in a very dangerous situation, after taking part in a war-game that Russia perceived to be a cover for a real attack. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was so alarmed she ordered officials to look into what could be done to prevent the Russians overreacting through their misunderstanding of what was taking place.

But this wave of activism was to be short lived, as Reagan began to work through some of the longstanding issues of the Cold War with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. At the 1986 Reykjavik summit, Reagan and Gorbachev came surprisingly close to eliminating much of their nuclear arsenals.

Under US president Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the Cold War that existed between east and west began to thaw. epa, CC BY-SA

This fell through at the last minute, but helped bring about the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) which banned short and medium-range nuclear missiles. These successes also helped undermine the anti-nuclear movement. With the end of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, another cycle of engagement with nuclear issues drew to a close.

Old fears, new challenges

However, the end of the Cold War brought with it its own set of worries. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to fears of these weapons falling into the wrong hands, be they rogue states or terrorist organisations. The unpredictability of nations such as North Korea have led many to worry what the implications of its ever-more advanced nuclear weapons might be.

Similarly, the War on Terror years have led to considerable fears as to what damage these weapons could do if they fell into the hands of terrorists. Some, including Barack Obama, have claimed that nuclear armed terrorists represent “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security”.

It is this wave of nuclear anxiety that we currently ride. If the past 70 years is to be any guide, however, this period of heightened nuclear awareness may prove to be just another episode in the cyclical attention paid to nuclear issues. Like the Cuban Missile Crisis, we all like to think that if the world came to the brink once more, our leaders would step back and let good sense prevail. But then again, we are talking about Donald J Trump and Kim Jong-un.

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