Throughout my PhD, I have heard stories almost everywhere recalling the past, and present, fears of nuclear weaponry. It seems that nuclear anxiety isn’t just an emotional response, it has become deeply embedded in memory.
When I first undertook my History PhD research on nuclear anxiety in Britain, I was instantly surprised by how much people wanted to tell me their ‘nuclear stories’. It appeared to me that the legacies of Cold War nuclear anxieties ran much deeper than I had originally believed. Almost always, as soon as I would discuss my research, people wished to tell me their Cold War memories and, more often than not, continued “nightmares” regarding nuclear war.
My research hopes to develop a better understanding of the emotional history of nuclear weapons in Britain, using an oral history approach to engage with the everyday experiences, emotions, and feelings surrounding the atomic bomb in the 1950s and 1980s. A few months in, it seemed that almost everyone I told about my research had a story they wanted to tell me. Nuclear anxieties then exist not only as an emotional response, but as a story, a fable, that individuals wished to share with me. Often they recalled memories about themselves, and their pasts, or other times people liked to tell me about how other members of their family or their friends had experienced some form of “nuclear fear”. Before long, I felt responsible to protect and record these stories so they would not be lost. The very fact that individuals recalled their stories and memories to me, without prompt, reinforced that my goal of preserving the emotions and memories of the Cold War and atomic weapons was one that needed to be done.
On another occasion, while attending a short course, the participants and I were asked to introduce our research. After presenting myself and my work, the course leader hastily responded: “How interesting, I remember being worried during that time […] I still am.” By the end of the course, a fellow attendee told me how he remembered feeling like he would never complete his university degree due to nuclear war, following with a joke about how he had since obtained three degrees but “it could still happen”. A few weeks later, a lady told me stories of the paranoia her father had experienced during the war, reminiscing almost joyfully at the stories he had once told her. Another happily told me how she believed that Britain would sink underwater if it was attacked by nuclear weapons, remarking that we were “too small of an island” to stand up against such nuclear forces.
While attending a conference, a fellow attendee who knew of my research approached me, and told me about how their parent, a survivor of the atomic attack on Hiroshima, was given a piano by an American sailor. It was a wonderful story, one that I hope won’t fade from our collective memory.
Through the act of story-telling, nuclear anxiety roots itself in both the past and the present. This made me realise that my research was not just a history of the past, but the past-in-the-present. Through this act of story-telling, the story-teller attaches meaning, emotions and rationality to the nuclear bomb, weaving their nuclear fears into their everyday lives, family and habitual spaces. The nuclear bomb was not just a “thing”, physically and metaphorically. Through people’s experiences, emotions and story-telling, it became fluid, a presence, a trope of the story. Often the villain of the narrative, if you will.
Are these stories tales of warning? Of hope? Of fear? Have they become embodiments of emotional responses experienced during the Cold War? Exactly how and why have these meanings become attached to a military weapon? Perhaps talking about nuclear war like a ‘happy story’, or a fable, provides people with the escapism, or hope, they need to overcome and distance the experience of nuclear anxiety? Perhaps, just the simple act of talking about atomic weapons can resolve feelings of anxiety – by transforming them into a story, and narrating it, perhaps it seems no longer real.
Regardless, each of these stories has reminded me that not all history is completely rooted in the past, instead becoming deeply embedded within our own personal, present identities.
All stories and quotes taken from individuals have been used with their permission.
This Post is an extended version of the original posted here: https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/history/blog/2017/nuclear-stories/