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The Future of using Oral History to understand the Cold War in Britain

In 2018, the methodology of oral history is changing rapidly. With new data protection laws, anxieties over privacy, the development of technology, and perhaps most interestingly, the increasing presence of ‘external’ and ‘virtual’ memories.

We conduct and use oral history interviews, historians must consider the new channels of knowledge that exist in the 21st century and the ways in which these inform and influence the interview. Through Google, participants are able to ‘fact check’ themselves; through VR, participants are able to visit places and experience the Cold War even though they weren’t physically present; and through new privacy anxieties, the processes and ethics of oral history must change to ensure the protection and confidentiality of participants.

Watch the video below for more thoughts!

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“What would you say in your last few moments?” Listening to Cold War Anxiety in 2018

Nuclear War. Nuclear Weapons.

They are in the news everywhere at the moment. How does this change how we can understand nuclear anxiety as a historical emotion? How can we understand and untangle an emotional response which isn’t just experienced in the past, within the context of the Cold War? When an emotion transcends time, should we treat it differently? How can we unpick the emotions which were felt in the past and are also being felt right now in the present?

Arguably, nuclear anxiety isn’t just an Cold War experience. It has become something we experience now, in the present. How can we understand something that is not only remembered in the past, but experienced in the present?

Just as it was during the Cold War, nuclear anxieties and fears have once again appeared in popular culture, and public news and concern. The popular press, across the world is reporting speculations about nuclear war, how to cope and survive nuclear war, even using 1980’s British government advice from Protect and Survive. The BBC even published a game for children in 2016 titled how to survive a nuclear bomb. Just as it was in the 1980s, we are once again seeing ‘World War Three’ pasted across headlines of newspapers across the world. I mean just look at these headlines from the last two years:

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So could we argue that we are seeing a ‘second wave’ of nuclear culture? Perhaps. In the past 5 years or so, nuclear weapons have not only appeared in our news, but in our culture in new and invasive ways that simply didn’t exist in the Cold War. Film are using nuclear technology as plot devices, such as the horror movie Chernobyl Diaries. Or the 2018 action film, Mission Impossible: Fallout. The recent fame and popularity of Marvel movies have also brought nuclear and radiation themes back into public culture, you know like nuclear weapon themes in Captain America, Bruce Banner becoming the Hulk through radiation. I know these things have been around for years, but the sheer popularity and success of the Marvel Cinematic universe have brought this back into public discourse. Even one of their more recent films, Black Panther – and this isn’t a spoiler if you haven’t seen it yet, but in the beginning of the film they tell a story about the chaos of mankind, and there is the image of a mushroom cloud as these words are said. It is also interesting to note the framing of the mushroom cloud. The camera first looks towards a slave ship and then turns to a battle, showing tanks and warfare. In the background, the mushroom cloud appears, framing the overlooking the scene of battle.

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Gaming is another modern media in which nuclear weapons are appearing in public discourses, games like Fallout 4 ,Wolfenstein, and FarCry 5 use nuclear weapons and their destructive power as key plot points. And just to really stress exactly how many more people are becoming worried about nuclear weapons, here we can see a graph for ‘hits’ on a website called NUKEMAP. So NUKEMAP is a website which lets you ‘drop bombs’ on places and see what would happen. The creator Alex Wellerstein tweeted that he usually sees spikes in people using the site, but last year, people were consistently using it. Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people were clicking on it every day.

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Twitter is of course another platform that simply didn’t exist in the Cold War that exists now and is used to express and also causes nuclear anxiety. So, as I’m sure most of you know, the President of America likes to tweet, and he often tweets about nuclear war, and America’s nuclear capability. In 2018, instead of talking about a ‘nuclear button’ we now talk about a ‘nuclear tweet’ which will result in World War Three.

Another way in which nuclear anxiety is expressed in 2018 which didn’t exist in the Cold War, are memes. So, for those of you who don’t know, memes are images usually with text which tell a joke, usually satire and these go vital and appear all over the internet and social media. Here we see people dealing with anxiety using humour. Or at the very least people are using the internet to communicate emotional responses to nuclear weapons.

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But why does this matter to researchers?

Well, oral histories try as they might don’t just research the memories and the pasts of people, they also gain an insight into the present self of that particular person. Our memories, stories, and pasts are forged by the people we are today, and of course also influenced by what we see in the news, popular culture, and online. With hindsight, we are able to look back upon our memories and reconstruct them within what we are currently feeling. Thus, when we research nuclear anxiety, an emotion that was experienced and is being experienced, we are not only looking at the past, but also the past-in-the-present, within the present self.

We need to consider these cultural shifts that are happening, as this may alter the ways in which people talk about and remember the Cold War as they use their present self to frame and construct their past self.

Telling Stories: Some reflections on story-telling and ‘nuclear anxiety’

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/