“I once asked a class what the word ‘radiation’ evoked for them.
Familiar worried looks emerged from the sea of faces. The responses –
‘cancer’, ‘death’, and ‘bomb’ – were all reasonable. But as I pointed out,
‘bananas’, ‘life-saving’, and ‘human’ would have been equally appropriate.”
– E. Williams, ‘Beyond the Bomb’’
Both ‘anxiety’ and nuclear weapons have become synonymous with everyday modern existence. Despite the Cold War ending, we still live under the threat of atomic war, with hundreds of active nuclear warheads circulating the globe (around 225 warheads in the UK). In 2017, nuclear anxiety seems to be rapidly increasing internationally, with newly elected US President Donald Trump advocating nuclear arms build-up, increased atomic tensions between the US and Russia, North Korean atomic testing, and the uncertainty surrounding Trident in the wake of Brexit. Furthermore, in January 2017, the Bulletin for Atomic Scientists moved the ‘Doomsday clock’ to 2.5 minutes to midnight, the closest we have been to nuclear war since 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thus, the need to understand the ways in which ‘nuclear anxiety’ affects our daily lives, in the present and the past, is ever more urgent. ‘Nuclear anxiety’ has been a problematic term in historiography but little theoretical or methodological structure has been generated for its practice. A universal definition of ‘nuclear anxiety’ is virtually non-existent as the term has come to cover all manner of nuclear ‘terror’, ‘fear’, ‘stress’, and ‘worries’. What exactly is ‘nuclear anxiety?’
First coined by Freud, anxiety is usually defined as a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with uncertainty. Freud first referred to the feeling of anxiety as:
The organism would attempt to remove the ‘excitement’ in order to avoid unpleasant consequences of acting upon it. However, in avoiding the unpleasant consequences, the organism was actually taking the frustrated excitement into itself.
Thus, anxiety has a real, physical energy, within the psychic dynamics of a person, as they take a worry ‘within themselves’ to manifest, and it is subsequently expressed as affective anxiety. The development of anxiety within an organism must thus be seen as both psychic and from within and as physical, unconscious meaning from an outside ‘fear’ or ‘potential death’ Anxiety thus stems from both the psychological body experiencing and interpreting the affect, and from the outside world affecting the being.
Paul Tillich marries y both external and internal anxieties by arguing that the “underlying ambiguities and uncertainties of finite life produce a basic kind of anxiety which is common to all people”. He claims that the threat to all human existence is the threat of being to non-being and this feeling is a constant, everyday occurrence in the human experience. Anxiety thus becomes both conscious and unconscious, internal and external, ordinary and extraordinary; a fluid, variable affect informed from both within and outside the body. Rollo May suggests that it is the awareness of a threat which results in anxiety. He claims that anxiety is characterised by:
physiological (faster heart rate, paling of the face), physically affective (sense of panic, perceptions are blurred) and cosmic (invades the ‘core of being’) attributes.
Anxiety can be expressed three states: (physiological, affective, and cosmic) with different ‘combinations’ per the individual and the stimuli (a person may tremble, or turn pale, they may show ‘obvious’ anxiety – or not -, they may express anxiety – or not).
Atomic weapons have a physical, potential and cosmic presence, entering a being’s potential time, space and consciousness. A person may ‘tremble’ when talking about nuclear weapons (physiological), they may express ‘worry’, ‘unease’, or ‘dread’ (affective), and they may unconsciously deny, oppress or ‘be anxious’ about the potential and uncertain death caused by nuclear weapons (cosmic).
Robert Lifton suggests that all ‘nuclear anxiety’ is ‘denied’ and oppressed within ourselves. This is known as ‘psychic numbing’: the “loss of feeling in order to escape the impact of unacceptable images. He proposed that individuals experienced anxiety by engaging with unconscious psychological defence mechanisms such as denial. Everyone experiences ‘nuclear anxiety’ but do not always take action against it or obviously express worries.
If ‘nuclear anxiety’ is truly an internal phenomenon, informed externally, but is not expressed but oppressed, how can we deal positively and actively with it to ensure healthy attitudes towards atomic weapons? How can nuclear anxiety be measured if it is a ‘hidden’ affective state? If nuclear anxiety is an invasive, internal emotion, how does it affect the rest of our lives and social attitudes towards nuclear weapons/power? These are the questions I hope to answer and uncover in order to better understand our mindsets in the Cold War onwards. As my project advances I hope to continue to reflect on the ‘definition’ of ‘nuclear anxiety’ and provide a new understanding of a relatively new and under-researched phenomenon.
Freud, S. Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, Translated by A. Strachey (Eastford: Martino Fine Books, 2013).
Hogg, J. British Nuclear Culture: Official and Unofficial Narratives in the Long Twentieth Century (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).
Lifton, R. J. Connection: On death and the Continuity of Life (New York: Touchstone Books, 1979)
May, R. The Discovery of Being (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994)
Tillich, P. The Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper and Row, 1957)
Weart, S. The Rise of Nuclear Fear (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2012)
Williams, E. ‘Beyond the Bomb: Seeing through the Nuclear Fear’, AQ Australian Quarterly, 84.2 (April – June 2013), pp. 25-32.